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How I climbed the Kilimanjaro

Updated: Aug 5, 2022

Interested in my story on the Kilimanjaro, 5895m high, and how my mind made me reach the summit? The highest alone standing mountain, the highest point in Africa, one of the 7 summits? Than keep reading.

Weeks before hiking the mountain, I heard a podcast of Oprah Winfrey, “The Climb” where she was saying:

I've always thought a mountain is a magnificent metaphor for life and success. From a distance the ascent looks clear and smooth but once you actually set out for the summit, you discover unexpected valleys. If your internal compass isn't set to keep climbing, every stumble will give you an excuse to turn back.”

And stumble I did. Not literally over my feet or stones. Well maybe sometimes. But I stumbled in a different matter.

If you use phrases like, I am exhausted or I am overwhelmed. You are inviting exactly that kind of energy into your life/journey. The moment I shifted my perspective from I am struggling to I am honored. My climb was transformed from a terrible track to a still challenging but now stimulating adventure. And my entire outlook changed. Ever since that time when I arrive to encounter a disruption, rather than allowing it to rattle me I ask myself: “what is this here to teach me.” – Oprah Winfrey 'The climb'.

this came in helpful

I happened to hear this podcast a month before my climb and thought; - hm this is relevant. I was aware of what she was saying. I'm aware of mindfulness, aware of what thoughts can do and how they can influence your life and your look on things. I also always thought that I already practised this in my life. But knowing it and doing so is something else. And you only come aware of that when you happen to be in such situation where you have no other choice to start doing it if you want to achieve your goal. And suddenly you realize how disconnected you are from all of that. But let me start from the beginning.


Day 1: "First hike"

It all began with a 3 hour bus ride up the mountain until we were at 3400 m and we started walking the Lemocho route. We could see the mountain top in the distance and thought: “Hm, actually that doesn't look that high, it doesn't seem difficult”. Lets get us back to what Oprah said → “From a distance the ascent looks clear and smooth but once you actually set out for the summit, you discover unexpected valleys.” Oh yeah here we have it.

For us, eight people, to guide us up the mountain there were four guides and 27 porters accompanying us. The porters carried our food, sleeping gear, tents, fresh water, etc.. Actually everything to make our journey as comfortable as possible. As we were moving as slow as turtles to not get out of breath, to prevent headaches or other aches because of the altitude, the porters (who carried easily 15 kg each) passed us by with an enormous speed as if it was nothing. They headed to our next camp place and made everything ready for our arrival. When we arrived at the camp, our sleeping tents were ready, our eat tent was ready, tea was served and the cook was busy preparing our meal. After a long day of walking (actually that day we only hiked for 3 hours) we just had to sit down, put on some warm clothes and try to relax (for as far that was possible on that hight, with altitude sickness lurking around the corner.)

The guides were prepared with everything against altitude sickness. Diamox, paracetamol, ibuprofen, imodium, … Even oxygen bottles. They almost made it impossible to die up there with them at your side. Thank you Altezza Travel for keeping us alive!

When the evening fell the temperature started to drop quickly, already wearing a lot of warm layers. Luckily we had a big yellow tent that kept us from the cold and the wind where we could eat, play card games, talk, etc..

On the first night we suddenly realized there wouldn't be any street nor city lights and came out of our tent to watch the sky. Which was a marvelous stretch of endless stars. Never had I seen so many stars at the sky. The night wasn't black anymore, it was filled with uncountable little lights.

We were so lucky with the weather! Every night and every day we had a clear sky. Only one day our camp was placed in a cloud. But not complaining here.

