Hanover Man Aims High
82-Year-Old Reaches Kilimanjaro’s Peak
Hanover — Not even the most difficult stretch of Mount Kilimanjaro could keep Hanover resident Tom Wilson from reaching new heights this summer.
Wilson, 82, is believed to be the oldest person to ascend Kilimanjaro’s Western Breach, the icy, rocky stretch that covers 2,814 feet in just over two miles near Kilimanjaro’s summit.
After traversing the Breach on July 20 with 11 other U.S. climbers and six guides, Wilson reached Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Peak — at 19,341 feet, the highest point in Africa — one day later.
Wilson’s guide company, California-based Mountain Travel Sobek, told him he was the oldest known person to ascend the Western Breach. The company could not be reached for verification Wednesday and the record isn’t listed on its website or the official website of Mount Kilimanjaro National park in Tanzania.
“My head guide has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro 190 times and knows all of the records,” Wilson said in an interview on the Dartmouth Green on Wednesday. “He submitted the information to (Kilimanjaro Park staff) and they congratulated me. As far as I know, it’s official.”
Official or not, climbing the Western Breach is quite an accomplishment for an octogenarian. Covering nearly 3,000 feet from Arrow Glacier camp to the Reusch Crater, the steep, dramatic switchback route is prone to rock falls because of the melting of the glacier that has increased over the last several decades. In 2006, an rock avalanche killed three U.S. climbers on the route, forcing its temporary closure.
Thanks to favorable weather, no special equipment was needed when Wilson and his group traveled the Breach — just a helmet, and plenty of endurance, was mandatory.
After reaching Arrow Glacier camp at 16,000 feet on day four of the journey, Wilson and his group spent the fifth day climbing the first half of the Western Breach for practice. They returned the same day and climbed the entire 0.9-mile stretch the following day.
“We left at about 6 a.m., before the thaw,” said Wilson, a retired pediatric physician. “It got down to zero degrees Fahrenheit overnight. I went to get a sip of my water in the morning, but it was frozen.”
While the group’s slow-and-steady pace helped it acclimatize to high elevation, low oxygen levels were the sturdiest challenge for Wilson.
“My legs were strong, but the air was thin,” he said. “The Tanzanian guides kept reminding us, ‘Polé,’ which means slowly or softly in Swahili. Luckily, they were carrying all of the clothing and food, which made it easier for me. That was one of the great parts about the whole thing, how organized the logistics were.”
Wilson first became fascinated with the idea of climbing Kilimanjaro while vacationing with his wife, Joan, in neighboring Kenya 10 years ago. Majestically perched on the horizon, the mountain’s facade cast a special allure.
“Just looking up at this huge mountain in the sky, I was intrigued,” Wilson said. “But back at home, almost everyone I talked to discouraged me about it because of (the possibility for) altitude sickness. They knew about people who had tried it and didn’t adjust well and got really sick.”
Wilson later spoke to a colleague who had made the Kilimanjaro ascent five times. His enthusiasm won Wilson over, and he soon contacted Mountain Travel Sobek, the same adventure outfit with whom he’d traveled previously in Nepal, the Canadian Rockies and Europe.
“They wanted a doctor’s note and my physician here in Hanover wasn’t used to signing things like this for people my age. Then she saw me jogging around town in the middle of February and decided my lungs would be fit enough,” he said.
Embarking on the Machame Route on the southwest side of the mountain, Wilson’s group began by trekking due north through a rain forest. The group ascended 4,000 feet on day one before advancing another 2,500 feet into alpine elevation (above the treeline) and arriving at Shira Camp at approximately 13,000 feet at the end of day three. With dropping temperatures and moderate snow cover, the air thinned significantly as the group advanced another 3,000 feet over the next two days.
On day five the group arrived at Arrow Glacier — the last stop before the Western Breach — where they spent two nights in frigid conditions.
After completing the Breach, the group camped at Reusch Crater, a moon-like surface visually, save for the presence of volcanic ash, at 18,500 feet.
“I heard from a number of people that I wouldn’t be able to sleep there, the air was so thin, but I slept like a baby,” Wilson said. “It didn’t bother me one bit. I was fortunate that I didn’t really experience any (altitude sickness). I had a little bit of a headache one night, but I think it had more to do with being tired than anything.”
On day seven, Wilson’s group reached Kilimanjaro’s summit in sunny conditions, offering seemingly endless views of the African landscape.
“It was an absolutely exhilarating experience,” he said.
Last Thursday, Wilson shared his experience in a presentation at the gathering room of the Hanover retirement home where he lives. While showing photos and describing the journey, Wilson talked of how he drew inspiration from Diana Nyad, the long distance swimmer who successfully swam 110 miles, from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Florida, on her fifth attempt at the feat Aug. 31. As Wilson did while climbing Kilimanjaro, Nyad, 64, had plenty of support along the way.
“(Nyad) had three messages that she shared with people, and I shared them with those at my presentation because I agree with them completely,” Wilson said. “The first is to never give up, the second is that you’re never too old to achieve your dreams, and the third is that most great accomplishments require a team. Getting up Kilimanjaro definitely took a team effort.”
Wilson isn’t done climbing yet. He is planning to ascend several of the 14,000-foot summits in Colorado while visiting his daughter, Martha, in the Denver area next spring.
Jared Pendak can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3306.