Springboro woman climbs mountains for the thrill of the challenge

Anyone who knows Cheryl Dillin knows she moves mountains in business and the community. She makes the connection, tackles the challenge, gets things done. It’s even her license plate: MOVMNTNS.

But what people may not know about Dillin is that she doesn’t just move mountains, she climbs mountains — tall mountains.

In August, Dillin will set out to scale Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. At 19,341 feet, the climb will take Dillin through five ecological zones, from rainforest to arctic. That is, if she makes it to the summit. Half who attempt the climb fail.

“For me, the anxiety will be very high,” says Dillin, of Springboro. “People are always surprised to hear that I’m anxious about it, that I don’t know that I can do it. I have no idea if I’ll be able to get to the top of Kilimanjaro. Every new mountain is different in a very different way.”

Dillin’s been climbing for over a decade and has summited 14 mountains, including Grand Teton, Mount Shasta and her last major climb, Mount Elbrus in Russia, which is one of the Seven Summits, the highest mountain on each continent.

“As we grow up and become adults, we make safe decisions. We choose the things we know we can do and do well,” says Dillin. “How often do you really try something new? How often do you try something where you know there’s a high chance of failure? That’s where you really grow. And I’m a growth-minded person. I love to continue challenging myself.”

Dillin grew up in Port Clinton, Ohio, a long way from any mountains. She loved the water and outdoors but was not a natural hiker or climber.

Vacationing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, she felt inspired to try mountaineering.

“One day we were headed up the gondola to the top of Rendezvous Mountain, and it overlooks the entire Teton range. Climbing it looked unattainable,” Dillin says. “And I just looked down and said, ‘I think I need to do it, because I don’t know if I can.’ That’s how it started.”

She began training and then tackled some ‘14ers’, mountains taller than 14,000 feet. She also went to the Red Rock area near Las Vegas to work on rock-climbing skills.

Her favorite climb was Mount Shasta, one of California’s highest peaks. It was an alpine climb and required ice climbing.

While rock climbing “is beautiful, graceful, almost like ballet, ice climbing is sheer will, and I tend to fall in the sheer will category.”

On Mount Shasta, she created a campsite in the ice.

“We went up to around 12,000 feet, and we dug out our kitchen in snow and dug out our bedrooms,” Dillin said. “There’s just something about that that was so cool, like being a little kid and building an igloo. We’re sitting in our ice fort kitchen having dinner on a snow couch. There was something really magical about that.”

But Kilimanjaro had long been on her mind. She was scheduled to climb it in 2020, but the pandemic intervened. She almost walked away from climbing altogether.

“I thought, well, I’m getting older. I don’t know that I need to keep mountain climbing,” recalls Dillin, now 48. “So, I said, that’s it, I’m done. It’s the world telling me I should be done.

“And then I started thinking: What would I be disappointed that I didn’t do when I’m on my deathbed? And I said, I need to go and finish what I started in Africa, because it’s a special place to me.”

When Dillin started her marketing and communications business about 25 years ago, friends said she’d be successful if she stayed in business three years. “And I believed them.”

For her 3-year business anniversary she rewarded herself with a trip to Africa. There she bungee-jumped off the world’s tallest bungee jump and dove with great white sharks. She fell in love with Africa and has returned twice. Now, Kilimanjaro calls.

She started training for this trip a year ago and was surprised how much she’d changed.

“When I went back to the gym, I was bad,” Dillin said. “My endurance was terrible, my strength was terrible, my muscle mass was terrible -- all of it.”

Rob Kramer, owner of Freedom Pointe CrossFit in Miamisburg, and Tina Durkin designed a training regime to improve her endurance, stability, flexibility and to hone specific climbing movements.

Dillin said the gym’s culture is one of support and encouragement. On bad days, she feels lifted up.

That’s important, Dillin said, because mountain climbing isn’t just physical. It’s mental.

“If you climb a mountain, you have to know that you can rest and keep going, you don’t have to quit,” Dillin said. “It’s not failure. It’s ‘what do I need to keep going?’”

In business, work is often shared among a team, but on the mountain, “you’re the only one who can do it. You have to tow your own weight.”

Yet, she’s never alone. She works with a guide, and she carries the love and support of friends and acquaintances.

“I take little things with me from people that are meaningful to me, people in my life who do hard things or that I really look up to,” Dillin said. “I will feel their strength, their ‘superpower’ helps me.”

That includes her cardboard summit signs, painted by a longtime friend, and her Iowa Hawkeye hat for her husband Larry. She takes a sign that says, “Love you,” and another that says, “More,” which reminds her of her mom’s words: “I love you more.”

This time, she asked people on social media to send songs related to her climb. She received more than 700 songs, including whole playlists. She thinks of each person when she plays that music.

And there are the memories. Her best friend has terminal cancer and can hardly walk some days. Her friend’s courage is motivating, Dillin said.

The climb up Kilimanjaro will be 1,000 feet higher than she’s ever climbed and three days longer than she’s experienced before. She worries about altitude, weather and skills – and whether the airlines will get her there on time with her gear intact.

Her goal is to summit on her own, without being supported physically by the guide. On Kilimanjaro, she’ll summit twice. After the first summit, she’ll spend the night in the volcanic crater at 19,000 feet. At that altitude, her body will feel like it’s dying, and she won’t really sleep. At sunrise, she’ll summit again.

Once down, Dillin will fly to Zanzibar to decompress before traveling on to Rwanda to trek with the gorillas. It’s a bucket-list trip full of challenge.

Climbing isn’t the only time Dillin experiences this kind of thrill.

“Mentoring and convincing people they can do things they don’t know they can do in business gives me a similar amount of joy,” Dillin said. “It’s equally as mentally taxing, it is equally as frustrating, with good days and bad days. When somebody comes to me and says, ‘I never would have gotten here if it went for your belief in me,’ that is my jam. That’s the work summit for me.”

This won’t be her last climb. Dillin is already thinking about Mount Fuji in Japan, Mont Blanc in the Alps and the Seven Summits in Australia and South America.

“There are two types of fun,” Dillin says. “Type 1 fun is: You go out and you do it, and you’re miserable and it’s hard and you swear you’ll never do it again. And then you give it a couple of days, and you’re like, ‘Oh, that was great. I loved it.’ And you forget how hard it was. Type 2 fun is: ‘Wow this was amazing -- it was amazing the whole time.’ I always go for Type 2 fun.”

Whether she reaches the summit or not, she plans to enjoy the climb.

“I’m never going to be the best climber,” Dillin said. “I’m never going to be the best hiker. That’s just not me. But I can be the happiest one. I can enjoy it the most. I can be the most proud of what I’ve done because I didn’t know I could. Not only did I do it, I enjoyed it.”

Jana Collier is a long-time area journalist. Her blog, myNanaJana.com, features nostalgic recipes, small-town travel and offbeat DIY projects.

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