Welcome to Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro Rocks! This is about a first.
The youngest girls to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro together, were four sisters. Jillian, Velma, Lynette and Cheryl Hunter were six, nine, eleven and thirteen years old, respectively, when they climbed the mountain in 1972 with their dad Gene Hunter. Gene Douglas Hunter was buried in Nairobi in 1976 after a small plane crash. He had taught math and science at Kamagambo Teacher Training School, (recently striving to become Kamagambo University) in Kisii, Kenya from 1970 to 1976. The church at Kamagambo was voted to be named after my dad Gene Hunter as he was so loved by the community – this has brought great comfort to his surviving daughters through the years. I remember my dad eating dinner with the students (he ate as they ate and knew how their diet was because he was one of them – and he started the gardens for the students at Kamagambo because he saw the same veggies being served day after day). The gardens provided employment so the students could work off part of their student payments.
Jillian in the middle, Velma left, Cheryl back, Lynette right, with father Gene Hunter to the utmost right.
The youngest Hunter sisters to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Picture above is of the expansive savannah under the shadow of snow capped Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background. Newer pics of Mt. Kilimanjaro don’t have as much snow, you can see the effects of global warming by the snow cap melting. Pic below is of the student body and faculty of Kamagambo.
Kamagambo Secondary School and Teacher Training College early 1970s. Secondary level is the equivalent to high school in the States. Hunter family is the European as we were called family front left – although as kids we are in the right side of the pic too.
We ate a lot of trail mix during our trek up the volcano. Raisin and peanuts, a wonderful, tasty combination, but we had it so often we got sick of it and felt reluctant to eat it for years afterwards lol. We boiled water for drinking water on the climb too. In fact, we boiled water for drinking the entire 6 years my parents served as teachers in Kenya. We stored the boiled water in a ‘matengi’ or clay pot with a spout in the dining room. Boiling water is just something you know you have to do to have safe drinking water.
The climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro was very different back in the day. You actually had to be able to hike a certain number of kilometers to make it to the next hut to avoid the wild animals that didn’t restrict themselves to gameparks. There was no such thing as carrying a tent and making a camp when you wanted to. You had to make it to the next hut that had co ed bunks for all the hikers. My dad use to open the door to let fresh air in for his daughters because other hikers would smoke in their cots. Reluctantly they began to go outside to smoke because they wanted the warmth to stay within. I’ve heard that they are considering having buses at the top of the Mount to drive people down after the climb, something that we would never have even imagined back in the 1970’s! If you look at the distances involved, the height of the moutain, Mt. Kili is quite high. There are a lot of rules about age, they think only African children can do it: “of course Velma, as she was born on the continent, of course she could do it”. It still takes an exceptional athletic child to do it.
Altitudes, above 15,000′ are high risk. Pikes Peak is over 14,114′ and people get headaches from driving to the top because the air is so thin. For Mt. Kilimanjaro at 19,341 feet conditioning is so important due to the low oxygen. You get there under your own strength and you have to keep going. They didn’t carry oxygen back in the 1970’s. People spend $10,000 to do it today, it is still a big thing.
As the Hunter sisters climbed Mount Kilimanjaro we often heard the guide and porters saying “Pole, pole” pronounced ‘pohlee, pohlee’ with two syllables. They believed a slow and steady pace won the day. The translation is ‘slowly slowly’ and everything is done pole pole in Africa. As kids we were delighted to find chameleons on the climb, what is it about kids and bugs lol. The locals had a myth about chameleons being so slow and they didn’t like them much due to a common legend about them. Since we lived in Kenya from 1970-1976 we knew some basic Swahili phrases like how to count to ten which was important for bargaining with the locals. Another Swahili word is the “Hodee” greeting when you entered a home that loosely translated means ‘may I come in’ while the person inside called out ‘Karibu’ to welcome you in. We used this daily at our neighbors house. Another phrase we used often was “Asante-sana”– Thank you VERY much. When it was mealtime the call of ‘chakula’ would ring out and we would walk towards the place we heard it for food! Hapana meant no. I’d say the word we used the most in Swahili was ‘jambo’ for a friendly hello. In the 1970’s everyone use to greet you with a warm handshake. “Jambo, other person would reply: Jambo sani, first person: “Habari” and 2nd person: “Nzuri” for fine or beautiful and that is how a greeting in Swahili went.
The topography of each day climbing Mt. Kili was different. On the first day we walked through the most beautiful rainforest that was alive with activity from its canopy with twittering birds to babbling streams and moss covered rocks. My mom stayed at this level to do some bird watching. The rainforest indelilblly imprinted itself on my mind as one of the most wonderful places on earth. As one climbed the vegetation changed. At one level there were lots of trees, as you climbed higher only shrubbery, and finally by day 3 nothing grew at all and there was just volcanic rock. The guide led us along a dried out river bed for part of the hike as a shortcut. We were seriously instructed to run to the sides if we heard the sound of thunder, for a flash flood might be heading our way. It was risky to do the climb in more ways than altitude sickness in the day when no one carried oxygen.
