It’s 4 o’clock in the morning and we’ve been on the trail since midnight, still hours to go before we reach the summit. Our headlamps illuminate only about 4 feet of the path in front of us. Darkness envelops the rest. The wind has picked up and my hands are already numb from the cold. I tighten my hood and pull up my scarf to cover more of my face. I inch my feet forward one in front of the other, slowly making my way up the steep terrain. Single file we trudge our way higher and higher, seemingly to the far-reaching blanket of stars overhead. I’m tired, no exhausted. My pack feels like it weighs 50 pounds. I’m not sure how much longer I can go.
I try to focus on the shards of obsidian along the trail, shimmering every time my headlamp comes across a piece. But thoughts of not being able to complete this climb continue to creep in. I try to push them out of my head but they grow stronger and stronger with each passing minute. I meekly call out to the guide leading our group asking to stop. He takes my hand and leads me along. But I can’t take another step. I start pleading with him to stop, my voice quivering, tears welling up in my eyes. I break away from his grasp and sit down on a nearby rock. Just getting off my feet is a relief. But I’m immediately surrounded by our guides asking what’s wrong. I can see concerned faces from the rest of the team peaking between them. Overcome with the grueling nature of the night and fatigued from 6 days of hiking, the tears erupt.
Just 8 days earlier I was meeting the entire team for the first time. Brought together by World Vision Canada to raise funds and awareness for their No Child For Sale campaign, I was nervous about what everyone would be like and if we’d get along. But two days filled with a safari and a World Vision area development program visit proved that everyone was easy going and ready to take on the 8-day challenge of climbing Kilimanjaro’s Lemosho Route together. The team clicked instantly.
Standing at the Lemosho Gate, I could see the entrance to the trail off to one side. It appeared to be a man-made, wood-framed staircase, eerily disappearing into the jungle. We all organized our packs, slathered on the sunscreen, and did one final group huddle before hitting the trail. One by one we began the climb. It was steep right from the get go. But we were taking it slow; almost painfully slow it seemed at times.
We were surrounded by a lush, green rainforest. Trees towered overhead and a thick, low brush blanketed everything but the path. It was a gorgeous sight to take in as we hiked deeper into the mountain. The trail was wide enough for two people to walk side by side and so this initial part of the route gave us all the chance to get to know each other a little bit better. Over the next 7 days, we’d learn so much about each other, our passions, our struggles, and our goals, conversations usually reserved for decade-long friendships.
Kilimanjaro is a unique mountain. Not only is it the tallest freestanding mountain in the world, it contains every single ecosystem found on Earth; tropical jungles, savannahs, alpine moorlands, deserts, snowfields, and glaciers. It’s also a dormant volcano. Every day the landscape would be different from the previous one, sometimes changing within hours of hiking. And the higher we climbed, the more alien the terrain looked. Even the foliage was unlike anything I’d seen before. I had to remind myself from time to time to stop focusing on the path below me and actually take in the views around me, including taking a second to look back at where we had just come from. Nighttime brought on a whole other mesmerizing scene. It was almost hypnotic the amount of stars that covered the sky.
By Day 2 we had all settled into the hiking and camping routine that would be our life on the mountain. Days started before the sun rose, we’d average around 4-6 hours on the trail everyday, and sunlight was our lifeline. Without it, temperatures plummeted. By Day 3, nights were downright freezing and some mornings we awoke to frost covering the ground and our tents.
The daily treks were manageable, harder at times, but completely doable. Everyone on the team seemed to have similar fitness levels so we hiked as a solid group. We motivated each other, encouraged one another, and checked in from time to time see how we were coping.
As the days progressed and the vegetation disappeared, so did our concerns about bathroom breaks on the trail. Modesty went quickly out the window. I’d often joke about “how’s the view?” with one of my female teammates relieving herself just steps away from me. With no showers or places to really wash up on the mountain, we also embraced our Kilimanjaro ‘looks’, greasy hair, stinky socks and all.
Each passing day brought the summit climb closer and closer, and in turn made me more anxious and nervous about it. The daily treks were starting to catch up to me and I wasn’t sleeping well through the nights. Exhaustion was starting to set in. Around noon on Day 6, we arrived at Barafu Camp, the final campsite before climbers make the final push to the top of Uhuru Peak. It was like a mini city filled with tents from the various groups who were either completing the climb that day or about to attempt it, as we were. I could see the weary faces of those coming down from the summit, each step looking pained. This wasn’t helping to calm my nerves.
Unlike any of our previous days, our summit climb would take place during the middle of the night. We’d be leaving camp at midnight and continuing to the crater ridge of Uhuru till around sunrise. We would then have another hour trek to the actual summit peak. It meant that we were climbing in the dark and during the coldest hours. We would also be making a height gain of around 4,000 feet. Up until this point we’d only been gaining about 2,300 feet in altitude in any given day. This was going to be our biggest challenge yet.
Trying to push the images of those climbers descending from the peak out of my mind, we grabbed lunch and headed off to our tents to rest as much as we could. Wake up time would be 11pm.
I’m sitting there with tears streaming down my face feeling completely and utterly gassed. I’m told that the ridge isn’t too far away. But at this point any distance seems like miles away. Luckily I’m not suffering from the altitude at all, but it’s to this revelation that I’m given a bit of tough love; If I’m not affected by the altitude then there’s no reason why I can’t complete this climb.
The human body is an incredible thing. When pushed to its limits, it will go beyond even what you mentally think you’re capable of. I stood up, wiped the tears from my face and pushed the fatigue from my mind. I dug deep and continued forward. I thought about why we were on this mountain in the first place. I thought about the incredible support from the people back home. And I wanted to say I did it, even when I thought about turning back. It was grueling. It was painful. And the ridge was much further then I was made to believe. But thank God for the guides and my team. If it wasn’t for their constant encouragement I wouldn’t have been able to continue climbing for the next 3 hours.
Standing on top of that peak, 19,341 feet high, surrounded by everyone who started the trek 6½ days earlier was an incredible feeling, almost surreal in fact.
The magnitude of the climb wouldn’t hit me for over a week after returning home. While going through photographs and video clips, I realized that this climb hadn’t been about reaching the summit. Sure that was the goal, to say I had summitted Kilimanjaro. But in actual fact, it had been about the journey getting to the top. It was about discovering who I am in the process and what I’m truly capable of doing. I’m stronger than I think and capable of doing just about anything.
To my fellow climbers: Alicia, Rick, Cheryl, JD, TJ, Melanie, Dan, Chris, Ellen, Rhiannon and all our guides, thank you for sharing this incredible experience with me. I truly could not have done this without your encouragement and support!
World Vision Canada set out a goal of raising $150,000 for their No Child For Sale campaign and I’m thrilled to say they reached $143,430! A big thank you to everyone who donated!
My Kilimanjaro coverage continues next week! Stay tuned for an EPIC montage video of our climb, plus an 8-episode video series breaking down the climb. So head over to my YouTube channel and subscribe so you’re the first to know when those videos are released. If you’re interested in climbing Kilimanjaro, I’ll also be sharing my top 10 tips, a packing guide, gear reviews, and tips if you too want to film your Kilimanjaro trek. Stay tuned!