To celebrate my 40th birthday, I decided I was going to climb to the peak of the world’s tallest freestanding mountain: Mount Kilimanjaro. Standing at 19, 341 feet above sea level, this was not a challenge to be underestimated.
At first, this was a challenge I was to overcome with a very dear friend of mine, along with a small group of other women. Just short of a few weeks before departure, my dear friend is no longer able to come due to a serious back injury, and the other women, with the exception of one, also retreated for various reasons. I had not reason to back out, other than being scared to death of going to Africa alone (I have never been very far by myself, have never lived alone and have been at home with my boys for many years already). This was big for me, but I am one determined girl
So I left on a jet plane for a 25-hour trip to Kilimanjaro, leaving my two beautiful boys and husband behind. I enjoyed every minute of that long flight, flipping between a movie, a book, a nap and some food. Mom is in heaven.
Once in Kilimanjaro, my eyes are not big enough to soak the new scenery, culture and everything around me. A private driver is waiting for me at the airport and takes me to the Planet Lodge, where I spend my first night in beautiful Tanzania, Africa. The next morning, after a delightful breakfast, I am taken to the Ilburo Lodge, where I will meet my climbing partner (the only women left in our clan, whom I only know from taking my classes at the gym). There we spend a couple of days together before heading for the mountain. Food is great, weather is gorgeous, and adrenaline is building. After over two years of preparation, I am finally about to live my dream.
Finally the moment is here: after meeting with a guide from the African Travel Resource company (excellent by the way; highly recommend if you are planning on doing this!), we are briefed on what to bring and how to pack. At the crack of dawn, John from the African Walking Company (awesome as well) shows up in a rugged jeep vehicle and takes us to the gate of Mount Kilimanjaro. On the way, we are treated to an African massage, aka very bumpy countryside roads. We can see the majestic mountain from a distance. In 8 days from now, I will be standing at the top.
For the two of us climbing, we have a crew of sixteen men looking after us. Sweet. We are treated like princesses. We each have a personal porter (taking the largest of our luggage), someone in charge of our toilet (yep, this was a nice luxury; the ‘public’ ones on the mountain are just plain disgusting!), a cook, a waiter, an assistant guide, a head guide and a ton of other guys working at making our experience unforgettable. Most of them only speak Swahili. I welcome the opportunity to learn a few words in another language (and not the bad ones ..!).
Before I start, I want to share with you that every day, I wore my heart rate monitor so I could track the time spent hiking, along with heart rate data and burned calories. I also want you to know that I chose to climb to the peak via the Shira Plateau route, on a private 8-day trek, which I would be summiting on a full moon
So I am in good hands with a fabulous team. I am pumped and ready to go. Let the adventure begin …..
Day 1 – Jan 21, 2013:
I am in heaven. First part of the climb: piece of cake. The start line is at 11,500 feet above sea level and so far, altitude does not bother me. I am pumped and ready to go. Upon arrival at camp 1 (Shira 1), I find a tent and toilet already set up. We are greeted with a bowl of warm water to wash up, with tea and popcorn for afternoon snack. Service is 5 stars. I feel great; inspired and cannot believe that this dream is finally happening. I spend the rest of the afternoon reading (“Into Thin Air”) and soaking the beauty around me.
Dinner on that first night: amazing soup, fried tilapia and potatoes (man this was good), garden vegetables and spinach, with fruits for desert. I polish off my plate. The weather is beautiful though I sleep in my long base layer on the first night. The fresh air from the altitude is moving in.
Time hiked: 2:05 hours
Average HR: 110
Peak HR: 145
Min. HR: 74
Calories burned: 848
Photos from Day 1
Day 2 – Jan 22, 2013
Awesome breakfast: millet porridge, fresh papaya, corn biscuit, eggs and bacon. I eat ‘til I’m full because today is a big day.
Today, I leave Shira 1 and hike to Shira 2 camp. A bad sunburn in my neck and face is bothering me, (I did have sunscreen on! Must have missed a few spots …). The sun is scorching hot, but wow, it’s beautiful. I get familiar pretty quickly to using boulders during the hike to get ride of my 4 liters of water and huge breakfast. At this altitude, there are no trees tall enough to hide behind. Rocks. Only rocks and large boulders. But there’s always the view of the majestic peak to remind me that I don’t need a fancy toilet. A bolder is just fine when a girl’s gotta do her business!
