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Westover reservist climbs Mount Kilimanjaro

TANZANIA, Africa -- Airman 1st Class Ryan Hockertlotz, a member of Westover Air Reserve Base's 42nd Aerial Port Squadron, crouches on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the world's tallest free-standing mountain. The young porter used only Air Force physical fitness training to prepare for the six-day climb to the top. (Courtesy photo)

TANZANIA, Africa -- Airman 1st Class Ryan Hockertlotz, a member of Westover Air Reserve Base's 42nd Aerial Port Squadron, crouches on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the world's tallest free-standing mountain. The young porter used only Air Force physical fitness training to prepare for the six-day climb to the top. (Courtesy photo)

WESTOVER AIR RESERVE BASE, Mass. -- If you think the Air Force's new fitness standards aren't tough enough, go climb
a mountain.

In January, a member of Westover's 42nd Aerial Port Squadron climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the world's tallest free-standing mountain. Yet, with nearly two years to prepare, Airman 1st Class Ryan Hockertlotz chose an unlikely candidate as his personal trainer: Uncle Sam.

"I decided to rely on youth and military training," said the 21-year-old.

The strategy worked. He finished tech school six months before the trip and never felt physically overmatched on the mountain.

"The climb was relatively easy after basic training," he said. "I was always among the first to arrive at a new camp, and there wasn't anything I found too physically challenging."

The reservist was part of a 100-person expedition comprised of 20 climbers, the nearly 80 porters needed to carry their food, beverages, tents, medical supplies and other provisions, plus several English-speaking guides to shepherd them up the mountain. The only thing not provided was a guarantee they'd reach the summit.

Located in northeast Tanzania, Africa, Kilimanjaro is actually a dormant volcano, a massive cone of hardened lava and volcanic ash rising 19,340 feet into the troposphere. While not a difficult climb by technical standards, the route to the top is a dangerous one.

Roughly ten people die each year on Kilimanjaro's slopes from rockslides, altitude sickness and heart attacks. In fact, no sooner had they started up the mountain's flanks than it lived up to its deadly reputation.

A climbing party two days ahead of Airman Hockertlotz's camp was caught in an avalanche high on the mountain, and three Americans and one local porter were killed in their sleep when massive boulders struck their tents. News of the accident sent a ripple of distress through the expedition.

"We were very concerned when we found out there had been casualties on the mountain," said Airman Hockertlotz. "It cast a somber mood on our camp."

The mountain's rocky crust wasn't the only thing they found unstable. Kilimanjaro is nearly four miles high and sits just 200 miles south of the equator, a geological combination that makes for wild, erratic weather.

"We had heat waves, rain storms … even hail," the aerial porter said. "It got down to three or four degrees (Fahrenheit) near the summit. Sometimes, we would wake up to find everything in our tents covered in frost."

Yet, the unpredictable climate somehow reminded the Fall River, Mass. native of home.

"It was kind of like New England weather," he said. "If you didn't like it, you just waited ten minutes."

As if rogue boulders and schizophrenic weather weren't enough, another potentially-
lethal threat grew closer with every upward step.

Their route snaked toward the summit through 60 miles of ragged terrain into dangerously thin air. Above 8,000 feet, climbers are vulnerable to a condition called acute mountain sickness (AMS), which results from the body not getting enough oxygen. Symptoms can include searing headaches, relentless fatigue, loss of appetite, constant nausea, dizziness and insomnia; severe cases can be fatal if untreated. No one in the group made it off the mountain without suffering through AMS.

"Lots of people got sick," said Airman Hockertlotz. "There wasn't anyone who didn't have trouble keeping down a meal. I got sick the night before we went to the summit. My body just didn't want any food."

To combat the effects of altitude and intense exertion, their diet consisted mostly of nutrition-rich, easily-digestible foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, thin soups, decaffeinated coffee and tea, and—to avoid dehydration—gallons upon gallons of water.

In spite of its many pitfalls, the African behemoth relented. Roughly six days after digging his boots into the base of the mountain, Airman Hockertlotz stepped onto the permanent crust of snow and ice that covers Kilimanjaro's peak. Once there, he unshouldered his day pack and pulled out something he'd packed just for the occasion.

"I brought my American-flag handkerchief," he said. "It was the first thing I wanted to do on the summit."

After reaching the top of a mountain, climbers often experience an array of emotions—joy, relief, exaltation, among others. But, as he stared down at the vast African plains thousands of feet below, the reservist felt only one thing resonate inside him.

"Pride," he said. "I'd traveled to another continent and summitted its highest peak. "How many people can say they climbed one of the world's tallest mountains?"

After spending only 30 minutes on the roof of Africa, they started down. They then discovered that the trip down the mountain was also challenging—not because the route was tough … because it meant they were saying goodbye to Kilimanjaro.

"The descent was psychologically difficult," said Airman Hockertlotz. "We were leaving, and we all realized that our wild adventure was winding down."

For his next wild adventure, the young porter has his eye on the Tibetan Plateau, home of Mount Everest. However, this time he plans to leave his hiking boots at home.

"I'd like to go whitewater rafting in Tibet," he said. "I'm not going to summit anything in the Himalayas.

"The next time I'm going to be that high, I'll be on an airplane."