In August 2018, Mammut Brand Ambassador Tom Belz accomplished something amazing. The 31-year-old, who lost a leg to bone cancer as a child, summited Kilimanjaro using crutches.
There’s a lot behind Belz massive accomplishment, including a training tour in the Swiss Alps, a support team, and a strong drive to overcome the limitations he was told were impossible to overcome. Despite the odds and an arduous seven-day ascent, Belz stood at the top of Kilimanjaro on August 9, 2018.
We talked to Belz about his drive, his love for adventure, and the biggest climb of his life.
THE CLYMB: Do you have a clear memory of the surgery and amputation when you were eight years old? How did the months after the therapy look like?
TOM BELZ: When I woke up from the 3.5‑hour operation, my whole body burned. I was incredibly thirsty and the taste of the anesthetic in my mouth. A nurse moistened the inside of my mouth with cotton swabs. Shortly after, my parents arrived. I removed the blanket so we could look at the missing leg together. “Mom, Dad .. now the bad cancer is finally gone!” After that, I had to learn everything again. Sitting, standing, walking, and besides that, I had to continue with chemotherapy.
CLYMB: Did you have an active childhood after you completed physical therapy, or did your sport and adventure pursuits start much later?
TB: I’ve spent most of my youth trying to figure out who I am. It was hard to prove that I was a normal boy and that I could do everything just like other kids. Thanks to athletic activity, I could actively show what I am capable of. The more I tried out different sports, the bigger was my ambition to push myself to higher limits. Bit by bit, smaller actions became bigger and bigger.
CLYMB: What inspired you to try mountain climbing?
TB: First, you should say goodbye to the idea that I’m a classic mountaineer. I do it my own way. A little näiveté, a little courage, and, on top of it, a lot of joy in the action itself. Finally, I was inspired to create something that many people only dream of. I’m not a dreamer, I’m a doer—so why wait? At some point, time is over. I am someone who lives in the moment, and I want to explore life to the fullest.
CLYMB: Can you tell us about your training at the Äusseres Barrhorn in the Swiss Alps?
TB: In general, there was no real training. Similar to the Kilimanjaro ascent, I was mentally far ahead of the climb. In my imagination, I’ve gone much further than I imagined at the present time. A clear advantage was, however, that I had 23 years of experience with crutches.
CLYMB: Why did you decide to climb Kilimanjaro? Why this particular mountain? What did the challenge mean to you?
TB: Africa has always appealed to me. The Lion King was one of my favorite movies when I was a young boy; a few years later, when I watched a documentary about Africa and the Kilimanjaro with my dad, the idea was born. When I think about reducing my life to something that is totally irrelevant in my opinion, then something new builds up. Everything that builds up grows up. That’s why I wanted to prove not only to myself but to everyone else that it’s possible to do such a trip. Do what you can’t and be what you can!
CLYMB: Did you have any anxieties before the climb?
TB: Fear is something very important to me. It’s a possibility to grow beyond yourself. It reminds me that I am alive and that I’m doing something that brings me out of my comfort zone. I was afraid to fail, afraid of not reaching my goal, the summit of the highest mountain in Africa.
CLYMB: Your trip to Kilimanjaro was completely filmed by a team. Can you tell us what that experience was like?
TB: In the beginning, it was extremely weird to wake up in the morning and be surrounded by several cameras all day long. Everything is filmed—the good days, as well as the not so good ones. At some point, though, the camera became a means to an end for me. I saw the camera as a friend and this friend was meant to experience my story honestly and authentically. I imagined what it would be like for the eight-year-old Tom Belz to see these shots.
CLYMB: Did you encounter challenges that you didn’t expect during the actual ascent, or did you feel well prepared for them? What was the hardest part of the adventure?
TB: As a rule, you have to walk and drink a lot. If you are not affected by altitude sickness, you actually have a good chance of reaching the summit. But the truth is that I was not ready to expose my body to such stress. The higher we got, the harder it became to breathe. If you can’t find the right breathing rhythm, you have a big problem. You get cold and you lose your orientation. At one point, we started to sing, which finally motivated me and calmed me down.
The most difficult part, however, was the summit climb. We left at 11:30 pm and walked six hours through the cold and dark night. In contrast to the previous stages, it was so cold at night that I couldn’t hold my crutches. I kept breaking into the ice or slipping. My drink was frozen, so I drank too little. But in the end, it was definitely worth it. I conquered Kilimanjaro and fulfilled a childhood dream.
CLYMB: Where do you want to go next?
TB: The world is a huge playground. There are a lot of nice places I still want to see, but currently, there are no concrete plans. Thanks to my Swiss friends from Mammut, all doors are open to me to implement further projects and dreams. Often, actions and projects arise only when you meet certain people in your life, so I’m always looking forward to finding new crazy friends!