There is a lot of dispute about what the name Kilimanjaro means. Some claim it translates as “mountain which is the source of water” or “great mountain of snow.” Yet others swear it means “mountain of greatness.” While we can’t claim to settle that debate, to us Kilimanjaro represents an über-challenging, once-in-a-lifetime adventure that would lead us from the balmy tropics of Tanzania’s equatorial zone to the Arctic-like climate of Uhuru Peak over the course of eight spectacular days.
Over the past several years, we have been on a mission to tackle the world’s classic hikes, and, slowly but steadily, we have had a lot of fun ticking them off. We still have many, many miles to go, but so far we have managed to trek in some pretty incredible destinations: Colorado’s Four Pass Loop, Peru’s Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Borneo’s Mt. Kinabulu, Iceland’s Laugavegur Trail and Patagonia—the ‘W’ in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park and Argentina’s Mt. Fitz Roy.
But it wasn’t until the summer of 2011 when we stood atop Nepal’s Thorong-la Pass at 5416 metres (17,769 ft) that we finally added Kilimanjaro to our hiking bucket list. Taking in the grand views of the Annapurna Range and breathing in the thin air of that extreme altitude suddenly made the idea of tackling Africa’s highest peak seem do-able. In January of 2013, we booked our tickets and started planning our trip.
There are several routes to the top of Kilimanjaro, and the government of Tanzania requires hikers to use guides for all of them. We had a handful of friends and acquaintances who had done the hike and asked them for their recommendations for outfitters. Countless hours of Internet research ensued, and we ultimately chose to do the Lemosho route with Colorado-based Adventures Within Reach (AWR) for a variety of reasons. One of Matt’s co-worker had used them and had been extremely happy with his experience. AWR was also one of the more affordable outfitters that we found. We quickly learned that climbing Kilimanjaro would be a very pricey proposition ($2595/person for their 8-day trip!), so keeping our costs to a minimum—if you can call it that—was a priority. With such a hefty price tag, we wanted to maximize our chances of reaching the top, and the longer itinerary of the Lemosho route promised to offer the best opportunities for acclimatization and a successful summit. The AWR staff was also extremely responsive to our inquiries and eager to create a customized itinerary for the rest of our travel in Tanzania. Ultimately, this would include a 4-day training climb on Mt. Meru as well as a private two-week camping safari.
AWR sent us regular reminders about our upcoming trip (passports, gear, packing, etc.), including tips on how to train for hiking at altitude. As teachers, the school year is extremely busy for us, particularly in the spring, but we tried to squeeze in training whenever possible. Living in pancake-flat Chicago, our vertical options were limited, but we did the best we could. On weekends, we would fill our daypacks with cameras, water bottles and cold-weather gear and head to Swallow Cliffs in the southern suburbs of Palos Hills. Hiking up and down the 125 stairs next to a toboggan run over and over again wasn’t quite as scenic as what we would experience in Africa, but we hoped it would be sufficient to make the hike do-able. When we couldn’t spare the time to drive south, we would bike 5 miles north to Evanston and run up and down an old landfill-turned-sledding hill affectionately known by locals as Mt. Trashmore.
In April, our dear friend Leah decided to join us for our Kili climb. Alison met Leah almost twenty years ago in the best possible way—while traveling! They were random roommates in a small pensione on the island of Capri, and their common love of travel (and food, wine and gelato) instantly brought them together. As luck would have it, Leah relocated to Chicago soon after arriving back in the States. Dinner with Matt soon followed, and the three of us have stayed friends after all these years. An avid marathon runner, Leah loves a good challenge, and we were thrilled when she said she wanted to join us in Tanzania, though we were a little worried that she would be running circles around us on the mountain.
Climbing Kilimanjaro was everything we thought it would be and more. The journey to the summit was a trip full of superlatives for us. Those eight days on the mountain represented the most challenging hiking we had ever done, the highest elevation we had ever reached, the coldest nights we had ever camped, and the hardest we had ever pushed ourselves physically. As such, there was a lot on the line with this trip, and we feared that those pressures combined with our high expectations might manage to detract from the overall experience that we had worked so hard for.
Luckily, Kilimanjaro lived up to and even surpassed our high expectations for many reasons both big and small. Our next series of posts will be entitled “Notes from the Trail” and will include many of our journal entries from the trip, giving a detailed account of our experience to those interested in knowing more about what the journey to the rooftop of Africa is like. We hope you enjoy!