“I know that I must do what’s right As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti” ~ Africa by Toto
Towering over the diverse ecosystem that is the Serengeti – the “endless plains” which are home to the remarkable annual wildebeest migration – looms Mount Kilimanjaro. She is the highest mountain in Africa and the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. Her tallest point, Uhuru Peak, reaches 5,895 meters above sea level (19,341 feet). This past summer, I was able to stand atop this natural wonder, above the clouds, and gaze across the beautiful horizons of Tanzania, for a moment forgetting my complete exhaustion from the six-day climb.
Our odyssey began in a lush rainforest, complete with an expansive variety of greenery which confirmed that it was, in fact, a rainforest. Our bus of twenty-one wayfarers included me and my father, my father’s colleague and his wife, and seventeen local guides and porters. These guides and porters were extremely experienced and accustomed to the terrain as they sped past us with large loads on their heads while we trudged up slowly with only our day packs. Some of these locals called Kilimanjaro “the grandfather of Africa” because of the snow on the peak which always looked like a beard. We arrived at the Lemosho Gate, the threshold of the modified Lemosho trail we would be taking. Our first hike was the shortest and easiest of the journey; it was only going uphill from there – literally. Full of excitement, I set out on the two hour walk at a nice, slow pace between the trees on a trail with some ups some downs and a large net elevation gain. After completing this walk and acquiring only the slightest bit of false confidence from the first day’s, easy trail, we arrived at our first campsite – Mti Mkubwa Camp.
The next morning, day two, after sipping our daily hot tea and chocolate, we set out again through the rainforest. An hour into this hike, we emerged into a new climate zone: the heather and moorland. Mount Kilimanjaro boasts five different climate zones: the farmland, which the bus took us through, the rainforest, in which we began our trek, the heather and moorland, a sunny, dry, swamp area with wild grasses and heathers, the alpine desert, a barren land much like other deserts except with glaciers in sight, and the arctic zone, covered in snow at the time and home to the summit. When we trudged up to the campsite, we were immediately greeted with songs and dances by the local porters, instantly enlivening our day. The magnitude of joyful spirit in the mountains that day proved to me that happiness is harnessed from within and requires no material possessions— but simply a gathering of friends celebrating life itself.
Their song went something like this:
Jambo, jambo Bwana (Hello, hello Sir)
Habari gani (How are you?)
Mzuri sana (Very well)
Wageni, mwakaribishwa (Foreigners, you are welcome)
Kilimanjaro, hakuna matata (Kilimanjaro, no trouble)
Tembea pole pole, hakuna matata (Walk slowly, slowly, no trouble)
Utafika salama, hakuna matata (You’ll get there safe, no trouble)
Kunywa maji mengi, hakuna matata (Drink plenty of water, no trouble)
After a steep climb, we arrived at the Shira 1 camp around 1:00 pm and were given the rest of the day to repose and acclimate. I felt a slight headache from the altitude at this camp, 3,610 meters, but it subsided after lunch. We saw some pretty flowers which were a friendly reminder that beauty and life bloom everywhere, rested, ate dinner, were briefed for the next day, and rested some more before going to sleep around 8:30 pm.
On day three, we woke up at 6:00 am with some hot water to wash ourselves and drink. When we stepped outside of the tent in search for breakfast, the ground and all of the plants were covered in frost – it was quite literally freezing. It felt surreal that flowers and frost covered the same landscape, and I thought I was still in a dream, as ice crushed beneath my feet. On a ten-kilometer trek, we crossed into the alpine desert. Walking became difficult and exhausting, an effect of the altitude, but we could now see the snowy slopes of the volcanic crater, and each step brought us closer to them: a glimpse of our final destination brought a sense of hope and purpose to get us through the long journey.
We arrived at Moir Hut camp, elevation 4150 meters, around 12:30 pm, experiencing a bit of altitude sickness. After lunch we were told that we must now go on an acclimatization hike. While we were skeptical of the efficacy of a walk that did not bring us closer to the summit, we felt better after this short trek and even managed to catch a bit of intermittent cellular service, if standing on a specific rock and holding the phone at the precise angle. Speaking with family brought a sort of home to the isolated cliff. When we returned to the camp, we washed our hands and faces, ate a hot dinner of soup, rice, and beef, received a quick briefing for the next day, and went to sleep around 8:00 pm.
We woke up around 6:00 am the following morning, in the frosty alpine desert. After bundling up in our warm clothes, we ate porridge, egg, fruit, and hotdogs for breakfast. At 7:45 am, we departed for a 17-kilometer trek. At first, I was freezing, but, once we passed the ridge, the sun warmed me up. Fooled by the promise of only slight elevation gain, we did not realize that the excursion consisted of a series of long ups and downs. The venture proved very strenuous and we endured headaches. After walking for ten kilometers and five hours, we arrived at a midway campsite called Pofu Camp where we ate lunch at an elevation of 4000 meters. We then proceeded, feeling better than before, for another seven kilometers and two and a half hours to reach the 3rd Cave campsite. The site was very pretty as it stretched out above the clouds, the sun warming the horizon, and the final peak loomed above us – not too far away. We were closer to the peak than ever before, but I also realized then that happiness and fulfillment come from the journey itself, regardless of if I reached the summit (even though I was still confident I would make it). We stretched our muscles, washed our hands and faces, ate dinner at 5:45pm, and slept at 8:00pm.
