Mt. Airy native climbs Mt. Kilimanjaro at the age of 81

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, a man born in 1930 isn’t expected to live to see his 60th birthday. It appears no one ever told that to 81 year-old Mt. Airy native Wallace “Jerry” Martindale, whose age isn’t the only thing defying statistics.

Two months before his 82nd birthday, Martindale returned from his hike of Africa’s tallest mountain, Mt. Kilimanjaro. His group started the ascent on June 10 and spent nine days hiking up the mountain until they reached the summit at 19,000 ft. on June 19.  It took them three days to come down, finishing on June 23.

However, his hike in Tanzania isn’t his first foray into high-altitude hiking. “I’ve climbed 18,000 ft. to the Mt. Everest base camp when I was 74 years old. I’ve climbed about 16,000 ft. to the K-2 base camp in Pakistan when I was 55, and I climbed 14,000 ft. to the peak of the Matterhorn in the Alps when I was 40,” said Martindale modestly.

Mt. Airy roots

Jerry Martindale grew up in West Mt. Airy, attended Germantown Friends School and received his doctorate in mathematics from the University of Pennsylvania. Joining him on his most recent excursion to Mt. Kilimanjaro was his daughter Madeleine Martindale.

Planning for the climb

“We really started talking about it a year ago, Madeleine and I, and she was the one who made it all come together, “said Martindale, “I told her I wanted to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and she was very supportive and she worked out all of the details.”

At the ripe age of 50, Madeleine was ready to make the trip with her father and knew someone who could guide their trek. In 2006, her medical experience had her working as a high altitude doctor in the Himalayan Mountains where she treated Chris Pilley for a frost bitten foot. The two became friends through their mutual passion for hiking, and it turned out Chris operated the Tanzania-based Bush2Beach Safari Company. They’ve since stayed in touch, so when Madeleine’s father said he wanted to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro she knew exactly who to call.

“She made possible all of the preliminary intangibles and all the accommodations, things that I wouldn’t necessarily know where to begin setting up,” said Martindale, “She helped me with all of those things, which allowed me to focus on just getting ready for the climb.”

Physical training

In preparation for his trek up the 19,000 ft. mountain trail, he trained for about three to four months working with a physical trainer in a gym and climbing an outdoor staircase in Manayunk with his oldest daughter Emily Law.

Emily would accompany her father on as he marched up the Manayunk steps, but her busy schedule at home prevented her from joining him on the trip to Africa. When it came time for him to actually get on the plane to leave, Emily admits it was emotional.

“I wished him the best of luck, and was excited for him, but there was a part of me that couldn’t deny that this might be the last time I’m ever going to see my father,” Emily said.

Even with all the preparations, Martindale recognized there would be other deterrents besides just his age and physical condition.

“I would walk up and down them a couple times each week to get my legs ready for the climb, but nothing you can do here will prepare you for what the altitude can do to your body,” he said.

Risk of high altitude sickness

Hiking at high elevations can bring on altitude sickness, or acute mountain sickness, which causes dizziness, fatigue, headaches, respiratory problems, and sleeping problems for hikers. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, it is the body’s reaction to reduced air pressure and low oxygen levels at altitudes exceeding 8,000 ft. This is where Martindale believes his previous hiking experience proved beneficial.

“I’ve been at high elevations before on Mt. Everest and the K-2, and I think my body remembered that,” the 81-year-old Martindale said, “So, when we were approaching the summit I didn’t feel as much of the affects of the altitude that I thought I would have.”

To limit the amount of time he would spend walking each day, he and his daughter Madeleine planned the longest possible route up the mountain that would take them nine days to reach the summit and three days to descend.

Daughter evacuated

However, after having spent all the time and effort into planning Madeleine came down with gastric-intestinal issue on the first days of hiking and had to be evacuated down the mountain at around 13,000 feet. Something Martindale admits he didn’t like, but was prepared for.

“We had talked about this before, and if any one of us to stop the hike for any reason the other would do their best to continue,” he said, “and she had the unfortunate luck to come down with this stomach bug and had to be rescued to the main town, but I decided to go on.”

Tracking progress from Philly

While all of this was happening, Jerry’s daughter, Emily, remained back in Philadelphia anxiously waiting updates on her father’s condition.

“It was hard because after my sister had to be rescued I couldn’t really get in contact with anybody on the mountain,” Emily said, “All I could receive were these short, less than 10-word updates from the trekking company’s website saying ‘We are at this location, at this many thousand feet and Jerry’s fine.’ It was very nerve-racking not being able to ask any questions.”

After his daughter had to turn back, Martindale continued with his three guides and 12 local Tanzanian porters whom spoke Swahili and carried most of the camp’s equipment.

Going for the summit

After hiking for around four hours for the first eight days of the climb, he admits the summit climb was the toughest, hiking around nine hours that day.

“When I reached the top I didn’t have enough strength to start jumping for joy, but I can tell you that I was very pleased that I had made it to the top,” said Martindale.

The Mt. Airy native said he stayed at the peak for about a half an hour, then made the descent down the mountain. There, he was reunited with his daughter and they prepared to go back to the United States.

Expenses

Martindale said the cost of the trip wasn’t too outlandish for a retired mathematics professor like himself. “It was around $9,000 for my daughter and I, plus I cashed in a few frequent flier miles,” said Martindale with a chuckle.

Emily was glad to see her father again and spend a nice family meal together at his current home in Wyndmoor, Pa. upon his return. Martindale was glad to spend time with his daughter and grandchildren as well, but admits that he was a little sore. He says he doesn’t have any more extravagant hiking excursions planned, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t looking.

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