I’m finally back from my big 3 week trip to Tanzania! It was hands down the best vacation I’ve ever taken in my entire life, and I plan on writing multiple posts about everything I did there including day trips in Moshi, my experience on safari in Tarangire National Park and Ngorongoro Crater, and my four solo days exploring the island of Zanzibar. But for now, let’s talk about the real reason I signed up for the trip: climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest freestanding mountain on earth.
When I signed up for this trip back in October of last year, I was extremely nervous but excited. I trained for everything I could think of: cold weather hiking, multiple days backpacking, snowy summits. Living at sea level, the one thing I couldn’t train for was the altitude. So once I arrived in Moshi and saw exactly how big the mountain was, I was terrified. Pictures can’t do it justice at all. I tried to be positive, but the night before the hike I couldn’t help but break down crying on the phone with my mom. I’ve never been so scared about a hike before. My mom actually thought I was backing out of doing it, but I knew that after coming all this way it was something I absolutely had to do, no matter how scared I was.
WHOA Travel was amazing at making me feel better though! At our welcome dinner we all shared why we’d come to climb Kili and a lot of us got emotional. We had a joke that all of the cancers were so emotional that we needed to have a daily crying circle on the mountain to process what was happening. We also got some amazing welcome gifts and finally got the chance to meet all 28 amazing women trying to summit Kili for the first time, our 2 GALs (group leaders), and our main guides and medical staff from Trek 2 Kili. We also had our gear check which helped make me feel more prepared for the hike.
On the morning of August 2nd, I felt nervous but ready to start my trek up Kilimanjaro. I knew as soon as I stepped onto the mountain my nerves would go away and I’d start to enjoy the experience. We boarded two large buses for the Machame Gate and when we arrived we had a few hours to eat lunch, take photos, and use a real bathroom for the last time while our group leaders filled out the paperwork at the ranger station.
I was all smiles jumping around in front of all of the signs for the Machame Gate and even while officially signing in at the ranger station. I had felt nervous all week about traveling internationally and meeting new people, but I felt so much more comfortable being in my hiking boots getting ready to do my favorite activity. Around noon all of our bags were weighed and our team of over 60 Trek 2 Kili employees was ready, so we finally passed through the gate and started hiking Kilimanjaro! I was so excited to finally be doing it!
Day one of the Machame Route was mostly in the jungle. The forest was beautiful and green, and we occasionally got glimpses of monkeys overhead. The hike was slow and not steep at all as we tried to make it up to Machame Camp by sunset. I’ve never hiked in a group that big, and the logistics were so different than hiking in a small group. If you have to pee, you basically need to wait until most of the group has to go. If you want a snack, it better be somewhere you can reach it while walking. I did enjoy the fact that the long hours made for some great conversations with the girls around me and some opportunities from the porters to learn some Swahili. Every few minutes the guides would call out, “sippy sippy!” reminding us to take a drink of water. They key to avoiding altitude sickness was lots of water, as well as taking Diamox pills.
Let’s talk about Diamox for a second. Almost everyone on the hike was using it to prevent altitude sickness. There are two main side effects (peeing a lot and feeling a tingly sensation in your body), so I started taking the pills 2 days early to try to get used to the side effects before I started hiking. The only side effect I got was a tingly sensation in my fingers, face, and feet. The sensation would come and go throughout the day and would start and stop out of nowhere. It wasn’t painful but did feel a bit uncomfortable because a tingly feeling can sometimes signal to my body that I’m feeling dizzy or sick. It was something I had to mentally get over, but it was really hard to do that on the mountain on that first day. By the time we got to our first camp the sun was setting and I was ready for dinner and an early bedtime. Our tents were already set up and dinner was almost ready, but our porters and guides had a special surprise for us: a welcome party! They sang and danced for us and we tried to join in as best as we could as the sun set on day one of the hike.
In the middle of the first night, I woke up with giant shivers running through my body. I’ve never felt that before, and as I tried to figure out what was going on I suddenly had to throw up. I didn’t have time to get dressed so to my horror all I could do was unzip the tent flap and throw up directly outside of our tent. I woke up my roommate, who was amazing at calming me down and helping me find our group leaders. I spent some time in their tent sobbing and trying to calm down as I processed what was happening. Why was I getting sick so soon? Was it something I ate, nerves, or a sign of the dreaded altitude sickness? With apprehension I went back to my tent and slept until morning. At breakfast the main guide, Aboo, sat with me to talk about my sickness the night before and to make sure I was eating and drinking enough to feel stronger.
