Centralia Climber Summits Mount Kilimanjaro on Thanksgiving

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Neal Kirby, who worked previously as the principal at Edison Elementary School and Centralia Middle School, has made it to the top of Mount Rainier five times in his sixties. But that hasn’t been enough to satiate the thrill-seeker.

On Thanksgiving day, Kirby, 69, summited Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa and the fourth most topographically prominent peak in the world. Rainier is the 21st most topographically prominent.

Summiting Kilimanjaro, he said in an email, is a seven-day adventure presenting unique challenges unlike the glaciers of Washington.

“There are seven camps on the route, which cuts through jungle, where we heard monkeys in the brush, to barren desert in the higher elevations,” Kirby said.

He went with two friends from the Seattle area and made the trip with 15 hired guides, porters and a cook, who carry the equipment and food for camping and up to 35 pounds of each climber’s personal supplies.

“We eat in a mess tent and have a portable toilet. Much of this is required by the government as a make work program, but it’s also very convenient,” he said.

There was very little snow accumulation and the climb was mostly on bare rock until turning to gravel higher up. Base camp for the summit is at 16,000 feet, which is 1,600 feet higher than Mount Rainier, leaving 3,300 feet for the final summit push.

On the night before Thanksgiving, Kirby’s group began at 11 p.m. with four layers of clothes, down jackets and backpacks. A guide carried emergency gear and oxygen for anyone suffering from altitude sickness, the effects of which range from a mild upset stomach all the way to cerebral or pulmonary edema. In the event of an emergency, the only solution is rapid descent. Helicopters cannot make it to the highest elevations of the peak. 

The climb is a long, steep foot slog, Kirby said. There are some glaciers, but they are never crossed. Some portions of the route involved low-level rock climbing skills.

“The biggest challenge is breathing. As you get higher, oxygen gets thinner until at the top, oxygen is half what it is at sea level. While the climb can be done in less time, the seven day route is designed in part to acclimate with a couple of days up and down as well as covering distance,” he said.

When they finally reached the summit at 19,340 feet — over twice the height of Mount St. Helens — it was about 15 degrees, sunny and clear.