The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Montcoal Mine Disaster

April 5, 2011

Mountaineer climbs Kilimanjaro to pay tribute to 29

WHITESVILLE — As friends and family of the UBB 29 gathered for a candlelight vigil six months after the explosion, 62-year-old Whitesville resident Gary Dillon was creating his own memorial — at the peak of the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.

A seasoned mountain climber who seeks out big mountains around the world, Dillon explained that he chose to summit Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to honor the lives of the 29 miners who died in the UBB explosion.

“I usually just do it [climbing] for my own satisfaction,” Dillon said. “But everybody wanted to do something for the miners. When the explosion happened … I got to thinking, ‘What do I do? I climb these mountains …’”

When Dillon looked at Mount Kilimanjaro, he saw a monument. It rises 19,298 feet from its base in the Serengeti plain — and seemed to call across the Atlantic to Dillon.

“Kilimanjaro is like a monument. It stands all by itself,” Dillon explained. “I thought it would make a good tribute to the miners.”

Dillon also explained that he felt the trek could honor the passion for the outdoors that many of the miners shared.

“I read the stories about the miners and it seemed about all of them loved to hunt, to get out in the woods. I said, ‘Maybe they’re living in the mountains.’ They enjoyed the mountains. Ultimately they died in the mountains. I said, ‘What better way to pay tribute than on the mountains?’”

Dillon, who has climbed eight tall mountains from Oregon to Mexico to Argentina, usually prepares for his trips with intense physical training at the Whitesville gym and climbing the nearby hills with a heavy backpack.

For the Kilimanjaro, climb, however, Dillon added two extra items to his pack — the American flag flown over the U.S. Capitol to mourn the fallen miners and a West Virginia flag from the state Capitol in Charleston.

Several families of the miners learned that Dillon was making the climb for the 29 and told him or his friends that the climb meant a lot to them.

“That kind of puts a pressure on you, that kind of gives you a lot of inspiration,” Dillon said. “Because you lay in your tent at night, and you wonder if you can do it sometimes.”

The eight-day climb up Kilimanjaro challenged Dillon. As he packed the U.S. and West Virginia flags up the mountain, he fought off headaches and loss of appetite from altitude sickness, and weathered several different climate zones. His climbing group began wearing shorts and T-shirts in the jungle, passed through brush and desert, and finished on snowy, rocky turned in full winter gear.

Dillon’s fellow climbers and guides affectionately called him “Chief Warrior” for being the oldest climber — but quickly found out he was one of the most capable.

Dillon met his fellow climbers online before the trek — and, he said, his reasons for climbing resonated deeply with them.

“They said, ‘If you can’t make it, we’ll carry the flag up for you.’ I said I’d appreciate it, but I was determined to make it.”

Through sheer coincidence, the final day of the trek fell on Oct. 5 — exactly six months after the UBB explosion.

On the last leg, Dillon’s fellow climbers sent him up ahead.

“They told me, they said, ‘You go in the lead.’ When we got close to the summit, they said, ‘You’re gonna lead us up to the top.’”

Dillon described that he felt emotions swirling as he let the U.S. and West Virginia flags fly into the air from Kilimanjaro’s peak.

“You get up and you say, ‘This is what I worked so hard for.’”

Dillon had chosen mountain climbing for its difficulty. After retirement from his job as locomotive engineer, he had tried scuba diving and sky diving, but found they didn’t test him physically. He described how mountain climbers push their body to its limits from morning to night, day after day.

Dillon had risen to the mountains’ challenge — even finally summiting Mount Rainier after succumbing to hypothermia on his first two attempts.

However, on top of Mount Kilimanjaro, Dillon met a challenge he simply could not overcome. Though he had arranged for fellow climbers to film him reading the names of the 29 miners, he could not steady his voice and fight back the tears long enough to speak.

“I couldn’t do it — and every time I’d start ready, I couldn’t do it,” he said.

When he returned to Whitesville, Dillon stressed that his climb was not an act of glory but a tribute.

“A lot of [people] said, ‘That was a good thing you did,’ — I wanted it to be all about the miners.”

His grief, he said, is still as raw as it was a year ago.

“I still basically feel how I felt the first day it happened … I worked underground a couple of years, so I knew what they were into.”

“I just didn’t believe it. I’d wake up at night and couldn’t go back to sleeping, thinking about it. The kind of thing where you wake up in the morning and ask, ‘Did that really happen?’”

The memorial flags still sit in Dillon’s house; he is waiting for the UBB Mining Memorial to be built, so that he can encase and display the flags, which have traveled halfway around the world and back in the name of the 29 miners.

Dillon explained that he deeply believes that even simple items like flags can have power.

“I know memorials work. It’s so easy to forget after something happens, but when you pass by a memorial and just glance over it, it brings you back into perspective.”

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