Gresham principal conquers Kilimanjaro
Lori Bennis, Clear Creek Middle School vice principal, admits she threw up.
But that's not unusual when climbing the 19,341 feet of Africa's highest mountain, as she did during winter break this year.
"I'm still proud. It is one of my proudest moments. It is so rewarding up at the top," she said.
However, it's not a totally new feeling for Bennis. She has scaled 14 mountain peaks, including the five highest in the Northwest — Washington's Mount Rainier and Mount Baker, Oregon's Mount Hood and California's Mount Shasta and Mount Whitney.
The Minnesota native is an avid hiker and snowshoer. As a child, she loved sports and fishing "and being outdoors in the mud." After living in Colorado for a while, she moved to Oregon about 15 years ago.
She started her adventures by signing up for a snowshoeing expedition with a Portland women's active outdoor group. She climbed South Sister and Mount Adams with that bunch.
Two of the group that hiked at about the same pace with Bennis became her trekking buddies, and the three have been hiking together for about
11 years. They've hiked the 460 miles of the Oregon section of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail and 175 miles of the Washington section. They plan to do the rest of Washington throughout the next three summers.
The former physical education teacher said Mount Kilimanjaro has been on her bucket list for nearly a decade, but she needed to save the money and figure out a time when she could train properly and travel to Africa.
Bennis signed up with REI Adventures and added a week-long safari to the mountain climb.
Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa, was first summited in 1889 and now is a major climbing destination. Experts estimate about 25,000 people attempt to climb the Tanzanian peak every year. Many are not successful, even though it is not considered a technically difficult climb.
The climb was five days up and two days down, but Bennis trained hard for about five months prior to her winter break trip. She hiked hundreds of miles and climbed the lengthy stairs in Portland's Mount Tabor Park multiple times. "That's actually hard work," she said. She also visited an altitude training facility in Portland to try and get used to the heights she would face on Kilimanjaro.
It's really tall
The first day of the climb, the group hiked 5.5 miles with a 2,860 altitude gain to a set of huts.
"It's really amazing. You go through six different ecosystems (on the entire route to the top). At first it's jungle and monkeys."
The climb was difficult, but REI porters greeted the group with juice and a warm towel to ease the stress of the hike.
Day two was an eight-mile trek with a 3,280 foot elevation gain. It took six hours. The next day was set aide for acclimation to lower oxygen, the result of higher elevation. But the group still hiked three miles and reached 13,123 feet.
On day four the group hiked six miles in seven hours and made a 3,280-foot gain and stayed overnight at a station called the Kibo Huts. They were fed a light dinner and had a 5:30 p.m. bedtime.
"They wake you up at 11:30 p.m. and you start hiking at (midnight). The pace is agonizingly slow. But they know what works," Bennis said. "The reason they want you hiking at night is because of how steep it gets. If you saw what you were hiking up, you'd turn around and head back to the hut," she said.
That fifth day the hike is 3.5 miles with a 3,165-foot gain and it takes seven hours.
That's when Bennis lost her ginger tea.
"I kept saying to myself, 'I can do this, but it's hard,'" she said.
The group reached the crater of the dormant volcano about 6 a.m., had snacks and more ginger tea and hiked the final mile for another 1,000 foot gain in another two hours.
"It was amazing. You can see the curvature of the earth. It was emotional, amazing to be that high," she said. She declared it "one of the best days of my life."
The group stayed at the top only about 20 minutes. "You take photos with the sign. There are tears and lots of hugging, then we had to start hiking down," she said, calling the descent a "tough hike."
They hiked down to the Kibo huts and slept for two hours. Then hiked down to another station called Horombo Hut for a loss of 7,300 feet in one day. The final day was eight miles and another, 3,280 altitude loss.
"My legs were sore the next day," she said, likely with understatement.
And although she momentarily swore off hiking forever during her Kilimanjaro expedition, Bennis has her eye on climbing Peru's Machu Picchu next.
The hike gave her confidence and insight she applies to the rest of her life. "I learned a ton, not just about what the human body and strength of spirit can accomplish, but what I specifically can handle and achieve."
Her boss, Clear Creek Principal David Atherton, said the same things that make Bennis a successful climber also make her an effective school administrator.
"She's a planner. She develops routines and ensures resources are available to support students and staff," he said.
"She is very organized and this characteristic serves he well in climbing mountains as well as responding to staff and student needs at Clear Creek. Her dedication and passion for pushing herself to her physical and mental limits are a testament to her character and are a challenge to strive for more ourselves," he said.
For her part, Bennis said, "I will always feel intensely proud of my summit moment. I'll always have that in my back pocket for a rainy day when I'm feeling lousy or unmotivated."
She calls on that strength when she needs it.
"It reminds me I can accomplish important things in my life if I dream big and put one foot in front of the other."
HIKE IT YOURSELF
Mountain climber and Clear Creek Middle School Vice Principal Lori Bennis picked some of her favorite local hikes.
Some of these are challenging, so check them before you lace up your boots and head out. Forest passes are required for most of them.
Be aware of parking restrictions and temporary closures.
Have fun and keep your eye on the prize!
Gifford Pinchot National Forest — Mount Adams Ranger District
• Silver Star Mountain Loop
Trial No. 180, 8.3-mile loop, 2,015-foot elevation gain.
Accessible from Forest Road 4019.
• Siouxon Creek Trail
No. 130, 8.2-mile round trip, 1,560-foot elevation gain.
Accessible from Forest Road 5701.
• Grassy Knoll & Big
Trail No. 146, 11 miles round trip, 1,400-foot elevation gain.
Just off Forest Road 68.
Mount Hood National Forest — Zig Zag Ranger Station
• Old Salmon River Trail
Trail No. 742, 5.2-mile round trip, fairly flat.
Accessible from Salmon River Road/FR 2618.
• Salmon Butte
Trail No. 791, 11.8 miles, 3,000-foot elevation gain.
Accessible from Salmon River Road.
• Ramona Falls Loop
Trail No. 797, 7.1 miles, 1,035-foot elevation gain.
Warning: There is a difficult crossing of the Sandy River.
Accessible from Forest Road 1825.
Clackamas River Area
• Clackamas River Trail
Trail No. 715. 8.2 miles one way. 1,550-foot elevation gain.
Estacada Ranger Station.
Accessible from Forest Road 54.
• Alder Flat Trail
Trial No. 574. 1.6 miles. 210-foot elevation gain.
Operated by Forest Service.
Accessible from Highway 224.
• Riverside Trail
Trail No. 723. 7.8 miles round trip. 575-foot elevation gain.
Estacada Ranger Station.
Accessible from Clackamas River Highway.