A bucket list adventure for many, Mount Kilimanjaro summits are attempted by roughly 35,000 people each year and yet about half don’t make it to the top. It reaches to 19,341 feet, which qualifies it as the tallest mountain in Africa. Climbers don’t need any special training or to be in the fittest condition, but they should be prepared for the grueling environment and thin air. The climb passes through five different climate zones—rainforest, heath, moorland and alpine desert—before reaching an ice-covered arctic peak. A typical ascent takes from five to nine days, although records have been set for mere hours roundtrip.
A new record was made in 2012, but not related to time. Kyle Maynard became the first person without limbs to summit the mountain sans prosthetics, and he reached the top with a team in 10 days. Several years later, he also conquered Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America at 22,841 feet.
His first serious climbing experience was with a 100-foot peak in Atlanta, near his hometown of Suwanee, and he protected his limbs with just bath towels and heavy-duty tape as he crawled over rocks and dirt.
“It was really hard and painful, but also breathtakingly beautiful at the top,” he says. “I just wanted to know what it looked like.”
Maynard was born with congenital amputation, a rare occurrence which ended his arms at the elbow and his legs near the knee. His parents made sure he never felt limited though, telling him that he can do whatever he wants, and he’s taken that to heart.
His list of accomplishments in his 31 years life, besides his Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua summits, include becoming a Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter, founding a CrossFit gym, writing a best-selling novel (fittingly titled “No Excuses”), becoming a world record-setting weightlifter, cofounding clothing company Patriot Shades, starring in a Nike commercial during the 2016 Olympics and also joining the board of directors for K2 Adventures Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Scottsdale.
“I am grateful for the moments now of uncertainty and being afraid because I know that all of those moments of growth in my life usually come with a little bit of that uncertainty,” Maynard says.
K2 Adventures actually began with a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro. Co-founders Kristen Sandquist and Kevin Cherilla were part of a group of 25 people—eight of whom were blind—who summited the mountain in 2009. The trip made them realize the possibilities that were open to people with disabilities, and they’ve since dedicated their time to leading treks up the mountain with both able-bodied groups and those who need some extra help.
When Maynard was first considering his record-breaking climb, Barb and Brett Boutin, owners of Orthotic Specialists in Phoenix, created custom equipment for him with Vibram soles and then Cherilla caught wind of his plans. He reached out to Flagstaff outdoor company Kahtoola to inquire about getting custom crampons made as well.
“We love being able to take on a special project and do something different,” says Kahtoola founder Danny Giovale. “It was a great design challenge for us.”
On a typical body, crampons are metal spikes which attach to shoes with straps to aid hikers in gripping icy terrain. However, Giovale had to get creative to fit Maynard with the proper equipment. Although he climbs without prosthetics, Maynard does use carbon fiber orthotics from the Boutins, which cover and cushion his limbs while providing a base for the crampons to attach to—a more technically advanced version of his first towel-and-tape prototype.
“It was our job to take those and turn them into ice-climbing machines,” Giovale says.
He describes the process: “We start on the computer, and then we draw the outline of it, and you can see how asymmetric this is,” he says, pointing out the varying lengths of what would become the connections to the orthotics. “Everything is asymmetric and round, and so we would just print out the design on paper, we would do lots of iterations and mold it to the orthotics and see how the final product turned out.”
When Maynard visited Kahtoola in December, he tested the crampons in the snowy parking lot and then set off on his great adventure just a few weeks later at the beginning of 2012.
“Without them I would still be sitting halfway up Kilimanjaro right now,” the climber says with a laugh.
After his two record-breaking summits, Maynard considered attempting the rest of the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each of the continents, but then shifted his focus more on travelling and speaking at various events around the world.
“I love being in adverse situations with my friends and being able to laugh about it,” he says. “I’m less fixated with having to do summits and just focusing now at doing one at a time, feeling gratitude for being able to go on any mountain. They’re not 22,000-foot peaks, but it’s still absolutely beautiful up there.”
Although his view is limited during the climbs, he’s learned to appreciate the unique aspects of the rocks and small critters he finds on his paths. It’s his determined spirit and ability to see beauty in the mundane that makes him a successful motivational speaker, although he originally attended the University of Georgia to study broadcast journalism in the hopes of becoming an international or political reporter.
“He struggles but he doesn’t give up, and that’s what I really love about him,” Giovale says. “He’s not trying to say that he’s overcome this and it’s easy now, he’s like, ‘Yeah, it’s freaking hard. It is.’ I think that’s a story that we can all relate with, and he lives it. We’re really lucky to be working with him.”
“I never dreamed that I would be doing what I’m doing now,” Maynard says. “My goal [during talks] is to have people walk away and introspect a little more as to just what it is that’s possible for them.”
Maynard will be at Northern Arizona University next Friday, Sept. 22, as the keynote speaker to kick off the 28th annual Flagstaff Festival of Science. The free event will be held at the Ardrey Memorial Auditorium, 1115 S. Knoles Drive, and starts at 7 p.m. Visit www.scifest.org for the full list of over 100 free workshops and presentations offered through Sunday, Oct. 1.