HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – When we first met retired army colonel Don Fallin in 2018. He was hiking the 2,190-mile Appalachian trail raising money for the Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund. That fund helps children of our nation’s fallen, wounded, or disabled veterans, go to college. Fallin wore out five pairs of shoes and lost 28 pounds during the six-month challenge.
But he wasn’t done.
In January, he, and several other West Point graduates, set their sights on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. “It was as I had thought, almost as hard getting in and out of the country during the COVID-19 pandemic as it was doing the summit,” Fallin told me.
Fallin, Jamie Brennan, and John Magness battled the elements of four different climates on their journey. “On this hike, you start off with what’s called the farmland zone, the cultivated zone. Then you move to tropic, like what’s in the jungles, a lot of monkeys and those kinds of things,” he said, “Then you move to the barren more land. Then you move to the alpine desert, then you move to the arctic region.”
The first four days were wet and cold. Fallin says the team was prepared, “Hats off to being with a great guide that kind of mentored us and made sure we were eating the right stuff, drinking enough water, staying hydrated, stuff like that and pacing ourselves.”
Their guides and medics helped them acclimate their bodies to the changes they would face. The higher they climbed, the tougher it got to breathe. “The weird thing is the sensation on your face and your hands,” he recalled, “You can feel, it’s like tingling consistently. And as we got to the higher altitudes you could feel the lower oxygen across your body.”
Their oxygen levels were checked daily. They were so good, they picked up the pace and made the final push a day ahead of schedule. “We woke up at midnight,” he said, “We stepped off at about one.”
The view was spectacular. “You can see the sunrise as you’re coming up,” Fallin remembers, “It took us nine hours to get to the summit and it took about four to get back down to base camp.”
It was literally the high point of the hike. “Uhuru peak on Kilimanjaro is the fourth tallest peak in the world, tallest in Africa,” he said. Their friend, Johnny Mac who died in 2010 was with them in spirit. “Success was defined as getting someone to the top of the mountain to carry the message from the Johnny Mac Fund and I think it was pretty emotional for all of us,” he said.
The team was only on top of the 19,341-foot mountain for 45 minutes or so. “It was brutally cold,” he said, “so the weather was not certainly our fan on this hike.” He added, “I remember getting to the top of the summit, you can really feel the effects of the low oxygen.”
But they accomplished what they set out to do. “It was a great mission and it worked out well.,” Fallin said. When I asked him what his next challenge would be, he smiles and said, “I’m not sure, I’ve been asked that a lot.” But he has a few ideas. “Let me get back with you. I don’t have a good answer right now,” he said grinning, “If I could do something different than a hike and different than a climb, that really narrows it down. I’ll come up with something though.”
We’ll let you know what’s down the road for him.