Travel » Special Events

On Top of the World: Climbing Kilimanjaro

by Jill Gleeson
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Saturday Dec 23, 2017

I'm not sure I've ever been so uncomfortable in my life. Freezing, filthy, sick, wet, hurt, exhausted. On Kilimanjaro, I experienced it all, often at the same time.

One of the Seven Summits, as the highest peaks on each continent are collectively known, Kili rises 19,341 feet above Africa. In July, a few days after my 51st birthday, I set my boots at its bottom, part of a group of 15 people who would attempt to climb this mysterious beast over the course of six days. All but me were British -- Explore, the renowned, nearly four-decade-old adventure tour company I was traveling with is U.K.-based -- and all but three of us were female.

If I was surprised at the ratio of men to women on the climb, I shouldn't have been. Women are taking "hard" adventure trips like never before, choosing rugged journeys that test grit and gumption over passive, glamping-type girlfriend getaways.

Companies like Explore, purveyors of trips that often require training, willpower and skill, have seen double-digit increases in female travelers. In late 2016, the Adventure Travel Trade Association released a report noting that more women than men now take adventure vacations by a six percent margin, "particularly in Africa, where 57 percent of customers are female."

Solo female adventure travel is also on the rise and a trend for 2018; on Kilimanjaro, I was one of two women traveling alone. The other woman was my age and, like me, newly single and seeking to challenge herself physically, mentally and emotionally. I think we both wanted to prove we were tough enough to withstand all the pain Kili could throw at us. If we could triumph over the mountain, we could triumph over our busted hearts.

The first day was deceptively easy -- a four-hour hike through a shady forest, with 2,280 feet of elevation gain. We even had squat toilets at camp, and I remember thinking that perhaps all this wouldn't be quite as difficult as I'd predicted. It was wishful thinking.

The next morning a few of the younger women were vomiting from altitude sickness after only walking a few miles. I was nauseous as well, and dizzy, and as we climbed sharply higher under the brutally bright Africa sun, I realized that it wouldn't be the physical training I'd done in preparation for this trip that would get me to Kilimanjaro's summit. It would be my resolve.

By the end of the day we'd trekked more than five miles and ascended another 2,362 feet. At 11,482 feet high, Shira One Camp afforded us a gorgeous view of Kili's Kibo Peak. As the moon rose, our 45 porters and guides gathered in a circle and began serenading the mountain in Swahili, pulling us in amongst them to dance and clap. It was one of the most magical moments of the trip for me. I'd acclimated to the altitude and was no longer ill. It was windy but warm - the last warm night on the mountain we'd experience.

The higher we got, the further the mercury plunged. On the fourth day, after we spent the morning hiking to Lava Tower, at 15,233 feet, it rained the entire afternoon, hard enough to wrinkle my fingertips.

Nothing beat the challenge of summit day. We were climbing by midnight, the air so cold it penetrated every layer I was wearing, frosting my hair white where it escaped from my hood. As we slowly ascended the switchback trail, only our headlamps lighting the way through the velvet dark, the pressure from the rising altitude increased. Every movement took an enormous effort. But we couldn't rest for more than a few minutes every hour. It was too seductive, this release from struggle. It reminded us how good it would feel to simply stop.

When the sun rose and I could see how high we were, it was terrifying -- less terrifying, though, than seeing how far we still had to go. It took me eight endless hours to reach the summit. Eight hours of forcing my body up more than 4,000 feet, mostly by determination alone.

When I finally made it, my guide snapped a picture of me in front of the famous Uhuru Peak sign and then we turned around, starting immediately back down the mountain. Descending Kilimanjaro proved even more difficult than climbing up it. By the time I got back to camp, I was in agony; my toenails bruised black from slamming into the front of my boots.

That week I spent on Kilimanjaro was the most grueling of my life. It was also the most rewarding. Nothing I've accomplished thus far compares to summiting that mountain. It taught me that I'm far tougher than I realize and much stronger than I know. That recognition is worth all the discomfort in the world.

Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.


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