Hidden under clouds as I entered the National Park, Mount Kilimanjaro was a mystery to me. With no idea what the mountain looked like or concept of size, I welcomed the challenge as a new adventure and before I knew it a team of two climbers, six porters, one cook, and two guides were setting the pace for a 6-day journey to Uhuru Peak.
The mountainside gradually transformed from lush tropical forest to a desert rock garden and on the second day I finally saw the snowy top of the mountain I’d set out to climb. As I got closer, Mount Kilimanjaro was no longer a spec in the distance, but a giant with a new mystery: how am I going to get to the top of this thing?
Walking tall and alone, as if in stride with the landscape, I too began to transform from just another Mzungu (East African term for foreigner) to the Dada (sister) on the mountain. I was the only brown female face on our route to the peak, and the most important, yet often under appreciated members of other climbing groups took notice. Totting heavy jugs of water and a basket of food on his head, Jeff, a porter from another group stopped mid stride to smile and say, ”When I see you, it makes me think of home.” A sentiment felt by many of the porters, who’d taken me in as their dada. Jeff’s words, and the support of others carrying a weeks worth of goods and equipment would carry me through the day and on into summit night later that evening, when my battle with this mysterious mountain really began.
After three days of hiking and camping, the fourth day brought 7 more hours of uphill climbing to base camp and summit night: a 6-7 hour hike starting at midnight, to reach the highest peak of the mountain by sunrise. I started the night like a track star, strong out of the blocks, gunning for the finish line. By the fifth hour I was certain that my legs and the lack of oxygen wouldn’t let me go further, but my pride wouldn’t let me give up. So I kept going, stopping every once in a while insisting on a minute of rest. “No Dada, get up, we’re going to the top,” my guide urged, forcing me to pick myself up off the ground. After a long game of cat and mouse with exhaustion the sun began to rise above the clouds as a green congratulations sign came into focus in the near distance. All the pain went away just as quickly as it came when reality set in. I just summited the highest peak in Africa!
At 5,895m (19,341ft) the view from Uhuru Peak, took my breath away with glaciers lining the southern side of the trail, a valley of snow dipping into the mouth of the dormant volcano that created the peak to the north, and clouds below covering the rest of the world like a blanket. Almost forgetting that the sky reaches beyond Kilimanjaro, the sun rose over the mountain to remind me that I’m not on top of the world, but I’m pretty close.
This moment alone makes the challenge worth it to every climber who makes it to the top, and I couldn’t agree more. But connecting with my brothers who made this moment possible, made the experience far more invaluable.