There came a moment last spring when Chris Walden had to ask his daughter Avery to pick what was most important to her.
Avery Walden, 9, had a long list of things she wanted to do over the coming year — among them, climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. But it simply wasn’t going to be possible to accomplish all of them, so her parents asked her to pick her top goals for the year.
“I asked her at dinner, ‘Where does climbing Kilimanjaro rank on all of those things?’” Chris said. “… And she said, ‘Kilimanjaro is No. 1. I don’t care about any of that other stuff. That takes a second seat. It’s the most important thing.’ That was the turning point.”
That was when they started planning an expedition in earnest. While Mount Kilimanjaro is an often-climbed peak, two factors distinguish their trek from the average one. First, they plan to take a less-traveled, more dangerous route called the Western Breach, in which they’ll have to climb vertical glacier walls.
Second, when they climb the mountain, Avery will be 63 days shy of her 10th birthday. If they succeed, she will be the youngest female ever to summit the 19,341-foot mountain, the tallest in Africa and one of the world’s Seven Summits.
Avery is already an experienced rock climber — she began bouldering in a gym when she was 4 and has competed in bouldering competitions. Avery said she got really interested in Mount Kilimanjaro after reading about it in a book she got for Christmas about a young boy who climbed all of the Seven Summits.
“There’s glaciers on the top,” she said. “It’ll be fun to ice climb up on top of it.”
Technically, climbers have to be at least 10 years old to get a permit from the Tanzanian government to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. However, the government will issue exceptions for younger climbers. The Waldens realized there was limited time if Avery wanted to claim the record.
“The rush was that … she wanted to be the youngest female ever to climb Kilimanjaro,” Chris said.
“(The current record-holder) was six days before her 10th birthday,” Avery said. “She was 9, and it’ll be about two months before I turn 10.”
The father-daughter team took off for Africa Dec. 28, will take two days to acclimatize and start their ascent on Dec. 31. In six days, they will climb approximately 14,000 feet, scramble up scree and scale the vertical glaciers to reach the summit before descending.
Two days after they get off the mountain, they also plan to scale Mount Kenya, a technical rock climb about four hours to the north that will take them up about 12,500 feet. Avery will also be the youngest female to ascend that mountain, if they succeed.
In the backyard of their home on Longmere Lake outside Soldotna, Chris rigged up a homemade ice wall between two trees using a PVC pipe drip system and twine.
The water, pumped from the house, drips down the twine and accretes in the cold. With the frigid temperatures sweeping the Kenai Peninsula since late November, the wall is now multiple feet thick and features a chipped-out platform. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Avery practiced notching the ice tools into the wall so she would be prepared to climb the melting glaciers they will encounter on their climb.
“(Researchers) were saying that by 2025 or 2030, there’s a good chance there’ll be no more glaciers up top, which is sad,” her father said. “(It would) be nice to kind of climb it and say, ‘Hey, done,’ because when I get much older and she gets older, there’ll probably be no more ice up there. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
After living in Dallas, Texas for about 15 years, the family relocated to Soldotna in February 2016. Chris, who has climbed peaks all over the U.S. and is training to become a climbing instructor himself, said both Avery and his 7-year-old son Dax got into rock climbing very young when they lived in Dallas and showed early talent for it. He said he remembers taking them to a rock gym when they were little and watching them easily climb all the way to the top.
When they made the initial tentative decision to try for Mount Kilimanjaro’s summit, the first thing they had to determine was if Avery was physically fit enough to make the ascent. All summer, they took on mountainous hikes in Southcentral Alaska to various peaks and glaciers, testing out if one or both of the kids could make a hike as tough as Kilimanjaro.
But a dividing line came when they attempted Ptarmigan Peak in Chugach State Park. They had intended to hike up and camp for the weekend, but when the weather turned, they had to retreat, and the trip turned into one grueling 18-hour day. Though Avery said she didn’t have a problem with the hike, the difficulty convinced Dax that he wasn’t ready to make the trek up Kilimanjaro.
