When she reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, 86-year-old Angela Vorobyova danced joyously with her guide. Accompanied by her 62-year-old physicist daughter, Vera, and a group of guides, Vorobyova was thrilled to have set the world record as the oldest person ever to reach the 19,341-foot peak. But something else made the feat even sweeter.
The retired Russian teacher had dedicated the climb to the memory of her older sister, Lida, who died of pneumonia at age 12 in 1935. She choose Oct. 29 to climb because it was her sister’s birthday. “Eighty years ago I made a promise to my sister Lida that I would travel for both of us,” Vorobyova told The Siberian Times. “I loved her.”
It was an exhilarating but tough seven-day trek, she said. “It was extremely hard,” Vorobyova, speaking in Russian through a translator, told Russian TV network RT.
On the first day, she said they hiked through a forest. On the second day, her ears started ringing. On the third day it became almost unbearable, she said.
These are symptoms of mild altitude sickness, which is very normal for climbers to experience. Altitude sickness develops when the body is unable to adapt to the lower oxygen content at high altitudes. The symptoms often include headache, nausea and dizziness. However, severe altitude related illnesses can result in death.
“When I tried to speak, my ears hurt, so for the entire week I just whispered,” she said. “I also couldn’t eat. I drank tea with a teaspoon of honey because I needed the energy to keep going. The weather wasn’t going great either.”
Late October is a risky time to climb Kilimanjaro because the short rainy season starts in November. During the rainy season, climbing can become much more strenuous due to muddy trails, wet clothing, or bad visibility.
They would wake up in the morning and it was sunny and warm, but then when they got into the clouds it started raining, and they were completely soaked with no way to dry their clothes.
“When people asked how I managed to finish the climb, I tell them that there was no way I could have stopped,” she recalled. “I believe if you start something, you have to finish it.”
Assisting the mother and daughter was a support team that included her guides and a team of porters. Kilimanjaro operators use porters to carry the food for the expedition. Typical meals include rice, pasta, bread, vegetables and chicken. Mountain cooks prepare the food for the trekking parties.
Her guides said she did not need any first aid or oxygen on her journey. Bottled oxygen is carried to treat climbers who get altitude sickness.
The previous record holder had been American Robert Wheeler, who was 85 when he reached the summit in five days on Oct. 2, 2014. Like Vorobyova, Wheeler, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and psychology professor from suburban St. Louis, made the climb with his child, 46-year-old William “Jack” Wheeler.
Robert Wheeler had already climbed Mt. Whitney and Mt. Fuji. Before Wheeler set the record, it belonged to Martin Kafer of Switzerland, who also was 85 but was a couple months younger than Wheeler.
Wheeler in 2010 published a book, Mountains and Minds, which combines adventure, psychology, and philosophy in an attempt to answer why we are here, what we are doing, and where we are going.
Despite the difficulties she encountered, Vorobyova was determined to make the Guinness Book of World Records.
“I had never thought about turning back,” Vorobyova told The Siberian Times. “At an altitude of 4,000 meters, we even danced the tango with our guide. And at 5,000 meters we saw the sunrise. Sunrise above the clouds. That’s impressive.”
“I love the mountains,” she told The Siberian Times. “They have always attracted me. And I love Africa, its nature. It is tempting to climb to the highest peak of Africa. Moreover, on the one hand, it is a huge mountain, and on the other, Uhuru Peak is not covered by ice, like Everest or Mount Elbrus, so requires no special climbing skills.”
Vorobyova said she walks regularly and has no problems with blood pressure. She exercises every morning before pouring cold water on herself. She said her next trip is planned for Machu Picchu, Peru.