Day by day, the glaciers that drape the pinnacle of Mount Kilimanjaro are receding. For William Gillies Jr. ’78, each drop of water from the melting ice seemed like sand in an hourglass—marking the passing of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the view from the tallest mountain in Africa and fourth highest of the Seven Summits.
“The glaciers are receding pretty quickly. They calculate that they’re only going to last another 10 years,” says Gillies. “I knew the window of opportunity was closing. If I was going to do the climb, I had to do it now.”
A seasoned athlete, Gillies has a wanderlust that has taken him around the world. He has gone scuba diving in the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Egypt. He has trekked mountains in Nepal, Peru, Rwanda, New Zealand, and India. He also has been on safari in Africa and great white shark diving in South Africa.
An economics and business graduate, Gillies is a self-employed financial consultant in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he worked for Merrill Lynch & Company, serving in a variety of capacities since completing his MBA at Duke University.
On his most recent adventure last summer, Gillies joined a group of experienced climbers in hiking to the Uhura summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, 19,341 feet above sea level. The seven-day trek is a 65-mile roundtrip journey that ascends roughly 12,000 feet.
To prepare, Gillies did six months of aerobic training. In the three weeks prior to the climb, he went on several hikes at locations 10,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level to get accustomed to the effects of higher altitudes.
Gillies’ group made its ascent via the Western Breach, the riskiest of six routes to the summit. The path takes climbers over the top of the crater rim and traverses the edge of a glacier. As a result of the melting ice, the Western Breach is prone to landslides. In January 2006, this route was closed for approximately one year when three climbers died in a massive landslide.
Calling it his “best worst decision,” Gillies says the climb required a healthy measure of “mental toughness.” Most who take the trek experience altitude sickness, with 60 percent of travelers having strong symptoms. Summiting requires hikers to climb on their hands and knees over boulders. Only 40 percent are successful.
“It would drop down to the 20s overnight,” says Gillies. “When you’re above 12,000 feet, 20 degrees feels like zero. Your resting heart rate, which typically might be 60 to 70 beats per minute, goes up to 90 to 95. So, even rolling in your sleeping bag will make you out of breath.
“You summit at midnight. When I first started up the rim, it was 20 degrees and dark. My path was lit by a headlamp. Five hours into it, I was a little speck on the side of the mountain. I knew that no one was going to rescue me. I had two options—go back down or continue up. So, I went up.
“As the sun rose, I crested the crater rim. At that point, I knew that I was going to make it.”
After cresting, the group descended more than 9,000 feet in approximately 10 hours that same day. The quick descent took as much of a toll as the ascent, as climbers experienced muscle and joint pain. The group camped overnight, descending the remaining 3,000 feet on the final day of the journey.