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Seven Lessons Kilimanjaro Taught Me

Seven Lessons Kilimanjaro Taught Me

In August, 2018, we and our fellow One Seed Expedition teamates reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. I will admit in hindsight that I completely underestimated this endeavor. Every preconception I had about hiking the world’s tallest freestanding mountain was proved a misconception. Truth be told, I got my ass kicked on that mountain. It was completely unexpected and I sit here now in humility and gratitude for the lessons Kilimanjaro taught me. In no particular order:

Lesson Number 1: Africa Can Be Freezing Cold

If you’re African, you are probably laughing right now. I am red-cheeked to admit that I thought Africa was uniformly hot. In fact, at any altitude 15,000 feet or more above sea level, it’s frigid…even on the equator. There are books about the snows of Kilimanjaro; there’s an ice-age glacier still capping its peak. These obvious cues somehow escaped me. Yeah, I feel like an idiot. 

Ain't she a cold frozen beauty??

Lesson Number 2: The Marangu Route is @#$% Hard

There are many trails to the summit of Kilimanjaro. Our One Seed Expedition team followed the popular Marangu route, which involves a rather-rapid but steady elevation gain over a four-day period, followed by a swift descent. This route has nicknames in reference to the huts (instead of tents) that make the Marangu trail seem easy, but I assure you that the “Coca Cola route” is @#$% hard.

We began our hike at Marangu Gate, hiking through the jungle to spend the night at Mandara Hut (approximately 9,000 feet). Then we proceeded into the grassy moorlands, hiking above the clouds to spend two nights at Horombo Hut (12,000 feet). On day three, we did a short acclimatization hike to Zebra Rock. On the fourth day, we hiked across the arid alpine desert to Kibo Hut, situated at 15,518 feet above sea level. (For comparison: High Camp on the Himalaya’s Annapurna Circuit is 15,100 feet, usually reached over a period of 7-10 days). Kibo Hut is base camp for the actual summit of Kilimanjaro’s Kibo crater. 

Rule of thumb to avoid high altitude sickness when climbing mountains is, above 10,000 feet, never sleep more than 1,500 feet higher than the previous night. For this reason, the itinerary involved just a short nap at Kibo Hut before the steep ascent up the crater. Summit teams leave before midnight and climb in the dark, silent, freezing wee hours to give them time to ascend and then descend, preferably before the onset of high altitude sickness. This route has a 65% success rate, so the tactic does not work for everyone, but it’s part of the Kili-Marangu experience. 

Lesson Number 3: Trust In the Summit and the Sunrise

If you wish to see the sunrise from atop Africa’s roof, then you must climb in the darkness. Reading about a six hour climb in the pitch dark is entirely different from actually hiking six hours in the black of night. Bundled in as many layers as we had with us, headlamps afixed, we assembled at midnight in front of Kibo Hut. One Seed Expedition lead guide, Hebron, pumped us up with a quick inspirational cheer and then we ambled, single file, into the darkness. Pinpoints of light from the starry heaven above and from the headlamps of fellow climbers below dominated our vision for the next six hours.

Pinpoints of light.  Six. Long. Dark. Cold. Hours.  It’s quite a maddening mind game. 

I pointed my headlamp up the loose scree slope in a fool’s attempt at seeing the summit. I peered at the horizon, scanning for ANY promise of the morning rays. I saw only more switchback, more darkness, cold heartless rocks. Six. Long. Dark. Cold. Hours. 

I repeated headlamp-scan, horizon-scan hundreds…maybe thousands of times to no avail. Disheartening. Maddening.  Enveloped in blackness, I had to believe that the summit was up there…that the sun would rise.... I had to just keep moving. Keep breathing. Keep shivering. No thinking.  Six. Long. Dark. Cold. Hours.

The One Seed guides (God love them) sang songs in Swahili and periodically awoke us from self-defeating mind dribble with shouts of “One Seed!”. Those with an ounce of energy would dutifully murmer “Expedition”.  “One Team!…”  “…One Dream”. Tears dribbled from the corners of my eyes. I sniffled snot and it froze on my ski mask. Every shuffle forward was a struggle, sometimes a stumble. “Why?” My mind screamed, “Why is this so hard??”

