Monday Motivation: Robert Wheeler - climbing Kilimanjaro at 85 with plans to go again

By Kristen Stephenson
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In 2014 Robert Wheeler told his family he wanted to scale the rugged terrain of Mount Kilimanjaro.

At the time he was on the verge of turning 85 years old, and though the former military officer was in remarkable shape for his age, they were understandably concerned as to what effects such a taxing expedition could have on Robert during the pursuit.

But after spending 20 years of his life as the Director of Health Promotion Research and adjunct Associate Professor of Psychology at St. Louis University, he was not fazed by the risks.

Oldest male to summit Mount Kilimanjaro

For Robert, Mount Kilimanjaro was a mission that had been in the works for decades and he was determined to fulfill it.

"For the last 85 years I’ve been trying to understand the significance of being a human, and although I’m still working on it, I wanted to share my experiences with other people that also wonder about why they are here, why they continue to struggle with difficult tasks, and where they are going."

Robert, a man who maintained healthy habits, immense intrigue and psychology, had always been in search of his life’s greater purpose.

"I’m an average person with no special athletic abilities, but of my many experiences, mountain climbing was outstanding to me because they symbolize the obstacles people encounter on their life journey."

The psychologist believed that some spend their lives looking for a way to break out of the norm – ultimately seeking an opportunity to achieve something they never thought in their wildest dreams they could do, himself included.

His research, which found activity levels to be a major factor in one’s mental and physical health as they grew older, was reason enough to take on such a difficult hike.

"I wanted to demonstrate that old people with worn out joints and deteriorated muscles do not have to be couch potatoes, they can be active enough to climb a high mountain."

With this in mind, Robert knew he would need to do everything he could to prepare for his very own great adventure.

His son Jack, who had experience as a naval aviator, volunteered to accompany him for the expedition as he had previously done on so many other excursions before.

In past the pair had made their way up some of the world’s most iconic mountains, including Mount Fuji in Japan, Aconcagua in Argentina, Heipori in Tibet, and countless known pikes within their US homeland.

While this was not Robert’s first mountain climbing experience, it was the first time he would be required to scale a distance of 3,000 ft in one day at the ripe old age of 85.

Of course, there were other things to consider, such as the surgeries he had earlier in the year.

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The knee replacement was Robert’s second, upping his total count to two shoulder and two knee auxiliary procedures performed on his body in just five years.

On Kilimanjaro, the most avid climbers face adversities such as altitude sickness and sub-freezing temperatures during eight-hour ascensions and this Missourian would be braving those challenges, as well as the possibility of stroke, edema, and joint overexertion.

To properly combat these foreseeable issues, Jack and Robert did everything they could to physically train for the upcoming mission.

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Both spent days hiking the Chubb Trail in West Tyson Park, Missouri, which had a rise of 400 ft.

In order to mimic the arduous climbs they would be performing, they’d have to walk this path seven times in a single day.

When temperatures became too harsh, Robert would opt climb the same distance on a stair master in a local gym, still a significant physical test for someone his age.

But through it all, Robert would continuously remind himself of why this undertaking remained close to his heart: an inspirational passage he had read from acclaimed novelist Ernest Hemingway.

Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and it is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western sandwich is called by the Masai, “Ngaje Ngai,” the house of God. Close to the western summit is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude. (Hemingway, 1927)
"Since this epigraph is in small italicized letters before the beginning of the story, many readers miss its message and its relationship to the underlying theme of the story, and I did too for a time."

To Robert, the jungle-based leopard died on a frigid mountain top while embodying a personality trait he felt humanity possesses – a characteristic which urges them to reach out from their daily existence to search for something bigger and better that provides meaning, manageability, and purpose.

"I myself wondered, if at 90 years of age with aches and pains, muscle weakness, and body malfunctions - can such a person climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro without becoming a frozen carcass?"

With this philosophical complex in place, Robert would stop at nothing to find out.

As September approached, father and son boarded a 25-hour flight with layovers in New York, Paris, and Amsterdam.

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Upon arriving in Tanzania, they met with their team; mountain guides Rashid and Rama, their cook, and eight porters who would assist in carrying camp gear, foods and other provisions.

