I have been doing mountain hikes only for about two years now. I was never an “outdoorsy” person as a child, and the first hiking trip I took to Yosemite (about three hours away from where I live) wasn’t until I was 30. That trip for me was incredibly important and life-changing.
The Sierras took my breath away – literally. I really struggled on that first trip, but the beauty of it made me realize that I wanted to do more mountain hiking. I haven’t looked back since.
After hiking the highest mountain in the Lower 48, Mt. Whitney (elevation 14,505 feet), I began researching. I found that the tallest mountain in the country, Denali (also known as Mt. McKinley, located in Alaska) seemed inaccessible for me with its technical requirements. So I found myself looking into other mountains on the Seven Summits list. Kilimanjaro captured my attention almost immediately, but I couldn’t imagine going to Africa. Despite having traveled to Kuwait, China, Turkey, and multiple locations in Europe, I am actually deathly afraid of flying. I remember being 12 years old and hearing someone describe her journey to Africa and mentioning that it involved 24 hours on an airplane. Right then and there, I vowed that I would never go to Africa.
Still, though, the pictures of Kili beckoned me.
Then we saw a poster for Climb for Sight posted at our rock climbing gym. It seemed almost too perfect. Almost meant to be.
What particularly attracted me to Climb for Sight was their mission to provide sight-restoring surgeries to children in poor areas internationally. I was born with a rare eye condition (<2000 cases worldwide) that causes a build-up of an amino acid in the cornea; if left untreated, this build-up can cause blindness. But because I live in the United States, I am lucky to have access to quality treatment that I can afford.
For the past 10 years, I have been on hourly eye drops that preserve my sight and entirely eliminate painful symptoms. While it isn’t a cure, this treatment means that I don’t have to fear losing my ability to take in all the amazing scenery nature has to offer. It’s a pretty easy fix that I’m grateful for, and though I don’t even give putting drops in my eyes a second thought now, I know I can never take for granted what this treatment does for me.
Reading about the children that Vision for the Poor treat really drove this point home. There are treatments that can preserve and restore sight, but which remain out of reach for children in poor areas of countries like Haiti, Nicaragua, and Tanzania. Like me, these children have an avoidable fate in terms of their vision – but unlike me, they do not have the means to prevent such fate.
I loved the idea of participating in a trip in which I would be able to visually appreciate the mountain scenery while at the same time ensuring that others would be given a chance to do the same in their own settings and adventures.
It wasn’t until I actually clicked “purchase now” on the plane tickets that I knew it was really going to happen. In the months, weeks, and days leading up to the trip, all I could think about was the flight, and my preparation was more mental than anything else. I felt certain that the airplane was my mountain, and if I could conquer that part of the journey, I’d be golden for the rest. Kilimanjaro itself felt distant and easy compared to being in a plane.
Since I was already hiking in the mountains quite regularly, I didn’t change my lifestyle immensely in order to train or prepare for the climb. My family and I continued going to the Sierras when we could. We summited tall mountains until the weather made it impossible. (Though with our current California drought, we were able to summit Mt. Eddy in the winter.) We climbed regularly at the gym. I went on weekly short hikes on Saturday mornings.
When we boarded our flight, it all became real. (The flight, by the way, was very smooth and uneventful.) And when we started from the Marangu gate, the mountain finally became larger than life.
That first day, when we trekked from the gate to the Mandara huts, I felt slightly disheartened. I had read in various guidebooks that day one would be “deceptively easy”, yet I didn’t find it easy at all. While I had read that I should pack card games and expect to have lots of free time in the evening, in reality I felt like going to sleep right after dinner. Regardless, I made it through day one, and I knew I would make it through the rest as long as I didn’t allow my discouragement to take root.
On the day 2, when we hiked from Mandara to Horombo, I realized that I had made a mistake in taking my trekking poles. I had never used poles to hike before, and the new-to-me arm motion was creating pain between my shoulder blades. Along with breaking in your shoes before your hike, I highly recommend not doing anything for the first time on Kilimanjaro (except, of course, reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro!). While most people love using hiking poles, I happened to learn that they just aren’t for me.
The trail between Mandara and Horombo provided breath-taking views of Kibo and Mawenzi. Kibo looked so far away – and yet, I knew I would be there in a matter of days! These views, along with the presence of my husband and mom, propelled me forward and enabled me to power through my biggest challenges – the cold being paramount among them. When we arrived at Kibo at the end of the third day, I crawled into my sleeping bag and fought to get warm. The fight was made so much easier by visions of the peak that awaited and the sight of my husband’s sleeping bag beside me.
Our group split up when it came to determining a summit strategy, with part of our group going a day early – leaving at 4:00a.m. – and the other taking the planned before-summit day of rest and doing the traditional midnight departure to take in the sunrise from Uhuru. I was part of the former group, and in hindsight I am very grateful for the guides’ wisdom in making this adjustment – I felt fine with the altitude before the summit bid and didn’t feel the need for an acclimatization day, but I definitely needed the post-summit rest that came while the other half of our group was on its way up.
Standing atop Kilimanjaro and looking out into the crater made the journey worth every step, every dollar, and every challenge. Knowing that the efforts I had put for for my trip also aided children needing eye surgery was also fundamental to the experience. Letting friends, coworkers, and even my students be involved in the trip by donating funds made it truly feel like a team effort. (I’m a teacher at a K-8 school, and the students and parents held a bake sale to help support Vision for the Poor in honor of my trek.)
My advice for future climbers is twofold: one, know yourself and your limitations. Do you get cold easily? This was a big one for me. If it is for you, then don’t skimp on your cold-weather gear. Go for warmest gloves on the market. It’ll be worth it, I promise. Do you get bored with monotonous night-time hiking? (We did a Half Dome hike in which we left at midnight and hiked 5000 feet up through the night, arriving at the top in time for sunrise, to prepare for summit day on Kilimanjaro.) Hiking at night requires an entirely different set of muscles – mental and psychological ones. If you are concerned about boredom creeping in above 15,000 feet – with an approximately 4,000-foot elevation gain – when you are likely to be too winded to talk with fellow hikers, invest in a solar charger for your phone or iPod and download audio books.
My second piece of advice is to know that you can do it. It will be a challenge; if you are not accustomed to this level of physical activity, it will easily be the most difficult thing you have ever done. But with preparation and determination, you will do it. Don’t give up. It may sound a bit cliché, but if I can do it, anyone can.