Writer / Rebecca Wood
In 2015, Zionsville’s Jay Hermacinski was on the cusp of a major milestone birthday. With his 50th birthday looming, he contemplated ways to ring in his next decade. An intimate dinner or quiet party didn’t seem like the right fit for someone who wanted to celebrate the occasion in a big way. As he sifted through options, he remembered a vow made several years earlier.
On a 2001 trip to Africa, Hermacinski and his wife Cara flew over Kilimanjaro en route to a safari vacation in Tanzania. As he gazed at the cratered top from the airplane, he thought, “One day, I’d like to climb that mountain.” He mentally added “Hike Kilimanjaro” to his bucket list.
Fast-forward 15 years and climbing Kilimanjaro seemed like the perfect feat for a birthday celebration. This one decision would open the door to global adventures and lifetime memories for Hermacinski and his pal, Tom Kaplan.
“I’m pretty sure I should be in the Guinness Book of World Records for taking the longest time to climb Kilimanjaro … It took me 15 years!” Hermacinski states.
Hermacinski recruited Kaplan, also from Zionsville, to join in the Mount Kilimanjaro excursion. The pair spent months training for the adventure. Hermacinski hiked around Eagle Creek and hit the StairMaster and inclined treadmill. Kaplan stayed in aerobic shape by running a few times a week and performing treadmill climbs while wearing a 50-pound weighted vest. The duo traveled to Colorado and tackled three 14,000-feet summits to practice acclimating to altitude and uphill hikes.
In December 2015, Hermacinski, Kaplan and 21 other friends and family members made the trek to Africa. Six members of their crew joined them on their quest to climb Kilimanjaro.
Kilimanjaro is located in Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro National Park. At 19,341 feet in elevation, it is the largest free-standing mountain in the world and the highest mountain in Africa. Each year, roughly 35,000 tourists attempt to hike Kilimanjaro with only half actually reaching its peak. Acute mountain sickness, high-altitude pulmonary edema, high-altitude cerebral edema and falls are dangers associated with the hike. Temperatures at the summit are frigid.
“The altitude was the tricky part,” Hermacinski contends. “It affected all of us at different times and to different degrees. I felt awful when I got to 15,000 feet. But after a few hours, I recovered and had no problems getting to the top.”
The last three miles of the hike were brutal. It took eight hours for the climbers to travel three miles while battling freezing weather and some degree of altitude sickness, but the entire group reached the summit and enjoyed an hour at the top of Africa before taking the long trip back downhill.
Kaplan calls the diverse scenery a highlight of the climb. A hike up Mount Kilimanjaro takes travelers through five of the Earth’s habitats – savannah, rain forest, heather and moorland, alpine desert and arctic.
After Kilimanjaro, Kaplan spearheaded the next adventure. Seventeen years earlier, Kaplan had visited Mount Rainier and pledged to return. This time, it was Kaplan who enlisted Hermacinski for their next trip.
While the pair knew how to train for mountains, Mount Rainier would present different challenges from the ones they faced on Mount Kilimanjaro.
Mount Rainier, located about 60 miles outside of Seattle, is the highest mountain of the Cascade Range in the Pacific Northwest. At 14,411 feet, it is the highest mountain in Washington and the most heavily glaciated peak in the lower 48 states.
Because climbing Mount Rainier involves traversing large glaciers, hikers must possess technical climbing skills and carry the proper equipment (crampons, an ice axe, harness and rope).
Climbers face the challenges of variable weather, icefalls, avalanches and hypothermia. Unless granted a special solo pass, most climbers are required to travel with an experienced guide and group. About 8,000 to 13,000 people attempt to climb Mount Rainier every year with only half reaching the summit.
In August, Kaplan and Hermacinski arrived at the base of Mount Rainier. On a Friday morning, they hiked five hours with 40-pound packs strapped on their backs. After a five-hour hike, they arrived at Camp Muir. At camp, they refueled and attempted to sleep in a bunkhouse with 18 other climbers. Around 10:30 p.m., the two woke up and started the ascent up the mountain.
Teams of three to four people were tied into ropes. Hikers carried packs and wore crampons (metal spikes attached to shoes that help secure footing on snow and ice). The climb was broken into chunks of 60-90 minutes with 10-minute rest breaks.
“Though scary at times, it was amazing to see the glaciers, crevasses and waterfalls,” Kaplan asserts.
Hermacinski adds, “I’ll never forget reaching our base camp at 10,000 feet in the middle of the afternoon and hearing a massive ‘crack.’ We looked up to see big rocks come tumbling down the mountainside. We were not in danger, but the message was clear – the mountain is alive, and you have to respect it.”
Both men stopped short of reaching the summit. When Hermacinski hit 12,300 feet, the pace was quicker than his comfort level. Taking breaks was not an option, so he returned to base camp with a guide and three other hikers who were also battling fatigue and altitude sickness.
For Kaplan, at 13,600 feet, the group encountered a collapsed ice bridge across a major crevasse that made travel to the top impassable. At that point, there were 30 minutes left to climb to the summit.
“It was incredible to see the gap where the day before, there was a large ice bridge. Our guide said he had been over that bridge many times this season and never thought that was an area that would move because of how large it is,” Kaplan says.
Kaplan and his group were forced to return to base camp. During the descent, they battled a flash thunderstorm and several other challenges. He claims that the downhill was actually the most challenging part of the climb due to loose snow and difficult footing.
“It was beautiful but definitely unsettling to see how close we were to large crevasses and windows in the glacier through which we saw huge underground caverns,” Kaplan comments. “Knowing that the glacier was moving, and we were walking sometimes within a foot of a crevasse or over top of a cavern not knowing how thick the roof was was pretty unsettling.”
Since the climb, both have settled back into their lives in Zionsville. Kaplan is an orthopedic hand surgeon for the Indiana Hand to Shoulder Center. He and his wife, Linda, have four children. Hermacinski, a former WISH-TV news reporter, is a communications manager at MISO Energy. He and his wife, Cara, have two daughters.
This pair has more adventures in their future. Hermacinski says a trip to New Zealand is on his bucket list, and Kaplan is considering Mount Whitney in California and Aconcagua in Argentina.
Hermacinski encourages everyone to follow his or her own adventures. “If you have something on your bucket list, go do it. Life is too short to talk about all the things you wish you could do. Go do one of them and then another and another.”