A first for Mt. Kilimanjaro – the youngest sisters to climb Mt Kili

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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.  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.  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, (now called Kamagambo University) in Kisii, Kenya from 1970 to 1976.

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 gave the everlasting flower wreaths to each to celebrate, the guide said to Velma “You are the youngest girl in the world to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.” when he presented her with the wreath to wear on her head. My mom kept the wreath all these years.

Picture is of the expansive savannah under the shadow of snow capped Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background. Four Hunter sisters and dad who set world record climbing Mt. Kili, Newer pics of Mt. Kilimanjaro don’t have as much snow, you can see the effects of global warming by the snow cap melting.

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 year 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!

The topography of each day 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.

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, 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. Blisters and sunburn, it was all part of the climb.

The hike at the top was the toughest. Dad sent most of the porters down to a lower hut with the boxes of supplies they carried on their heads while the guide and one porter stayed with us. At that time we climbed the face of the mountain that everyone ascended, that was covered with scree, 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. 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. Lynette and Cheryl got up at 3 am 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. Dad made a walking stick for me that I used a lot on the scree, even offering to share it with my dad. 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, 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 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.

The week my dad passed away my older sister and he were trying to climb Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro within a week. They completed climbing Mt. Kenya and were on their way to Mt. Kilimanjaro when the plane crash happened that 4 people from my family were in. My dad suffered 3rd degree burns that took his life soon after.

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, and climbing Mt. Kili was a special walk with daddy.

shutterstock_60854839 medium size Large adult elephant with a snow covered Mount Kilimanjaro in the background

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