Local dads climb Kilimanjaro with tales from the top

The group and their guides after the climb.
The group and their guides after the climb.

By Emily DeRuy


Call it a midlife crisis or an exhausting way to support a good cause. Or call it a chance to push yourself to the limit. However you categorize it, on the morning of Oct. 10, nine local dads reached the summit of the world’s tallest freestanding mountain – Kilimanjaro in northeastern Tanzania.

John Spence, owner of Aardvark Safaris in Solana Beach, has been successfully organizing customers’ Mt. Kilimanjaro adventures for years, but until recently, he had never climbed the mountain himself.

“I’ve been to Africa countless times,” said Spence. “But I kept getting asked about Kilimanjaro and I suddenly realized I better go and do it.”

After running offices in the United Kingdom for 11 years, Spence expanded the business stateside, opening the Solana Beach location 18 months ago. He brought his family to California and enrolled his children in Del Mar Hills Academy, where his wife met Obie Roy, another local parent. She mentioned her husband’s plan to tackle Kilimanjaro to him and the idea for a group trek up the mountain was born.

Roy, who had just turned 40 and was looking to do something different, contacted a group of friends and fellow parents inviting them to participate.

“I sent an e-mail expecting no one to respond, but gradually people did and they were really excited about it,” said Roy.

The group, a collection of business executives and professionals, eagerly purchased climbing gear and prepared for the trip to Africa. A few of the men organized fundraising efforts to give the journey a philanthropic side. Hal Dunning raised $21,441 in support of Day for Change, a local nonprofit that aids abused and disadvantaged children. Spence raised money to fund the tuition of a Masai man or woman to study tourism and conservation at Kenya’s Koiyaki Guiding School.

In early October, the group began their adventure with a tour of Kenya’s renowned Masai Mara Game Reserve, timed to coincide with the annual migration of animals from the Masai Mara to the Serengeti.

“There were wildebeest everywhere. I mean, I’ve been to the zoo and everything, but this was crazy,” said Roy. “As the wildebeest went, the lions followed, eating the wildebeest. Then the hyenas and the vultures followed them. We saw leopards and giraffes and warthogs.”

After three days in the Masai Mara, the nine hikers flew to Arusha, Tanzania to begin their ascent of the 19,341 foot peak. Assisted by 43 guides, porters and cooks, the men spent seven days hiking, first through rainforests and mild weather, up through dry landscapes, finally reaching glaciers and frigid temperatures below zero degrees Fahrenheit. They progressed slowly, combating altitude sickness as they climbed.

“Technically, it’s not a hard climb, but it’s nearly 20,000 feet,” said Spence. “By day 3, people were showing signs of altitude sickness. By the last day, just packing our bags was difficult. A lot of us have run marathons and we all commented that it’s just as hard as a marathon.”

Evenings were spent on the mountainside, eating meals that included courses like ginger soup and pasta prepared by their chefs and served in a mess tent. The men slept in separate tents, waking in the middle of the night to continue their ascent.

“We would leave at 2 a.m., hiking with headlamps. I’ve never seen such brilliant stars. We were above the clouds. It was an indescribable feeling … feeling those first rays from the sun. It was the color of fire, just incredible,” recalled Roy.

On the fifth day, all nine climbers reached the summit in their first bid to climb Kilimanjaro.

At the top, one of their guides hacked off a piece of glacial ice. Two days later, after the group had safely descended the mountain, he made the men gin and tonics with the ice from the summit.

“Mentally, it was so hard,” said Roy. “The last 300 feet took an hour, but all nine of us made it to the top.”



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