Frisco resident to raise awareness for kidney donations during trip to Mount Kilimanjaro

Bill Petersen, left, and Jay Irwin pose during a ski trip. Irwin donated his kidney to Petersen after Petersen saved his life in an avalanche in 2008.
Jay Irwin/Courtesy photo

On a winter day in 2008, Frisco resident Jay Irwin found himself trapped in an avalanche on Vail Pass.

He was covered from the chest down. He didn’t know it yet, but he’d broken his pelvis and leg and severed multiple nerves. After wrenching his arm free from the snow, he managed to call his friend Bill Petersen through his radio. Petersen, who chose to snowmobile down the slope that Irwin skied, rushed to the top of Ptarmigan Hill to call search and rescue and find his friend.

Once reunited, Petersen helped cover Irwin in coats and started a fire to keep him warm. They stayed in place for eight hours waiting for rescue. It was in that time that Irwin made a fateful promise.

“Bill, if we get out of here, if there’s anything you ever need, anything at all, you just let me know,” Irwin told Petersen at the time.

Eleven years later in 2019, Irwin had the opportunity to make good on his promise. Petersen called Irwin and told him that doctors needed to remove one of his kidneys. He had already lost part of his other kidney from health complications when he was child. Without a donation, it would be five years of waiting on the national donor list.

It didn’t take long for Irwin to decide he’d give up one of his kidneys to see his best friend live. On Nov. 1, 2019, Irwin donated his kidney to Petersen.

“To see him losing his health was just heartbreaking,” Irwin said.

Jay Irwin, from left, and Bill Petersen walk through the hospital after undergoing kidney transplant surgery in 2019. Irwin will be hiking Mount Kilimanjaro to raise awareness about kidney donations March 10.
Jay Irwin/Courtesy photo

On World Kidney Day, March 10, Irwin plans to be reflecting on his donation and his friendship with Petersen, who died by suicide in April 2020, at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. He’ll be surrounded by 22 people from across the country, all of whom are part of a nonprofit group called Kidney Donor Athletes.

The group organized the trip as a way to raise awareness for kidney donation. Kidney Donor Athletes’ goal is to promote live kidney donations by showing that people can live active, healthy lives after they donate.

“It’s all for these people who are on the waitlist, who need us to tell our stories so they can get the help they so desperately need,” Kidney Donor Athletes President Bobby McLaughlin said.

While each of the 22 athletes have their own reasons for going on the trip, Irwin feels it will be an opportunity to remember his best friend by doing what they loved most: going on an adventure.

Irwin and Petersen met during a helicopter ski trip in Canada in 1999. Irwin was living in Louisville at the time, and Petersen was living in Dillon. Once they realized they were separated by only around 80 miles, they developed a quick friendship, ultimately involving hundreds of camping, rafting, hiking, biking and backcountry skiing adventures.

“Friendships like that don’t just happen by happenstance,” Irwin said. “We had such a deep connection, the two of us.”

After Petersen died, Irwin said he struggled to come to terms with it. He took a year off from work, spent 14 days alone in the wilderness and wondered whether donating his kidney had been for nothing.

A map from Embark Explorations shows the route Jay Irwin and the 22 Kidney Donor Athletes will take across Mount Kilimanjaro.
Bobby McLaughlin/Kidney Donor Athletes

Ultimately, it was his connection to other kidney donors that helped guide him through the grief. Irwin came across Kidney Donor Athletes and other groups like Rock 1 Kidney and the One Kidney Club after hearing about it from his transplant coordinator before his surgery.

Through in-person and virtual gatherings, Irwin has developed friendships with people like McLaughlin, with whom he has nothing in common except the fact they have only one kidney.

“I’ve met so many people in this Kidney Donor Athletes group, and that has changed my life,” Irwin said.

The group will leave for Tanzania on Feb. 28 and plans to reach the 19,341-foot summit by March 10. McLaughlin said he hopes the trip will inspire more people to donate, which they can learn more about by visiting the National Kidney Registry’s website,

Irwin knows of at least two lives that have been saved as a result of him sharing his story about kidney donation. He said he can’t wait to be a part of spreading awareness, which he knows would have made Petersen proud.

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