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Left it All on Kilimanjaro

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

Humans are resilient. I am resilient.


Climbing Up and Coming Down

Monkeying around with my brother, Matt, in our enormous maple tree.

I used to tromp around forest floors occasionally picking up a leg full of stinging nettles – the worst incident in which my mom made a paste of baking soda and slathered it all over my brother, Matt, and I. My family would camp on remote lakeshores where I would hover over the water, contemplating how clean and beautiful glacial lakes are – that I could see the rocks and fallen tree branches at the bottom – so deceptively close under infrequent ripples (it's miraculous that I didn't explore those depths by accidental immersion). Matt and I would traverse along rivers with handmade tree bark and moss boats pinned together with twigs and a leaf for a sail. We tested them on little waterfalls and rapids and, if we were lucky, could collect them intact downstream. And we climbed to the top branches of our enormous maple tree and descended down the ropes of our swings like little monkeys...


...Until one day when I threw my legs over the branch and wrapped them around the rope, but just couldn't bring myself to transfer my hands from the branch to the rope to slide the rest of the way down. I dangled from the branch like part of my fearless adventuring spirit had left me out on a limb – literally. I yelled for my mom to come and hold my feet under me until I had enough confidence to transfer my second hand down the rope. I still don't know what prompted that paralyzing fear in me, but I remember believing that if my mom could just hear me, she would help me down. This incident was not prohibitive to my tree climbing, but I never tried to take the ropes down again.


Opportunity


When I started thinking about traveling, one big adventure was immediately put on my wanderlust list: Kilimanjaro. The mountain's many climate zones with glaciers on the top – just three degrees south of the Equator – attracted me along with the shear scale from base to peak. I read that the trek is quite manageable as mountains go, but the altitude is difficult. In a way, I think that paralyzed kid hanging from the tree was relieved when I found out that climbing Kilimanjaro was cost prohibitive from North America, but it still stuck on my list to visit one day.


In 2017, living much closer to Tanzania, I found a more affordable opportunity to go with a Dubai-based company called Trekkup. No excuses left, I signed up and started preparing for the trek three months ahead by walking six days a week. I made sure I had the correct gear, packed and repacked my duffle bag that would be carried by a porter up the mountain, and mentally readied myself for the long ascent. I was prepared.


In the Sharjah International Airport, I met up with the rest of my fellow mountain climbers, a group of travellers from the United Arab Emirates and several other countries, who all wanted to see the top of this mountain. Our plane took us to Nairobi, Kenya, where we encountered zebra only a couple kilometers from the airport and spent a long afternoon and evening – made even longer by a broken down bus – driving to the Tanzanian border. Formalities aside, we pressed on to Arusha where we checked in late to our hotel to prepare for an early morning that was continually delayed.


Marangu Gate | 1,970 meters (6,400 feet)


By the time our vehicles, bags, food supply, and group were sorted to begin our climb, it was quite late in the afternoon and we anticipated finishing our first day in the dark. Our hike started at Marangu Gate, at the edge of the cultivation zone. As soon as we started, we were transported directly into the rainforest climate zone.

A blue monkey caught watching us from the treetops.
The beautiful and eye-catching Kilimanjaro flower.

Blue Monkeys played hide-and-seek from us in the tree tops. They seems quite shy, but occasionally we spotted their shadows in among the branches.


Colorful flowers punctuated the ridiculously green foliage as we followed a clear and sometimes muddy trail on our first day of hiking. As we climbed above 2,450 meters (8,000 feet), the Kilimanjaro flower (Helichrysum meyeri-johannis) caught our eye along our path. This plant can blossom at anytime during the year.


When darkness descended, exhausted from the day of preparation and hiking, we took our attention from the flowers and monkeys, and relied on our headlamps to guide the way to our first camp.


On our first day, we were indoctrinated with the mantra on Kilmanjaro: "pole-pole," meaning, "slow-slow." Our entire journey required constant adjustment to the altitude – something that cannot be rushed or our human blood cannot oxygenate properly.


