Reaching new heights


Exercise: Ellie Zartman, 64, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last August. Now she's looking for a higher peak to scale.

Health & Fitness

February 20, 2000|By Nancy Menefee Jackson | Nancy Menefee Jackson,Special to the Sun

It used to bother Ellie Zartman when people asked her if she wanted a senior citizen discount.

Now the 64-year-old laughs about it. After conquering Mount Kilimanjaro, age doesn't seem to matter.

Last August Zartman climbed Kilimanjaro, which at 19,800 feet is the highest peak in Africa. Now she's in New Zealand, climbing Mount Cook and Arthur's Pass, and hiking in Tongariro National Park, where she plans to climb active volcanoes.

Her trek from late middle age to mountaineering started innocently enough.

"Every summer I would bike somewhere," she said. "It's a great way to see the world." Her husband is not fond of traveling, so she would take cycling tours with friends -- through England, Scotland, Italy, France, Norway, Germany and Africa.

About five years ago, she started including hiking excursions on her vacations.

She had watched the movie "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" as a girl, and the dream of seeing the summit had stayed with her.

"My friend says it was my idea, and I say it was hers," Zartman says of the Kilimanjaro expedition.

Either way, she and Susie Maroon, 61, agreed they needed a challenge.

To prepare for the climb, Zartman exercised on a treadmill three times a week and walked in her hilly Bethesda neighborhood. Getting in shape was easier because she routinely bikes 40 miles on the weekends.

"The best workout would have been to get in some altitude stuff," she says. "We came in from zero, at sea level, and bam, you're at 7,000 feet. It's a shock to the system."

Zartman had never climbed beyond 11,000 feet. Although she didn't use oxygen, she took medicine that allowed her blood vessels to absorb more oxygen. "I got terrible headaches from the altitude, and I wasn't hungry at all," she says. "The last few days I didn't eat at all."

It took her seven days to climb Kilimanjaro, and two to hike back down. "It was hard on the knees to come back down that fast," she remembers.

Although it was not an Everest-style expedition, "there's one spot where you cross a glacier and it's tricky, but you don't do scaling. ... There's a lot of crawling. I haven't gotten to the point," she explains, "where you're roped together and could fall billions of feet -- yet."

In her youth, Zartman was not a fitness enthusiast.

"I can't believe I lived like that," says Zartman, the mother of two grown children. "In my 20s, if I was tired, I would take a nap. Now if I'm tired, I go to the gym and work out and feel like a million bucks."

And it's easier for women to exercise now, she says. In the '50s and late '60s, "health and exercise wasn't the way it is now. Women didn't go to health and fitness clubs."

Zartman, who teaches learning-disabled students, likes to stay busy. She plays tennis three times a week, continues to hit the gym (once a week with a personal trainer), and gets together with a group of women friends to walk and sometimes run.

Having a commitment, whether to a friend or a trainer, is important, she believes. "You have to have a buddy."

Although her knees give her trouble, and finding time for her many activities can be difficult, Zartman is gratified that while many people her age are slowing down, she stays active.

And there's that 23,000-foot peak in South America she and her friends are talking about climbing.

"Therein lies the secret of longevity," she says. "Setting goals."

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