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Ain't No Mountain High Enough for Duo

Couple scales Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise money for disaster-stricken in Africa, and find out a lot about themselves.

August 31, 2000|ALEX MURASHKO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This summer, Christine Beitzel and her husband, James, stepped out of their comfort zone.

Instead of just watching reports of famine in Africa on TV with helpless concern, they decided to join eight others in a fund-raising trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to garner pledges for the Presbyterian Hunger Program.

Each of the 19,340 feet that the 10-member team attempted to climb represented money pledged by friends and church members to help the drought-ridden parts of Africa plagued by starvation.

Besides some occasional local mountain camping trips and a hike up Mt. Whitney in California's Sierra Nevada Range six years ago, the Westminster couple, in their mid-50s, had just been on "little adventures." But Kilimanjaro was an exercise in faith.

The arduous hike up the highest point on the African continent included a serious bout of altitude sickness for Christine Beitzel, a scary moment of heat exhaustion for James and temperatures as low as 0 degrees--not including the wind-chill factor.

In 3 1/2 days Christine Beitzel made it to 17,500 feet--1,840 feet shy of the summit. Her husband made it to just below the volcanic rim at 18,600 feet. The descent took 1 1/2 days.

The Beitzels returned from the trip last week, fortified by the experience and reflective on their mission. The group raised $14,000, with more still coming in.

"I don't think we would have done it on our own, except that it was for a good cause," Beitzel said. And they weren't getting any younger, they reasoned.

On the third day, Christine Beitzel co-led a Sunday worship service at 12,000 feet attended by about 50 people, including other hikers and porters from other expeditions. The service included singing, scripture reading and communion in a surreal area just above the clouds and timber line.

"We all had the same goal," Beitzel said of her group. "It wasn't about kicking someone off the mountain," she said, taking a swipe at the "Survivor" TV event.

The last 200 feet for James and seven other hikers featured freezing temperatures and oxygen deprivation. The ascent from that point was a torturous routine of three steps up followed by pausing for 10 deep breaths, James said.

"The thing that I realized [during the climb] was that I have gone beyond that which I thought I could do," James said. We were able to continue with "prayer and mutual coordination."

Earlier on the climb, the combination of James' physical exertion and the high altitude led to a momentary setback with heat exhaustion.

"We all stopped and he kind of looked funny," his wife said.

As he laid on the side of the mountain, "one guy prayed over me" and we were able to move on, James said.

The expedition, led by the Rev. David Dolan of the Los Ranchos Presbytery, was proceeded by 10 days visiting drought-stricken parts of Kenya. For the Beitzels, it was a sobering experience.

"We've come face to face with how luxurious our lives are here in America," James said. While settling back to his life in Orange County, he said, "You feel almost guilty."

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Alex Murashko can be reached at (714) 966-5974.

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