Nine-year-old Zach Meltz is the youngest to summit Kilimanjaro unassisted
Second of a two-part series
The Vail Valley is now home to the oldest and youngest people to summit Mount Kilimanjaro unassisted.
Online: Retired Vail orthodontist Dr. Fred Distelhorst summited on July 20. He’s 88 years old and is the oldest person to summit the mountain.
Today: Two days later, 9-year-old Zach Meltz became the youngest person to summit Kilimanjaro unassisted.
TANZANIA — Young Zach Meltz climbed a hill behind his house with his dad, Andy, followed by climbing a 14er, so why not become the youngest person to climb Mount Kilimanjaro unassisted?
“I went up a hill behind our house with my dad and it was fun. Then I hiked this mountain (he holds up a photo of he and his dad at the 14,400-foot summit of Mt. Elbert), the highest point in Colorado, and then my dad asked if I wanted to hike Kilimanjaro. I said, ‘Yeah!’”
A 7-year-old from Los Angeles summited, as did an 8-year-old, but apparently they were carried part of the way by their porters. Zach hiked every step.
Oldest and youngest
Two days before 9-year-old Zach became the youngest unassisted Kilimanjaro climber, retired Vail orthodontist Dr. Fred Distelhorst, 88, became the oldest.
“What are the odds of the oldest and youngest being up there at the same time in the same season and with the connection to Vail Mountain School?” said Stacey Boltz, Zach’s mom.
Zach is a fourth-grader at Vail Mountain School and has been at VMS since kindergarten. Distelhorst’s children and grandchildren went to VMS.
“Good school,” someone said to Zach.
“I think so,” Zach replied.
Ptarmigan Sports outfitted both Distelhorst and Zach.
Andy Meltz climbed Kilimanjaro 20 years ago with a bunch of his buddies and was planning to do it this summer. He’s fond of climbing tall things, and the Zach apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
Zach learned you’re supposed to be at least 10 years old to climb Kilimanjaro. Andy was afraid his son wouldn’t get to go.
“I dug deeper and found that you could get a special permit from the Tanzania government,” Zach said.
Kevin Cherilla runs K2 Adventure Travel with Kristen Sandquist. Cherilla has summited Kilimanjaro 33 times and guided more than 600 people. Sandquist has 13 summits. They led the Meltz men to the summit.
“When people say, ‘I want to do this with my kid,’ I say, ‘Tell me about your kid,’” Cherilla said. “I can get a pretty good feel whether their kids can do it.”
Zach’s with Ski & Snowboard Club Vail, so along with climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Stacey estimates he skied 1.5 million vertical feet last ski season.
“Meeting Zach in Tanzania, I knew he would be successful,” Cerilla said. “He never once complained. Kids who are whiners and complainers probably won’t make it.”
Fewer than 50 percent of the people who try Kilimanjaro make the summit. A 35-year-old woman died on the mountain the week before.
The adventure begins
Adventure is part of the clan’s DNA. Twice Stacey and Andy found out they were expecting while they were in Augusta for The Masters. Their sons were born 11 ½ months apart and are named for Masters champions Zach Johnson and Trevor Edelman.
Andy was headed to San Antonio for work, so their adventure started in Texas. Zach went to Dave & Buster’s while Andy had some business to attend to — then to Los Angeles and then to Dubai on a Dubai Air jet that had a bar in the back, to Nairobi and finally to Tanzania on Precision Air on a twin propeller.
“On the way in, I got to fly by the mountain and saw the people hiking up and summiting,” Zach said. “It’s the largest free-standing mountain in the world. Actually, we were flying by and I saw a rock wall. I thought, ‘I’m hiking that?!’ But we did.”
Before they started climbing, their group visited an orphanage and school with 487 kids, delivering toys and supplies. He hit it off especially well with Shedric.
“We made a good connection,” Zach said.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro took seven days, 5 1/2 out and 1 1/2 back. Day 3 was a hard nine-hour day.
“I just wanted to rest when I got to camp,” Zach said.
Instead, he received a royal welcome, as crew members hoisted him on their shoulders and paraded him around camp. Andy goes around the bend to 60 this month. He and Zach were one of four father-son teams in their group; Andy was the oldest dad, and Zach was the youngest son.
On summit day, they woke up at 3:30 a.m., ate breakfast and were on the trail by 4:45 a.m.
“It was freezing out, so it was little steps … little steps,” Zach said. “When the sun rose, there this beautiful mountain called Mawenzi Peak, it’s black and the sun was behind it.”
Gaston was their guide from K2 Adventure Travel, which took good care of Zach.
“Our group went ahead because I’m littler. I have smaller lungs, and I was taking smaller steps, going slower. The others were taking a break every hour. We were taking a break every 30 minutes. They said whenever you get to the top is when you get to the top,” Zach said.
If your oxygen saturation levels are not high enough, then they send you down.
“They made sure to accommodate his age. They even had a pediatric physician on call,” Stacey said. “With the guides and the other climbers in the group, I knew he was in good hands.”
Only afterward, when she learned he was the youngest in the world to summit, did she take pause about how young Zach is.
“Maybe I should have thought about that. Maybe it’s good that I didn’t,” Stacey said.
His guides constantly took his pulse but had to use his thumb because his fingers are too small for the device.
“It was awesome that they took extra precautions that he stayed safe during the climb,” Stacey said.
Steel Point is the second-highest point in Africa. It’s on Kilimanjaro, and they passed it on the way to the summit.
“It was amazing to get there. I know I’m 30 minutes away from the top of Africa,” Zach said.
The summit was an emotional experience.
“I almost … my eyes started watering,” Zach said.
The only disappointment was Stacey’s flight delay. If everything were on schedule, then she would have been flying by when Zach and Andy were on the summit. At the bottom, Zach walked down to the gate and then ran to his mom.
“When I met them at the bottom of the mountain, it became clear that he was the first to do it unassisted,” Stacey said.
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