Bronka Sundstrom, 1925-2023

Holocaust survivor was the oldest woman to reach the peak of Mount Rainier


BRONKA SUNDSTROM was born August 15, 1925, in Sandomierz, Poland to her parents, Abraham and Sara Czyzyk. She turned 98 years old on August 15, 2023. 

Bronka died on November 29, 2023 at the Panorama Convalescent and Rehabilitation Center of congestive heart failure.

When Hitler and the German Nazis invaded Poland in September, 1939, Bronka’s family was forced into the Sandomierz Ghetto, then later taken to Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland.

ALL of her family were killed—her parents and 8 siblings. Bronka told her friend Jane Habegger many times that every night she remembered seeing her father being led to his death in a gas chamber and feeling devastated and helpless. Although one older sister who was married and had children had escaped to Russia, she died during the war. Bronka also had an older brother who died two weeks after he was conscripted into the Polish Army.

Later Bronka, the sole survivor of her family, was marched to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in Germany.

Bronka told Jane that once in a concentration camp a Nazi soldier threw her a scrap of bread, “like I was an animal. I refused to take it,” Bronka said.  Years after Bronka was first taken to a concentration camp, where she was starved, deprived of water, food and sanitation and forced to do hard labor, British troops arrived on April 15, 1945, to free her and other survivors, Bronka was taken by the Red Cross to Sweden.   At that point she estimated that she weighed around 50 pounds.

In Sweden, Bronka was hospitalized and spent an extensive amount of time in a Rehabilitation Facility. When she arrived in Sweden, the people greeted her and other Holocaust survivors with flowers in the streets and she met King Gustaf V, King of Sweden. Bronka wished she had been born in Sweden, where she was welcomed. She said that Jews were not liked or treated well at any time in Poland.

Bronka also met her future Swedish husband, AKE SUNDSTROM in Sweden. Although Ake was engaged to another young woman, he broke off the engagement and proposed to Bronka. Ake loved Bronka unconditionally and taught her, in her words, “how to do everything”: cook, ride a bike, hike, ski--everything. Ake gave Bronka a new and wonderful life. Bronka said Ake was always patient with her and they never raised a voice to one another. “We never had a fight”. It was truly a remarkable relationship, a great love story and a wonderful marriage.

Ake and Bronka Sundstrom were married in 1947, when Bronka was 21 and Ake was 29 years old. They had a long and very happy marriage of 64 years, and a true partnership. Ake Sundstrom died on May 31, 2010, at age 93. His Memorial Service was held at Longmire in Mt. Rainier National Park. The Superintendent of MRNP, many Park Rangers and hundreds of people attended. 

Jason Edwards, Bronka Sundstrom and Ryan Stephens on the way to summit of Mount Rainier, 8-31-2002
Jason Edwards, Bronka Sundstrom and Ryan Stephens on the way to summit of Mount Rainier, 8-31-2002

Ake and Bronka moved to Tacoma, Washington in 1949, where they lived for over 30 years. Ake agreed to leave Sweden for Bronka in 1949 when there were winds of a possible new war in Europe. Bronka said she would not live through another war. Ake left his family and his occupation as an architect in Sweden to move to America, where his beloved Bronka would feel safe and secure.

Bronka and Ake had one child: a son, Allen, and the family hiked in the Olympic Mountains and Cascade Mountains, including Mt. Rainier. They could see both the Olympic Mountains and Mt. Rainier from their Tacoma home.

Allen Sundstom graduated from the University of Washington where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree. He also earned a Master’s Degree. He became a photo-journalist. Bronka and Ake were very proud of Allen. Sadly, Allen Sundstrom, Bronka and Ake’s only child, died of cancer on July 18, 2013. Allen was married to Robin Preisler. Allen and Robin had two children: Grover Sundstrom who lives in New Jersey and Chloe Sundstrom who lives in Georgia.

In the early 1980’s Ake and Bronka built a new Scandinavian style home in Ashford, WA, near their beloved Mt. Rainier, where they spent their retirement. 

Bronka Sundstrom on snow bridge on the way to summit Mount Rainier on Aug. 31, 2002.
Bronka Sundstrom on snow bridge on the way to summit Mount Rainier on Aug. 31, 2002.

Bronka and Ake hiked, climbed and skied on Mt. Rainier year-round. They completed the Wonderland Trail and were regulars at Camp Muir, hiking it so fast that they frequently would return home for dinner and Ake would mow their lawn after the climb. In 2002, the year Bronka summited Mt. Rainier, Ake and Bronka Sundstrom climbed to Camp Muir 50 times. Bronka was 77 and Ake was 85 years old. MRNP Rangers at Mt.
Rainier opined that the Sundstroms may have been the most frequent hikers to reach Camp Muir, with the exception of professional Mountaineering Guides.

Bronka and her husband Ake also climbed Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, hiked in the Enchantments and much, much more. Bronka’s climb of Mt. Rainier occurred on August 31, 2002. She completed the climb in 19 hours round trip from Paradise -- less than one day!  Her guide was Jason Edwards, internationally renowned guide, who has summited Mt. Rainier nearly 350 times, summitted Mt. Everest 4 times and has summited the 7 highest peaks on the 7 continents. Also guiding Bronka was Ryan Stephens, who was the photographer and
videographer on the climb. Although a 78-year-old woman summited Mt. Rainier in 2023, she took 4 days to do so and climbed with the assistance of other people.

