Friends Recall Hiker Who Died on Kilimanjaro

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just before Christmas, Jennifer Lambelet Mencken had hoisted a holiday flag in front of her Spanish-style house in Long Beach. The small red banner with white letters read, "JOY."

Friends on Wednesday, remembering the Los Angeles librarian, said that message expressed a lot about Mencken's love for life and her devotion to mountain climbing.

Before she departed on what would be her last hiking adventure, to Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, she told friends that she looked forward to returning with her husband to the home they had purchased just months before.

But she never came back.

The 53-year-old Mencken collapsed and died Saturday shortly after climbing to the summit of 19,000-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro, her husband, Raymond, told Associated Press.

A German hiker in Mencken's group collapsed the day before and died at 14,500 feet.

Mencken's body was cremated Tuesday, and the ashes will be returned to the United States, friends said.

Raymond Mencken and the rest of the hikers remained in Africa. But her friends in the Southland said Wednesday that they will always remember the good nature of the hiking leader for the Los Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club.

Carol McCully, a longtime friend and fellow hiker, remembered how excited Mencken was to tackle another of Africa's highest mountains.

A devoted hiker, Mencken had traveled to many parts of the world and climbed more than 270 peaks.

"She is the last person you expect this to happen to," McCully said.

Mencken had told friends that her goal was to climb Kilimanjaro in celebration of the new millennium. She prepared for months and left the two dogs that she loved in her Long Beach home in the care of a young woman.

Another close friend, Diane Sansoterra, kept track of Mencken's route by e-mail.

After Mencken arrived in Tanzania, she and her small group were following a guide through the rough climb when she began suffering from shortness of breath.

"That was so unlike her," Sansoterra said. "She was always very energetic."

Some fellow hikers asked her if she wanted to stay behind to rest, but she refused, Sansoterra said. "Most of us would have made the same choice," she said. "We are very goal-oriented, almost obsessively."

Once Mencken reached the top she collapsed, dying sometime later, Sansoterra said. "I wished the guide would have convinced her to stay behind, although I know she just would not listen," she said.

Mencken's friends gathered on a recent night, tearfully reflecting that she died in a place close to her heart.

Hiking was not Mencken's only passion. She had joined the Los Angeles Public Library as a librarian at the San Pedro branch in 1973. She later worked as a senior librarian at the Wilmington branch, as coordinator of the library's adult services division and most recently as manager over the 12 branches in the Hollywood area.

"Jennifer was a wonderful person and talented librarian," said Susan Kent, city librarian. "She was tremendously dedicated to the profession and to the communities she served, and she will be greatly missed."

On Wednesday, neighbors still talked of her in the present tense.

"She is the friendliest person. You can just go up to her and talk to her," said Gloria Oberpriller. "It's a sad way to begin the year 2000."

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