When you talk hobbies with most people, they’ll profess an affinity for cycling or knitting. Macon Dunnagan’s answer is a little more exotic – his passion involves climbing up a steep incline on another continent for eight hours a day while wearing a 40-pound backpack.
The native Charlottean has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro (elevation 19,388 feet) in Tanzania 13 times. In September, he set a new record for Kilimanjaro by reaching the summit three times in 27 days.
Not one to sit still for long, Dunnagan will again head to the top of the mountain in January, taking along with him the winner of The Kilimanjaro Ultimate Adventure Giveaway, which was sponsored by N.C.-based performance clothing manufacturer Polarmax and Backpacker Magazine.
Dunnagan, 51, is a long-time US Airways employee, an author (“Sons of Kilimanjaro”) and an expedition director for Zara Tours, an established Tanzanian guide service.
Dunnagan made his first trip to South Africa in 1999, and was looking for something special to do while there. He decided to climb Kilimanjaro, trained before his trip and hasn’t looked back much, other than to marvel at the technological advances since that first climb.
"When I first started going, it would cost $32 a minute to call the states from Tanzania," Dunnagan said. "Now I can Skype from my phone."
He took some time out recently to share his story and go on a leisurely hike where he does most of his climbing training – Crowders Mountain in Gaston County. Some answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Why Kilimanjaro? Why so many times? I love the challenge – it’s the highest freestanding volcano in the world. I have fun taking other people up with me. It’s the people of Tanzania, too. They are the sweetest, kindest people in the world.
How does one train for such an aggressive climb? (Ascents usually take six days round trip.) A lot of climbing. You can’t train for the adjustments in altitude, but you wear a 40-pound pack and slowly take it one step at a time. It’s not a race. If you try and go too fast, you’ll miss stuff. There’s a lot of talking, appreciating our surroundings, camaraderie on an expedition.
How did you get connected to Polarmax and eventually become a member of the Polarmax Pro Staff? I was tired of being cold and wet during my climbs. I started doing research on base-layer clothing (layered clothing that provides thermal insulation for extreme temperatures), and Polarmax came up, and they’re right here Eastern North Carolina. I talked to a secretary at Polarmax, they sent me a few things, and two days later I left to climb. I took the stuff out of the packages, put it on and started my ascent. It made a huge difference immediately.
Why does what you wear under your jacket matter so much? The temperature can vary greatly – it can be 20 degrees to 20 below zero. Each climb is different. Fleece repels rain, cotton is heavy and doesn’t wick moisture, so while it’s cold outside, you’re sweating, then you’re damp and never really dry.
So what’s next? Any other climbing goals? Just Kilimanjaro. I don’t have a desire to climb other mountains. The people (of Tanzania) bring me back.