Imara Kama Simba: My Journey up Mount Kilimanjaro
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I never planned to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. It wasn’t a dream I’ve always had. I didn’t really know anyone who had climbed it before, and frankly, I had no idea how high it was until after I put the deposit down on my trip. (It’s 19,341ft (5,895m), when I first found out it was kind of a shock.)
On a random day in September, my plans to go to New Zealand to visit a friend fell through. Undeterred by this news, I took to the internet and searched: Women’s adventure travel. I paged through hundreds of potential trips, from Thailand to Patagonia, but they just weren’t the right fit. Then, I came across a trip to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. I scribbled the phone number down on some junk mail and jumped in my car to head to work.
As I drove, I punched in the phone number and hit dial. I asked the woman on the line an assortment of questions, then she proceeded to tell me that there was only one spot left open for the trip. I pulled my car over and immediately took out my credit card to put down a deposit on the trip. I was going to Tanzania in February!
Excitement pulsed through my veins; I told everyone I knew that I was going to Tanzania to climb Kili. There was no way I was going all the way to eastern Africa to not reach the summit. I trained. I joined a gym and trained 4 days a week at the gym, lifting with my legs, running, taking spinning classes, yoga and swimming. By the time I left for Tanzania my endurance was epic; I was ready.
Knowing at one point I’d have a difficult time on the mountain, I asked the people I care about to write me letters, cards, and draw pictures, for me to take to Kili. I was overjoyed when I received over a hundred letters from friends and family. It was truly heartwarming to know so many people were rooting for me.
Flash forward and the day finally came and I arrived at Kilimanjaro International Airport at 1am, piled into a van for the 45 minute bumpy drive to the hotel, and immediately passed out. The rest of the evening is a bit of a blur, with the exception of meeting my roommate, Laura. She might have packed all the warm clothes she owned and was completely nervous she forgot something at home. Her laugh instantly made me smile, and, as a runner, was fit and utterly determined to make it to the summit. I liked her immediately.
The next afternoon, we were briefed by one of the owners of the Marangu Hotel, our outfitter, who has been organizing Kilimanjaro Climbs since 1932. It was explained to us that, “sometimes it’s just not your day,” and it was possible that not everyone would summit. We were told, very honestly, if any one of our guides told us that we needed to make a decent of the mountain because of altitude sickness that we were to do so immediately, for our own safety. It was serious stuff, and quite terrifying
After a restless night’s sleep, it was time to climb; we were to begin our 5 day hike up the Machame route to the summit. When you arrived at the gate to Kilimanjaro National Park, its chaos. There are hundreds of people, unloading buses, filling out paperwork, and prepping to begin the ascent. Our crew alone consisted of the 13 of us making the climb plus 7 guides, a cook, an assistant cook and a TON of porters. We rolled up with a crew of 75.
About 2 hours after arrival, we began hiking. The base of Kili is all jungle, so it was hot and humid. The guides tell you to walk “pole, pole,” or slowly, slowly in Swahili. We kept our eyes peeled for monkeys up in the trees, but we didn’t see any. Regardless, the atmosphere was electric. We laughed and chatted amongst ourselves getting to know each other better for 6 hours, all the way to where we would spend our first night, Machame Camp. Upon arrival, our tent was already set up, thanks to our porters, with gear inside. Before heading into the tent I tucked behind a bush to use the bathroom, because toilet tents are gross, and vomited all over my boots. Unfortunately, this would not be the last time I threw up on Kilimanjaro. I won’t go into the gory details, but it happened every day. It was disgusting. We’ll leave it at that.
Laura and I awoke to, “Good Morning, washy washy.” She unzipped the tent and our assistant cook was there with 2 bowls of hot water for us to wash ourselves with and our choice of coffee or tea. I felt like a hiker princess. And yes, this did happen every morning. I have tried to convince my boyfriend to do this when we go hiking together, it hasn’t worked yet.
It was a drizzly cloud covered day. As soon as we left camp, the jungle faded away and in front of us were shrub like trees only slightly taller than a person. I’m not a particularly fast hiker and considering my stomach hadn’t quite recovered from the pyrotechnics from the previous evening, I quickly dropped to the back of the group. I spent the morning hiking with several members of the group, but by the afternoon it was just me and one of our guides, August. This was the first of several days I spent hiking with August. He walked in front of me leading the way around and over lava rock, turning around every now and again asking, “OK Mama?” I would always respond back to August, “OK Papa.” I was the last one to get to camp that night, but was rewarded with a spectacular view of Mount Meru, in nearby Arusha National Park.
I couldn’t step into the meal tent; the smell of food was so overpowering it my upset stomach. I sat outside on a rock, forcing myself to eat. The altitude was telling me I wasn’t hungry, but I knew better. I need to fuel up for our hike to the Lava Tower at 15,213ft. We would then head back down to the Barranco Camp for the night. “Climb high sleep low,” August told me as we hiked, “It helps with altitude for summit.” The summit?! I didn’t even think I was going to make it through the day. The higher we climbed, the slower I went, the more my head hurt and the more I wanted to turn around and go back.
My suffer-fest went on for hours until we made a turn around a pile of lava rocks and there it was, Lava Tower, in all its glory. Putting one foot in front of the other I battled up the steep incline to reach the tower. Tink, tink, tink, my hiking poles hitting the rocks was all I heard as I had my eyes fixed on my destination. With my feet and head throbbing, the ground leveled out and I burst into tears, falling to my knees. Tears fell from beneath my sunglasses, streaking my zinc covered face. One step closer. August came up from behind me, helped me up and told me, “Good job, Mama.”
