by Betty Ann Boeving
Why climb Mt. Kilimanjaro?
In my hiking boots, stepping towards 19,340 feet, my goal is to reach an elevation of where small planes fly, and I quickly recognize that with each increasingly labored breath, I am not in a pressurized cabin with drinks and peanuts to be served once I reach my desired altitude.
Answering this question of “why” is akin to attempting to explain gravity to a 3-year old child.
Similar bafflement arises around why people jump out of a perfectly good plane to skydive, or why bungee jumping is a top form of tourist dollars in countries spanning the globe from Zambia to New Zealand.
Simply put, when I set my sights on Kilimanjaro, it was not enough for me to experience the mountain through the words of Hemmingway. I believe there is a story of the soul to be born from each new pursuit on this mountain.
I now have mine. That is why I gladly offer to add my own words of fresh perspective.
Attempting to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, one of the highest seven peaks in the world, is not a decision that is arrived at overnight.
I can distinctly remember being awed by the mountains since childhood, as I sat with my grandma in her dining room that had wall-to-wall windows looking out at the stunning summit of Job’s Peak along the Sierra Nevada Range.
Ever since I can remember, I have lived a life that has gingerly traversed the fine line between recklessness and risk.
The first lifestyle choice has led me into some pretty precarious and intense “mountain top” experiences, while the second character trait has helped me determine how I am going to live to tell about them.
To better understand “why Kili?” and to gain true insight into the inner-workings of any thrill-seeking mountain climber is to not take them too seriously for their explanations offered once they are back down at sea level.
Rather, to gain a personal perspective on what you can learn, experience and celebrate from their adventure, is to take time to read and listen closely to their words written while on the trail, above the clouds, and in full view of the desired summit peak before them.
It is from this perspective, written while minimal oxygen is gasped but the fullness of life is gulped down, that one climber’s experience can inspire others to tackle “Kilimanjaros” in their own lives right here at home.
We all have those seemingly insurmountable goals and dreams that stand as mountains before us in life. Mine just happened to be the mountain of Kilimanjaro itself.
Could I really reach the summit?Could I face my fear of potential failure?
I write of my trepidations, doubts, and steady eagerness that climbed the mountain with me, as I stepped closer and closer to the summit of Kilimanjaro where the previously impossible became possible for me and my team.
July 7: Summit Day
My statement holds true that “as the mountain gets closer, it gets higher,” and there is visible apprehension among our team as we wonder just how our bodies and minds will respond to the challenge before us today.
We have left all unnecessary equipment back at the final rest hut, called Kibo Hut, at 15,520 feet.
My “must-haves” of peanut butter, power bars and Crystal Light ice tea packets are all left behind for this final ascent since the chilling temperatures at the top will freeze any liquid or food bar that is carried even deep within our daypacks.
To drink, there is Goo packs; to eat, there is Goo packs. Period. (For those unfamiliar with Goo, this is a semi-liquid food that does not freeze at high altitude and comes in a multitude of flavors to provide essential carbohydrates during extremely long periods of exercise. For a more flattering perspective on this quasi-food, please ask someone else, since right now the memory is too fresh of having it slide down my throat like jelly swallowed straight by the spoonful.)
I try to rationalize what we are accomplishing today … reaching 19,340 feet, hiking for 17.5 hours in a 24-hour period, awaking before midnight for the feat at-hand.
For survival, I am clothed in more than $400 worth of seven layers of dry-fit and Goretex on my top, and I sport 4 pairs of long underwear and waterproof pants on my bottom half.
Two pairs of socks, glove liners, and ski gloves cover my extremities. A well-insulated ski cap is pulled down over my head and it covers my new hair-do of 126 African mini-braids woven onto my scalp.
No matter what number or calculation I try and put forward, there are almost no words I can find to describe our effort today…this climb is definitely INTENSE … if not insane.
Today begins with tonight, meaning that we actually went to sleep last night at 6 p.m., to be awakened at midnight for our climb as we usher in the 7th of July.
We are to hike in the pre-dawn hours with the goal of reaching approximately 18,000 feet by 8 a.m.
This will allow for us to rest and then make our final ascent to 19,340 feet by about 10 a.m.
This tactic of beginning the day so early is to make sure we can reach such an altitude and still be able to descend down the mountain to our resting point of Horombo hut (at 12,460 feet) by nightfall. We will need every minute of daylight we can get today.
We begin the night’s climb with headlamps illuminating the path in front of us. As we look up the side of the mountain at the line of hikers ahead of us, all we can see is headlamps galore whose lights seem to blend into the nighttime sky behind, creating a unique constellation shining low in the night sky.