Day 2

I woke up with stomach aches. I didn't had an appetite (although the food the cook prepared was always delicious and almost unthinkable to get on a mountain climb) and had to go to the toilet 3 times. Well. Toilet. Don't imagine something fancy on that mountain. There was a toilet building, but the toilets itself were just a hole in the floor, with a smell that you can only be happy that you're reading this from in your warm sofa. If you shone the light of your headlamp in the hole you could see the beautiful things people prepared before you. You didn't always have to look in the hole, tho. Sometimes people couldn't aim that good and left it there on the ground. In other words, at the beginning it seems awful. But actually after going to that toilet for the 5th time that day you start appreciating that hole in the ground, sitting in squat, looking for little drawings in the dirt on the ground in front of you, or watching a spider eat one of the ten flies that were keeping you company. RIP. In the end you're just happy that it has a door that can be closed.

So after this description I think you can imagine what kind of stomach aches I had. Luckily the guide had some imodium for me and that stopped my toilet visits.

That day we hiked 3 or 4 hours and only mounted for 200m. When we arrived at the camp we did an acclimatization hike for another 300 a 400 m (to 4000m) to get used to the hight for tomorrow. That evening we saw an amazing sunset above the clouds!

Day 3

Today was the day we were going to hike to Lava tower on 4600m, eat lunch there and then go down again to the next camp on 4000 to spend the night.

"The way to Lava tower"

This whole hike we saw the top of the mountain next to us or in front of us, which was marvelous. While hiking for Lava tower I started feeling the altitude in my head. Which made it more difficult to concentrate and keep on hiking. I felt like pushing against an invisible wall every step I took. Lava tower didn't seem to get closer and every time I thought we were almost there, it was a little bit further still.

The last push to Lava tower was really hard. I felt so tired and had a terrible headache. I made it together with the group. But once on 4600m high I immediately asked for a painkiller. We paused here en had some lunch in our private yellow tent.

Going down was more fun and easy. With every step I felt better and my head became less foggy. In the camp the mountain top was right in front of us and at the other side an amazing view over the clouds as far as the eye could reach.

This camp was set right in front of, they call it, “The wall”. It's the steepest climb on the hiking route, hence the name.

That night my stomach ache came back and at 3am my toilet visits started again. With around 1 degree outside, I had to go every 20 minutes. After the third time I felt so anxious and weak that I thought I was really getting sick. My body switched from warm to cold and cold to warm while in my sleeping bag. I had chills and anxiety creeped upon me. I was scared and felt tears welling up, saying that I couldn't do this and I didn't want to go outside anymore. My body was exhausted. My boyfriend came lay against me, with his head against mine, and a sleeping bag arm wrapped around me. It made me calm, warmed me up and I fell back to sleep. I think this was mentally one of my lowest points on the mountain.

Day 4

Oh, did I already mention that every morning around 6:30am or 7am they woke us up by “knocking” on our tent with a happy good morning and serving us tea and coffee? Amazing!

Today was 'The Wall' day! With a new load of imodium in my body I could hold my stomach and climb up. The wall was a lot of fun. I couldn't enjoy it to the fullest because of my stomach and slight headaches, but I liked it. There is a so called 'kiss rock' along the way up, because you have to stand so close against the rock, to pass over the road, you can kiss it.

Once we reached the top of the wall, the sight was amazing! Looking over the clouds as far as the eye could reach at one side and at the other, the top of the Kilimanjaro.

Here we had a tea stop. We had those everyday. Everyday at some point in our hike, a porter prepared a little table with tea and cookies for us. Yes, we were spoiled.

Off to the next camp the hike went up and down. This time we hiked in a big cloud so it was very foggy, I liked the sight of it. And actually happy that I experienced a hike in the fog too. My headache stayed. I don't remember a lot of this hike to the camp, only that I felt weak and being aware of the fact that I was way behind the group. The last 30 minutes we were hiking back up. At some point a porter came down to help us and he carried my daypack for me. That was a relieve, although we were not carrying a lot, it made a big difference.

This day the camp was in the fog and we couldn't see for 3m. But the toilets were in front of our tents. So that was a win!

The climb, the altitude, the stomach aches, .. demanded a lot of my body. And the moment we arrived in this camp I slept for 3 hours until dinner time. And back in bed at 10 pm. (Maybe even earlier). The other nights we always had a lot of fun with the group, playing card games or games to get to know each other better, forgetting that we were sitting on a mountain and actually were on some high altitude.

