I thought my boyfriend was joking when he first suggested climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Mt. Kilimanjaro: One of the seven summits of the world. We have accomplished many crazy physical feats together–Spartan races, marathons, and hikes across the world. But at 19,341 feet, Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in not only Africa, but also the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. The thought of stepping foot onto any portion of that, let alone climbing it, seemed impossible.
Located in northeastern Tanzania, Mt. Kilimanjaro is a benchmark in mountaineering success. People from all over the globe travel to Tanzania in the hopes of summiting this great giant. Taking on such a serious endeavor would never have crossed my mind, but for James, the decision was obvious: We at least had to try.
The initial idea was born as we relaxed one evening, reading a story about someone who had recently climbed the mountain. Soon the idea turned into research, which became conversations with mountain guides, which transformed into plane tickets and downpayments. Within the span of a few months, our trip was set, and all that remained was the training.
It is easy to agree to do something when the event itself is five months away. Much like any race I have ever agreed to do, the idea coupled with time created a sense of security. Impossibility was replaced with training schedules and goal setting.
We ran, hiked, and lifted weights. But as each day ticked by, there was one important element missing in our condition: elevation. There is no great way to train to climb a mountain, especially when you live in Akron, Ohio.
With an elevation of about 1,004 feet, attempting to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro would be a challenge.
Training alone is not enough, however. It takes a skilled team of guides and porters to get any group of hikers up Mt. Kilimanjaro. Our team from Ascend Tanzania consisted of 3 guides, John, Derek, and Alfred (all locals from the surrounding communities), 16 porters, and 5 hikers, including ourselves.
The guides ensured our daily safety, setting our pace and checking our vitals throughout each part of the climb. The porters, the backbone of the group, carried our tents and overnight gear, setting up camp and even preparing our meals.
On day one, we rode as a team through the busy city streets of Moshi and into Kilimanjaro National Park. At the gate of the trail, boarded by tall thick trees and wide green leaves, it was difficult to grasp what would happen next.
Research and anecdotes do little to prepare a person when it comes time to start the climb. In theory, it is pretty straight forward. Hike slow, take time to adapt, and just keep going. But once you enter through the gates, nothing is straight forward.
Day one of the seven-day Machame Route began in the rain forest. Lush greenery lined the dirt path that twisted and turned through an ever more steep route up into the mist of the mountain side. It was a seven mile hike, lasting roughly five hours, ending at Machame Camp which sits at 9,350 feet of elevation, already a substantial height.
The first night on the mountain was strange, the quiet overwhelming. The deep black night sky seemed to pulse alive with millions of stars while the cool mountain air crept over our camp.
That first night James and I attempted to roll out our sore muscles and ease the lingering pain with creams and sleep. I remember the shock at just how tired my body was, already, and the tiny fear that began to bubble inside, wondering how much further I’d make it.
Day two was, to my surprise, even more difficult. It was only a three mile hike to Shira Camp, but one that felt endless. On this part of the trail, rain forest quickly gave way to an extremely steep, rocky gray path that stretched into the clouds. Trees became scarce and less and less vegetation remained.
By Shira Camp, the elevation reached 12,500 feet and the clouds settled well below to the depths far beneath our camp. From this point forward, the horizon was nothing but cloud and sky, and the remaining jagged slopes of the mountain left to be climbed.
There were more moments during day two than any other day when I was certain I could not keep going. The near vertical rocky paths were difficult to navigate as my body slowly tried to adjust to lessening oxygen.
Many times we stopped to rest on nearby boulders and stretched our straining muscles. Water, mustard packets, and group encouragement carried me forward, albeit very slowly.
Countless times I stopped and looked upward toward the heavens, at the place I imagined the peak to be, and began to feel overwhelming dread. With involuntary muscle cramps and spasms and pain, a single mile would drain all that my body had left to give.
It may seem obvious now to say, and I just kept going, but that decision, to consistently put one foot in front of the other took all of my resolve, all of my willpower and focus. With each step I accepted the pain and the discomfort and the fear, and just kept going.
Days three and four were short, two to four mile days of acclimatization, which meant hiking up to 15,190 feet and back down to sleep at 13,044 feet. These days were meant to help the body adjust, and mine seemed to do so.
But more importantly, these days were easier on my body, restoring some belief in myself.
Day five was the most important day. That morning, we hiked two miles to Barafu Camp, or base camp. It was there that we set up our tents and relaxed for a small part of the day, before attempting sleep that afternoon. This day was so important because day five began summit night. Day five was also the day when, for us, everything went wrong.
In theory, summit night is spent preparing with warm tea or coffee and a small snack. Guides check the hikers’ vitals to verify their health, and everyone dresses for the arctic temperatures that await on the six hour journey to the top of Africa.
But at 15,331 feet, James and I began to experience the severe side effects of altitude sickness. My fears were coming true. By somewhere over 16,000 feet, our guides rechecked our vitals and with oxygen levels well below the safe threshold, turned us around.
Much of that night is now forgotten. As severe altitude sickness set in, I remember the blueish tint that crept over James’s face before I began to fade in and out of consciousness. Luckily, our guide, John, helped us down to a lower elevation immediately and provided the necessary care to ensure our symptoms would improve. The next morning was difficult, not because of our physical state, but our emotional one: We didn’t make it.
It took a day and a half to hike down the mountain. We did finish as a team, meeting up with the rest of our crew along the way. There were moments on the way down when devastation gave way to embarrassment and dread.
How would we tell our families, how would we tell everyone we didn’t make it? But these thoughts of self-defeat quickly faded. For five days I succeeded in overcoming every physical and mental barrier placed in my way. I may not have summited, but I accomplished more than I ever imagined I was capable of.
Climbing mountains often serves as a metaphor for enduring the most treacherous moments life has to offer. The achievement of which is rewarded with a sense of great accomplishment and pride. The actual mountain, it turns out, is much more treacherous than the rhetorical comparisons it often inspires.
We did eventually tell our family, and everyone else. No one was disappointed, and now neither are we. Trying new things, taking on new, scary, challenging adventures are never about the destination you intend to reach, but rather about the obstacles you overcome along the way.
Life truly is a journey, one that involves multiple attempts and several series of successes and failures. After all, we never climbed a mountain before Mt. Kilimanjaro, and now we know we can. All that’s left to conquer is the summit.
Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro