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'Step and Breathe...Slowly, Slowly'

Hairstylist Ana Vargas was a stranger to the sporting life when she was inspired to scale Mt. Kilimanjaro. Rejecting a doctor's advice, and overcoming self-doubt, she set her sights on the summit.

August 30, 2000|BILL DWYRE | Times Sports Editor

Ana Vargas, a diminutive hairstylist from San Diego, used to consider it an exciting climb when the elevator had windows.

No longer. Not since July 31, when her self-image, spawned as the somewhat frail and timid one in a family of seven girls and five boys from Guadalajara, took a dramatic turn for the better.

Right now, Vargas is a Helen Reddy song. She is woman. She is strong.

You might say, these days, she is on top of the world.

Indeed, she was near to that, when, with a group of five others, she set off to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania that final day of July. The top is at 19,341 feet, the highest point on the continent of Africa and, while not a difficult technical climb nor nearly as high as Mt. Everest's 29,028 feet, mastering it is remarkable in that any climb of near 20,000 feet is an incredible test.

Especially if you are 45 years old, 5 feet 3 and 110 pounds and tied to a job that keeps you in the great indoors 90% of the time.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 3, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 4 Foreign Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Kilimanjaro's height--A Southern California Living story summary that ran Aug. 30 gave the incorrect elevation of Mt. Kilimanjaro. It is 19,341 feet.

While as many as 20,000 people a year attempt to climb Kilimanjaro, and slightly less than half of those make it--no technical skills are needed, no ropes and pitons--it can be lethal. Three people died on the mountain during a millennium trek this winter when 1,500 made it to the top. And Linda Sarofim Lowe, 47, the central figure in a recent multimillion-dollar divorce case in Houston, died May 12 on Kilimanjaro. She, like so many others at extreme altitudes, was stricken with high-altitude pulmonary edema, an often-fatal condition.

For the elite of the sport of mountain climbing, Kilimanjaro is a Sunday afternoon walk along the John Muir trail. For Vargas, this was pushing an envelope she never even thought about licking until recently.

Two years ago, she met a charismatic ex-Marine named Bill Creasy, a UCLA English professor, Bible scholar and popular public speaker in Southern California. Creasy attracts thousands of students weekly to his Bible study classes and, on the side, organizes adventure trips.

Before taking Creasy's class, Vargas was a vegetarian and a workaholic at the salon that she owns and operates with her twin, Christina. She couldn't swim, didn't run and considered her main sport bookkeeping. She thought that nature was what she walked through to get to her car.

Like some of her sisters, all of whom now live in the United States, she has a blood condition called thalassemia, common to those with Greek or Spanish heritage. Those who have it are relatively anemic and get less oxygen than the norm in their blood, a condition not encouraging for anybody considering trekking above 10,000 feet.

"When the trip idea first came up, before I even bought any of the equipment, I went to a doctor," Vargas said. "He told me I probably shouldn't even think about this, that I was not a good candidate for this sort of activity, and that, if I persisted, I would really need to build up the iron in my blood and work hard to get ready."

BC, before Creasy, Vargas would have heard this and packed it in. Now, she listened to the doctor, set her jaw and went out and bought $3,500 worth of hiking and climbing equipment. In the next few months, she broke in the equipment with a few semi-strenuous hikes, including one to the White Mountains in northeastern California.

Her sisters were amazed.

"She's a neat freak," said one of them, Martha Vargas of Santa Margarita. "When I heard she would go six days without a shower, I knew there was no way. I figured there must be someplace halfway up where she could get her nails done."

*

By July 29, Ana Vargas' nails were black, and she was at 15,000 feet. Had she stopped to think about it, she would have realized that she had already accomplished an incredible feat. A fraction of a percent of all the people in the world ever venture that high. But at that point, an almost robotic focus sets in. The mountain has a top, it is there, so it must be climbed.

Gone by now were all romantic notions.

"Before I left," Vargas said, "I had this vision of things, kind of like Gregory Peck in the movie "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." I pictured myself in a nice folding chair, sitting outside my tent, writing in my journal, while a porter tended to my needs, maybe brought me some wine."

At 15,000 feet, there were no nice folding chairs and certainly no wine. Only very thin air and lots of tension.

The group had started out with Creasy, age 53; his son Adam, 22, a recent graduate of the University of Texas; American guide Susan Detweiler from Colorado; and four Southern California men in their early 50s: Joe Graas, a medical lab owner from San Diego; Paul Isley, owner of Rainforest Flora Inc. of Torrance; Mike Davis, a Los Angeles consultant; and Jay Wegrzyn, a stockbroker from La Jolla. Oh yes, and Vargas.

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