Evanston resident Sue Petersen was flying over Tanzania with her husband, Jim, on their way back to her hometown in South Africa, when the pilot decided to take a small detour. The jet tilted to one side, and, as its wings began to straighten, Ms. Petersen says, she felt her breath taken away by the sight of the majestic Mount Kilimanjaro coming into view.
“He circled around the entire mountain,” recalls Ms. Petersen. “I was completely awestruck, and I said to my husband, ‘I will climb that mountain someday.’”
Recently, nearly 20 years later, this mother of two college-aged children realized her dream. She says the experience was everything she had hoped for and more.
Mount Kilimanjaro, with its three volcanic cones, Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira, is an inactive volcano in northeastern Tanzania. At 19,341 feet above sea level, it is the highest mountain in Africa. The name itself – “Kilimanjaro” – is a mystery, its origin unclear. It could be translated as “Mountain of Light,” “Mountain of Greatness” or “Mountain of Caravans.” Or it might not. By any name, Kilimanjaro is a metaphor for the vast beauty of East Africa.
Rising abruptly from the dry, open plains of East Africa near the town of Moshi, Kilimanjaro represents a self-contained ecosystem. Anyone climbing the mountain becomes keenly aware of its altitudinal layers, reflected in the vegetation. The ascent is often described as a condensed, upward journey from the tropics to the poles. Climbers begin at the savannah and traverse rain forest and cloud forest before stepping out onto the alpine zones above. The alpine zones, at first richly covered with vegetation, become increasingly barren, and lead ultimately to glaciers and the summit ice cap.
One of the most accessible high summits in the world, Kilimanjaro is a beacon for visitors from all over the world. Though the climb is technically not as challenging as the peaks of the Himalayas, the altitude, low temperature and occasional high winds make this a difficult and dangerous trek. Even the most experienced climbers suffer some degree of altitude sickness.
Those concerns did not stop Ms. Peterson from saying yes when her good friend and colleague Merrilee Hepler, a self-proclaimed “adventure seeker,” approached her last spring with the idea of participating in a 13-day trek to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro with her and her boyfriend, Tom Sandercock.
Longtime neighbors, the Evanstonians are both employed at The Cradle and have been friends since their children were little (Ms. Hepler has two grown daughters). Immediately bonding over their similar interests in travel and exercise, the two have participated together in several races and walks over the years, including the Chicago Marathon and the Breast Cancer Walk.
“We make a really good team,” says Ms. Hepler. “I tend to be the researcher, while she [Ms. Petersen] is good at creating training plans. I always knew I wanted to take an adventure trip with her, I just didn’t know what it would be.”
Climbing a mountain felt like an ideal option, as both had some climbing experience. Ms. Petersen grew up near the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa and during her childhood often hiked through the range with her family. She also hiked the Inca trail as an adult with her children and husband. As a young woman, Ms. Hepler participated in an outdoor leadership school in Alaska, where she did some mountain climbing. She has also hiked mountains in Colorado.
But preparing for Mount Kilimanjaro would require an increased amount of determination and commitment. So they signed up with Tusker Trail, a Kilimanjaro trekking group based out of Lake Tahoe, and began a training regimen. Just a few months later, in January of this year, they were ready to go.
Aside from a severe episode Ms. Hepler had with altitude sickness, which was successfully managed by the well-trained guides who accompanied the group of 10 to the peak, the trek went off without a hitch.
It took the hikers, all of whom were above the age of 50 (the oldest was 68), eight days to get to the peak. They traveled between four and 10 hours each day.
“The weather was perfect for hiking,” says Ms. Hepler. “The days were 60 degrees, but mornings and nights were much cooler.”
Both women are nearly at a loss for words to describe the experience.
“The beauty and sensation of being on that mountain is really impossible to convey,” says Ms. Petersen. “I could have stayed there another month just taking it all in – the stars and moon at night, the sun reflecting off the glaciers in the morning, the vast view of Africa from above. It was magical. It fills you up.”
“For me, it wasn’t just about reaching the top,” says Ms. Hepler. “What I appreciated most was the process. I was very much into the ecosystem, too. You could literally feel when you stepped out of one ecosystem and into the next. It was an amazing sight and so peaceful. I could’ve kept going and going.”