Do you have dreams of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro? Perhaps you’ve already made your summit attempt on Uhuru Peak, or perhaps you are still in the planning stages of getting your Tanzania trip and hike figured out from what gear to take and making preparations for possible altitude sickness.
I’ve climbed the crown jewel of Africa! Last July, I embarked on a hike that at times I thought was going to kill me. Climbing to the summit of the tallest freestanding mountain in the world is seriously no joke. Reaching 19,341 feet under your own power requires a serious amount of effort and gumption, and a good bit of luck.
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The Hardest Part
The most grueling time of my hike up the steep slopes of Kilimanjaro came during the last one-eighth of a mile needed to reach the summit. At this point, it was not the steepness of the trail that was so difficult. Instead, it was the relentless effects of the altitude that I thought were going to do me in.
Once I reached the crater rim, the elevation gain from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak was relatively minimal, about 688 feet during those last 200 yards or so. That was small comfort as I knew the effects of the altitude would only get worse the closer I got to 19,341 feet.
Reaching Stella Point
I was hiking with John, the Americanized name of the African guide assigned to stay with me as we climbed toward the summit. When we passed the Stella Point sign, I hilariously felt like running. Surely this was the result of a serious lack of oxygen.
But of course, I didn’t run. There was no way that I could. My body was at the threshold of its limits. I just continued on with my agonizingly slow pace, hoping that the misery might soon be over. I fought so hard for so many hours to get this far yet the altitude was relentless. I had been hiking since midnight, and it was now 8:15 a.m. It had taken me eight solid hours to hike almost three miles.
Breathing seemed useless. I wasn’t getting enough oxygen no matter how deep of a breath I took. I forgot how to pressure breathe, a method used to get more oxygen deeper into the lungs.
I felt nauseous and light-headed. I stumbled over my own feet. My head drooped down, most of my weight held up by my trekking poles every time I took another staggering step forward. I had to stop and rest every two steps. I really wanted to sit down right there in the dark brown frozen dirt and be done.
But John kept encouraging me, “One more step. You will make it. You are strong. You are Simba.”
Just past Stella Point, I really wanted to throw up. My head was pounding, my ears were ringing, and I could feel the blood rushing up through my neck. The sun was fiercely blazing down, and my face and hands were getting sunburned.
I thought to myself that climbing this mountain was a terrible idea.
I knew John and I were getting close to the summit when what remained of the glaciers covering the top of Kilimanjaro came into view. Over the past several decades, the snow has been rapidly melting and someday it will all be gone. What a tragedy that will be.
Keep Going, One Step At A Time
As I approached the summit, I had fleeting thoughts of my family and friends following me via the SPOT tracker where they could follow my path up Kilimanjaro in real-time. I was thankful that they couldn’t actually see my hunched over form barely making my way up the mountain.
My final steps were spurred by sheer emotion. Fatigue and sickness were forgotten as my adrenaline took over. I had imagined this moment countless times over the past six days. It was almost here!
And then, I finally saw a group of people around the much-photographed Uhuru Peak sign. I slowly dragged myself those last few yards…and made it!
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro changed me in so many ways and certainly taught me a lot about myself, about my life, and about my dreams. There were quite a few life lessons I learned on this amazing journey, some fun and lighthearted, others serious and profound. Here are the top seven lessons the mountain taught me.
1. The Mountain Is The Ultimate Boss
Hikers who set out to climb Kilimanjaro have goals and dreams of being photographed at the iconic summit sign, smiling into the camera. Many are successful. A great number are not. Kilimanjaro does not care how well-prepared you are or how many hours you trained to climb its lofty peak. Climbing Kilimanjaro is not an average holiday vacation. Most will experience headaches, nausea and other altitude induced ailments. Many will not return home relaxed and tanned from lounging by a pool. Instead, they will quite possibly return home looking tired and haggard, with severely sunburned lips, face and hands…and would do it again in a heartbeat.
2. You Are Tougher Than You Think!
Many times in life, fear gets in the way of clear thinking and some may believe the worst possible outcome is inevitable. Most people though, are capable of tapping into inner strength and perseverance that they didn’t even realized existed. When the night is the darkest and the struggle is the hardest, fear needs to be squashed so inner strength can take over the situation and provide the best opportunity for success.
3. Sir Edmund Hillary Was Right…
“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
I first set out to climb Kilimanjaro, I knew that the mental aspect would quite likely be more difficult than the physical fitness and strength required to be successful. There were times when I doubted my abilities and just wanted to quit.
But I didn’t quit. I saw potential to grow as a person resulting from the hardship of summiting that mountain. I ultimately believed in myself which pushed me on to keep taking just one more step. Every obstacle in life can be viewed as a mountain. Embracing obstacles is an opportunity to stretch your capabilities and become better than you were.
4. It Really Is About The Journey And Those It’s Shared With
I had no idea who I would meet in Africa, a country 8,000 miles from my home. I did not let that worry me though, as I believed they would be kindred spirits who enjoyed the same adventurous opportunities that I enjoyed.
Sharing hardships on the mountain really brings people together without barriers of race, gender, or nationality. In the seven days of hiking and living together on the mountain, our team of hikers, guides and porters had become like a family.
If you’re like me, you’ll find that embarking on a trip of this magnitude will be both personal and communal. My group all had various reasons for being on the mountain and specific challenges we all wanted to overcome.
As a team, the support and friendship our group displayed toward each other every single day will have a lifelong impact on each of us. I know I was impacted in a very real way. The support and friendship we all experienced were powerful components of the entire experience and I feel like I gained true friends.
5. It Takes A Village
The porters you will encounter in Africa are the hardest working people you will ever meet. They are amazingly helpful and kind and do their utmost best to make sure your trip is as enjoyable and fulfilling as it can be.
We were a group of seven hikers and it took three guides and fourteen porters to get us all to the rooftop of Africa. Without the guides and porters, not a single one of us would have had the life-changing experience that we had. Hats off to each and every one of them!
6. Pole Pole Is The Way To Go
Many times, we all rush through life and want things done right now, and not necessarily done right. Speed is not your friend in Africa.
Surprisingly, the summit success rate is lowest among younger, fit males. The pace of pole, pole, which means slowly, slowly in Swahili, may be maddening for some but the slow and deliberate pace is key to maintaining energy and acclimatizing to altitude.
7. Shared Victories Are The Most Meaningful
All seven hikers in our group suffered altitude-induced physical ailments on summit night to varying degrees. Some suffered more than others and I know there were moments that I wanted to just sit down in the dark brown frozen dirt or head back down to camp.
One member of our group made it to Stella Point but not to Uhuru Peak. Tears were shed, and human bonds were formed. While we were not able to take a group photo at the top, once we all got down off of the summit we celebrated the individual successes of each other. And that was the most meaningful experience of the entire trip.
Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro was the most difficult, yet most rewarding experience I have ever done. Knowing that I shared my trip with the six souls I carried in my backpack and helped them earn their wings on Kilimanjaro was a moment I will revere for the rest of my life.
Have you climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro? What was your experience like? Let me know in a comment below.
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