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By Megan Dooley
There were a number of reasons, really, why Linda Stolz and her two sons, Jacob and Paul, both graduates of Oak Park and River Forest High School, decided to waste no more time in their quest to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. It seemed a fitting way to celebrate turning 50, which Stolz did last year. It was also a nice way to commemorate her youngest son's entry into Loyola University last fall, and her elder son's upcoming graduation from George Washington University in Washington D.C. Apart from that, they'd soon be separated by a greater distance than Chicago to D.C. Paul's application to the Peace Corps would soon go through, and shortly after, he'd be assigned to a destination oceans away.
The trio also wanted to celebrate the life of the senior Paul Stolz, a Lutheran minister who died three years ago after an extended illness. His family carried some of his ashes with them, to scatter along the African mountainside.
And finally, the Stolz's journey would benefit an effort by Global Alliance for Africa, a non-profit organization that aims to help orphaned and vulnerable children. The climb would help raise money for the construction of a community library in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro, similar to other library-building efforts sponsored by the organization.
"We like to do something within the community, to help lift everyone up," Stolz said of Global Alliance for Africa, where she works in a "part volunteer, part paid" capacity, the paid part being her role as director of programs.
So in late December, Stolz and her two sons began their six-day hike in a tropical rainforest, ringing in the new year in a hillside tent. They ended their journey in the same humid setting after successfully reaching the summit of the famed glacier-speckled mountaintop.
"You dress in layers, and rain gear is important," said Stolz. So are bathrooms. "We had a toilet tent, which was really important," she joked. The group also had a dining tent, and two sleeping tents, one for Linda and one for the boys. In all, the group of three climbers were assisted by a total of 11 guides and porters on their journey to the mountaintop.
The first stage was relatively simple, but breathtaking. "You do this kind of hill and dale for the first four days," said Stolz. "We did what's called the Rongai route, which takes a little longer." It's also more remote, but the views, Stolz said, were unforgettable. "The hiking is just beautiful."
The challenge comes later. "The thing about Kilimanjaro, the hardest part, is the altitude," said Stolz. "It's 19,341 feet at its peak. We really felt it."
Symptoms of altitude sickness can range from lightheadedness and lack of appetite to vomiting. Stolz said that she and her sons did lose their appetites for a bit, but for the most part, no one suffered serious effects. "We did pretty well," she said.
And in the end, their determination paid off. On the fifth day of the climb, the group arrived at a camp around lunchtime, ate, and headed to bed by 4:30 p.m. The big event would begin that night.
"[You] get up at 10:30 or 11 and make that last ascent through the night. It's very surreal, and it's cold," said Stolz. "We had lovely weather. It did snow that night while we were sleeping, but by the time we got up it had stopped, and it cleared up. It was a starry, beautiful night."
Stolz and her sons agreed ahead of time that she would lead the way and set the pace. "It's a very slow walk. We basically walked essentially one foot in front of the other like this for five and a half hours," she said, demonstrating the shuffle across her living room floor. "And we were really tired." That, coupled with altitude, did funny things to the brain. "I wasn't hallucinating, but I was definitely a little bit daffy," she remembered.
And then, suddenly, you're there.
"You get to the rim of the crater, and if you can make it to that point, you've essentially had a successful climb. They consider that summiting," she said. "So it's daylight, by that point. We got up to the rim just before the sun rose, and it was just beautiful. Of course, you're way above the clouds and the sun is coming up. It was just amazingly beautiful."
That day lasted some 15 hours. After the climbers summited the mountain, they headed back down to the camp they'd left the night before, and continued further down the mountain to minimize the effects of the altitude. "If you're having trouble with the altitude, you need to just get down," said Stolz.
The day after the climb, she attended a meeting about the library building project while her boys slept. The trio took off for Zanzibar, Tanzania, for three days of rest, then continued on to Ethiopia to conclude their trip. Stolz said the memories are irreplaceable, and she couldn't have picked two better travel buddies.
"They're just really supportive people," she said of her two sons. "I believe that I never would have made it had it not been for them."