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Unconquered by Kilimanjaro, Part 2: Kilimanjaro Climb for a Cause

Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, makes its way on to many bucket lists. After Retired Army Specialist Scott West lost his legs in Iraq, the feat seemed like a meaningful challenge to overcome. Early in his recovery at Walter Reed, he attended an inspirational film event for injured veterans.

“I looked up at the screen and it was about a Marine—single amputee—that climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I said ‘well, ha, if a Marine can do it, an Army guy can definitely do it, and I’m going to beat him because I’m a double amputee,’” West laughed. “So that was just always in the back of my head.”

 

SDIA Kilimanjaro Climb - 2021. Photo by Jeremy Lock

 

Between recovery, rehab and the other challenges West faced over the years following his service, that dream may have remained just that, a dream and nothing more. In fact, even after becoming Outdoor Adventure Coordinator at Sheep Dog Impact Assistance, a nonprofit specializing in serving military veterans and first responders, that particular achievement eluded him.

West had even brought up the idea with SDIA Founder Lance Nutt and a few other colleagues before. Enthusiastically, they had gone down the path of planning a private Kilimanjaro trip together, but the price tag was too high, and it was dropped.

Read Part I, Understanding the War at Home(Se abre en una ventana nueva)

Still, West hung onto the idea in the back of his mind until, in 2019, he was invited as a special guest to the Honoring of Heroes Veterans Gala, hosted by a local business owner and Army combat veteran, Joe Donaldson.

The event was organized as a fundraiser benefitting SDIA alongside two other veteran support organizations. During the event, West was asked to speak and, while sharing his story, mentioned his desire to conquer Kilimanjaro someday.

Something about it struck Donaldson, and shortly afterward he approached SDIA with an idea.

“He came to [Nutt] and myself and said, ‘I would like to sponsor 10 veterans to climb Mount Kilimanjaro,’” West remembers. “And, of course, I’m almost in tears.”

 

SDIA Kilimanjaro Climb 2021. Pictured left to right: Noah Galloway, Sebastian Gallegos, Travis Strong and Scott West. Photo by Jeremy Lock

 

To be offered the opportunity to climb Kilimanjaro, without taking on the financial burden to do so, felt like a godsend to West. It was an incredible gift to be given, and the SDIA team began working with Donaldson on a plan for a 2020 trip.

Of course, COVID19 was in full swing by the time they were meant to travel, so, optimistically they marked their calendars for 2021. The added time turned out to be a blessing, offering up more time to plan and train. As the year carried on, Donaldson decided he wanted to have more of an impact and offered up five more slots on the expedition.

“You hear people talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk very often,” said Nutt. “Well, Joe is that guy. You knew if he said he’d make it happen, he was going to do whatever he could. And he did.”

 

Day 1

The team arrived in Tanzania, at last, on August 2nd. Regrettably, Donaldson and his wife, Larra, were back in the U.S. despite planning on climbing as part of the team. Donaldson had tested positive for COVID19, asymptomatically, right before the trip and the two stayed behind. Nonetheless, with two days to acclimate, hydrate and recover from the jet lag, the rest of the climbers began looking to the journey ahead, knowing the Donaldsons were still cheering them on. Spirits were high, even as Nutt began feeling a little unwell himself. Chalking it up to travel weariness, he focused on hydrating and prepping the team for the days ahead.

“We were all a little nervous—I mean, it’s a new journey, it’s going to be a challenge—but we were also excited,” Nutt remembers. “Some of us had been planning for two years, and we were working our way towards achieving a goal that we’d started to question if it was ever going to happen. We’re not getting any younger, and we’d spent a lot of time getting ready.”

They’d begin on their third day in Africa, climbing aboard a bus from their hotel in Moshi to Londorossi Gate for final registration and the beginning of their trek. By 4:00 p.m., they began their 42-mile trek. “It’s interesting because the route that we were on ... for the first day and a half is actually in rainforest,” Jackson recalled. The group travelled along a dirt path through lush tropical jungle, joined by Colobus Monkeys in the trees as they knocked out the first 1,756 feet of their ascent to the summit. Bound by camaraderie and the military training they shared, the group loosely stayed together, getting a feel for the pace and terrain. It was time for their preparation to pay off, especially for the three amputees missing legs. Galloway’s one prosthetic leg, and West’s two, served them well while Strong used his arms and hands to crawl, swing and shuffle his torso along the four miles of relatively smooth trail between them and camp. Day one is typically a four-hour journey, but it took roughly four and a half hours for West and Nimmo to roll into camp at Mti Mkaubwa ahead of the rest of the group. Still, considering the group’s amputees, it was a good time and West was feeling encouraged. “I was just so excited, I’m pumped,” West recalls. “I think it was just the adrenaline that got me through that first day.” It would be another two hours or so for the last of the group to reach Mti Mkubwa, according to Nutt, whose own condition had worsened throughout the day. As soon as he got into camp he made his way to his tent and immediately fell asleep. The team woke him a short while later, got him a few bites of dinner to eat and let him get back to sleep. Day one of their expedition was at an end.

