As I rounded the rocky, snowy, slippery corner of the trail, I saw to my left a vast glacier—comparable to a felled New York City skyscraper—boasting the most beautiful shade of blue beneath frosted whiteness. I was in awe.
30 feet ahead, I saw the sign. “Congratulations, you are now at Uhuru Peak- Africa’s highest point on the world’s highest free standing mountain.” I literally dropped to my knees, bawling. I had summited Mt. Kilimanjaro. And to think that just 4 hours earlier I convinced myself to quit…
Have you ever stunned yourself beyond explanation by achieving something you thought would be impossible for you to do? Well—I definitely did.
My freshman year at UGA, I had the awesome opportunity to study abroad in Tanzania for a Maymester and then finish the trip by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro- which I thought was going to be a walk in the park… until I made it to Day Five of my climb.
To fully understand the trek, I’ve got to break it down for you. It’s a 6-day climb through the “Marangu” route, AKA the “Coca-Cola Route” (it’s known to be the easiest), and every day brings a different climate. Yes, that’s right. Literally, you pass through a different climate each day because of the increase in altitude. So I’ll give you the short run-down of the days leading up to the worst/best day of my life.
Starting at 1,970 meters above sea level (6,463 feet) – walking through the rainforest to Mandara Hut- estimated to be a three hour hike – Colobus monkeys hanging out, huge trees and little streams, literally a jungle
Starts at 2,700 meters above sea level (8,858 feet) – getting into the Moorland climate zone (between a rainforest and a desert with lots of small shrubs and plants but no trees) – heading to Horombo Hut- estimated five hours- walked through straight clouds for over an hour, only able to see about 50 feet ahead the whole time because of the dense clouds
Acclimatization day – staying at Horombo Hut but going on a short hike a little higher to get used to being at such a high altitude. Here, we get a view of what awaits us across the desert- the peak of Kilimanjaro. Now at 3,720 meters above sea level (12,205 feet).
Beginning the hike to the base of the summit- to Kibo hut. Estimated five hour hike to get to the base camp at 4,703 meters above sea level (15,430 feet).
This walk was so surreal. It was straight through alpine desert and it felt like it took forever because we could see our endpoint basically the entire time.
At Kibo, the wind is so strong that when you’re trying to sleep in the broad daylight (you have to go to sleep when you get to base camp- in the afternoon- because you start hiking to the summit at 12 a.m.), it sounds like movie wind sound effects whistling and whirling beyond the thin glass separating you from the outside. The building was even making creaking noises!
And now for infamous day 5. (Warning: I’m going to go into a lot of detail on this one). Our wake-up call came at 11 p.m. on day 4, and I was pumped. I was so ready to take on this night climb that it wasn’t even funny. I felt great, my spirits were high, and I was so excited to get to the top!
It was about five hours to the first peak, Gillman’s, at about 5,685 meters above sea level (18,652 feet). About an hour in, I started feeling really weird. It’s recommended that you take prescription altitude sickness medicine, which I dumbly didn’t consult my doctor about before embarking on my journey because I thought I would be fine…
And I felt great the entire time up until then, so I thought it would pass. I popped a few Ibuprofen and kept pushing. This part of the mostly straight-up trail was all through volcanic ash, which is so slippery that the path had to zig-zag to make it easier to navigate.
This resulted in dragging a trail that could be leaps and bounds shorter into a long, winding, dizzying path where one little slip could cost you half an hour of making up lost trail.
The Ibuprofen I had so much faith in seemed to fail me, and around 2 a.m., I started puking. But still, I walked on. Puke, breathe, trudge. Puke, breathe, trudge. I threw up so many times that I lost count.
When I finally felt a little too faint to stand up straight, I lost my footing and face-planted into the rocky volcanic dust, back-sliding about 5 feet and briefly passing out.
I wanted to go back to Kibo. I was dizzy, confused, and really feeling terrible. And they told us a million times that if we got sick we needed to turn around. So, I quit.