There were other preparations to make, too. Though Chris had custom-designed the ascent route they will take and they have all their own gear and food, climbers have to have a guide and a co-guide and multiple porters to attempt the summit. The porters will help carry some of the gear, though Chris and the friend they are taking will each carry approximately 40-pound packs and Avery will carry about 15 pounds. But the owners of the guiding companies sometimes do not pay the guides and porters fair wages, so Chris did some research and contacted some guides and porters directly through a union called the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project. By dealing directly with the guides and porters, he can ensure they receive fair wages, he said.
“That’s very unique, and took a long time to organize,” he said. “That was important to us to make sure that the guides and porters got paid fairly. … It was three weeks of me getting up at two, three o’clock in the morning, making phone calls. It took a long, long, long time to organize all of that.”
Some of the planning is just getting used to conditions. There are six climate zones on Mt. Kilimanjaro — at the bottom, it might be 85 degrees, and it can drop to minus 20 degrees at the top. To test out their sleeping bags and ability to sleep in the cold, Avery and Chris set up camp in the Alaska winter a few weeks ago.
“As soon as we saw (it was) minus 15, we said, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going camping!’” Chris said.
“Yeah, we came in at 3 a.m.,” Avery said.
The expedition is far from a cinch. In January 2006, three climbers died when boulders unfrozen from the receding glaciers on the Western Breach route fell unexpectedly on their camp. A team composed of guides, park rangers and a park warden investigated the accident and found the Western Breach route is becoming increasingly less safe because of the receding glaciers. The team recommended that further investigation be done “to assess the long-term future risks associated with climate change and Kilimanjaro’s altering geology and glaciology.”
There’s also the risk of altitude sickness. When people ascend from low altitudes to higher ones, their blood oxygen saturation drops because as the air becomes thinner, there is less oxygen available. While in mild forms it can cause nausea, headaches and breathlessness, it can become deadly serious after prolonged exposure. In some cases, pulmonary edemas or cerebral edemas can form, which lead to death if the person does not take medication and descend immediately.
Avery and Chris have carefully walked through safety plans. They’ll also be carrying a DeLorme InReach, a satellite communication device that can text for help from remote locations, and friends and family will be able to track their GPS coordinates as Avery sends them from the InReach on their way to the top.
“You communicate with them and they can communicate with you and they’ll go all the way to Africa and pick you up,” she said, demonstrating the arduous typing method on the keypad.
Acclimatization is critical to avoid altitude sickness. The night before they begin the trek, they’ll stay in a town at approximately 6,000 feet, and Chris has mapped out the camps they’ll be staying at to get used to the altitude. However, if Avery gets sick, he and a co-guide will head down immediately with her, he said.
They feel prepared. However, Chris said there’s still a twinge of nervousness he gets when watching Avery do activities in which she could get hurt. He said he thinks about the danger in this expedition every day but his concerns are mostly medical in nature.
“There’s not a day that goes by where I’m not thinking, ‘If something happens, how do you deal with that?’” he said. “The first time I took her rock climbing, she was rappelling down. I knew that everything was safe, I triple-checked everything … but the first time she went down and she was rappelling by herself, I remember fighting back tears. It was hard — what if something happened?”
At the same time, the alternative is to stay inside and never take a risk. It’s a struggle to balance keeping his kids safe and letting them do things, he said. When preparing for an expedition, Chris said he reads a lot of accident reports about what goes on in the area so he can prepare himself to avoid making the same mistakes. On Kilimanjaro, there’s nothing he hasn’t done before, he’s just never done that particular mountain before, he said.
Avery said she isn’t afraid, though one of the tests is going to be mental — forcing herself to keep going when she wants to give up.
“We never let go of it,” she said, turning to her father. “We never worked out a lot and when you thought I was physically, mentally ready, we didn’t just stop. There were times that you thought I was ready, but you wouldn’t just say, ‘Go play, do whatever you want.’”
Out on the ice wall, Chris corrected her posture as she dug a cleated toe into the ice. She notched her way up to the top and asked his advice about how to come back down. He coached her, pointing out where his feet had been, and she edged her way down. He stood nearby, ready to catch her, but she descended safely and stepped off the wall. She’s never fallen off the wall yet, she said.