Spencer West: Man with no legs reaches summit of Mount Kilimanjaro
Spencer West woke up at 4:30 a.m. Monday to begin climbing toward the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. He moved steadily, but slowly, hand over hand along the rocky path. Near exhaustion, he reached the top at 11:15 a.m. and collapsed.
Unlike other mountains, such as the deadly Mt. Everest, which must be climbed, the 5,895-metre-high Tanzanian mountain can be hiked. And, unlike other hikers, West reached the summit without legs.
“It was bittersweet and incredible to finally make it after all the hardships we went through to get there,” said West, 31, on a satellite phone from Kibo Hut, about 1,000 metres from the summit. “I would say it was humbling, beautifully overwhelming.”
The trek took seven days, taking the Toronto-based West and his best friends, David Johnson and Alex Meers, through various microclimates that included jungles, snowfields and a desolate stretch known as the lunar desert.
West said he was on his hands for about 80 per cent of the trek, leaving them beat up, despite a pair of gloves.
When the terrain allowed, West hopped in his custom-made wheelchair. When desperate, he hopped on the back of porters. The team consisted of 50 people, many of them porters, plus Paul DeAngelis, who owns Mountain Climbing Adventures in Oakville, and two videographers documenting the trip.
West was born with sacral agenesis, a birth defect that left his lower spine poorly developed and his legs permanently crossed, as if he was seated. Doctors recommended amputation, and took off his legs at the knees when he was only 3 years old. He needed further surgery at 5, which is when his legs were amputated below his pelvis.
“Doctors told us when he was a baby that he would never do much with his life,” said his mother, Tonette, from Wyoming, where West grew up. “They said he should stick to activities like reading and writing.”
But West’s parents didn’t let that sort of talk filter down to their boy. That, coupled with a strong stubborn streak he inherited from his father, allowed him to flourish. He moves his 2-foot-7 body with ease, using his hands as feet.
He and his friends trained with a personal trainer for a year, climbing hills around Toronto and working on strength and core conditioning at the YMCA.
The reason for the trip is two-fold. One, to inspire others to achieve the impossible, a campaign called Redefine Possible. Two, he is trying to raise $750,000 — he’s raised $500,000 already — to build a clean water program for nearly 20,000 Kenyans with Free the Children.
Despite the placid terrain compared to other climbing meccas such as Everest, which took the life of Shriya Shah-Klorfine, of Toronto, last month, Kilimanjaro remains deadly. About 10 trekkers die each year on the mountain and 1,000 need to be evacuated annually.
Up to 35,000 people try to climb Kilimanjaro each year, but only half reach the summit. Much of the danger is due to altitude sickness, a slight case of which befell West’s two friends who suffered terrible headaches, nausea and fatigue. West was fine, albeit drained.
But with medicine and rest, the duo recovered to push on the next day.
“We were nervous we wouldn’t make it to the top, especially after my friends got sick,” said West, who is also a motivational speaker with Me to We. “But that’s why the three of us came, to help each other.
“We leaned on each, literally, to get to the top.”