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Lieutenant conquers Kilimanjaro

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Brigitte N. Brantley
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
On Feb. 14, 1st Lt. Diana Wong found herself standing atop Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa, and the largest free-standing peak in the world.

Just three months earlier, she had been burnt out from work and a full-time graduate school course load. After seeing a pamphlet for the mountain, she made a decision -- it was time to mix up her life.

"Everyone thought it was kind of nuts for me to be doing this alone, but I needed to escape the monotony my life had fallen into," said Wong, 509th Force Support Squadron officer in charge of food services. "Work and school were wearing me down, and I had long dedicated all my time to studying. This was something I had wanted to do for a while, so I decided to just jump in."

Although she had ventured abroad before -- Thailand and Japan last year, China during college - this was a new type of adventure for her. There are many routes climbers can take to reach one of the summits, and this 50-mile guided trip would take Wong five days to complete.

With only weeks to prepare, 2nd Lt. Lauren Venturini, fellow 509th FSS officer, helped her get in climbing shape.

"She knew I was a fitness enthusiast, and when I heard she wanted to climb Kilimanjaro, I wanted to train her," said Venturini. "A lot of the workouts we did were high-intensity, and focused on strengthening her legs and improving her cardio. We did a lot of lunges, squats and sprints.

"We hiked through state parks with weighted backpacks," she added. "When it was too cold outside, we switched it up and did incline work on the treadmill. She was going to be climbing Kilimanjaro, so we wanted her to be ready."

In addition to all the physical preparations, Wong had to mentally ready herself and pack all the gear she would need. This included trekking poles, good boots and socks, waterproof and thermal under- layers, a day pack and sleeping bag, for starters.

After preparing all she could in those few weeks, Wong got on a plane. From the moment she touched down, the decision she had made to pick up and get out of Dodge, at least temporarily, was justified.

"There was no Wi-Fi, no phones, no outside communication," said Wong. "Being disconnected helped me be totally present in, and surrounded by, nature. I got to know the other people in my group really well."

The other nine members of her tour group were an eclectic collection of people from around the U.S. ranging in age from 24 to 75. They were accompanied by a chef, guides and porters who carried their gear. They quickly bonded as a group as they began their ascent.

The "overall average of successful ascent to the peak is 45 percent," according to National Geographic. At its peak, Kilimanjaro towers over 19,340 feet tall.

"Most people aren't used to being at that elevation and you don't know how your body will react," she said. "Even if you have a strong body, you're still only using a portion of your lung capacity and that can take a toll. On the way up, we saw two people being carried down on stretchers. Although it never crossed our minds to turn back, it really drove home the fact that death was a possibility."

Also according to National Geographic, "an estimated 10 to 15 deaths occur annually on the mountain from severe altitude sickness, hypothermia, falls and other medical problems."

Even healthy people completely prepared to climb the mountain can fail. What got Wong through the climb was her faith.

"When you're walking trails for hours and hours, it's hard to know where your mind will wander," she said. "After a certain point, I was so exhausted and knew I couldn't rely on my body or mind anymore. I had to rely on God to carry me through. My faith pushed me toward the summit, and I don't know where I would be without it."

Throughout the hike, they took breaks often while still keeping a steady pace. The weather varied. Wong recounted one 30-minute period in which they encountered rain, wind and snow, all just minutes apart.

The final day of the ascent, the crew set out at 11 p.m. to make it to the peak at around 8:30 a.m. -- just in time to see the legendary sunrise from Kilimanjaro's Uhuru Peak.
"Standing there exhausted and realizing I had made it to the top was an unbelievable feeling," said Wong. "When we started our descent and I started getting more oxygen in my system, I really realized, 'My goodness. This is what I've accomplished.'"

Wong added that her fellow climbers encouraged her and helped her learn the joy of traveling. She has future ventures planned for New Zealand and the Himalayas.