In Julienne’s Footsteps: Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro to Honor a Life

Apr 13, 2020 | News, Patient Stories

By guest writer Karen Dempsey

The bonds that Julienne Morriss Callaway forged and the values she embraced in life have been instrumental in sustaining her family in the aftermath of her death from cholangiocarcinoma.

Julienne was 28 years old when she and her brother John took on the challenge of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Perseverance, determination and mutual cheerleading got them to the summit of the world’s tallest freestanding mountain. As the years passed and Julienne started a family of her own, she talked about the experience often ― including after her diagnosis with cholangiocarcinoma.

Julienne’s devastating prognosis ― just six months to live ― typifies what many families face in confronting this rare cancer. She responded by pulling the people she loved even closer, determined to make every moment count and to buoy her loved ones with her openness and unrelenting optimism.

“My mom had one of the best networks of friends and family you can imagine,” says James Callaway, one of Julienne’s three children. “That gave us a foundation to lean on ― people to talk with about how we were doing as a family and how to navigate this chapter. We passed that six-month mark and did our best to bring optimism and positivity into the months that followed even as we tried to prepare for her loss.”

Julienne passed away on March 28, 2019 at just 53 years old. Her loved ones traveled from around the world to attend her funeral in the U.S. and celebration of life in London, the family’s second home.

“My mom would have loved it and would have been the life of everything,” says James. “We were able to celebrate and remember her in the way she wanted to be remembered.”

One extraordinary way of remembering Julienne involved honoring the wish she expressed in the weeks before her death. As she reflected yet again on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and the strength she drew from the experience, Julienne said she hoped her ashes could be partially spread at the summit, the Roof of Africa, so that she could always look over her family and friends. She asked that her family come together to make it happen.

Twenty-seven years after Julienne and her brother John first climbed the mountain, and just nine months after her death, seven family members embraced the challenge. In December 2019, Julienne’s children James (age 22), Emeline (21), and Madeleine (17), her husband Jack, and her brother, sister-in-law and niece, John, Jackie and Clare Morriss, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Julienne’s footsteps to fulfill her wish.

“We were excited we were able to get everyone on the trip to begin with,” says James. “It felt like mom played a role in making sure we could all step away from what we were doing. Throughout the climb, we would sit down every night and talk about my mother, and my uncle would talk about his memories of their climb. He saw her everywhere he stepped. Eventually we started feeling the same, seeing what he was seeing ― hearing her catchphrases and anecdotes and envisioning her there with us.”

The group timed the summit as many others do, and as Julienne and John had on that first climb up Kilimanjaro nearly 30 years before.

“You start your climb in 60-degree weather, but at the top it’s 20 degrees and snowing,” says James. “Over the course of our five-day ascent, each of us could feel her presence motivating us to keep pushing ourselves to reach the top. The last day, you try to ascend as the sun rises. It’s one of the hardest hikes physically and mentally. Oxygen is limited and all you want to do is run back down so you can take a full breath. You have to keep pushing yourself forward. Mom was very caring ― but also strict when it was necessary. We could feel her kicking our ass a little bit and saying, ‘There’s no way you came all this way around the world not to make it to the top.'”

They reached the summit on December 28 at 7:45 AM, just as the sun was rising.

“We found a serene spot to bury her ashes,” says James. “She is now at peace. We as a family felt a great sense of accomplishment ― not closure, as we will always think of my mother every day ― but accomplishment. We now know with her looking over us, that together we are ready to tackle any future challenges that come our way.”

Julienne Morriss Callaway Kilimanjaro Summit Photo 1993