Leaving Lava Tower we went down, down, down, then up, up, up. The rest of the day was elevation gain and loss, constantly. I hiked with August and two of the women in my group, Ann and Kay. We kept our spirits up by taking breaks and going pole pole. Finally, around a giant bend we came to Barranco camp protected on one side by the imposing Barranco wall, which we had to scale in the morning. As tired as I was the shades of bright orange from the wall filled my heart with wonder. This mountain was a piece of pure natural beauty, and I was lucky enough to get to experience it.
That afternoon, we were able to rest before dinner. Unfortunately, Laura and I couldn’t sleep. Instead we played Yahtzee. Over the course of 3 games, between the 2 of us, we collected over 8 Yahtzees. And, as everyone knows, when you’re playing Yahtzee you have to yell it every time someone gets one. The people in the surrounding tents were not amused, we had a blast. (Sorry, not sorry)
Scaling the Barranco wall was my favorite part of the entire Kili hike. It’s about an hour or so of scrabbling up to the hiking trail making way for porters to pass and looking down over your camp from the night before. Once you reach the top it’s mostly flat for the rest of the day!
The only thing I remember about hiking on day 5 is wanting to crawl into my tent and sleep. My body wanted to be done; she way angry with me for forcing her to do this. I don’t blame her. I took one photo the entire day and it sums up everything. It was taken upon arrival at Barafu camp, around 2pm, before we went to sleep.
A few hours later our guides woke us up to eat dinner and prepare for the summit. I positioned myself next to the door in the meal tent, and my stomach involuntarily ate some potatoes. 10 minutes later they regurgitated and were strewn about the rocks. As I crouched down, in an attempt to avoid getting puke on my shoes, I glanced up at the summit. Uhuru peak, the highest of the 3 peaks on Kili at 19,565ft, was above me.Iit seemed a world away. Doubt filled my brain space. I couldn’t do it, there was no way.
I went back to my tent and organized everything that I would need for the final approach. All 7 of my layers were ready to go at the base of my sleeping bag. Snacks were broken into small pieces so I could eat and chew them easily. I devised a system with an extra bandana and the belt of my backpack to hold my water bladder on my chest to prevent freezing. (I’m very proud of that makeshift system; I had water all the way up the mountain)
After organizing, I pulled out a letter from my Girl Scout friend and co-worker, Amy. At the time I was a Camp Director and worked as an Adventure Specialist (high ropes course, archery, canoeing, rocking climbing) for Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts. In her letter, she reminded me of the hundreds, if not thousands, of hours I sent working with girls, encouraging them to do things they didn’t think they could do. That I was the reason they stepped outside of their comfort zone and discovered courage in them they didn’t know they had. She said the letter wasn’t just from her, it was from all of them, returning the favor and telling me I could make it to the summit. I cried reading the letter, hell I cried writing this paragraph. I went to bed determined to reach Uhuru peak.
I laid my head down to sleep and in a snap we were up and moving. Single file, we walked upwards in the light of the full moon, some with headlamps, others without. I looked up to see if I could catch a glimpse of the peak, but all I could see was hundreds of headlamps snaking up the switchbacks; Lighting the way up to the mountain. It’s an image that will be imprinted in my mind for as long as I live.
Within 20 minutes, one of the women in the group - who happened to be cockily doing one hand push-ups 6 feet from where I was throwing up the morning before - vomited and turned back. Within an hour 2 more had turned around to head for camp.
I thought the night would never end. It seemed like we would walk forever in dark. I wanted to stop so many times. At one point I asked if we could stop and Terri, a fellow group member who was really struggling, shouted from the back, “We’re not F@%*ing stopping, keep going.” That was all the motivation I needed to keep going. As hour later when plopped down on a rock Terri wanted to quit, I put her face in my hands and said, “You didn’t let me quit and I’m not letting you quit, get up.” She did.
Read More: Visiting the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
The next hours, I’m not sure how many really as I had lost track of time, were slow and steady. I was walking in front of 2 group members, Kay and Deb, our footsteps and clinks from our hiking poles in sync with each other. At that point I think I was talking out loud, telling myself to keep going, but no one said anything.
All of a sudden splices of light began to fill the sky; dawn. It had finally come. As the night melted away the sky filled with pinks, yellows and oranges. That’s when we saw the sign for Stella Point, and the path the leads to Uhuru peak. The walk to that sign was some of the longest minutes of my life. When we finally reached the sign, I stretched my hand forward to grab it, just to make sure it was real. I turned to face the trail we had climbed to see the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen.
We continued hiking to Uhuru peak; The Roof of Africa. The sun sparkled on the glaciers in celebration of our arrival. When we reach the ever famous sign, August looked at me and said, “Imara kama simba, Mama,” Strong like lion. Before we left Kili for good I had August write down that phrase on the piece of paper for me. Soon after my arrival home I had Kilimanjaro and August’s handwriting tattooed on my arm, so I never forget how strong I am.
Read more: bucket list adventures in Africa.
I describe climbing Kili as the best, worst thing I’ve ever done. It taught me that I’m stronger than I ever thought I was. I used to say you couldn’t pay me enough to do it again. I specifically said that during my interview with Whoa Travel nearly a year and a half ago. 6 months from now I’ll be back on Kili as the Group Adventure Leader for the Curvy Kili Crew. I decided to climb it again with them because I’m inspired by their stories. To help them see that they’re stronger then they think they are. To see these women that I’ve already come to know, smash some stereotypes and reach their summits.