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Trek of a lifetime

A camp site along the multi-day trek to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The sits are home to multiple tour groups. Photo courtesy of MaryAnn Gerst.

A camp site along the multi-day trek to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The sits are home to multiple tour groups. Photo courtesy of MaryAnn Gerst.

For two sisters, the journey to Uhuru Peak had little to do with hiking up a mountain

When Albuquerque resident MaryAnn Castoria Gerst, 68, announced at a family birthday dinner that she and her 51-year-old sister, Caroline Hayes, were going to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, she didn’t realize getting ready for the trek was going to take her on a journey that had little to do with hiking up a mountain.

The trip, which she completed in August, was planned in late 2102. Shortly after that, Gerst found out that her husband, Tom, had terminal cancer.


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“At that point I had no intention of doing the trip,” Gerst said in an interview shortly after returning from Africa. “But he told me before he died that he wanted me to go.”

So for the months following his death, she hiked.

She hiked Sandia Mountains near Albuquerque and the higher peaks in the mountains of northern New Mexico, and then she traveled to Colorado to hike Pike’s Peak.

“I literally walked out of my grief,” she said.

She said she truly was on a mission as she prepared for the trek – she got vaccinations, bought travel insurance, packed and repacked her bags in order to not go over the allowed weight, and even tested the altitude medication her doctor prescribed by using it while hiking up mountains with 14,000-foot peaks.

On Aug. 1, she boarded a plane for a 37-hour flight before she met up with her sister in Moshi, Tanzania.

Their group consisted of 11 hikers, three guides, two cooks (who also served the meals) and 33 porters.

The porters, like the Sherpas on Mt. Everest, hike ahead of the group carrying the paying hikers’ gear and arriving in time to set up sleeping tents, the kitchen tent and portable toilets.


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But while the hikers only had to carry a day-pack, the trek was far from easy, she said.

“The tent was full of our gear all the time, and you just were lying there in the middle of it all,” she said.

As they climbed closer to the summit, it became colder and colder.

After three hours of sleep and wearing six layers of clothing, Gerst climbed out of her tent for “summit day.” “All we could do was put one foot in front of the other” as their tour leaders kept chanting “pole, pole.”

Pronounced pol-lay, the term is Swahili and means “slowly.”

She said the final ascent was almost surreal as the mountain was filled with a procession of headlamps going up the mountain.

The stars, she said, “seemed three times larger than normal.” And it was hard to tell where the headlights stopped and the stars began.

Eight and a half hours after they began, the group reached Stella Point; seven members continued to Uhuru Peak, 19,341 feet.

And it was there that Gerst and Hayes celebrated, in part, by scattering some of Tom’s ashes at the top.

Even though she lost three toenails from the force of her toes hitting the inside of her boots as she descended more than 10,000 feet, the 18-hour “summit day” was the biggest high of her life. While she is happy she accomplished this goal, she would not do it again.

Her take-away from the trip was not only the pride that comes with achieving a big goal, but an appreciation for the comforts of life that we enjoy. Even down to having warm water to wash.

She has a renewed confidence in her ability to conquer what life throws at her.

One of the younger members on her trekking team probably said it best when he told her that she “is my new definition of a bad-ass.”