So I get to Shira 2, have lunch, chill a bit and head out again to hike the Shira caves. On my way, I meet someone with a cool gadget measuring the levels of oxygen in my blood and at this point, my levels measure at 85 (and measured at 98 back in the town of Arusha). So far so good …
Dinner is great once again; coconut rice with fried garlic chicken, along with vegetable sauce and oranges for desert.
Now at 12,600 feet above sea level, the night is quite cold. I settle into my long warm base layers and snuggle up in my goose down sleeping bag. The camp is noisy. I need my earplugs.
2 hikes today: first one to Shira 2 and the second one to Shira Caves
Time hiked: 5:07 hours (to Shira 2) + 1.41 hours (to Shira Caves)
Average HR: 107 + 96
Peak HR: 143 + 122
Min. HR: 77 + 74
Calories burned: 1949 + 479
Photos from Day 2
Day 3 – Jan 23, 2013
Well, I manage to sleep a couple of hours. I think I suffer from insomnia in the mountain. I feel wired and wide awake all the time! Anyhow, I get up to use the toilet at 1:30am and end up spending some time outside, admiring the stars and the moonlight against the majestic illuminated peak of the mountain. Breathtaking. Why would I want to sleep?! The moon is crystal clear and I can see the bright snowy peak. These views will forever be engraved in my mind.
Back to bed, I get up at 6:30am. Tea at 7am, and breakfast at 7:45am. Today, we hike to Moir Hut followed by a second acclimatization walk after lunch.
Morning was crystal clear but clouds are moving in shortly after lunch. Now standing at 13,780 feet above sea level, I am experiencing small headaches that come and go, but nothing more. Today, I miss my dear friend Julie.
After lunch, we set out on our acclimatization walk to test the Altox system. Just to be safe, I rented the oxygen tank system (an extra $250). I did not come all the way and paid all this money not to stand on the peak. So, as a precaution, I test the system on our way up to Lent Hill.
It’s cold today. I eat dinner with my base and fleece layers on, topped with my gortex jacket and my hands are freezing. I sleep with my big sox, fuzzy slippers, toe warmers, full base layers and my fleece hat.
2 hikes today: first one to Moir Hut and second one to Lent Hill
Time hiked: 2:16 hours (to Moir Hut) + 2:25 hours (to Lent Hill)
Average HR: 100 + 104
Peak HR: 127 + 134
Min. HR: 71 + 74
Calories burned: 723 + 854
Photos from Day 3
Day 4 – Jan 24, 2013
For the first time on the mountain, I actually sleep very well. Maybe it’s the cold air. Maybe the nerves are finally settling in after being on the mountain for a few days already.
Breakfast is great as usual: millet porridge with fresh pineapples, omelet, bacon and beans. Today, I am going to Lava Tower with another acclimatization walk to Arrow Glaciers (really cool place!).
Now standing at just a little over 15,000 feet above sea level, I am getting closer to the summit and other than the light occasional headache, I am still going strong!
2 hikes today: first one to Lava Tower and second one to Arrow Glaciers
Time hiked: 3:11 (to Lava Tower) + 1:54 hours (to Arrow Glacier)
Average HR: 103 + 108
Peak HR: 132 + 134
Min. HR: 71 + 78
Calories burned: 1099 + 740
Photos from Day 4
Day 5 – Jan 25, 2013
Well, last night was bad. No sleep. Cold. Tent unlevelled. Lava Tower was somewhat miserable! By far the coldest camp. Another 3am toilet break with a beautiful moonlight sighting before snuggling back into my goose down sleeping bag in hope for a little sleep ….
This morning, the sun is bright & shinning as I am leaving this cold camp, en route for a slight descent to 13,123 feet. Though I am still feeling great with altitude, I temporarily lose my fleece hat this morning and getting mad at myself, until I find it tucked inside my pants. Perhaps altitude is playing some tricks on me after all …
We leave camp shortly after 8am, on our way to Karanga camp. This route takes me to climb the famous Barranco Wall, a 300 feet vertical ascent. Finally a challenge This was fun. I get to the top and ask my head guide if we can do this again (I really did, but I was of course just kidding!). At the top, we settle on some large bed of rocks, in the cold clouds, and have a pre-packed lunch of hard-boiled eggs, vegetable biscuits and a Cadbury chocolate bar, before continuing on our route. The ever so thoughtful Mexon, our wonderful “stomach engineer” (aka chef!), had prepared a thermos of hot soup, which the assistant guide pulled out at the top for us. This is a nice treat after a hard climb.