The light of these lamps beckon us onward, illuminating the summit ahead – the end goal of Gillman’s Point and ultimately Uhuru Peak seems to never get closer. Our labored breath flows in and out with the stride with our step.
On it goes for four and a half hours in almost complete pre-dawn darkness.
With each step our focus is not so much on the summit right now, but more so on wiggling our fingers and toes to keep the circulation flowing to make the summit attempt later in the morning even possible.
During a quiet moment of utter exhaustion, short breaths, frozen fingers and toes, and staggering steps at about 17,000 feet, I lean against the sturdy mountain for a moment to regroup. As tears surface in my eyes, I am reminded by our guide, Peter, not to cry, since then I “will lose essential fluids.” This comment almost makes me want to cry more.
Thankfully, the dark night and bitter cold is broken by the sudden introduction of dawn around us at 5 p.m.
Our steps are now seemingly quickened by the onset of light rays.
The vibrant colors of the sunrise from 17,000 feet begin with soft blues and purples and then explode into stunning reds and iridescent yellows, finally giving way to powerful orange. As the temperature rises and our backs are warmed, we continue to climb. We are exhausted and still quite cold as we rest at 18,100 feet at the designated Gillman’s Point.
Uhuru Peak, the Kilimanjaro summit, is now just ahead, in clear view, and yet it will take us another difficult hour and 15 minutes to reach the top of what is affectionately known as “the Roof of Africa.”
We proceed. Each step takes at least three to five seconds. My sturdy trekking poles now carry a large portion of my weight; they seem to have become my third and fourth leg, rising to the occasion to carry me onward to the summit.
At last, we come around a final corner to see the fragile wooden sign of Uhuru Peak standing by itself amidst a wind-torn and snow-covered landscape.
From our current position, it takes us another 15 minutes to reach the sign, each of us still pausing every five to seven steps to take a much needed – and deeply appreciated – breath in the thin air.
With one final push of adrenaline, I step in front of the wooden sign … Uhuru means freedom in Swahili, and indeed, freedom has never felt so sweet.
My legs collapse beneath me and I sit in front of the sign. Tears rush to my eyes and yes, this time I do lose essential fluids and it doesn’t matter right now.
Raw emotions at this altitude seem to lie just below the surface of the skin, ready to burst into expression at any moment.
I look at the sign I have dreamed of sitting in front of since I was 11 years old. I am here. I am alive. I am not dreaming.
This is real and true. What do I feel? Do I ever have to leave? Mt. Kenya, the towns of both Tanzania and Kenya are all seen from here.
Nearby planes fly by and I am close enough to read the writing on the side of the aircrafts. Our weather this day is clear, our hearts are full.
Temperatures reaching 20 degrees below zero (without the wind chill factor) remind me that summit pictures are in order and then we must proceed back down the windy mountain to an elevation that is more sustainable for life.
The wind blows, the body aches, the head throbs, the body moves forward, but the smile just gets bigger. I can feel my heart expanding in my chest, not simply from the altitude but from the grandeur of experiencing such a moment as this.
From out of nowhere, the thought of climbing Everest suddenly comes to mind…and better yet, it even seems possible. Just for a moment’s breath it actually seems doable. Am I crazy? (Altitude can sure do funny things to your rational thinking.)
With each step, the seemingly impossible has become possible. For each of us, a new threshold has been reached … the implications of this perhaps will not be able to be measured for months or even years to come.
In reflection, it is the mind, soul and spirit that gets one up the mountain; it is the body that carries one down.
It seems that the spirit is gifted the opportunity to stay up on the mountaintop for an indefinite time to come. Now my life can be classified as that lived before and now after having climbed Kilimanjaro.
Even if I were to retrace my steps and reach the summit again, there is certainly no going back to the way I was before.
There is no doubt, you can take this girl off the mountain, but you will never be able to take the Kili out of this girl.
This story was first published in The Record Courier, Minden, NV.
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Freelance Tour Manager Betty Ann Boeving has been leading trips for Stanford and non-profits since 2000, traveling to 72 countries on all seven continents. She is the Executive Director of the Martin Family Foundation in Menlo Park and she just completed her 10th season as “the voice” of Stanford women’s basketball in Maples Pavilion. Betty Ann received her M.A. from Stanford in 2000, specializing in International Conflict Resolution. Betty Ann participates in ventures–from charity bike rides to sociably responsible film projects–to raise awareness to fight sex trafficking and forced prostitution of minors. She can be reached at [email protected]