Conquering Kilimanjaro

I am known for committing myself to crazy activities and getting myself so far involved that it’s not possible to turn back unless I want to face the ultimate humiliation for bailing and being lame. As it seems, this is how I became committed to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro…

I had to be in Kenya for my best friend’s wedding and I figured, while I’m over that way, I might as well have a fun adventure – why not climb to the roof of Africa; the highest free-standing mountain in the world? Obviously I am an avid hiker with loads of experience – NOT! Maybe I’ve hiked a few hours here and there but nothing to this extreme that involved camping for a week.

I originally had about three friends who were committed to trekking with me, however, when push came to shove, the timing didn’t work out and I found myself committed with my deposit paid and facing this adventure alone. Luckily, a few weeks before I set off, I spent hours trying to find another company who were climbing the same route (Machame – the 2nd hardest out of 6), on the same dates, since my flights were already booked and I didn’t want to incur change fees. Sometimes things work out even better than they should’ve because I found an AMAZING company that was locally-based with 3 other Americans signed up to trek all right around my age range. Genius!

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Image: Will (Pennsylvania), Me (Dubai/Florida), Samir (Texas), and Anna (Tennessee).

When I flew into Moshi, Tanzania, there was a moment on my flight that everyone started whispering and rumbling, rushing over to the left side of the plane. I snuck over the aisle and took a peak to see what the chatter was all about – Mount Kilimajaro was towering high over the clouds, our flying altitude seemed to be at eye-level with the peak of this scary beauty. It was that moment when reality hit me of what I signed up to do; it was that moment that I actually started to get a little freaked out. Ummmm… I am not the grueling-hiking type and I really enjoy my comfy bed and hot showers! Eeeekk!!

The next morning was the big day to officially start our week-long climb. We had a total of 20 porters to carry our gear and supplies, a chef, a waiter, one toilet-crew (yes, his job was to take care of our portable toilet), an assistant-guide, and our lead-guide. You never realize how much behind-the-scenes support you need for only 4 people to trek the mountain but it all comes to realization throughout the trip once you see the caliber of what is needed and provided by the company.

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Image: Anna and I on the bus with our amazing crew.

We unfortunately got a late start the first day and it was also drizzling and misting the entire afternoon which was not exactly the most ideal way to begin, but we were off! Because we were running late, we had to pick up the pace and complete what should’ve been a 6 hour trek, in only 4 hours to beat the sunset. I struggled big time, I cried and wondered, “Why did I think I could conquer this crazy feat?”, and contemplated turning back before it was too late.

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Image: Me at the start gate of the mountain. Here we go!

I couldn’t really consider going back even though I wanted to. You see, my roommate, Felix, tragically passed away 6 weeks before my trek. When his mother and sister came to clean his room, she gave me a photo of them and asked me to take it with me on my trip because they knew he was consulting me and morally supporting me pre-hike. I promised her I would take a photo holding it at the top. At the close of the first day hiking I realized it was going to be much harder than I thought. I cried and told my guide, Ibby, that I made a mistake and I wanted to go back but I couldn’t because of the promise I made Felix’s mother. He then promised me that he would get me to the summit to take that photo.

All throughout the next 5 days I kept pushing. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and I definitely pushed myself to my limit. The tears didn’t stop but my strength only got stronger. I was battling sleepless nights because I was shivering and freezing all throughout the night. It’s so cold that when you want to go to the bathroom from drinking so much water, you lay for a while debating if the pain of the piercing cold and hassle of getting dressed to go outside in the pitch black is actually worth it.  Include lack of sleep with physical exhaustion, pure dirtiness (you don’t shower all week), and fighting altitude sickness, and you get one cranky woman – but a determined, cranky woman for sure!

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Image: Contrary to what some think, it’s not always a smooth, easy incline. 

On summit night, it’s really an awe-inspiring experience. There is a lot of prep before bed, including emptying your backpack to include only the absolute necessary items – the bare minimum. We also spent time mapping out our clothing strategies since the higher you go, the colder it gets but also the harder it is to climb. I settled for 4 pairs of pant layers and 7 layers for the top – and I realized later that even that wasn’t good enough!

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Image: Although my summit photos are much cuter, this is what I really looked like going up – a giant, miserable marshmallow!

The moment had arrived where it was time to conquer the ultimate challenge. We woke up at 11:30 P.M. – yes, at night – as the trek to the summit is always done in the darkness for many reasons: you don’t see how high you really have to go, you don’t see others struggling and getting sick, and you should arrive to the summit at sunrise which makes the experience that much more fulfilling and breath taking.

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Image: Anna and I going up to the summit in complete darkness. 

When it was time to rock n’roll, I got my game face on. I decided that since I had already surprised myself and made it this far, there was no possibility of turning back. As instructed by our guide, Ibby, we all lined up in a single-file line and switched on our head lamps. This moment is really hard to explain but it was absolutely stunning to see the entire camp, hundreds of hikers, who had made it this far and are all beginning the same final feat together. You look up the mountain and all you see are lines of headlamps with faint twinkling stars in complete blackness – it seems as if it’s never ending. You don’t look up, go at a snail-slow pace, and only think about putting one foot in front of the other. At this point, nothing else matters except “one step at a time.”

