By RACHEL KUBIK, Racine Journal Times

RACINE, Wis. (AP) — Elizabeth DeKraay Dunlap never wants to see an energy drink or energy bar again.

“They’re just disgusting,” she said.

Elizabeth, along with her two sisters, Carolyn DeKraay Dickens and Sarah DeKraay, had to drink an electrolyte powder drink and eat energy bars as a part of their big hike: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the dormant volcano in Tanzania. It’s the highest mountain in Africa, and the highest single free-standing mountain in the world at an elevation of about 19,340 feet above sea level.

The electrolyte mix was to make sure the three sisters and the rest of their group were full of nutrients and well-hydrated with 3-4 liters of water a day. “We threw them away when we got down the mountain,” Elizabeth said.

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Additionally? “I think I’m done with hiking mountains for a while. I need something tropical.”

The three sisters, who lived in Racine, agreed last year hiking Mount Kilimanjaro would be a fabulous bucket list trip in conjunction with celebrating Elizabeth and Carolyn’s milestone 60th and 50th birthdays, respectively. They started coordinating schedules.

“Everything was going fine until the delta variant. We couldn’t put it off another year. If we didn’t do it now, it was now or never,” Elizabeth said.

Their fourth sister, Christina Zikeli, stayed in Racine with their parents, Nancy and Warren DeKraay. The three started hiking Aug. 13 and finished Aug. 20, the Racine Journal Times reported.

Carolyn DeKraay Dickens, a 1988 Case High School graduate, is now 51 and lives in downtown Chicago.

Sarah DeKraay, a 1983 Case High School graduate, is now 56 and lives in Madison.

Elizabeth DeKraay Dunlap, who graduated high school in Iowa before her family moved to Racine, now lives in Cary, Illinois. She celebrated her 61st birthday Aug. 12 while on the trip.

The DeKraay sisters were the oldest hikers on the trip.

“I was worried about being the weak link,” Elizabeth said. “I was a little nervous when I realized I was the oldest one there. The first day we saw it (the top of the mountain), I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It was so far away.”

Despite her initial worries, Elizabeth said she didn’t have any trouble.

When climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, there are seven main routes to choose from. The sisters used the Machame route, the most popular path. It’s a seven-day hike: about six days to the top and about one day back to the bottom.

The guides made sure the hikers were acclimated to the change in altitude so they took the hikes slowly and had scheduled stops along the way at campgrounds. That’s also when meals and bathroom breaks at standard outhouses took place.

Those hiking Mount Kilimanjaro are required to go with a guide; no one can go up by themselves.

As a tour group of seven Americans, the number was a lot smaller than normal because of the pandemic. But 34 porters carrying food and supplies accompanied them; Carolyn said that was to keep people employed.

Elizabeth called herself “not a huge athlete,” but has always stayed in shape. Sarah and Carolyn said they’ve always been fit.

Sarah has golfed the majority of her life and was inducted into the Racine County Sports Hall of Fame for that sport in 2016, but she said hiking was never on her list.

Elizabeth and Sarah signed up with separate personal trainers in March and focused on cardio and strength training. The three sisters additionally hiked a 14,000 foot mountain together in Colorado in preparation.

Despite the three sisters living in different cities, they visit Racine a lot, Carolyn said. The three completed 85% of their training for the hike in the Racine/Kenosha area — specifically at Petrifying Springs Park in Kenosha, around the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Somers and along the lakefront in Racine.

While training, they hiked distances of 7 or 8 miles on cross-country paths at UW Parkside, which they said paid off during the hikes.

One of the group’s biggest challenges was dealing with the altitude and resulting altitude sickness, which was a surprise, Elizabeth said.

“The average physically fit person can do the hiking part,” Elizabeth said. “It’s the nausea and headaches and just in general not feeling good that makes it hard. You don’t have an appetite.”

Another of the major challenges was the Barranco Wall, elevation 843 feet. It’s located on the side of Mount Kilimanjaro and what climbers would refer to as a scramble, meaning it does not require experienced mountain climbing skills.

However, the wall is steep and climbers have to use handholds and footholds to maneuver the vertical wall.

“It was a little more technical than we had planned,” Sarah said.

During the hike, Sarah’s skin on her fingers cracked due to the dryness of the air. Elizabeth said she had sunburned hands that blistered. Carolyn said she also had “impressive blisters.” Other than that, they didn’t incur any other injuries.

What helped them persevere and carry them through the rough patches was having good work ethic they learned in the Midwest, Carolyn said.

The altitude and cold were overwhelming at times, but the cold didn’t faze them too much thanks to being from Wisconsin, Elizabeth said: “It was about 0 degrees at the summit. We were ready for it.”

Another thing that helped was their guides and the stories they told — such as the story of when helicopters took a group of hikers back. But after a while, things got really quiet among the group. Nobody was talking.

“The last 18 hours was really tough. I wanted to quit,” Elizabeth said. “It just wasn’t an option, so we just kept going.”

They ate very well — besides the energy bars and electrolyte drink mix. They were served oatmeal, bacon, eggs, pasta and stir fry, just to name a few, from the group’s official cook.

“We were really burning through the calories so we got a lot of food,” Elizabeth said.

And, of course, the sisters loved the sights. Sarah described the views as “absolutely spectacular” once they were through the clouds.

Carolyn said the sky full of stars was the best part. “There’s no pollution. You look up at night and it was like glittering diamonds.”

The sisters visited other areas of Tanzania before and after their big hike; Carolyn said the country is incredible.

They stayed at a hotel that had monkeys, saw some tribes and other outdoor landscapes, stating they were “beautiful, exactly what you would expect from Africa.”

“Tanzania was fantastic, just one of the bucket list things you can do,” Elizabeth said, noting traveling with her sisters was also really special.

“We have never traveled this long and this close with this type of situation before,” she said. “I thought Carolyn might snore. I could just picture us fighting. I didn’t know what would happen. But we had a great time; we made some really special memories together.”

Elizabeth said it was an amazing trip and she felt fortunate to be able to do it during these particular times. The three faced a lot of additional hurdles in regards to COVID-19, such as taking frequent COVID tests and filling out extra paperwork.

And as far as the difficulty level for the hike?

“This is doable,” Elizabeth said. “It’s something challenging. It sounds very intimidating, but it’s doable. You can do this.”

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