Lunch is done, I move on. After hiking for several hours, I finally reach Karanga camp. Another damp and cloudy camp. My sweat drench clothes won’t be drying anytime soon over here …
After an afternoon snack of tea and popcorn, I spend some time with my assistant guide Francis. He tells me about his life in Africa and I chat about mine here in Canada, always being careful not to emphasis how life is good for us here, because life is tough for them over there. We chat about culture, music, food, kids and whatever else is wants to know about our Canadian culture.
Dinner menu for tonight includes mash potatoes with beef stew and fresh leek soup. I must point out that the potatoes were hiked up to 12,000 feet. It was delicious and I polished off my plate as usual.
Today, for the first time my journey started, I am able to text home. It was nice to get an update of my boys back in Canada and glad I was able to tell them I was doing awesome and feeling very happy on the mountain!
Tomorrow morning, I head for base camp. I can barely contain my excitement of the big moment. But now I must sleep for a while …
Time hiked: 5:24 hours
Average HR: 105
Peak HR: 140
Min. HR: 72
Calories burned: 1958
Photos from Day 5
Day 6 – Jan 26, 2013
Well, this is a big day. Today, I climb to base camp, known as Barrafu camp. Up at 4:25am, I start my day by sending a long text to my hubby. Now at over 15,000 feet above sea level, I am still feeling quite good! Great appetite (appetite is never a problem for me), no headaches and breathing is totally normal. However, I can feel that simple things like rolling in bed and going to the washroom do take a lot more effort. And I must add that the toilet seat is freezing.
This morning, there is a thick coat of frost on the tent. It’s cold. It’s going to be a long day since I was up so early. But I am feeling super strong mentally and ready for the final step into my journey to the top!
After a usual delicious breakfast, we head out to base camp, under the warm sun. The scenery is pretty much 2 things: bright clear blue sky, with rocky grounds. Lots of rocks. No vegetation at this level. The hike to base camp is uneventful. I chat with the guides along the way. Take a few boulder pit stops to relieve the bladder. At break time, I enjoy a Cadbury chocolate bar with a banana, the usual mid-hike snack provided to me on the mountain. I ate more chocolate in 6 days than I do at home in 1 year. But whatever. It’s good and so far, the experience has been unbelievable. The crew is amazing, the views are stunning, and the adrenaline is building, as I get closer to the summit.
Finally at base camp, I am surprised to see so many other people wanting to do the same thing. Base camp is very busy place. Tents everywhere. Noisy (will definitely need my earplugs tonight). Once settled in, we prepare to ascend to 15,748 feet above sea level. The weather is still cold and with lunch time hour rolling in, clouds are also rolling in, putting us in a thick fog. This last acclimatization walk is very important, as we will be passing by the same terrain in the dark. For the first little bit, this terrain is steep and the rocks are slippery. Then it opens up again with large patches of tiny volcanic rocks.
I opt out of my oxygen system to climb to 15, 748 feet above sea level, given how good I feel so far. But Joshua, my fabulous head guide, brings it just in case.
After another fairly effortless mid-day acclimatization walk, we settle down for an early dinner, which was my least favorite on the mountain: rice and a goulash of some sort, with a corn biscuit, which I ate with peanut butter. Once dinner is done, Joshua (head guide), Francis (assistant guide) and Mexon (cook) join us in our tent to brief us on the summit preps. I sit in my dinner chair, freezing. My body is shivering; my toes are just plain frozen. And I am sitting there with many layers on, including that huge parka I rented. So, here’s what I wear and bring with me to the summit:
2 base layer pants (thin & thick), 1 fleece pant, gortex pants, 2 pairs of sox (thin & thick) with toe warmers, 2 base layer top (thin & thick), 3 fleece tops, parka, gortex jacket, thin gloves, thick gloves/mitts, balaclava, snacks, 3L of water, sun hat (ball cap), sunglasses, toilet paper, sunscreen, ipod, camera, money (small souvenir booth at the top, where I purchase 4 bracelets), passport/travel papers, headlamp
That’s a lot of stuff to trek to the top! But I will be wearing most of it ..