Day two was a beautiful day of hiking. We were finally above the trees and above the clouds, and the views were gorgeous. Unfortunately I wasn’t feeling any better once we started hiking. At one point pretty soon after starting my hike I got dizzy and almost fell, so a guide took my backpack and helped me climb over some of the difficult rock portions. During our first break I was eating and chatting with a fellow hiker when all of a sudden I turned mid-sentence and threw up in the bushes. I was mortified and also felt like I didn’t want to keep hiking anymore. After a pep talk from one of the GALs and hearing my guide, August, tell me that throwing up will eventually make me feel better, I kept going at a very slow, “pole pole” pace. I learned that most of the time when someone throws up early on the trek it means they will bounce back the next day once they’ve acclimatized and they won’t be as sick from that point on, so that’s what I hoped for.
August and I walked a bit behind the main group while I worked through occasional dizziness and constant nausea. He was an amazing guide! He was pretty quiet but told me all about the plants that we were seeing which helped keep my mind off things. He also introduced me to the porters that passed us on the hike up, telling them that I was his daughter and making me smile. He kept telling me that throwing up would make me “Nguvu kama simba” (strong like a lion) and even suggested that I induce throwing up so that I could feel better sooner. I didn’t want to do that, so I hiked the rest of the day feeling nauseous. I paused a few times to take pictures of the gorgeous scenery and to try to eat, and eventually I reached Shira Cave Camp only a few minutes behind the main group of girls. August had carried my bag the entire day and had occasionally needed to hold me up when I got dizzy, but I was proud to finally be at camp in time for a late lunch.
I was starving but nauseous, so I tentatively ate a few french fries and a few spoonfuls of pasta. After about 10 minutes, I had to run outside to throw it all up again. As I was sobbing on the ground, I felt August rubbing my back and telling me I was going to feel stronger tomorrow. He wiped my tears and when I turned back to look at him I noticed a man standing next to him offering me a cup of ginger tea. The support from the crew was amazing! I tried to eat again and then took a nap until dinner. All I could keep down was a bowl of soup and more ginger tea before going to bed. I was too sleepy to think about anything, but I knew deep down that what was happening to my body was caused by altitude and it scared me. I was only at 12,303 feet and had to go a lot higher before reaching the summit.
Day three was sunny, windy, and cold. I bundled up in my fleece pants, my nano puff jacket, and another puffy as we started our day in the mess tent. I was being closely watched by the medical staff so I forced down a bowl of oatmeal and 2 small bananas to prove that I was feeling a bit better and was ready to hike again. I started by carrying my own bag again which made me hopeful that today would be better. But I was still dealing with constant nausea, and within the first hour I threw up again. I did feel better immediately after getting sick, but I really had to force myself to keep eating and drinking because I knew it was all going to come back up soon.
The terrain was basically free of any plants, and all I could see was giant boulders and the summit of Kili getting closer and closer. As we climbed higher I started to get more dizzy and sleepy and also started to have a headache. At times I felt like I was blacking out and falling asleep only to wake up still walking towards Lava Tower, our stopping point for lunch. I stopped talking and fully went inside myself, knowing that my only option was to keep walking and maybe by some miracle I’d start to feel better soon. Eventually most of the group left me and I was alone with one other hiker, a medic, and a guide named Harun who was really positive. When I’d stop to throw up he’d say “hakuna matata!” and carried my bag when I got too slow and dizzy. As we ascended the final hike up to Lava Tower he had to hold me up because I was so weak and dizzy. My body was on autopilot and 75% of my brain felt like it was asleep. Occasional thoughts like “drink water” and “put on sunscreen” and “you’re sick” would break through, but mostly I was in a haze.
When I arrived at Lava Tower, Harun propped me up on the sign and took my picture before putting me into the mess tent for lunch. Everyone cheered for me and one of the group leaders gave me a mug of ginger tea to drink. I was so sleepy I almost fell asleep at the table and was woken up to finish drinking the ginger tea. My vision was blurring in and out and it scared me. I eventually ran outside to throw up the ginger tea, and the main guide caught me and pulled me into the shade of a giant boulder. The medic ran over and did a few tests before looking me in the eyes and saying, “We have to make a decision. You need to go down right now”. I was so sick I could barely make sense of what was happening, but I could see the concern on the guides’ faces as well as the sadness on the faces of the group leaders. Behind them the summit of Kilimanjaro looked so close. I cried and cried as they told me that I needed to be evacuated immediately and by the end of the night I’d be back at the hotel – but I needed to leave right now for my safety. My dream of summiting Kilimanjaro was over. My summit photo wouldn’t be at Uhuru Peak – it would instead be my photo at Lava Tower, 15,091 feet above sea level.
