ME VS. MOUNTAIN

A local hiking enthusiast decides to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with two of her
girlfriends. Here’s how she did it.

  • Category
    Health
  • Written by
    Katie Chapmon

Step right. Step left. Step right. Step left. Breathe in.  Breathe out. 

I am 1,000 feet away from summiting one of the most formidable mountains in the world. Standing at 19,341 feet, Mount Kilimanjaro still remains a mystery to most. Although not technically challenging, it is a dangerous and difficult trek. 

Emotion runs through my body. I am exhausted, altitude sick and hopeful. It takes everything within me to keep moving forward to accomplish a dream that I only imagined slightly more than a year ago.

How did I get here? How did I decide to do something that most describe as “crazy”? Who does this?

June 2010. Two of my girlfriends: “Katie, we are going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in February 2012. We decided that you are definitely crazy enough to do this with us. You are going.”

Now don’t think that I just blindly said yes. Summiting Mount Kilimanjaro is not just a walk in the park. In fact, an average of only 41% of trekkers actually reach the summit. 

Agreeing to take on the challenge was only the first of many decisions. Little did I know all the things that I would learn along the way: the prep, the gear, the adventure and invaluable lessons about myself.  

The Prep

This type of adventure requires training and preparation. It’s not just something you climb out of bed and do. The training plans that we saw out there (many of them designed specifically for Kilimanjaro) usually called for a medium hike one or two times during the week, a long hike on the weekends and then a short hike the day after. The hikes should be different lengths, terrains and altitudes. 

This is to replicate the fact that you will be hiking several days in a row, which takes a toll on your body and doesn’t provide “rest days.” It also impressed upon us the importance of other cross-training for muscle-building and flexibility. 

What about food? As a registered dietitian, I already had a pretty good handle on the way I eat. However, I think I was really surprised at the actual amount that I needed to eat in order to build up the calories for the long hikes.  

During my training, I focused on eating pretty balanced and clean throughout the week (fresh vegetables, lean protein source, whole grains, fruit), and I would need to eat several times a day to accomplish this. I did notice that if I ate “off” and had something that included extra salt or preservatives, it made me feel sluggish during the hike.  

While on the mountain, we actually ate very well. Although you feel that you are constantly eating, with the altitude your appetite reduces and it was difficult to get in those calories that we so desperately needed. You burn a ridiculous amount of calories every day during the climb—I lost about 10 pounds in the eight days I was climbing.  

The Gear

Of course your gear can make or break you with this climb. You will experience a range of temperatures from 90º to –20º or possibly worse depending on the time of year. All of your gear needs to repel sweat and be built for layering. 

Much research went into my choices of pants, tops, underwear (yes, underwear), boots and socks. Boots and socks were the most important parts of my gear because if my feet were shot, it was going to be a miserable time.  

However, there is gear that I didn’t even know existed (or that I needed). For example, I had to figure out the grand world of urinating off the side of a mountain. At the campsites there was the “long drop toilet”—a shack with a hole in the bottom. Let’s just say that I now have impeccable aim. 

As part of our gear considerations, there is a contraption that was created for ladies to assist in funneling their stream. Oh yes, I said it … it is called “Go Girl.” And mine was pink.

There were other items that also weren’t as obvious: baby wipes, heat pads and baby powder! Due to the lack of showering the entire time you’re on that mountain, combined with varying temperatures and the re-wearing of clothing, cleanliness is a consideration. This is where the baby wipes “shower” comes into play. Using about 10 of these cloths a day actually changes your life and outlook up there.

We bought heat pads that automatically heat when you “crack” them. The idea was to use them specifically for our hands as we summited. However, they proved to be needed much more for other purposes, like sleeping. When you wake up spooning one of your friends through your sleeping bag, you know that it is cold. Using a couple of these heat pads at night in our socks and pants had us sleeping like babies.  

Baby powder may seem like an unusual necessity, but I used it for chafing and my hair. Yes, my hair. Glorious locks that were not washed for eight days benefitted from the use of baby powder nightly. 

It dried out the oil so I didn’t itch and start dreadlocks. Although I looked like a Victorian madame every night I went to bed, I was so thankful to feel less gross and see how good my hair looked in all my pictures.

 

“How did I get here? How did I decide to do something that most describe as ‘crazy’? Who does this?”

 

The Adventure

There are seven trails that reach the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, each ranging in difficulty, terrain and the amount of days required for the hike. We knew we were not expert climbers, although we didn’t want to take the easiest way either. 

We decided on the Lemosho Route, which covers the mountain in eight days—allowing more time for altitude acclimation. For someone like me who lives near the ocean, I needed as much help with the altitude as I could get.  

There is no way we could have accomplished this trip without our crew, which trekking companies provide. In choosing a guide service, we considered our chosen route (some companies only offer certain routes), reviews, money and even blogs we found that mentioned who booked their trip. We settled on Ultimate Kilimanjaro and were given the choice of a “private” trip or joining a larger group. 

 

My friends and I ended up booking the private tour so we didn’t feel we were slowing anyone else down. Ultimate Kilimanjaro took care of everything—hotel arrangements before and after the climb, travel to and from the base of the mountain, and everything in between.  

The adventure itself took us through rainforests, desert, snow and 50 mph winds. Days and days of hiking provided rich views of this most majestic place. We had long and short days of hiking, and the pace was based on how the group was feeling. 

The ascent to the top was the most challenging yet the most fulfilling. It began at the 15,000-foot base camp at 11 p.m. The first 2,500 feet was rock shale, a most tedious undertaking that proved to be slow and mentally challenging, as every couple of steps forward you went one step backward. The 50 mph winds we experienced would topple you over during a gust if you weren’t careful.  

The air was so thin that one step could put you completely out of breath. But this is what we were here to do—summit—and nothing could hold me back from that. I was terribly altitude sick and felt nauseated the entire time. I definitely questioned myself and questioned moving forward in this adventure. 

We climbed throughout the night, and just as I thought I couldn’t go any further, my desire was renewed. At 1,000 feet from the top, the world seemed to be enveloped in white—a pristine glacier on one side, snow drifts on the other and a cloud blanket hiding everything below the peak. 

All of a sudden, the sun started to rise through the cloud blanket, and our surroundings reflected the rich golden hue. I started to cry, and as those tears quickly froze, I realized that life is truly about the experience. On February 17, 2012 at 6:50 a.m., I summited Mount Kilimanjaro.  

Myself

I learned an incredible amount about hiking, tedious training for a goal and gear for mountain adventures.  However, probably the most surprising part of this journey is the incredible change that I went through as a person along the way. 

Most people would agree that something of this caliber would be considered life-changing. For me, though, it provided a shift in my view of myself, the world and my own capabilities.

I learned that I am strong and powerful. I learned that people are the same—no matter where they were born or raised. We all go through love and loss with the same feelings and sentiments. Laughter is sometimes all we can do. 

I cannot be afraid of the unknown anymore, as I fully placed my life into this uncertainty without fear. I had to give up complete control and trust in others in order to survive—something I have never done in my life. This feat pushed me in ways that I never thought possible and could never be more thankful for.  

Now when I walk through life, I just remember … right foot, left foot, breathe in, breathe out. I can accomplish anything.

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