Love of Travel Takes Lake Panorama Man to Mountain Summit

Before the ascent up Mount Kilimanjaro, Gary Geels (left), is shown with his daughter Meredith Swenson, her husband Adam Swenson, and Adam’s father, Craig Swenson. This sign at the beginning of the Geels/Swenson team’s trip shows the distances and hours required to reach the mountain peak. Shown in the rainforest during the first day of the climb are, left to right, Christian and Krista Swenson, Adam and Meredith Swenson, Gary Geels and Craig Swenson. Gary Geels and his daughter Meredith Swenson are shown on the second day in the alpine heath climate zone, where the ground cover consists of giant heather bushes.  Mount Kilimanjaro is seen in the background at one of the team’s overnight camps. Pictured left to right are Gary Geels, Meredith and Adam Swenson, and Craig Swenson. The team is shown climbing the narrow Broncha Wall trail. Note the porters and guides are carrying the team’s supplies on their backs and heads. The Geels/Swenson team celebrates with their guides and porters at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. After six days of climbing, they spent just 30 minutes at the top before beginning their descent.

By Susan Thompson

Last September, while most Lake Panorama residents were enjoying beautiful fall weather, one resident was in Tanzania, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in single-digit temperatures.

Gary and Susan Geels moved from Johnston to a condo on Lake Panorama’s main basin in 2008. She works as a special education administrator in the Des Moines Public Schools. He is a Bankers Trust vice president who works with retirement plans.

“We decided to try living here full-time, and thought if we got tired of the commute, we could use it as a second home,” he says. “We fell in love with the lake and community, and plan to live here forever.”

Both Gary and Susan grew up in the small town of Sully, southeast of Newton. Gary’s grandparents lived in Bozeman, Montana. “My family couldn’t afford to travel much, but we did visit my grandparents. My love of travel started from all those exciting trips to Bozeman, and exploring Yellowstone with Grandpa and Grandma Geels in an old Rambler,” he says.

The couple has three children, twin girls and a younger daughter. When they were young, Gary and a brother-in-law talked about taking their families to all 50 states. Gary and Susan embraced the idea, and visited their 50th state the year the twins were seniors in high school.

International travel followed, with trips to South Africa, Australia, India, Europe, Israel and more. “I put a high value on seeing and exploring new things, whether it’s Iowa, the United States or around the world,” Geels says. 

In 2012, their youngest daughter Meredith married Adam Swenson. Adam’s father, Craig Swenson, lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Craig always wanted to ride RAGBRAI. I had ridden two days 25 years ago, and I rode the full route in 2008. So I said I’d do it with him, and we’ve ridden the entire route the last five years,” Geels says.

An interesting side note of the “it’s a small world” variety — Swenson’s parents once owned a lot at Lake Panorama, which he remembers visiting and mowing as a kid.

Mountain climbing long had intrigued Geels, and he has done a lot of reading on the topic. Mount Everest, the Earth’s tallest mountain, was of particular interest, but he knew he doesn’t have the technical skills to reach that summit.

The idea of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro came up between Swenson and Geels as they peddled across Iowa. Swenson has a son-in-law who is the son of Kenyan missionaries. His daughter and son-in-law had married in Michigan, but were going to Kenya for a second wedding ceremony in fall 2017. That provided the catalyst for Swenson and Geels to plan their climb.

Joining them for the adventure were daughter Meredith and her husband Adam, who live in Des Moines, plus Adam’s brother Christian and his wife, Krista, who live in Ann Arbor.

Throughout last summer, Geels trained at Lake Panorama by walking the lake’s south shoreline, golf courses and roads. Meredith and Adam trained by climbing up and down the dam at Saylorville Lake.

The first hurdle for Geels was simply getting to Kilimanjaro. That required a flight to Chicago from Des Moines, followed by a nine-hour flight to Frankfurt, Germany. From there, it was another nine-hour flight to Nairobi, Kenya, where he met the Swenson family, who already had been in the country for two weeks.

The group took a six-hour bus ride to Arusha, Tanzania, where they spent the night in a hotel. “It was the last night with ‘creature comforts’ for the next eight days,” Geels says.

The next morning they drove five hours to the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, registered, and started their hike in the rain forest about 1 p.m.

Mount Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano and at 19,300 feet above sea level, the highest mountain in Africa. There are seven official trekking routes to ascend and descend the mountain. The Geels/Swenson team used the Lemosho route.  

That first day and night, it rained steadily. “The rain was fairly chilly so we needed to keep warm clothing and raingear on,” Geels says. “The rainforest was beautiful with a variety of birds and monkeys to keep us entertained. The hiking was quite steep with the trails slick and muddy, so it was an immediate reality check. We developed a great deal of respect for our porters who were carrying 35-pound loads on their heads, while we were challenged with our backpacks.”