A guide named Hussein put my bag on and helped me to my feet and we started walking down to my evacuation point at Shira 2 Camp. We were now on the Lemosho Route, which was slightly different than the route I’d taken up earlier that day. Most of my nonexistent energy was spent looking at the ground trying to move forward, but I occasionally was able to look around and take in the gorgeous views. Going downhill was so much easier and I was able to move quickly. My guide was completely silent but whenever I would stop to throw up he would rub my back and say kind words while offering me a wipe for my face. I occasionally tried to eat and drink water but I was no longer able to keep anything down for very long so I eventually gave up. We arrived at Shira 2 Camp and he radioed for an ambulance to pick us up on a nearby evacuation road. We were still at 12,500 ft so I was still sick and actually fell asleep sitting in the ranger’s office. I was eventually woken up and my guide and a ranger helped me walk to the ambulance pickup. The sun was setting and it was one of the most gorgeous sunsets I’ve ever seen. As we walked the final 30 minutes to the pickup site I had to stop and throw up one more time. Almost nothing was coming out but my body kept retching until I eventually collapsed in a bush. I looked up at Hussein and said, “I guess I really did have to get off the mountain. I think I’m really sick.” He looked at me with sadness and said, “You made the brave and smart decision to come down.” My eyes filled with tears because it finally hit me that I wasn’t going to be able to summit Kilimanjaro.
We reached the ambulance just as the sun set and I fell asleep immediately. I occasionally woke up and realized we were driving crazy fast down a bumpy dirt road in the dark, which probably would have been terrifying if I was able to think about what was happening to me. We stopped at the Londorossi Gate to sign me out and my Kilimanjaro hike was officially over. After another hour of sleepy driving on a bumpy dirt road through villages, we arrived at a gas station where a WHOA employee picked me up for our final one hour drive back to the hotel in Moshi. As soon as I sat down in my hotel room I realized that I was able to breathe again and was even able to drink water and eat a bit. It was shocking how I was instantly 100% better as soon as I descended the mountain.
Honestly, for the first two days my only reaction to my evacuation was happiness that I could once again eat and drink. My stomach was so shrunken and sensitive that I was only able to eat small amounts, but my nausea and headache was gone and I felt like a human again. On the day the group was summiting the mountain I felt sad and jealous, and I cried with one of the WHOA employees and another girl who had been evacuated because I wanted to be up there summiting with the rest of my group. She helped me realize that my body just wasn’t made to work at altitude, and that I had to be okay with that. Some people get so sick at altitude that they are permanently injured (she shared a story about someone she had met at Everest Base Camp who sustained permanent brain damage due to altitude) or even die. No mountain summit is worth having that happen to me.
I’d read so many blog posts before climbing Kilimanjaro that basically said, “I’m not even a hiker and I summited it – if I can do it so can you!” Those posts make me angry now because that’s not advice that anyone should ever give. Only 22 out of the 28 girls in our group were able to summit Kilimanjaro. Acute Mountain Sickness is no joke and it can happen to ANYONE regardless of how much you’ve trained or how bad you want it. My evacuation had nothing to do with my training or my mental strength on the mountain. In fact, it was my training and mental strength that helped me get through the longest hiking day of my life to be evacuated safely. I was never sore and my body was never tired (even when I was falling asleep while hiking), and I never wanted to give up. But for some reason out of my control I was not able to hike at altitude. And I’m okay with that. I can still say I went to Tanzania and climbed Kilimanjaro, and I still have pictures of the gorgeous views for the the first half of the Machame Route. I still had the experience of climbing up to 15,091 feet – a height taller than any point in the Lower 48 states – with a group of badass women and amazing and patient guides. I don’t regret taking this trip at all, and really enjoyed my extra days off the mountain to explore Moshi (which I’ll share in an upcoming post!). A lot of people have asked me if I ever plan on trying again, and my answer is no. I won’t ever forget how terrible it felt to climb at altitude and it costs so much money that I’d hate to try it again and get the same result. I could try 10 times and never make it. But I do want to try altitude again at some point in my life, just at a closer and lower location (like Colorado or the Sierras).
I don’t want anyone to be discouraged by this post if it’s your dream to summit Kilimanjaro. I definitely recommend trying it, especially for the amazing friendships you make and the experience of traveling to the gorgeous country of Tanzania. Make sure you’ve trained for long days of hiking and if possible try hiking and training at altitude. Book a tour group that is a part of KPAP and treats the guides and porters humanely (I highly recommend WHOA and Trek 2 Kili!) and always listen to your guides – they know how to keep you safe and get you off the mountain alive. Overall, my experience climbing Kili is one that I’ll never forget and will always look back on as something I’m proud of doing. I may not have summited, but I climbed higher than I’ve ever climbed in my life and I proved that I’m stronger than I thought I was.
Have you ever experienced AMS or any altitude related symptoms? Have you ever tried and failed at summiting a mountain?