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By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Stopping By: One heck of a trek

McMinnville retiree tests out new knee on Kilimanjaro

At 2:15 p.m. Thursday, March 5, Frank Gabriel stood on top of the world.

After walking for eight days, up and down “insanely steep” terrain that often required him to crawl over boulders, the McMinnville man had reached the summit of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro.

Stopping By

Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996.

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He had 20 minutes to spend atop the 19,331-foot peak before beginning his descent. So, what did he do?

He posed for photos, of course — with his University of Oregon flag; with T-shirts touting the Trail Blazers and the Willamette Valley Medical Center’s knee replacement center; and with the guides and porters who helped make the climb possible, becoming friends in the process.

Then, rubber-legged, he started down.

“If I were younger, I could have appreciated the scenery more,” said Gabriel, a 71-year-old retiree. “On the hard days, all I wanted to do was catch my breath.

“It was difficult, but it was fun, a blast. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

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Climbing Kilimanjaro is no walk in the park. Gabriel said the terrain is “unbelievably steep” in places and much of the trail is covered with boulders of all sizes.

Kilimanjaro is the highest peak on the African continent. It is one of the highest anywhere outside Asia, where 29,000-foot Mount Everest, 28,200-foot K-2 and other snow-covered peaks are found.

Unlike the Himalayan peaks, which cluster together like a family, Kilimanjaro stands alone. The long-dormant volcano rises majestically from an African savanna populated by giraffes, zebras and wildebeest.

Its shape is more St. Helens than Mount Hood. From a distance, it appears squat and massive, belying its great height.

Snow covers Kilimanjaro every morning, but melts away in a few hours. Gabriel said climbers pass patches of snow, but walk on mostly dry rock and dirt as they approach the summit.

In mountain climbing terms, the ascent is called a “trek.” That means it’s more of a steep, demanding hike than a feat involving ice axes, pitons and climbing ropes.

The word “trek” appealed to Gabriel.

“I wanted to go to Everest base camp, but that would have been too cold,” he said. “If I were 20 years younger ... .”

But Kilimanjaro’s idea of a trek turned out somewhat different from his. He had envisioned walking along level paths, like an extreme version of the paths found in local parks. And while he expected vigorous climbs, he didn’t realize how much time he would spend going up one steep ridge, then down a few hundred feet, then up again — over and over and over.

“Those trails were hard,” he said. “It was like stepping over chairs, or like stepping down from the table to the floor.

“There was so much straight up, so much unbelievably steep, and so many boulders to climb over. You were just praying you’d come to a flat spot, but there weren’t any.”

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Frank Gabriel received a certificate noting that he was the 339,314th person to summit Mount Kilimanjaro.

Gabriel, a retired self-loader driver, had read about Mount Kilimanjaro years ago. “It’s so beautiful, it’s hard to beat,” he said.

He started seriously considering the climb after he accompanied a friend on a hunt for bighorn sheep in Eastern Oregon.

Hiking through the Steens, he realized the altitude there — 8,000 to 9,000 feet — didn’t bother him. And he figured he could go higher.

When he told his family he planned to hike to the top of Mount Kilimajaro, he said, “Everyone thought I was nuts.”

Undeterred, he started researching companies offering climbing excursions. Then he booked a 10-day journey with Thompson Safari, drawn by its reputation for safe and successful climbs.

The company provided all the support he needed — food, shelter, toilets, medics and guides knowledgeable in Tanzanian botany, geology, history, culture and politics. That and porters to carry almost everything, including oxygen supplies, a hyperbaric chamber and a defibrillator.

“All I carried was my water and my camera,” Gabriel said. At times, he even handed his camera to a porter, while he used poles to help him scramble over a boulder.

He brought his own climbing poles, sleeping bag, down-filled air mattress and special climbing clothing designed to protect against both high-altitude cold and equatorial heat.

But he forgot to bring a lightweight hat to ward off the intense sunshine at a point just 3 degrees from the equator. He liberally swabbed his hands, nose and cheeks with sunblock, but said, “There’s not enough lotion to cover you up from that sun.”

He had a pair of boots specially crafted for the climb by Esatto Custom Footwear in Vancouver, Washington. Good boots really made a difference on the long, hard climb, he said, and they’re so comfortable, you can wear them to bed.

