Mount Kilimanjaro - Rising to the Challenge: Tyler man faces his greatest adventure

Published on Monday, 17 March 2014 15:51 - Written by Casey Murphy, cmurphy@tylerpaper.com

A month later, Justin Gray still can’t believe he was chosen to take one of the greatest adventures in his life during one of his most difficult times.

Gray, 35, a mechanical engineer who works for Chicago Bridge & Iron Co. (CB&I) in Tyler, was one of two men chosen by Men’s Health magazine to be trained in California to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.

An article written by Eric Adams and videos of Gray and Colt Smith, of Utah, training and climbing the mountain can be found atwww.menshealth.com .

Throughout the adventure, Gray wondered why he deserved to go on such a journey. But after returning home and processing what happened, he thought maybe it was meant for him. It couldn’t have happened at a better time — while he was going through a divorce.

“Maybe some things do happen for a reason, to help shape us into whom we are and who we are going to be,” Gray said. “When I look back 30 years from now, I know I can say that standing atop that summit was undeniably one of those life-altering moments, and I am eternally grateful for it.”

Gray knows it helped steer him back on course and put him on another path.

“I don’t know where this path will take me but … I am looking forward to it,” he said. “And this trip has helped open my eyes to a whole new world.”

Gray wasn’t surprised he made it to the summit — 19,340 feet. However, he was shocked at the outpouring of emotions he felt standing on top of Mount Kilimanjaro.

“From joy to sadness, from triumph to relief, from agony to ecstasy — it was a tidal wave that was so overwhelming words don’t begin to do it justice,” he said. “It was simply amazing.”

 

THE ADVENTURE

Gray was trying to adjust going through a divorce in November, had just dropped off his daughters, Avery, 10, and Addison, 5, and was at home alone when he saw a Facebook post by Men’s Health. It asked men to send information about themselves, including three things on their bucket list and what their definition of adventure is. The vague post said it was for a “super-cool adventure travel project.”

Gray replied that he thought adventure was throwing caution to the wind and trying something new that takes him out of his comfort zone. His Top 3 items on his bucket list were going to Italy, to a Super Bowl game and learning to dance.

A month later, after he had forgotten about it, he got a call from Men’s Health. Gray was in disbelief when he was told he was chosen for the adventure series. When he found out he would go to Red Bull’s training facility in Santa Monica, Calif. in January to train to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in February, he couldn’t believe it.

“I’m sorry? Do what?” he said was his first reaction. “We’re going to do what?”

In Santa Monica, Gray went through a training regiment geared toward climbing the mountain. It included walking on a tread mill that increased its elevation every four minutes, and their bodies were tested throughout.

Gray always has been active — he plays football, volleyball, runs and works out. He has done obstacle races, such as the Warrior Dash and Tough Mudder. But he had never been mountain climbing.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would climb Mount Kilimanjaro,” he said.

Once in Tanzania, Africa, it was a long, slow trek up the steep mountain. It rained during two days, and hailed on them once. They went through six distinct regions — from jungle to arctic conditions.

 

THE TREK

Mount Kilimanjaro is by far the toughest thing Gray has ever done physically.

On the first day, they were driven up to 6,000-feet elevation. It had rained the day before, and the path was two giant tire ruts full of water. Their Jeep got stuck twice.

“How you describe something like that. … My vocabulary cannot begin to describe it,” he said. And that was just on the first day.

They took the Lemosho Route, hiking for three hours up to their first camp. The terrain was an African jungle, with monkeys hanging in the trees. Gray said it was eerily quiet that first night. and he wondered what might be watching him.

The second day was a nine-and-a-half-hour trek of ups and downs, with hills and jagged terrain but beautiful green foliage.

A year ago, Gray tore his meniscus. and it still bothered him after rehab. During the climb, it was “throbbing pretty good,” he said. “Day 2 was a pretty rough day.”

At 12,000 feet, he began to feel the effects of the altitude changes. The men used a pressure breathing technique they were taught by their guide, renowned mountaineer Peter Whittaker, which seemed to help and make them feel better.

On Day 3, Gray and his companions trekked for about six hours to 14,000 feet.

They walked through a small path flanked by slate rock the size of a car. They saw a memorial to a journalist who died after being struck by lightning, which reminded him more than 20 people die climbing that mountain every year.

