In September of 2016, we crossed off one of our top bucket list items, summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. This is our story.
Students Unite to End Polio
In January of 2016, my friend and I decided to spearhead a campaign to raise money for the Rotary Club. Because we had both received a scholarship through the Rotary Foundation to pursue our Masters degree, we wanted to show our appreciation by initiating a campaign to raise funds for their primary philanthropy, Polio Plus. What better way to attract attention to our campaign than to take on a major challenge like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro!
We gathered together a team of 10 volunteers to participate in this campaign, fundraise, and ultimately climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. We named our initiative Students Unite to End Polio. (For more information about Rotary’s fight to eradicate Polio, see end of post.)
We placed our reservation through Zara tours along the 9 day Lemosho route. Although the hike can be completed in 3 days, we wanted to give all members of our team ample time to acclimatize. Taking longer to hike reduces the chances of experiencing altitude sickness.
Day 1 -7
The first few days of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro were a breeze. This is likely due to the fact that we had amazing tour guides who managed our pace. They had us walk at what seemed like a snail’s pace. However, by the third day, we were so grateful that we had taken our time and managed our energy levels.
We would hike during the day, anywhere between 2 and 5 miles. With each change in altitude, our surroundings would also change. We started among forest trails which quickly led into moorlands. They later turned into arid paths of rock and sand, which would eventually become a trail of ice toward Uhuru Peak.
By night, we would camp at designated sites along the Lemosho route. Falling asleep on Kilimanjaro’s mountain side were some of the most incredible moments I will never forget. Although the air was extremely frigid by this point, Scott and I would always take a moment to gaze up at the stars. There was one point on the cliffs of Barranco camp, where you could look up and see a vast blanket of stars extending downward where it would meet hundreds of twinkling lights shining from the town below. It was as if there was one infinite expanse of stars and we were floating right in the middle of it.
Summit night was an unexpected challenge for everyone, both physically and mentally. Despite it being a slightly foggy experience for me due to altitude sickness, I will never forget the endless trudging along and the whirlwind of feelings and physical sensations which flooded my body for those 7 hours.
11pm: Filled with eager excitement, we leave base camp at 11pm and set out on our final ascent. Unlike the previous days, we are now hiking in freezing temperatures and extreme darkness. The only thing that is visible is the feet of the person in front of you, and the trail of dim headlamps ahead of you zig-zagging slowly up the near vertical mountain.
1am: At 17,700 feet in altitude (5,400m) the oxygen levels become half that at sea level. The migraines and nausea begin. We all trudge forward, assuming a zombie-like pace to preserve energy and control our heart rates.
3am: After hours of unending darkness, the coldness and monotonous motion begin to stir hallucinations. People lose coordination and their ability to walk. Others vomit and are forced to return to base camp. I briefly lose consciousness and faint. I am thankfully able to recover and move forward.
4:00am: False summits are everywhere. In complete darkness, the only way to gage how close you are to the top, is by looking up and seeing where the trail of headlamps disappear over the ridge. Three times we see the headlamps disappear. Each time we reach the ridge, the terrain would change and the never ending trail of headlamps would reappear around the corner.
4:30am: While everyone is trying to manage their own forms of altitude sickness, Scott, Jack, and I are separated from the rest of our group. It is cold. My fingers are numb. My toes are numb. I am repeating “inhale” “exhale” “mind over matter” in an attempt to control my heart which is racing despite my incredibly slow pace.
5:00am: Stricken by the reality of the situation, the unexpected difficulty, the realization of a weaknesses which my mind cannot control, I am silent. All three of us are silent.
6:00am: Scott breaks the silence saying “Only 6 feet left”. I look up and see the ridge. The first light from a rising sun is revealing the silhouette of the boulders and glaciers surrounding us. With a new burst of hope, we trudge forward toward Uhuru peak. With every step, the sun rises another inch. The rolling cloud line is below us, the crater of Kilimanjaro is on our right, the glistening white glaciers are on our left and Uhuru peak is within sight.
6:15am: At 19,341 feet (5,895m) above sea level, we reach Kilimanjaro’s summit, the highest point of the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. Breaking through all the frozen tears, snot, dirt and dust which has been caked onto my face over the past 7 hours, I force a smile at Uhuru Peak
The Fight to Eradicate Polio
By the end of our climb, we had raised over $10,000 for Polio Plus. The Rotary Club has been a champion for this cause since 1985, contributing more than $1.3 billion and countless volunteer hours. Since their involvement, cases of polio have dropped 99%, and remains endemic in only two more countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was an honor to be a part of history in helping Rotary bring an end to this life-crippling disease.
If you would like to make a donation, please visit www.endpolio.org.
Before you go, make sure you check out our Kilimanjaro Packing List: The Complete Guide.
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