Best sunrise in the history of sunrises (at least in my life)

Then, the switchback morphed into a boulder scramble, just as a thin orange sliver appeared on the horizon. The boulder scramble was steeper and harder than the god-awful, backsliding loose scree trail, but the sun delivered a shot of adrenaline. A guide called out “One Seed!” and I deliriously eeked out a “One Dream!” We summited the crater at Gilman’s Point (18,652 feet) just as the day’s first rays poured from the orange seam at the now-blue horizon.

Lesson Number 4: Pole Pole (Swahili for Slowly Slowly) 

I’d wager that a majority of people who climb intimidating mountains are type A personalities not prone to pole pole (pronounced "pole-A pole-A"). But if you want to get to the top of Kilimanjaro along the Marangu route, I learned that you must proceed slowly from start to finish. From our initial walk through the lowland jungle, ascending into the grassy moorlands and alpine desert, the One Seed Expedition guides kept us at a one-mile per hour pace. On summit night, we averaged less than a half-mile an hour pace. Yes, it’s slow…agitatingly slow. Shuffle shuffle shuffle. But if you attempt to hike from sea level to over 19,000 feet in under a week, you risk high altitude sickness at a faster pace.

pole pole, slowly slowly

Even at our pole pole speed, nearly everyone on the team experienced some high altitude affects above 12,000 feet (beyond Mandara Hut): sleeplessness, vomiting, severe headaches, loss of appetite, and diarrhea. Our guides were adamant that we hike as a team, pole pole. I do believe hiking slowly is the primary reason that 95% of our team reached the top of the mountain on a route with a 65% success rate. Success relies on a slow pace...and a strong wolf pack. 

Lesson Number 5: The Strength of the Wolf is the Pack

My husband and I travel the globe independently and are pretty self-reliant. Joining the One Seed Expedition team with my cousin Sean, his wife Nicky, and our best friend Dan -- plus eight new strangers-turned-friends -- was a unique experience for us. Giving up control of our daily routine, schedule, and meals turned out to be a well-rewarded leap of faith, especially at Kilimanjaro. 

Left to right: me, cousin Sean, new friend Ed, bestie Dan, One Seed guide Gabby, cousin-in-law Nicky, Caffrey post-summit

The accommodations and amenities around the Kilimanjaro area are less numerous and developed than other popular treks around the world. Unlike the Annapurna Circuit, for example, there does not exist a bevy of homestays with catered meals along the trail. What you pack in (food, waste, garbage), you must pack out. Furthermore, to avoid over-crowding, the authorities manage the number of hikers and time spent at each hut area; hikers must reserve a hut months in advance and stick to a standard time table.

One Seed Wolf Pack: Gabby, Issa, Beatus, Ayubu (and Peter, not shown) -- much love!

The One Seed Expedition team included a crew of porters, guides and cooks with field-tested expertise. They are specially trained to ensure a swift, safe summit with minimal environmental impact. They kept our group of 13 climbers moving along at a steady pace, ensured that we were properly hydrated, provided creature comforts like toilet paper and warm washing water, fed us well-balanced healthy meals and were there with us every step of the way, singing songs, sharing their knowledge about the ecology, flora and fauna and always smiling. I don't know how they did it, but they even managed to surprise Courtney with a birthday cake... at 12,000 feet!

They had a “no (wo)man left alone” philosophy that ensured every climber was escorted at all times. The strength of each climber came from the support we received from the One Seed “pack”. They were phenomenal!! 

One Seed extended Wolf Pack: guides, porters, cooks and other crew (much love!)

Lesson Number 6: Know Thyself. Respect the Effort (and the Weather)

The night before our summit, our One Seed lead guide, Hebron, reminded us that the ultimate achievement was a safe return. Our goal was not Uhuru Peak at 19,000+ feet; our goal was to arrive home with stories about the climb and hugs for loved ones, which may or may not include photos from the summit. Hebron explained that he would set the pace and guide us along the route. Our job was to communicate honestly with the summit team about our current physical and mental state and rely on the team for assistance at all times.

Wolf Pack Leader: the ever-humble, ever-understated HEBRON!!

