Today I’m so excited to share with you my time on Mt. Kilimanjaro. You’ve read my thoughts on the trip as a whole, and then you’ve read my village recap – so now onto the mountain! There will be lots of pictures, of course 🙂
We arrived by bus to the mountain park and got all of our rain gear on. We had to have heavy duty rain jackets, rain pants, backpack covers, and gaiters (which stretch over your shoes and go up to your knees, as you can see in the pic above). I was really excited and jittery. And FREEZING! I wanted to get moving so I would warm up. We had to wait a long time to eat lunch and get all of our bags unloaded and checked. We hiked through the evening and got to our camp when it was pitch dark.
The next morning, we were woken up with “knock knock tea” – which is literally what it sounds like. The guys who helped carry our bags, called porters, brought us tea to our tent, and made knocking sounds until we opened the door and grabbed the hot drink.
After tea, we moved to the main tent for breakfast. We usually had toast, oatmeal, sausage (which was AMAZING), and fruit. Each morning we had a devotional on our plate too, with a lesson and a verse that so perfectly aligned with our journey that day. While reading the devotional each morning, we had no idea how to prepare for the day ahead with the verses given. But as we hiked through the day and hours passed we came to realize how important those words really were.
We had guides and porters throughout the trip checking our feet and our shoes to make sure we didn’t have sores or blisters. This girl right here was one of the best girls I met on the trip. Sweetest EVER, so so funny, and always carrying Pringles around in her backpack.
This was our view on the first day of hiking. I was so overwhelmed when I hiked over the hill and saw the mountain staring back at me! It was also so, so huge. Just massive. I could never comprehend from pictures or stories the size of Kili.
Everyday, the terrain changed and so did the hike. Sometimes we hiked straight up for hours, sometimes it was all downhill with our hiking poles bracing us and slowing us down. At the end of each day, whenever we saw those orange tents in the distance, our adrenaline kicked in and we took off as fast as we could in our line, chatting excitedly and talking about food. The important stuff.
And each day we woke up, it seemed like someone new was sick. Altitude takes such a huge toll on your body; Mt. Kilimanjaro is 5,000 ft. higher than any mountain in the US, so no one in our group had experience to conquer the last stretch of the hike. A couple of people got very nauseous and dizzy throughout the day. I was so lucky to feel completely fine during our hike up, and I honestly wondered why I didn’t feel bad alongside my peers.
My porter amazed me everyday, and so much so that I sometimes got emotional. He beat me to camp to set up my tent and my duffle bag (I only had a 35L pack during the day). When I would come through the camp entrance, he would take my pack off and hand me water. He would get down on his hands and knees, refusing my help and removing my gaiters and then my dirty boots. He would hold my hand as I got into my tent and laid down for the first time it what seemed to be forever. He would sing for me the loudest and talk politics with me during our breaks, asking what I thought about Hillary Clinton and Trump (which provided some interesting conversation).
And you know what the crazy part is? He only got paid $25.00.
That makes our travel company sound horrible, but let me explain. The US dollar goes so far into Tanzania’s currency, shillings, that the $25 he was paid was almost like winning a small lottery. But I couldn’t walk away from the experience having given him so little when he did so much for me. When it was time for us to leave our porters, I called him by name and saw his face light up. I handed him extra tip money that I had saved just in case. “For me?” he asked breathlessly, bringing the envelope to his chest. I gave him extra protein candy bars too for the journey home, since my trip leader said the porters looooved anything sweet. We embraced for a while, both saying “thank you” to each other over and over. The trip leader from Young Life Expeditions, the organization I traveled with, promised the porters and guides that we would never stop climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and we would never stop serving the porters, guides, and their sweet families.
I turned 20 on the mountain, and I was so surprised and moved to tears when our porters and guides brought in a homemade birthday cake for me (of course it was homemade if it was on the mountain. My brain today…) even with candles! They sang happy birthday in English and Swahili.
Speaking of singing, the porters LOVED LOVED looooooved to do this. Each night we’d gather and sing songs in English and Swahili. This night in particular, pictured above, is a night I’ll never forget, simply because the personalities of the porters emerged and exploded so brightly in our group. They were loud, funny, kind, and so so happy. And REALLY good dancers!
