I have always wanted to get to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. When I got there, I stayed five minutes.
My close-knit group of girlfriends in Botswana had been talking for years about climbing our continent’s highest peak. When one passed away from breast cancer, reaching the summit seemed the least I could do to honor her.
It also seemed like something an inexperienced hiker like me could achieve. Kilimanjaro is no Everest or Denali — it’s the people’s mountain, capped by glaciers but surrounded by lush, inviting rain forest, and requiring no technical skill from its climbers. Every year, two-thirds of the 30,000 people who attempt to summit make it to the top. (By contrast, only a few thousand have ever successfully climbed Everest.) Two seven-year-olds have conquered Kilimanjaro; so have an 86-year-old and a man who used a wheelchair.
The altitude sickness floored me on Day 3. I hadn’t been drinking enough water and paid for it with headaches, diarrhea, and shortness of breath.
Before I began training for Kilimanjaro, I hadn’t worked out in 15 years. I started with jogging and hiking the hills around my home. I joined a gym and started working with a personal trainer. Two months before the climb I visited a sports medicine doctor, where I failed a cardiovascular test. So I started rowing and swimming to strengthen my lungs for the altitude.
In August (winter in this part of Africa), my week-long trek started off at Moshi village, the gateway to Kilimanjaro National Park in Tanzania. There are seven routes to the top, and our group took the Machame, or “Whiskey” route — one of the more scenic but difficult ways up. Kilimanjaro tourism is a major industry in Tanzania, and our party of seven went up with a professional company. We had a support staff of 27, including guides, a chef, and porters to carry supplies.
The first two days felt more like an easy stroll through the forest than a climb. In spots the mountain isn’t even visible, and our group was in good enough spirits to joke around and play cards.
The ascent was planned gradually to help us acclimate to the altitude; we might get up to 13,000 feet one day, then go down to 10,000 feet to sleep. It sometimes felt like we were walking around aimlessly, but this is a common strategy for a guided summit.
Still, the altitude sickness floored me on Day 3. I hadn’t been drinking enough water and paid for it with headaches, diarrhea, and shortness of breath. Once the group found out I wasn’t drinking the recommended gallon of water per day, they made a point of encouraging me to keep taking sips, always fussing over my pack’s water levels. Drinking more meant I had to pee constantly, and I was doing it out in the open once we hit the treeless Moorlands.
On Day 5, we made it to the 14,800-foot elevation base camp, on the verge of conquering the top, called Uhuru Peak. We’d leave at 10 p.m. that night and make our summit at 7 a.m.
I felt awful, even worse than when I had altitude sickness. My body was bruised and numb. Just 650 feet and two hours from the top, I told our guide I couldn’t keep going.
Too late. “No one is going back,” he said. He gently took my arm and slowly walked me the rest of the way.
On a more extreme climb, or all alone, I might have come home in a body bag. But I made it off Kilimanjaro with a frostbitten nose and one blurry photo.
There was no climactic sense of triumph upon reaching the top; the joy at reaching my goal only hit on the walk back down. It was dark, and the high winds and snow made it impossible to stay up for too long. I shouldn’t willingly go through something that harrowing again. But the fact that I did it — with camaraderie and support — makes me want to go back. And maybe stay a little longer.
As told to Phemelo Maribeng.