Years ago, whilst living in London, I went to a talk at the Royal Geographic Society where a group of women told their story of climbing Kilimanjaro, little did I know that it had laid the seeds for what, years later, was to become one of my biggest adventures to date.
In late January of 2014, I discovered a plan for a group of women to summit Kilimanjaro on International Women’s Day (March 8th) and in doing so were supporting two schools for women – Give A Heart to Africa and Tembea Girls High School- my interest was piqued. A little over a month later I was starting my climb to the roof of Africa with a team of 28 women from 9 different countries.
The climb was 7 days, 6 nights, 62km (37 miles), 5,895m (19,341ft), traversing 5 different ecosystems on the Machame trail –The Whiskey Route – with its tough climbs, steep trails, long hikes and sleeping in tents to the summit of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak and the world’s 4th highest mountain … this was definitely going to be a challenging adventure.
We started from a warm and sunny Moshi town, located at the foot of Kilimanjaro 900m above sea level, the chaos of loading and transporting the gear and the team of 28 added to the excitement and trepidation. A few hours on the trail, and we got our first experience of the unpredictable weather on Kilimanjaro, as we hiked through the rain forest in the not so warm rain. It dawned on me while taking shelter under a dripping tree to eat lunch, that this could be our life for the next 7 days. The thoughts were quickly banished, worrying about being cold and wet was not going to help, this needed to be taken one day at a time.
Our first camp was a busy one: tents to be picked, porters arriving in some random order with more tents and gear, the first night of eating in ‘mess’ tents, working out how to use the portaloo’s – not as grand as they sound – and learning more about each other. The camaraderie of the group was already exceptionally strong, a mix of different personalities somehow all complimenting, gelling together, fostering bonds that would be essential for us to complete the task at hand, reaching the summit. A routine of dinner, briefing, planning and packing / repacking for the next day and an early bed was quickly established, as was our seeming insatiable need for hot water!
The logistics of providing food and water for 28 people for 7 days, combined with moving camp every day are mind boggling. Add that to the fact our crew of 68 guides and porters, the sheer scale of what is achieved behind the scenes is impressive. And then there was the birthday cake, which they made for Alex on her birthday, half way up Kilimanjaro. We have no idea how they did it, and it left us all in awe.
Day 2 brought a cold, damp start, the morning ritual of hot drinks brought to the tent to wake us up. Hot water to wash with was optional. My tent buddy Kim – a fellow New Yorker – and I fell into a routine of talking to ourselves and each other to ensure we had all we needed for the day: snacks, water, clothing – checking that the other was feeling ok, talking through any concerns, catching up on the events from the day before, and what (if any) our plan or strategy was for the day. Today was the day,when chatting to one of the guides, I learnt they thought we all knew each other, were fast friends and had been for a while. It was a testament to how quickly we had all come together, bonded, and were now looking out for and after each other. I feel privileged to have been part of such a team of strong determined and caring women.
We walked with stunning vista’s, vegetation changing to bushes and odd shaped trees, weather fluctuated from sunny and warm to foggy, damp and chilled in a matter of minutes. Camp was cold, enshrouded in mist Clearing for sunset, we had views of Mount Maru and the valley below, the ever present Uhuru peak looking down at us, and then a night view of the milky way in the crystal clear night sky.
We woke on Day 3 to find tents ice covered, tents flaps crackling as we emerged into the chilly, fog blanketed camp. This changed to blazing sunshine giving a view of the valley below filled with a sea of marshmallow cloud and the summit coming out from it’s cloud to say good morning. Here our group was tracked down by a reporter from the Travel Channel, who informed us our group was the talk of the mountain: 28 women, brightly dressed, singing our way up the trails – we had proudly learnt the Kilimanjaro song – to summit on International Women’s Day, our porters and guides were spreading the word. We made it onto the Travel Channel blog http://blog.travelchannel.com/the-traveling-type/2014/03/10/international-womens-day-celebrations-from-mt-kilimanjaro-to-nyc/
Day 3 was Alpine Desert – a Mordoresque landscape beautiful and harsh in sunshine, eerie enshrouded in fog – and acclimatization the watchword, all pole pole (slowly slowly). In the briefing the night before, they told us that the 5km’s would take 4-6 hours – the runners amongst us looked at each other aghast, we could all run that in less than 30 minutes, our head guide GodBless suggested we didn’t try.
The hike to 4,600m for lunch at Lava Tower was to prove challenging, sunshine turning to cold damp fog and unrelentless biting wind; rain and hail putting in an appearance to remind us where we were. Stopping for anything other than a short rest at lunch was not an option, we put on all our clothes to try and get warm before starting the rocky descent to the next camp at the foot of the Barranco Wall.
Our team was an eclectic mix of women from all over world, short and far from doing justice is a flavour of who I was lucky enough to be travelling with: Alex, make-up artist & bartender from NYC brightening up the mountain with pink lipstick and a ready smile or joke; Tatiana, Russian (aka the Russian Rocket) a 5’ powerhouse running a production company in Estonia carrying a camera that was half her size and whom the porters struggled to keep up with; Sandy the radiologist from Indiana with her hair dyed in tufts to represent the Tanzanian flag colours and Pole Pole shaved into the side; Michelle from Detroit, who had completed a 6 week solo hike in the mid-west the year before; Katia a goldsmith from Germany living in London; Shelia from Switzerland working with another woman’s charity; Helga a Finnish student and charity worker; Izzy the surfing advertising exec from San Francisco; Janika the Estonian Women’s Hiking Group leader and 5 time veteran of Kilimanjaro who brought with her a flag with the names of 10,000 women for International Women’s Day; Christina and Magdalina, the two Tanzanian women who had never seen snow or been so cold; Danielle and Allison whose brainchild is WHOA Travel, with their mission to encourage women to become more adventurous at the same time as supporting women in other countries and cultures; and me, the Brit living and working in NYC always seeming to be heading for the next adventure, and often – like this one – finding it by chance.
