There are many things in life that we dream about doing someday that never materialize, despite our best intentions and plenty of substantial effort, both directed toward those goals. When one of those dreams suddenly become attainable, it can be life-changing for those involved. Such was the case when we headed toward Tanzania, and Kilimanjaro in the summer of 2009.
Kili is the highest point in Africa, of course, and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world at around 19,400 feet above sea level. 13 girls, one brave dad, plus Mary and I set out with our guides (required on Kilimanjaro) to climb to the top of Africa during our first trip to this fascinating country. Pole’, pole’ (“slowly, slowly) was the marching order each minute of the climb, as we moved up, then down, then up, then down, etc. to acclimatize over the four days of ascent on the Machame route. The mountain changes dramatically as you move up the flanks, from dense vegetation in the lower section, to cloud-covered rocky expanses that go on for miles, and eventually, above the cloud deck, to enormous glacier sections that are slowly shrinking over the last few decades. Our lead guide suggested that we blast right through the last camp beneath the summit, at about 14,500 feet, and continue straightway up the mountain for an afternoon summit attempt a half day early. We agreed, pushed ahead, and managed to get everyone in our group to the top of Kili that afternoon. We had our share of altitude issues, plenty of tears, and a fair share of uncertainty about the outcome, but every person encouraged the others during moments of despair and the group endured. We were told that groups typically manage to get only about 75% of the party to the summit, so our feat was all the more amazing given the ages of the girls, and their lack of legitimate climbing experience. We wept together as we trudged the last few steps to the summit sign, spent a few glorious moments at the top as the sun was dropping low in the sky, then headed back down the mountain using headlamps on a very dark night. We reached the high altitude camp before 10:00 PM, then fell into our tents at the end of the most physically demanding day of our lives. It had been about a 12 hour ascent, followed soon thereafter by a four hour descent in the dark, making for a very, very long day. Ironically, the most difficult day of our collective lives became, arguably, the very best day of our lives.
I am convinced that we all managed to summit this iconic mountain not just because it was the agreed-upon plan, or because it was on our bucket list. We summited because of the strength of the relationships in the group, the firmly-held determination that we were doing this together or not at all, and the support that was offered and accepted as we willed our bodies up the steep slopes in very thin air. This is a mountain that requires true grit, and we had it in spades by the time we pushed for the summit. We had become a “family” of climbers, bonded together by facing and overcoming great difficultly. Those girls were simply unwilling to fail. As many of us have reflected back on those surreal, difficult, wonderful days on the mountain, it’s clear that this was an accomplishment that will be tough to match no matter what we manage to do in the years beyond Kilimanjaro.
In case you missed it: Beyond our borders (Part 1)