I’ve always had a fascination with Africa. Lured by its natural beauty and amazing wildlife and intrigued by the diversity of culture. It seemed a world so different from the one I knew. The two weeks I spent in Kenya and Tanzania last August were unforgettable and largely indescribable. Camping out in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater surrounded by amazing animals in their natural habitat and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro far exceeded my wildest expectations. Plus, two weeks with no cell service or internet forced me to disconnect and remember the peacefulness of truly living in the present without the distractions of email, texts, social media or the news. This luxury is far too rare in our ever connected and fast paced world.
I decided to write a blog post about my Kilimanjaro summit because, after taking time to reflect on my experience, it represented far more to me than simply making it to the top. It was about proving to myself that I had the ability to look an immense physical and mental challenge in the face and take it on. A challenge I felt totally unprepared for.
The mountain represents our lives and while the summit might be the end goal, many paths can take you there. Some will be rockier and more treacherous than others, but you’ll eventually get there and along the way you’ll discover things about yourself that will make you stronger, smarter and more resilient to help along your path. As always, it’s the journey that matters most, learning at each step along the way. I learned that I’ll only achieve what I believe I can do. Even when I was completely exhausted, sick from altitude, and frozen, I knew I’d make it and willed myself to keep going. If I didn’t believe in myself then I never would have started the journey in the first place and I would have missed out on a grand adventure. It’s these realizations that greatly enrich my life and keep me itching to see and do more.
Below describes my 5 day trek of Kilimanjaro. I highly recommend this climb to anyone who can make it over to Tanzania. It is well worth the long plane ride. Plus you get to watch the sunrise from the top of Africa - not a bad view!
I realized a bit too late that it’s slightly crazy to climb to 20,000 feet in less than 3 ½ days. I took the Marangu route to the Kilimanjaro summit. This is the shortest route to the top but not recommended if your body is sensitive to altitude!
Day 1 – Marangu Gate to Mandara Hut - Elevation 9,000 feet/2,720 meters; Vegetation Zone: Montane Forest
I sat watching the sun set behind a distant mountain after our initial 4 hour hike through the cloud forest to our first stop of the trek. Although the sun had disappeared, the hills of Tanzania and Kenya (I was told you could see that far!) were still awash with sunlight. Monkeys ran around the campsite as our guides prepped for dinner. The huts were surprisingly cozy and warm with 4 people. The communal squat toilets not so much : )
The trail through the cloud forest ran alongside a creek with thick green foliage. Lots of roots and rocks to trip on so learned to keep my eyes on the trail. We were 11 strong in our group with many more porters than hikers. I definitely would not have survived without them! My backpack already felt heavy carrying only 3 liters of water, a jacket, various other small items and my lunch box. Lunch was a mixture of boiled eggs, bread, an orange, tasteless biscuits and juice. I made sure stock up on Twix and Snickers before leaving the trailhead although I learned that African chocolate bars taste much different than what I was expecting.
Day 2 – Mandara to Horombo Huts - Elevation 12,275 feet/3,720 meters; Vegetation Zone: Moorland
8:00am departure from the Horombo Huts. We’re already far above the cloud line but can still see the green hills of the rainforest through patches in the clouds. After hiking 9 hrs, my hiking boots have finally rubbed blisters onto both my little toes and my shoulders are super tight from carrying my loaded backpack. No more shade as the tall trees of the forest shrank down to dry, sparse bushes as we continue upwards. The low bushes gave us our first glimpse of the Gillman’s Point sitting at 18,640 ft/5681 m.
The summit looks like a small white oval reflecting from the top of a very steep, brown mound. There is barely any snow left on top with the dry season in full swing. It almost doesn’t seem that high from this far away. It’s surprisingly easy to forget that we’ve already reached nearly 13,500ft.
The sun beat down on us as we walked. Sunscreen and a hat are absolutely necessary! The trail gets dryer and dryer until I finally had to put on a buff to cover my mouth and nose and sunglasses to shield my eyes. Each step kicks up clouds of dust for the person behind you. I would highly recommend walking in the front of your group if you can make it up there! Saline nasal spray was a lifesaver for dry/dirty sinuses.
By day 2 I’ve fallen in love with my hiking poles. I can’t imagine doing the trek without them. Bring a pair of liner gloves so you don’t get blisters on your palms like I did. We reached hut site #3 in 6 ½ hours. While we sat on our cabin steps, our awesome porters brought us the most amazing warm buckets of water to wash our face, arms and feet. I almost felt like I was back at Burning Man. Nothing like a good coating of dust!
Dinner was served in the food huts with several large mice running around our feet hoping we’d drop some of our veggie stew, rice and fried eggplant dinner, complete with several cups of hot chocolate and ginger tea. The temperature dropped dramatically once the sun sets.
The stars at this altitude are unbelievable. With no lights or clouds to drown them out, they vividly covered every inch of the sky. If I wasn’t exhausted, I could have watched them for hours. I have never seen stars like that in my life. Sunset is pretty stunning as well, with vibrant oranges, pinks and blues painting the sky above the cloud line.
