Kilimanjaro: The Gateway to Mountaineering
There is a common theme in children's entertainment. From Harry Potter to A Wrinkle In Time to the entire Zelda saga, children's media glorifies the idea that at any moment, a stranger can step into your life and upend the mind-numbing normalcy of it all. A life-changing adventure is just around the corner, and can pounce without warning. To a kid living in a podunk New England town, this was everything I dreamed of. I wanted to be Link, whisked away from my farm town to face danger and excitement head-on.
Over a decade later, adventure still hadn't come knocking. In 2008, I was the poster child for millennial stereotypes. My schooling was complete, and I was working a mind-numbing job that I despised, and of course, still lived with my parents. I was aimless, adrift, and desperate for someone, anyone, to walk into my life and announce that my new, exciting life was about to begin. Even in my late teens, that fantasy still gripped me.
Help arrived in the form of a travel catalogue.
Thick, glossy, its pages crammed with images of exotic places, it felt like my magical ticket out of the doldrums. Sure, it wasn’t as dramatic as magical owl, or a helpful giant, or any other literary plot device, but beggars can’t be choosers. I flipped to the “Strenuous” section of the catalogue, unwilling to waste this precious journey on something mundane. And there, in a shiny, six by nine technicolor photograph, was Mt. Kilimanjaro. Giraffes ambled beneath the massive peak. The description promised a once-in-a-lifetime African adventure, something beyond my wildest dreams. A couple months later, I was onboard a flight to Kenya, my very first solo journey to a new country.
Upon landing in Nairobi, I hired a taxi—a rusted, rugged jeep—to take me to my hotel on the outskirts of town. We sped through the city, launching ourselves onto the rut-filled dirt roads to the outskirts. I held on for dear life as my driver cackled at his foreign passenger seat being thrown against the side door. He deposited me at the hotel, and with a squeal of tires, was gone. The sudden silence was thrilling. I was standing in Kenya. Me! A milquetoast hick whose family thought going to Canada was an exotic vacation.
Our first stop was the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where we spent a two on safari. Riding atop a jeep as it crept past a pride of lions was thrilling, but nothing compared to the walking safari. Our group, a ragtag mix of ages and backgrounds, was escorted by four Maasai men, two armed with spears, two with rifles. We chose a direction, seemingly at random, and walked. Careful to stay perfectly quiet and downwind of the animals, the experience was akin to hunting, though with none of the bloody aftermath. We crossed rivers teeming with crocodiles, scared a feeding lion out of the bush, and stood within feet of giraffe, zebras, and wildebeest.
At night, we stared at the sky, mesmerized by the millions of stars sparkling above. Even in the dark, uninhabited woods back home, I’d never seen so many. Satellites and shooting stars passed by, eliciting a chorus of oohs and ahhhs each time. With all of our attention trend skyward, one of the Maasai men sidled up to Lee, the eldest man in our group.
“Is she your daughter?” the man asked, nodding in my direction.
“I’ll give you two cows and six bags of sugar for her.”
Lee later recounted this conversation to me, unable to bite back his laughter. “I thought I should at least check with you before I sold you off,” he joked. Lovely.
Safari complete, we drove several hours south, crossing the border into Tanzania. Our climb was set to begin the following day, so we drove to the famed spot where most well-known shots of Kilimanjaro are taken. This was my first view of the mountain, and finally seeing it in person was surreal. Surrounded by vast plains and savannah, Kilimanjaro is the one of the most prominent mountains in the world, rising over 19,000 feet above the nearby landscape. This was nothing like the small peaks I had summited back home. Staring at the massive, glacier-capped volcano before me, I suddenly wondered if I’d made a horrible mistake. How could I possibly climb something like this?
The next day dawned bright and early. We were shuttled to the Rongai Route trailhead, a meandering path that would take us four days to climb to the summit. Our guide, Julius, instructed us to walk “poli poli.” This Swahili term for “slowly” has spread among mountaineers, and can now be heard around the world as frustrated climbers scold their recklessly speedy counterparts. Since this was my first big climb, I had no idea how seriously poli poli is taken, and was shocked when Julius demonstrated the small, pausing footsteps, like a bride walking down the aisle. Surely he was joking.
“It’s the only way we’ll get everyone to the top,” he explained. “It feels silly now, but wait until we start losing oxygen, then you’ll understand.”
Of course, he was right. Over the next four days, we bride-walked our way up the mountain, passing through all of Kilimanjaro’s famed terrain zones; desert, rainforest, alpine, and tundra. With each passing day, the air grew thinner, a shock to my lowland-loving body. Around 14,000 feet, I felt the full range of altitude’s effects. I could no longer swallow food without gagging. Even the scent of our morning tea made me nauseous. My thoughts were swimmy, as though I’d somehow misplaced a few dozen IQ points on the trek up. My steps felt heavier; my lungs unable to draw in enough oxygen. Poli poli was the only way to keep moving.
Finally, we reached high camp, the last stop before the summit. Julius informed us that our summit push could last up to fourteen hours, most of which would be walking in the loose sand and scree that covered the top volcanic cone of the mountain. By now, most of our group was feeling the effects of the altitude. After a quick doze, we rose at two a.m., groggy yet determined, and set off for the summit.
To this day, the scree-covered top of Kilimanjaro remains one of my least favorite peaks. Imagine climbing a sand dune for eight hours. With every step you take, you slide back half the ground you covered. A series of switchbacks leads to the crater rim, and in the dark, the headlights flashing hundreds of feet above are just a reminder that you still have so much farther to go. I kept my eyes trained on my boots, not willing to risk another demoralizing look at the trail above, and kept walking.
Just as the sun began peeking over the horizon, we reached Gilman's Point, the edge of the volcanic crater. From here, it would be a gentle one-hour walk to the summit. We shared a thermos of tea to fortify our resolve and frozen digits. One of our teammates promptly puked it back up, her body rejecting the treat in such an unforgiving environment. Still, she managed to shakily pick herself up and continue with the group.
The summit marker for Uhuru Peak is a series of painted boards, offering congratulations and a slew Kilimanjaro facts. Standing over seven feet tall and emblazoned with bright yellow paint, it stood out like a beacon among the rubble and snow. As it came into view, our team broke into, for us, what approximated running; a slow, gasping jog. Until finally, my hand slapped the wooden sign. We had made it.
The summit slowly filled with climbers from all corners of the globe. Each one grinning with elation, some even crying. The early-morning view was breathtaking, with the sunlight glinting off the glaciers and turning the clouds a brilliant orange and pink. This was everything I'd hoped for when I first saw that travel catalogue. A complete departure from everything I'd ever known, the kind of adventure I'd dreamed about as a child.
Lee joined me in overlooking the crater. "So what do you think?" he asked.
"I think I don't want to go home."
"Well, there's more where this came from," he answered. "You know this is one of the Seven Summits? There are six more of these all around the world."
In that brief exchange, Lee changed the course of my life. In the eleven years since that moment, I have dedicated nearly all my free time to pursuing the unknown, to pushing myself past my own limits. And of course, to climbing the Seven. The narrative that I'd hoped for since I was a child, that someone would whisk me away from my dull rural life, was silly to hope for. Nobody was coming to save me; I had to do it on my own. All it took was a little bravery.