Sheila Gruenwald ascends to Mount Kilimanjaro summit to celebrate 50th birthday

Williams Lake’s Sheila Gruenwald triumphantly poses at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro — Africa’s highest point — after making an eight-day trek up the mountain capped off by reaching its peak on her 50th birthday. (Photos submitted)
Williams Lake’s Sheila Gruenwald triumphantly poses at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro — Africa’s highest point — after making an eight-day trek up the mountain capped off by reaching its peak on her 50th birthday. (Photos submitted)
Sheila Gruenwald of Williams Lake and her guide, John Maeda, and packer Florian Cosmas, take a break inside a tent while en route to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Sheila Gruenwald stands next to a sign in Kilimanjaro National Park declaring distance, and time, estimates for the trek ahead.
Sheila Gruenwald’s guide, John Maeda of Africa, made her this ugali maize and water cake to celebrate her 50th birthday after hiking Mount Kilimanjaro In Tanzania, Africa.
Sheila Gruenwald stands in front of a glacier at Mount Kilimanjaro.

Three years ago, Sheila Gruenwald wasn’t able to walk.

The Williams Lake resident’s back was broken in three places from a cumulative injury causing constant pain and, ultimately, requiring surgically-implanted screws and rods in her back to set her on a course for a long, drawn-out recovery.

On Sept. 21, while celebrating her 50th birthday, Gruenwald hiked to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania alone, with just a mountain guide and a porter to help carry her belongings.

“I raised four kids as a widow, and then with the broken back and everything I just said: The next 50 years are going to be better,” Gruenwald said. “I call it my hard line in the sand.”

She credits her Grade 4 teacher, Rose Mobbs, for providing the inspiration to travel to Africa in what ultimately turned into an eight-day, 80-kilometre hike on Kilimanjaro in daytime temperatures hovering around 30C and nighttime temperatures dipping below 0C, at an elevation of about 16,000 feet. Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and the fourth-tallest mountain in the world.

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“In her [Mrs. Mobbs’] class I did a report on cheetahs in the Serengeti and I said one day I’m going to be there,” Gruenwald said. “It took me 40 years, but I got here.”

Gruenwald, the owner of Reclaim Corporate Training in Williams Lake which specializes in personal and corporate wilderness survival skills, leadership, team building and firearms training, said she’s always enjoyed living an active, outdoor lifestyle. She is also a member of Central Cariboo Search and Rescue, however, her injury had prevented her from being active the past few years.

After her back surgery on Sept. 13, 2016, it took two years for Gruenwald to once again be comfortable with regular exercise and workouts.

“Once I was there I basically jumped right on the boat with training for this,” she said. “I have four puppies and we go for four- or five-kilometer walks every day, and through the winter I had my road bike up on its trainer, did sit ups on the ball and different things like that, and then this spring I started working out at Re4orm Fitness with Kim Colgate doing spin and rowing to build up my legs and cardio.”

While comfortable travelling abroad due to her career leading her to destinations like the U.S., Mexico and Costa Rica, Gruenwald had never been to Africa before.

“I was doing my wilderness first responder course in the U.S. six years ago and a friend set me up with an African national who I was with the whole time.”

His name was John Maeda, who was Gruenwald’s guide on the trip. Maeda owns a company called Walking Tanzania.

Gruenwald kept her broken back a secret up until the group had reached the 11,000-foot mark on Kilimanjaro.

“I knew I could do it physically, but I wasn’t sure about the altitude,” Gruenwald said. “But I had told him earlier that when we reached 11,000 feet I had something to tell him. I asked: ‘How do you think I’m doing so far? So the reason I’m telling you this is if I fall I’ve got rods, part titanium, in my back.’”

Describing the hike to the summit as “awesome,” Gruenwald said prior to reaching that point, while at base camp — the final portion of the hike — Maeda told her they would leave at midnight for the final seven-hour portion of the hike.

“I looked at John and said there is zero possibility of me getting up at midnight to do this, and it was just five kilometres to the top. I thought there’s no way it’s going to take seven hours.”

So Gruenwald, Maeda and her packer, Florian Cosmas, set out at 4 a.m., instead.

“We did the final portion in four hours and 20 minutes. I chose a nine-day trek because I really wanted to enjoy the whole thing because it’s been so long since I was able to do anything like this, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to do with the altitude, but we finished the trek in eight hours.”

Once she and her team reached the summit, Gruenwald said she cried.

“It was completely, totally barren, but the view was just incredible,” she said. “You’re standing way up there and looking down on the clouds. I summited and was choking back the tears.”

After hiking back down Gruenwald’s team, because it was her birthday, made her an ugali birthday cake made of maize and water — because Gruenwald is Celiac — plus “a wonderful dinner and sang to me in Swahili at the bottom.”

She said the trip has inspired her and Maeda to team up to offer women in Williams Lake leadership courses in Africa because of how incredible the experience was.

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“I’m thinking something like two days training before, then hike for seven days, do another day of tie-up training at the end,” she said.

“It’s an experience every teenager, every person could do it. Of all the trips I’ve gone on this was the only one I didn’t want to come home from. I was gone almost three weeks, and Africa is just amazing.”

Now back home in Williams Lake, Gruenwald is already busy planning her next adventure.

“I think I’ll cycle the Iceland Ring Road,” she said confidently.

“Then I’m going to go back to Kilimanjaro and sprint from the base camp to the summit. That’s at 15,000 feet to 20,000 feet and it’s only five kilometres. It’s straight uphill but I figure, why not? Next year we’ll do that.”

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