Lessons from Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

Summiting Mount Kilimanjaro had always been a dream of mine – a dream that I was never sure would come true. My memories of trekking have always been mixed. I love the outdoors, but I often have trouble with altitude sickness and my asthma makes breathing above the clouds difficult. I remember having to descend one hike at 10,000 feet in Yosemite because my lungs were burning. Another time I suffered extreme nausea on the Inca Trail at 12,000 feet. Mount Kilimanjaro is a staggering 19,341 feet! I wasn’t sure how I was going to reach the top of one of the highest mountains in the world, but I knew I had to try. 

Machame Gate to Machame Camp Mount Kilimanjaro Tanzania

Here is a day-by-day look at my experience on Mount Kilimanjaro:

Day 1 - Machame Gate to Machame Camp

Our guides picked my boyfriend and me up in Arusha at 8:00 am. We drove past coffee farms and verdant fields to Kilimanjaro National Park’s Machame Gate. We chose the Machame route because it has a higher summit success rate than other trails. There are elevation gains and losses throughout this route, which helps with acclimatization. We checked in with the park rangers and paid our fees, while the porters weighed and loaded the packs. 

Machame Gate to Machame Camp Mount Kilimanjaro Tanzania

The first day on the trail was easy. I hiked quickly, but our guide slowed me down. He cautioned it was better to go “pole, pole,” which is Swahili for "slowly, slowly." Endurance, not strength, is the key to Kilimanjaro.  Maintaining a slower pace provides our bodies with the time needed to acclimatize. As the only woman in the group, I earned the name “Princess Duma,” which means Princess Cheetah. I also learned the phrase “poa kachizi kama ndizi ndani ya frigi!” (Swahili for, “crazy cool like a banana in your fridge”) which, apparently, is the only appropriate response to “how are you?” in Tanzania.

 

Day 2 - Machame Camp to Shira Camp

We woke up at 7:00 am and sipped hot tea from the comfort of our tent. We had a massive breakfast of porridge, fried eggs, pancakes, toast, and coffee. I scarfed up everything with the hope it would fuel me for an arduous week ahead. Today we hiked through the moorlands and ascended above the clouds for the first time.

Machame Camp to Shira Camp Mount Kilimanjaro Tanzania

fter a long day, we set up camp at the breathtaking Shira campsite, where our team welcomed us by singing and dancing. We joined in as the sun sets beneath the clouds. We bonded with our team over a hearty dinner. 

Shira Camp to Barranco Camp Mount Kilimanjaro Tanzania

At nightfall, we snuck out of the tent to glimpse shooting stars. Under a sky full of stars, I said a little prayer for the rest of the trek. With my history, I knew it would be nothing short of a miracle to make it to the summit.

 

Day 3 - Shira Camp to Barranco Camp

After breakfast, we began our hike at 7:30am through the desert plateau. The sweeping landscapes change frequently on Kilimanjaro.

Shortly thereafter, I was plagued by a headache that progressed as we ascend further up the mountain. My confidence began to plummet as I felt the first sign of altitude sickness setting in around 13,000 feet. It’s only Day 3 of a week-long hike and doubt begins to set it as I wonder if my body will fail me. I inhale the 3 liters of water in my camelbak and pop Ibuprofen to stave off further pain.

We lunch at Lava Tower. Relief washes over me as my headache subsides. While we rested, our guides source more water in a nearby stream, which we purified with iodine tablets.

Once we arrived at Barranco Camp that evening, my headache returned with such vengeful force. It robbed me of my ability to eat. It effectively silenced me as I could no longer speak. I could only communicate by grunting. I flashed pained looks at anyone who dared speak to me. Our guides check our oxygen levels. I trudged back to my tent to sleep. Self-doubt set in once again. I began to wonder if I could do this. Maybe I am just not cut out for this! I go to sleep hoping for a miraculous recovery.

Barranco Camp Mount Kilimanjaro Tanzania Anne Foss Travel Women

Day 4 - Barranco Camp to Barafu Camp

My prayers were answered that night. I felt like a new woman in the morning. After breakfast, we packed up and departed camp at 6:30 am. We scrambled up steep rocks and several treacherous switchbacks during the first hour of our hike. When we reached Karanga Camp, we happily devoured a hot lunch of fried chicken and french fries. Heaven. 

Barranco Camp to Barafu Camp Mount Kilimanjaro Anne Foss Travel Women

With full bellies, we set off for base camp, which was still a few hours away. We reached Barafu Camp in the late afternoon, our jumping off point for the summit. We dined and had a pre-summit brief with our guides. We went to sleep at 7:00 pm knowing the long, dark hike to the summit would begin in just a few hours.

