Ever thought about trekking Mt. Kilimanjaro but not sure what to expect? Last year, Kris Keys, our loveable, long-time guide and alumni ambassador, along with a great group of explorers, ventured up the bucket-list-worthy mountain. Kris shares her perspective on what she expected before the trip and what the actual reality of trekking up Mt. Kilimanjaro is.
19,341 Feet. That is a statistic I can spout easily when asked, “How high is Mt. Kilimanjaro?” Because I was up there, the highest point on the African continent, breathing in that thin air this past summer. And what is most surprising to me is that I absolutely loved it! Surprised because, despite working in the travel industry, I strangely do not have a bucket list, thus summiting Kilimanjaro was not on it. However, when the opportunity to be a trip leader for a very special group of people, I went gladly. And now this feat sits toward the top of my list of One Of The Most Amazing Things I Have Ever Done. And from my vantage point of having done it, I can reflect on what I thought before I went, and what I now know about the whole experience.
It’s way more beautiful. Of course, I did my research ahead of time, which included watching films about Kili treks, reading personal accounts, looking at photos, and reading lots and lots of practical information. I knew I was going to be traveling through a variety of landscapes, from rainforest to cloud forest, and from desert to glacier. But nothing prepared me for how truly gorgeous the landscape – and the variety of it all – is during the trek.
I was not expecting it to be so stunning, to have so many OMG moments, every day. I took hundreds of photos, but tragically lost them all in a computer crash as soon as I got home (most of the photos used in this post were given to us by our awesome alumni). I rely on quickly fading mental snapshots to bring me back to the beauty: seeing the sun set through my tent door…watching the moon set and the sun rise as we headed toward the summit…looking down into the vast crater on top of the mountain…dancing and clapping with porters as they exuberantly sang and danced each day in camp.
Incredible people. I have traveled other places where locals supported our Zephyr trekking group, but none were as special as the people supporting us on this mountain. Our small group of 14 trekkers was assisted by 75 (yes, you read that right – we were practically our own army) local staff who carried our gear, cooked for us, sang for us, set up our tents, tucked us in, woke us up, and sometimes even carried us! (Full disclosure: and one special guy named Richard who did the proverbial job of holding my hair back while I ceremoniously lost my breakfast at Stella Point due to the altitude.)
What will stick with me forever are the beatific smiles on the wonderful faces that surrounded us at camp and on the trails, and the infectious joy they carried with them, despite the harsh conditions and the gravity they must have felt doing their job of caring for us and keeping us safe.
The food! Doing a trek like this requires more calories than usual. Yet, ironically, one of the effects of altitude is a loss of appetite, which is counterproductive. But one needs to keep one’s strength up – not only for the extra physical exertion of hiking each day but the added calories required to keep warm at night and function with less oxygen! Except for the porridge (which I just couldn’t eat), the camp food was nothing short of amazing, in my opinion. Fresh fruit and vegetables, pancakes, peanut butter, eggs and bacon, rice, spaghetti – even fried chicken! Three hot meals a day! I honestly don’t know how they kept such a bounty of provisions for us. I never even dug into the snack bag full of treats I brought from home.
Simultaneously easier and harder than I anticipated. My friend Kit (who also was on this trip) and I trained very well by skiing uphill at our local ski area a couple times a week for the months preceding our trip. And during the first days of our trek, our efforts appeared to have paid off, as the hiking didn’t seem that difficult. Our speed was governed by our brilliant guides who constantly reminded us in Swahili to go slowly (pole, pole). The relative ease of this part of the trip was a testament to how well our group was managed by our local guide staff. This was not their first rodeo and they knew exactly what our group needed to do to ensure we all made it to the top (which we did!).
And then came Summit Day, the day we went from around 15,000 feet, all the way up to 19,341 feet and back down. Things started out great. In fact, I remember thinking, “What’s the big deal? This isn’t that hard!” And then I hit the magic elevation, where my legs turned to lead, my head started pounding, I could not catch my breath, and my stomach began doing flip-flops. It was literally one foot in front of the other for a couple hours. Finally, I reached Stella Point, which is the edge of Kilimanjaro’s crater, but not the top point of the crater.
And while in a state of extreme mental fog, that is where the above-mentioned hair-holding occurred. I felt immediately better, and it seemed like I practically skipped up to the very top – I remember it as taking about 15 minutes, but it actually took an hour. After celebrating at the top, we then had a brutal descent. Instead of switchbacking (as we did on the ascent), the trail goes almost straight down to camp, often on loose rock, and we were in a hurry to return to a place we could breathe. The next day we descended even further – it felt harder at times to go down, down, down and more down, but the oxygen, cheeseburgers, and beer at the bottom that awaited us were pretty compelling by that point.
All that said, the difficulty level is not a dealbreaker – I would go back. In. A. Heartbeat. In fact, I’d encourage anyone with a dream of doing Kilimanjaro (or, with Kilimanjaro on their bucket list, as the case may be) who has the resources and the time to put in a bit of training…to prioritize adventure and go for it. It will be one of the most remarkable things you do in your lifetime. I’d bet on it.