West Fargo man climbed to the peak of famed mountain

Ron Sorum starting out at the first base camp. Contributed photo

Ron Sorum of West Fargo learned that climbing a mountain for a flatlander can be a monumental life event. Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro would definitely qualify as a daring adventure. Ron was just an ordinary midwestern guy from Barnesville – well maybe not so ordinary.

Ron grew up and graduated from high school in Barnesville. Following high school he worked as a gas station attendant, as a block lifter, on an asphalt crew and a variety of manual labor positions. As a skinny kid of only 120 pounds, he was a hard worker but, as one of his bosses told him, probably not much suited for hard labor. One day a new opportunity presented itself. The Moorhead Fire Department needed firefighters. He was intrigued. Ron took the civil service test and scored a 7, but wasn’t hired. He went back to his manual labor determined to build his body and improve his chances to be a firefighter. On his own he became certified as an emergency medical technician (EMT). It took a year until another opportunity opened up but this time, he was ready. He applied again and got the job.

“I thought it was a great opportunity,” he said.

In 1984, he trained on the job to be a firefighter in Moorhead. His training consisted of book knowledge, including extensive knowledge of the city.  He needed to learn about hoses and water systems, as too much pressure on the hose could kill someone. How many gallons of water is the right amount. What hoses to use. How to use a self-contained breathing apparatus or the mask that firefighters wear.  Then how to inspect and take care of all this equipment.  One of his favorite jobs was being the “friendly monster” where he would dress up in all his firefighting gear and go and speak to children at schools. The goal was to teach them not to be afraid of the huge scary masked man who was really there to save their lives.

One of the most challenging fires he remembers was when he was called to the Crystal sugar beet plant.

“When we entered the plant, the smoke was dark and filled the room,” he said. “You could not see anything. We were crawling on the floor and noticed the pulp bins overhead glowing red.  Heat was radiating down. We sprayed water on the pulp bins, and it sounded like thunder as the steel contracted and steam filled the room.” 

Later, they found out it was the pulp bins that had built up heat that started the fire. Crystal Sugar researched and fixed this problem so a fire like this would never happen again.

Ron Sorum and Mt. Kilimanjaro. Contributed photo

Another challenging fire that he investigated in Moorhead was an apartment fire that later was found to be a cover up involving a murder. Ron said that these tragedies could take a toll on the rescuers, and some firefighters experience post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from these experiences.

“I tried to never look at the dead bodies. We all deal with trauma differently.”  Ron was promoted to lieutenant and later assistant to the chief.  He retired from the Moorhead Fire Department after 26 years, at age 51.

Besides having a daring adventure job, Ron also got his pilot’s license and  learned how to fly an airplane and then started flying aerobatic airplanes. He practiced loops and snap rolls and flying upside down. He loved taking people flying who had never flown before. However, it became an expensive hobby so he had to let it go.  But he and sister, Peggy, would experience flight without an airplane, when they decided to jump and parachute from an airplane together.

For Ron, climbing a mountain was never really on his bucket list but just a decision he made on a whim. His friend Oswald, who he met regularly for coffee, told him about Ultimate Kilimanjaro in Tanzania on the eastern African border of Kenya. Ron was intrigued and decided to sign up.

“When Kilimanjaro was first discovered by Westerners, no one believed that there was snow on a mountain in Africa,” he said.

On Oct. 6, 1889, the first climbers to make it to the top, Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller, eventually determined that yes, it was snow as the mountain was at 19,341 feet. It is the largest, freestanding mountain in the world. In fact, people say you can see the curvature of the earth when you are on top. Today, it is a national park, and there are seven official trekking routes by which to ascend and descend Kilimanjaro.

The climbing team of ten. Ron Sorum is in the white shirt in the middle. Contributed photo

To begin training for the trek, Ron and Oswald started a walking training program (four to six miles per day) to get in shape. But of course, being flatlanders the highest thing they could climb in the Red River Valley was the Fargo dike. In contrast, Ron was later to discover his fellow teammates, Bethany and Vince (much younger than Ron) had been training for this trek for over a year, hiking 30 miles per day in the mountains in Colorado, New Mexico and Kauai. The trip was set as a seven-day trek up the Rongai route and was one of the easiest to climb. There were 10 people (Ron, Oswald, Kandy, Bethany, Vince, Jocelyn, Alan, Steve, Sam and Eva) who started out in their group from various parts of the United States.

When the journey began, everything was new to Ron. He had never traveled overseas before. Day one started with a three-hour bus ride. When they arrived they had to start the first-day hike behind the rest because the electricity was out and the credit card machine wouldn’t work. The first-day climb was four hours, but Ron was already vomiting from altitude sickness. The team was given medicine for altitude sickness, but the side effects were that it was a diuretic and caused numbness of the fingers and toes.  Ron said, “It was important that you eat and drink as much as you can, but everything I ate came up.” He was able to eat some fruit and soup.

