Our bus screams to a stop at the end of the winding dirt road lined with tin houses and littered with kids kicking dusty soccer balls. Through the fog, I can make out the gate marking the beginning of Kilimanjaro National Park. I glance back at my four sisters in the seat behind me. One of them, Elli, looks sick from the ride but my other, Anna, flashes me a kid-on-Christmas grin.
Six months ago, I was in a cab leaving my company’s national sales kick-off in Potomac, Maryland when my phone dinged with a new notification. I opened a group email from my dad addressed to my mom, my three sisters, and me with the subject “Fwd: Is Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro on your bucket list?!”
My younger sister, Anna, was graduating from the US Air Force Academy in a few months, and with 60 days of leave following it, she was plotting a way to mark the occasion. My phone dinged a few more times with the responses: excitement at first, then a string of concerns on cost, logistics, and ability. But with some competitive pressure tossed back and forth, it was only a few hours before all six of us were on board to hike Kilimanjaro.
At the trailhead, our crew of eighteen – including fourteen porters, three guides, and a cook — hop out of the bus. No time is wasted as they assemble our gear and several of them take off up the mountain. The six members of my family stumble out of the van, forming an apprehensive huddle as we waited for further direction from the guides that remained behind.
The newness of our gear gives away our greenness. When people heard us talking about Kilimanjaro, they assumed we were a family of climbing junkies. Far from the truth, Kilimanjaro is the first major climb any of us have ever attempted. With a 66-percent success rate on the 19,341-foot summit, the odds of all six of us making it are somewhat unrealistic — even laughable.
“Stay in a line — Emanuel at the front, Gasper at the back — and always pole, pole (slowly, slowly),” says our guide, Matteis. Obediently, we fall in line and stuff down the nerves, excitement, and anticipation as we start our five-and-a-half-day climb to the summit.
The first day, we pass out of the bushlands and through the rainforest. Jet lag and the weather’s steady dampness sets in, along with the reality of what we’ve gotten ourselves into. But the following day we wake up to sunshine and our moods soar. Adhering to the single-file line our guides defined, we fall into a natural rhythm of passing time by catching up on each other’s lives, memorizing the scripture verses my dad laminated for us to clip to our day-packs, and taking turns keeping Anna from sprinting ahead. Each night we camp at a designated site, our cluster of yellow tents just one of a dozen, as other crews are also making their way up the mountain. We start referring to these camps as “Kili Village.”
We leave the rainforest for the moorlands on the third day and find ourselves amidst a scene of mossy trees and groves straight from Lord of the Rings. Matteis knows all the native plants and flowers on the mountain and sprinkles in Tanzanian history as we climb.
The fourth day is the hardest. Climbing up from the moorlands to to 13,700 feet of alpine desert, we descend again to the moorlands, losing 700 feet of elevation. Our sea-level bodies are still adjusting to the altitude. As a family we’d vacationed often in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, and Anna was used to altitude from living in Colorado Springs, but each of us are beginning to feel the dull headache of elevation creeping in.
Much of the hike has been a steady climb, but the day’s scramble up a rock face leaves my dad winded. Anna is fully in her element, rearing to make it to the top.
That evening, Kili Village is set above a precipice with the foreboding, snow-capped Uhuru peak above, and the open plains of wild Ngorongoro and Serengeti below. The altitude has reduced our mental capacity for sustaining conversation and our dialogue turns to topics of survival:
Is everyone drinking enough water?
How many days since your last bowel movement?
Does anyone have any extra layers to sleep in tonight?
Our last day before the final ascent, we cover the least amount of ground, hiking just two-and-a-half miles to reach base camp. We sleep at 15,000 feet and plan to wake at midnight to trek the final 4,000 feet for a sunrise summit. Base camp is freezing, and we’re told to expect more severe wind and cold for tomorrow’s climb.
That night, I barely sleep, drifting in and out of dreams of warmth and flushing toilets.
Behind me, Matteis starts softly singing a familiar hymn in Swahili. I join in the next verse of “Amazing Grace.”
Finally, I’m saved by a soft tap on the tent I share with Anna signaling hot tea awaits us outside. Already dressed, we pull on our boots and join the crew. A few of the Kili Village groups have left for the top, and we see their twinkling lines of headlamps climbing the face. Though we’ve made it this far, Gasper reminds us that anything could happen these next six hours: the clear night could turn stormy or depleted oxygen levels could cause nausea or delusion.
The climb is steeper than anything we’d hiked so far. We fall in line with eyes locked on the heels of the boots in front of us, only the light of our headlamps and the stars illuminate our path.
The wind hits us as soon as we clear camp. Caroline, my youngest sister, sways on impact and shivers. I hear Anna ask her nonchalantly about her classes next year, and plans for the summer, trying to distract her from the cold. I don’t catch Caroline’s answer as I’m entirely focused on keeping one foot in front of the other. The cold bites and I start to lose feeling in my fingers and toes. I’ve lost track of time and no longer have energy to raise my head to determine the distance to the top.
We wind a corner and Gasper pulls us under a rock overhang, protecting us from the wind. I collapse next to Elli who’s curled herself in a ball away from the wind. Gasper pulls a thermos of hot tea from his pack and our guides distribute its welcome warmth while helping zip extra layers on to us and reviving blood flow in our fingers and cheeks.
“Two hours to summit,” Gasper smiles encouragingly. “Pole, pole.”
We start again, but reluctantly. All conversation has died, leaving only the sound of the wind and our boots trudging onward. I notice a change in the sky as the first light gives color to the night. It’s such a small shift that I almost miss it, but the light grows warmer still. Behind me, Matteis starts softly singing a familiar hymn in Swahili. I join in the next verse of “Amazing Grace.”
Anna’s steps in front of me pick up pace, and I lift my head to see the face flatten out. The summit. My heart skips as my head catches up with the realization that we’d actually done it — all six of us — standing on the highest point in Africa.
. . .
About the author
Katrin Meiusi grew up in a family of four girls whose parents, having met on a college ski trip, pumped a pulse of adventure into their veins. Whether staring down a double black ski run, across a new city you’ve traveled to, or directly at a boss while making a case for a promotion, her family’s motto was always the same: No Wimpy Women. Though Kilimanjaro stretched her physically and mentally, what she’d love to share most with OWA’s community is how much it taught her about the importance of family and the power that exists when aiming for a shared goal.