How do you sum up the profound experience that was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro? In reality, it will take a whole book to do so, and that’s a book I’m diligently writing.
In short, I feel like I was walking the razor’s edge between the world of the natural and the supernatural. Of course there’s the majestic beauty of this giant mountain, but I was surprised to find how much of this journey was inward.
Our team arrived in Moshi, Tanzania, the evening of March 18th. So everything was dark when we checked into our hotel. The next morning, after breakfast, I asked the staff if I could get to the roof of the hotel. They informed me there was access, so I climbed the stairs to what would be about four stories in height. As I came around the final turn, I looked out and saw Kilimanjaro filling the horizon. She’s huge. I mean, I knew that, but to see her take up the entire landscape is something different.
I felt the way one feels when they realize they’re in the same room as their favorite celebrity. My stomach did flips, I’m pretty sure I let out a giggle, and my body shrugged with giddy excitement. There it is! It’s Kili! That’s where I’m going tomorrow!
And so it began. Or rather, concluded. The journey began back in August of 2016 (though the seeds were planted years earlier). The next day we drove four hours to start the climb on the Lemosho Route–an eight-day trek that would take us about 42 miles through forest, above the tree line, through desert, up to the arctic summit, and back down.
Everywhere I turned my head it was like a postcard. As I gained elevation, the vistas opened up showing Africa for as far as the eye could see. Rolling hills, great plains, and lush green landscapes of farmland lay in the distance. But I didn’t spend much time gazing outward, My head was mostly turned upward. For the first two days, I couldn’t even see the summit because the route we took had us coming up the long way, the real summit was blocked by the foothills, plus there was cloud cover. But after passing through 10,000 feet in elevation, often the cloud cover was below us.
Though we had a team of climbers and a huge support staff between porters and guides, hiking is a solitary act. No one can step for you. I need to put one foot in front of the other, which is easy to do early in the journey, but becomes more difficult over time and elevation. At night I’m sleeping in below-freezing temperatures as is evident by the layer of frost on the tent and ground when I wake up. I’m not the biggest fan of camping, but that colossus above me is the reason I’m willing to do it.
Each day she gets closer, looms larger. Though I slip in a few places, and I hurt my quad muscle at one point, I keep going, because there’s no other choice. As we push our way past 15,000 feet in elevation, I feel the strain to breathe. It’s not so bad if I stand still or move very slowly, but any sort of exertion and I’m huffing and puffing like I just ran a sprint. Want to know what it’s like? Go grab a drinking straw, put it between your lips, and go jogging. You want more air don’t you? So did I.
I passed multiple plaques commemorating people who died on the mountain. One death was caused by a lightning strike. As greyish clouds whip around us, I can’t help but wonder what I would do if an electrical storm formed out of nowhere. I’m the tallest thing around here right now, and I’ve got plenty of metal on me between my pack, carabiners, hiking poles, and cameras. If lightning starts zapping about, all I can do is drop my pack and try and hide behind a rock. Fortunately, the grey clouds that drift by us like ghosts don’t seem angry with our presence. They just pass through.
Still, the mountain is getting closer. She’s towering over me now, her glaciers and ice remind me that the environment up there is hostile. Saturday, March 25th is a big day. We’re hiking about five hours to base camp where we’ll eat something, and rest at 15,300 feet. By 11PM that night we’ll need to wake up, eat some food, and start for the summit by midnight.
We’d already lost two people in our group to the altitude, they were forced to turn back two camps ago, but those who are left gear up and strap on headlamps. If you’ve ever been on a ghost investigation with me, you know headlamps hold a special place in my heart… I’m sure for coal miners they’re quite useful, but for the rest of the world, they’re a danger. Turn to look at someone and BOOM! It will take their eyes three minutes to adjust to the low light (and eyesight is necessary when trying to decide your next step up a mountain). So I place my headlamp around my neck and let it light up my feet.
I can only see about a three-foot radius around, plus the glow from other headlamps around me light a centipede-like trail heading up. One step, then the other. It’s a snail’s pace, but critical if I’m going to have enough energy to get to the top. As the hours melt away, and we gain elevation, a chill sets in. 3 AM is the darkest and coldest part of the night. There is no mountain anymore. Just me, my breaths, and steps. I can’t see anything beyond that.
By roughly 17,500 feet, I’m struggling. Each breath hurts, my head hurts, and all of my muscles are sore. The thought of quitting crosses my mind, but I worry what I’d tell my family, friends, and you guys. Silly, I know, but that’s what was going through my head at that moment.
During this time I was broken down to the most basic part of myself. Breathe, step, climb. That’s it. At this point the climb becomes a spiritual experience because my body is already doing all it can, something else has to take over if I’m going to make the summit. Step, step, step.
Around 5:00 AM, this magical thing happened. The sky behind me started to glow purple, then deep maroon, eventually shades of yellow formed. There’s this cloudbank all around–it’s a view I’d only seen from an airplane window before this, but I’m above all of it as the sun breaks the horizon. There’s hope. The blackness all around me is turning to grey. I can see more than a few feet now, and the summit doesn’t seem so far off. I’m nearing the edge of the volcanic crater.
By Stella Point, we’re about half a mile and 500 vertical feet away from the actual summit. With the sun out, the temperature warmed and I feel renewed. Still dizzy, still hurting, but the goal is within reach. My poles are dragging behind me, I almost miss these impressive glaciers that rest a hundred yards to my left, because I must… keep… going.
When the summit sign comes into view, I know I’ll make it. Even if I have to crawl, I’ll get there. The rush of endorphins floods me and the last few steps aren’t quite so bad.
I’m laughing and crying at the same time when I touch the summit sign. 19,341 feet. Months of training and preparation. All for this fleeting moment. In a sense, the climb is still sinking in. It’s like I sketched a painting and the colors are still soaking in. I tapped into something deep, internal, and powerful on Mt. Kilimanjaro. It’s something I don’t think I could have found if not for pushing myself past the breaking point. That far removed from my comfort zone, I got a glimpse of the person inside of me. I connected with the world around me. Even if just for a few minutes. I won’t forget it.
Thank you all for your support, your prayers, your donations to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and for your well wishes. With your help, I was able to bring in over $17,000 in donations for LLS.
I’ll be writing much more in-depth about this experience in a memoir. As soon as it’s ready, you’ll be among the first to know. Whatever your mountain is, friends, I hope you find it and climb it! If I can do Kilimanjaro, I assure you that you can handle the challenges you face. Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.
June 23, 2020 Update: My book, The Call of Kilimanjaro: Finding Hope Above the Clouds, is now available for pre-order!