On top of Africa: After Kilimanjaro climb, Whitson eager for next mountaineering challenge

Nov. 19—ANDERSON — "Into Thin Air," a bestselling memoir published by journalist Jon Krakauer detailing an ill-fated expedition to climb Mount Everest, is hardly the sort of reading material aspiring mountaineers turn to when seeking inspiration to conquer the world's highest peaks.

But for Clayton Whitson, the tale recounting the 1996 disaster — which took the lives of eight climbers and stranded several others in a raging blizzard — proved to be a mesmerizing catalyst which helped turn a love of the outdoors into a passion for something more.

"I know that kind of sounds counterintuitive," said Whitson, president and CEO of the Madison County Chamber of Commerce. "The thrill of the challenge is kind of what drew me."

About five years ago, Whitson began thinking about summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano in Tanzania that, in addition to being the highest mountain in Africa at 19,341 feet, is also the highest free-standing mountain in the world.

He started actively training for the climb more than a year ago, but an Achilles injury in late February hampered him. By June, less than five months before he was scheduled to travel to Africa, he was "pretty much immobile." His regimen, he noted, became nontraditional — "a lot of low-impact, high cardio," he said.

He pressed on with his training, driven in part by a love of the outdoors passed down to him by his father, Curt.

"He's a big outdoors enthusiast and taught my siblings and I so much about appreciating that sense of freedom you find in nature," Whitson said. "It's a perfect mental reset. When work and life stress get to you, there's nothing better than the zero noise pollution of being out on the trail by yourself."

In September, a trek to the summit of Colorado's Mount Elbert — at 14,440 feet, the highest point in the Rocky Mountains and the second highest point in the contiguous U.S. — served as a final trial run for the Kilimanjaro expedition. Despite a slight case of altitude sickness, Whitson declared himself ready.

After a day-long flight from Indianapolis to Kilimanjaro International Airport, Whitson and a group of four other climbers met up with their guides. They had less than a day to acclimate before beginning their trek in Kilimanjaro National Park. The climb was a gradual four-day transition from mossy rain forest to grasslands and through an alpine desert with geologic outcroppings before the group made a final push to the summit on Oct. 19.

Whitson said the last stretch — after watching the sun rise over Mawenzi Peak, Kilimanjaro's second highest — was a grueling 7 1/2 -hour climb virtually straight up, with temperatures varying from 20 degrees to -20 degrees. But with his first glimpse at a powder blue sky from the "Roof of Africa," his emotions nearly overwhelmed him as he remembered what he had fought through — physically and mentally — to reach his goal.

"It caught me off guard, how emotional that was," Whitson said. "I got pretty ill up there — some headaches, some dizziness, some nosebleeds — just fighting through all of this to finally get to that moment, that kind of crowning achievement.

"It was kind of like this huge sigh of relief, of all of the hard work and all the mental preparation, finally just all coming together."

It didn't take Whitson long to begin thinking about what's next. He mentioned Alaska's Denali — the highest peak in North America — and Aconcagua in Argentina, which is the highest non-Asian peak on Earth, as potential targets. However, if those trips never materialize, he said the memories from Kilimanjaro will stay with him for a lifetime.

"If anything, it has further furthered my love of the outdoors and my exploration of mountaineering," Whitson said. "I would have been disappointed had it been not as special, but it absolutely lived up to everything that I had expected it to be."

Follow Andy Knight on Twitter @Andrew_J_Knight, or call 765-640-4809.