Mandara Hut | 2,720 meters (8,925 feet)


It took a bit more than three hours to cover eight kilometers and arrive at Mandara Hut. The first huts sit right near the top of the rainforest climate zone and we could see that the trees were beginning to change in size and shape.


Perhaps it was the late day, or just a fluke, but while I was brushing my teeth, I slipped or tripped from the stairs of our hut. As I fell nearly 1.5 meters (4.75 feet), I imagined being medevaced off the mountain after only one day! I landed on my left side – hand first, then hip, knee, and head. My new, and now one of my dearest, friends, Nada, saw the entire thing unfold and was at my side in a snap. I spat out the toothpaste foam that had miraculously stayed in my mouth throughout the descent (already grateful that I had removed the toothbrush before this unfortunate gaff), and begged for a few minutes to get over my shock from the fall and do a self-assessment. Methodically, I moved my joints and muscles discovering they all worked despite some certain bruises.


The next morning I woke up with a stiff wrist, cut up knee, sore jaw, and an enormous 25 x 15 centimeter (9.5 x 6 inch) oval bruise of purple, black, blue, and red on my hip. But, all the muscles and joints still seemed to work, so I mentioned it to our mountaineer guide and pretended it never happened. Nada knew the truth though.

Walking across Kilimanjaro's Moorland.

The long walk up Kilimanjaro takes hikers from one beautiful climate zone to another. On our second morning, we ascended in dense fog and entered the Moorland with grasses and some marshy fields. Colorful flowers still punctuated the landscape and we observed a number of odd trees and shrubs throughout the day.

Beautiful flowers and curious flora dotted the landscape as we hiked up.

Horombo Huts | 3,720 meters (12,205 feet)


The mountain air felt decidedly refreshing upon arrival at Horombo Huts. In this camp, I was the odd-woman-out and stayed the night with several strangers. The Diamox (altitude sickness prevention) pills kept me awake most of the night, but determined to keep going, I appreciated the misty morning as we sat right above the cloud cover with colorful flowers in front of our quaint huts. Thinking about walking above the clouds is a great way to motivate for a long walk ahead.

We continued hiking through lovely shrubs and the giant groundsel (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari), an awkward plant belonging to the same family as the sunflower and daisy. This family of Dendrosenecio evolved a million years ago and thrives only at specific altitudes on mountain slopes. It can only spread seeds for a few meters, so it has adapted separately on each mountain where it is found.

A grove of Dendrosencio kilmanjari or giant groundsel near Horombo Huts.

This must have been the best day of hiking for me. I felt energized and excited to climb Kilimanjaro, our scenery constantly changed, the sun kept us relatively warm despite our elevation gain, and we saw so many curious plants and flowers along the way.

Stopping for a break with the giant groundsel (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari).

As our plants began to disappear, we saw the alpine desert climate zone open ahead of us in a deceptively long traverse that took us between the highest summit cone on Kilimanjaro, Kibo, and the shorter, Mawenzi peak.


A faster group took off ahead while a slower group wisely took their time and left three of us to plod along the entire day ascending the dead landscape and taking advantage of any large rock as a toilet stop. As Suzi, Haley, and I crossed the saddle between peaks and began a short ascent up toward our last huts, we stopped for the group behind us to catch up with water and lunch.

Our trail between two of Kilimanjaro's three cones: Kibo, the highest in the center, and Mawenzi on the right.

Kibo Huts | 4,703 meters (15,430 feet)


The final few hundred steps brought us to our resting place for a short night at Kibo Huts. The sunset was the last we would see of the light until we were well into our final ascent the next morning.


Each night we tested our blood-oxygen level, and on this night, we were all showing a natural regression in our numbers. We were anxious to start our final push to the top before these numbers degenerated further.

Mawenzi Peak seen in the moonlight just after sunset from Kibo Huts.

