Bonnie Crawford, 'Curvy Kili Crew' tackle Mount Kilimanjaro
"This is not a story about weight loss," a woman says in the introduction to the documentary film "Kili Big," which features segments filmed in Portland and Beaverton resident Bonnie Crawford.
"This is about 20 women, coming together, and doing a physically challenging thing outside of our comfort zone with other like-bodied people."
More than a year of training led to the plus-size women attempting to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, all 19,387 feet of it, and their travels through preparation and up the big hill in March 2019 were shown in "Kili Big," a full-length documentary set to be exclusively launched on the free, ad-driven streaming service Chicken Soup for the Soul on Thursday, Aug. 18.
They call themselves the "Curvy Kili Crew" and trying to climb Kilimanjaro came with trials and tribulations — and some fun and a lot of fulfillment.
Front and center among the women is Crawford, a 45-year-old general manager and CEO of a software company who attended Lewis & Clark College and who has lived in the Portland area since 1994.
In fact, in a lot of the preparation filming, there is Crawford and many other women doing training in Forest Park and at Evolution Healthcare and Fitness in Southeast Portland.
Crawford gleefully reacts as they watch her interview on television with a KPTV Fox 12 reporter about the "Kili Big" climb.
Then came a sobering moment, as she added emotionally: "I never saw myself as this person who could influence people in a positive way. I was trying to be not plus size. I see myself as athlete Bonnie and traveler Bonnie. I don't see myself in a plus-size body; accepting that and going out and doing cool things has been an eye-opening experience for me."
So goes many of the backstories in the film, of being plus-size for whatever reason, and just living life — and taking on a challenge that most "average-size people," as Crawford calls them, wouldn't do, couldn't do or shouldn't do. Some women tell their stories, while others simply proclaim to be "unapologetically fat."
Crawford said she has been "in a bit of a goal-oriented lull the past few years," busy with her San Diego-based software company and traveling around the world. A high school and college swimmer, she had participated in three Ironman Triathlons years ago in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, finishing two of them in 2007 and '08, and "dozens" of other triathlons.
She came across the "Kili Big" adventure in a Facebook group post for women travelers, signed up for it and was chosen to be part of the "Curvy Kili Crew." In the film, Crawford remarked how tiring it is to explain herself when trying to buy climbing gear, that seemingly plus-size people shouldn't have such "audacious goals."
She set out about proving to others, and herself, that "I'm a longtime athlete in a plus-size body. I've always been active," Crawford told Pamplin Media Group.
"I thought, 'Well, how hard is it climbing a mountain on a 50- or 60-mile hike?' As you see in the film, my method for success is to practice and train for every possibility. When I did the Ironman, I trained in Coeur d'Alene multiple weekends for months leading up to the race. So I knew what I was getting into."
It was the same approach for "Kili Big." She trained in Evolution's altitude room, which conditions people to climb to 16,000 feet. She hiked Dog Mountain, part of Mount Hood and Forest Park almost every weekend.
The "Curvy Kili Crew" arrived in Africa a couple days in advance for on-site preparation.
"It was a very intense seven nights on the mountain," Crawford said.
Spoiler alert: "I was not able to go to the top. I made it to base camp about 16,000 feet. What's really interesting about that, you'll see in the film, you see me make the decision to not try for the summit. Tears are involved. I trained so diligently in the facility to get me to 16,000 feet; in the film, you'll see many women get altitude sickness at 12,000 and 13,000 and 15,000 feet."
Crawford said she felt "perfect" the whole time until she hit 16,000 feet and "it's like I fell off a cliff" — headaches, difficult breathing, hard to process thoughts and string sentences together. She had trained for reaching up to 16,000 feet with the thought that another 3,000-plus feet could be achieved. But, reality showed otherwise.
"For me, this was never about getting to the summit, it was about the journey, the experience," she said. "Getting to the summit would've been awesome and exciting, you're doing something so challenging that very few average-size people even attempt."
Twenty of the 21 women made it to base camp, Crawford said, and two made it to the summit.
The message in the movie, which has been shown at several film festivals, is also very important.
"I hope people realize that size is not a descriptor for health," Crawford said. "The incredible amount of fitness it takes to climb a mountain, whether it be 10,000 or 16,000 or all the way to the summit at 19,000 feet, to do that as a plus-size person … if they saw me or someone else on the trip, they'd see me as something they associate with being fat. It's not the association as being an athlete. There are mountains in every person's life that they climb; the best thing you can do is to start the journey. Tackle a mountain, physical or emotional — that is so powerful from a messaging perspective."
She added: "There is a lot to be said for recognizing that being fat is not a limiter or ability. I was not very comfortable signing up for this climb, I was definitely plus-size, I never leaned into that as a natural part of my existence. It's because people generally associate that as being negative — 'Oh you're fat.' In reality there are people who are fat, and who are thin. There are lots of people who have never finished an Ironman or climbed Kilimanjaro. My challenge to anyone is don't let society's perception of what is possible limit what you are capable of."
She stays in touch with members of the "Curvy Kili Crew." As far as what's next, Crawford said she wants to stay on even ground. She contemplates trying the 500-mile walk El Camino de Santiago in Spain. She continues to train through swimming and riding her Peloton.
"I'm sure I'll climb another mountain at some point. it's about the phases of life," Crawford said. "Coming out of COVID, being able to reconnect with the world … I'm a heavy international traveler, and I love the global community. To slow down and do something like El Camino is the next big challenge."
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