Climbing two of the tallest mountains on Earth is an amazing feat all on its own. But, imaging doing that without arms or legs. Kyle Maynard did, becoming the first person to scale Mount Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua without limbs or prosthetics. He was born with a rare condition called congenital amputation. It stopped his arms from growing beyond the elbow, and legs near his knees. Maynard is the keynote speaker tonight to kick off this year’s Flagstaff Festival of Science. He spoke with KNAU’s Aaron Granillo.
Aaron Granillo: Can you tell us a little bit more about your condition? What is congenital amputation?
Kyle Maynard: You know, honestly I don’t know a whole lot about it. And, I think that’s kind of one of the beautiful things with this story is that my family decided a lot intentionally to not fixate on it when I was growing up. But, to give people, kind of a more visual representation, then basically my arms end right at where your elbow would be. And, my legs end right around where your knee would be. And, I think one in every 2,000 kids are born with missing a finger or a toe or something like that. But, then to have four limbs affected is pretty rare. Maybe in the order of like one in several million.
So, you’re the keynote speaker at the Festival of Science here in Flagstaff tonight. This year’s theme is "engineering solutions." Where do you think your story fits into the science world?
You know, I was so excited to get an opportunity to speak for this event because it is definitely different than a lot of the events I’ve spoken at before. But, I did grow up in a family of engineers, and I did not inherit the math gene. But, thankfully inherited the – whatever gene allows you to, sort of, imagine possibilities and imagine ways to go and solve problems. And, I think that led to being able to solve bigger ones. And, I think that’s kind of a continual, perpetual process that I’ve been on. You know, I think about some of the greatest scientists in the world, and the greatest scientific achievements and so much of it just started with their creativity and their capacity to go and see potential where others saw limitation. And, that to me is really, like, the greatest gift that science can give us – is just the ability to go and imagine.
Can you take us to the moments that you’re scaling these massive mountains? How are you physically able to climb them, especially without any kind of prosthetic?
Yeah, so summit day of Aconcagua. It was a beautiful day, but it’s still frigid cold. You know, anything above 20,000 feet is going to be chilly. You know, the summit there is nearly 22,800 feet. So, I’m bear crawling down on all fours just, like, looking down at the dirt and the ice the whole day. And, I was physically broken, you know, and not moving fast enough. My friends were told to split off and go to the summit. And then, realized the only thing I have to worry about right now it just the couple feet at a time that’s in front of me. So, I just kind of turned it in to a game, started focusing on that. And then, our summit day on Aconcagua last year, standing on top of the roof of South America. At that point, it’s the highest peak outside of the Himalayas, so potentially we were the highest people in the world. And, I joke that I actually had to strip down all of my gear to go to the restroom. So at one point, I was probably the highest naked guy on the planet.
Can you tell us about some of the gear that you used? Some of it was manufactured here in Flagstaff, right?
Yeah, it was. So, the crampons that I use, Kahtoola actually helped kind of craft those, which were amazing. You know, my first real experience using it was on Kilimanjaro. And, kind of beefed up the system, made it even stronger for Aconcagua. And, pretty sure without that, I’d still be trying to slide my way up there unsuccessfully. I mean, it was absolutely a game changer working with them.
You’ve accomplished a lot. In addition to climbing mountains, you’re also an author, a weightlifter. I read you do Brazilian jujitsu fighting. A lot of people in your position might not think any of that is possible. Where do you find the motivation?
I joke, but I think there’s a seriousness to this too. But, like, I say my parents pulled the ultimate Jedi mind trick on me when I was growing up. Because like I said earlier, they didn’t really fixate on the disability. And had they done that, then I think things would have turned out dramatically different. They treated me as entirely normal, and I began to see myself that same way. I think that it's all how we go and see the world. I think it’s either get by and exist, or to take bigger risks and challenges and go out and explore and, you know, just experiencing something totally new in a new domain.
Kyle Maynard speaks Friday, September 22nd at Ardrey Memorial Auditorium on the Northern Arizona University campus. The free event starts at 7 pm, as part of the Flagstaff Festival of Science.