After 4 days of hiking through 4 different ecosystems, I woke up at 11:00 PM on June 1st, 2019 at Base Camp on the tallest free standing mountain in the world: Mt. Kilimanjaro. Today was summit day, and the beginning of the end of the hardest mental and physical challenge I had ever embarked on.
Earlier in the day, our group of 15 had finished up a 7 hour climb through the fog and grey on the upper route of Kilimanjaro. We had hiked through thin air, fog, and hellish terrain in the abyss for a full day. I was tired, mentally drained, and dreading the last stage of the climb. After going to bed at 6:00 PM, we woke up several hours later at the darkest point of night and ate a quick “dinner” of popcorn, cookies, and coffee. We then filled up our water, prepped our daypack, and left the mess tent and walked outside, still very much wishing we were back in our tents sound asleep.
We lined up in formation on our push towards the summit. The mountain air was thin, the night was dark, and it was cold… very cold. We set out up the mountain with nothing but our headlamps lighting the way. Pole Pole… means slowly slowly in Swahili, and was the motto we lived by for that week on Kilimanjaro. It was equally important on that night as the air was getting thinner and we had had almost 4,000 feet to go before the summit. Pace was important.
Hiking through the nighttime was no walk in the park. Every ten steps I had to wake myself up and fight the temptation to not find a rock to curl up behind and fall asleep forever. The combination of the thin air, the lack of sleep, and the blackness of the night made it a challenge to keep your eyes open. For the first time in my life, I felt like I could fall asleep standing up. After several hours of hiking through the night, I was less sure of my ability to reach the top.
But then finally…
The nighttime sky began to get light and day break was upon us. Soon, it was easier to stay awake and morale among our group quickly rose along with the sun. Watching the sun rise over the African Horizon on the way to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro was an awe inspiring experience, and easily the most beautiful sunrise I had ever seen.
While the sun was nothing short of a lifesaver on that day, the hardest part was just beginning. Soon the route became more steep, and the altitude set in. As we climbed closer to 17,000 feet, my lungs began to give. This was the highest altitude by 5,000 feet that I had ever been, and as someone from the low lands of Iowa, I was not ready for the physical challenges at this height. Up until this point, altitude sickness had not yet set in, but my good fortune was quickly diminishing. As we approached 18,000 feet, I was finding it more and more difficult to catch my breath. We started up a steep incline towards Stella point where it only took several feet to quickly feel like I had just ran a line drill. Barely, I made my way up to Stella point where my physical strength was quickly diminishing.
At that point, we only had an hour to climb another 1,000 feet up to the summit. After a brief stop at Stella point, we continued up the mountain along an ever increasingly incline surrounded by the Kilimanjaro glaciers that are unfortunatley diminishing as quickly as my lungs were giving out during my final ascent.
Finally, the summit was in sight. The Tanzania flag and signage taunted me 1,000 yards away as I struggled to take each step. I was so close yet so far away. Luckily, I had the support of my friends on the hike, and the local porters who were in charge of keeping the group safe, while providing climbers with the support and guidance to get able bodied hikers to the summit. Note – I will write much more about my experience with the porters on Mt. Kilimanjaro as these amazing individuals deserve the recognition for the work that they do.
With my lungs giving out and each step more difficult than the previous one, I found myself 100 yards out from the peak. Suddenly, adrenaline kicked in and an amazing thing happened. No longer was I out of breath, rather I felt recharged, and ready to hike the final trek. The altitude did not seem to bother me anymore as I approached the summit, the sign getting closer and closer. I pulled out my phone and put on the most cliche song I could find: Africa by Toto, and approached the summit with a stride.
The greatest feeling of relief and accomplishment rushed over me as I reached the summit. Much to my disbelief, I had accomplished something that never in my life would I thought I could accomplish. I reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro at 10:24 am on June 2nd, 2019.
This experience is one that will stay with me forever. It is experience that proved that no matter the challenge, no matter how hard something may be, with mental toughness anything can be accomplished. The hike taught me discipline, perseverance, and the importance of seeing things through. It would’ve been easier throughout the entire journey to turn back, curl up behind a rock and sleep, or not embark on the climb altogether.
Summitting Kilimanjaro was how I capped off my first visit to the African continent. It further solidified my love for travel and my desire to embark on experiences that most wouldn’t. My goal with this blog is to inspire others to take chances and step outside their comfort zone. While it won’t be easy and the journey will be met with challenges of every aspect, it’s important to take the challenges one step at a time. Pole Pole.