The Climb

A student hikes Kilimanjaro twice.


The first time Alex D’Jamoos climbed Kilimanjaro, he crawled for up to 12 hours at a time. The skin on his hands shredded and bled even under thickly padded gloves, altitude sickness turned his stomach, and fear dogged him at every turn. “I knew it was going to be difficult, but it was kind of shocking how excruciating it really was,” D’Jamoos says of his 2012 climb.

Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa at more than 19,000 feet. While it’s no Everest, it’s still a physically and mentally grueling trek for anyone, let alone a not particularly athletic college kid. Add in the fact that D’Jamoos was born without legs and two of his fingers, and any sane person would think the climb was impossible.

That didn’t worry D’Jamoos. After all, a lot of seemingly impossible things have happened in his life. The first occurred when he was 15 and living in an orphanage in Nizhny Lomov, Russia. A nonprofit called Happy Families International arranged for him to travel to Dallas for orthopedic surgery and his first set of prosthetic legs.

The second impossible thing happened when his host parents in Dallas, Helene and Mike D’Jamoos, decided to do whatever was necessary to permanently adopt him. They moved mountains of legal paperwork and paid bribes to the corrupt Russian government. Then came Impossible Thing No. 3: Getting admitted to UT-Austin. “Even now, it’s surreal to me that I am a UT student,” D’Jamoos says. “It sounds a bit crazy. You know, ‘disabled Russian orphan comes to America, goes to college, climbs Kilimanjaro?’ Well, yeah.”

After all that, climbing Kilimanjaro didn’t seem so impossible. So D’Jamoos did it in 2012, raising awareness and money for the nonprofit that gave him a new life. And this June, he did the climb a second time, as another publicity campaign for Happy Families and several other nonprofits that help disabled orphans. He made it all the way to the top, a personal goal since his first climb ended at the third camp 15,000 feet up. Once again, his hands bled, he struggled with mental and physical exhaustion, and lack of oxygen made him delirious.

Why subject himself to all that again? Most climbers would just cross Kilimanjaro off their list and move on.

“I don’t know, I just wanted to do it,” D’Jamoos says. “I surprised myself. It’s also very effective for getting our message out. In Russia, that’s very difficult to do.” Several American and Russian journalists came along for the climb. A Russian TV station even aired a documentary—a major coup for D’Jamoos and fellow orphan advocates, since the state-controlled media often censors such messages. With political conflict heating up in Russia, focusing attention on the plight of orphans is harder than ever, he adds: “The media atmosphere is very bad in Russia. I was surprised how much attention we were able to bring.”

Now back on the Forty Acres in his senior year as a government major, D’Jamoos is filling out law school applications. He’s planning to be an international lawyer focused on U.S-Russia relations. “Law is one of the few effective ways to communicate between the U.S. and Russia,” he says. “Politicians aren’t having much success, but there are still American law firms working in Moscow.”

It won’t be easy. D’Jamoos has a tough climb ahead of him, but he’s used to those.

Photo by Steve Remich


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