On Day 4, during their six-hour hike, they started a more technical climb, all while carrying about 35 pounds on their backs.

“It was a blast,” Gray said. By that time, “everybody is hurting. … You’re feeling everything.”

A solid sheet of white engulfed them, and it took a moment for him to realize it wasn’t fog. “That’s not fog, that’s a cloud,” he said.

On Day 5, they knew they were getting close to 15,000 feet elevation and took a three-hour hike to prepare for summit day. They went to bed at 6 p.m. to prepare to get up at midnight and set out for the final leg of the climb at 1 a.m.

By 9 p.m., Gray was awake. He compared it to running into his parent’s room to open presents on Christmas Day and finding out it only was 4 a.m. and being sent back to bed.

 

THE SUMMIT

On summit day, their pace was more slow and methodical than before, but they were still passing other climbers, Gray said. They walked through material that was like broken-up asphalt and were at 17,000 feet.

By 3:30 a.m., it was in the single digits with gusts of wind, he said, adding that it was hard to believe they started the trek in the African jungle, at 75 degrees.

Gray’s drinking water began to freeze. He had been eating as much as he could during the trip to keep up his energy. But on this day, his power bars were frozen and tasted like cardboard. Taking off his heavy gloves was too excruciatingly, so he passed on the food during their breaks.

By 4:30 a.m., Gray found himself talking — to himself, his daughters and to God.

“Just keep going,” he said, wondering if he would make it. The lack of sleep and not eating enough weren’t helping.

He said some climbers gave up, crying, and turned around so close to finishing.

“There’s no way in hell I’m not doing this,” he said, telling himself it was one more step, one more step until they got to take a break.

“The next thing you know, you see the summit,” he said. “Oh my God.”

They stopped at Agora Peak, at 18,800 feet, to watch the sunrise. He said it gave him a false sense of hope because he knew he wasn’t yet to the top.

Watching the sunrise was hard to describe.

“It’s everything that went into that moment,” Gray said. “Having to work to get up to it, and you’re rewarded with this right here.

“I guess the best way to describe it is the love I have for my children. I didn’t appreciate how much I could love someone until I had my kids, because children aren’t just one moment, they are the culmination of a lifetime of moments.”

After 30 minutes of rest and beauty, they packed it up to climb 45 minutes to the real summit. They saw people walking back down with big grins on their faces.

Gray’s daughter Avery had made him a rubber band bracelet, and Addison gave him a Cinderella Polly Pocket to bury on top of the mountain.

Above it, Gray wrote Daddy Loves Addison & Avery in the snow. At that moment, he let go of everything and the tears starting falling. But they were soon replaced by a huge grin.

“I was thinking ‘Oh my God, I’ve actually accomplished this,’” he said.

He proudly got his picture taken in front of the big green sign and after spending about an hour at the top — at 19,340 feet — they started their descent.

 

THE DESCENT

Using their trekking poles, they could almost ski down the mountain. Flying down, he “ate it” once but was having a blast, he said. They made up 2,000 feet, gaining oxygen as they went, before stopping for lunch.

It started raining as they followed the zigzagging trail covered with slippery wet rocks. When they finally made it to the base camp, after a 15 1/2 hour day, Gray got his first really good night’s sleep on the trip.

“I could’ve slept on a bed of nails with a pillow of broken glass,” he said. “I was so exhausted.”

When he reached the bottom the next day, and the Jeep and a cold beer were waiting for him, he couldn’t believe it was over. After all of the anticipation and disbelief leading up to and during the climb, he was kind of sad to see it end, he said.

When asked what part was the best, it was obviously reaching the summit. But the second best thing was taking a scalding hot shower after seven days, he said.

Gray said the trip made him want to try more things that seemed impossible before. He already is planning a trip to the Rumble Room in Tennessee, the second largest cave room in the country, with another Men’s Health adventurer.

Climbing another mountain depends mostly on his girls, who are his first priority. The trip to climb Mount Kilimanjaro would have cost at least $10,000, he said, adding that it was once in a lifetime, at least until his girls are out of college.

“There is part of me that still wishes I was up on that mountain and still walking toward that magnificent sunrise, but there is also another part of me that is so glad to be home with my family and friends and sleeping in my own bed,” he said. “There is no place like home.”

