By JOEL CUTHBERT
OBSERVER Lifestyles Correspondent
FORESTVILLE - Nancy Stock: 38-year Forestville resident. Wife and mother of three. Retired school teacher. Current school board member. Mountain climber?
Above: Nancy Stock on day three of her journey to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest free-standing mountain in the world at 19,336 feet above sea level. Top photo: Seen from afar is Stock’s expedition as they approach the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Not many in Chautauqua County look at the world the way Stock does. That's because few have stopped to enjoy the scenery from the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro - the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, according to the Tanzania National Parks website, at 19,336 feet above sea level.
But Stock did. And from that altitude, with the sun skimming the horizon and setting off glaciers like vast diamonds mounted in cloud, she said "the view was just astounding."
A QUIET RETIREMENT
"I wasn't particularly interested in dying on Kilimanjaro," Stock's husband, Bill, said frankly.
It's a sentiment shared by most. But for Stock, who, at 62, gives new meaning to retirement - with six days and more than 19,000 feet of ascent through inclement weather and altitude sickness - it was a longtime dream.
"I had gotten interested in mountaineering and was reading a lot of mountaineering books prior to retiring (in 2005)," Stock explained. "And I've always been a hiker and backpacker, and I was attracted to (climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro) because it was something a normal person could do without technical climbing skills."
And despite his initial apprehension, Bill, 65, originally planned to go along and support his wife. However, after reading more about Mt. Kilimanjaro, he soon decided the formidable climb was more of an endeavor than he cared to take on.
The highest point in Chautauqua County, Gurnsey Benchmark, is a mere 2,180 feet above sea level by comparison.
So, after six months of training on Chautauqua County's relatively tame peaks, Stock set out for Tanzania on Feb. 11 with Pack, Paddle, Ski, an adventure travel company out of South Lima. Led by four knowledgeable African guides, and aided by an army of porters, the expedition of 24 would embark on the longest of six trails ascending the mountain.
"I was concerned for her, but she was in good company," Bill said. "And it's always something she wanted to do."
WEIRD WEATHER AND STRANGE TERRAIN
Day one - Tuesday, Feb. 14 - of her six-day ascent to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and Stock found herself trekking through dense rainforest.
It was one of the most striking aspects of the climb, she said. Over the course of a week, the expedition progressed through rainforest at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro to glaciers at its summit.
"Each day that you climb, you get into an entirely new climate zone," Stock explained.
Most began that first day in shorts, she said, though by the second there was already frost on the tents and soon even inside. As the group ascended, leaving the lush greenery behind for more rocky terrain, they added more and more layers.
Ultimately, they emerged onto an arctic and entirely alien scene, which Stock described as "a moonscape."
"By the end, I had like six layers on for summit night," she recalled, listing her light and heavy long underwear, light and heavy fleece, down coat and rain jacket, balaclava, hoods from both the down coat and rain jacket, and goggles for the wind.
But wind was by no means the only inclement weather faced on the mountainside. Despite leaving the rainforest behind the first day, Stock said it continued to rain daily - which, she added, seemed to be normal precipitation for the mountain.
"Almost always, the weather was bright and sunny in the morning, and by mid-day it would start to cloud up and you'd almost be walking in mist in the afternoon," she said. "We usually got light drizzle most afternoons."
Fortunately, she added, they didn't encounter any torrential downpours, which are also common on Mt. Kilimanjaro - leaving only the snowbound summit to be conquered.
THE DAILY GRIND
Life on the mountain was fairly routine otherwise.
Each day started at 6 a.m. with a small cup of hot tea, brought by the porters, who also gathered water bottles to be filled. This was followed with breakfast at 7 a.m., cooked by the porters and consisting of porridge, omelets and toast, as well as coffee, tea and a type of hot chocolate in a communal tent. And the group was typically back on the trail by 8 a.m., leaving the porters to clean up and break down camp.
As they wound their way up the mountain, Stock said the expedition marched to a simple mantra - "Pole-pole" in Swahili, which means "slowly."
