Part One of a two-part series
A self-described Florida boy recently became one of an estimated 65 people – and just 11 Americans – in recorded history to summit Mount Everest and Mount Lhotse less than a day apart.
When Cameron Kenny, 28, grew up in Clearwater, his soft white powder was not the frozen kind but the sugar sand along the Pinellas beaches. Following high school, he attended college at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. His career brought him to New York about five years ago, although his mom still lives in Bellaire and his dad in St. Petersburg.
“So, I’ve never really lived around the mountains,” said Kenny. “But I’ve always had kind of a need for the outdoors, and for as long as I can remember, Everest has always been a dream of mine.”
Even at 10 years old, Kenny said, he “stalked” the mountains short climbing season and followed the teams of adventurers attempting to climb the earth’s highest peak, with an elevation of 29,031.7 feet. Everest’s summit borders Nepal and China in the Himalayan mountain range.
In 2013, before heading off to Dallas for college, Kenny’s dad surprised him with a nine-day itinerary in Tanzania, Africa, with eight of those days climbing the renowned Mount Kilimanjaro. Kenny put his pursuit of Everest on hold after that trip, focusing instead on graduating college and starting his career.
“And then as soon as I got out and kind of started making my own money and having my own time and schedule, I sat down and figured out what I needed to do to get to Mount Everest,” said Kenny. “What mountains and stepping stones I needed to take to get from Kilimanjaro to Everest.”
His first “stepping stone” was climbing Grand Teton’s 13,775-foot peak in Jackson, Wyoming. A classic destination for American mountaineering, but just half the height of Everest. From there, Kenney scaled a few mountains in Colorado, working his way up to Mount Ranier in Washington and the imposing Mount Denali in Alaska. The highest mountain peak on the North American continent, Denali rises 20,310 feet above sea level.
“It’s kind of a big prerequisite for Everest,” said Kenny. “And so, once I locked in Denali and had a successful trip there, I was able to kind of apply for this Mount Everest expedition.”
The kid from Clearwater touched the summit of the world’s largest mountain on May 20, descended back to Camp 2 and summited the adjoining Mount Lhotse, the world’s fourth-largest, on May 21.
“So, 24 hours later, with seven minutes to spare,” said Kenny. “We summitted Lhotse in just under 24 hours.”
With the help of several local sponsors, including Tampa-based startup Praxis Medical Devices, Kenny also raised awareness and $140,000 to support the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).
Doctors diagnosed Kenny’s younger brother, Andrew, with Type 1 diabetes at 17, about eight years ago. Kenny noted that climbing Everest was a life-long dream, a goal established well before his brother’s diagnosis. However, he realized the magnitude of the trip and how wide of an audience he could reach if he was successful.
“I felt a bit of responsibility to make it bigger than myself,” said Kenny. “With that, I came up with the idea of doing for charity, and then Andrew and Type 1 diabetes was kind of an immediate answer.”
Kenny reached out to the JDRF during the early planning phase of his trip to Nepal about a year ago. He said the organization was “super, super into the idea” and called them a great partner throughout the extensive process.
“I wouldn’t say it (juvenile diabetes) was the original determination,” said Kenny. “But given the size and magnitude of the trip, I knew I could do something more than just climb it for myself.”
When it came time to enlist the help of sponsors, Kenny left New York and headed home to Tampa Bay.
Kenny mostly relied on his local family and friends network to raise the $140,000 for juvenile diabetes. About six months before he left for Nepal, the Pinellas native returned home and “kind of targeted” people he knew in the business community with the means to hopefully make significant donations. In addition to Paxis Medical, Kenny said Crown Automotive Group also gave “a big chunk.”
Kenny said he secured five or six large sponsors with the promise of planting flags at the peak – provided he completed the climb. The first successful summit took place in 1953, and at least a third of mountaineers are unable to complete the trek.
CBS News reports that around five mountaineers die annually attempting the trek; 11 perished during a crowded, roughly month-long summitting season in 2019. Since 1922, 311 people have died on Everest, with over 200 bodies remaining on the mountain and serving as grim reminders of the climb’s dangers.
However, after nearly a month of acclimation to the altitude and lack of oxygen, Kenny completed the climb.
“It’s something I’ll remember and cherish forever,” he said. “I feel extremely fortunate and grateful we were able to get up there and be successful, as not everybody is.”
Kenny said the fundraising aspect was more successful than he envisioned, doubling his original goal. While he called scaling Everest a “one-and-done” adventure, he is planning his next quest and will continue his blossoming partnership with JDRF.
While his brother’s experience with the disease played a key role in Kenny’s selection of a cause, he said he wanted the experience to focus on Type 1 diabetes as a whole rather than on Andrew.
“Whether he’s vocal about it or not, I know it means a lot to him,” said Kenny. “For sure.”
Tuesday: Part Two – a detailed account of Kenny’s perilous climb, and plans for his next adventure.