Webster resident Robert J. Wheeler becomes oldest person to reach mountain's summit
Robert J. Wheeler and his son Jack at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. photo courtesy of Robert Wheeler (click for larger version)
Wheeler, 85, recently returned from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak at 19,340, and will soon be listed in the Guinness World Records as the oldest person to reach the summit.
Enjoying a well-earned rest in his Webster Groves century home, Wheeler, who returned Oct. 7, said he wanted to "demonstrate to people that they don't have to become couch potatoes just because they're old."
Wheeler gave two reasons for doing this particular climb.
In 2010, he published a book, "Mountains and Minds," that alternates chapters with mountain climbing stories and his work in psychology.
"It has to do with why people do ridiculous things like climb mountains," he said. "I'm preparing a second edition and added chapters so I had to have another mountain climbing story, and that's how I decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. That was the first reason.
"The second is that I wanted to demonstrate that elderly, frail old people like me can get to the top of something like Kilimanjaro," he said. "I'm not a special person and I don't have athletic abilities."
Because of osteoarthritis, Wheeler has had both knees and shoulders replaced.
"I'm working on a new set of joints," he said. "My last knee replacement was in January, so I think it's interesting that in nine months, a frail old man can climb to the top of Kilimanjaro."
Robert Wheeler in his Webster Groves home following his trek up Mount Kilimanjaro. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
Some of his climbing experiences include Mt. Fuji in Japan; Mt. Aconcagua, which is the highest peak in South America; Heipori Mount in Tibet; and Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States, in California. His son, Jack, who lives in Philadelphia, has accompanied his father on these climbs.
"Dad admitted to me that he had his last hurrah on Kilimanjaro," his son said. "He wants to concentrate on his book now. I'm just glad I was able to join him on his last mountain. Not many get to share those experiences with their dad."
Wheeler learned his mountaineering skills while he was an Army Ranger, or "a gung-ho young soldier" as he described it.
When he was in Japan, he and a companion decided to climb Mt. Fuji.
"Everyone said not to do it because it was November and the weather was bad," he said. "We did it anyway, and as we got toward the top, we started suffering from hypoxia because we weren't acclimated to high altitudes, then we started suffering from hypothermia because it was so cold. We couldn't move fast enough to keep our body temperature up."
They ended that attempt, but Wheeler and his son returned in July 2008 to conquer the 22,398-foot peak.
Wheeler prepared for his Mt. Kilimanjaro climb by strapping on his 10-pound pack and hiking the Chubb Trail in Tyson Park.
The climb uo Mt. Kilimanjaro took seven days – five days going up and two days coming down. Each day they covered 3,000 feet. Normal mountaineering is 1,000 feet.
"The first two days we hiked in a rain forest," he said. "On the way up, we stayed two days in camp at different points to get acclimated to the altitude. After the third day, it was pretty steep. The tradition is to climb to the summit at night to arrive at sunrise, then start down."
Base camp at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Webster Groves resident Robert J. Wheeler achieved a world record climb accompanied by his son. photo courtesy of Robert J. Wheeler (click for larger version)
"Frequently people get discouraged when they look up and see where they have to go, so it's more comfortable for them to climb if they can't see it," Wheeler explained. "Also, the precipice dropping off the mountain gets scary when you can look down. I personally think that's kind of silly!"
The climb was "arduous" he said. "My lungs were hurting, my legs were sore, my back was hurting, but as long as I could get one foot in front of the other, I went on. It was probably nice to be at night so I could concentrate on walking and not look at the scenery."
After reaching the summit, he said he was "so cold and so tired and hurting, all I could think about was 'Let's get down.'"
For the Guinness record, he had to get two independent witnesses and pictures, and that took some time.
The trek down, he said, was terrible because of the fast pace and having to step around the rocks.
When he is not climbing mountains, Wheeler is a research psychologist at St. Louis University, where he is interested in personality characteristics that contribute to health, well-being and performance.
Now, having conquered the formidable task of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, he will devote his time to writing the second edition of his book detailing his experience and telling oldsters that age should not make a difference in the level of activity.