For the love of Mt Kilimanjaro

Friday February 07 2020

Macon Dunnagan at the top of Mt Kilimanjaro. He is the expedition director of Zara Tanzania Adventures. PHOTO | COURTESY


In 1999, Macon Dunnagan travelled to Tanzania and made his first ascent up Mt Kilimanjaro, encouraged by his wife of one year, Michelle. He was hooked and became an avid climber, summiting 45 times. In July 2018, he climbed the mountain four times in 28 days.

He has a good reason to do so. In 2005, Michelle was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and died in 2007.

“Michelle constantly wanted to ascend Kilimanjaro with me, but we assumed we had all the time in the world to do that. Instead her dream to hike turned to her dying wish that her ashes be spread up there,” Dunnagan said. Two weeks after her death, he took her ashes and sprinkled them at the top of the mountain.
Following Michelle’s death, each year he dedicates his climbs to charity causes. He travels around the US and Canada, and works with organisations to plan fundraising climbs. One of the organisations, Samaritan’s Feet, raises funds to buy shoes for the needy.
“A group of Rotarians from 7680 Charlotte Club climb Kilimanjaro to raise funds for the Rotary polio initiative, and Expedition for Hope group spreads awareness and raises funds for ovarian cancer projects in Canada,” Dunnagan said.
On February 3, for the 45th time, he embarked on a six-day climb to the highest peak, Uhuru at 5895m, through the Rongai route.

At 59, Dunnagan continues to prove that age is not a limitation as he still has climbs scheduled through June 2020. On one of his climbs, a 77-year-old woman and a 12-year-old were among the climbers.

“When you experience the climb, one can always use that momentum to tackle any other challenge in life,” he says.

“It is the hardest mental and physical challenge you ever experience, yet it’s manageable because it’s a walk not a race.”


In the Expedition of Hope climb, they used in two routes: The Marangu route that has fewer steep ascents and hikers sleep in huts, and the more-difficult Rongai route with steeper sections and climbers sleep in tents.

Before setting out to Tanzania, Dunnagan seeks out new and experienced climbers among ovarian cancer survivors, family members and friends who would like to join him to climb Kilimanjaro. Training sessions are then held during the year to prepare for the expedition.

Each climber commits to raising a minimum of $2,500 in that year, aside from associated travel and tour fees that are paid directly.

When asked why he climbs the same mountain over and over, he said he delights in taking other people up Kilimanjaro and showing them its beauty.

Kilimanjaro is not only Africa’s highest peak, it is also the tallest free-standing mountain, where its slopes rise in isolation.

Dunnagan has been Tanzania’s goodwill ambassador since 2013, and is a Kilimanjaro specialist and expedition director of Zara Tanzania Adventures, a tour company based in Moshi.

In 2001, he wrote the book Sons of Kilimanjaro, about a group of men battling personal struggles along the way as one of them was taking his wife’s ashes to the mountain, and the lessons they learnt.

Dunnagan will soon release his two other books on tourism destinations in Tanzania including Serengeti, Tarangire National Park and Ngorongoro crater.