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Richard Byerley

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84-Year-old Attempts Record Kilimanjaro Climb

Posted: 01/10/11 01:00

Richard Byerley is an 84-year-old American seeking to earn a spot in Guinness World Records™ as the oldest person to summit Mount Kilimanjaro on foot. Kilimanjaro, in northeastern Tanzania, is Africa's highest peak at 19,340 feet (5,895 meters). Byerley makes his attempt in October through a travel company called Adventures Within Reach. If he succeeds, he'll beat the current Guinness World Records™ holder: British retired professor George Solt, who earned the title in 2010 at age 82.

Richard Byerley as told to Karen Goodwin, a freelance travel writer based in Boulder, Colorado.

Maybe it's because I know five or six people who have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, including my wife Beth, who summited 30 years ago. Or maybe it's just because it's there?

But here I am, at age 84, about to climb Kilimanjaro. They tell me that if I make it, I'll be the oldest person to do so, and I'll be entered into the Guinness World Records. That will be something to tell the great grandkids someday, I suppose. I already have four children and nine grandchildren.

We're alfalfa farmers in Walla Walla, Washington, but we also spend a lot of time in our home near Sun Valley, Idaho. You should know that people who live in Sun Valley are very active and well traveled. You probably have a pre-conceived notion about the health and weight of the average American, but I can tell you that people in Sun Valley don't fit that mould. People here do adventurous things all the time, like hike all summer and ski all winter. Our family has done these things our whole lives.

It hasn't always been that way. My father lived to age 96, but he fizzled out by the time he was 60. My mother died in her 70s. I learned by their example not to live that way.

People have been really excited about my climb, and many have offered the same advice: go slow. I'll be traveling with two of my grandkids, Annie, who is 29, and Bren, who is 24. They're very active, but I'm starting to wonder if they have enough leg strength to make it down. Annie does ski patrol in Sun Valley, and Bren is on the best Frisbee team in Seattle. They're hale and hearty. It sure helps being young.

In early summer my wife Beth and I bicycled a lot, but now we've been hiking most every day, between four and seven hours and between 6,000 and 10,000 feet. That's been most of my training. I only take a daypack because that's all I'll be carrying up Kilimanjaro.

I'm taking the Machame route up Kili, which will take six days. Robin Paschall, who booked my trip, says this route has the best success rate. I bought this trip at a charity auction in Sun Valley, and I didn't even know that I'd be the oldest person to make it until Robin told me. She's sent a lot of people up Kilimanjaro through her company Adventures Within Reach, and she's summited twice herself, along with her husband. The process to document the climb with Guinness was so mind boggling that Robin said just go and have fun, she'd take care of all that, too. She couldn't be more helpful.

We'll be camping along the route, but we'll have plenty of help. This is the deluxe trip, so each guest is assigned three porters, who are like sherpas. They're all young men. So we'll have at least nine porters carrying things like food, water and even portable toilets and showers. I can't quite picture it.

I reckon the bigger challenge will be going up. I'm less concerned about coming down. A lot of people get altitude sickness at around 12,000 feet. When my wife did it, there were 13 people in her group and only two made it to the top, including her. Kilimanjaro's summit is at 19,340 feet.

On the third day we'll climb from 12,600 feet climb to nearly 16,000 feet and then back down to 12,600 feet to help acclimatise to the altitude. But on the fifth day--the day you summit--you have to walk 18 miles, ascending 4,000 feet and descending nearly 9,000 feet to a campsite. That will be one long day. You camp at about 15,000 feet and get up at around 2 a.m. and climb that last 4,000 feet to watch the sun rise on Kilimanjaro. I hope it's not cloudy. It's real cold up there, so people don't stick around long.

The descent from the summit to the campsite is arduous and lengthy, and much of it is scree, or loose rock. You have to wear gaiters to keep the rocks out of your shoes.
I'll keep pushing along, as long as I don't get sick. If they tell me to go back, I'll do it. It's not worth risking my life. Altitude sickness can be fatal. My wife said that some people got goofy on her trip--liquid gets in the brain, and you get real disoriented. I'm told that oxygen will be available, so we'll see if it comes to that. Right now I don't anticipate needing it.

Not long ago, I climbed Mount Whitney in California, which is the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states at 14,495 feet. I found that I had to slow down for the last 500 feet, so I did.

My wife says the glaciers on top of Kilimanjaro were really thick and big when she climbed it 30 years ago. It will be interesting to see how much snow is left up there now.

I feel good about my trip. If I make it, I guess it might make senior citizens look good. And who knows, maybe I'll get some credit just for trying. If you are active and stay active, you can aim high. Even at my age.