Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Local surgeon climbs Mt. Kilimanjaro

This column was published in August 2011 in Bay Area News Group newspapers.

While many of us stayed around town during the dog days of summer, local resident Alexandra Burgar, who goes by Sandi, spent her vacation climbing the tallest mountain on the African continent: Mount Kilimanjaro.

Burgar, who is 39 and practices medicine in Pleasanton as an orthopedic hand and arm surgeon, was away ten days, including seven days of trekking.

“The first day of climbing was through a muddy rainforest,” she said, noting that Kilimanjaro’s geography includes climate zones ranging from rain forest to alpine desert to the snow cap.

Hiking with guides and porters, Burgar and four fellow trekkers (three men from California and a woman from Texas) followed what is known as the Machame Route, or the Whiskey Route, one of six routes to the summit.

On the second day of the climb, the team encountered cold rain as they climbed to 12,500 feet. They also happened upon other groups, including three youngsters from Holland. “Their English was better than mine,” Burgar joked.

Day three took the travelers through a region of cold and wet fog, across shale and rocks. “The vegetation looked like it came from a movie set for Star Trek,” Burgar said.

On the fourth day of climbing, Burgar caught her first glimpse of the summit as the fog cleared for about five minutes. Reaching 13,255 feet of elevation by day’s end, many trekkers fall victim to the extreme altitude and are forced to descend. In fact, online sources note that typically only 30% of climbers reach the summit of Kilimanjaro, and many people die on the mountain each year due to falling, poor preparation, hypothermia, and the effects of altitude.

Though even experienced porters have died on the mountain, Burgar found these hard-working men to be especially resilient.

“They are all friendly,” she said, adding that a daily occurrence took some getting used to: “Each day as we were hiking, we’d hear hurried footsteps coming from behind.” The porters would rapidly sweep past the trekkers carrying all the gear to set up the next camp. “It was a bit demoralizing at first, but then it became a source of entertainment for us,” she said.

Day five comes just before the final ascent to the summit. This is alpine desert and was covered in cold, miserable fog. To make matters worse, the region provides little opportunity to “use the internet cafĂ©,” a euphemism Burgar said refers to using an outdoor restroom.

After arriving at camp, the team was treated to Coca Cola and Snickers bars, which Burgar described as "heaven." They were then instructed to have an early dinner and get to bed early because reaching the summit and getting back the next day meant beginning at 11:30 p.m. and hiking through the night.

The final ascent, while not too long, is very steep, Burgar said, and the loose terrain through the skree causes each footstep to backslide. After hours of struggling to breathe and putting one foot in front of the other with no sense of direction, Burgar recalls arriving at Stella Point with temperatures at 17 degrees and probably closer to zero degrees given the wind chill: “We had a few hundred yards to go and about 300 feet in elevation,” she said. “I knew I’d make it.”

Many people consider Stella Point the summit, but Uhuru Peak, which stands at 19,341 feet, is the tallest point in Africa. Telling herself to just keep going, the time became 6:30 a.m., and--as if on cue--the sun inched above the mountain and through the clouds, and Burgar saw the sign that said she’d reached the summit.

Burgar’s fingers were too numb to take pictures and the lack of oxygen made her slighly delirious, so a Maasai guide named Mr. Kim snapped photos. “We didn’t stay long at the summit,” she said, noting that the downhill trek back to camp only took a few hours since the trekkers were able to slide down the skree of the mountain.

Arriving home, Burgar didn’t realize quite what she’d accomplished until she looked at the photos. "Much of the trip consisted of following a guide and not recognizing distances we covered," she said. "It wasn't like running a marathon where you can see what you're accomplishing."

Burgar also said that despite the enormous aerobic effort every day, she didn't heat up as she trekked. "It was surreal," she said. "The altitude and cold kept us from ever getting heated up as we walked."

Burgar is proud to add this trip to her world travels. An avid athlete and runner, she has the distinction of having run on every continent in the world, including the final continent on her list, Antarctica, in March 2011.

To read Burgar's blog and to see photos of the trip, visit http://kilimanjaro2011teamcaltex.shutterfly.com/.

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