This summer I stood on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and watched the sunrise over a glacier at 19,341ft. What a feeling! It took only six days, 25 porters, two cooks, three guides, one experienced leader, my husband and eight friends to help me to hike up and down and down and up for 66km to reach the top.
No one successfully climbs Kilimanjaro on their own. In fact, no one succeeds at anything on their own! This really had never occurred to me. I know it takes a village to raise kids. I rely on my village all the time. But as an adult, I felt much of what I did for me, I did on my own. Climbing a mountain taught me otherwise!
A month before the trip, our friend and team leader Scott Kress organized a team building day. We thought we were going to do a bit of exercise to get in shape. Instead he taught us a couple of things: 1. as a group we are terrible at lowering a tiny stick in unison, and 2. as individuals it’s a little scary climbing up and jumping off a really high pole. More importantly, he taught us that as a group we could laugh at our inability to move that stick and as a group we could hold each other’s ropes that kept us all safe on top of that tall pole. We quickly learned that we were a team and if we leaned on each other we could eventually do anything we set our minds to.
Confidence wavered on different days for each of us on that mountain. For some it was when the headaches and loss of appetite started early due to our higher altitude. For others it was the morning we saw the top of that mountain from our tents on Day 4 (still a million miles away) and for the first time thought to ourselves “How on earth do we get to the top of THAT?”
Day 1 we were all fresh and excited. We laughed and chatted while we hiked uphill under tall trees with monkeys swinging above. Day 2 was more uphill climbing to 12,500ft, and Day 3 saw the challenge of rain and hail without the protection of any trees at all. We got quieter, secretly wishing for just a peak of sunshine. We put our rain gear over our packs and managed the hike through the dreary clouds, heads down to avoid the hail. Day 4 we were treated to blue skies, full sun, views of the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and the completely vertical face of the Barranco Wall that we were climbing right after breakfast.
The “porter jam” up that Wall brought out our team spirit and a moment to really enjoy where we were while they sorted out who was going first! We had bounce in our steps and at 13,900ft we were still feeling pretty good. But there it was, in the distance — the top of Kilimanjaro, the mountain we were going to summit. We felt the first butterflies. It looked far away, cold — and really high!
Day 5 and team spirit was growing as personal confidence was shrinking. It was a short three-hour hike to the highest camp at 15,230ft. We were feeling the altitude, and the reality of what we had to accomplish on this day. We were quiet, reflective, hopeful, optimistic, a little worried — and a bit nervous. This was it. Our personal limits would be challenged, our team support tested.
At 11:30 pm we left camp dressed in all the layers we brought, guided only by headlamp, up a mountain we couldn’t see. We could not have imagined what it was like to climb an endless hill into complete darkness at 16,000 then 17,000 then 18,000 feet in the freezing cold. Our steps were small. Breathing was hard. We thought, you can’t do this. We appreciated teammates singing silly songs in an attempt to motivate, reminders of the loved ones at home, the porters constant chanting to distract you. We shared food, warm gloves, a hug, and maybe a weak smile.
We depended on the breaks every 45 minutes to sit, eat, melt the ice forming on our water bottles, regroup and to rest. Our feet were cold, our fingers were numb, our heads felt fuzzy and it was dark. We were a line of headlamps hiking uphill through an entire night. At 6 am we arrived at 18,652 feet — Stella Point — the top of the exhausting climb. We hugged. We cried tears of absolute gratitude for the breathtaking sunrise in front of us and the relentless uphill now behind us. The joy was short lived as we must still climb that last 692ft up the crater rim where the wind was blowing, our energy was depleted and we felt every degree of the -20 wind chill.
At 7:10 am we made it. A team of 11 people who couldn’t manage to lower a tiny stick in sync, had helped each other up a mountain. It took six days through rain, hail, porter jams, yummy soups, endless potty renting, dab clothes, text messages from home, headaches, loss of appetite, deep fried plantains, giraffes, dik diks, dirty fingernails, early bedtimes, loud snoring, breathtaking views, sunset dancing, frost, lost gloves, sweet popcorn, washing tents, man caves, dry muffins, leaking water bottles, and pep talks from Scott.
A brief 30 minutes at the top for photos and it was time to go back down. Now in daylight we could see our previous night’s path, but sliding rocks and steep declines on no sleep and little food made for a slow climb down to lunch. We arrived a full 12 hours after we left camp the night before.
The adrenaline has us excited for the next few days, but many of us haven’t yet fully absorbed what this trip meant to us as life picked up when we returned home. One thing is for sure, we became a team on that mountain. Not one of us would have made it to the top without everyone holding our invisible safety ropes. We named ourselves Summit Life and that day we did in a big way.
Success is a team effort. Thank you to our team: Our amazing leader Scott, our guides in Tanzania, our porters who carried our gear, our cooks who kept us fed, our babysitters back home, our friends who supported us, our Adult Essentials that kept us healthy, and our teammates who made this success happen!