A few months ago my friend Jo, a fellow PCV, started talking about wanting to go to climb Kilimanjaro. She asked if I wanted to join but I was unsure due to the price of the trip. I did some budgeting and calculating and decided I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go. Last week we went to Kili and both made it to the summit!
Hiking Kilimanjaro is the most physically demanding thing I have ever done in my life. Since being in Peace Corps I have run two half marathons but those are nothing compared to the physical exertion on Kili.
We flew to Moshi, Tanzania on March 30th. On our way we had a short one our layover in Nairobi and flew by Mt. Kilimanjaro on both of our flights. It was intimidating to see it out the plane window. The peak was the only thing visible over a cloud line and there was no chance of getting a real view of the whole mountain.
We were picked up from the airport by one of the owners of the climbing company. He drove us to the hotel and then briefed us about what would be happening over our six day hike but didn’t get into much detail because he said the guides would do that when we met them. He drove us to town and we got pizza and some snacks before going back to the hotel to rest.
On the morning on the 31st, we were picked up at the hotel by our guide, assistant guide and the cook that would be hiking with us. We would be meeting the porters, the guys that help carry all the gear and food, at the national park. Our hiking team ended up having eight members, a head guide, assistant guide, cook, and five porters.
We only hiked 9km the first day (about 5.5 miles). The guides tell you to walk “pole pole” which means slowly in Swahili. Our lead guide told us its best to walk this slow to give your body more time to adjust to all the altitude changes that will happen. The slower you walk on the first two days the better your body can adjust to the altitude because you aren’t pushing yourself too much and needed extra oxygen that isn’t available.
We hiked a total of six days. We could have done it in five but opted for an extra day to give ourselves more time for acclimatization. On that extra day we were able to take a short day hike. It was nice because it was the only day we didn’t have to pack up all of our gear. Throughout the hike we stayed in little wooden huts. They usually had four beds and limited space. It was cold and a warm sleeping bag was essential.
Our summit hike started at 1am on Saturday April 4th. Summit hikes happen in the dark for a few reasons. Weather is a main reason. Rain/snow are more likely to happen in the afternoon so going in the morning gives you more time to summit and hike down without the rain or snow. We were also told it’s because some people get really intimidated by seeing where they are hiking. By going in the dark we could only see in the area right around us that our headlamps lit up. We could see other hikers headlamps in the distance but you can’t see the distance or the height. I really do think this did help.
Summit was the hardest day of them all. Due to altitude I threw up on the way up. This is apparently really common. The guide told me that people can throw up twice but usually around time three they need people to start heading down because the altitude is affecting them too much. It took us 5 hours and 40 minutes to go from the camp to the summit. It’s about 6km (3.72 miles), which doesn’t seem like much but the elevation goes up 1100 meters or 3,630 ft. The beginning of summit day is a lot of what feel like nearly vertical switchbacks. They probably weren’t as vertical as they felt but because it was in the dark it was hard to tell.
Throughout the hike up to summit I wasn’t sure I was going to make it up. I was exhausted and breathing heavily. I just wanted to sit and catch my breath. I kept thinking “I paid for this?!? What was I thinking?!?” I would stop at the beginning of every switchback to take three deep breaths (well as deep as they can be with air that thin). The guides kept us going but let us take a break for about five minutes every hour.
We made it to the summit not long after sunrise. That’s when I knew why the hike was worth it. I was still tired physically but mentally I was exhilarated. It was amazing to stand that high and look down and just see the world in a different way. In most directions it just looked like oceans of clouds. I was so happy I can’t even describe it. It was one of the most freeing moments of my life. The view and the accomplishment of making it to the top were well worth the struggle. I took pictures but mostly just looked around and tried to absorb everything I could about the moment. I had felt nauseous all the way up to the top and just getting there made me feel mentally better even if I wasn’t feeling physically better. I can’t even describe how I felt at the top. It was too many emotions at once.
We hiked a day and a half down after summit. It was nice to have that time to cool down and feel relaxed hiking. We got to bond with our hiking team and on our last morning they sang and danced for us. We had the best porter by far in Felix. His job was to wake us up in the morning and serve us our meals. He went above and beyond though and kept up the energy and helped us stay positive. He mostly spoke to us in Swahili but at the end of six days we definitely understood each other well.
At the end of the week we had hiked around 50 miles. It’s really not that much but the height makes the challenge. I was sore for a few days after but it was so so worth it. So was the Kilimanjaro beer that we got at the hotel after we finished the hike. If you have other questions about the experience I can share. I could go on for days about it. It’s an amazing and intense experience and so hard to put into words.
The pink owl in the summit picture is from my niece Mira. She sent it to me for Christmas. I wanted to show her it made it to the highest point in Africa too!!