After returning from an epic trek up to the Roof of Africa, it’s taken some time to sort through all of the thoughts and emotions left to linger. Kilimanjaro is the tallest standalone mountain in the world and the highest point in Africa, reaching 19,341 feet. Being such a huge and solitary mass, the mountain creates it’s own weather, which can change in an instant. Kilimanjaro is composed of five ecological zones – bushland, rainforest, moorland, alpine desert and arctic – each beautifully distinct. There are several routes one can take to reach the summit, and on February 22, 2016, the Marangu route got us to Uhuru Peak by the light of the full moon, after four days and twenty-one miles spent walking.
Putting into words the experience of summiting Kilimanjaro is no easy feat, especially considering the fact that no two people would describe their own experience in the same way even if they hiked side by side the entire way up. One cannot say that climbing Kilimanjaro isn’t for the weak, because anyone with the mechanical ability to continue putting one foot in front of the other can get to the top, permitted by the body adjusting safely to altitude. Altitude sickness seemingly knows no bounds – young, old, fit or not – all that can be done in an attempt to combat falling victim is hydrate. Kilimanjaro treks are advertised as, “Anyone can do it!”, which is mostly true. It seems however, that most people go into it with the expectation that it will be relatively easy, and leave understanding that the reality is quite the opposite. Regardless, anyone up for the multi-faceted challenge that is climbing Kilimanjaro will leave also understanding that, in our physical lives, not many experiences are quite so rewarding.
The long walk that is the Marangu Route is a pretty manageable trek aside from the effects of altitude, which you’re given just enough time to acclimatize to during the four and a half days spent ascending. Manageable, that is, until leaving the basecamp, which is the last shelter you rest at prior to departing for the summit. The trek to the summit is an intensely steep, gruelingly long overnight climb, wherein the challenge you’ve taken on becomes starkly apparent just before pure survival mode takes over. Every ounce of you is focused on taking one more step and breathing, the latter getting more difficult with every meter up, no matter how monumentally slow your pace.
The guides will tell you not to think about the climb, to think about anything but what it is you’re actually doing at that moment. At first, that is a seemingly ridiculous request and is obviously rather difficult. However, indeed they are correct, because the worst thing to do during a difficult eight-hour-long climb in the dark is think about how much further you have to go. But at some point, your thoughts about the present situation transform into a meditative, even transcendental state. Given time to reflect after summiting, some trekkers report having thoughts about life in a very broad sense of the word. Some contemplate the past in all its vastness. Other thoughts are triggered by the grandness of the immediate surroundings and the realization that there really is nothing but the present – it’s just you, here, now on this geographically monumental, prehistoric mountain which possesses a power much greater than you. Here you are in Tanzania no less, which is thought to be where humankind had its humble beginnings. And of course, at times one might find themselves playing the strange, jumbled playlist of songs that exist in the library of the mind. Being that we were literally climbing into the sunrise, at one rather surreal point during our climb, I remember hearing someone up ahead whistling You Are My Sunshine.
The experience of finally reaching the summit is difficult to put into words because, how can one really describe the whirlwind of emotions mixed with disorientation caused by altitude and exhaustion? The reality is that your body is literally deciding what functions it can do without due to lack of oxygen. Much of your thoughts are dominated by your body telling you it’s time to go back down, to get to a lower altitude, but you’re conflicted and want to stay and take it in just a little longer. It isn’t really until you’re down that you get a chance to reflect on it all, and for most, actually processing the whole ordeal happens over the course of time.
All of that said, something really important to note here is that the mental and physical journey described above leaves out an aspect of climbing Kilimanjaro that arguably leaves a more permanent mark. The bonds formed with the guides and porters who you couldn’t have done it without and who you quite literally owe your life to are unforgettable. They selflessly give so much to see you succeed and push you to the top when your spirit starts to break. The group you trek with will inevitably live on in your heart more than the summit view will in your mind’s eye. This part of the experience is so unexpected but real that before you can even begin to gather your thoughts, you know what you’ve truly taken away from it all. Even after time goes by, and the memories of climbing Kilimanjaro which were once so epic and fresh become fleeting, the connections made on the way up with people you may never see again will live on.
However brutal the conditions and for reasons that are beyond us, humans and animals alike have always been drawn to mountaintops. Deceased animals have been found on the highest reaches of Kilimanjaro, for reasons unexplained. When a person becomes disoriented on a mountain, for some reason they instinctively walk up – the opposite direction from safety. Certainly, people choose to attempt Kilimanjaro for the personal challenge, but all things considered, what an odd challenge to want to take on – risking your life to get to the top of a mountain. Regardless, it was so worth it. Anyone going to Kilimanjaro for the challenge will inevitably leave feeling accomplished, enlightened and truly privileged.