On the fifth day of our adventure, we embarked on a relatively short but demanding three hour walk with an elevation gain of 1,000 meters. The hike was an entirely uphill climb that was extremely tiring, but we proceeded slowly to account for the high elevation. After one of the most difficult treks, we arrived at the School Hut basecamp. Since our team took a less-traveled-by path, the camp was secluded and peaceful. My dad and I were able to call my sisters and welcomed the good wishes for the next day. We attempted to wash our hands as usual but were impeded in part by a mischievous raven who hijacked our soap, probably assuming from the smell that it was a tasty treat. We ate our lunch and then rested until dinner to build up our energy reserves. At dinner, much to my discontent, the cook put ginger in everything, including the hot water, because it supposedly helps with altitude sickness. Between the hours of 7:00 pm and 12:00 am, we did our best to catch some sleep, as we lay awake apprehensive about the journey to come yet excited to finally arrive.
At midnight, we got ready and ate toast and a peculiar porridge (probably full of ginger). Before departing for the summit, our guide brought us together in a huddle and gave us ritualistic encouragement in Swahili for the voyage ahead. At 1:00 am we began the final trek towards the summit. This final stretch was the most arduous challenge of the entire week, but it would be extremely rewarding. My many layers to fight the bitter cold made me partially immobile and I struggled to eat or drink, as I felt like a seven-layered marshmallow. I could merely trudge along the steep, slippery, and rocky trail as the full moon made the snow glow on the mountaintop. The rough, sandy, zig zag trail sometimes led me to slide down half a step for every step I took. We had to hike most of the trail with headlamps, and the cold, strong wind and gravity worked their hardest to push me back down the mountain.
After drinking a Red Bull to regain energy and hours of walking in the darkness, illuminated only by our headlamps, we arrived at Gilman’s Point. Seeing the wooden sign at an elevation of 5,685 meters which read “congratulations” made us think that we were near the summit, but there was still an hour-and-a-half-long journey left to travel. Never in my life had I hoped for the sun to rise and bathe us in warmth and light as much as on that morning on the rim of the dormant volcano. We found Stella Point at 5,756 meters elevation atop the snow-covered mountain. The wind had finally died down here, and the full moon made the snow glow marvelously. The trek between Stella Point and the summit was frosted over with snow, but the guide had told us we wouldn’t need crampons, so I slipped a few times but continued forward nevertheless.
As the sun ascended upon the horizon, after seven straight hours of steep climbing, we finally arrived at Uhuru Peak, the tallest point on the mountain rising at 5,895 meters (19,341 feet) above sea level. The summit was stunningly beautiful, as snow plated the ground beneath the yellow-lettered wooden “congratulations” sign and the glacier shone nearby. I glowed with pride and accomplishment – the youngest person on the summit at that time. We felt fortunate to see the glacier atop Kilimanjaro – the closest glacier to the equator on earth – as it has been increasingly receding due to climate change. Staying at the summit for too long is unhealthy because of the altitude, so we embraced, took pictures with the sign, tried out playing the harmonica in the thin air, and then began our descent thirty minutes after arriving.
While climbing to the peak of Kilimanjaro took us five and a half days, descending it only took one and a half days. There are many different trails which people follow to ascend the mountain, however there is only a single one-way trail that brings travelers to the exit. We began our descent right away, but it was very rocky and slippery from the ice, and I stumbled a few times. Eventually our group made it to Millenium Camp where we ate lunch which was an interesting soup that contained bananas and an assortment of vegetables as well as cheese pancakes and watermelon. There, we had a choice to make: we could either stay at Millenium Camp and then have to travel more the next day which would entail waking up at 5:00 am, or we could progress and sleep at a camp closer to the gate. We decided on the latter and hiked two more hours downhill to the Lower Mweka Hut campground. When we finally arrived at the camp, after a very long and strenuous day, we ate dinner and soon went to sleep.
On our seventh and final day on the mountain we woke up at 6:00 am, had breakfast, packed up, and set out at 7:30 am. Before us was a three-hour hike through a rainy and muddy rainforest. It was an 11-kilometer trek, but we walked slowly in order to avoid slipping in the mud, using our poles for necessary stabilization. We made it to the Mweka Gate around 10:30 am and completed our grand adventure. Though there were many literal and figurative ups and downs, and the expedition challenged us greatly, the triumph was extremely gratifying, and I am very proud of my accomplishment. I would definitely recommend that any adventure-seeking explorers out there embark on this unforgettable journey.
Danielle Amir-Lobel is a senior at La Jolla Country Day School. She loves traveling and exploring the world around her and wishes to experience as many diverse cultures as possible throughout her lifetime. She has a passion for community service and has led many service events in her community and abroad to advance various causes and bring people together. She enjoys swimming, singing, playing the violin, and conducting research in various fields. She is the Editor-in-Chief of The Palette, La Jolla Country Day School’s newspaper, and Pegasus, a student publication for writing and art. She has won 16 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and her work can be found in multiple publications including The New York Times and the American High School Poets My World anthology.