Debbie Penick of Hines traveled to Tanzania, Africa, to tackle Mt. Kilimanjaro
The steepness of the rock on Mt. Kilimanjaro is evident on the Western breach, pictured here. (Submitted photo)
By Debbie Raney
For Christmas, 2010, Debbie Penick got 19,000 feet of climbing, seven days of hiking and the opportunity to sleep in a tent in sub-zero temperatures.
You may be thinking, “not the best Christmas gifts.” Think again. These were all part of a two-week vacation to Tanzania, during which Penick climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and went on a safari through the Serengeti.
Early last year, Penick’s friend, Marty Vavra and his daughter SaraBeth, told her what her Christmas present would be. “What an amazing surprise,” said Penick. “I learned about it in February, as I needed to obtain all my vaccinations — nine, including yellow fever — obtain my passport and gear and begin training.”
And, train she did. “I hiked and climbed as much as possible, including Radar Hill and Mt. Emily in La Grande. When winter arrived I used a treadmill and took cardio-kickboxing classes from Evan at Martial Arts America. He was very supportive and encouraging — I groaned every time he made us do lunges, but they certainly paid off during the climb on the mountain.”
Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest freestanding mountain in the world, rising 19,298 feet above
Debbie Penick, far left, bottom row, spent seven days hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. (Submitted photo)
Tanzania, Africa. The trek Penick and her two cohorts took is called the Lemosho-Shira Plateau route, which includes the western breach ascent. The western breach is considered the most dangerous and most difficult of the non-technical routes. Penick said the travel brochure she had forgot to mention the “most dangerous” and “most difficult” part of the climb, although she said her itinerary did mention that the route was “best climbed by using hands and feet.”
The climb went through four stages of vegetation, beginning in the rainforest and ending at the glacial summit. Traveling up the mountain with four professional guides and 44 porters, Penick said it took her group seven days to summit.
On the second day of the climb, in the Shira Plateau area at 11,500 feet, Penick said a storm set in and their camp was dusted in snow during the night, followed by a day of rain and wind. “For the next several days we had clouds and light rain during the afternoons. Once we got above the clouds, there was no rain, just wind and bitter cold.”
Penick and the others in her climbing group were prepared for the cold, as they had been instructed to bring a four-layer “clothing system.” The layers included a moisture-control base layer, a softshell for wind/water resistance, a hard shell such as Gore-Tex which is windproof, and waterproof and an insulating layer of down or synthetic fill. Penick said she also included two layers of thermal underwear, especially for sleeping.
There was a 22-pound weight limit for each hiker’s personal gear bags that would be carried by the porters. Penick said anything beyond that weight had to be carried by the hikers themselves. “The average backpack weight was 15 pounds. We carried two or three liters of water, rain coat and pants, jackets, hat and gloves.”
All of the food and essential supplies were provided by the travel company. In spite of the distance and the terrain, Penick said each evening’s meals were hot and delicious and all food was fresh.
Along with being fed well, she said each hiker’s health was well monitored by their guides.
After hiking for five days, Penick said the last two days were, by far, the toughest. On Jan. 1, the group arrived at Summit Crater camp, at an altitude of 18,500 feet. The hike for the day had begun at 4:30 a.m., lasted nearly 10 hours and they had ascended 1.6 miles. With a fear of heights, Penick said the day climbing a rock face was “a real challenge” for her. “Many of the steps had to be chopped out of ice, and we were up on the rock face about 1,300 feet.”
Due to the altitude, the last two days were also challenging due to lack of oxygen — the air at that height is only 50 percent oxygen. Many of the hikers experienced headaches and a loss of appetite.
“You had to move very slowly to avoid shortness of breath, dizziness and headache and nausea.”
The group broke camp so early on the final two days of climbing that it was still dark. This required using headlamps to see.
On the seventh day of climbing, Penick and her party reached the summit of Kilimanjaro, greeted only by a sign at Uhuru Peak congratulating them on their accomplishment. All nine people who had began the trek finished, which, according to statistics, is unusual as 50 percent of those who attempt to make the climb fail.
Along with the Vavras, Penick made the climb with a Canadian CPA and four of his family members, and a married couple who are both in the U.S. Army. “There was a wide variety of ages and levels of physical fitness,” she said. With all of her pre-trip planning, Penick said the most important preparation she had made was mental.
After descending back to the Moivaro Lodge, Penick’s adventure continued with a five-day safari through Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. “It was spring,” said Penick. “So the herds were migrating and babies were being born. We saw many twin cubs — cheetah, leopard and lion. What a sight!”
The safari also took Penick to the Olduvai Gorge where Drs. Mary and Louis Leakey did their archeological research on early man.
On Jan. 9, Penick returned to Oregon, flying into Portland. Her Christmas gift of cold, hiking for hours and overcoming a fear of heights had come to an end; and according to Penick, “My gift turned out to be the adventure of a lifetime.”