The author and her sister, Caroline, show proof they reached Mt Kilimanjaro’s highest point (19,341), the only women in their 11-person group to do so.
Story and photos by MaryAnn Gerst
Mt Kilimanjaro – An Exceptional Mountain
Kilimanjaro, with its three volcanic cones, is a dormant volcanic mountain in Kilimanjaro National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Tanzania. It is the highest mountain in Africa, and the highest free-standing mountain in the world at 5,895 metres or 19,341 feet above sea level. The period from 1912 to the present witnessed the disappearance of more than 80% of ice cover on Kilimanjaro. Of the ice cover still present in 2000, 26% had disappeared by 2007. Kilimanjaro contains an example of virtually every ecosystem on earth – glacier, snowfields, deserts, alpine moorland, savannah, and tropical jungle, all found on the mountain.
It was in 2010 while climbing Pikes Peak in Colorado with my friend, Robin, that I got the bug to hike to the peak of Mt Kilimanjaro. Robin and I had originally planned to do this trip as well, but unfortunately she couldn’t go. I didn’t have anyone I thought would undertake this endeavor, except for my youngest sister, Caroline, 17 years my junior. She is an avid bicyclist, in great shape and if anyone could do this trek, she could. Caroline visited me in Albuquerque, New Mexico to help me celebrate my 68th birthday in October 2012 and after two birthday drinks, I had her convinced to do this trip with me.
With Kilimanjaro as the backdrop, this is our last campsite at 15,300 ft, before the final summit day.
Our family members gave us the green light so we planned it all out, made reservations, including a post-hike safari, and everything seemed perfect. Then I got the news in mid-December that Tom, my husband, had esophageal cancer with a bleak prognosis. Two months later he died, and I was left broken hearted after 41 years married to the finest man I know. Tom was a lifelong athlete himself. Bicycling was his true love, but mountain hiking was a close second, so I knew he would want me to move forward with this trip.
Hoping the training would keep me focused as I dealt with my grief, I continued to train, hiking 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado and the Sandia Mountains in my own backyard, testing the medicine (Diamox) designed to prevent high altitude sickness, all in order to prepare for this challenging journey. I decided to sprinkle some of Tom’s ashes atop Kilimanjaro. I was a woman on a mission and Tom was going with me! I got vaccinations, bought travel insurance, and necessary clothing and equipment for the drastic weather changes on Kilimanjaro. I was ready to go!
Author with guides on an early misty morning.
Planning and Training Done — the Adventure Begins
On August 1, 2013, I had a 37-hour flight into Tanzania before meeting Caroline at our hotel in Moshi, the nearest town to Kilimanjaro. Tour operator, Ultimate Kilimanjaro, made all the arrangements and they were seamless. Following a three-hour bus ride, we arrived at the Londorossi Gate to take the eight-day Lemosho Route up Mt Kilimanjaro.
Friends for life! Our group of 11 hikers.
Our group consisted of eleven hikers, three guides, two cooks/servers and 33 porters. We lucked out with our fellow hikers, an amazing group of people! One couple was from Singapore, two couples from the northeastern United States and three young guys all from the US, one being from Albuquerque. We ranged in age from late twenties to me as the oldest. Most were in their fifties. Several times a day our lead guide, Theo the Rhino, would join me on one of our breaks, grab my arm and ask “You OK, Mama?”
The first two days of hiking and camping were in rainforest, as well as the last night after a grueling 10,000-foot descent from the summit.
We spent our first two days traversing a misty rainforest inhabited by exotic birds and elusive monkeys. Elevation gain on these two days was a total of 3,000 feet on a fairly easy-to-hike dirt/mud trail. I felt invigorated!
Respect for our porters grew day by day, as they traveled three times faster than us, carrying 75 pounds on their backs/heads, which included 33 pounds of each hiker’s gear. Their goal was to set up camp with portable toilets, two-man tents and food cooked and ready in our dining tent when we reached camp in late afternoon. Each day, all we carried were our daypacks with water, rain gear and other incidentals, weighing 15 to 18 pounds.
The meals served each day in our eating tent, which consisted of a large table and 11 chairs, didn’t excite me too much. But I am a picky eater. The staff always asked us the night before how we wanted our breakfast eggs cooked — fried, scrambled or an omelet — but they always looked the same, regardless of what we ordered! Every evening they brought in a huge covered pot filled with a vegetable stew or soup. We always anticipated what would be under the lid. Sometimes we didn’t know what it was, but as the days went on, I ate more and more things I just couldn’t identify. Everyone else seemed to enjoy the food, the guys eating several servings. I knew I had to eat, so I packed over 10 pounds of energy bars, jerky, and candy in my duffle bag. However, I did lose four pounds on this trip!