Mickey grabbed me off the ground by my jacket and stood me upright, taking my backpack as his own burden to bear, and got in my face. He told me I was GOING to the top. I didn’t have a choice. And I didn’t have a voice at that moment to object his demand, so when he spun me and pushed me up the path, I didn’t protest. I just blacked out.
Seriously, I do not remember the next few hours of the hike. I remember snippets of praying that God would send me all my guardian angels to carry me up the mountain because I didn’t have any more strength. Apparently I was singing a line from an old hymn I heard in my childhood church that went, “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching into war,” or something like that.
That’s when I realized we were coming to a place where we were actually partly walking, partly climbing the terrain littered with boulders and small patches of snow. And I did a lot of that on all fours. Looking back I probably looked like a crazy nut ball rolling around singing hymns and looking like a walking zombie. But nonetheless, I kept climbing, and it was getting lighter as we went higher. We were close to the top.
I made a deal with myself. I would make it to Gilman’s Peak because that’s only an hour and a half from the main peak, Uhuru. So it’s basically the top, right? I would also still get a certificate congratulating me for summiting Kilimanjaro if I made it there. I could do this.
I fulfilled my goal, and it was going to be so easy to turn around and go back to Kibo where I could sleep off the hell I just went through for the last few hours.
Looking around and realizing how far I had come and knowing that I was so close to quitting just hours before, I couldn’t let myself stop. Not now. Not when I was only an hour and a half from summiting the tallest peak in Africa! So I mustered the little strength that I had left and kept going.
I looked at my feet for most of the trek that changed from volcanic ash and boulders to ice and snow and glaciers. When I looked up, I saw people dusted with ice.
How was it this cold in Africa? I was on the edge of the crater (Kili is a volcano), and if I leaned out far enough to the right, the cliff dropped off onto jagged rocks poking up through fluffy beds of snow.
Mickey walked over to make sure I wasn’t puking again, and I looked up at him and thanked him in the best words I could muster through my emotional breaths in the zero-oxygen atmosphere that we were in. (I must mention that we could only stay at Uhuru for 10 minutes because the oxygen level at 19,222 feet- 3.6 miles- above sea level is so low that weird things would happen to you if you stayed longer).
If it weren’t for Mickey, I wouldn’t have made it to the top. He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. And looking out at the sun rising over the cloud level, in Africa, on top of this gigantic snow-topped volcano after a dawn of walking to hell and back… that was the most amazing high I could have ever asked for.
Of course, we had to keep walking that day, all the way back down to Horombo for the night, and then day 6 from Horombo down to the gate of the park, ending the trip.
And it was the hardest day of my life, that stupidly wonderful day 5. I battled my inner voice telling me I could quit and feel so much better. I could be comfortable if I just turned around- if I allowed myself to settle for the easy way out. My heart breaks every time I think about what would have happened if Mickey let me quit. I would have missed out on the most amazing spiritual journey I’ve ever had!
I find it funny and honestly quite amazing that I’m at another one of those crossroads in my life.
I can choose the easy route and take my first job offer fresh out of college that might be a cool opportunity but not quite right for me, or I can push myself a few grueling, extra miles and hold out for a job that floors me, one that I’m excited to wake up for every single day—but would take a lot of hard work and patience to get.
I’m still not quite sure what exactly that job is, but I know God’s leading me to it if I just trust Him and have patience, because He believes in me much more than I believe in myself, and that’s hard. But I guess Kili taught me that sometimes the hardest roads have the most beautiful endings. It’s cliché, yeah, I know, but I lived it!
If you just keep trudging up that steep, slippery hill, maybe you’ll get lucky enough to have someone believe in you more than you believe in yourself and push you to the peak of the mountain that you never thought you had the strength to climb on your own. Believe in yourself, even when you think you can’t do it.
Trust someone when they tell you that you can do something. You’re going to fall, you’re going to throw up, and you’re probably going to cry. But push through it. The rewards are beyond measure. Happy climbing y’all.