Retired orthodontist Dr. Fred Distelhorst, age 88, successfully climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in July of 2016, to become the oldest person to reach the summit.
Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the seven summits – the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. At 19,341 feet above sea level, Kilimanjaro is the tallest peak in Africa and the world’s tallest freestanding mountain.
“When we saw Fred, we were a bit afraid,” said Peak Planet lead guide Davis Assey. “Kilimanjaro is a big challenge. Many people along the trek questioned whether he could make it to the summit. We could hear other clients and guides talking about it, some with excitement others with doubt. “
Due to its extreme altitude, climbing Kilimanjaro is a demanding accomplishment. The overall success rate is about 50% for all visitors. The primary reason climbers fail is due to acute mountain sickness which can occur when their bodies fail to adapt quickly enough to the increasing elevation.
However, Distelhorst is no stranger to mountains. He lives in Vail, Colorado where he skies and hikes often with his granddaughter, Ellen Edgerton, who accompanied him on his Kilimanjaro climb.
Distelhorst’s guide recalled what he observed as the climb was underway. “We quickly learned that while he is old, he is stronger than even the youngest and most fit in the group,” said Assey.
Dr. Distelhorst climbed on the remote Rongai route. This route begins in the northeastern part of the mountain, near the Kenyan border. The team left high camp at 11:38 PM on July 19, 2017, and reached the summit at 9:33 AM on July 20, 2017. Overall, the entire climb took six days.
When asked about the special challenges when leading older climbers, Peak Planet’s Executive Director Dana Wentzel said, “There are some risks for anyone who climbs Kilimanjaro, not just for the elderly.”
The guides conducted health checks twice daily and measured Distelhorst’s pulse and oxygen saturation, as well as his temperature and blood pressure. “We carefully monitored his health throughout the climb as we do with all of our clients on the mountain. The readings confirmed what we knew from visual observation – that he was performing quite well,” said Wentzel.
Assey recalls the joy he felt to be the guide leading the oldest man to climb Kilimanjaro. “When he arrived at the summit, word spread across the mountain and every guide and porter was proud to know that Dr. Fred made it, even at 88 years. It was an honor and a pleasure to hike with him.”