TULALIP — Two years ago, at age 66, Joe Spangler was in no shape to climb mountains.
A high-country hiker when he was young, Spangler got busy with his career and family and gave away his outdoor equipment. He did very little hiking for 30 years.
Now, at 68, he’s climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the 19,340-foot mountain that is Africa’s highest peak.
Spangler, of Tulalip, reached the summit on Christmas Eve. He was the oldest in the seven-member climbing group by more than 20 years.
Spangler was told by his American guide, who has taken seven or eight different groups up the mountain, that he was the oldest person the guide had ever taken to the top. He earned the nickname “Papa” from a Tanzanian guide.
“You are one tough old coot,” his American guide told him.
Kilimanjaro, a volcano, is considered the largest free-standing mountain in the world. There are quite a few taller mountains, but all of those are part of ranges.
Now, Spangler has not only bagged one of the Seven Summits — the highest point on each of the seven continents — but is thinking about another.
“I’m toying with idea of (Mount) Aconcagua,” Spangler said, referring to the 22,841-foot peak in Argentina, South America’s highest.
When came the transformation?
After Spangler retired a few years ago, from careers in advertising, publishing and carpentry, the adventure bug started creeping back.
“What I’d really like to do is climb mountains,” he told his wife, Sheryl, one day.
She was all for it.
“It’s something he really wanted to do and we just support each other in those things,” said Sheryl Spangler, who works as a business coach.
So Joe hired a personal trainer, and together they created a training program tailored to mountain climbing.
“I really started working out hard,” he said.
In July 2006, in his mid-60s, he became a regular at Gold’s Gym in Marysville. An hour on the Stairmaster, sometimes with a 45-pound pack on his back. Half an hour on the treadmill, at a 15 percent incline. About 200 leg extensions at 75 pounds. Three sets of 20 hamstring extensions at 65 pounds. About 100 to 200 sit-ups.
“In my whole life, I’ve never been in the condition I’m in right now,” he said.
Spangler’s at the gym for two hours at a time, five days a week. Last spring, Spangler started scaling local mountains, including Mount Pilchuck and Mount Si. Intending to go up Mount Rainier, he took a mountaineering class and learned how to climb with ropes.
He went up with a group in June, only to be turned back at 11,100 feet by high winds. The guide decided it wasn’t safe, Spangler said.
Then he learned about a December expedition up Kilimanjaro through a company called International Mountain Guides. It cost $7,000 for airfare, lodging, meals and a photo safari, so he went back to carpentry part time to help pay the bill.
Sheryl, who believes strongly in visualizing success, suggested to Joe that he do a visioning exercise on the plane on the way over. He pictured himself standing on the summit and feeling the crunch of rocks under his feet. The end result came out nearly identical to his mental picture, he said.
The group took five days to go up the mountain. It was mostly just hard hiking, and the group did not use ropes, ice-climbing equipment or oxygen. The hikers didn’t hit snow and ice until about 15,000 feet, Spangler said.
The terrain was “very bare, very desolate,” he said.
The hardest part was using hands and feet to scramble over rocks on the Barranco ridge, Spangler said. “It was like 1,500 feet of just straight wall,” he said.
The group started its summit push at midnight Christmas Eve and reached the rim of the crater about 8 a.m. “We had to go around the rim and up.”
They reached the summit about 8:45 a.m. It was a crystal clear day, with the temperature in the high 20s, Spangler said.
“The view was spectacular,” he said.
The group stayed at the top about an hour and headed down. Taking a different route, they made it down in a day and a half.
In retrospect, Spangler said, his conditioning was critical to making the summit — but even more important was his state of mind.
“You have to have a positive mental attitude,” he said.
“I knew he would make it,” Sheryl Spangler said. “I didn’t have any doubt about that.”
Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.