After a grueling six-hour hike from their camp in the middle of the night in early January, McLean High School graduates Rebecca Berkson and Katie Herold were treated to a magnificent vista: the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro at sunrise.
The pair, who had sung in the school’s choir together, connected last year following the death of McLean High alumnus Bert Ivey.
Herold and four other triathletes had been preparing for a Kilimanjaro summit attempt for a couple of years – “It had been on my bucket list for a long time,” she said – but the pandemic put those plans on hold.
An opening subsequently developed on the team’s roster and Herold (McLean High Class of 1996) mentioned this to Berkson (Class of 1997).
“I lit up like a Christmas tree,” recalled Berkson, who lives in Arlington and is a licensed acupuncturist at The Kaplan Center for Integrative Medicine in McLean.
Mount Kilimanjaro, located in Tanzania, is the highest peak in Africa and highest freestanding mountain (i.e., not buttressed by adjoining ones) in the world. It’s also the highest peak that does not require “technical hiking,” which also involves rock climbing, Berkson said.
Reaching the top of a 19,341-foot peak is not a casual affair, even with a retinue of guides in tow. Berkson since last spring had begun hiking and backpacking in earnest, consistently advancing the length of her hikes, their elevation and how much weight she was carrying. Her goal was to carry 30 pounds and hike two 3,000-foot-elevation climbs per day.
Berkson’s training regimen took her to the Appalachian Trail at Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia and higher-altitude mountains in Colorado and Wyoming.
Berkson documented her progress in a series of videos for the benefit of those she knew from work.
Herold already was in triathalon-worthy fitness, but she did not take her strength and stamina for granted. She trained with and without weights on a Stairmaster and did cross-fit workouts, squats, lunges and strength training.
Herold, a Fairfax resident who is a neonatal nurse practitioner at three Inova hospitals, was not able to train at high altitudes because of her work schedule, but said she naturally was disposed not to suffer altitude sickness.
Solo climbing is not allow on Kilimanjaro, so Berkson’s and Herold’s group worked with Ian Taylor Trekking of Vail, Colo., to make their summit attempt. The firm’s eponymous owner has been to the top of Mount Everest and currently is making his 38th try for Kilimanjaro’s peak.
The eight-day trek up Kilimanjaro cost the hikers between $3,000 and $3,500, Berkson said. The group choose the longer Lemosho route, which offered a 90-to-95-percent chance of reaching the summit, Herold said.
The climbers spent six and a half days on the ascent, in order rest and acclimatize to progressively lower oxygen levels, and one and a half days on the down slope. Berkson said she used poles throughout the hike, except when traversing the Great Barranco Wall.
“I’m optimistic, but humbled by this really beautiful mountain,” Berkson recorded in a video during the ascent. “They call this the Roof of Africa for a reason.”
Groups hiking Kilimanjaro need a ratio of at least three guides for each member; the local women’s group had a staff of 42 accompanying them. The guides carried supplemental oxygen in case of emergencies, but hikers needing it would have to head back down the mountain, Herold said.
The guides also kept the hikers well-fed and hydrated as a hedge against altitude sickness, and included extra water in their rations by serving them soup twice daily.
The trek began in rainforest at 90 degrees Fahrenheit, progressed through alpine desert, rock scrambles and tundra, then culminated at Uhuru Peak on the volcano’s rim, where fierce winds blew and the thermometer read a bone-chilling minus-20 degrees.
The final push toward the summit began at 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 4. Guides maintained a brisk pace, allowing the hikers only one two-minute-long break per hour so as not to lose energy and momentum in the biting cold, Herold said.
Herold and Berkson had the same disorienting experience as they climbed toward the peak in the dead of night. Head lamps from the train of hikers climbing up the steep trail blended in with the stars.
Berkson found the scenery stunning on Kilimanjaro and also in Zanzibar, where she went on a two-day safari after her mountain adventure.
“It was like stepping into the set of ‘The Lion King,’” she said. The comparison was apt. One of her Kilimanjaro videos showed a group of guides singing a song with the words “Hakuna matata” – Swahili for “no worries.”
Both women expressed hope they one day would be able to visit the base camp at Mount Everest and said they found the Kilimanjaro experience rewarding. Herold enjoyed being able to disconnect from the Internet, not check e-mail constantly and instead just walk, eat, drink, sleep and enjoy the natural beauty.
“I really tried to, instead of focusing on the end go, be excited and present for every step,” Herold said. “The whole point is to try and reach a little bit further than you feel comfortable with. There’s so much more that you can do past when you think you’re done.”
Berkson’s mother, Joann Berkson, said her daughter carried a Garmin tracking device on the climb, which enabled her family to monitor her location and altitude exactly.
“Rebecca has a sense of determination that is almost unstoppable when she sets a goal for herself,” she said. “She has been to Europe, Costa Rica, Sri Lanka and India on her own [and] has always had a sense of adventure . . . She has a sense of humor that she can tap into when the going gets tough and I bet she used it on Kilimanjaro.”
Rebecca Berkson first showed her climbing prowess at age 5 when the family lived in Italy, her mother said.
“We took a walk up to the town of San Marino, which was pretty steep,” Joann Berkson said. “I expected her to be difficult and tired, but she charged ahead of the whole family and went straight up. That should have been an indication of what was to come!”
Berkson recalled feeling euphoric at Kilimanjaro’s peak.
“It just feels like you’re standing on top of the world,” she said of her 20-minute-long summit visit. “Once I was up there, I wanted to stay there forever.”