Day 5

Today we hiked to base camp on 4800m. The last camp before the summit night!

This hike went smooth, the pace was perfect and we didn't had to climb a lot. No steep climbs, and that was quiet ok for the altitude in my head. Also mentally preparing ourselves that we had to start the climb to the summit at midnight. I think we walked for only 3 or 4 hours to base camp.

We arrived at Base camp around 2pm, got some lunch and after lunch a guide took us some 100m higher to get used to the altitude. On that altitude hike it's the first time I had to stop and give up. The first 100m (also the first 100m to the summit we were going to do at midnight) were very very steep. Steepness is always terrible because the altitude hits you like a mother fucker with every step you take. My stomach ache was back and I was dying because of the cramps. Every step hurt. So I told the group I was going to wait on a rock until they came back down. At this moment some people thought I wasn't going to make it to the summit if I already had to stop here. Only hours before the Summit night.

One of the guides sat with me, while the others went up, and tried to distract me. He told me stories about the wildlife in Africa, the different safari parks and the difference in animals in every nature park. He also spoke about his career as guide on the Kilimanjaro and how he got lucky and didn't have to be a porter for long. He went on with the stories and at a certain point he said that you don't climb this mountain on physical strength but on mindset. He gave me what I needed. Because since that moment I started asking myself “why”, “why is this happening to me?” – Oh look, Oprah her podcast again. I started to focus on my mindset, because I got this far and I wanted to reach that damn summit. So I started seeing my stomach aches as a cleanse of my body and tried to embrace them instead of being angry with them. And instead of feeling anxious, what made me weak, I knew that I could turn my mind around by repeating affirmations. So I decided I was going to climb this last hike to the summit on my mindset.

We went back down with the group and prepared us for the Summit night. We went to bed at 5 or 6 pm. Falling a sleep wasn't a problem for me, the altitude made me tired and foggy. Happy to close my eyes. I had a good sleep, luckily. Because when I woke up at 11pm I felt much better! Still no appetite, I really had to force some food in my stomach at 11pm.

What I was wearing;

I wore a top, 2 thermal shirts, a warm body, a fleece jacket, down jacket and my ski jacket. For my legs I had a thermal pants, fleece pants and ski pants. 2 pair of socks with wool, 2 pair of gloves, 2 pair of buffs, 1 hat and 2 hoods. Also I had foot heaters on my socks and heaters in my gloves. And a pair of walking sticks. A porter was going to be my shadow and carry my backpack with the essentials.

With that I started the climb to the summit.

Day 6

We started at midnight.

I had the privilege to walk behind the guide and follow every step he took. We walked in a line/snake. This was going to be a walk of 7 hours straight, upwards. The longest hike of all. The moment we started the Summit climb, I turned into myself. I had only attention for the footsteps in front of me, following the guide's slow pace, the focus on my breathing and my affirmations to feel strong and not to panic. Every time my focus went to bad thoughts or panic or,.. I took it back to my affirmations, the footsteps, my breathing. All we could see when looking around us, were tiny moving headlights from other groups, the feet from the person in front of you and the fog of your own breath. Only hearing your own thoughts "step. by. step".

We had several rest moments of maximum 5 or 10 minutes. We even had a quick tea pitstop. The porters new exactly what to do and everything went so fast that everybody had a cup of warm tea within a minute! Only one minute later the tea in the cup was already cold, so you can imagine how cold it was up there. We also

started the journey with hot water in our drinking bottles, and halfway up the water was ice cold and the water in the camelbacks turned to ice.

Around 5 am, we could look behind us and saw the sun rising above the clouds. Then we knew the hardest part was over, the coldest part had past and it was possible to see the mountain again. Its a view I will never forget, that was the most stunning sunrise I'd seen in my entire life. We walked in the dark for hours, how these guides new the safe way blindly is incredible.