"The idea was if you walked slowly everyday, it would help you acclimate better," she explained. "So, we weren't trying to do big mileage, but we were walking like eight hours everyday."
Stock described their pace as leisurely, with occasional stops throughout the morning and afternoon for photos and lunch.
Along the way, an African guide - Mohammed - served as pace-setter. Stock said he had a metronome in his head, and warned, "You never passed Mohammed."
"On that first day, I stepped aside from the trail once to retie my shoes and then tried to run and catch up," she said, laughing over how she was left panting. "Holy Cow! You really start to realize how much thinner the air is."
Stock decided never to fall behind again.
The expedition was not only outnumbered - nearly two to one - but outpaced by its porters. Without any technical climbing gear and balancing 35-pound duffle bags - containing sleeping bags, winter clothes and toiletries - on their heads, they soon passed the expedition hauling propane burners, tables, chairs, tents and food up the mountainside.
"Most days it got to be a game how fast it would take them to pass us on the trail," Stock said, "which usually was by late morning."
Since level campsites - and permits to camp - were understandably hard to come by on the mountain, the expedition made for pre-determined campsites each day.
The goal was to hike high and sleep low to better acclimate, Stock explained. Most days, they climbed all morning, eating lunch up high, before descending to camp at a lower altitude.
"And we were moving almost every moment," Lisa Moretto, 47, another first-time climber and member of Stock's expedition, said.
They usually arrived in camp sometime after 4 p.m., where popcorn and tea - prepared by porters who arrived hours earlier - awaited them in the mess tent. Stock used this time to write in her journal before returning to her tent to clean up - sharing a small basin of warm water with her tent mate - and rest before assembling for dinner at 7 p.m.
Afterward, while the group was still gathered in the mess tent, Rick French, director of Pack, Paddle, Ski, would download their location and a synopsis of the past day using a satellite phone so everyone at home could follow on a live web feed. He would then read e-mails sent by family members - doing his best impressions - and give a synopsis of the next day before everyone turned in for the night.
"The first three nights, I could hardly sleep," Stock said. "Our guide said a lot of that is altitude. And when we came down, I slept fantastically."
Even at 19,000 feet, there's a line to use the women's bathroom, according to Stock.
But there was a much bigger hardship facing the climbers than waiting to use one of the small stall-shaped tents serving as toilets. Many found themselves fighting through altitude sickness - ranging in severity - as well as the incline.
Two members of the expedition suffered so heavily from altitude sickness they decided not to even attempt the summit climb.
"In the course of the week, a lot of people had altitude sickness problems, or other illness problems, on and off," Stock said.
If someone showed signs of sickness, a guide would take their pack from them to help, she explained, though they also carried oxygen tanks for more severe cases.
Altitude sickness was a particular problem on summit night, Stock said, in part, because they climbed from 15,000 to 19,000 feet in just a few hours. Stock herself was lucky to suffer through only a slight upset stomach.
"But it was amazing that no one (who set out for the summit) dropped out," she added. "Some people were throwing up badly and a few people fainted and managed it."
INTO THE ETHER
The snow was falling fast as the expedition reached high base camp around 3 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 19. The wind was blowing so hard they could barely walk - up to 100 miles per hour, Stock learned later.
It was the worst weather the expedition had seen so far on the mountain. And 15,000 feet up, Stock was beginning to have "severe second thoughts."
"The first thing that came into my mind was 'What was I thinking?'," she said. " 'I can't even walk to the bathroom, how am I going to walk up this mountain.' It was just horrible."
Members of the expedition were told to go to their tents, which Stock said she could barely zip shut due to the wind, and rest until dinner. But during those long and raucous hours before dinner, and the climb to follow, Stock said she found no rest and simply lay awake in her tent as the wind ripped at the nylon and her stomach turned.
"That was the one moment when I had second thoughts, while we were in our tents waiting," Stock admitted.
The wind eventually died down around 11 p.m. - not completely, but enough to make for the summit - and the snow stopped, leaving the night freezing but clear.