Day 5 - Summit Day - Barafu Camp - Uhuru Peak - Millennium Camp

We woke up at 11:00 pm after hardly sleeping. It’s painfully cold outside. I was hesitant to leave the relative warmth and comfort of our tent. We dressed in all of the layers we could find, donning our stylish, second-hand snow pants and down jackets that we rented from our trekking company. We had some tea and a small snack. I was nervous. I made sure my inhaler and altitude sickness pills were within reach inside of my daypack. 

We departed base camp with our patient and assured guides leading the way. I could only see a line of headlamps up the mountain. From a distance, the other hikers looked like a trail of twinkling stars. As we hike, I noticed the actual stars above us. We turned off our headlamps for a moment to appreciate their brilliance.

My attention turned from the stars to my extremities as my hands started to freeze and my toe went numb. My overactive imagination convinced my brain that I had frostbite. My stomach was upset. It looked like my altitude sickness was here to stay. Oh no! Doubt began to set in again.

The trail of other headlamps much higher than us was discouraging to see. My feet felt like bricks against my hiking boots, my fingers were frozen. I struggled to maintain a grip around my trekking pole. I wondered why I was doing this to myself! We could easily hike down back to camp where it was warm inside of our cozy tent. No Instagram photo was worth this life-threatening struggle. 

Summit Day - Barafu Camp - Uhuru Peak - Millennium Camp Mount Kilimanjaro Anne Foss Travel Women

After a few hours of hiking in the pitch-black darkness, the sun peeked above the clouds for the first time.  Finally – a sign of encouragement! The first major milestone, Stella Point, was finally within view. We saw other hikers lining the rim of the mountain. We were almost there! We trudged on, but not before I vomited just shy of reaching the top. I am a mountain goddess, I told myself to propel myself to the top.

We took a break at Stella Point to eat and question our life choices. Although we were already at 18,883 feet, I entertained the insane idea turning back. The closer I was to the apex, the more my insecurities grew. I questioned whether I was physically capable of hiking the last hour to the summit. I tried to remember why I began this trek in the first place – to prove to myself that I am capable of great feats, regardless of what I’ve been told my entire life. My asthma will not define nor limit me. My stubbornness kicks in, and I charged on with my incredibly patient guide, James.

I reminded myself to just keep moving, one foot in front of the other.  I gasped for breath every couple of steps. My lungs screamed in a fiery ball of pain. I had to stop after every few steps. Come on little lungs - keep breathing! The summit was barely half an hour away, but seemed like an eternity. At this point, I could not appreciate the beauty of the glaciers above the clouds that were surrounding me; my eyes were singularly focused on the flag of Uhuru Peak in the distance. 

Summit Day - Barafu Camp - Uhuru Peak - Millennium Camp Mount Kilimanjaro Anne Foss Travel Women

Finally, I step foot onto the summit. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I did a celebratory dance with my guide. I was in disbelief that I made to 19,341 feet, overwhelmed with gratitude and love for my team who provided unwavering support. I could not have done it without them. 

Mount Kilimanjaro at the top of the summit Anne Foss Tanzania Travel Women

We soaked up the joy and reveled in our success for a few moments more before turning back to base camp. It was much easier retracing our steps down the mountain.

After a good nap and hearty lunch, we hiked to Millennium Camp to camp for the night. We were covered in dirt, dust, and grime. Our tired muscles ached. We washed our hands and face in little buckets of boiled hot water and feasted on the best dinner of our lives. 

Day 6 - Millennium Camp to Mweka Gate

I woke up with a feeling of relief and satisfaction. We had breakfast and packed for our final hike. Our incredible team of porters and guides sang and danced for us once more. We all danced in a circle, laughing and enjoying the moment. I didn’t know I would feel so close to this group of strangers after only 6 days. We hiked our final stretch and reached Mweka Gate, and although our trek was finished, I will remember these men for the rest of my life. 

Millennium Camp to Mweka Gate Mount Kilimanjaro Tanzania Travel Women

If anything, this experience taught me to not place limitations of my abilities. I almost didn’t do the climb because of my past experience in high elevations, but I knew I would regret it forever if I didn’t try. I am grateful for this experience, because it has given me a newfound confidence to tackle other challenges. We must remember that we are limitless. If we listen to our internal guidance, prepare, and seek support from others, we are all capable of accomplishing great things -- that’s what climbing Mount Kilimanjaro taught me.

Summit Mount Kilimanjaro Anne Foss Travel Women