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While trekking through Mount Kilimanjaro National Park, Gabriel saw plenty of large animals, such as giraffes, baboons and zebras.

Before he flew to Tanzania, Gabriel increased his exercise routine.

He was already doing cardio workouts at the Willamette Valley Medical Center, in addition to walking on his own. In the four months before his trip, he added weight training, worked with a personal trainer and began hiking the rough terrain near his home in the hills west of McMinnville.

If he had it to do over again, he’d make his training even more strenuous, he said.

“I’d exercise beforehand way differently,” he said. “I’d climb a lot more stairs.”

Gabriel also underwent a stress test and consulted with his doctors, not just about his general health, but also about the knee he’d had replaced in December 2013.

His habit of working out helped tremendously when it came to adjusting to the new joint, and his knee gave him no problems whatsoever during the climb, he said. “I was totally exhausted, tired like I’ve never been before, but my knee was never hurt or sore,” he said.

Much of the exhaustion was due not to the exertion of climbing, but to lack of sleep, he said. Throughout the adventure, he had a hard time sleeping.

He also suffered a bout of altitude sickness at the 19,000-foot level. He felt shaky and momentarily wondered if he could go on. But with only 341 feet to go, he refused to quit.

Because Gabriel was so tired after summiting, and one of his two fellow climbers had been too ill to make the final ascent, the guides rushed them down to 15,000 feet that afternoon.

Then next day, they continued walking on down. The final leg was a hike through the rainforest on easy, manmade trails.

At journey’s end, he said goodbye to the guides and porters who had become his friends on the trip. He handed out presents he’d brought — knives made in Oregon.

On his way home, he wore his safari hat and carried his climbing poles onto the plane. Many of his fellow travelers asked about his journey, so he got a good start on telling the story of his climb.

Listeners are impressed to learn Gabriel was the oldest climber to summit Kilimanjaro so far this year. And since the climbing season ends in early March, he was one of the last climbers to give it a go.

It’s a popular trek, attracting 35,000 to 70,000 people annually. Climbing organizations estimate about half reach the summit.

Gabriel was accompanied by a husband and wife in their 60s, and about three-dozen guides and porters. Other climbers were also on the mountain, with equally large support parties, so trails and campsites sometimes got crowded.

That led his group to linger at the 15,466 foot level longer than most. Traditionally, groups head for the summit at midnight, aiming to arrive at sunrise.

His group didn’t start the final leg until sunup, giving them the summit all to themselves.

Gabriel’s trek started on the west side of Mount Kilimanjaro National Park. He and his companions walked 56 miles in all, as they circled up and around the mountain toward the summit.

Most days, they would wake for breakfast about 6:30 a.m. Dressing in layers, they would hit the trail by 8 or 8:30 and hike most of the day.

They would make brief stops for rest and longer stops for lunch and tea. They never missed tea, a local custom.

Gabriel rhapsodized about the food, which he called some of the best he’s ever had.

Meals might feature pumpkin, onion or potato soup with flatbread and an entree — say, steaks, hamburgers, lasagna or fried chicken. That was supplemented with fresh, local fruits, such as pineapples, coconuts, papayas and bananas.

“They almost forced food down you,” he said. The guides knew they needed thousands of calories, as well as plenty of liquids, to give them energy for climbing.

After dinner, they would go to bed. But unfortunately for Gabriel, nights didn’t bring much sleep.

The group ascended through different layers of flora and fauna — first farmland, then verdant forests and grasslands, then through high altitude “alpine desert” where vegetation became sparse, and finally across barren ground that was too high and too cold to support much life.

At lower elevations, Gabriel said, they saw all sorts of wildlife — baboons and other large animals everyone associates with Africa, along with many varieties of small monkeys and birds. They even encountered a rarely seen black mamba snake, one of the most venomous creatures on the continent.

Near the top, there was no wildlife. Except, that is, for the ravens who followed the climbers, ready to snatch up any food they dropped.

To the ravens’ dismay, Gabriel’s group was careful, as is the tradition, not to leave much behind. The porters carried out every bit of waste, he said.

Now back in McMinnville and well rested, Gabriel already is dreaming of his next adventure.

He would love to return to Africa some day, maybe for a safari. He wants to see India’s Taj Mahal as well.

He has other plans he’s still mulling over, too. He’s keeping those a secret.

Starla Pointer has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or


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