Conquering Kilimanjaro a Rare Journey for a Phoenix Father and Son

Posted By Mike Padgett

Oct. 19, 2009

PHOENIX, Ariz. – A Phoenix teenager who trekked into the international mountain climbing history books a few months ago is considering hiking the Grand Canyon. Or joining the annual swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco.

Whatever Max Ashton, 13, decides to do next, it will be difficult to top the heights he reached in late June when he became the youngest blind climber to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.

That’s because not only did Max reach the summit, he immediately retraced his final 100 yards to the top of the 19,340-foot mountain to help his father complete the journey with him.

“Greatest moment of my life,” is what Max says about the trip.

Max suffered a pounding headache from the high altitude during the climb, as did others. Breathing was a challenge for everyone, says his father Marc Ashton, 43, executive director of the Foundation for Blind Children in Phoenix.

Max was among the first in the Phoenix group of 25 climbers, eight of whom are blind, to reach the top of the mountain. When he realized his father wasn’t with him at the summit, Max went back down the trail to reach him.

Reached summit together

Marc Ashton says he was at the rear of the group because he was struggling during that final leg of the climb. He could only walk 20 steps or so at a time, and then he had to sit down. At that altitude, he could barely breathe. Altitude sickness is deadly.

Max, after reaching the summit, walked back down the trail to his father. His encouragement helped Marc get to his feet. Together, taking small steps and power breathing because of the thin oxygen, the Ashtons completed the final 100 yards as a father-son team.

They touched the sign marking the summit. They hugged and shook hands. Ashton doesn’t mind being the last in the Phoenix group to reach the summit. Better him, he says, than one of the blind climbers.

The trip, while challenging, was an adventure. Six days up. A day and a half down. Along the way, like many climbers, the Ashtons got a little closer to discovering their personal limits.

The group stayed in touch with family and friends with a satellite phone loaned by P.F. Chang’s restaurants. One climber used his iPhone.

Team captain and organizer

Marc Ashton started organizing the trip and a training schedule in early 2008. He also helped raise funds for the expenses. He and others in the group ignored critics who said mountain climbing is risky for everyone, especially for people with visual impairment.

The team flew from Phoenix to Newark, N.J., then to Amsterdam and finally to Kilimanjaro International Airport. Luggage of two of the climbers arrived a day late. The Phoenix group was joined by several guides and the 68 porters who carried food, water, sleeping bags and other equipment for the climb.

The next day, the entire group walked through the Machame Trail gate. There are several gates, each one leading to different trails to the summit. Many blind climbers use a hiking stick in each hand. Others keep one hand on the backpack of their guide in front of them.

The climbers trekked through five climate zones. They experienced temperatures ranging from tropical to freezing. Eventually, the climbers found themselves sucking frigid air.

Like other climbers before them, the Phoenix hikers hugged the rock face on narrow ledge trails. The trail includes a place called “Kissing Rock,” so close do climbers have to stay to the mountain.

On one narrow trail, a climber heard someone drop a water bottle. Several seconds passed before the water bottle’s crash was heard.

Gasping for air

The blind climbers avoided danger by listening to their sighted guides, who were their eyes on the trip. The Phoenix guides told the blind climbers, ‘Don’t step left, don’t step right,’ or, ‘That’s a death drop.’ At the same time, the thin levels of oxygen near the summit made breathing difficult.

For much of the climb, Max had two sighted guides. One was Patrick McFarlan. McFarlan, now studying business administration at the University of Chicago, says he had to stop climbing for a few hours when he became sick. He was unable to eat or drink for about 40 hours. Later, McFarlan and his porters caught up with the rest of the group.

McFarlan says the final leg of the trek was the most strenuous. He could hike for 20 minutes, then he would collapse and sleep for 10.

Despite the challenges – the altitude, the cold, the sickness, dangerous trails and fatigue – team spirit kept the group going.

“You’re going on adrenaline,” McFarlan says. “You’re so motivated that it wasn’t hard. Motivation just overcame it all. Staying warm was hard. You were so cold, no matter how many layers you had on, you were just cold.”

Life-changing experience

Marc Ashton says as many as half of climbers who start the trek on Kilimanjaro drop out, for various reasons. But of the Phoenix group, all 25 members reached the summit.

“To get to the top was an extreme sense of satisfaction,” he says. “We accomplished what we came to do, and everyone made it. And we were able to share the top together as a team, which is very rare.”

Another reason for the trip was to show that the challenges of blindness can be overcome.

“We are trying to show everyone that regardless of disabilities, you can do anything,” Ashton says.

In a gesture of appreciation, the Ashtons gave their boots to their porters. Some of the porters wore tennis shoes.

McFarlan says his experiences changed him. He says he often catches himself doing everyday tasks, wondering how they would be performed by someone with a visual impairment.

“I definitely learned that motivation can overcome all obstacles,” McFarlan says. “Looking back and seeing videos on it (the Kilimanjaro trip), it’s still awe-inspiring for me to think that blind individuals did that.”

Son and father summit together

McFarlan adds that he will never forget watching Max help his father. McFarlan, after he and Max reached the summit, watched Max go back down the trail.

“He went back because his father was struggling,” McFarlan says. “His dad was the last one to reach us. And he want back to walk up with his dad.”

Equally impressed was the Phoenix group’s guide, Nickson Moshi of Masai Giraffe Safaris in Arusha, Tanzania. Moshi, in an e-mail response, says that of the hundreds of groups he has guided to the top of Kilimanjaro, the Phoenix group was among the most inspirational.

“This climb is challenging for even the most trained and experienced climbers,” Moshi says. “These special climbers have an additional challenge in each step they take up the mountain.

“I am so impressed with their strength and so inspired by the courage they showed each day,” Moshi says. “I feel that if these young people can conquer Kilimanjaro the way they did, they can accomplish just about anything they want to do in the future.”

Max adds: “I still can’t believe I did this, no matter how long I trained and how much effort I put into it. “Every time I think about it, it’s still kind of amazing to me.”

A glimpse of the Phoenix group’s climb is available on the Internet at www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZvBe9Z00LU.

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Oct 19th, 2009

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