At the third hut the air was very thin. We lived in tropical Kenya and didn’t exactly own winter clothing, so our parents stopped at a friends home, who is now President of Loma Linda University in California, and he loaned us some heavy clothing. At the third hut I remember my dad giving me one of his long sleeve dress shirts to try to help me stay warmer. The snowcap was much bigger on Kilimanjaro back in the day, so the glacer and snow at the top was freezing. Blisters and freezing and sunburn, it was all part of the climb.
The hike at the top was the toughest. Dad divided us into 3 groups. Dad sent most of the porters down to a lower altitude and thus a lower hut with the boxes of supplies they carried on their heads while the guide and one porter stayed with us. Yes, boxes held our supplies, we didn’t have access to fancy backpacks like most people would expect today. We didn’t have Gor Fleece or any of the fancy modern coats and sleeping bags, afterall we lived in tropical Kenya. My parents were missionaries not tourist. In fact, we had no phones and no tv where we lived just outside of Kisii, Kenya. We grew a garden behind our house and often had meals like maize and pineapple and bananas right from the garden, and safely slept under mosquito nets at night. Malaria almost took the life of Jillian Hunter, it took our playmates Gloria and John Gibson’s mom soon after we arrived at Kamagambo and we often thought of Eva Gibson as we passed the building Kamgambo named after her in her honor. Little did we know that one day our dad’s name would be on the church in his honor after he gave his life serving the people he loved. (He loved Kamagambo so much he wanted to retire there and Jillian, his youngest daughter, when she returned to Kenya with her family on a medical clinic was told she could retire in Kenya because ‘You’re one of us”.)
At that time we climbed the face of the mountain that everyone ascended, that was covered with scree, which are slippery volcanic rocks. It was so slippery we had to climb sideways instead of going straight up. The trail zig zagged back and forth for 7 miles, the one mile hike turned into 7 miles as we hiked back and forth to make it to the top. If you tried to go directly up you would slip backwards on the scree. Gasping for breath my dad wanted to turn back. ‘One more step daddy, just one more step” I encouraged as we slowly made it to the top.We could see the top, it just took 6 more miles to get there!
Lynette and Cheryl got up at 3 am at the third hut to begin the trek at the top of the mountain, aiming to hit the top right when the sun broke over the horizon. To see sunrise above the cloud line. The glacer at the top was beautiful and haunting, the wild wind whistled across the glacier and it sounded like a pipe organ, very beautiful. Dad made a walking stick for me that I used a lot on the scree, even offering to share it with my dad. My dad and I got up at 6 am to make the climb, the sun would come out then and it would be warmer…partly because I didn’t have clothing for the snow…I don’t remember having a winter coat but I did have UV protection in my sunglasses! No one stayed at the top for long, we wrote our names in the book there and then we needed to get down where there was more oxygen in the air. We held hands and slid down the mountain taking giant steps, sliding several feet with one stride, our holding hands preventing us from going out of control. We had to walk 2 days hike that day, trying to get down to where there was more oxygen. It was exhausting beyond belief. I remember being bone tired. 3 days hiking up, 2 days hiking down.
They made the complete hike up and down the mountain, with their father, Gene Douglas Hunter, in five days with one rest day at the third hut.
I loved hearing all the names of the countries that were represented by other hikers that we met, often around a campfire at night when we boiled water for drinking. It fascinated me, all the cultures represented. There was a comaraderie among the hikers that was memorable.It began a lifelong interest in other countries.
The week my dad passed away in Sept. 1976 my older sister and he were trying to climb to point Lenana on Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro Uhuru point within a week of each other. They completed climbing Mt. Kenya and were on their way to Mt. Kilimanjaro when the Cesna crash happened that four people from my family were in. My dad suffered 3rd degree burns that took his life soon after. I am grateful for all those in our African community who held us children in their hearts all these years, as Maya Angelou said ‘I’ve had a lot of clouds, but I’ve had a lot of rainbows in my life’.
Velma Gene Hunter at age 9 climbed and summited Mt. Kilimanjaro. She wrote her name beside her dad Gene Hunter at the top of the mountain. The guide and porters picked wildflowers growing on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro and wove the flowers into a wreath and gave the everlasting flower wreaths to each to celebrate, the guide who had decades of experience climbing said to the Hunter sisters “You are the youngest sisters to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro”. and the guide said to Velma Gene “You are the youngest girl in the world to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.” when he presented her with the wreath to wear on her head. Her mom kept the wreath all these years.
Velma was born in Butterworth, South Africa and holds dual Canadian and USA citizenship. At Solusi college in South Africa my mom remembers Velma at 2 years of age taking daddy’s hand and walking with him to town a couple kilometers away. Mom said I was always like that, always wanting to go on walks with daddy, always taking his hand, and at Kamagambo mom remembers Velma and her sisters always doing cartwheels up and down the hallway…and climbing Mt. Kili was a special walk fondly remembered with sisters and daddy.