In the miniature room of Kilimanjaro Backpacker’s Hotel, I unpacked and repacked my bag for the second time, cautiously accounting for each piece of climbing gear, knowing that missing only one could inhibit my ability to reach the summit of Africa’s tallest mountain safely.
Mt. Kilimanjaro is the fourth tallest of the Seven Summits and the world’s highest freestanding mountain. At 5,895 meters (19,340 feet), glaciers make a permanent home and the thin air offers about one-third of the oxygen our bodies normally enjoy.
From Machame Gate, where my trek began, blue monkeys taunted tourists attempting to eat their last restaurant-prepared meal. I had been told I would be joining a group of five, and patiently waited until a minibus arrived and four men and a woman jumped out, belting a Polish drinking song with lyrics meaning “the party must go on.”
My expedition crew contained 23 people, with a ratio of 21 males to 2 females. The five Polish twenty-eight year olds were friends from business school, enjoying a trip around east Africa. Three had climbed in the Himalayas and one shared his plans of reaching the summit of Mt. Everest. Also joining us were two guides and a large team of 14 porters and assistants tasked with ensuring our safety and well-being.
Day one began with an easy trek through the forest, one of the five ecosystems the mountain boasts. On Day two, we continued, pole pole (Swahili for slowly, slowly) up the mountain, making easy progress on the 50mi trek to ensure acclimatization. By day three, many of my peers were showing signs of altitude sickness: headaches, nosebleeds, heavy breathing, and an inability to sleep soundly at night.
The fourth day began with what the guides call, “climbing the wall,” a near-vertical ascent that takes an hour and a half. The porters accomplish this while still balancing duffel bags filled with gear on their heads, a truly amazing feat.
After a quick lunch at 4,600 meters, the sleet began to fall and blow cold ice against my face. We had already been walking in clouds for hours, and ominous thunder claps could be heard in the distance. Nine hours of high-altitude, steep hiking would be followed by a two hour rest period before attempting a dawn summit.
At the 11pm preparation meeting, the rest of my team decided they would not summit that night. The weather, their health, and sheer exhaustion made the sunrise summit less than appealing. They would wait another day, and then decide whether or not to continue to the top.
Exhausted, too, from the long day of hiking and no sleep, I decided I still wanted to go for it. My guide and I set out at midnight, pole pole up the final ascent, a very steep 1,350 meters to the top. In the frigid night, the clouds had all disappeared, exposing a beautiful star-filled sky and city lights of Kenya and Tanzania many miles away. From the East, a thin layer of clouds shot heat lightening into the sky. While I was told it was -15 degrees that night on the mountain, below in the African savannah, it was dry season and people were sweating through sleep in 85 degree weather.
As I climbed higher and higher, I passed many faces I had seen in earlier days, some still smiling, many showing visible signs that this moment was one of the hardest of their lives. Some wobbled on their feet, drunk from the lack of O2. Others, could be heard vomiting behind rocks, while still others, literally crawled towards the top. My body ached all over, with muscles unable to replenish themselves with so little oxygen. Fortunately, I experienced no serious altitude sickness. By focusing on yoga breathing, slow and deep, I made it to the summit, about two hours before our expected arrival.
It was still dark when I reached the famed sign. I wanted to wait until sunrise, but the low temperatures, blowing wind, and thin air made it almost impossible. I waited as long as I could, taking in the beautiful views from the roof of Africa, and then began my descent as the sun peeked out from the clouds below.
The full descent is accomplished the 24 hours following a successful reach of the summit, resulting in extreme exhaustion. On top of it all, my crew ran out of food, so I am quite sure I have never been so physically depleted in my life.
Climbing a mountain like Kilimanjaro requires quite a bit of preparation, both physically and mentally. Over a year ago, I had written “climb a mountain taller than you thought you could” on my Embrace Life List, a list of goals and dreams I have written down to accomplish in my brother’s memory. It was with great joy, on the brink of tears, that I checked off number 17 from the top of the mountain and raised my handwritten sign in remembrance of my brother's spirit.