Eventually, we got to be way above the clouds, so far so that it looked like we were overhead in an airplane. We could look down off of the edge into the clouds to see fields, villages, and cities below.
When it was time to summit (where we went from 15,000 ft. to the top of the mountain), we left our camp at 11pm to make it to the top of the mountain by sunrise.
My body, however, had other plans.
I started getting violently and terribly sick around 11:30pm, barely after we began the summit. I continued getting sick every 20 minutes for the next four – yes, FOUR – hours. At this point, I felt like my body had been saving up my time being sick for this moment, and I was miserable. I had felt totally fine leading up to the summit, and of course this would be when I start to take in the altitude.
With about 4 hours left to go, I started hallucinating. I wish I was joking. I kept seeing these shadow people following me around, sitting next to me as I got sick or behind my guide’s shoulder as he told me where to go. I told my guide that I couldn’t do it. I started to cry, and I could feel the tears start to freeze and stick to my face, since it was below zero degrees. I told my guide I wanted to go back down, I was okay with not finishing, and I just wanted to stop. He refused. He said no! He suggested we rest a little longer to get my mind in the rght place.
At that moment, I had to decide. I would probably never come back to Mt. Kilimanjaro again. So do I give up and say I at least tried, or do I keep going despite being sick?
Nothing I was doing to convince myself was helping. I tried humming to myself, I tried counting my steps…nothing worked. Finally, I thought about my great grandma. She had passed away before I left for Tanzania, and she knew I was going to climb a mountain. I thought about my mom and my little sister. Delusional, exhausted, and sick to the point of needing medical attention, I put my family at the top.
I looked up to the peak of the mountain and lined everyone I loved across the skyline. I looked to my guide, told him I was ready, and told my family I was ready for them too. I could see the sun rising over the peak as I put one foot in front of the other, repeating my family member’s names in my head. At this point, I was desperate to stay conscious and attentive, so I didn’t feel the least bit sorry saying my family’s names and telling my guide about them as I walked (even though he didn’t speak English well). I could see my mom getting closer and closer as I kept going, and my pace quickened. The final stretch was in front of me, and I practically ran to the Kilimanjaro sign, tears streaming down my face.
The sun was up and shining, and I was looking for my family. I know I sound crazy when I tell you that I searched for them, but I was genuinely disappointed to remember that they weren’t at the top with me. I had convinced myself for four hours that they were at the summit with open arms, and I frantically made eye contact with everyone passing for a couple of minutes before realizing that I had just made the story up in my head.
Altitude, y’all. It will f**k you up.
We started the descent down after taking a few pictures at the summit, and my body still didn’t have any plans of getting better. For the rest of that day and the day after, I wouldn’t eat food.
The next meal I had was at a restaurant in Arusha, Tanzania: a burger (!!!) with fries and soda (!!!!!!!) It took me about 6 or 7 showers to finally get all of the black and orange dirt off of my body (ew). And don’t even get me started about my hair. I hadn’t washed it in 8 days (another big ew)! You can use your imagination for that.
My experience on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro was something I will never forget, no matter how foggy and miserable the summit night was. At the top of that mountain, I will never forget how it felt to be finished. And to have truly accomplished something so rare. I will never forget how vulnerable the experience made me feel, and how much I clung to my family and life back home in times of trouble. I learned that it’s okay to cling to them when I’m at home, too.
I put my family at the top of that mountain because they are the foundation of who I am. I wouldn’t be the person that I was today without them and their love. I wished so badly at the summit that I could see them, but I knew at the top that I was one step closer to getting back with my people.
I’ve said this 9,827 times, but holy shit last year was hard. So hard. I can’t begin to describe how freeing it felt to be away from all of the hurt and brokenness I was experiencing in the United States and truly, really live by and for myself for a little while. Each day, I hiked quietly at the front of the line, taking it all in, listening to my body, pushing myself to breathe slow and steady with every step. I was by myself. I was my own team. I was my rock.
You travel far enough, you meet yourself.
And that is exactly what I did. On top of the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. And I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.