Summit Day


At midnight, we awoke to gear up and conquer Kilimanjaro. Again, sleep hadn't come for me and I already felt exhaustion setting in. We only made it about 30 minutes into our hike when I felt exceptionally sleepy. One of the guides, Panfili, already had his eye on me and would not let me sit down for fear that I would fall asleep and not be able to climb. He took my extra water from me and as we pushed on from our first rest break, he walked slowly with me at the back of the group.


A series of switchbacks is the easiest way to traverse the steep slope. This section of the mountain would be easier with snow cover to arrest our steps in place, but rather, we struggled up scree and sand: one step forward, and a half step sliding back. Every two switchbacks, I would take a break for 30 seconds, catch my breath, look at the view, and then carry on.


One. Foot. In. Front. Of. The. Next. Foot. In. Front. Of. The. Next. Foot...


Panfili checked on me at every little stop. He took my heavy camera and secured it in his pack. He was waiting for, and even encouraging the inevitable: "Just throw up and you will feel so much better." And that happened – twice on the way up that mountain. He came over, wiped my mouth with a wet wipe, checked to make sure my lips stayed red (and not blue) – and that was the only time I was allowed to sit.


Panfili eventually took my entire day pack and shoved it in his backpack to carry. I have never been so impressed by a near-stranger's commitment to my own personal success.


We continued hiking and I mindlessly listened to the guides whistle and shout updates to each other with what I'm sure were code between them that we would never figure out. It was clear that some of the other helper guides had also split off to walk with others who were struggling like I was.


Sunrise was meant to be enjoyed at Gillman's Point, the first summit of Kilimanjaro, but I watched it from the side of the mountain – still wondering if I would have the energy to get all the way to Uhuru.

Sunrise from the side of Kilimanjaro, looking at Mawenzi peak.

Gilman's Point | 5,685 meters (18,652 feet)


Completely exhausted and empty, I arrived at the first of three summits, Gilman's Point. Finally, I sat down for a few minutes under the careful eye of Panfili. There was a certain amount of energy in reaching Kilimanjaro's crater rim. One of the other women in our group arrived 10 minutes after me and we excitedly chattered about the accomplishment.

The first of Kibo's three summits on Kilimanjaro, Gilman's Point.

Stella Point | 5,756 meters (18,885 feet)


Panfili advised me to just set my intentions on each summit – to focus on the easiest goal first – so my break didn't last too long before I was plodding along the crater rim to Stella Point. I spent only a minute observing the sign post of this second summit. In fact, I may not have stopped walking past it at all. I wanted to reach the third summit Uhuru and it took every ounce of momentum and energy I had to keep going.


That last stretch to the third summit was hard. I felt miserable and I felt slow. My body was empty, I spent nearly eight hours desperate for sleep while my energy depleted. Panfili walked behind me, pausing to chat with his friends while I trudge on ahead with slow and measured rhythmic steps. In the last couple hundred meters, when I could nearly see the end, I had a memory from my childhood backpacking trips. I remembered my Dad motivating us to walk "just a little bit farther" and "just around that corner. You can do it!" He always added a threat that if we didn't keep going we were going to miss out on something special – maybe a bear siting, or a bubbling stream, or the view from the top.

Finally "enjoying the view" that my dad (who is taking this photo) encouraged us to seek while backpacking.

Somehow, as a child, those encouraging words kept me going and I saw some pretty beautiful sites with my family (including Matt and Uncle Bob in the photo above). As an adult, trudging up the last bit of Kilimanjaro, his voice was still clear in my head. So, I carried on with a bit more gusto and a single focus on the summit. I recall meeting a couple people from our group who were departing the summit and begged them not to stop me to talk. I just needed to reach the top.


And I did. I was resilient again.


Uhuru Summit | 5,895 meters (19,341 feet)


Reaching Uhuru Summit may be the most grueling exercise that I voluntarily accomplished, but it was worth it! Once I touched that sign, 34 kilometers (21.13 miles) later, I must have been overcome with euphoria, because I felt great. I rarely share my solo shot at the Summit, because this man, Panfili, was the reason I made it to the top – his careful guidance and encouraging words constantly motivated me to keep walking. I have a feeling he would have carried me in his backpack if I couldn't reach on my own feet. At the end, he said that he knew how much I wanted to reach the summit and with that resolve, he had been certain I would make it. But I know, it was him who managed to keep me going all morning – and then my dad's words in my head that got me the last few hundred steps to the "roof of Africa."