As I initially stated, I underestimated the challenge of hiking up Kilimanjaro’s Kibo crater. So many variables are at play in a successful summit: weather, nutrition, rest, hydration, and unpredicted effects of altitude are just a few factors, only some of which each climber can control. Every minute of the four-day hike prior to summit night plays a role on summit night (including the ENTIRE night I spent in the Horombo Hut ladies bathroom with severe stomach issues; praise God for Horombo's sit-down toilets, a rarity in Tanzania).

{insert selfie of me on the toilet...   Oh wait...}

What I learned from Kilimanjaro is that when you test your strength, you sometimes get your ass kicked…and that’s ok. That’s why we do these things: to discover who we are, what we are made of, and where we are weak or strong; to assess the factors that will impact future success of yet-to-be-discovered adventures. I affirmed that my weakness is the bitter cold. I get chilled to the bone and once that happens, I expend enormous amounts of energy shivering to the point of sheer exhaustion.  

{insert selfie of me shivering...    and then throwing in the towel...}

Along with 11 remaining climbers on our team (one had to return to Moshi before Kibo Hut because of an illness), I summited at Gilman’s Point at 18,652 feet above sea level in just over six hours. We all shared cheers, hugs, and tears. When we reached this point, I could not even remove a water bottle from my bag because I was violently shaking from the cold.

As we moved forward towards Stella Point at 18,750 feet, my body began shutting down. I had trouble breathing. I had to keep stopping and when I stopped, my body shivered worse in the cold wind. I could not stop and rest; I could not breathe when I continued onward. Hebron assessed the situation and ultimately made the call for me. My hike would end just a few feet from Stella’s Point. I was thankful for Hebron's definitive, non-hesitant command to hand my bag to Ayubu, a trusted guide, who escorted me back down the mountain. So, NOPE. I did NOT see the glacier at Uhuru Peak that day (but many of my fellow freaking-amazing awe-inspiring climbers -- including my husband, Caffrey, cousins Sean and Nicky and our friend Dan -- pushed through their pain to the end!). 

This amazing crew not only made it to Uhuru Peak, but also snapped a freaking photo!!! Left to right: our new friend Ed, cousin-in-law Nicky, cousin Sean, hubby Caffrey and new friend Brian

Julie Yaroni pushed through the white-out GRRRRLLLLLL (xxx ooo)!!!!

At Kilimanjaro, the length of time in the bitter wind (over six hours) -- with another two hour hike remaining to/from Uhuru Peak (can you believe it - for just a measly 200 meter elevation gain??) -- ultimately had me crying uncle. It was the right decision for me. In fact, beyond Stella’s Point, the weather that day deteriorated rapidly; the wind velocity reached over 50 mph and the team endured near white-out conditions as they made their way to Uhuru Peak. 

I know I could not have endured an increasingly chillier wind. I know that, had I proceeded ahead, I would have put a rescue team in danger, as I would not have had the strength to return on my own. I respect the effort I gave -- I gave it everything I had. (Grrrrrr!! Damn Uhuru Peak will haunt me in my dreams...but I applaud my fellow hikers. You are AMAZING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

Lesson Number 7: Our Tourism Dollars Make a Difference

“My goal is three cows and four goats,” explained one of the One Seed guides. “With a third cow, I will be able to sell one for major expenses, like my daughter’s wedding. My wife can tend to the goats and I will be able to spend more time with the family.” Another guide told me to “Tell everyone to come to Kilimanjaro. By guiding tourists, I can put food on the family table.”  

With good reason (mountains, beaches, safari!!!!), tourism represents 14% of Tanzania’s Gross Domestic Product (nearly $2 billion) and employs almost half a million Tanzanian people. It has the potential to lift the country out of poverty, so long as those tourist dollars fall into the pockets of ordinary Tanzanians.

Don't hate me because I'm beautiful.

10% of the cost of our Kilimanjaro excursion with One Seed Expeditions was invested in local entrepreneurs. This investment has a multiplicative impact. As local entrepreneurs launch and expand businesses with the help of microfinancing from tour companies like One Seed Expeditions, they eventually hire more local people and contribute more tax dollars to improve public services. Furthermore, all the guides, porters and cooks on the Kilimanjaro hike were Tanzanian and we tipped them well (because they were outstanding and they deserved it.) We felt good about our experience and we hope they felt that love. #winning

Have you been to Kilimanjaro and had great weather? How was your climb? We love to hear from readers, so please feel welcome to leave a comment or share on social media!

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