Climbing Kilimanjaro #1: We Actually Did It!

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Really! All fourteen women climbers with One Million Thumbprints reached our goal: we made it to the top of the highest freestanding mountain in the world, Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro, at approximately 8am on March 8, International Women’s Day.

We’d left the final base camp at midnight wearing alpine down jackets, heavy hats and thick mittens. Beginning the final steep ascent to the summit in the pitch dark, we wore headlamps illuminating only the boots of the woman in front of us. Climbing single file back and forth on the tight switchbacks, we looked and felt like a chain gang. Pole, pole, our guides repeated in Swahili. Slowly, slowly.

The sun rose beautifully at our backs, though of course we were too busy watching the boots in front of us and carefully planting our poles to turn backwards and appreciate the sunrise. But I couldn’t resist entirely; I took a few quick sunrise glances over my shoulder, and only took tiny tumbles. It was worth it!

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By the time we reached the summit the morning was brilliant. We celebrated with warm cups of sweet tea and laughter and photos. We had done it! We had summited! And most importantly, we had raised awareness and funds for women suffering in war zones in Syria/Iraq, DR Congo, and South Sudan.

In the process we had morphed from a group of near-strangers, many meeting for the first time at the Amsterdam Airport en route to Africa, to a group of sisters bonded around a common cause and a daunting challenge.

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And, trust me, the mountain was daunting! Summiting Kilimanjaro was the hardest physical challenge any of us had ever faced. We saw Kilimanjaro for the first time from the window of our plane as we approached the Kilimanjaro Airport--the peak rising above the clouds right outside our window—and we seriously doubted our sanity. We’re going to climb that???

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That wasn't the only time we doubted our decision to climb. We doubted each night in our tents, as we scrunched deep into our alpine sleeping bags wearing two pairs of heavy long underwear, plus a fleece and a down jacket, with hand warmers stuffed into heavy socks. And we still shook with the cold!

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So many times our guides assured us, “Today’s climb is going to be an easy one!” Or, “Today’s climb will be a bit more challenging, but it’ll be short.” We never did figure out their definition of “easy” and “short.” To us, every day’s climb seemed to be some version of “hard” and “long.”

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And then, of course, after making it to the top, you have to come down! Which is, by the way, even harder than going up—or more painful, anyway.

At least ten times a day I whined that I should have read the fine print. I was not the most prepared climber in the bunch. (I was also the oldest, by far, but that’s a whole ‘nother story!)

Regardless of the challenges—or perhaps because of them—I wouldn’t trade the experience of climbing Kili for the world. The more distance I have from it, the more I value each person, each moment, each step, each conversation, each lesson I learned.

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In the coming days and weeks I’ll be posting short blogs about what I saw and learned on Kilimanjaro—as well as the experiences we had in DR Congo prior to climbing Kili.

For those of you who are new to my blog, you might want to read a few previous blogs to catch up with the story:

It’s Cheaper to Rape a Woman Than Waste a Bullet

Pondering: A Mountain, A Kayak, An Act of Solidarity

The Day One Million Thumbprints was Born

And don't forget, it's not too late to give to the One Million Thumbprints campaign to raise funds for women in the war zones of Syria/Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan. The current funding campaign will run until May 1. All funds will support on-the-ground initiatives providing emergency support, physical and emotional healing, and sustainable economic opportunities for heroic women climbing war zone mountains most of us can't even imagine.

You can donate here.

Photos by Kili climber and professional photographer, Chelsea Hudson.