I don’t know exactly when “Climb Mount Kilimanjaro” made it onto my bucket list. However, I am aware of the moment I committed to crossing it off the list. I was dating someone so fearful of life he would only eat the same dish for dinner and considered me insane to suggest doing laundry on a day other than Tuesday. Always being the freedom-loving, travel-obsessed type, ending the relationship was liberating. I craved to do something to commemorate the change. I would trek a mountain.
By the standards of mountaineering, Kilimanjaro at 19,341 feet is considered ‘very high altitude’, meaning the chances of altitude sickness (vomiting, headaches, fluid accumulation) or death (approximately 1 to 10 annually depending on who you ask) increases with every 1,000 feet. With treks under a week and no technical climbing knowledge needed, it is the most assessable of the Seven Summits climbs. There are only three ways to end a Kilimanjaro trek – successfully summiting, being dragged off the mountain, or volunteering to end your trek.
My training for my Kilimanjaro trek proved to be time-consuming and determination-testing. To minimize the chances of altitude sickness, I focused on elevating my cardiovascular fitness. That meant months of swimming, running 10K races, and walking around my home in a not-too-attractive oxygen depriving mask. I also bought Diamox, an altitude sickness medication that causes frequent urination and every over-the-counter medication I could find at my neighborhood pharmacy.
My training proved to be the most stable of the preparatory actions. My family’s reactions were varied, from disbelief to full support. My friends’ expression of panic indicated that my trek will be solo.
In November 2012, I found myself on a flight to Kilimanjaro airport via Amsterdam to undertake my ‘foolhardy’ attempt. How this would end was anyone’s guess.
As a solo trekker, I was given my own guide plus two porters, a cook, and a waiter. I had decided to take the Marangu route. The only route of the six with sleeping huts instead of tents, it is arguably the most luxurious. My belongings (weighing 35 pounds; weight limits are enforced) were either in my daypack or my duffel bag which the porters carried between camps.
On the Mountain
The Marangu route has four climate zones – rainforest, moorland, alpine desert, and ice cap at the summit. Typically the trek takes four days, stopping at the Mandara, Horombo, and Kibo camps respectively. I elected for an acclimatization day at Horombo to increase my chances of summiting.
In trekking alone and without a social network, I met people quickly. One such person was a South African woman who I would spend most of my non-trekking time with. She also became my hut roommate (each approximately 300 square feet hut at Mandara and Horombo sleeps four) and Diamox-fueled midnight-search-for-the-outhouse partner. When not sleeping or going to the bathroom we talked about our lives, each of us making disclosures only likely on a mountain in East Africa.
Otherwise, the treks proved to be physically demanding but not enough to immobilize me the next day. I had no problems with altitude except for the usual shortness of breath. The most physically demanding stretch of trekking was between Mandara and Horombo camps. However, that belief may have been influenced by my experiencing a sudden drop in body temperature on that trail. I recovered only after I ingested some water laced with glucose, food and donned an extra jacket I had in my day pack. I believe packing that extra jacket saved my trek.
Summit to Uhuru Peak
The night before my summit attempt, safely in the coed sleeping dorm that is Kibo Hut, I gave myself a highly-charged motivational speech. I was caught between wanting to take a long nap and wanting to trek to the summit and “get it over with”. My new mantra of “Let’s Do It” lulled me to sleep. My rest was short, however. Shortly before 12 midnight, my guide woke me up. It was time to get dressed (4 layers for me plus headlamp) and start the summit.
There are two summit markers on the Marangu route, Gilman’s Point (5 hours trek from Kibo Hut) and Uhuru Peak (1 and 1/2 hours trek from Gilman’s Point). The first hours proved to be unremarkable except for the fatigue of trekking into thinner air. I watched the backs of my guide’s boots, the only thing visible with my headlamp. Occasionally, I would look up to see the outline of a hill. I just need to get over that hill I would tell myself. Each time I seemed to scale a hill, another appeared. I stopped looking up.
At exactly 5 o’clock I reached Gilman’s point. This is a significant achievement and a turn-back point for some. Not me. We keep on. Now on snow, my guide led me through tunnels, alleyways, and ledges. Fueled by the promise of making it, I made less rest stops. At exactly 6:30 AM I summited Kilimanjaro. I had done it!
Action annihilates apathy. Humans have been attempting to summit mountain peaks for centuries. I realized in my trek that the reason for the attempts is the sense of achievement of conquering something that was previously unconquerable. I scared myself and survived. I pushed my self-imposed limits and succeeded. I scared myself and survived. Today, my confidence heightened, I yearn to undertake another limit-breaking feat. Most of all, I relish in not knowing exactly what my next meal will be and doing laundry on a lazy Sunday morning.
Learn more about the climbing experience by listening to Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro – Amateur Traveler Episode 699