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24-04-2019 / 10:30

Tom Belz: "Nobody would have told me that I could achieve this"

It's an inspirational story. At the age of eight, MAMMUT Ambassador Tom Belz lost his entire left leg due to bone cancer. 23 years later, he reached the summit of Kilimanjaro. Since then, his life has changed a great deal. MAMMUT got together with Tom to reflect on these past months and on the project itself.

MAMMUT: In 2018 you climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, that was a huge achievement. Have things gone back to normal for you yet?
Tom Belz: Exactly the opposite. Since the project, media attention has increased a lot. And I've connected with so many new people, who have inspired me. Like Adam Ondra, whom I got to know during the European Outdoor Film Festival, and Dani Arnold as well. All great athletes, who approached me and congratulated me on my performance. It was like Lenny Kravitz congratulating another musician on their cool concert. I was super proud when Mammut approached me and said, "Hey, tell us your story!" This is a huge thing for me, as society still sees me as severely disabled.

Are you trying to inspire others, to motivate them to reach for greater things through your project as well?
I'm working hard on setting a positive example. Because I know that every person has their strengths and that's the beauty of it. We all have our challenges to face, our own Kilimanjaro if you like. I often say to my friends and family, "Well, if I can do it, then you definitely can." It's my way of trying to light that spark in people.

"Obstacles were literally blocking my way. So I used this experience to create one huge challenge for myself, to climb Kilimanjaro."

What's the story behind your impairment?
As a boy, I was always athletic. I was always the fastest kid in gym class and out on the playground. But then at one point I started slowing down and my left leg began to hurt. It wasn't a strong pain, more of a throbbing. Eventually I went to the doctor's with my family and was then sent for X-rays. It turned out that I had a cancerous growth above my left knee. A few days later I was admitted to hospital, began chemotherapy and had all the usual reactions to it. They tried to save my leg but the cancer had already spread so thoroughly that my leg had to be amputated. After surgery, my lack of balance was a nightmare. I had to relearn how to sit, to walk, to hop... I decided against a prosthesis in favor of crutches relatively quickly.

Why?
I’d need a different prosthesis for every activity in my life, be it surfing, running or hiking. The effort involved was too much for me.

How did you actually come up with the idea of climbing Kilimanjaro?
When I was a child, and still had both legs, I often watched TV documentaries about Africa with my dad. They always totally inspired me. And then there was also "The Lion King" movie. Both showed images of Kilimanjaro. But then the whole amputation thing happened and, for 23 years, it was implied that I couldn't do anything. Obstacles were literally blocking my way. So I used this experience to create one huge challenge for myself, to climb Kilimanjaro. It was mid-2017 when the idea came to me for the first time that I wanted to do something that I didn't know for sure if I would manage it. Then I told my parents and they actually weren't that surprised by the idea.

"We laughed so much. We began climbing Kilimanjaro as strangers and came back down as friends."

What was the preparation for climbing Kilimanjaro like?
That's an interesting question (he laughs). I didn't prepare as you normally would. I put up pictures of Kilimanjaro everywhere, so that I could always see the mountain and I watched countless documentaries. I’d been using crutches for 23 years, so I was already in pretty good shape. I only actually completed one real training session and that was climbing the Üssers Barrhorn at 3,650 meters. That was it really. Above all, I relied on my mental strength. And in the end, it got me up there.

What was your experience climbing Kilimanjaro like? Were there moments when you were totally exhausted and depleted or were you able to motivate yourself the entire time?
Well, I had Kilimanjaro ahead of me every day. So I could always see the progress towards my goal, but that progress also took a lot of energy. All in all, the whole project was a lot of fun. So many people were part of it that it felt like a class field trip: The camera crew, the photographer, Klaus, who accompanied Günther and me, who in turn accompanied Klaus, the guides – it was like a massive party! We laughed so much. We began climbing Kilimanjaro as strangers and came back down as friends. The people there are unbelievably friendly and open. They also saw my disability in a totally different light. Even now, it still moves me when I think about it.

Incidentally, I wasn't exhausted until the last stage. At around 5,600 meters, the cold caught up with me. At -10°C and with winds up to 65 km/h, your face becomes pretty painful. And the more I walked, the harder it was to breathe and my muscles became super cold, they contracted and hurt. In response, the guides began to sing and motivate me. That was a massive help.

When you actually reached the summit, were you able to really enjoy the moment?
At first I couldn't find the words, until I remembered why I was there. Nobody would have told eight-year-old me that I could achieve this. Nobody told me that I could lead a normal life. So I cried and all I managed to get out was, "I made it!" And that says it all really.

"When I got home, that's when it actually all really took off."

How did you feel when you got back to Germany? Did it feel anticlimactic?
I had people at my side, including Mammut, who were able to predict how much interest there would be in my story. When I got home, that's when it actually all really took off. Having seen the raw footage, the production company called me to say that my film would be shown at the European Outdoor Film Tour. I didn't tell anyone that I was back in Germany for about a week. So when I then posted my Instagram story letting people know that I was back, my phone rang non-stop. I've received offers to do talks, to be part of the European Outdoor Film Tour, I've been on TV and radio shows, etc. It's really great that so many people are interested in my story.

Tom Belz, thank you for talking to us.

Hiking