The Big Mountains

Whitesville native, Gary Dylan finds his passion for mountaineering.

By Jonathan Vickers and Morgan Young | 12/14/2010

For eight days in September, Gary Dylan trekked through jungles, braved extreme cold, and grappled with rough terrain to climb the more than 19,000 feet up Mt. Kilimanjaro. He made the commitment to climb the highest mountain in Africa, not only for his own personal achievement, but for that of his Whitesville, W.Va. community.

Dylan fought through the harsh conditions to summit the mountain. He kept pace with guides and fellow mountaineers, who in some cases were more than half of his age.

He succeeded in climbing the big mountain that stands more than four times higher than the 4,863 feet of the highest mountain in West Virginia, Spruce Mountain.

The 62-year-old, former locomotive engineer and avid mountaineer, decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, located in Tanzania, as an appropriate tribute to the 29 coal miners killed in the local West Virginia mine, Upper Big Branch.

“I saw Mt. Kilimanjaro, and it sticks up out of the ground like a monument,” he said. “Those men loved the mountain[s]; they died inside the mountain[s]. They made their living on the mountain[s], what a better way to pay tribute to them.”

Dylan is no stranger to mountains, like many people in his community; he started hiking the local peaks as a child. It wasn’t until he reached the age of 50 that Dylan had the urge to try something more challenging.

“I saw other friends of mine were dying, and I said ‘I don’t want to go out of here without seeing some of this world’, so I tried various [activities],” he said.

Scuba diving, skydiving, and weight lifting were among the activities too easy to hold Dylan’s attention.

“I like something endurance-based, something over the long haul,” he said. “ On summit day, your day might be a 12 or 15-hour day. It can be a long day. I like that.”

Since discovering his love of climbing, Dylan has trained hard trying to summit nine mountains around the world. He was unable to summit Mount Aconcagua in Argentina when an unexpected snowstorm prevented his attempt.

Over the span of 12 years, Dylan has reached the top of eight mountains: Mt. Baker, WA; Mt. Whitney, CA; Mt. Shasta, CA; Mt. Saint Helens, WA; Mt. Hood, CA; Pico de Orizaba, Mexico; Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania; and Mt. Rainier, WA.

Dylan said Rainier was his biggest challenge, requiring three different trips before he was able to reach the top.

“When I came home I was so disappointed because I had quit and that’s when I said ‘I have to go back.’ I kept preparing, but I underestimated that mountain,” Dylan said. After I had done the mountain and completed the climb, I knew what it took to climb the mountains.”

Dylan has not noticed his age when climbing. After losing nearly 75 pounds of competitive lifting weight to take up scuba diving, he says he feels better than ever and even thinks his age helps.

“They say the older climbers do much better because they pace themselves better,” Dylan said.

Even though West Virginia is known for its mountainous terrain, Dylan said that its hard for his community to understand his experience, but his dedication to the UBB miners has made it easier for them to appreciate his passion.

“Its just not a common practice for [West Virginians to climb] larger mountains,” Dylan said. “Unless you’ve ever went to the top of one and experienced what its like, you really don’t understand…Everybody thinks I’m a nut, but they’re supportive. They support their local nut.”

Kim Lane, widow of coal miner Ricky Lane, said that Dylan’s tribute was above her expectations.

“What he did is amazing,” she said. “I was very proud to say that he did that for my husband and all the miners. I think everyone in our family was grateful and honored.”

Using pictures, Dylan’s climbing boots, and an ice axe, Georgia Price, owner of the Whitesville, W.Va. flower shop Arvon’s, and Dylan’s sixth-grade teacher, made a display in her store window, showing off her former student’s achievement.

Others outside of the community also admired Dylan’s dedication

Mark Porteous, a fellow climber, was proud of Dylan’s devotion. Porteous, who Dylan met on facebook, was one of the members climbing with Dylan on Kilimanjaro.

“[Dylan] trained hard because his commitment to the cause of the miners was such that he could not contemplate failing, “ he said. “I’m proud to call him my friend.”

Dylan has no plan to settle down anytime soon. Currently, he is planning a climbing trip to the Galapagos Islands.

While he has plenty of energy now, Dylan knows that this won’t always be the case.

“I have not noticed it yet, but I’m sure I will in the next few years,” he said. “That’s when I intend to sit on the front porch and reminisce, think about all the good memories and good people I’ve met.”

  • Video Thumbnail Kilimanjaro

    Gary Dylan, 62, pursues his passion for climbing. Among the eight mountains he has climbed, Dylan tackled Mt. Kilimanjaro in honor of those lost in the UBB mine explosion.

    RUN-TIME 3:03

  • Gallery Thumbnail Dylan
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    Check out the photo gallery for this story.

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