by Ray Newton
Kathleen Delany had dreamed of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa, for more than 10 years. When she finally began that strenuous seven-day hike on July 4, 2021, she realized what a life-changing event it had become for her.
Delany, 53, a Phoenix native, attended Arizona State University. She ultimately became a commercial jet airplane pilot. She was furloughed from her airline job during the pandemic. She also had split up with her boyfriend, so she decided to do something exclusively for herself and redefine her future. An avid hiker and mountain climber, she thought, “I’ll finally go climb Kilimanjaro.”
Preparing to do so, she looked online for a used backpack. S0he found one, listed at a site in Prescott. She contacted the
people who listed it — Carl and Marsha Mueller. She then told her mother, who lives in Prescott Valley, of her find. Kathleen met the Muellers and purchased the backpack.
While examining the pack, she reached into an outside pocket and found a faded but readable 2009 airline ticket made out to Kayla Mueller — Phoenix to Atlanta to Guatemala. Kathleen’s mother said she thought she recognized the name, so Kathleen Googled it. That’s how she learned of Kayla’s tragic story.
“Somehow I knew in my heart that I had to use that backpack. It was meant for me. I had a connection to this courageous young woman who had dedicated her life to making a positive dierence and helping to relieve suering,” Delany said. “I asked the Muellers to give me something personal of Kayla, so they gave me a laminated photo, on the back of which was a statement written by Kayla: “I find God in the suering eyes reflected in mine. If this is how you are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek you. I will always seek God. Some people find God in church. Some people find God in love. I find God in suering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is — using my hands as tools to relieve suering.”
Delany attached that photo with its message to the rear of the backpack. When she was training for the hike in Tanzania, people would ask about the woman. She would tell them Kayla’s story. A hotel manager in Moshi asked who it was. When Delany told her, the manager took a black magic marker and wrote “for Kayla” on a linen hotel napkin.
“I attached the napkin to the backpack, too. When people asked, I could tell them the story.”
Delany, her companions and the porters took seven days to climb the 19,341-foot mountain, the tallest in Africa.
“When we reached the summit in a howling wind and below-freezing temperatures, I made sure the backpack with Kayla’s photo was prominent when I touched the sign at the top. Someone took a photo. As soon as we came down and I could do it, I sent that photo to Carl and Marsha, and told them that Kayla was the ‘Ninth Climber.’”
Shortly after returning from Africa, Delany was recalled by her airline to her pilot’s job. She relocated to Laguna Beach, California. Her first night there, Oct. 17, Delany said she awakened by the sound of an owl hooting outside the window.
“I recalled that the owl was Kayla’s favorite spirit animal. Know what? I honestly believe that hearing that owl my first night back was a sign from Kayla that everything was going to be all right.”