The minimum age to summit, or attempt to summit Kilimanjaro, is 10-years, and I was interested in challenging my son Scott with an attempt on Kili in 2013 when he was ten years-old, but his mother, wisely or unwisely, demurred, and the expedition was deferred until my next climb, which was schedule for 2015.
By then Scott was 12-years old, five years older than the youngest person on record to achieve the summit, a certain 7-year old by the name of Keates Boyd from LA, who not only broke the record but broke several TANAPA rules. One can assume that it was probably a parent or guardian who was responsible for this, and one must question the rationale and sense of responsibility of that person, not only for disregarding the conventions established over age and access to the park, but a certain obvious disregard for the well being of a child.
But be that as it may, my son Scott, at the age of 12, was more than ready in my opinion to make a stab at that great achievement. His 15-year old sister Judith, however, with no discernible appetite for mountaineering, was nonetheless aggrieved that her brother was being gifted with a trip to Africa that she was not, and so she insisted on coming along too. The third member was a friend of Scott’s, Jake Mulder, 11-years old, who was granted the great gift by his father of being allowed to accompany us.
Machame Route starts at about 8,000ft, concluding several hours later at Machame Camp at about 10,000ft, and so almost from the onset one is coping with uncomfortable altitude. And the first thing that tends to diminish is appetite, and my first challenge was to put it across to the younger two that the increasing demands of physical output would have to be sustained by some level of nutrient input, and so subsisting on Milo and popcorn, which was all they seemed to want to eat, was hardly a a viable option.
The second problem was bringing it home to them the importance of hygiene. The reality of Kilimanjaro, as with many high mountains, is that it supports higher numbers than the established camps can reasonably handle, and so the standard of hygiene is generally poor. The camps, with an unfair wind, smell bad, and dirty fingers in mouths will always be an open invitation for a stomach bug.
And indeed that is precisely what took place. Jake began throwing-up on the second morning, departing from Shira 1 Camp towards Barranco Camp, and soon he had emptied his stomach and was simply vomiting stomach acids. He stumbled on gamely for a mile or more until quite clearly he could go no further.
What followed was a moment of difficult decision, because to call up a stretcher mean mean a journey down the mountain, but yet I had a sense that if he could rest for the afternoon and the evening there would be every chance that he would have recovered by morning. We tried a few strategies like a fireman’s hold and suchlike, but eventually two of the assistant guides agreed to piggyback him in relays the seven or eight miles remaining to Barranco Camp. When the main group arrived a few hours later he was in a deep sleep, and thus he remained until the following morning.
Although a little weak, and somewhat chastened, Jake greeted the next morning with cautious optimism, but was quickly back on his feet, and soon afterwards scaling the Barranco Wall with quite surprising vigor.
Both boys thereafter made it to the summit fairly easily, although the issue of forcing them eat, which grew more challenging as the altitude increased, remained the fundamental issue. The kids all had their highs and their lows, and in turn each challenged me considerably over the question of eating, and some rather tense moments ensued. But it was an issue that could not be compromised over. Low energy, depression, anxiety and a lack of motivation are all the symptoms of poor nutrient input, which in turn makes it more difficult to force the matter and get unhappy children to eat.
The midnight summit is never easy, but on the appointed day, at Barafu Camp located at upwards of 5000ft, everyone was present at muster, and the slow trudge, pole-pole, up the side of the mountain began.
All of the kids again experienced highs and lows, lurching from freezing to overheating, from energized to nausea, with Judith eventually displaying the first signs of genuine stress. As the sun began to rise her steps were dwindling, occasionally requiring support, but winding down eventually, within sight of Stella Point, to a point where she could simply not continue. After a short infusion of oxygen she was escorted down, and that was the end of her summit attempt.
In fairness she had not taken the matter seriously from the onset, making no preparations and treating the whole adventure rather casually, and for that she paid the price. But perhaps the most important conclusion was the fact that she determined that she would never set foot on another high mountain again, and that is quite a fair decision for a person to make.
From that point, however, the two boys continued on to the summit with relative ease. All had been on Diamox, and during the last run from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak, it was really as if they were walking to school.
Ultimately the food issue was solved with regular and light snacking, but getting kids to eat enough above 12,000ft will be what I will remember as the chief challenge of this expedition.
A few weeks later, back at school, the kudos and respect gained for what was without doubt a worthwhile achievement somewhat eclipsed the memories of struggle and difficulty. This is how it should always be, with the memory settling, purged of any negativity, and now simply something that will remain a source of pride for the remainder of all of their lives.
If you have any questions about my experience of climbing Kilimanjaro with younger climbers and kids, please feel free to drop me a line.