 

 

month later, Justin Gray still can’t believe he was chosen to take one of the greatest adventures in his life during one of his most difficult times.

Gray, 35, a mechanical engineer who works for Chicago Bridge & Iron Co. (CB&I) in Tyler, was one of two men chosen by Men’s Health magazine to be trained in California to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.

An article written by Eric Adams and videos of Gray and Colt Smith, of Utah, training and climbing the mountain can be found atwww.menshealth.com .

Throughout the adventure, Gray wondered why he deserved to go on such a journey. But after returning home and processing what happened, he thought maybe it was meant for him. It couldn’t have happened at a better time — while he was going through a divorce.

“Maybe some things do happen for a reason, to help shape us into whom we are and who we are going to be,” Gray said. “When I look back 30 years from now, I know I can say that standing atop that summit was undeniably one of those life-altering moments, and I am eternally grateful for it.”

Gray knows it helped steer him back on course and put him on another path.

“I don’t know where this path will take me but … I am looking forward to it,” he said. “And this trip has helped open my eyes to a whole new world.”

Gray wasn’t surprised he made it to the summit — 19,340 feet. However, he was shocked at the outpouring of emotions he felt standing on top of Mount Kilimanjaro.

“From joy to sadness, from triumph to relief, from agony to ecstasy — it was a tidal wave that was so overwhelming words don’t begin to do it justice,” he said. “It was simply amazing.”

 

THE ADVENTURE

Gray was trying to adjust going through a divorce in November, had just dropped off his daughters, Avery, 10, and Addison, 5, and was at home alone when he saw a Facebook post by Men’s Health. It asked men to send information about themselves, including three things on their bucket list and what their definition of adventure is. The vague post said it was for a “super-cool adventure travel project.”

Gray replied that he thought adventure was throwing caution to the wind and trying something new that takes him out of his comfort zone. His Top 3 items on his bucket list were going to Italy, to a Super Bowl game and learning to dance.

A month later, after he had forgotten about it, he got a call from Men’s Health. Gray was in disbelief when he was told he was chosen for the adventure series. When he found out he would go to Red Bull’s training facility in Santa Monica, Calif. in January to train to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in February, he couldn’t believe it.

“I’m sorry? Do what?” he said was his first reaction. “We’re going to do what?”

In Santa Monica, Gray went through a training regiment geared toward climbing the mountain. It included walking on a tread mill that increased its elevation every four minutes, and their bodies were tested throughout.

Gray always has been active — he plays football, volleyball, runs and works out. He has done obstacle races, such as the Warrior Dash and Tough Mudder. But he had never been mountain climbing.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would climb Mount Kilimanjaro,” he said.

Once in Tanzania, Africa, it was a long, slow trek up the steep mountain. It rained during two days, and hailed on them once. They went through six distinct regions — from jungle to arctic conditions.

 

THE TREK

Mount Kilimanjaro is by far the toughest thing Gray has ever done physically.

On the first day, they were driven up to 6,000-feet elevation. It had rained the day before, and the path was two giant tire ruts full of water. Their Jeep got stuck twice.

“How you describe something like that. … My vocabulary cannot begin to describe it,” he said. And that was just on the first day.

They took the Lemosho Route, hiking for three hours up to their first camp. The terrain was an African jungle, with monkeys hanging in the trees. Gray said it was eerily quiet that first night. and he wondered what might be watching him.

The second day was a nine-and-a-half-hour trek of ups and downs, with hills and jagged terrain but beautiful green foliage.

A year ago, Gray tore his meniscus. and it still bothered him after rehab. During the climb, it was “throbbing pretty good,” he said. “Day 2 was a pretty rough day.”

At 12,000 feet, he began to feel the effects of the altitude changes. The men used a pressure breathing technique they were taught by their guide, renowned mountaineer Peter Whittaker, which seemed to help and make them feel better.

On Day 3, Gray and his companions trekked for about six hours to 14,000 feet.

They walked through a small path flanked by slate rock the size of a car. They saw a memorial to a journalist who died after being struck by lightning, which reminded him more than 20 people die climbing that mountain every year.

