22 August 2008

Natalie Bartley: Men climb Kilimanjaro in wheelchairs

By Natalie Bartley

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the largest mountain in Africa, is not easy under the best circumstances.

In June, four climbers from Idaho - two of them using special wheelchairs designed for off-road travel - took on the famed 19,340-foot mountain.

Tom McCurdy of Pocatello uses a wheelchair because of an injury sustained in the Army in 1987, when an armored military vehicle trapped him against a wall. The incident resulted in paralysis below the waist. It hasn't stopped him from enjoying sports and outdoor challenges. He's been to Mount Everest in Nepal, holds the Pocatello Marathon's wheelchair record and won a 400-meter bronze metal at the Pan American Games.

McCurdy's 14-year-old son, Sage, and Idaho State University graduate Kyle Packer, of Effingham, Ill., also took part in the Mount Kilimanjaro climb in Tanzania.

Packer has cerebral palsy. He used a wheelchair for the climb and "walked" on his knees using rubberized kneepads whenever he was in camp.

Packer and McCurdy are members of ISU's Cooperative Wilderness Handicapped Outdoor Group (CW HOGS). In 1998, the two made it to the 17,600-foot elevation base camp on Mount Everest, joining CW HOG founder Tom Whitaker. Whitaker was the first disabled person to make his way to the top of the world's highest peak, located at 29,035 feet.

An outcome of the Everest adventure was Packer and McCurdy's goal to climb Kilimanjaro, one of the most popular mountain climbing destinations in the world.

Dana Olson-Elle, director of ISU's Outdoor AdventureCenter, joined the group on the Kilimanjaro climb. "The thing that I appreciate most is their drive and wanting to go and do activities that are challenging to any individual. They do not let their challenges keep them from living their dreams," she said.

The four Idahoans hooked up with outfitter Adventures Within Reach, which coordinated the trip through an African outfitter.

Only six wheelchair users have gone up the mountain since 2003, the first time someone ascended in a wheelchair.

"I was not out to make a world record or make a statement," said McCurdy. "For me, it was being part of a trip and introducing my son to adventure travel."

Though the mountain is not a technical climb, ascending Kilimanjaro is considered a strenuous journey along rocky trails at high altitude.

During the seven-day trip, the Idahoans took the Rongai route on the mountain's north side and descended on the south side. The group trekked through five major ecological zones.

McCurdy and Packer rolled themselves uphill assisted by porters and guides. There was no way to keep the wheelchairs - which have wide wheels on each side and a volleyball-like front tire - from rolling backward, so the porters and climbers spent lots of energy fighting gravity.

Near the summit, the group opted to camp above Kibo huts. The huts, at 15,416 feet, typically serve as the launching point for climbers on the final climb to the summit. Camping above Kibo huts meant that the porters were not acclimatized to staying overnight at the higher altitude beyond the huts before the final ascent to the peak.

Thinner air, combined with pushing wheelchairs up the mountain, added to the physical nature of the porters' climbs and some had symptoms of altitude sickness.

"It was amazing to see their drive and willingness to push on," Olson-Elle said.

An Idaho climber also was feeling ill the morning of the summit climb, so the group decided not to urge the guides and porters farther up the mountain. Instead, they selected Sage McCurdy to make the trek to the summit with a guide.

Sage made it to Gillman's Point at 18,630 feet on Kibo, one of the three extinct volcanoes on Mount Kilimanjaro. He said the highlight of the climb was "the view at the top and the accomplishment of being there."

Climbing big mountains is a journey as well as a destination. Experiences beyond the climbing add to the trip. The Idaho group enjoyed meeting climbers from all over the world.

"The challenge of the situation was exciting," Tom McCurdy said. "Every moment is fresh and every moment is challenging." He enjoyed negotiating the terrain, putting people's ideas together to generate a solution and working through language barriers.

Dealing with the altitude, keeping clean, avoiding illness and staying healthy were the additional challenges confronting the climbers.

Sage is proud of his dad. "He is a very strong man, both physically and mentally. He is smart and determined but is always looking out for other people," Sage said.

The Idaho team is already rethinking their wheelchair selection for future mountain climbing adventures. Packer is striving to raise funds for another ascent of Kilimanjaro.

Natalie Bartley is a freelance outdoors writer. Her column runs Thursdays in Idaho Outdoors. Natalie can be contacted by e-mail: natbartley@earthlink.net

No comments:

Post a Comment