The second day brought sunshine. The team hiked out of the rainforest and into the alpine heath climate zone, where the ground cover consists of giant heather bushes. That night’s camp was at 11,550 feet. They slept in two-person tents. Geels says it was challenging to stay warm in their sleeping bags, even with layers of clothing.

By the third day, the groundcover was reduced to small bushes and grasses. Each day involved hiking to a higher elevation, then back to a lower elevation to camp. This is done to acclimate climbers to the higher altitudes and lower oxygen levels.

On the fourth day, the team hiked to the Baranco camp at 13,100 feet. “The Baranco wall is an impressive sheer cliff wall that appears similar to the Grand Canyon walls. It has a narrow trail with multiple switchbacks and is a major climbing challenge,” Geels says. “The views of Kilimanjaro were becoming increasingly closer and intimidating, realizing how far we still had to climb.”

The fifth day, Geels says the hikers “climbed and scrambled over rocks to get to the top of the Baranco wall. We climbed even higher for acclimatization and spent the night in the Karanga Valley at 13,300 feet. The climate zone was mountain desert and nothing but rocks and gravel until the summit ice cap and glaciers. Each day’s climb was a continuous round of up and down with a steady uphill trend.”

They climbed to Base Camp at Barafu the next morning, and tried to sleep that afternoon and evening in anticipation of the summit climb. Here’s an excerpt from a journal Geels kept during the adventure.

“We were awakened at 11 p.m. to eat and prepare for the long hike to the summit. We left for the summit at midnight in extreme temperatures, wearing seven layers of clothes and coats, mittens, stocking hats. We ascended using headlamps. The stars were incredibly bright and it seemed we were climbing into the sky. The Milky Way was like a belt across the universe. The trail was very steep and rocky with sheer drop-offs, requiring full attention in our exhausted state. It was challenging to stay awake throughout the night.” 

Geels says it was a wonderful sight to experience the sunrise and feel the warmth around 6 a.m. “We reached the summit at 7 a.m., and it was a tremendous feeling of accomplishment as we celebrated our achievement as a group,” he says.

They were on the summit for about 30 minutes, before beginning the long hike down. Here’s another entry from Geels’ journal.

“We essentially jumped and slid and skied on the loose rock and gravel and returned to Base Camp in about two hours. With the lack of oxygen at that elevation and the extreme fatigue, it took complete focus and concentration to descend in a reasonably safe manner. Turning an ankle, hitting the boulders in the way, or flipping over is constantly on your mind. We had a quick meal at Base Camp, packed up and descended to Mweka Camp at 10,019 feet, which was about another five-hour hike. The descent from Base Camp was very steep with loose rock, and painful for our knees in our exhausted condition. Most of us had been awake for 36 hours with maybe a couple of hours sleep. It was wonderful to collapse at Mweka and sleep through the night with an abundance of oxygen to breathe.”

The group hiked to the exit gate the next morning. They stopped at a restaurant in Moshi, a village at the foot of Kilimanjaro. “We had cheeseburgers, fries and cokes, which was terrific after a week of food designed to get us up the mountain,” Geels says. “Our cooks did a great job, but the steady diet of porridge and soups, with no appetite from the altitude, required us to force down the food and water.”

The climb to the Kilimanjaro summit took six days, and the return took two. Oxygen levels at the summit are about half of normal, which can cause altitude sickness and other health risks.

Geels is 63 years old and Craig Swenson is 65. Their four children are in their late 20s and early 30s. “It was strenuous for all of us,” Geels says. “The lack of oxygen, the cold, the sleeping on the ground. The lack of sanitation was horrible, and the climb was brutal on our knees.”

While Geels says he would never climb Mount Kilimanjaro again, he’s happy to have done it once, and found much to love about the experience.

“There was beauty, from the rainforest to the snow-covered peak and glaciers. Our support team, who earn about two-dollars a day, were helpful, caring people. When we reached the summit, some of our guides and porters spontaneously began singing and dancing in celebration. It was really touching,” he says.

Geels has spent his career helping people fund their retirement plans. “It has been very sobering to watch several friends and classmates pass away the last few years,” he says. “It makes a person realize how short life can be and how important it is to live your dreams while you can. Climbing a mountain was one of my dreams. I encourage others to live their dreams, too.”

Susan Geels also loves to travel, and when they retire in a few years, they plan to drive this country’s western coastline, beginning in Seattle, Washington, and ending in San Diego, California. They also will continue to explore other parts of the United States and the world.

But first, Gary is looking ahead to his next adventure — a river raft ride through the Grand Canyon.