Bronka still holds the record of the oldest woman to climb Mt. Rainier in less than 24 hours!  Bronka attempted the climb again at age 90, but due to poor weather stopped at Camp Muir. 

Lady of the Mountain video

She was such an avid mountaineer that Outdoor Research underwrote a seven-minute video that profiled her.  It is available here:

At age 91, Bronka hiked with her friend Darryl Abrams to Camp Muir again!  Bronka and Ake were volunteer rangers for Mt. Rainier National Park. They were also goodwill ambassadors on the mountain. They offered advice and assistance and information to countless people from all over the world, who came to visit Mt. Rainier.

Bronka was always generous with her time, freely sharing hiking tips and ideas which contributed to her own great success as a hiker and climber. Bronka Sundstrom’s life story, skills and accomplishments have been an inspiration to countless people. An example is a group of Breast Cancer Survivors, who sought her out and have been her friends and hiking partners for many years. These women, who had serious life-threatening battles of their own, were and continue to be inspired by Bronka, because of her strength, wisdom, thoughtfulness and caring and her being a wonderful friend. 

After they both lost their spouses, Wally Music became a very close friend of Bronka’s. Wally took Bronka to Alaska, Hawaii (places she had never been to) and New York, flying first class. This was when Wally was in his 90’s! Bronka got Wally involved as a volunteer at Mt. Rainier and together they did a lot of hiking and walking together. See Bronka & Wally WTA Report, Sept. 2020. Wally lived independently in his own home several miles from Bronka’s Panorama, Lacey apartment. Bronka spent many extended periods over at Wally’s home.

Wally arranged for Bronka to move from Ashford to the retirement community of Panorama. Bronka lived with Wally in the fall of 2019 and until the spring of 2020, when her Panorama apartment was ready. Wally also recruited his younger friends to help move Bronka from her home in Ashford to Panorama. When Bronka was not staying at Wally’s home, Wally called Bronka every morning and evening. She was the last person he talked to on the day that he died. Wally Music died on April 20, 2022, at age 99, still living independently in his own home.

Bronka moved from Ashford to Panorama Retirement Community in Lacey, WA in 2020. Her apartment at Panorama was 1 block away from the Chehalis Western Trail and if she was not off hiking elsewhere, she walked the Chehalis Western Trail regularly. She also loved to walk the 5-mile Nisqually Wildlife Refuge Trail, and around Capitol Lake and the trails along the waterfront of downtown Olympia with dear friends Jane Habegger and Bill Lynch.

At age 96, Bronka was still hiking.  Here are just some of her 2021 mountain hikes:

a. In May, 2021, Bill Crone, a dear friend from Spokane, rented cabins for his family and Bronka near Mt. St. Helens. The plan was for all of them, including Bronka to CLIMB MT. ST HELENS (not her first time). But the weather was very poor, so they did not complete the climb.

b. In August, 2021, Bronka hiked with friends Jane Habegger and Bill Lynch to Burroughs Mountain, on Mt. Rainier to celebrate her 96th birthday. On this hike, several strangers, including a volunteer MRNP Ranger who named his motor home “Bronka”, recognized Bronka on the trail and asked to have their photo taken with her.

c. In September, 2021, Bronka hiked with her then 98-year-old friend Wally Music and other
friends on the Skyline Trail above Paradise. Many friends and admirers at Mt. Rainier call Bronka, “the Queen of Mt. Rainier.”

Bronka Sundstrom was inducted into the TACOMA-PIERCE COUNTY SPORTS HALL OF FAME on August 23, 2021 at the Tacoma Convention Center, recognizing her as the OLDEST WOMAN to climb Mt. Rainier.

The 2020 Tribute of Champions, inducted to the Hall of Fame these two MOUNTAINEERS:

  • BRONKA SUNDSTROM, the oldest woman to summit Mt. Rainier at age 77 in 19 hours. Bronka also attempted to summit again at age 90, but they stopped at Camp Muir, at 10,000 feet due to poor weather and she returned again to Camp Muir at age 91, and
  • Fay Fuller (1869-1958) the first woman to summit Mt. Rainier, on August 9, 1890. The event was Hosted by Art Thiel (former Sports Writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) and Mike Gastineau. In the Spring of 2022, the Washington Trails Association published an article about Bronka titled: Meet Bronka Sundstrom, Mt. Rainier icon, using photos and an article submitted by Jane Habegger. See: Meet Bronka Sundstrom Mt. Rainier Icon.

A bench for Bronka

On May 21, 2023, a bench was dedicated to Bronka Sundstrom at the Chambers Lake Overlook on the Chehalis Western Trail.  See related story.  Lacey Deputy Mayor Malcolm Miller also read a city of Lacey Proclamation declaring May 21st “Bronka Sundstrom Day.” Her friend Andrea Lipper facilitated this honor. 

Nearly 60 people attended the bench dedication.

Bronka was only 4 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 87 pounds, but she was a remarkable and tenacious person, whose physical and mental strength exceeded and towered over most people much larger than her.

Bronka Sundstrom is survived by her grandchildren, Grover and Chloe Sundstrom and by many friends whose lives she deeply touched!