Day 3 – Horombo Huts to Kibo Huts - Elevation 15,518 feet/4,729 meters; Vegetation: Alpine Desert
5 hours to huts #3 but this is not even close to the end of our day! Tonight we start the summit climb. The frigid wind picked up a few hours into our morning trek, cutting straight through my many top layers and froze my fingers through my gloves. I started to feel the altitude too. Headache, stuffy nose, exhaustion, lack of appetite, muscle soreness/stiffness.
All 11 of us packed into one of the available rooms to try to get some rest before the long night ahead. This was not an easy task with a room full of excited, tired, smelly people. Some people wouldn’t stop talking while others tried to sleep and a few rummaged through their bags to organize what they were going to need for the summit. As you can imagine, rest was not easy to come by. It’s pretty impossible to sleep at that altitude anyway.
Day 4 – Summit day! Uhuru Peak – Elevation 19,341 feet/5895 meters; Vegetation: Stone & Ice
We departed camp about an hour before midnight. None of us knew what we were getting into. I was nervous, tired, freezing, sore and of course, excited. The sky was pitch black, our headlamps the only source of light and carrying in our packs everything we might need for the next 10 plus hours on the way to the summit.
I’ve never been so cold in my life. I was wearing more layers than I thought possible - a base layer top of 250 weight merino wool, a Columbia omni-heat layer on top of that, a polar fleece, a large down jacket, a Gore-Tex windbreaker/rain jacket, ski pants with fleece tights and merino wool base layer underneath, 2 fleece beanies, 3 pairs of gloves (fleece liners, fleece omni-heat, and insulated mittens), 2 pairs of wool socks with my down jacket and windbreaker hoods pulled over my head. I also stuck hand and foot warmers on the back of my neck, my chest, in my gloves, under my toes and in my pockets to keep my spare camera batteries warm. And believe it or not, I was still FREEZING!! I couldn’t feel my toes or my fingers after about 30 minutes and I was convinced that my toes had somehow gotten wet and were most definitely frost bitten.
Good thing I couldn’t see where I was going in the dark because I’m not sure if I would have continued on. Climbing the rim of the summit is very steep and so we had to zigzag back and forth like a snake to make it up. A few hours in the water in my camelbak froze, even with me blowing back into it to clear the tube so beware if this is your only water source!
We arrived at Gillian’s Point at 5:30am with an hour and ½ left to the summit. I was starting to struggle at this point. My feet felt like blocks of cement, my shoulders and neck ached from the weight of my frozen water, my body was numb from the cold. I felt super light headed, extremely thirsty and nauseous. Not a fun combo.
With 30 minutes to go, the slowly sun rose above a thick layer of clouds, lighting the way and causing the glaciers on either side of the trail to glow. The sunlight gave me some much needed inspiration but each step took immense determination. I had music playing in my headphones (a lifesaver) and had come up with a mantra I kept repeating in my head convincing myself to keep going and make it to the top instead of sitting down or turning around which is what I really felt like doing.
Around 7am, I made it to the top of Africa. The view was spectacular and I’ve never been so happy to sit down in my life. Because of the altitude, we had about 15 minutes to celebrate, take photos and begin our journey back down the mountain.
I was more than happy to head down as I was feeling very sick by this point. Extremely lightheaded, super nauseous and more thirsty than I’ve ever been in my life. Not an ideal time for my water to be frozen. Luckily, some good friends I made on the trip shared their water. I tried eating some food, which was a terrible idea because my body had essentially shut down its digestive system by that point.
The way down was a very steep, rocky and dusty mountainside. The most efficient way to get down was to act like you’re skiing downhill. However, this also makes it so you have to stop and dump tons of pebbles/rocks out of your boots every 20 minutes or so. But, if you feel like I did, these were much welcome rest stops. It took about 3 ½ hours to get back to camp where we had a quick lunch and then had to get back on the trail and continue down to lower altitude. 4 hours later, we arrived back at the Horombo Huts and I was fast asleep by 7pm after 20 hours of hiking and zero sleep.
Day 5 – Challenge Complete
With a 5:30am wakeup call, we hit the trail in high spirits as we were just half a day away from clean clothes and a warm shower. I was definitely the dirtiest I've ever been. Do yourself a favor and paint your nails a dark color before the hike. All my clothes had a thick layer of brown dust coating them. I tried to shake them out to no avail. They got stuffed into some plastic bags and dealt with state side.
I’ll never forget driving to the airport and seeing Kilimanjaro peaking through the clouds. It looked monstrous. I couldn’t believe my own legs had carried me up that mountain. This thought was reinforced the next morning on my flight out. The plane cut through the clouds just as the sun began to rise and flew level with the summit of Kilimanjaro. I was certainly glad I was in a plane at 20,000 ft and not on top of the mountain anymore but I knew that there were many people summiting at that very moment.
One of the coolest things about this hike is the lack of people you come across. We passed a few groups coming down and ran into people at the huts but other than that, the trail is pretty empty. The exact opposite of popular treks like the Inca trail.
I still keep up with almost everyone from the trip. We were mostly solo travelers from all corners of the earth, in all different stages of our lives, coming together to complete a journey of a lifetime. I imagine I’ll see some of them again on another adventure and I can’t wait.