Eagle County Kilimanjaro climbers get beyond summit | VailDaily.com

Eagle County Kilimanjaro climbers get beyond summit

Connie Steiert
Eagle Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the DailyFrom left: Donna Arnold, John Gallegos, Dave Ortiz and Leonard Sandoval celebrating at the bottom of Mount Kilimanjaro after reaching the summit.

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Mount Kilimanjaro looms dauntingly in photographs. Standing at the base preparing for an ascent is even more intimidating.

Only 40 percent of people who attempt to summit Kilimanjaro succeed. Count a group of four local climbers, friends and co-workers from the town of Vail Public Works Department, in that percentage.

The quartet was among more than 150 people who attempted to reach the 19,350-foot summit. On the way, they battled fatigue, inclement weather and altitude sickness. In the end, only 30 of the 150 succeeded.

By the time local group embarked on that cold, arduous climb, their journey to Africa had already become less about making the summit and more about making new discoveries and new friends.

“When I went over there, my main goal was to make the summit. I was obsessed … I’m really happy I did,” says Eagle resident Donna Arnold.

She can’t pinpoint standing at Kilimanjaro’s summit as the trip highlight. Rather, she says, the entire trip, which included visits to an orphanage and an African safari, was a life-altering journey

“I’d recommend it for everyone,” says Leonard Sandoval of Gypsum, who along with John Gallegos of Edwards and David Ortiz of Denver rounded out the four-person climbing party.

From the get-go, the entire experience came together as if was meant to be, says Sandoval.

The climb, of course, was the reason the 18-day trip was planned in the first place. Arnold did all the research.

“Donna was kind of the visionary,” says Sandoval.

While the four were climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, John’s wife, Carol Gallegos, and fellow Vail Public Works employee Janeil Turnbull went on a safari and volunteered at an orphanage.

The entire six-member group left March 10, and split upon arrival. The climbing foursome hooked up with their guides and began their Kilimanjaro assent. The first four days of the six-day, 49-mile round-trip climb were a leisurely walk, followed by “one day of Hell,” according to Gallegos.

They started the ascent at 2,600 feet. Their final, highest camp was at 15,700 feet.

The group made most of the final climb in the dark, leaving around midnight in different groups with different guides. It took nearly six hours, including an hour-and-a-half climb through a glacier. That day was far more arduous than the rest of the trip. Gallegos says that the final ascent was steeper than he expected.

Weather took a turn for the worse and kept deteriorating as the group neared the summit. Ultimately, temperatures dropped to 10 degrees below. Then a blizzard hit. The storm only dropped a couple of inches of snow, but it came down fast and furious.

The group was anticipating the spectacular view from the top of Kilimanjaro. But as they approached the summit between 5:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., it was snowing so hard they could only see a few inches in front of their faces.

“It was the only day we had bad weather,” Gallegos says.

When they descended the snow lightened, and by the time they reached camp the skies were blue again.

Fortunately, everybody in the group has climbed for years. Most are working their way through Colorado’s 14ers

Their guides were betting that Arnold would never make it to the summit because she was a woman. When she did, they kissed her hand and declared her “the god of all women.” She still receives e-mail from the guides with similar praise on her strength.

The African guides went out of their way to make sure their guests were comfortable – and safe.

When the group climbs in Colorado, they pack Power Bars and water. On the Kilimanjaro climb, guides hurried ahead with containers of food, carried on their heads. When the climbers arrived at camp, they would find tables adorned with tablecloths and full-course meals served on china. Fresh papaya and bananas, fried fish and spaghetti were the nightly fare. At lunch and high tea, dainty cucumber sandwiches appeared. Breakfasts of crepes or French toast were served.

“Africa was much better than I expected. The people were much friendlier; the food much better, and so were the accommodations,” Gallegos says.

Eventually, the climbers told their guides they didn’t want to be treated like royalty. Rather, they wanted to get to know the guides and learn about their families and day-to-day lives.

Soon they were all talking, laughing, singing and dancing, and exchanging language lessons. The guides taught the Americans a little bit of their native Swahili. In return, Gallegos and Sandoval taught them a bit of Spanish, and as well as a little bit of American slang.

“We made lifelong friends,” states Arnold.

One of the group’s other objectives was to help the Global Porters Project to supply guides who have little basic equipment. They took bags of clothes, coats and shoes to Africa. Through the generosity of Federal Express, they shipped over another 160 coats, free of charge. When the guides received the coats, they danced and sang.

While the foursome was climbing, Turnbull and Carol Gallegos, headed to the Shalom Orphanage in Karatu, Tanzania.

“The orphanage was incredible, and emotional,” says Turnbull, tearing.

What struck her most about these orphans was not that they had so little, but that they seemed so cheerful and content.

There are some 600,000 orphans in Tanzania. Some of their parents have died of hunger or of AIDS. Some were given away because their parents can’t afford to raise them.

The orphans at Shalom, say members of the group, are better off than most. They reside in the country rather than the crowded, often filthy cities such as Moshe with its 1 million people.

Shalom is totally self-sufficient with two gardens and a coop of chickens. A new building had just been completed after several years of saving.

But even at Shalom things are far from ideal. There are 42 orphans in a residence meant for 30. Four of the children are positive with HIV. “Several of them were rescued by people who would see them on the street and took them to the orphanage,” Turnbull says.

They have no kitchen. Food is cooked over an outdoor pit. Although the food was good, she says the water quality was deplorable. Turnbull, whose job it was to wash dishes and do laundry, did not really want to join the children for dinner after what she’d seen. “But it would be an insult not to,” she says.

Knowing the conditions at the orphanage, the local group brought along personal hygiene items for the orphans. “None of them even had a toothbrush,” Turnbull says.

The orphans have no toys. They play with sticks and bottles. When John Gallegos showed up one day with a hand puppet to amuse them, the children were terrified at first.

They had never seen television or a camera, so they were fascinated with Turnbull’s digital photos. They entertained themselves by playing soccer, singing, dancing and playing incredible music on upended buckets.

“We take too much for granted,” says Turnbull. “We have too many material things. We could learn a lot from these people.”

Carol Gallegos, who has taught school for 30 years, helped teach the orphans. Shalom’s schoolroom is basically empty, with no books, magazines or pictures. One wall is painted black and suffices for a blackboard.

The children proved eager and bright, and, says Turnbull, their handwriting would put Eagle County children to shame. Yet only about half the children of Tanzania can afford to go to secondary school.

After the climb, the group reunited for a series of safaris ” another unforgettable experience.

To help the children of the Shalom Orphanage in Tanzania, send donations to:

Charities within Reach

Shalom Orphanage

2527 Broadway

Boulder, CO 80304

Or visit: http://www.charitieswithinreach.org.

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