 

 

Day 2

“I visited with Travis the next morning,” Nutt said. “He felt good. He made a little bit better timing than he thought he would make—he was motivated.” By contrast, Nutt felt like death. His head was full, sinuses clogged, and slightly feverish. “But, when you look at Travis and Scott you’re like, ‘there’s no way I’m going to quit,’” said Nutt. Optimistic that the hiking would help Nutt sweat out whatever bug he had, the team launched into day two around 8:30 a.m., making their way up and out of the tropical mountain rainforest towards Shira Camp 1. The distance to Shira Camp 1 is only one mile longer than what they’d hiked the day before, with an extra 246 feet of elevation to climb, but as the jungle transitions to moorland the terrain became notably more challenging than the day before. On average, day two takes groups between five and six hours, roughly two hours longer than day one. The SDIA team would find it’d take much more than that for them. “The second day came and it was two and half times longer than the first day,” West said. “And it wasn’t so much brutal straight up—it was boulders the size of me that we’re sitting there climbing over. As double amputees, that’s not easy. I didn’t train for any of that stuff here.” Staying true to their principles—no man left behind—the team did their best to stay together as the day stretched on, with Nutt taking the lead to keep his body moving. “I trained a long time in the Marine Corps, you just put one foot in front of the other and you don’t think about it. You just go, go, go,” Nutt said. “But the whole time I was just thinking ‘Holy crap’, I don’t know how Travis is doing this.’ He was adamant—he wasn’t going to receive any help. He was going to do this whole climb by himself.” But as the trail threw obstacle after obstacle at the team, the hours began to take their toll and the team began to spread out. A group of porters pushed ahead to set camp. “We left several people back there, including some guides and some of the team, while the rest of us pushed forward to get in,” Jackson said. Time continued to drag on and, as the lead group finally approached the last ridge before camp, the sun began to set. “It became really concerning that evening—we had farther to go than we thought we did, but as we got up and crested the last ridge and began to go down into the crater, it began to freeze,” Jackson recalls. As they got into Shira Camp 1 at 11,500 feet elevation, they began to worry, not realizing how much space they had created between them and the amputees at the back. “This is not good. It’s not good for Scott, it’s not good for Noah,” Nutt remembers thinking. “The longer they’re standing on their prosthetics, the worse it gets. It doesn’t matter the distance as much as how long they’re on their feet.” Knowing that the men at the back were caught out in the dark and cold, the team at camp sent porters and gear back to try and help. Meanwhile, out on the trail, progress had been painfully slow and arduous. Resolved to stay together, West, Strong, Galloway and Nimmo stayed close and encouraged one another. SDIA Kilimanjaro Climb 2021 Travis Strong, followed by one of his porters. Strong was determined to complete the climb without prosthetics or physical assistance. Image via SDIA   “I felt like it was my duty to stay with the Scott’s and the Noah’s and Travis’s on the mountain,” Nimmo remembers. “I felt like I was in a leadership role on the mountain, I was not going leave anybody behind.” As 7:00 p.m. approached, however, it became clear that they’d need to begin changing their strategy. Up to this point, they moved at Strong’s pace while he battled the challenging terrain and obstacles without help, but it was taking much longer than anticipated. “We realized we had to do something different,” Nimmo remembers. He suggested that maybe Strong and West would need to be carried to camp in order to pick up the pace. “That’s where a lot of the shift happened and there was, you know, high emotions,” Nimmo explained. “Obviously, there were some people who had their ideas as to what should happen next, but ultimately you have to let someone like Travis play it out. You can’t tell the man to quit.” Thinking camp must be close, they finally decided to split up. Galloway and West began making headway at their own pace. By 10:00 p.m. the guides and porters back at camp were extremely concerned about the situation, gathering up cold weather gear and discussing whether the remaining men would have to sleep out on the trail. Word got back to them—Strong is not doing good. The porters set out with gear while the rest of the team at camp waited, uneasy. At last, a little after 10:30 p.m., West made it into camp, supported arm-in-arm by the porters. An hour or so later, Strong, who’d finally used up every ounce of fight he had to climb unassisted, came in on a makeshift litter, slung together by the porters. Even Galloway, who had previously been featured in Men’s Health and completed the Spartan Death Race, was struggling when he arrived to camp. Seeing the shape Galloway was in was discouraging. “I’m just sitting there thinking, ‘God help us,’” Nutt recalls. From the time they started the trail that morning, to the time that everyone was accounted for at camp, roughly 15 hours had passed.