On day two he tried to eat some spaghetti and meat sauce but couldn’t keep that down. Oswald was having problems of his own in that he was unable to sleep. The trip included many safeguards for the hikers, which included 40 porters who transported all the food, tents, sleeping bags and other supplies needed for the trek ahead of them. Ron’s teammate, Vince said in his journal of the trip, “The porters were our superheroes. When we arrived, tents were set up, and we were ready to eat.” The hikers were given health checks by the guides to measure their blood oxygen levels and resting heart rate.

On day three the hikers woke up to frigid cold, but they had been equipped with sleeping bags that were designed to keep them warm in temperatures up to -20 degrees. Ron, Oswald and Kandy (another hiker) were now experiencing extreme signs of altitude sickness, so they were put into the slower group.  Vince recalled, “I felt badly for Ron as he had some serious dry heaves he was fighting. Oddly enough, Alan, a 71-year old marathon runner, was doing the best out of all of us having the greatest appetite to stay strong and was always the fastest up the mountain. Alan was inspiring us all with his quiet, kind demeanor but persistent focus. By this point there were at 14,000 feet and were doing health checks twice a day.”

Ron Sorum at Gilman’s Point. Contributed photo

On day four, Ron gave Vince a quick shower by dumping a bucket of (cold) water over his head. The temperature was around 35 to 40 degrees. Oswald made the decision to hike out and not complete the journey. The group was instructed by the guides that if they decided to pull them from the climb for health reasons, they had to listen. Ron was sad at Oswald’s departure knowing that the same thing could happen to him.

On day five, Ron was still dealing with dry heaves and nausea. Altitude sickness happens if you travel to a place at a higher altitude than you’re used to; your body will need time to adjust to the change in pressure. Any time you go above 8,000 feet, you can be at risk for altitude sickness. Acute mountain sickness (AMS) is the mildest form and it’s very common. The symptoms can feel like a hangover – dizziness, headache, muscle aches, nausea. High altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) is a buildup of fluid in the lungs that can be very dangerous and even life threatening.”* At this point, Ron was suffering from both these types as could be seen in his face which was quite swollen at this point. But he said, “I am going to make it.” So despite difficulty breathing, Ron and Kandy climbed one slow step at a time. Finally, they were at a flat plateau, referred to as the saddle between Mawenzi and Kibo at 14,000 – 15,000 feet. They camped in the saddle for 12 hours. They would only have three hours sleep that night before they would begin the climb for the next day.

On day six at 11 p.m. they began their climb in total darkness. Ron and Kandy walked together. The only light they had was from their head lamps and the moonlight. Kandy had inadequate gloves, so one of the guides instructed Ron to give her one of his gloves and put the other hand in his pocket. They had to travel this terrain at night because it was colder and the sand freezes making climbing easier. At this point there was danger of tripping, stepping on the person in front of you or falling over the edge. The traveling was very slow, single file up the mountain using large boulders as stepping stones. Ron and Kandy made it to Gilman’s Point which is 18,652 feet above sea level.

Vince recalled, “Ron and Kandy (because they were slower) were hiking for many more hours than us to get to this point. They were my heroes for pushing through the altitude sickness and making it to this point.”

Ron Sorum of West Fargo (left) and two of his climbing partners, Oswald and Alan, pictured at the beginning of their quest to reach the top of Kilimanjaro. All three reached the peak, but Alan died at the top after falling and hitting his head on a rock. Contributed photo

Unfortunately, not all the hikers made it. Alan, (the 71-year-old marathon runner) made it to the top, but mere feet from the last sign, tripped, hit his head on a rock and died. Vince described how the guides tried to resuscitate him, but nothing worked. At that point, there were eight hikers left, but three, Kandy, Ron and Jocelyn, were experiencing such severe altitude sickness that they had to be medivaced down. There were five people who made it to the summit. At the top of Stella’s Point, Vince proposed to Bethany, something the group kept a secret for the entire trip.

On day seven many in the group awoke, realizing that they had lost a friend yesterday. The breakfast table, usually full of laughter and conversation was quiet.  Ron, Oswald and Kandy waited at the hotel for the last five in the team to complete the journey and hiked the last 13 miles back on their own.  Certificates were given to show they had reached the summit. Vince said, “Ron held the highest honor as he stood in Alan’s place and received his certificate for reaching the highest summit of any freestanding mountain in the world.”

Despite the fact that Ron had been very ill most of this trip and just made it to the stop before the summit, he said he would do this trip all over again.  Next time he said, “I would spend more time in Africa and try and see more of the country.” Ron made lifetime friends with his teammates and still stays in regular contact with them. When Ron reflected upon his journey, he was reminded by a quote from Theodore Roosevelt that inspired him to keep going, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Special thanks to  Vince Nelson, one of Ron Sorum’s Kilimanjaro teammates for his fantastic notes on this journey.

*https://www.webmd.com