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Park City’s Karsten Gillwald summits Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro

MOUNT KILIMANJARO, Africa — While many around the world were awake at 6 a.m. on Christmas for one reason, Karsten Gillwald was awake for a very different reason; he was summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. 

The Park City High School Class of 2011 alumni had never been to Africa before beginning training eight months prior. Training consisted of hiking the 11,700-foot high Mount Timpanogos and the 9,200-foot Mount Olympus. “Then, when it got too snowy for that,” he told TownLift, “I just went to the Westminster gym, where I live, and worked out on the StairMaster.”

Mt. Kilimanjaro.

He was part of a group led by a Tanzania-based company called Climbing Kilimanjaro which included 12 clients; two people from Paris, one man from London, one from India, and a handful of folks from around the U.S. English and Swahili were the two languages spoken on the trip.

Gillwald’s global achievement came in the transition between his old and new jobs, putting his University of Utah double master’s in Public Health/Healthcare Administration to good work. 

He’s been the pandemic-time continuity of operations planning coordinator for the Utah Public Health Lab. He’s switching jobs and is the new operational excellence consultant for the Utah Department of Health and Human Services.

Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Working out daily was already his regimen, with lots of running for his gig as a national soccer referee. His passion for that sport started with his participation in the Park City Soccer Club, an organization for which his mom, Shelley, is the executive director. His dad, Pete, a local football commentator, is the president of Wasatch Luge, a sport both Gillwald and his sister, Anika, competed in at the Utah Olympic Park, where he used to work as an EMT.

When asked if climbing Kilimanjaro was harder or easier than he expected, he said, “I expected it to be hard, so my expectations were definitely accurate. Living where I do, having the Utah mountains to train helped a ton, especially with the altitude acclimatization. Whereas a lot of people in the group who came from sea level were really struggling with altitude, I did pretty well with it, especially on summit day. Summit day was exceptionally challenging because it was a 14-hour day of hiking, with gear, and we gained 4,000 feet in elevation in only three miles.”

They experienced cooperative weather, for the most part. At one point, during a brief snowstorm, the Gatorade in his Camelback became nearly frozen. Gillwald hoped as he hiked that for the view from the top, the clouds would disperse, and he’d enjoy seeing what he’s worked so hard to see from the 19,300-foot peak. He got his wish and had a profound feeling of relief as the sun was just starting to rise, the clouds were gone, and he got to marvel at a 360-degree view.

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Gillwald has met one of his influencers, fellow Parkite and one of the most decorated Paralympians in the world, Chris Waddell. Waddell climbed Kilimanjaro a decade ago in a custom-made wheelchair/hand-cranked mountain bike/snowcat.

When asked about the mode of communication back home, Gillwald said, “We just used cell phones. The frustrating part was that there’s no service in some parts of the mountain. At the summit, there was supposedly WiFi that we could try to connect to, however, there were so many people out there that no one could make that work. Every once in a while though, at camps, at night, I would get half of a bar and try to send a text message to my family saying, ‘I’m still here.'”

The climb took seven days.

Gillwald, who had to save up for a long time for this entirely self-funded bucket list trip, is starting to fill his proverbial piggy bank again. He and his girlfriend, Sia Gerard, an epidemiologist for the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, are looking to climb Alaska’s 20,300-foot-high Mount Denali in a few years as his next steps. 

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