The Barranco Wall is infamous,
guide books tell a variety of tales, the common theme being it’s a daunting difficult part of Day 4, tackled straight after breakfast. The weather was kind – no rain – and for all it was the favourite day, 3 hours of scrambling, rock hopping, clambering and climbing – watching in awe at the porters, who clambered up, around and past us with such large unwieldy loads, sometimes teetering on what looked to be the edge of disaster, but somehow never quite falling – and the achievement of the top left us literally jumping for joy at the top.
The next camp – Karanga – another 3-4 hour hike, welcomed us with mist and cold, turning to rain. Hard thumping raining, making us wonder just how wet we were going to get and would we ever dry out. Then it stops, bringing clear, cold skies. The weather changes so fast on the mountain, you have to be prepared for four seasons all in one day.
Day 5 was the start of the summit. An ‘easy’ hike to base camp 4,600m / 15,000’ in the morning, to give time for rest before summit attempt starts at midnight. A chance for food, relaxing and sleep, and watching the summit we were about to tackle play peek-a-boo from behind thick white clouds.
Come midnight the arctic wind was whipping through camp, the anticipation and tension tangible in the air, head torches on and we were off into the snowy blackness. No moon to light our way, relying on the feet in front for the route as we ascended pole pole upwards. The disorientating pitch black gave us no concept of time or distance, I remember looking up and seeing nothing but pinpoints of light in the darkness, hoping that at least some were stars – and being disappointed when they all kept moving, leaving me to wonder if the mountain was never ending. We occasionally stopped for short breaks, the wind making it impossible to stay for longer than a couple of minutes. Somewhere between 4 and 5 hours in we were given hot sweet tea, by now the warmth from the steep climb out of camp had dissipated, I was shivering and cold, struggling to use my hands to eat the oh so important snacks needed for the 6.5 hour climb.
I kept looking at the skyline to the east, willing the sun to rise as we’d then be close to the top – the plan was to be at Stella Point if not the peak itself when it did. It was too hard to talk; instead our guides sang to us, their voices coming out of the darkness, singing in Swahili to keep us on our slow steady pace. I spent the hours trying not think about how far we had come or how far we had left to go, just putting one foot in front of the other, hoping the ones who’d been suffering with altitude sickness were coping, trying not to think about the fact that we were going to have a 3 hr hike back down. Just keep going, one foot, then the other. At some point my water froze, I wasted precious breaths trying unsuccessfully to get my camelbak working before realization dawned, the cold and lack of food was taking its toll.
As we approached the summit imposing glaciers rose up on one side, the sky was tinged with orange as we fought against the biting howling wind, still putting one foot in front of the other, determined, tired, cold but the end in sight.
There had been talk of epiphanies at the top, as you stop and take in the view and reflect, potential life changing moments. To me the summit was a blur. It was cold, very cold – my guide, ‘King’ William, told me I was turning blue – there was a team photo, my ‘victory’ shot, looking out from the roof of Africa into a sea of cloud …..then it was time to go down.
I was so cold now, no longer able to make decisions, everything was becoming too hard. The guides herded us off the summit, starting us on the 3hr descent to base camp and rest, before the 4hr hike to our final camp.
That summit day is one of the longest, hardest days I’ve experienced, and was worth every second.
All 28 women in our team made it to the top, climbing the 5,895 metres to Uhuru Peak. We couldn’t have made it without the support and care of our guides and crew, and in particular our lead guides GodBless, and Samu – the only female guide on Kilimanjaro – who were towers of inspiration and strength.
The final morning was bitter sweet, last day on the mountain, more down hill – so much worse than up now – through rainforest with its diverse and beautiful plant life and a monkey or two. Our crew sang and danced goodbye, the sound of Swahili filling the glade and reverberating through the camp as other groups sang their farewell.
A song for all occasions, climbing the mountain, going down the mountain, welcoming, parting ….forever ingrained in my mind as being part of the African way.
There was a surprise for us at the bottom, courtesy of Danielle and Allison, pizza and beer – Kilimanjaro beer of course – a celebration for our achievement. We sat lapping up the sunshine, dirty, happy, and swapping stories from the last 7 days of the highs and lows, savouring our success. Pizza and beer never tasted so good.
The partners WHOA Travel work with provide education to allow girls and women to break the cycle of poverty and lead better lives for themselves and their families. Give a Heart To Africa (GHTA) provides free English, business and vocational training for women from the Moshi region, Tanzania; BEADS for Education, match girls with sponsors and helps Kenyan women sell handcrafted goods to help pay for the girls education. To date BEADS has sponsored hundreds of girls from 3rd grade through college.
**Not all the photos are mine, however as I no longer who took what, I give you all credit and thanks for allowing for my personal use.