Herald JournalHerald Journal, Jan. 20, 2003

Garrett Ehrke climbs Mt. Kilimanjaro on 'trip of a lifetime'

By Ryan Gueningsman

Climbing the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain, was the highlight of a recent trip for Garrett Ehrke, 26, of Winsted.

"It was the trip of a lifetime!," he exclaimed of his 17-day adventure.

Ehrke, who is a 1995 graduate of Lester Prairie High School, spent a great deal of time preparing for the trip ­ mentally planning, and working an intense physical routine to get ready for the rigors of mountain climbing.

Inspiration to climb Kilimanjaro came in the form of a book, "Into Thin Air" by John Krakauer, Ehrke said.

The book was written about the 1996 disaster on Mt. Everest in which several climbers lost their lives, during the deadliest year for climbers at Everest.

"In the book, it had the company Alpine Ascents International, and the founder was a climber that helped several of the people get off the mountain alive.

"I read the book and it just grabbed my attention ­ the adventure side and the challenge," Ehrke said. "I read about the Kilimanjaro trip at alpineascents.com, began asking questions, and the rest is basically history."

After deciding to make the trip, Ehrke began working out at the Hutchinson Health and Fitness Center.

"It's a real motivation factor when you have someone else to work out with," Ehrke said.

"I trained really, really hard. I spent an hour to two hours there a night lifting weights, doing stairmaster, and treadmill with a 50 pound pack on my back ­ it was hard." He did training at this intensity for about 12 weeks prior to his trip.

There were eight climbers going through the company for this particular trip. Ehrke was the only person from Minnesota. Others were from Colorado, Maryland, Connecticut, Florida, Washington, and California. He left Minnesota Dec. 7.

He was able to take a driving tour of Kenya prior to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

He saw where the American Kenyan embassy had been bombed, markets, and mosques.

The group also went in a museum. From Kenya, they made the six-hour bus ride to Arusha, near Kilimanjaro.

"It was the eight paying clients," Ehrke said, "and there were 28 porters when we reached the mountain. Porters carry your gear. This wasn't roughing it by any means, with the exception of not showering for seven days. There were also three African guides with, one American guide, and a cook."

Each night as the climbers made their ascent, camp would be set up at a certain altitude. There would be a latrine, dining tent, cooking tent, and the sleeping tents set up each night.

Meals on the mountain were in good taste, as one night pepper steak was served, and on other nights spaghetti and meatballs, soup, fresh African fruits, and all the trimmings. "It was just amazing," he said. "The porters and cook were all so good to us."

The porters also do something different than your traditional caddies ­ they carry everything on their heads.

"You'll have a backpack with straps, and they'd rather put it on their heads," Ehrke said. "All the women and everyone carry things on their heads. It's not even a struggle ­ it's just automatic."

One thing Ehrke noticed when he was hiking five to six hours a day was the fact that he started out in the rain forest, basically surrounded by trees, and the higher up he got, the fewer trees and animals there were.

"As you go up, you can see less and less. By the time you get higher up, you don't see anything," he said.

Ehrke had trouble with headaches at about 16,000 feet, just because of the altitude difference, but he said that was the only real problem he encountered.

"Once you get to 18,000 feet you're at a 50 percent oxygen level. It gets a little less as you get higher," he said.

On summit morning, the sixth day on the mountain, they left early and reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. The eight paying clients, four guides, and one porter went all the way to the top.

"At about quarter to six, the sun rose ­ and that was the highlight ­ witnessing the sun rise at 19,000 feet from the top of Africa," he said. "There was nothing in your way of vision for the sun rise. The mountain is just beautiful."

The group spent about 45 minutes on the summit taking pictures and walking around, he said. They descended the mountain in one-and-a-half days.

Following the climb, the group went on a three-day safari to see wildlife in its natural environment.

"It was neat to see the animals in their own environment ­ elephants, giraffes, zebras, wildabeasts, hippos, rhinos, lions, hyenas ­ you name it, we probably saw it," he said.

For parts of the drive, it was like driving through North Dakota ­ flat and barren, he said "When you see a Masai warrior standing by the side of the road with a sword ­ you know you're not in North Dakota any more."

Ehrke is now in the planning stages for a climb of Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe. For more information, e-mail Ehrke at g_ehrke@hotmail.com, or check out www.alpineascents.com.

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