John with his son and grandsons at the start of the trek
John Thelen is an 82-year-old Southern California native who likes golfing and relaxing with his family. It just so happens he can also summit Africa’s tallest mountain with no problem.
“I didn’t seem to have trouble going up!” John told us when he returned. “I had no symptoms from altitude sickness. I didn’t take anything either. I didn’t have it before and I didn’t have it this time. The going up was great.”
To his other trekking experience – a journey to Everest basecamp 40 years ago. John hasn’t trekked a significant peak since. He’s one of the lucky few who doesn’t have a strong reaction to altitude. He made easy work of the trek up Kilimanjaro.
But that’s not solely due to natural ability. John credits his son Michael and his grandsons Austin and Jason for the success, too.
“It was great being with my sons. We helped each other,” John said. “At altitude, everyone needs a little help. The brain is getting too little oxygen. It goes sideways a little. The lack of oxygen is the thing that changes everything. Until you’ve done it, you don’t know how you’ll react.”
It’s common for some trekkers to feel nausea or experience headaches, but that wasn’t John’s case. He remembers a vague, distracted feeling – a sort of hazy compulsion to withdraw into his thoughts.
“It’s a great introspective experience,” he said.
A Steady Ascent to Uhuru Peak
John found his rhythm, and his family steadily powered through the last 7,000-foot stretch to the summit.
It’s important to consider the pace of a summit bid at this point in the journey. Trekkers aren’t racing up the mountain, taking the peak by brute force. It’s a methodical, meandering crawl (pole pole in Swahili) using the rest step.
One step. Breathe. Another step. Breathe. Repeat… Repeat… Repeat – for five hours.
John smiles for a snapshot at camp
It’s a test of endurance and discipline. A head guide walks at the helm, carefully setting the pace for the group. Trekkers trail in a line. The Thelen family’s head guide was Andrew Kitema – a trekking veteran of more than twenty years.
“Going up the last day, I was right behind Andrew. When he took a step, I’d take a step. He knows all about altitude and the rest step. I copied him,” John said. “My son was having trouble. I didn’t know this, but he was saying ‘if my father can take another step, so can I.’ I was saying the same thing about Andrew!”
Gentle Leadership Everyone Enjoyed
John gives a lot of credit to his head guide and three support guides for his successful summit. It wasn’t just the team’s experience, either. Andrew and the others had an effective leadership style.
“They’re all very aware of the abilities of the trekkers. Everyone felt they were involved in what was happening. None of the leaders walked too fast. Everyone kept up. That was one of the beautiful things I saw on the trek,” John recalled. “Andrew’s leadership was beautiful. We would not have made it or done as well without Andrew. And I have experience here! Andrew was gentle and gave directions in a way everyone enjoyed. Every night at dinner, Andrew and the 3 assistant guides would give a 15-minute talk and tell everyone how great they were doing. They monitored oxygen and pulse and just were always encouraging, upbeat and supportive.”
The Thelens take a family photo at the ‘Roof of Africa’
That attention paid enormous dividends, according to John. He recalled other trekking groups passing at a lightning pace just to fall behind later. Scattered groups let excitement get the best of them, and retreating trekkers who failed to reach the summit were a daily sight. Meanwhile, Andrew led the team diligently.
Watchful, seasoned support played another important role as well.
“It’s obvious safety was our number 1 concern,” John recalled. “Coming down, my porter was right behind me, right next to me, and he caught me as I stumbled backward.”
Uncertainty is a constant on Kilimanjaro. Rugged trails make stumbles common. John nearly fell once; his grandson Jason nearly fell a different time. A porter was there to catch them both.
“This is big stuff. It’s not kiddy stuff,” John said. “And we always felt that our safety was the number one priority.”
In the end, the Thelen family made it to Uhuru peak, which was a special experience for John.
“I noticed on the summit, other trekkers had these little shrines and engraved porcelain. This was very moving for me personally. I lost my wife 4 years ago, and I was touched by that idea,” John said. “It was very fulfilling for me to just sit there and maybe cry a little bit on top of the world. It’s beautiful on top of Kili”
What’s next for the Thelen family?
The family takes a final photo before leaving Kilimanjaro National Park
John is more than ready for the family’s next adventure.
“I’d go again! I’ve been back a week, and I’d go again,” John said.
But more likely, they’ll set their sights on the Andes.
“We may do the hike up to Machu Picchu,” John said. “And I’ve always wanted to do the way over to Portugal from Northern Spain [El Camino de Santiago].”
Wherever adventure takes them, we wish happy travels to the Thelen family!