CrossFit South Rockland

Thursday, March 17, 2011

No mountain high enough

February 12, 2011
No mountain high enough
Charleston man with 1 arm, 1 leg conquers Kilimanjaro
Courtesy photo
Wearing his Flying WV ball cap, Charleston resident Doug Maxwell takes a break after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa and the largest freestanding mountain in the world. Maxwell lost his left arm and right leg in a childhood accident.

Courtesy photo
Local porters carried much of the climbing group's gear on their heads, not even flinching as they walked up some of the treacherous, rocky trails on the mountain.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Doug Maxwell wanted to conquer the mountain before he was too old.
"I was confident that my spirit was willing," he said, "but the flesh can be weak and spongy sometimes."

Maxwell knows about that: When he was 10 years old, he was climbing a tree and, he said, "got tangled up in a power line, is the general way to explain it."

The electricity from the line surged through his body, sending Maxwell to a Pittsburgh hospital for a couple of months. He lost his left arm at the shoulder and his right leg right below the knee.

But that hasn't stopped him from enjoying the outdoors, even though his journeys are a little harder than the average climber's.

The Charleston resident went to Tanzania last month for a seven-day trek to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro -- at 19,341 feet high, it's the tallest peak in Africa and the largest freestanding mountain in the world.

Maxwell, 40, joins the ranks of thousands of other experienced climbers who have tackled the mountain's summit and looked out over eastern Africa from a truly bird's-eye view.

Part of the game of life, as Maxwell sees it, is putting one's self out there.

"I don't want to say I climbed it just because it was there, but I thought, 'This is something I can do,'" he said. "I was seeing if the body I was born with or the body I purchased recently could actually hold up to what I wanted to do."

It did.

Can I do this?

Maxwell has always had a flair for outdoor adventure, skiing when he was younger and scaling Coopers Rock when he lived near Morgantown. He's shouldered heavy loads, when he played a sousaphone -- a 40-pound brass instrument -- in West Virginia University's marching band.

All that helped him train for his Kilimanjaro climb.

"I do about 70, 80 percent of my balancing and turning on my left foot, so my leg strength is really good, and my lower back strength, too," he said. "My muscles have developed differently [because I've had to adapt]."

At first, Maxwell didn't tell anyone he was thinking about the climb because he didn't know, from a medical standpoint or from "the bolts-breaking-in-my-leg standpoint," if he could do it.

He forged ahead with his training, though, setting up a walking route on Bridge Road with his heavy pack. Then a friend turned him on to CrossFit, a core strength and conditioning program.

"As time went on during the summer, I started to feel more confident that I could do it," he said. It was at that point that he went to Florida and got a new socket built for his leg.

Maxwell trained on and off from May to January, taking a few weeks off here and there when his freelance cinematography and photography work took him out of town.

He signed up for a seven-day tour with Alpine Ascent, a tour group out of Seattle. The tour, which cost him about $7,000, not including gear, took a seven-day route up the mountain on the Machame, or Whiskey Route, and included a four-day safari in the Serengeti at the end.

He did a lot of research before he chose his path.

"You look for the most challenging thing ... with the least amount of possibility of a painful death," Maxwell said with a smile. "I didn't feel like I had signed up for more than I bargained for, but there could be danger."

Maxwell embarked with 14 other travelers, a handful of guides and about 75 local porters -- residents who helped maintain camps along the way and carried the group's extra gear, mainly on their heads.

But even though there were about 100 people traveling with him, he had a lot of time alone -- including his favorite part of the journey, the Moorland, where climbers push through the cloud line.

"The best way I can describe it is like something out of Middle Earth from the 'Lord of the Rings,' " he said. "It has an otherworldly feel."

A local guide, Mark, was assigned to Maxwell because some of the terrain in the downhill spots was just too difficult for him.

"I can walk on the balls of my feet all day, but the step-downs and the uneven terrain on my artificial leg got to be rather rough," he said.

Because of that, Maxwell could be two hours behind the rest of the group getting into camp and his guide could sometimes be 50 to 75 feet behind him. At times, "it seemed like it was just me walking through the fog in this strange terrain. It's totally surreal."

Throughout the journey, he stayed away from outside distractions, like his iPod.

"Some Steely Dan would have made the time go by faster," he said with a chuckle, "but just to hear the wind and the rocks crunching under our feet and the streams trickling down, the full sensory overload of the colors and smells ... was such a palate of new experiences."

Tackling the summit

On summit day, Maxwell started his climb at about 11 p.m., and made it to Stella Point -- about three-quarters of a mile below Uhuru Peak, the mountain's pinnacle -- eight hours later. In another hour, he was standing at the top.

He was having a bout of acid reflux on summit day, and thought about going to his tent and sleeping, but "I knew I'd never forgive myself if I didn't do it."

The journey, which took about eight hours, was grueling.

"You're at about 40 percent of the oxygen you have here in Charleston," Maxwell said. "You take a step, then you take a deep breath."

After the days-long journey, Maxwell and the rest of the group spent about a half-hour at the top.

"It seems like a lot of build up for a half-hour, then to climb back down," he said, "but it's more about the process of getting there, as opposed to actually just being there."

Maxwell said the longer route contributed to the success of the climbers in his group. "The faster you climb, depending on your health, sometimes the worse off you are."

Because of the seven-day journey, his group spent a few extra days doing peaks and routes in the 10,000- to 13,000-feet range.

"The time at that altitude helps you adapt more, so when you get higher, you're better adjusted," he said. "I was definitely winded at the summit, but I didn't have headaches [from altitude sickness]."

Now that he's back on lower ground, would he ever do it again?

"When I first got off the mountain, I was saying no way," he said, "But now, the farther I get away from that day, it's a little more appealing. Never say never."

Maxwell said he feels blessed with the hand he has been dealt and the fact that he still has one arm and one leg.

"I can work on my old '57 Chevy and I can climb mountains and I can play the guitar -- not very well, of course," he said.

"Part of it is: I may not be the best at everything, but the idea of just participating and being able to do things, even if it's more of a struggle, I can say I was in the game. It's sort of my philosophy."

Reach Kathryn Gregory at or 304-348-5119.

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