When Aaron Anderson encounters an obstacle, it only bolsters his determination to reach his goal.
That inner toughness has helped him adapt and thrive in life after losing his legs to cancer at age 9.
So perhaps it should have been no surprise recently when Anderson, a Swedish 27-year-old, ditched his custom tricycle when it stopped working and ascended the rest of Mt. Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Summit, at 19,341 feet, the world’s largest free-standing mountain, by crawling.
Yes, you read that correctly. On Jan. 14 Anderson crawled the remaining 6,217 feet, which means that since he has no legs, he essentially dragged his torso to the top.
“It felt amazing,” Anderson told SVT, Sweden’s public television network. “It was an unbelievably great feeling. It’s a very beautiful state, a fierce challenge and it was really hard at the end.”
Anderson said one person with his group began hyperventilating and nearly lost consciousness at about 15,420 feet, and had to turn back.
“He has recovered now but it was a scary incident,” Anderson told SVT. “It gives a little perspective on the project. Although Kilimanjaro is a safe mountain, there is danger. You have to be on the alert.”
Anderson raised about $900,000 for a children’s cancer charity. As impressive as his feat was, he wasn’t the first to accomplish it. In June 2012, 31-year-old Spencer West, of Toronto, Canada made it to the top with no legs. West lost his legs at age 5 to sacral agenesis, a genetic disorder that causes abnormal development of the lower spine. It left his legs permanently crossed before doctors amputated them below the knees at age 3 and below the pelvis at age 5.
A driving motivator for West was his childhood memory of doctors telling him that he would never be a functioning member of society. He trained for a year for Kilimanjaro. He made 80 percent of the trek on his hands, using a custom-made wheelchair where the ground allowed it. Accompanied by best friends Alex Meers and David Johnson, the climb took him seven days.
West said told the UK’s Daily Mail that his hands were bloodied and bruised after the climb but it was worth it.
“The summit sign almost seemed like a mirage,” West told the newspaper. “We looked around and realized that, after seven grueling days of relentless climbing, after 20,000 feet of our blood, sweat, tears and vomit we had actually made it.”
West said he took on the challenge to motivate others, and about a month later, released an inspirational YouTube video about it.
“Reaching the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro was the most mentally and physically challenging thing I have ever done,” he told the Daily Mail, “but in doing so, it reinforced the powerful message behind believing in yourself, and believing in others.”
West raised more than $427,000 for Free the Children, a charity that works to reduce poverty in the Third World.
Before West came a Kilimanjaro climber facing even taller odds. In January 2012, then-25-year-old Kyle Maynard of Suwanee, Ga. became the first quadriplegic to reach Uhuru with no assistance. Maynard was born with arms that ended at the elbows and legs that went only to his knees.
After experimenting with many different materials to cover the ends of his limbs, Maynard found two companies in Phoenix who donated carbon-fiber gear that had clamps for ice.
It wasn’t Maynard’s first huge challenge. He had wrestled against able-bodied competitors as a child and had competed in a mixed martial arts fight.
“I’d say my purpose in life, at least from my perspective, would be to help show other people their purpose, help show other people their capabilities,” Maynard told ESPN’s Outside the Lines.
He called his climb “Mission Kilimanjaro,” which included delivering $25,000 worth of medical supplies to a nearby village, which he described in a video.
Maynard has spent the years since then as a motivational speaker and running his own cross-fit gym. But he again has the itch to climb. In February he’ll take on some of Argentina’s highest peaks.
“I’ll be with 3 of my best friends, guys I trust with my life,” Maynard said on his Facebook page. “I’m pretty freaking excited and maybe 3% nervous… Kilimanjaro took everything I had. And this one undoubtedly will throw new obstacles our way.”
Maynard is believed to be the first person to reach Uhuru without assistance, but he wasn’t the first person with no legs to climb Kilimanjaro. In September 2009 paraplegic Chris Waddell used a custom four-wheel “handcycle” to ascend the mountain. Porters helped by laying down boards over especially tricky parts of the terrain.
Waddell, then a 41-year-old from Park City, Utah, had lost the use of his legs after breaking his back while competing as a downhill ski racer for Middlebury College in 1988. His story was captured in the 2010 documentary, “One Revolution,” and he has appeared on Dateline, 20/20 and Oprah.
Waddell has competed in both the winter and summer Paralympics, winning 12 medals in skiing and a medal in track. His motto is, “It’s not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you.”
One especially rewarding part of the climb for Waddell was the impact it made on the life of a former porter named Tajiri, who had lost one of his legs in a Kilimanjaro landslide that killed several people. Waddell’s team bought Tajiri a prosthesis and he made the ascent with them.
Waddell is now a motivational speaker and founded the nonprofit One Revolution Foundation. A few days after his climb, he wrote on his blog that his lead African guide, Seki, told him that Tajiri had probably been about 80 percent recovered before the climb, but seemed to be at about 100 percent after they had reached the peak.
“I suspect that it might be more than that,” Waddell wrote. “I suspect that Tajiri might get a chance to do far more than he would have in his previous life. I might not have clearly seen the connection between Tajiri and our project prior to our climb, but now I see that he has the ability to change lives. He already has.”