KILIMANJARO

I received a call from one of my best friends. Shortly after picking up the phone, he asked: “Do you want to go to Africa to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro?”

I had always dreamt of reaching the highest peak on every continent, or what mountaineers call the “7 summits.” This was my first opportunity to knock one off the list. 

I travelled there as a Flight Leader for a company called Rustic Pathways. My job was to keep a group of students organized and relaxed for what felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to climb the highest peak in Africa. Before I knew it, we had settled in to Arusha, Tanzania in a compound where we spent the night before heading out the next morning.

We woke up early, maybe before the sun. It felt cold and we had butterflies thinking about the six days of climbing ahead. From Arusha we piled in a bus after breakfast and had a two to three hour drive to the base of the mountain. We met our porters, cooks, snapped a few photos and we were off. 

Climbing Kilimanjaro involves hiking through four climate zones. The first day (photo above) we trekked through the rain forest on a trail that led to Mandara Hut at 9,000 ft. above sea level. We fell asleep fast and were awakened by porters handing us hot tea in our A-frame huts. 

Our second day of hiking led us to Horombo Hut. We walked through misty moorlands, sharing stories and playing memory games to pass the time as we slowly ascended to the steeper part of the mountain. We made it to camp by the middle of the afternoon. We played card games, explored the area, chatted with porters and wrote in our journals, giving thought to the days ahead. 

 Day three was an acclimatization day. We left Horombo Hut and ascended to 15,000 ft, ate some lunch and headed back down to rest for the night. This acclimatization hike increased our chances of making it to the summit - it helps people adjust to thinner air and reduces the risk of altitude sickness. Day four involved a very similar ascent, only this time we went a bit further, and settled in to Kibo Hut.

Once we arrived, at 15,580 ft. some started to feel the altitude - we had a few pukers and complaints about headaches and dizziness. I felt fine as we arrived, but a few hours in I felt dizzy, giggly and didn’t have an appetite. We sat down for dinner and I had trouble keeping my head up. I couldn’t stomach more than a few orange slices. My head was pounding and I was praying it would pass. 

The attempt to summit was a few hours ahead. An alpine start, we woke up at midnight to begin our trek. I layered just about every piece of clothing I had in my pack. Headlamps on, one foot in front of the other, we trekked up shale rock on switchbacks for hours. With high winds and low light, we struggled to see much of anything other than the stars above and our dusty boots that were lit by our headlamps. We stopped every 10-15 minutes for a sip of water, to catch our breath and build group morale. I noticed I was losing the feeling in my hands and feet as I watched a group member, Will, dry heave for a few minutes before gaining control of himself. Others had trouble getting their water bottles open. Maybe they were freezing shut, maybe the altitude was pressurizing them. Whatever it was, my current state and environment had me questioning my ability to summit for the first time. I kept pushing on, and by this point, was left with only one other climber, Jesse. Others in the group pushed forward at a stronger pace.

I kept repeating a mantra: “one foot in front of the other.” I knew if I could make it to 6am, the sun would rise to warm me up and would most likely make it to summit.

A few dogs ran from behind me up the mountain, I followed their shadows and noticed a bonfire in the distance. I was so excited. I visualized taking off my gloves and boots to warm up my hands and feet. I kept walking, shook my head, and realized they were hallucinations. I started to laugh.

Jesse needed to stop for a break, so I sat down and turned around to look at the view for the first time since the day before. The sun was now starting to rise through the clouds. I stopped and took it all in. It felt similar to sitting up on the wing of an airplane in the sky, looking down at the clouds. I started thinking about everyone that was starting their day - people headed of to the market, to school, to work, driving in traffic. I felt so removed from the everyday hustle and bustle that I always get so caught up in. I was observing the world from a rare perspective, I felt enlightened, I felt like I understood everything and was in awe of the overwhelming beauty this world has to offer. Was I delusional? Absolutely. But it felt good. 

That moment was all I needed to keep going. The new perspective helped me smile when I thought about another three hours of hiking. Jesse and I stopped plenty of times to take it all in. Reaching Gilman’s Point, we could see the summit, but I couldn’t take more than five steps before needing a break to catch my breath. 

The tiny spec I saw in the distance was the sign at the summit, I felt like I could reach out and grab it, and yet, I couldn’t take more than a few small steps before taking a deep breath. I nearly crawled the last few feet to make it to the sign. Jesse snapped this photo of me (below) as I used every ounce of energy to try and crack a smile.  

Jesse wanted to celebrate (she was clearly in better shape than I was) by taking more pictures and eating a chocolate bar. I couldn’t think of anything other than being back at Kibo Hut in my sleeping bag. We started our descent after gagging at the attempt of eating a bite sized chocolate bar. It took close to three hours to get back to Kibo Hut. After four days of hiking and a long 12 hour final ascent, I was close to passing out on the mountain.

I noticed someone coming up the mountain, smiling and waving at us, as he got closer, I recognized it was one of our porters, Benson. He ran up to me and gave me a big hug and lifted up one of my arms to congratulate me for making it to the summit. We smiled at each other and held hands as we continued down the mountain. The photo below is of Benson and I on the second day.  

Now that we had made it back to Kibo Hut, we had another day and a half before we were off the mountain. This is when I started getting to know Benson and the other porters. The photo below is an entry I wrote in my journal shortly after I learned the low wages they earn for their profession.

The next day, we said goodbye to our porters and jumped in a bus and drove back to Arusha. We only had a day until we had to fly back. We spent it walking through town, purchasing little gifts for friends and family and spent part of the day playing soccer and frisbee in a park with some locals. 

Arriving home, I still couldn’t get a grip on the contrasts between how people live there, and how people live here. I felt an overwhelming need to help. But how? What do they want? What do they value? I was still in college at the time, studying design, architecture and urban planning. I figured putting those skills to work by helping them build sustainable homes would be a great solution, but after a lot of research, I learned that education is something they strongly value, but struggle with. I think the reason they value it so much, is because they understand it’s potential. They understand it’s a pillar for sustained economic growth. Now that I knew some of the overwhelming problems, I took my time to analyze what skills and resources I could use to help build a sustainable model here in order to make an impact there.

Carry an Education,

Matt