Joined by four additional guides, 22 members of the expedition began the long march through the night to complete the final 4,000 feet to the summit. The plan was to reach Uhuru Peak - the highest point - by early morning before descending not only back to high base camp, but nearly another 10,000 feet beyond as required by strict park permits.
"The hardest part (of the climb) was definitely summit night," Stock said. "It's really almost a 24-hour day. We started in the evening and we didn't quit until we were at the next evening's camp. We were like zombies but euphoric zombies."
The nights were something special on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Stock said, and summit night was no different. The sky would get dark early - usually by the time they left the dinner tent - and remain exceptionally clear, punctuated only by shooting stars, which stood out bold against the pitch, and a crescent moon, which hung askew like a frown above them.
By 6 a.m. on summit morning, Stock said the expedition could see Stella Point - the first along the volcanic rim - in the dawn light and knew, as they made for the point and began trekking toward Uhuru Peak, they would make it.
"We just kind of looked at everything in wonderment," Stock continued, recalling her thoughts and actions upon reaching the summit early the morning of Monday, Feb. 20. "It's glaciers at that point, so as soon as you're up on the rim, you're seeing on both sides of you just spectacular glaciers. And they're all a little different. Each one looks a different color, a different shape, a different size. And the sun was shining off them by this time. It was really beautiful."
Yet, despite the memorable sight, she was so exhausted after six days of ascent and slogging hours through the night, she forgot to even take a picture.
"I was just in a daze," she explained, "and so enchanted with what I was looking at that it didn't occur to me."
ON TOP OF THE WORLD
Despite reaching a height relatively few from this area will ever dare, Stock maintains a surprisingly grounded perspective on her accomplishment.
For her, the most rewarding part of reaching the summit was the people she met and the friends she made on the mountainside.
"It was amazing how we solidified as a group in the course of those six days, and most people didn't know each other in advance," Stock said. "Everybody was considerate and worked together, and it really became kind of a group thing."
The climb was a learning experience for everyone, and as members of the expedition got to know one another they soon began sharing helpful tips, like dressing for sleep before dinner and the temperatures dropped, or placing hand warmers in their sleeping bags before leaving for dinner so it wasn't freezing when they got in.
"It really was a lot of fun," Stock said. "And it was fun with everybody just figuring things out and giving each other tips on how they were handling different things."
Moretto remembers Stock playing an extremely positive role in her own experience on the mountain. Walking together the final two days of the climb, she said Stock never complained and was always encouraging.
She recalled one instance near the summit, as her confidence and energy was failing, when Stock whipped out a tube of banana-flavored "goo" to offer a much-needed energy boost.
"She was so focused and so gentle," Moretto, who reached the summit despite suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, said. "She was not going to leave me and I don't think I would have made it to the top without (her)."
Members of the expedition also got to know their guides, according to Stock, many of whom spoke varying degrees of English. And, each evening during the trip, she said members were given Swahili lessons by one of them.
Even before the climb, on Monday, Feb. 13, Stock said the lead guide, Yusef, invited the entire expedition to his home, where all the neighborhood wives prepared them a meal, serving Ugali - a delicious cornmeal-based dish - as the main course.
"I made some great friendships that I'm sure will continue," she said.
COMING DOWN TO EARTH
While the ascent took six days, the descent was accomplished in only two.
And before extending her stay in Africa with a safari through the Serengeti, Stock spent a single, glorious night in a hotel. It was heavenly being able to shower and enjoy a few basic modern-day luxuries after a week without running water or changing clothes, according to Stock.
"It was wonderful just to wash your hair," she said. " It was like a week after I got home before I got all the dirt from under my nails."
But that won't stop her from enjoying an adventure-filled retirement. Stock already plans to trek from Katmandu to the Mt. Everest Base Camp with Pack, Paddle, Ski next year.
"I'd love to see the Himalayas," Stock said. "So, that's my plan, if I can keep walking in the meantime."
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