 

 

Day 3

The next morning, Nutt awoke feeling even worse than the day before with a noticeable fever. He was restless and worried he might have COVID19, but after the day Strong had been through he felt determined to power through his own discomfort. He mustered his strength and began to get up. “As I’m crawling out of the tent, I realize that [Strong] is crying,” Nutt said. Nimmo and a couple of the other people on the team were at Strong’s side, telling him how much he’d already accomplished and trying to revive his spirits. “We woke up after that long journey that night, you know, and the first thing I did was went to Travis and I tried to plead with him,” Nimmo said. “And I’m trying to encourage him and telling him ‘hey brother, if you want to make it to the top, we will get you to the top. We will do everything within our power to get you to the top, but you’ve got to allow us to help you.” In that moment, however, Nutt realized that, even if he wasn’t admitting it, Strong needed to call it quits. “There’s nothing I can tell you to get you to appreciate what that warrior did, and he’s now sitting there talking about how he’s failed us. That could not be further from the truth,” Nutt said. “And so I had to go over there and sit with him and say your journey ends here. That was hard.” Strong had fought hard to get where he was, but coming down would ultimately be the most important decision and sacrifice he could make. But Nutt wouldn’t let him make that sacrifice alone. “It was hard from a standpoint of being the one who had to tell him—and also realizing that this means my journey is ending too. If he had kept going, I was going. But I also knew I had to quit for him, so he didn’t feel like he was alone,” Nutt said. “You don’t leave a man by himself . . . It was kind of a blessing in disguise, as much as I hate to f****** admit it. It was probably a good thing I was sick, because it was like, ‘Who else would I send back with him?’ It was good I was forced to make that decision for myself.” Feelings ran high at camp that morning, as Nutt gathered the team to share the news. It was difficult for them to see two of their brothers throw in the towel on this adventure. “It was emotional. I mean, all of us I think were crying at this point,” Nutt said. “I was already feeling guilty at every level because I wasn’t able to lead like I was there to do, I was so sick. The team knew it and understood, but it was hard.” “Travis was one of those people you wanted to see succeed in this whole thing, you know, specifically,” Jackson said. “So for him to do that and to see the heroic effort that that guy put out, even in just the two days that he was there, was unbelievable. For him to realize why [leaving] was absolutely the right call—it was very mature to do that. It saddened everybody, but I actually think it made all of us want to reach the peak even more.” With words of encouragement and gratitude, Nutt and Strong ended their journey there. For three challenging hours, the two made their way down the mountain, with Strong carried out on a litter. When they reached the bottom, Nutt was taken straight to the hospital where he’d spend the rest of the day getting treatment for his severe respiratory infection. Back on the mountain, the team launched their day towards Shira Camp 2 where they would spend the next night. As they packed up and began their day’s trek, the team could look up and see the summit of Kilimanjaro, offering some perspective to the long journey they still had ahead of them. Gaining modest elevation, the moorland became more sparse and the terrain became a little easier to navigate, if only slightly. “I’d like to be able to tell you that there was a flat piece of ground there, but there’s not,” Jackson says. “It was either up or down.” “That third day was a long day as well, but it started getting a little bit better,” West said. “It wasn’t so much inclined stuff, it was just long distances of very short up and then down and then up, and it was just making me so mad. You know, I’m supposed to be going up this mountain, not back down.” They’d gain a total of 1,100 feet that day, ending weary at Shira Camp 2 around 12,600 ft elevation. “Any other group that may have been going there would probably have been in around two or three o’clock in the afternoon, right? That’s the way it’s planned,” said Jackson. “We weren’t getting done until like eight o’clock or nine o’clock at night every night. You’re eating and then going straight to bed—nobody is getting the rest and recovery that they need, particularly the guys that had leg prosthetics.”

