If you had asked me growing up what my travel goals were, I would have given you a long list, which included travelling to all the continents, visiting all the countries my Grandma had travelled to and more, seeing the wonders of the world, and on and on…but climbing mountains was never something I had really thought much about. In fact, if you had asked if summiting mountains was a goal of mine, I would likely have just laughed—at least until I spent several months living in Kenya, and found myself climbing Mt. Kenya. It ended up being a tough but very cool adventure, and I thought, Well, now I can check climbing a mountain off my life list and move on!
Climbing bigger mountains definitely wasn’t in the plans until some members of the group who I had volunteered with in Kenya in 2008 started talking about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. After debating my plans to never climb another mountain, I decided it would be a great adventure and I’m never one who likes to be left behind or miss out on a great experience…even if it is a challenging one.
So this is how, exactly ten years ago today, I found myself in Moshi, Tanzania, having an early morning cup of Kilimanjaro coffee while waiting to meet our guide and set off on our trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro.
We met our guide, Julius, who told us to call him “Whitey,” an interesting nickname for this tall, dark Tanzanian guide. We all introduced ourselves and headed over to the Ahsante Tours office to pick up any rented gear and have a briefing before setting off to the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
We arrived at the Machame Route Gate, at a height of 1800m, got signed in and met our assistant guide, Benedict, or “Benny.” We took a group shot to mark the start of our trek and by 10:45am, we finally started making our way up the tallest mountain in Africa.
We spent the day hiking and chatting away, something that slowly died down on subsequent days as the air got thinner and our energy levels dwindled. But for now, we were fresh and excited. The setting today felt like hiking through a jungle, with some steep muddy parts thrown in to challenge us.
In between Whitey regaling us with songs, including a soulful rendition of “Hakuna Matata” and laughing and yelling out encouragement to us as we hiked along, I had some questions for him. I wanted to know how many times he had climbed this mountain, and he told me he quit counting at 120. 120?!? For me, once proved to be a challenge. I cannot imagine trekking up and down this mountain well over 120 times. (He is still a guide today, so I can only imagine what his count is now!) He’s been working on the mountain for 7 years, beginning as a porter at 18 years old, quickly working through the ranks to assistant guide and doing all the required training to become a lead guide. He told me becoming a guide was his dream. He grew up in Moshi and spent his childhood looking out at Mt. Kilimanjaro, knowing one day he wanted to climb it. Once he did, he couldn’t wait to bring others up his beloved mountain so they could see the beauty for themselves. We were definitely in good hands with him, and his love for his job and the mountain were unmistakable. He said he feels most at home on the mountain, and when he’s gone, he can’t wait to get back.
Around 5pm, we made it out of the jungle and into that evening’s camp, already set up and waiting for us. After settling into our tents, we met in the dining tent for hot chocolate and popcorn. Then we walked up to the ranger station to check in that we made it through day one, and then Whitey led us in what became a nightly routine of singing and dancing all together with our guides and porters.
This was a team bonding time, which became a little harder each day as our energy waned. But no matter how tired we were, we always mustered a last bit of strength for this fun. A perfect way to end each day of trekking!
The food prepared for each of our meals along this journey was delicious, made even more so by how hungry we were by the end of each day and how impressive it was that they were making pumpkin soup, pasta dishes and tasty desserts on the side of a mountain!
After dinner each night, Whitey came in to brief us on what the following day would entail and ask each of us to share our high and low moment of the day—another great daily tradition of this trek. Bedtime came early each night as we were always exhausted from the day.
“Now I’m in my tent, writing about day one by the light of my headlamp on Mt. Kili, 3000m up. How cool is that? Amazing!” — Journal excerpt
Day two began at 6am with a knock on the tent. “Jambo, good morning! Tea for you!” I opened the tent to find steaming mugs of chai tea waiting, a cozy way to start the morning, still wrapped up in my sleeping bag.
Breakfast was at 7am, before starting the day’s journey at 8am. Whitey told us today would definitely be “Pole Pole,” which means “slowly, slowly” in Swahili. He had told us from the start this was how we would be climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and repeated these words often throughout the trek. Pole Pole was certainly the mantra of today as we made our way mostly uphill on a six-hour trek.
We stopped for lunch around 12pm and then made it to camp around 3pm. All day today, the scenery was beautiful. We woke up above the clouds and by lunchtime had climbed above a second layer of clouds.
In the distance, you could see the summit of Mt. Meru in Arusha peeking out from the clouds. We were now up at 3,800m. We climbed up to 3,900m and then back down a bit to sleep and let our bodies adjust to the altitude. “Climb High, Sleep Low” was another mountain mantra that helped us to safely acclimatize.
Tonight’s camp was at Shira Cave, so after settling in, Benny took us up to see the old cave.