It’s 5:30pm. I’ve been up since 4:25am. I am totally wired! Joshua asks me if I want to carry my daypack or the oxygen system to the summit. I opt for the oxygen system since it’s much lighter I am bringing it just in case. You never know what can happen from 15,748 to 19,341 feet above sea level.
My bag is packed, my belly is full, my hot water bottle is ready to go into my sleeping bag (to keep me warm on those cold mountain nights). I go to bed at 6:30pm and was ordered to get up at 11:00pm to prepare for the ascent. I will try resting a bit ….
Trying to sleep is an understatement. I can’t sleep. Just too excited, not to mention the camp was super noisy. So, I am up at 11pm (really, up since 4:25am!), get dress and step out of the tent, ready to do this. We depart for the summit at 12:30am.. (up for about 20 hours at that point).
2 hikes today: first one to Barrafu camp and second one to 15,748 feet above sea level, to get a feel for the abrupt, rocky and slippery ascent which will be done in the dark.
Time hiked: 2:52 (to Barrafu camp, aka Base camp) + 1:22 (to 15, 748 feet above sea level)
Average HR: 104 + 101
Peak HR: 127 + 126
Min. HR: 74 + 72
Calories burned: 1014 + 459
Photos from Day 6
Day 7 – Jan 27, 2013
The whole time, I never stopped staying strong mentally.
“If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you” OR
“Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude”
Strong positive mental attitude (aka PMA) is what got me to the top. I was lucky also not to have any troubles with altitude. The mountain was very kind to me (but cold!).
So I leave at 12:30am to take on the summit of the tallest freestanding mountain in the world, something I had been planning and dreaming of for over 2 years now. As I make my way to the top, under a full moon (yes, I planned it that way), I see nothing but a huge long line of other climbers doing the same thing. As I lift my head into the night sky towards the summit, I see nothing but a long line of headlights. As I look down to my feet, I see the occasional trail of blood drips (nose bleeds from altitude). I also meet people heading back down, due to mainly two factors: fatigue and mountain altitude sickness.
The walk to the summit is extremely slow and cold. Though I feel great physically, it takes much effort to lift one foot off the ground to put it in front of the other … walking is becoming somewhat challenging! The ascent is the steepest of all the hikes done so far. Not much talking is going on. I think of my friends and family back home as I make my way up. For a while, as we near Stella Point, Joshua carries my backpack. I am starting to feel a little nauseous from time to time. Perhaps it’s because I did not drink enough, as the water from my camel back is frozen! Yes. It’s cold up there. Then, at about 500 feet from the summit, I feel like I can’t go on anymore. I am mentally exhausted (and don’t forget, been up for about 25 hours so far). Joshua, my fantastic head guide, comes to the rescue with one of his pep talks. That’s all I needed. I pick myself up and go on. I reach the summit as the sun is rising. What a view. Glaciers all around. It’s spectacular. I did it. After planning and dreaming for over 2 years, I am finally standing, tall and strong (ok.. tall and tired!), at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. I still have tears as I write this blog. All this adrenaline and now that I am stepping on the summit, it’s over. I hold back tears of joy. So I wait in line to take my picture under the famous “Congratulations” sign. It’s probably about -25 degrees Celsius at the top, so cold, that I cannot take my mittens off to take many pictures. The summit is spectacularly clear, bright, stunning and cold.
After taking a few pictures (Joshua took most of my pictures at the summit), done a 20 push up competition with my assistant guide (which I won by the way), I start making my way down. For the first time, I can actually go FAST! What a thrill to head down. Joshua and I are super fit: we basically ran back down to base camp and made it there in no time. The terrain at the top is loose volcanic rock, which makes the descent very slippery. Quite challenging for many. But not for me My strong legs took me back to base camp by 10am where we eat vegetable soup and rice with vegetable sauce. The plan is to rest for a bit (because at that point, I have been up for a whopping 30 hours), but my partner snores. So I can’t sleep. At this point, the adrenaline of reaching the summit is gone, I am feeling completely exhausted. The idea of hiking for another 2 hours to reach the last camp seems impossible. But somehow, I find it within me to keep going.
