When Chris Waddell began his ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro he expected to become the first paraplegic to climb the 19,340-foot mountain unassisted. He planned to summit on his 41st birthday and to gather footage to create a documentary film of his adventure to help break down the barriers between able-bodied and people with disabilities and show what is possible. While he missed summitting on his birthday, and required assistance for a very short stretch of the upper mountain, he came to a new realization about the barriers he had created in his own life.
“I climbed the vast majority under my own power but I realize now that to even remotely think of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro unassisted is ridiculous,” Chris said from his home in Park City, Utah.
Chris began his ascent of the tallest freestanding mountain in the world on September 24, accompanied by his team of climbers, porters, and a camera crew. Tajiri, a former porter who had lost his leg in a rockslide while climbing in Mt. Kilimanjaro 2006, was once again climbing the mountain with the new prosthesis Chris’s One Revolution Foundation had given him.
The first few days went as planned as Chris cycled up to 10 hours a day with his custom-made, 36-gear hand cycle known as “Bomba.” On day five, he reached 18,000 feet and despite not summitting that day as planned, he considers it his greatest day on the mountain.
“I pedaled all day long, climbed 2,000 vertical feet, and didn’t fatigue,” he says. “It amazed me.”
To make it up the scree field below Gillman’s Point—a spot on the rim of the mountain’s volcanic crater at 18,638 feet that for some is accepted as a successful climb—Chris used a winch that allowed him to climb a fixed rope. To stay motivated, he counted pedal strokes, and when he tired of that, he focused on individual rocks that were 10 to 12 feet away. It took hours to climb the approximately 200-foot rope.
“Sometimes I wondered if I could make it 20 feet,” he said. “I was going so ridiculously slow and thought that this must be what it is like to drown within reach of shore.”
At that point Chris encountered an unexpected obstacle to summitting solely under his own power—a boulder field that turned out to be insurmountable without assistance. Chris finally had to admit that despite two years of preparation he couldn’t climb the entire mountain unassisted with his current system.
“I felt conflicted,” says Chris, who had kept a single-minded focus to climb the entire 29.2-mile trail under his own power. “I had done so much work and yet I faced something completely impassable. It was a difficult decision.”
In deciding to ask for help, Chris began to learn what the mountain had to teach him.
“It’s challenging for me to ask for help, partly in reaction to the injury and partly due to the disability,” says Chris, who broke his back in a ski accident when he was 20 years old and became the most decorated male skier in Paralympic history. “You don’t want to seem needy.”
On September 30, after pedaling over approximately 500,000 revolutions, Chris shifted out of first gear for the first time in three days and pedaled easily the few hundred yards to the summit. Tajiri summited for the second time in two days, becoming the first Tanzanian leg amputee to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro.
“Tajiri seemed a lot more confident than I’d seen him before,” Chris says. “Seeing him become whole again was amazing.”
Chris now has a new perspective on climbing mountains, both literally and figuratively.
“Part of the reason you climb a mountain is to learn something you wouldn’t have learned otherwise,” he says. “Now I realize that focusing on being independent is another way of drawing a wedge between you and the people around you. The glory of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro was really a collective team effort.”