“The sunset tonight was incredible, going down through the clouds, behind the hills, and the view of the peak was amazing. It’s so beautiful and peaceful up here. After dinner, once it was dark, the sky was lit up by 1000s of stars. Gorgeous. Tonight was one of the most beautiful sunsets and starry skies I’ve ever seen. Breathtaking!” — Journal excerpt
Once again, day three began at 6am with another steaming cup of chai tea at our tent door. A girl could get used to this kind of wake up…even if it is earlier than I would like!
Another incredible view this morning up above the clouds, with the summit stretching high above us and the sun just starting to streak through the clouds.
Our highest point today was Lava Tower at 4560m, a very cool rock formation created by volcanic activity on the mountain years ago. The tower stands 90m tall and is a beautiful backdrop for a much-needed resting spot by this point in the trek. We went back down to 3950m to sleep.
Every time I’d ask Whitey how much farther, he’d tell me we were almost there. Finally, about nine hours later, it was true! Each day, our singing and dancing ritual got a little more challenging, but still no one could resist celebrating the end of another day of trekking and being closer to our goal of reaching the summit.
On day four, after about 20 minutes of hiking, we arrived at Barranco Wall, a challenging climb up 257m. We went Pole Pole for sure here, trying not to lose our footing. We carefully made our way up this part of the trek, our guides helping us across the tricky parts.
As we got to higher altitudes and trickier spots, we had both Whitey and Benny, plus Francis and Joaquim, two other guides in training, with us at all times to help us along and make sure everyone was still doing okay with the altitude.
Today was when things really got tough. The higher altitudes and steeper parts were challenging and we were moving at a turtle’s pace. Even if we wanted to go faster, I’m not sure many of us could have done anything other than go Pole Pole.
Camp tonight had by far the best bathrooms—still just a squat hole in the ground—but this one had a cement floor, instead of the usual wood. And even better, the contents weren’t up around the top! (Some days it’s the little things that bring you joy!) Whitey gave us a pep talk as part of the briefing tonight and we all went to bed early to prepare for the summit.
We were woken up at 11:30pm to get ready and had hot chocolate, popcorn and porridge. I was dressed in as many layers as I could manage because it was freezing in the pitch-black night this high up on the mountain. We set off just after midnight, with only the stars above and our headlamps to help guide our way. You could only see what was right in front of you, which was likely a good thing, because if I had seen how far and high I still had to go in the freezing cold, I might have crawled right back into my warm sleeping bag!
We took a break about halfway up.
“When you looked out across the darkness, you could see the red/orange line of the sun beginning to rise above the clouds and there was a tiny sliver of a crescent moon just above the cloud line. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, and for a moment, I forgot about being freezing and exhausted and just stared out at the beauty, taking it all in.” — Journal excerpt
The higher we climbed, the harder it got. My muscles burned and near the top, my breathing became more laboured. We made our way through the snow and ice closer to the top, past the glaciers.
Whitey said he’d already seen a dramatic decline in the size of the glaciers in the seven years he had been climbing Kilimanjaro due to global warming. It was still an impressive sight, but I wonder what it used to look like?
We stopped for a tea break, before slowly continuing along the snowy, rocky trail to Stella Point. From there, we only had an hour left to go, but that last hour felt like we were hardly moving, everyone inhaling deeply, trying to get enough oxygen to take our next slow step.
Finally, around 8am, we rounded the last bend in the trail and made it to the summit, 5896m up. Making my way over to the flags and the sign saying, “Congratulations, you are now at Uhuru Peak,” welcoming me to the highest point in Africa, I burst into tears, exhaustion and excitement flooding over me.
Even though I wanted to quit at least 100 times today, I had made it. I could check climbing the highest mountain in Africa off my travel list!
Watching the sun rise over the rooftop of Africa is a moment I will never forget.
Those of us who made it to the summit got a group shot and quickly took our photos with the sign. Then, about 15-20 minutes later, we were on our way back down. Such a long way to go for such a short stay, but with the high altitude, we couldn’t linger.
We made it back to camp eleven hours after leaving it, toenails bleeding from the impact of heading basically straight back down, slipping and sliding through the gritty sand. After a nap and lunch, we packed up and hiked another two hours or so to that night’s camp. Today the highs were all about making it to the top and celebrating that victory!
The final morning after breakfast, we gathered for one last dance party before packing up and heading down the rest of the mountain, about a five-hour journey.
Back at the hotel that night, after having my first shower in six days (which was amazing), we met for one last dinner all together and toasted our success with cold Kilimanjaro beers.
Climbing mountains may not have started out on my life’s travel list, but the fact that I made it to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro remains one of my proudest travel experiences. Standing at the top, smiling through my tears and watching that incredible sun rising to the “Heaven of Africa,” as Whitey put it, is definitely a moment I will never forget.
I always knew I enjoyed a challenge and was not a quitter, and completing this trek cemented that for me. But now I’m seriously through climbing mountains…I think!
For some singing, dancing, hiking and commentary on this beautiful but challenging trek, check out the video below!