 

 

Day 4-6

August 7th brought in the fourth day of the team’s ascent. They awoke in camp below Lava Tower, a 300-foot-tall volcanic plug that juts, stark and black, above the sparse alpine desert. The climb to Lava Tower would be their steepest ascent of the trip thus far, pushing them to 15,190 feet in elevation before the trail drops back down to Barranco Camp where they’d spend their next night. The elevation proved taxing to the team as the air thinned and altitude sickness began taking its toll on some of the members, but panoramic views rewarded them before they began their steep journey back down in elevation toward their next camp. While, for most, downhill would’ve been a welcome respite from the steep climb, it only added a new difficulty for Galloway and West. “It was a long day and then we had to come all the way back down, and the going down part for the guys with prosthetics was really tough,” Jackson explains. “I mean, it’s just a lot of pressure going against something that’s not meant to have pressure on it.” That day they’d earn—and then lose—roughly 2,300 feet of elevation, making for a total of 4,600 feet of elevation change throughout the course of the day. They arrived at Barranco Camp late that evening. The night spent back down at 12,650 feet helped with critical acclimatization in preparation for their coming summit day. On day five, the team awoke at the foot of their next major challenge—the Barranco Wall—for which the camp is named. Left in the wake of a massive landslide, roughly 100,000 years ago, this steep cliff face is among the most challenging of the journey. Rising 843 feet, the narrow path cuts back and forth along a steep rock face. “At the beginning of [day five], literally you slept and woke up to this huge freaking wall. I mean, staring up you had to go straight up this wall to get up and continue to go, and that was brutal,” West said. The team carefully conquered the ascent and, having tackled it at the start of their day, got to the top feeling confident. “I remember getting to the top and they said ‘man, you’ve done the hardest thing of the day so far, and the rest of the day is just a breeze,” West remembered. “I thought that I felt so good that let’s skip camp five and go straight to camp six.” If they stuck with the original plan, they’d have a three-mile trek that day to Karanga Camp at roughly 13,100 feet elevation, but the push to Barafu, their final camp before summiting, is only two miles further from there. If they could stretch their day a little further, they’d get a full layover day to acclimate, rest and recuperate at Barafu Camp before their summit attempt. But Barafu Camp is another 2,200 feet up, give or take. At high elevation, gaining significant elevation over a mere two-mile stretch, their day stretched on—hiking clear thru into the evening. That layover day would be hard-earned, but they made it. “We started early that morning at eight o’clock and didn’t get in until 10:30 that night, so it was another 14-and-a-half-hour day for me,” West said. “But I got to rest for a full 24 hours. I got to wake up the next morning whenever I wanted, eat, rest.” At 15,331 feet, they rested and planned for their summit attempt the following day. It was clear they’d be up against two major factors on their final climb: elevation and pace. At 19,341 feet, Uhuru Peak pierces the sky. That extreme elevation makes the air extremely thin—about 49% as dense as at sea level—and temperatures dip well below freezing each night. The arctic conditions make it impossible to spend long at the summit, relishing the view, which is where pace becomes critical for a group like SDIA. “We wanted to make sure that we hit the peak at the same time,” West recalls. “There’s no getting to the top and chilling and hanging out until the rest of you get there. You get five to 10 minutes at 20,000 feet and you’re dizzy ... Everything changes, you gotta start coming down. For them to celebrate at the summit together, as planned, they’d have to time their hike accordingly, arriving at the summit at the same time despite the radically different paces between the amputees and the rest of the climbers on the team. They decided that West and Galloway would begin their final ascent at 10:00 p.m. that evening, accompanied by Chris MacKay and ten porters to help as needed.

 

 