Reaching Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro with my dear guide, Panfili. (Photo: Victoria K).

With great humility and gratitude, Panfili was the most important part of my team on the mountain that day. When I was too weak to take photos, he pulled out my heavy DSLR that he had carried all day and snapped photos of me. And then he limited my time at the top to 10 minutes, because with AMS, you do not mess with thin air longer than you have to.

Accomplishing one of my travel goals: Seeing the glaciers atop Kilimanjaro before they disappear.

Going Down


On the summit day, we gained 1,165 meters (3,822 feet) and dropped back down to that starting point about 12 o'clock, noontime – 12 hours later. Although tired, and still feeling sick, the way down was predictably much easier. Coming off the crater rim from Gilman's point, we were able to make use of the soft scree that we struggled to hike up and easily glissaded down – sinking one foot deep into the sand and letting it take us further down the hillside, then another step seemingly floatingd down the hill – and another – and another, for at least an hour. I love this feeling of controlled drifting down the mountain.


When I arrived back at Kibo Huts, we were given a couple hours to wait for other team members to catch up. I slept – finally – but woke up to throw up again before managing to stomach couple small pieces of potato from our lunch stew. I needed to keep going down to relieve myself of the AMS. Because Kibo Huts are only for those going up the mountain, we kept descending down to Horombo Huts that afternoon. I only remember being so utterly exhausted that it felt like I walked in my sleep. I barely made it into our cabin for the night and wasn't able to move to get dinner.

Descending through the rainforest, every step down the mountain made me feel better.

My body only needed rest and oxygenated air, and after a long sleep, the next morning I felt re-energized and we moved from Horombo Huts to walk all day, past Mandara Huts to Marangu Gate where our transportation to our hotel in Arusha waited. Then we had a rest and celebration with out entire team. We had an army of people behind us from porters to cooks to guides. I'm amazed at how efficient this group was – that we often didn't see them until our bags magically appeared in our huts each night.


Before leaving Marangu Gate, we snapped a lot of photos to remember our accomplishment. Showers and clean clothes awaited us at the hotel in Arusha – along with an early wake up at 5am to take a safari in Ngorongoro Crater. But that safari is for another story.

All for Broken


It was a month later, after our safari, return to the UAE, a conference in Dubai where I lugged brochures and branded pencils two metro stops to our booth, and a trip to Jordan where I was scrambling along the rocks at Petra with continued pain in my wrist, before I finally visited a doctor to have it scanned. It turns out, beyond my scrapes and bruises, I had a compound fracture in my radius and a fractured scaphoid that put me in a plaster cast for six weeks. My first broken bones.


But can you believe I summited Kilimanjaro with a broken arm?


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If you would like to make the trip, my suggestions:

  • Make your plans to trek six days or more – the more time you have to acclimate for your summit day, the better chance you have to feel great when you climb to the top. Trekkup now accommodates for an acclimation day.

  • Bring snacks – some sweets like protein- and energy-packed candy bars or breakfast bars AND some salty items like biscuits and crackers, as well as nuts and dried fruit.

  • Don't take yourself too seriously. You never know what will happen on the mountain. Altitude sickness isn't a pre-existing condition and can affect anyone at any time. Kilimanjaro can humble you!

  • Go "pole-pole," slowly-slowly. It's the best advice and simply the smart way to go up - not because you're unfit, but because altitude sickness can affect anyone.

  • Be gracious to your support team and guides. They are your family on the mountain.

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*** #Kilimanjaro #Travel #roofofAfrica #explore #wanderlust #travel #TravelLove #ClimbHigher #CultureTrip #JustGo #travel #SheTravels #AMS #brokenbones #resilientwomen

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