The man: Macon Dunnagan. The mountain: Kilimanjaro. The mission: Climb the 19,341-foot-high peak in Africa in July.
Dunnagan, five other hikers and 23 porters climbed four days and 32 miles to get to the top. They began the last stretch at 2 a.m. in darkness, reaching the summit at sunrise. The temperature was a numbing 5 degrees below zero. All celebrate. Mission accomplished.
Except that wasn’t the first time the Charlottean had summited Africa’s highest mountain. It was the 41st. Starting in 1999, Dunnagan had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro 40 other times, averaging more than two times a year. As far as he knows, no other active U.S. climber has knocked off Kilimanjaro that many times.
“It’s a weird place to be,” Dunnagan, 57, said of the Arctic-like, rocky summit. “It’s a moonscape with an ice cap on top of it. You’re tired. You’ve been without a shower for four days. It’s one foot in front of the other. Everybody wants to see the sun coming up.”
In Kilimanjaro’s thin air, the stars in the Milky Way and Southern Cross are so brilliant they dazzle the eye. “The full moon is blinding – you can’t even look at it,” he said.
Dunnagan came to embrace Kilimanjaro by chance. He won a drawing for airline tickets to Africa and joined three others on his first trip up the dormant volcano. Then he began organizing and leading tours up the peak in Tanzania. Today, he’s expedition director for the U.S. and Canada for Zara Tours in Moshi, Tanzania. In appreciation of his work, Tanzania named him an honorary tourism ambassador.
Dunnagan’s tour groups consist of hikers and Tanzanian porters, who carry supplies, cook meals and put up tents. He said each trip has 2.5 porters for every hiker, meaning 50 people may make up a tour. Some days Kilimanjaro’s seven trails may have hundreds of people from different outfitters.
Going up, the hike is relaxed with time to stop and look. “Kilimanjaro is not a race,” he said. “I set the pace for everybody. We set a very slow, steady even pace.” That enables climbers to acclimate their bodies to the 13,000-foot elevation change so as to prevent altitude sickness. (Hikers are driven in vehicles from Moshi, the gateway community, to the starting point at 6,000 feet.) The trek to the summit takes four days; the last six hours are at night. Descent takes two days for an overall total of 52 miles.
Dunnagan established a Kilimanjaro endurance record in 2012. He hiked to the summit four times in 28 days, with 24 days on the trail. Next year, he plans to lead three trips in July to the mighty mountain following a trip in February.
Along the way, he estimates he’s guided 250-300 people up Kilimanjaro. He’s promoted two charitable causes, Ovarian Cancer Canada and End Polio Now. He estimates his hikers have raised more than $500,000 for ovarian cancer research and more than $500,000 for the Rotary Club’s “End Polio Now” project. In 2012, he accompanied 28 Charlotte Rotarians up the mountain, raising almost $100,000 for the project. Dunnagan, who works for American Airlines, said he leads the tours as a hobby.
Mount Kilimanjaro lies 200 miles south of the Equator, with bushland and rainforest near the bottom and bitter cold at the top. While it was 5 below at the summit on the July trip, Dunnagan said, it was 80 degrees near the foot of the mountain.
Of 41 expeditions, what was Dunnagan’s worst experience? “That was the time we got into an ice fog on Kilimanjaro, a cloud layer. It was -10 degrees. Everything instantly froze. Backpacks, cameras. It flash-froze the mountain. Miserable, miserable time. Everything was coated in ice.”
His best? That came in 2007, after his wife, Michelle, had died from ovarian cancer. He carried her ashes to the summit following her request. “I put Michelle’s ashes on the top of Kilimanjaro. To do that, it was just a very gratifying experience that I was able to grant her final wish.”
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Contact Macon Dunnagan at firstname.lastname@example.org