Gioia Bartalo and Romi Bean recently returned from a trip to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Bean capped off her Denver Broncos Cheerleading career with the hike, while Bartalo will audition again in the coming weeks. Their trip, which spanned seven days on the mountain, was a far cry from their normal interactions together on the sideline of Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Now that they’re back from half a world away, they decided to share their story:
Gioia: The whole thing began when I moved to Colorado from Florida three years ago, right after I graduated college. I started hiking the 14ers out here and just got totally addicted to the feeling of summiting the mountain and standing on top of it after everything you go through to get there.
Last year I watched the movie “Everest”, and was opened up to the idea of the seven summits. So I went home and I started researching and I was like, "Well, I can’t start with Everest, but I can start with Mt. Kilimanjaro." And I got so obsessed with the thought of climbing this mountain in Africa and seeing it in person and standing on top of it.
I knew I just needed to find an adventure buddy that was crazy enough to go along with me on the journey. So I talked to my teammate and my good friend Romi who tends to say yes to my spontaneous adventures. She said she was down and she was up for the adventure and ready to stand on top of this mountain with me and we kind of got started from there.
Romi: Initially, honestly, Gioia said she’s already wanted to do this, do I want to climb this mountain, and I just kind of said yes, like when someone says, “Hey, do you want to hang out on Saturday night?” Everybody said yes just kind of half-heartedly.
I was like, "Sure, why not," but I didn’t really think it was going to happen. I didn’t really think we were going to do it. There were a couple other people that also said sure, and sure enough they ended up kind of bailing out, so I was left as the last man standing and we really did it.
Gioia: Initially we started talking about it a year ago and all I needed was the, “Yes, I’m in. I’m up for the adventure, and I’ll go with you.” And then the season started and everything kind of gets put on the back burner because obviously it’s football over everything. Once the season was over, we actually didn’t even book our flights until late December. So we talked about it for a year and then didn’t make it happen until about two months before we actually had to be in Africa.
Romi: We’re always training in season, so I was in really good shape because we just have to be during the season. But in terms of actual mountains, I had a little bit of a mild panic attack on the plane ride out there. It kind of hit me. I was like, “I climbed one 14er last year. Gioia’s climbed 10, I think. The last time I went camping, I think was sixth grade. She goes camping like once a month.”
Gioia: I don’t think that either one of us really trained as we should have for this mountain, because we kind of did rely on that. During the season, we’re working out every single day. I kind of relied on the fact that I love the mountains and I’m in the mountains every weekend either skiing or hiking or trail running. So I figured, okay, well, I spent my time at 10,000 feet over the weekend so that has to count for something as far as training goes.
Romi: I realized on the plane, "What am I doing? Can I really do this? How am I going to camp for seven days and climb a mountain in Africa when really I’ve trained in the gym and in the dance studio?"
Then I tried to kind of use all that to challenge myself. I was like, “Well, I’m going to do it. And I’m going to show that I can do it.” I don’t know if it was the will of my mind that got me through, but I think it helped.
Gioia: We had our Junior Denver Broncos Cheerleaders end of the season show on Saturday, Feb. 11, and we flew out the next morning. So it was just as soon as we were done with our season commitments, we were on a plane. The travel was long, but once we got there, it was unreal.
We landed and you could see the mountain in the distance. You could just see the shadow of it. I thought it was clouds at first. Our guide picked us up from the airport and he pointed while were driving back into town and he said, “Do you see that shadow over there?” And I said, “Yeah, the clouds up there, those look cool.” And he said, “No that’s the mountain you’re going to climb.”
It was that breathtaking when you saw it. We had a day to acclimate to the time change and that whole time we were really excited to be in Africa. I had never travelled to Africa before, but I was filled with anxiety and just thinking about the climb. I just wanted to start it.
Romi: I felt like both Gioia and I were in great shape and could handle the rigors of the mountain as athletes. At the end of Day 3, we were both so sore and all of the fatigue kicked in, and it was a mental struggle of having four more days. That was kind of the first time outside of the plane ride where I was like, “Can I do this? Can my body do this? What if I can’t go up and have to go down?” All of those fears.
