Izzy Carey is used to getting air.
The 5-foot-11 senior spent the last four years with UCLA beach volleyball improving her vertical – but she’s gotten much higher than that off the court.
Carey climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, in July 2017 as part of a service trip to Tanzania through a nonprofit organization called Give.
“I just thought it was the perfect opportunity,” Carey said. “(It was) one of the only years I’d probably be able to do something like that, and just get away for awhile, unplug the phone for a month almost and just get to see something that I might never get to see again.”
Carey said she appreciated the chance to step away from her overly busy schedule.
“We come from a place that’s so strict to time and being busy when you don’t even need to be busy,” Carey said. “It was really amazing to go somewhere where you could take your own pace and realize that there’s a lot more to life than just doing things for the sake of doing things.”
The climb took 4 1/2 days and the trail passed through five different climate zones – farmlands, forests, moorlands, deserts and arctic glaciers. Carey returned with a red water bottle marked with a thin black line to represent the trail, and labeled with the altitude of each climate zone.
The glaciers – shown in white – are what she remembers the most.
The ascent through the glaciers began at midnight on the fourth day. Carey and her fellow hikers trekked up the steepest part of the mountain in total darkness, with oxygen levels declining as elevation increased.
“It’s the longest, and the hardest, and the steepest – and you have to remember how much you liked the rest of the trip,” Carey said.
The senior said she remembers putting headphones in to march to the beat of the music, staring at the feet of the person in front of her on the narrow trail. She said she was too cold to even take her gloves off to grab food or water during the eight-hour stretch.
“That’s the highest altitude, and you’ve already hiked for six hours in that day,” Carey said. “You get to the top, and you’re in the glaciers, and there’s so much wind. It’s freezing, you’re exhausted and I hadn’t had any food or water.”
But Carey was no stranger to perseverance.
“It was definitely very relatable to volleyball’s mental challenges in that stretch of time – summiting – because you really just had to keep yourself going, remember why you’re doing it and just be able to push through for hours and hours,” Carey said. “Athletics has really helped me with pressure. When you’re facing physical challenges, being able to keep mentally calm and stable is very helpful.”
Coach Stein Metzger said Carey’s mental strength has allowed the All-American to emerge as a leader on the team – which is currently ranked No. 1 in the country.
“(Carey) is the perfect athlete when it comes to fortitude and discipline,” Metzger said. “Even though we don’t have official captains, she’s just organically been our team leader. … Without her, we don’t have a team performing at this level.”
Carey said the climb was not just about reaching the top of the mountain, but also developing new relationships. Then-beach volleyball team manager Kristen Phillipp heard about Give’s trip at the UCLA Enormous Activities Fair and encouraged Carey to come too.
Phillipp left the country for the first time in her life with Carey by her side.
“(Carey) was the best person I could have gone with,” Phillipp said. “Being stuck with someone for three weeks, you’re kind of afraid you’ll get annoyed with them, but she’s so easy to get along with and also fun to be around.”
The hikers bonded through nightly chats to talk about what they did that day or to learn about making sustainable change.
Carey completed her business economics degree winter quarter and said she is open to pursuing careers in impact investing – one of the concepts she learned on the trip.
“I’ve developed an interest in impact investing, which is a new big thing in the venture capital world – creating funds that are socially, economically and financially stable,” Carey said. “(The trip) really sparked my interest, and then coming back and going into the job search, I realized that that might be something I’d be interested in exploring down the road.”
Metzger said the determination Carey shows in volleyball has the potential to translate into any professional setting in the future.
“Her accomplishments speak for themselves,” Metzger said. “Then when people get to meet her, people just fall in love with her ability and her work ethic.”
Carey’s work ethic got her to the top of Kilimanjaro – but her journey wasn’t over yet.
She flew directly to Dublin to train with the Irish national team after just one day of recovering from the climb. Carey then traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, for her first international tournament, where she and her partner placed third in the European Volleyball Confederation zonal event.
Carey will return to the Irish national team again in June to compete in the first round of the Olympic qualifiers.
“She’s the kind of person that when she puts her mind to something, she’s going to accomplish it,” Metzger said. “Whatever career path she wants to do, it’s going to happen.”