Off the Mountain

Their final day—day eight—from Millenium Camp to Mweka Gate would be another seven miles with 4,600 feet of elevation loss. The air was rich with oxygen, compared to where they’d just been, and West had received a welcome upgrade from the metal chair he’d started his descent with on the day before. “They said, ‘we got you a ride, we got you a Lamborghini,’ and what it was was just a gurney with an oversized bike tire on it that had shocks. That’s how they literally ran me down the rest of the way.” With his porters on all sides, carting him down on wheels, West made it down fourth, just behind Nimmo and a couple of the other climbers on the team.  They reunited with their team members back at the bottom, who had been recovering in their hotel since they’d left the morning of day 3. SDIA Kilimanjaro Climb 2021: West, coming down Kilimanjaro on his "Lamborghini" with the aid of his porters. Image via SDIA Nutt, for his part, was told by the doctors that he had COVID-19, but fortunately continued testing negative. He had slept for three days straight before coming out of his fog. By the fourth day, he and Strong were tracking their SDIA brothers as they summitted, receiving photos along the way. “It was awesome to see the joy on their faces … I was so happy for everybody,” Nutt says. “There’s not much in my life that I’ve failed at. I’ve never dropped out of a run or a hike or a hump in the Marine Corps, so it was my first time being humbled like that. I felt for Travis because he’s watching them succeed, and I know he’s feeling it.” “We made a lot of mistakes … We’re now planning a second trip specifically to get Travis to the top since he didn’t make it this time.” As for West, looking back, it was an incredible experience, but one he has no interest in doing again. “They say that you hit all four seasons. I think you hit every single emotion as well,” West said. “I laughed, I was sad, I was mad, I was angry, I was pumped, I was every way you can possibly think … It broke me mentally, physically, spiritually—I say the only thing that didn’t break on me was my prosthetics because they’re made of, you know, steel.” He hopes that their story and experience, as difficult as it was, sends a message to other Sheep Dogs who are going through the same trauma and challenges West faced after his combat injuries. “What’s a better way to prove to other guys that if I can do it, you can do it. What’s your excuse? A lot of people don’t make it up, physically fit, with all their limbs,” West says. “I needed to accomplish it for myself and for my brothers that were with me and for everybody else out there, thinking or contemplating suicide … What more can you do than show them somebody that’s missing both their legs make it up something that most people only dream of doing?” “It’s all about getting off the couch and trying,” Nutt said. “It’s about the willingness to try challenging, painful things. It’s about the willingness to put forward the effort. That itself has inspired a lot of people … even Travis coming down has inspired people.” “It was a powerful Outdoor Adventure, that was made possible by a very generous family and the other sponsors like Osprey that believe enough in us to support the dream.”

 

 

Returning to Kilimanjaro

Strong, Nutt and the Donaldsons may not have reached the summit, but their journey isn’t over. Eyes ahead, they’re already beginning to think about another attempt and, potentially, making Kilimanjaro a recurring trip through SDIA. Strong is already training for his reprise, drawing from the lessons learned the first time around. Supporting SDIA and organizations like them can help provide meaningful change for the thousands of military veterans and first responders—our Sheep Dogs—who find themselves struggling in the wake of their careers of service. Learn more about SDIA at www.sheepdogia.org and about their Kilimanjaro Adventure at www.kiliclimbforacause.com, where you can read bios for each of the sponsored climbers and see the philanthropic impact the climb has had. Read Part I, Understanding the War at Home(Se abre en una ventana nueva)

 

 

Assembling the Team

All told, they’d recruit four combat amputees—Scott West, Sebastian Gallegos, Travis Strong and Noah Galloway—to conquer Kilimanjaro. Each has their own story, much like West’s, and share the common goal to inspire and encourage other people who are going through what they had to overcome in the wake of their injuries. Gallegos, who lost his right arm during combat in Afghanistan, was one of the first participants in SDIA-sponsored Outdoor Adventures, so he was among the first to join the Kilimanjaro roster. Travis Strong was in Baghdad when he was hit with an explosive, ultimately losing both of his legs at the hip. After he attended an SDIA-sponsored snowmobiling trip a year or so prior, the team knew they wanted him onboard. Noah Galloway had been hit by an IED during his second tour of duty fighting in Operation Iraqi Freedom and lost both his left leg above the knee and left arm above the elbow. He’s since competed on Dancing with the Stars and been featured in Men’s Health, among other accomplishments, sharing his personal story to help inspire other wounded veterans. His mission aligned perfectly with SDIA’s, so the team was excited when he agreed join them. Also among those recruited was USMC Veteran Michael Nimmo, West’s best friend and SDIA’s Development Director. West and Nimmo had met at a rehab facility a few years prior and shared similar struggles with drug abuse following their military service. “Scott comes in for a free haircut, and I give him a great haircut,” Nimmo laughs. “At least, you know, I thought I did. Scott will swear up and down that I gave him a horrible haircut.” West cussed him out for it at the time, but they both felt a familiar sense of brotherhood—one that they missed from their respective combat tours. The two quickly bonded over their shared experience, trauma and journey to recovery and, before long, Nimmo asked to get involved with SDIA. The two began participating in Spartan Races together, developing a common understanding with each other. Nimmo understood how best to support West through challenging terrain without taking away West’s sense of independence and faculty. When Kilimanjaro finally came up, West knew he had to get Nimmo to go. “I’m going to be hurting ... I’m going to need his shoulder, you know, and maybe even be carried at some points,” West said. “I cannot do that to somebody I don’t know. I don’t care if he’s hurting—I don’t care if he’s crying—I know that, as my best friend, I could grab ahold of him and he’s going to help me up the hill.” Nimmo would not only prove invaluable to West during the upcoming expedition but would be able to help the hired porters and other veterans on the team understand how best to support West, Strong, Galloway and Gallegos. They understood the feat would be difficult, and help would be there should they need it.