Editor’s note: This article has been edited to clarify that because Mt. Kilimanjaro is near the equator, January is not technically winter there.
A little over six months ago, 10-year-old Avery Walden ticked off her first peak of the world’s Seven Summits, a group of the seven highest mountains on each continent.
Then 9 years old, she ascended Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with support from her father, Chris Walden, and a family friend as well as several local mountain guides, reaching the peak the first week of January. Not only did they climb it in the middle of winter, they also took one of the most technically difficult routes up the mountain to reach the peak.
Now home in Soldotna, Avery’s roughing out the edges of plans for her next major mountain trek. One possible destination is Mt. Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe and another one of the seven summits. She said she hasn’t started planning for that trip yet, but is doing some research and thinking about it.
“We’ll probably take the technical route up Mt. Elbrus, too,” she said.
Looking back at Kilimanjaro, Avery said it was probably tougher than she remembers. It took the group five days to ascend the mountain and two to descend, but months of planning and practice beforehand.
The trip began in spring 2016, when Avery decided she wanted to climb Mt. Kilmanjaro. She and her dad spent the summer hiking and climbing to train, working up to the endurance she’d need to climb to the 19,341-foot peak. Once it turned cold, they practiced the ice climbing skills they’d need for the glaciers atop the mountain on a home-built ice wall in the backyard of their Soldotna home, getting Avery used to ice tools and cleats.
In late December, they set off for the mountain, beginning their climb Dec. 31. Once at base camp, they met up with their Tanzanian guides, who would accompany them up the steep ascent route they chose, known as the Western Breach. The first day of climbing, with well-maintained trails, was not very steep and was rainy.
“(The first section) was really fun and really easy,” Avery said.
After that, the trail toughened. The weather cleared, but the mountain became steeper as they worked their way up toward a rock formation called Lava Tower, a checkpoint before they ascended the steep collapsed side of the mountain’s volcanic dome.
In preparation for the trip, they tried to make sure Avery’s pack wouldn’t be too heavy for her. But along the way, they tried to split up tasks, Chris said. One of the two adults would prepare food and help set up the tent, while Avery was in charge of setting up sleeping pads and bags.
“It worked — everyone was trying to carry their weight,” he said.
By the time they reached the slope up to the breach, they’d reached snow. They’d also reached one of the diciest sections of the climb, where other hikers had been killed in rock falls. Chris said they had to make sure they left very early, before the sun struck the mountain and melted the snow around the rocks, dislodging them and sending them rolling downhill.
Avery said she was confident that they’d take all the safety precautions and wasn’t worried by the knowledge that other people had died in attempting the climb, but Chris said it was something he was very aware of. A frequent reader of climbing accident reports, he said he was familiar with what happened to the group killed there.
“There was times that I was waffling about going a different way or maybe just pulling the plug and not going,” he said. “…We heard a lot of rock fall. Every time I saw or heard rock fall, I was out looking to see where it was at, because there are safer ways to go up and not so safe ways to go up.”
There were other troubles, too. Near the top, brutal 75 mile-per-hour winds kept the group holed up for a day, and they watched as another tent was ripped apart and torn down the mountain with gear still inside. The cold temperatures and snow chilled Avery especially and they had to take some breaks in the ascent to warm her feet.
In the deep morning darkness, they inched their way up the slope, digging toes into the snow, striving to make it to the top around daybreak. Roped together, they crossed the deepening snow to reach the peak, where the clouds parted and sunshine greeted them.
Kilimanjaro is a popular mountain to hike — thousands of people summit it each year, though most ascend along an established trail the opposite direction from the route the Waldens took. Near the beginning of their hike, the trail was a little more crowded, and Avery was frequently flagged down for photos. Some of the guides had heard her story and wanted a picture, and others were just surprised to see someone so young climbing the mountain, she said.
“Especially at Arrow Glacier (camp), a ton of people were like, ‘You’re already here? What?’” she said.
It won’t be her last trek. Before taking off on Kilimanjaro, she was ambivalent about taking on major mountains like Denali or Mt. Everest. Now she’s changed her mind, saying she’ll make those famous ascents eventually. For this summer, though, Avery’s headed off to a simpler adventure — summercamp in Texas for two weeks.
Chris has already been busy since their return. Since the New Year, he’s made an attempt to summit Mt. Hunter, a mountain near Denali with a much lower elevation but a much more difficult ascent, and taught climbing classes in Valdez. A licensed mountaineering guide, he said he plans to take clients over to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya before the end of the year, using the connections he made with local guides and the knowledge he gained both firsthand and through research. One of the goals is also to be kid-centric. Chris said he envisions summer climbing programs for kids as well as providing an after-school space for them to do homework.
“I think the goal is to introduce kids to climbing,” he said.
He also plans to get the local community involved in climbing through a business of his own — a climbing gym called Xplore Climbing. Included in the plans are a multi-use facility with an extensive climbing wall, yoga classes, a restaurant, sports massage and an area to relax and work. Chris said he’ll also offer support for people learning to climb and run his guiding business through the gym.
The goal for the gym is to become a place not only for people to work out and train, but also to hang out and socialize. When the family lived in Dallas, they found themselves spending hours at the climbing gym, which became a social center as well as a gym.
“It was really hard for us to leave Dallas for two reasons — our friends and our gym,” Chris said.
“They all signed our shirts when we left,” Avery added.
They aren’t sure of the exact opening date or details of the gym yet, as they’re planning to build a facility and secure partnerships. Chris said he’ll post updates on the business’s website, xploregym.com.