By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
EDMONDS — It began as a childhood dream. Someday, Ann Begert told herself, she would climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
But the years passed, and then came marriage, children and a career as a family practice physician. More years passed, and Begert began to realize she was running out of somedays.
“I knew I needed to do it soon or I’d be too old,” Begert said with a smile, so she prepared this year to embark on one of the world’s most arduous hikes. Undaunted by her age, the 56-year-old Begert made plans to climb 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in the African nation of Tanzania, a grueling trek covering six days and some 13,400 vertical feet on the way up and the same coming down.
“It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do,” explained Begert, who lives in Edmonds. “I have no idea why. But even in high school, I just always had it in the back of my head that I was going to do it someday.
It became “sort of a quest,” she said. “It was something to achieve, but it’s also something you can do without any mountain climbing skills because it’s just hiking. You have to adjust to the altitude, but other than that it’s just long, hard days of hiking.”
Joining her on the climb were her 22-year-old son Etienne and her 19-year-old daughter Manon. Husband Steve Begert, also a physician, had surgeries to replace both hips in recent years and did not make the climb, but later joined the family for the remainder of an African adventure vacation.
Using the Internet, Ann Begert did her research and then booked the trip through Good Earth Tours and Safaris, which leads guided expeditions to various African destinations, including Mount Kilimanjaro. The Begerts flew to Tanzania in mid-June, checked in at the Machame Gate on June 17 and started up the mountain the next day.
Good Earth provided the family with two Tanzanian porters, who carried the food and camping supplies. Each morning the porters would prepare a hot breakfast and then break camp as the Begerts headed up the trail. The porters would soon go hustling past and continue on ahead to set up the next camp and prepare the food, which included afternoon tea and later a hot supper.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, with the long daily hikes and altitude gains, was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Ann Begert said. “You’re always tired and (at times) you feel like you can’t keep going.
“You have to be fit, but it also requires some mental fortitude because you just have to keep going when you don’t feel like it.”
The final leg to the summit began in the late darkness of June 21. The Begerts were wakened at 11 p.m., started off at midnight, and hiked for several hours in virtual blackness. They had no sense of where they were and, more importantly, how far they were from the top.
“You’re just walking, walking, walking, and you think it’s never going to end,” she said.
As the sun finally rose, they could see they were near the summit. But Mount Kilimanjaro has one last trick to play on weary climbers. There is a sign at the crater rim, signifying their arrival at Stella Point, which is well over 18,000 feet. But the true summit is Uhuru Peak, some 45 minutes and 600 feet of altitude away.
They trudged on and finally reach the top, where grimaces of pain gave way to grins of triumph.
“It was great,” Ann Begert said. “I was really happy that we made it to the top. I was sort of emotional. I’m not sure my kids felt like that … but I know they were really happy that we’d made it, too.”
After taking several pictures, the Begerts and their porters left the summit and started down. They had one last night on the trail before arriving back at the bottom on the sixth day.
Steve Begert hooked up with his family that same day and they set off on the rest of their African trip. They spent eight days on an African safari, where they saw lions, elephants, cheetahs, gazelles, giraffes, leopards and many more animals.
Then they headed into neighboring Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas once studied by famed zoologist Dian Fossey. For Steve Begert, that trip was particularly meaningful since he had spent time with Fossey (who was murdered in 1985; the case has never been solved) during a visit she made to the University of Washington years ago.
“(The guides) were kind of impressed that I’d actually met her,” he said.
The entire journey lasted three weeks and it was, Ann Begert said, “a really great, great trip. Everything about it was really perfect.”
When she lets others know about her climb, “most people are shocked,” she said. “And most of my patients are quite shocked. But I also think they’re all pretty impressed.”