Kilimanjaro was no easy exploit; at an elevation of 19,340 ft, less than half of the 35,000 climbers who trek up the African landmark each year make it to the summit. 

Ahead of the team lay an extremely important mission, with the first leg requiring a 20-mile hike upwards to reach the basecamp at 15,500 feet.

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The journey was to be completed in two days, adding a layer of difficulty to the task at hand. If Robert were able to complete the venture to the top, he would become the world’s Oldest man to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

In order the record to count, Jack needed to document his father at the summit of the mountain, which consisted of three volcanic peaks - the tallest and largest in the center.

The rim of the main volcanic peak is reached after climbing a steep 4-mile, 8-hour climb into subfreezing temperatures, with another hour of steady ascent along the rim to reach the summit.

At this point, Robert had done all he could to brace himself for the journey, and it was time to see if his accomplishment would be of record-setting proportions.

"The first day and half of the second climbing days were in the jungle with tall trees, dense vegetation, and massive roots across the path. In addition to colorful flowers, animal life was abundant. Particularly interesting were the white faced monkeys that seemed to enjoy our presence and politely posed for photos."

For the early parts of the attempt, Robert enjoyed his experiences, unlike other mountains he had climbed before.

He and Jack especially got close to the crew, who not only helped them through difficult times, but experienced those adversities alongside them.

"Rashid kept us entertained with interesting stories about things we encountered such as vegetation, rock formations, and animals. Rama was my strength during descent. This was very tough for me because my artificial knees balked at reaching out and down over rocks and crevices. Rama stayed close to me and lean against my body when I would fumble."

After their first night at camp, Robert would truly face the most difficult part of the excursion – braving the summit.

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Unlike other parts of the expedition, this particular segment was done overnight, with the hopes of reaching the volcanic rim at sunrise.

Vision, temperatures, and altitude were now the biggest threats to the most vital point of seven hour climb.

"Concentrating on those two things, breathing, and footwork kept my mind busy. I was told that one of the reasons for a night climb is to avoid discouragement by the imposing view ahead and apprehension from the view below. Despite this, the view of brilliant stars overhead and anticipation of sunrise was impressive."

Once a number of hours had been put into the final climb, Robert’s lungs ached; he was suffering from back and leg pain, coupled with a growing inability to put one foot in front of the other.

He was concerned he would not be able to completely make it to the summit, but like so many other moments, he surpassed those basic apprehensions.

"Sure enough, just as I was thinking my feet would not continue moving or my lungs would burst, the sky lightened and we emerged at the rim of the old volcano—more energy somehow also emerged."

At the top, the view was breathtaking.

After what might be one of the most exhilarating times of 85-year-old Robert Wheeler’s life, he was finally able to reap the rewards of such a draining climb: the top itself.

Sitting on a rock and taking in a setting filled with clouds, glaciers, the beaming sun, adjacent to volcano craters was a memory that he would forever remember.

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The way down took the crew five days instead of two in order for them to properly adjust to the elevation.

Throughout the whole journey, no climber experienced altitude sickness and no oxygen was used.

Once returned to the bottom, Robert and Jack invited Rashid and Rama for a celebratory dinner at their hotel to mark the momentous, record-breaking accomplishment.

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At 85, Robert had proven that age is but a number, so long as one believes they can do great things beyond their capabilities.

"It has amazed me that my 85-year-old body could meet such a demanding challenge; showing the human power of adaption, even for older bodies.  I think planning, preparing for, and accomplishing such a challenge are both exhilarating and healthfully stimulating – and I recommend it for others."

For now, Robert is pleased to know he has thrived and lived a fulfilling life since the climb up Kilimanjaro, unlike the leopard in Hemingway’s story.

He plans on extending his record once again next autumn (2019) for his 90th birthday; to cement the idea that the elderly are proficient enough to succeed in extraordinary things.

"I feel humble to hold this record. Above all, the experience has taught me that fortitude together with perseverance and vitality is indeed an important virtue."

You can read more about Robert Wheeler’s previous rocky expeditions in his book “Mountains and Minds”.

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