On Day 4, during their six-hour hike, they started a more technical climb, all while carrying about 35 pounds on their backs.

“It was a blast,” Gray said. By that time, “everybody is hurting. … You’re feeling everything.”

A solid sheet of white engulfed them, and it took a moment for him to realize it wasn’t fog. “That’s not fog, that’s a cloud,” he said.

On Day 5, they knew they were getting close to 15,000 feet elevation and took a three-hour hike to prepare for summit day. They went to bed at 6 p.m. to prepare to get up at midnight and set out for the final leg of the climb at 1 a.m.

By 9 p.m., Gray was awake. He compared it to running into his parent’s room to open presents on Christmas Day and finding out it only was 4 a.m. and being sent back to bed.

 

THE SUMMIT

On summit day, their pace was more slow and methodical than before, but they were still passing other climbers, Gray said. They walked through material that was like broken-up asphalt and were at 17,000 feet.

By 3:30 a.m., it was in the single digits with gusts of wind, he said, adding that it was hard to believe they started the trek in the African jungle, at 75 degrees.

Gray’s drinking water began to freeze. He had been eating as much as he could during the trip to keep up his energy. But on this day, his power bars were frozen and tasted like cardboard. Taking off his heavy gloves was too excruciatingly, so he passed on the food during their breaks.

By 4:30 a.m., Gray found himself talking — to himself, his daughters and to God.

“Just keep going,” he said, wondering if he would make it. The lack of sleep and not eating enough weren’t helping.

He said some climbers gave up, crying, and turned around so close to finishing.

“There’s no way in hell I’m not doing this,” he said, telling himself it was one more step, one more step until they got to take a break.

“The next thing you know, you see the summit,” he said. “Oh my God.”

They stopped at Agora Peak, at 18,800 feet, to watch the sunrise. He said it gave him a false sense of hope because he knew he wasn’t yet to the top.

Watching the sunrise was hard to describe.

“It’s everything that went into that moment,” Gray said. “Having to work to get up to it, and you’re rewarded with this right here.

“I guess the best way to describe it is the love I have for my children. I didn’t appreciate how much I could love someone until I had my kids, because children aren’t just one moment, they are the culmination of a lifetime of moments.”

After 30 minutes of rest and beauty, they packed it up to climb 45 minutes to the real summit. They saw people walking back down with big grins on their faces.

Gray’s daughter Avery had made him a rubber band bracelet, and Addison gave him a Cinderella Polly Pocket to bury on top of the mountain.

Above it, Gray wrote Daddy Loves Addison & Avery in the snow. At that moment, he let go of everything and the tears starting falling. But they were soon replaced by a huge grin.

“I was thinking ‘Oh my God, I’ve actually accomplished this,’” he said.

He proudly got his picture taken in front of the big green sign and after spending about an hour at the top — at 19,340 feet — they started their descent.

 

THE DESCENT

Using their trekking poles, they could almost ski down the mountain. Flying down, he “ate it” once but was having a blast, he said. They made up 2,000 feet, gaining oxygen as they went, before stopping for lunch.

It started raining as they followed the zigzagging trail covered with slippery wet rocks. When they finally made it to the base camp, after a 15 1/2 hour day, Gray got his first really good night’s sleep on the trip.

“I could’ve slept on a bed of nails with a pillow of broken glass,” he said. “I was so exhausted.”

When he reached the bottom the next day, and the Jeep and a cold beer were waiting for him, he couldn’t believe it was over. After all of the anticipation and disbelief leading up to and during the climb, he was kind of sad to see it end, he said.

When asked what part was the best, it was obviously reaching the summit. But the second best thing was taking a scalding hot shower after seven days, he said.

Gray said the trip made him want to try more things that seemed impossible before. He already is planning a trip to the Rumble Room in Tennessee, the second largest cave room in the country, with another Men’s Health adventurer.

Climbing another mountain depends mostly on his girls, who are his first priority. The trip to climb Mount Kilimanjaro would have cost at least $10,000, he said, adding that it was once in a lifetime, at least until his girls are out of college.

“There is part of me that still wishes I was up on that mountain and still walking toward that magnificent sunrise, but there is also another part of me that is so glad to be home with my family and friends and sleeping in my own bed,” he said. “There is no place like home.”