Gioia: It was way more mentally and emotionally challenging because it’s all a mind game. It’s all mental. The night before I summited the mountain, I sat down in my tent and I thought to myself, “What am I doing? Why do I think I can do this? I’m from Florida. I think I’m big shot Colorado girl now, but I’m still from sea level. Why do I think I can stand at 19,000 feet?” And it was just all mental. And it took me writing everything out and acknowledging my thoughts and realizing, "No, if I can get through the Denver Broncos Cheerleaders final audition week, I can climb this mountain."
Romi: You had to address those fears. That was kind of a challenge that I think most people don’t have to face all the time because you don’t want to face. So I think that part was amazing. I didn’t want to face it, but each time I did, I felt like I got stronger. It felt so good on the way up to the summit, I think because it had been such a mental mind game the whole time.
Gioia: It was very physically challenging, but I think that I did have an advantage because I’m in the mountains so often here. So I think that people coming from sea level or people that don’t explore the mountains every weekend would definitely have a bigger physical struggle with it.
It’s way different than a game-day routine, because game-day routines are a minute. So you will be out of breath after that minute, but then you can regain your composure and get back into the performance. This climb, it felt like, for the final summit attempt at least, you couldn’t catch your breath. You are just continuously out of breath until you got back down.
Romi: Going up to the summit, I was thinking, “Every day on this trip, I’ve been like this is unbelievable, I don’t think anything is going to top this.” … I kept thinking, "How can anything top this?" And when we got to the summit, it topped it all. We really felt like we were on top of the world. It was an amazing moment to share up there.
Gioia: It was overwhelming. The thought of standing on top of these mountains and experiencing things that other people will only dream of, that’s what you know, keeps me going. I’d had dreams of that moment. I’d researched what the sign would look like from a distance. What the trail was going to be like on the way up so I knew exactly where I was going to be the whole time and how far away I was going to be from that goal.
It took way longer than I thought. We finally reached the ridgeline and then we had to walk for about another hour to get to the actual summit sign. Me and Romi kept looking at each other like, are we ever going to get there or are we just going to continue to dwindle our oxygen down. But when we finally saw the sign, Romi and I were the first people to summit that day and there was nothing like it.
You could see the shadow of the sign in the distance and the sun was starting to rise. The clouds were lighting up. It looked like the world was on fire. At that moment, I thought that I’d never experienced anything better. Nobody could touch me in that moment.
Romi: I feel like I was so happy that I got to do it before my tenure as a cheerleader ended, because for me this will be a piece of being a DBC. I brought the Broncos flag up there and we did that. Not just because we’re fans, but because we’re cheerleaders and we love this team so much.
So it did feel like that was kind of a capping off point. And I was doing that while I was still a cheerleader. So for me, there was a lot of great value in that sense and also it was a great way to finish it off, because it showed me that you can always find a bigger mountain. It’s hard to leave cheerleading for all of us, but for me, I’m very attached to the Broncos. I’ve grown up on this team, so there’s this feeling of loss a little bit.
Doing something like this where you feel accomplished was really great because it reminded me to take everything I’ve learned from the Broncos and put that into whatever the next chapter is.
Gioia: The one thing for me that was a really big takeaway heading into auditions less than a month later, is that you are capable of doing it. You have the strength and you have the power and you have the resilience and nobody can take that away from you. If you think that you can do something, you can.
So it’s kind of great to go into auditioning for my fourth season as a Denver Broncos Cheerleader knowing that I am good enough and I can make this team. All it takes is a little extra hard work and going slow, appreciating the moment and using your breath.
As soon as we got back into town and into wifi, the first thing I did was look up the next step of the seven summits. Everest is still out there. I’ve got to find the money tree for that one, but I have been exploring the option of Mt. Elbrus in Russia next year, maybe Denali in the near future, so yes, I’m on to the next adventure already.
Romi: It’s probably going to be the same thing. I’ll be like, “Yeah, sure! I’m coming along!” And sure enough, I won’t prepare, and I’ll come along.
These quotes have been edited for clarity.