Draper teen raises money for children in Tanzania while paragliding off Mt. Kilimanjaro
Dec 10, 2019 12:34PM
● By Stephanie Yrungaray
Draper’s Chris and Zayden Hunlow with their expedition group shortly before paragliding from the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. (Photo courtesy Chris Hunlow)
By Stephanie Yrungaray | [email protected]
When you ask 18-year-old Zayden Hunlow what the best part of his recent trip to Tanzania was, he’ll say it was visiting school children in a local Maasai village.
While in Tanzania, however, he also climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, set a world record as the youngest person to paraglide from the 19,341 foot summit, turned 18 years old and donated $5,000 to the Tanzanian people.
How it all started
Zayden’s amazing adventure started when his dad, professional paragliding instructor Chris Hunlow, was asked to be the tandem paragliding pilot for a fundraising flight off of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The expedition was planned during Zayden’s birthday week.
“I had missed his 16th birthday doing a flight for Wings of Kilimanjaro. I didn’t want to miss another birthday so I asked Zayden if he would want to go,” Chris said.
“I was pretty unsure about going,” Zayden said. “I knew that there was a big chance I wouldn’t be able to fly because of the weather. I also had school and my birthday and I wanted to hang out with friends. But one day I realized it was a really great opportunity. It’s for a charity way bigger than what I am and I’d be doing it for a great cause. Just climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro would be an amazing experience even if I didn’t fly.”
The Hunlows would be embarking on a journey with Wings of Kilimanjaro (WOK), an Australia-based nonprofit organization that raises money to provide clean water, build schools and finance microloans for the people of Tanzania. But this isn’t your typical fundraiser. It is a life-changing experience that includes hiking up Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, paragliding from the 3.6-mile-high peak, followed by a visit to villages to see how your fundraising dollars are helping change lives. WOK was one of the first companies to receive a Kilimanjaro Paragliding permit, allowing them to bring spectators, paragliders and tandem paragliding pilots to the summit for an unforgettable flight. To participate, spectators must fundraise $2,000 for WOK, solo paragliders $5,000, and those wanting to tandem paraglide with a professional need to raise $10,000. One hundred percent of the fundraising money goes to the people of Tanzania.
The original plan was for Zayden to go as a spectator, hiking up the behemoth mountain with his dad, watching him fly, then hiking back down with the rest of the group. Then Zayden decided he wanted to tandem paraglide with his dad. Not long after, Zayden approached his mom, Trista, about the possibility of him flying solo.
“I said, ‘Absolutely not, no way,’” Trista said. “I had to battle my main fear of him going by himself without his dad. But he wanted to do it and I try to let my children do what they want to do especially something important like this.”
The work begins
Once Zayden made up his mind to fly solo off Mt. Kilimanjaro (and convinced his mom), the real work began. He had to become proficient enough to safely execute many possible launching, flying and landing conditions on his own, and he had to raise $5,000.
“I did any odd job I could get,” Zayden said. “One morning me and my mom and dad woke up early and made a whole bunch of food and had a burrito bar for paragliders on the south side. A lot of people loved what I was doing and made donations.”
“For a kid to raise $5,000 in one summer is amazing,” Chris said. “He had a goal, he knew what he needed to do and he did it.”
The Hunlows also approached local companies to help sponsor Zayden’s gear: equipment for flying from BGD paragliders, travel clothes and bags from Topo Designs, warm gear from Fortress Clothing, and solar power from Goal Zero. Purple Air donated money toward Zayden’s fundraiser as well as providing air sensors to leave in Tanzania to monitor air quality.
Zayden also spent most of his summer working on the technical aspects of paragliding, often heading to the flight park at 5 a.m. and again at sunset to work on the skills he might need to fly off Kilimanjaro.
“I really focused on launching and landing,” Zayden said. “I was there in the early morning when there was no wind doing no wind launches. When the sun was going down I worked on picking up my wing with no wind. I needed to learn how to make sure the kite goes overhead and get really good at landing. I did not want to fall.”
“He really put in a lot of work to show that he could fly himself,” Chris said. “By the end of the summer, he was good enough that we were both confident he could do this.”
The trip to the summit
Chris and Zayden began to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro on Sept. 20 and reached the summit eight days later.
“For the first couple of days it was super easy,” Zayden said. “I was breathing really good at the lower elevations and was super excited for the hike. By the third day, I was getting sick, I couldn’t breathe and it hurt to drink. The clouds came in and it was cold and miserable.”
After battling cold weather, elevation sickness and fatigue, the Hunlows reached Uhuru Peak, the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, in the early-morning hours of Sept. 28. Zayden felt rejuvenated and ready to fly; Dad was feeling very nervous.
“I had done it once and knew what to expect,” Chris said. “But it was extremely stressful to see my son go in the air that high, doing things that very few have done to date. It was very nerve-wracking for me.”
In total, there were 18 pilots and six passengers on this WOK expedition. Zayden watched several of them take off, not all successfully, and then came his moment. He recorded it in his journal.
“In no time the flag was in the perfect direction. My dad yelled, “This one is yours if you like it!” My brain said don’t go, but my gut said send it! So I turned my mind off and I ran. I ran giving it my all. I ran forgetting any struggle I’ve ever had in my life and I ran with the desire to fly. Before I knew it I was swept off my feet and began flying. I started flying more up than out which was a little scary. Many people said it looked like I went into an elevator and selected the highest floor. I got over the edge and struggled to get in my seat. Because of my massive snow pants and jacket, I couldn’t slide into my seat like normal. It took a good minute to get in, not only because of my clothes but also I was a bit scared to make sudden movements. Flying up like I did and flying off the edge, I quickly was at the highest point I’ve ever flown at. I pushed all fear away and fought my way into the seat. When I got in my seat a massive weight fell off my shoulders and I was left feeling calm and overexcited that I made it off. I was flying! I yelled and cheered with glee for about five minutes straight then looked behind me and saw my dad flying. I was filled with even more relief.”
Father and son then flew for around one hour and 15 minutes before reaching their landing zone. Since Chris had a passenger he was heavier and in the air for less time than Zayden. Chris said Zayden had a picture-perfect landing. Then 17, Zayden was the youngest person to successfully paraglide off of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
“The first thing I did was call Mom and let her know we had both landed safely,” Chris said.
Trista was at a computer watching GPS coordinates when her husband called.
“When Chris called and said they were both down safe and sound I got teary,” Trista said. “I felt so relieved. It was all okay.”
The highlight of the trip
A few days later, following showers, quality sleep and Zayden’s 18th birthday, Chris and Zayden were able to visit the Wings of Kilimanjaro Primary School to see the expansion that their fundraising efforts had helped to build. Zayden called the experience “life-changing.”
“When we got there, there were close to 1,000 kids waiting,” Zayden said. “They wanted to shake our hands and welcome us. They were so full of love and you could see the gratefulness in their eyes.”
Then 17 years old, Zayden Hunlow holds the world record for the youngest person to successfully paraglide off of Mt. Kilimanjaro. They’ve sent in paperwork to the Guinness World Records and hope Zayden’s story will encourage other kids to work hard and dream big. Zayden said he learned so much from his WOK trip, and experienced joy he will never forget. Chris said he is inspired by his son, and hopes Zayden’s story inspires others.
“This was an 18-year-old kid who wanted to do the impossible and did it,” Chris said. “People of all ages should be inspired to try and do what they’ve been afraid to do. It might not be easy, but let’s find a way to reach our goal and not just to do it for ourselves, but help other people along the way.”