Kilimanjaro hike was fruitful, even though goal was missed, men say

Altitude sickness halted their climb

Morehouse College President David A. Thomas and businessman C. David Moody Jr. fell short of their goal of reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, but the men say they did not return empty handed.

Both of the 66-year-old grandfathers were victims of altitude sickness and each had to turn back at various elevations.

Altitude sickness can affect people if they walk or climb to a higher elevation too quickly or without acclimating.

Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is Africa’s highest peak at 19,341 feet above sea level.

“I learned so much about myself, found a new level of toughness existed in me mentally, spiritually, emotionally and physically,” wrote Moody in a series of text messages sent to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after he returned to base camp.

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Moody was able to make it to 15,380 feet before his oxygen level dropped. He said he cried when his guide said it was too risky to continue.

Moody said although he did not summit Kilimanjaro, he is at peace.

Altitude sickness also forced Thomas to turn back after getting to 11,500 feet. He said he left the mountain on the third day of the scheduled eight-day hike.

Dr. Genevieve Hillis, an emergency medicine physician at UCHealth and a member of the clinical faculty at University of Colorado School of Medicine climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 2019.

“It was strenuous and a lot of climbing,” she said.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Hillis said anyone not used to high elevations can suffer altitude sickness.

“Physical shape doesn’t matter,” she said. “Olympic athletes will get altitude sickness if they don’t spend time acclimatizing correctly. Start low and go slow is a good rule of thumb.”

In milder cases, a person might experience headaches, dizziness, nausea and other flu-like symptoms. In extreme cases it can lead to death from brain swelling, seizures, and pulmonary (lung) edema.

She said people usually don’t experience altitude sickness until that person reaches at least 8,000 feet above sea level or in some cases at 6,500 feet. At those higher elevations, the air is thinner, which causes leakage of water in the tissue, brain and lungs.

As people climb higher, their breathing becomes faster and they urinate more as the body tries to compensate for the low oxygen, said Hillis, who did a fellowship in Austere and Wilderness Medicine while she was still active duty in the army in Augusta and working at the Medical College of Georgia.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Thomas texted that the altitude sickness hit him hard and quickly. Today, he said, he feels good although there are still some lingering aches.

When he first viewed Kilimanjaro, Thomas said he was inspired. “This is a place God made,” Thomas texted.

“I did not reach the top, but I had a lofty goal and was willing to risk failure to pursue it,” Thomas said.

The trip strengthened the bond between the two men. Moody serves on Morehouse’s board.

The trek became one of healing for Moody, who shared publicly in 2013 that he was sexually abused as a child. Moody completed all eight days of the hike, but readily admits it was hard.

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“These were the toughest eight days of my life,” he said. “Every day was a new adventure, a new height.” He said the trails were not like the hiking trails he’s used to. There were a lot of loose rocks and in some places he described it as like scaling a wall.

He watched three emergency helicopter evacuations and said he nearly quit on the fourth day.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Thomas’s son, David Thomas Jr., who lives in Los Angeles, said his father’s journey was an inspiration.

The younger Thomas, whose goal is to climb the tallest volcano on each continent, said he was also hit with altitude sickness when he attempted to climb Pico de Orizaba in Mexico, which has an elevation of more than 18,000 feet above sea level.

“This really was an accomplishment,” said David Thomas Jr. of his father’s effort.

When asked if he would attempt the hike again, at first Moody said no, then after a few seconds of thought added “Yeah, I’d try it again.”

For now, though, he was waiting for his wife, Karla, to arrive from Atlanta. The two plans to celebrate their 40th anniversary on safari.

Moody is already planning his next adventure.

He and his wife talked about doing the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, also known as the Way of St. James, next year. Thousands of people walk or cycle among various routes to pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

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