Following a 1:22 hour hike down to Millennium camp, I settle down, wishing I could have left the mountain today. Why? Because I feel dirty; I am exhausted, and the surge of adrenaline for doing something so big is gone. There is cell reception here so I send a text home to announce that I have reached the summit. Tomorrow, we leave the last camp and head back down to the gate of the Kilimanjaro National Park, which should take us about 5 hours (Joshua and I would do this in 2:38 hours!).
I now am anxious to take a hot and long shower. This did not cross my mind while on my quest to reach the summit, but now that it’s over, I suddenly need to clean up! I eat African stew for dinner, snuggle up in my goose down sleeping bag for the last time and sleep like a baby, until 4:30am. I always wake up early on the mountain. Well, in fact, I always wake up early at home too (but not that early!).
So here are the details of the hike to the summit and back down to Base camp:
Time hiked: 8:18 hours
Average HR: 109
Peak HR: 134
Min. HR: 76
Calories burned: 3307
And from Base camp to Millennium camp:
Time hiked: 1:22 hours
Average HR: 109
Peak HR: 124
Min. HR: 85
Calories burned: 546
Photos from Day 7
Day 8 – Jan 28, 2013
Well, this is it. After breakfast, we have the tipping ceremony where we offer our crew some tips for making this experience so extraordinaire. We also gather some gear and accessories that we leave behind for them all: Mitts, crocs, fleece pants, fleece top, travel pillow, hand & toe warmers, leftover almonds & trail mix, fuzzy slippers, travel quick dry towel, sox and scarf. The crew sings for us and once the ceremony is over, we pack up and start our final descent.
Once again, Joshua and I are running down the final stretch to the gate. A trip that was to take 5 hours, took us 2:38 hours. It feels great to move fast, but at this point, I am filled with mixed emotions: sad that it’s over, extremely proud and happy that I did it (without the aid of oxygen and medication), happy to have returned to warmer temperatures, excited to move on to a private safari, anxious to shower and have a good night sleep in comfortable and clean bed!
Once at the bottom, I sign off at the gate to confirm that I am exiting the park and sit down at a local restaurant to enjoy a Kilimanjaro beer with my climbing partner. From there, a driver from the African Walking Company takes us back to the Ilburo lodge in Arusha, Tanzania.
Time hiked: 2:38 hours
Average HR: 109
Peak HR: 134
Min. HR: 72
Calories burned: 1051
Photos from Day 8
I will never forget the grueling ascent to the summit, the effort just to put one foot in front of the other, the bone chilling winds, the full moonlight shining on the mountain’s majestic peak, the line up of climbers with their headlamp en route for the top, the unexplainable feelings of reaching the summit, the stunning view of the glaciers at the top, the incredible sunrise at 19,341 feet above sea level, the wide fields of rocks, the sleepless nights, the amount of heavy gears the porter carry on their heads and back, the small mountains of rocks on the way symbolizing the passing of someone (usually a porter), the fabulous food, and the wonderful crew who helped me make this dream come true.
Now that my journey on Mount Kilimanjaro is over, I settle down into the beautiful and comfortable Ilboru lodge. Let me know tell you that first shower after being on the mountain for 8 days felt fantastic. After cleaning up, Joshua meets us at the lodge for a glass of wine and brings a laminated certificate of accomplishment! What a nice touch. We spend the rest of the day talking about our experience with others in the lodge (another group from Ottawa, friends from one of my classes at the gym were also on the same expedition), drinking wine and eating.
After a much needed good night sleep, I move on to a 3-day private safari where I visit 3 National Parks: Lake Manyara, Gnorongoro Crater and Taranguire. I also visit an orphanage and bring a supply of food (which I had arranged with my private safari driver). I love my time at the orphanage and glad I included this visit into my plans. This experience touches me to the bare bottom of my soul.
And voila! A new goal was achieved and what a journey this was. Though I have spared many of the details as I could probably write a book in this journey, I am happy to share this wonderful journey with you. Thank you for reading and please feel free to send me a note if this is something you are considering doing and would like more information.
What’s next? Check out my bucket list blog to find out some of my other big plans What would life be without a goal?
“Wish, Hope, Dream … than make it happen”