No matter how determined you are or how much you’ve prepared for this moment, anything can change because you don’t know how your body will react to the weather, altitude, or just physical exhaustion. About one hour away from the top, I was becoming delirious and losing my footing. The higher we got, the worse the wind was and I was freezing; I couldn’t feel my fingertips and toes. I told Ibby that I just couldn’t go anymore. Because I wasn’t sick, he refused to let me give up and took off his down jacket and linked arms with me to assist me up, each of us with a pole in the other hand to climb together, arm-in-arm. We went higher but it was still too much. Eventually Ibby and our porter, Juma, were both physically pushing me on my back and doing everything they could to make sure I made it. When I finally saw the famous sign in the distance where everyone takes their glorious summit photos, I cried. I cried not only because I made it but because these two men were so determined to make my experience memorable and fulfil my promise to Felix’s mother in his honor.

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Image: I made it to the top to take my photo with Felix’s photo for his mother!

One thing that amazed me the most about my climb aside from these two men pushing me to my limit, but also the sense of team-work and encouragement that I was overwhelmed with from complete and total strangers. As I was fighting my way to the summit and reaching the last bit, hikers who already had their glory moments were passing me on their way back down. As they passed me and saw me struggling for energy and breath, many of them shared encouraging words to me like, “You’re almost there” and “Don’t give up.” This sense of comradery during this moment was just absolutely unbelievable, it was honestly hair-raising.

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Image: Me with the summit in the background.

Overall, the experience was without a doubt life-changing, challenging, and showed me how far I can push myself if I put my mind to it. It was something completely out of my comfort zone but I am so proud of myself for conquering Kilimanjaro and I highly recommend those who even blink at the challenge, should jump at the opportunity and attempt to join the “summit club.” Only those who have been through the same journey can truly understand the experience.

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Image: I wasn’t always the best hiker but I definitely tried to always look the part!

Thinking of Hiking Kilimanjaro? Below are tips and tricks that I picked up from my experience:

  • Train on incline only to prepare. If I could redo my training, I absolutely would. I read on so many blogs and company websites that if you can run 30 minutes without stopping, then you will be fine. Yea, right! I couldn’t run longer than 5 minutes without stopping so I trained hard to reach the 30 minute goal which I was so proud I did, however, 30 minutes on a flat surface is nothing like going UP a mountain. If you do any training at all (which I recommend), then all I would say is climb stairs or get on a stair-master for hours at a time, and build endurance while going up. If you can handle incline training for long periods of time, then you’re set!
  • Pick your group carefully as they will make or break your trip. A large group can be fun but remember that every time someone needs to go to the bathroom, un-layer, layer back up, or get something out of their bag – everyone stops. Also, Anna, who climbed with me had an unbelievable amount of energy, which was fantastic to pump me up during the long, gruelling days. When it came to summit night, her energy was just too much for me to handle as I was struggling for each little step and breathe so I had to kindly ask her to put another person in between us so I could focus more in silence. Thankfully she didn’t take offense to it (as she shouldn’t because I adored her) but she understood the situation.
  • Be prepared to lose your dignity. I can’t imagine taking on this challenge with a significant other as you honestly lose your dignity in regards to being feminine and maintaining some sort of manners with natural bodily functions. Be prepared to become one with nature and use the bathroom wherever and whenever. Be prepared to discuss your bowl movements with your hiking mates – everyone compares their frequencies as a check-up to mark your progress since constipation is common with high altitude levels. And be prepared to accept that…
  • You will get dirty, very dirty, and then even dirtier. The mountain is very dusty and no matter how hard you try, things will get covered in dust, you will smell, and your tent will accumulate dirt inside from going in and out. Just accept it and get over it. Again, be one with nature and just embrace your natural beauty.
  • Once you reach the summit, don’t underestimate the trek back down to the final gate. This part is just as painful as the trek up and very hard on your knees, shins, and ankles. Be prepared to be very sore upon your return.
  • Aside from the usual recommendations, you should also bring:
    • Lots of baby wipes. You will need these for the obvious but it will also be your “shower” for the week. You really can’t have enough.
    • Tissues for summit night. Your nose will constantly drip and become so raw, anything touching it is painful. The lesser of all evils is a nice, soft tissue.
    • A small travel toothbrush strictly for cleaning under your nails. Both the ladies and the gents appreciated that I brought this along as the build-up becomes excessive.
    • A high-quality sleeping bag, good enough for sub-zero temperatures and conditions as quality sleep is crucial.
    • Don’t forget to use sunscreen on the top of your hands. They will constantly be facing upwards towards the sun while using your trekking poles and they will burn very quickly and become very painful with your pole straps rubbing on them.
  • Be ready to tip – a lot! You will read online about the tipping culture since the team supporting you are usually paid the bare minimum yet they work the absolute hardest and make your trip possible. Prepare to tip a little extra because once you spend a week on the mountain with these people, your heart-strings are tugged at and it’s common to want to give more (each of us tipped around $400 which made it $1,200 total tip for the entire crew for a week – and that was right around the recommended daily amounts per role). If you cannot tip more than what is recommended, then…
  • Try to donate what you can. The porters and crew are not always well taken care of by the companies. Their supplies, gear, and clothing are often in such bad shape, that you would never consider climbing in what they’re wearing. Try and donate what you can – anything helps. I bought the most amazing Saloman hiking boots that were easily the best on the market but my final day, I knew I would never attempt such a serious hike again where I would need these type of boots. My guide’s boots had holes in the toes and I can’t tell you how grateful and excited he was when I offered them to him, even with how dirty they were! Anything from thermals, socks, gaiters, jackets, altitude sickness medicine (Diamox), they are more than happy to accept as a donation.

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Image: Us with our amazing crew on the last morning. 

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Image: Anna and I brushing our teeth, becoming one with nature. 

 

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