Now we could look down and see how high above the clouds we were, the colors of the sun on the clouds, the clouds so far beneath us, the feeling of almost reaching Stella point. At Stella point the steepest climb is over, from there its the last push/30 min to the summit!

Reaching the summit was a dreamy relieve. Maybe because of the altitude, but when I think about it, its as if I haven't really deeply lived it or took it in. Probably because of the altitude high. A view; you can only experience on such hight. 5895m. Damn. I was so proud of myself! And my boyfriend! And the whole group!

"On top of the Kilimanjaro!"

(Before reaching the summit, we all took some diamox, I believe we took two before the climb. And during the summit climb I also had a painkiller for my head. During the whole trip I recall I took a painkiller everyday + diamox + imodium now and then. )

We couldn't stay longer than 20 to 30 minutes on the summit, because other people arrived and it would get crowded. But also because of the cold.

Something, I guess, no one thinks about when climbing a mountain is the descent. We were like, oh yeah.. We also have to go down now. Not a helicopter picking us up after climbing this high? No, unfortunately not. Descending from the summit to Base camp went quickly and was quite fun. The ground of the mountain on that hight were all tiny sand stones, so you could ski off the mountain on your shoes. It felt like running/sliding down in soft sand. We were quite dusty when we reached Base camp again.

We got some food, some rest for an hour maybe. I think we were back at base camp around 10 or 11 am. And left again around 1 pm for another 4 hour walk down to 3000 or 2800m.

All I remember is that we hiked for 14 hours that day and my knees hurt like hell. We went down through the clouds, in the fog, through some jungle parts. The flora was really beautiful, but we were all too tired to care. When we finally reached our final camp each one of us was broken, but happy and satisfied. My altitude sickness stopped immediately, I still didn't had an appetite, but I felt much better.

Day 7

The final hike down to the place where our little bus would pick us up! Arriving at that place felt like a victory. Normal toilets!

There was waiting a last meal/lunch for us accompanied with champagne. I was sorry that the guides could never or were never allowed to accompany us. Sometimes it felt very “we are the spoiled rich people and they are only helpers/maids, working for us, so they are not allowed to eat with us”. Especially at the end of this journey I would have loved to have the guides joined us at our table for dinner in the hotel and to talk about this amazing journey. But that was not possible.


After word:

I want to thank everybody who was with me on that mountain and everyone who donated money.

Besides everything and the amazing experience, I had a more amazing group supporting each other through it all! Not everyone experienced head- or stomachaches, some people frolicked up the mountain. One did a handstand on top of it! With a huge headache afterwards tho. Someone else went for another 1 hour hike, after reaching the summit, towards the glaciers on the mountain. (1 hour back and 1 hour forth.)

I was just rapt I reached the summit!

I've met the CEO, Robin, from the organization The Next Smile. An amazing guy, only in his twenties, with big dreams that he is achieving and are growing every day!

He brought our group together to climb the Kilimanjaro for charity. To fund raise money for his organization The Next Smile, building schools in Africa (and soon also other countries) to give children a chance for education instead of working. Together with our group we raised enough money to build a whole school and to get a lot of children out of labor!

We also got the opportunity to visit a school in Tanzania and get in touch with the kids. For which I am forever grateful. Never had I seen such a happy faces when we handed them a new football. For my knowing it was their only ball and before that they played soccer with a handmade one.

Every time I saw kids I wished I could do more, give more, mean more.

Last but not least;

I think the better your health condition is, the more you frolic up this mountain. They say altitude isn't predictable. But I think, when you workout frequently, you have a good condition, you're used to moving and you'll take more oxygen into your body. What makes that you'll probably feel the altitude less. I almost didn't prepare myself for this mountain, we went for some long walks the month before departure and I think we exercised only 3 times to get stronger legs and abs. So that's not a lot. You don't have to be experienced, nor go to the gym everyday to hike this mountain to the summit, but some exercise and good preparation will make it a lot easier!

Now you all go prepare for a journey like this!

The next smile is organizing another Kilimanjaro project this year 2022! - Join them if you want.

Thank you for reading.

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