Day 4 took the group through high desert terrain.
Day 6, we wait for a meal while enjoying a fabulous view.
Days 3 to 6 took us through high desert and rocky cliffs where temperatures dropped towards freezing and altitude fluctuated between 12,000 and 15,000 feet. The main goal of the eight-day hike was to slowly get us acclimated to higher elevations, avoiding the dreaded high altitude sickness which has forced many hikers to descend before achieving their goal. I thought day 5 was going to be an easy hike as the altitude gain that day was only 61 feet, per the guidebook that became our bible. Turns out, that didn’t account for the 2,300-foot pass we needed to climb over and back down!
We purposely chose the dry season to do this hike, never experiencing rain. Mornings were overcast but days were sunny in the afternoons and early evenings. Each night, our tent was filled with daypacks, poles, hiking boots, duffel bags, sleeping bags and mats. Luckily I brought my own self-inflating air mattress and when I added that to the foam mat that was provided I was quite comfortable sleeping on the ground. We decide to rent our sleeping bags and mats from our tour operator to cut down on equipment we had to pack. I brought my own sleeping bag liner, that added 20 degrees of warmth, worth every penny I paid for it.
Kilimanjaro campsites service multiple trekking groups.
Summit Day — The Ultimate Challenge
Summit day started at midnight on day 7, after three hours of sleep at Barafu Camp, elevation 15,300 feet. I dressed in six layers of clothing before sleeping and felt muddled after the wakeup call and hasty breakfast. The last 4,000 feet of ascent began. “Pole-Pole” (slow-slow) was our chant as we proceeded up the mountain. All I could see was an uninterrupted procession of headlamps snaking to the summit. On this crystal-clear night, the stars seemed three times larger than normal; it was hard to tell where the headlamps ended and the stars began. They intermingled, as if following a trail of lights to heaven.
At 8:30 a.m. we summited Stella Point (elevation 18,800 feet) the first summit point. Seven members of our team felt well enough to continue to Uhuru Peak (19,341 feet above sea level). Four started down with a guide, making Caroline and me the only women in our group to reach the ultimate summit. Thanks to my high altitude medicine, we felt no ill effects from headaches, nausea or delusions, as did many in our group. Caroline and I took a few minutes to scatter some of Tom’s ashes at the top of Africa, took pictures and proceeded with the torturous 10,000-foot descent.
We arrived, exhausted, at Camp Mweka at 6:30 p.m. after hiking nonstop for over 18 hours. However, we were so elated to achieve our goal, nothing else mattered. I didn’t eat dinner that night. I just crashed in our tent, physically drained but emotionally on the biggest high of my life. The next morning we set out on our last 5,000 feet down through the rainforest, and arrived back at our hotel by noon.
Our group’s 33 porters each carried 75 pounds of gear on their backs and heads.
I was inspired by the happy, can-do spirit of the Tanzanian people. “Hakuna Matata” (Swahili for “no problems, no worries”) was their response to any concern. One team member’s boots fell apart on day 2 of our journey, and our guide found a porter who hand sewed the soles back on the boots. I lost three toenails due to the intense trek downhill … Hakuna Matata! My journey seemed complete when the youngest member of our group, age 29, told me I was his new definition of “Bad Ass.”
Follow Up Facts
The tour company we used was Ultimate Kilimanjaro, www.ultimatekilimanjaro.com, based out of Chicago, Illinois. Their website contains complete information about the different routes they offer to hike Kilimanjaro, training needed, prices, equipment lists, etc. We chose this outfit, as they were mid-range in price and had wonderful reviews. They responded to my many questions quickly and effectively. We also used Ultimate Kilimanjaro for our five-day post-hike wildlife and cultural safari … another memorable experience.
Tanzania Tourist Board, www.tanzaniatouristboard.com, advises that a visitor visa is required to enter the country. For a single entry, three-month visa, the fee is US$50.
In our Travel Article Library collection, you will also find another inspiring story by MaryAnn Gerst about her training and hike to the summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado.
Based in New Mexico, MaryAnn Gerst is a retired Public Relations professional. During her 30-year career in the utility industry, she wrote numerous customer, energy-savings programs and employee training manuals. MaryAnn is a member of the Albuquerque MeetUp Hiking Group in NM and enjoys hiking several times each month with her hiking companions. For her next challenge, she is looking at hiking Machu Picchu. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.