Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was never on Linda Ginsberg's bucket list, but she'll be "forever grateful this group of women came together, trained together and summitted together," she said.
Ginsberg was among 11 Summit County women, ages 56-78 (average age of 66), who summitted the tallest African peak together in September.
They're not the first from Summit County to set out to tackle the 19,341-foot mountain, but even their guide admitted he's never taken a group comprised solely of women. Nonetheless, these were women who quickly earned the nicknames "strong mama" and "bibi," - or grandmother.
The women were originally slated to ascend via the seven-day Lemosho route, but guide and outfitter owner Nickson Moshi changed the itinerary on arrival. The new route turned out to be the least populated, most scenic option that allowed the women to see Kilimanjaro throughout their trek.
"He saw how we hiked, so he switched the route," Diana Dettmering said. Moshi chooses to guide several groups each year for his outfit, Masai Giraffe, and the Summit County women were among them. Moshi's younger brother and two brothers-in-law were also guides in the party. He also guided the blind mountaineer from Golden, Erik Weihenmayer, several years ago as well as a group of wounded warriors last year.
He watched his charges carefully.
"In such a quiet way, he would see what was going on and make decisions," said Mary Kay Rachwalski, explaining that he would assign guides if he saw someone trailing behind or breathing hard. Kari Kronborg said she mentioned she was afraid of heights and the guides helped lower her down a steep downclimb rather than leave her to her fears.
The group would still tackle the new route in seven days, but now they faced a median grade of 29 percent, as well as the "Western Breach," the most difficult, non-technical climb to the summit. It's essentially a rock scramble for 3,000 feet. Dettmering said the route was closed for several years following a rockslide - ironically, it was several hikers in a Colorado Mountain Club group that were caught in the debris.
The morning of their ascent, they flicked on their headlamps at 5:30 only to find it had snowed the night before. They had camped at 18,757 feet, so they faced roughly a 600-foot climb to the summit. Moshi insisted it'd be best to climb before the sun melted the snow. And the weather on top was ideal, despite the snow the night before - all the women gathered together for a group shot in the brilliant sunshine of 9 a.m.
"The most exciting thing, hands down, is we all summitted together," Dettmering said.
Each woman had something about the hike that stood out to her.
Ginsberg highlighted the trek through four climate zones. They began in the wet forest, where they spotted a colobus monkey watching their progress. They exited onto the moorlands before stepping into the alpine desert and finally the ice cap zone, where glaciers sat like structures atop a hardy-looking plain.
"The time spent above the clouds was so cool," Ginsberg said.
Dettmering said she learned some facts along the way, like that the glaciers are slowly disappearing - they might be gone in 10 years.
And Kari Kronborg, the youngest of the women, said she was thankful to have been in such close proximity to the cone of Kilimanjaro's volcano and ash pit. Most hikers are so exhausted by the time they summit they're not keen to traverse to see the site. But the western approach put them right there, Kronborg said.
For Rachwalski, it was the descent. They dropped about 14,000 feet in two days, which left all their legs trembling for days afterward. None of them felt much strain or altitude sickness on the way up - a tribute, they say, to their months of training prior to departing on their adventure. Other hikers were being hauled off the mountain from other groups, Dettmering said.
But, as Rachwalski said, when they got to the bottom, many found it hard to even sit on a toilet.
"It was the dirtiest, dustiest trip I've ever taken," Dettmering said with a laugh. She said wiping a wet cloth across her face in the tent at night turned up black.
But if that was the extent of the hardships, the women - most of whom are classified as seniors - made out well.
"Everybody trained together because we all wanted to do it ... and we all didn't know each other to start," Kronborg said. "We will - I'm sure - all be lifelong friends."