When Bronka Sundstrom reached the summit of Mount Rainier late in the afternoon on August 31, 2002, she became the oldest woman ever to climb Washington’s highest peak. At age 77, the avid hiker made the climb from Paradise at 5,400 feet to the summit at 14,441 feet in a round-trip time of 19 hours — an impressive feat even for seasoned mountaineers. Unlike the vast majority of climbers, who pitch a tent at Camp Muir (elevation 10,188 feet) and sleep before making the summit push, she only took a brief rest before continuing to the top.
While trudging uphill for hours exposed to the height of the summer sun leaves most hikers guzzling water, Sundstrom abstained. “I went up to Camp Muir without one sip of water,” she says, even though her guides tried to keep her hydrated. “I pretended, but I never drank a sip going up or going down.”
Why this superhuman resistance to dehydration? A legacy of her time in a Nazi concentration camp.
“We had no water to drink,” she says. “People don’t believe it, but I can go a whole day without water. You get away from drinking water and your system gets used to it.”
Sundstrom, now 94, shares this story with me from her home in Lacey, Washington, where she recently relocated after nearly four decades in Ashford, in the shadow of Mount Rainier. Sporting a Scandinavian wool sweater, purple leggings, and a Star of David necklace, Sundstrom, who is barely five feet tall and keeps her hair dark, still hikes up to five miles at a time with companions decades her junior.
The youngest of nine, Sundstrom, née Czyzyk, grew up in Sandomierz, a small city in southern Poland, in a religious, Yiddish-speaking household. Jews were a small minority in Sandomierz, a city with an infamous history of accusing Jews in the 17th and 18th centuries of blood libels against Christians. “Jews were not liked at any time in Poland,” Sundstrom says.
Sundstrom was 13 years old when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. She remembers seeing images of Jesus replaced by portraits of Hitler in the local Christian school. Her own school never opened that fall, and her mother taught the children by candlelight.
“Within one day, your whole life is upside down,” she recalls. Her older sister, married with children, fled to Soviet Russia and eventually made it to Cyprus, where she died of illness soon after the war. The Polish army conscripted her older brother, who died after two weeks in the service — whether from enemy fire or a self-inflicted gunshot wound, she isn’t sure.
Shortly thereafter, the Czyzyks were herded into the Sandomierz ghetto. “We knew we were all going to die,” she says. From there, they were deported to Auschwitz. Sundstrom is reluctant to talk about that painful time, but she shares the memory of the day she saw her father enter the gas chamber.
“Day and night if I’m awake, I see him going, and I couldn’t do anything about it,” she says. “You never get it out of your mind.”
She recalls standing naked on the side of the road awaiting transport to Bergen-Belsen, where an older sister perished. None of her family members survived the Holocaust.
On April 15, 1945, British forces liberated the camp. Suffering from starvation, Sundstrom was unconscious and near death. “When I woke up, I thought I was in Heaven,” she says. “Someone told me that I was safe and there was no more war. I thought I was dead.”
The Red Cross transported her to Sweden, where she went from death’s doorstep at the hands of the SS to a carpet of flowers in the streets laid by Swedes welcoming the Jewish refugees. She met King Gustaf V. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I wish Sweden had been my birthplace.”
She spent several months in a convalescent home. Local Swedes made courtesy visits to the Jewish survivors, and it was there she met Åke Sundstrom, a civil engineer in the Swedish army. He eventually broke off an engagement with a Swedish woman to court Bronka instead.
The Sundstroms took in the bewildered and traumatized young Bronka. “I had to learn everything,” she says, from cooking to using snowshoes to reach the outhouse at Åke’s parents’ home in the snowy northern reaches of Sweden.
She went to work as a seamstress rather than entering university, despite a scholarship offer. “I didn’t have the chutzpah,” she says. The couple married in 1947 and settled in Stockholm. But in those uncertain years, as Cold War tensions ratcheted up, any hint on the news that the peace might unravel sent Sundstrom into a paralyzing shock. “I would never go through another war,” she says. “I’d commit suicide first.”
A year later, seeking security from threats of war, the couple moved to Tacoma, where Åke had relatives in the thriving Scandinavian community. He worked in construction, and they bought a house with a view of Mount Rainier in one direction and the Olympic Mountains in the other. In 1954, they had a child, a boy they named Allen. (Allen passed away in 2016 after a battle with cancer.)
Åke, a ski jumper in his youth, was immediately drawn to Mount Rainier. Bronka had never seen mountains before, but she tagged along and quickly fell in love. Most weekends, the family journeyed to the national park for summertime hiking and wintertime cross-country skiing. They eventually built a Scandinavian-style cabin in Ashford, just outside the park entrance, where they retired in 1980.
In their golden years, the Sundstroms were a fixture on the park’s trails, serving as volunteer rangers and greeting visitors from around the world. One summer, they hiked to Camp Muir 50 times. Professional guides joke that the Sundstroms have been to the fabled high camp more times than they have. “Every day was a holiday,” Sundstrom says of those years.
For years, she declined to summit Mount Rainier due to the costs of purchasing the specialized equipment necessary. Then a local guiding outfit surprised her with an all-expenses paid trip in 2002. The hike made international headlines. She fondly recalls a letter from a Japanese woman in her 60s who looked at Mount Fuji every day and couldn’t imagine attempting a similar feat.
She decided to go up again on her 90th birthday, but a storm prevented the climbing party from making an attempt for the summit. “When I came up to Camp Muir, my bed and food were made,” she said. “They treated me like a queen.”
Today, nearly 10 years after losing her beloved Åke (she keeps a photo of him in her wallet alongside her REI membership card), Sundstrom is transitioning into a retirement community in Lacey. Though there are no mountains there, local trails, like the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Kennedy Falls, and Capitol Peak, beckon.
Hiking is her solace for a difficult past, which haunts her to this day. “The whole world wants one thing: Stay healthy and have fun,” she says. “You feel better in the mountains, but you have to come back down.”