Nov 4, 2015

The Mountain of Greatness - The Summit

Mt. Kilimanjaro, one step at time ! 

The Mountain of Greatness, the last installment. 

The Roof of Africa 

Thanks to Jenell for answering all the questions and allowing me to be part of this amazing experience, adventure, journey via the interviews and photos and the updates from expedition guide, Dave Hahn, on the RMI guide blog. 

If you read Verse In Progress ongoing, you've read the installments leading up to this one. 

If you've not read the initial posts, you can access via the Kilimanjaro tag label. See the homepage of VIP, all subjects by label are on right hand column. 

 “Kili” as it’s known to many is a dominant volcanic mountain in Tanazania. It is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest freestanding mountain (not part of a mountain range) in the world at 19,342 feet above see level. The origin of the name Kilimanjaro is not precisely known, but a number of theories exist. My favorite from all that I read, the name translates in Sawhili language to The Mountain of Greatness.

Jenell at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro  - Sept 2015 

1_ What was it like when you got to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro ?  

Summit day was very intense and emotional, it actually started for us the day before our summit attempt. We had dinner early, around 5pm to allow as much time as possible to try to get some sleep before waking at 12AM to begin our summit attempt. At dinner, one of our trekkers excused herself from the table and failed to return. Our RMI Guide, Dave Hahn, asked someone to check on her and they returned asking Dave to come quickly.

We learned later that she suffered an anxiety attack. The effort of the trek so far and the stress she felt about the daunting climb ahead of us was almost too much. We didn’t know her status until midnight arrived and we gathered in the mess tent to begin our summit attempt. She was ready to give it a try despite her fear.

Standing outside our tent in the dark at 15,000ft wearing 5 layers above the waste and 3 layers below and still feeling chilled was an exhilarating experience. Seeing the entire Milky Way lit up and pulsing with every star you never knew existed was breathtaking! We each had a headlamp and could only see a few feet while we began our ascent. The climb took almost 6 hours, it was the hardest trek I’ve ever done. We could literally only concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other in the spot the person in front of us just put theirs, and remember to breathe, one breath at a time. We stopped for several breaks, the last one before the summit was the worst. I sat on a boulder and looked at my feet where a tombstone commemorated a gentleman who died there only a few months before during his summit attempt.

As we climbed the trail that night we passed many individuals who had stopped, struggling to breathe, struggling to say warm, struggling with emotion from the stress, the effort and their fear. An hour into our climb we learned that our fellow trekker who suffered the anxiety attack the night before had decided to return to camp only a few minutes into our summit attempt. Dave had assigned one of our local guides to take her back to camp quietly and efficiently while the rest of us continued to climb.

Several hours into the night, we looked to our right in the pitch black and saw a blood red harvest moon. We had no idea it was supposed to be a blood moon that night and were shocked and delighted to see such a site! Hours later at one of our rest breaks the sun peaked just above the horizon creating a violet crown, it was breathtaking. We must have been at almost 18,000ft. We had not reached the summit at day break like most groups do, which is the goal of beginning at midnight. Instead we watched day break BELOW us, looking down at the sunrise as it lit up the sky.

Our guides took my backpack from me at some point during the summit attempt. I didn’t argue with them and for a few moments felt a sense of disappointment and almost shame that I couldn’t carry my pack to the top. I wasn’t drinking enough water so the extra 20lbs wasn’t getting any lighter like it usually did on our trek. Our guide Dave Hahn mentioned the night before that if necessary our guides would take our gear if they thought it would help us summit, and urged us not to protest and to follow their direction for our best interest.

I saw Sabrina struggling too and asked a guide to take her pack, she protested for a minute but finally gave it up too. Later she complained of being too cold, she couldn’t get warm and asked for her pack again. They gave it back to her the last few minutes of the climb. She confessed later after our descent that she could not remember at least an hour of our final summit climb. She blacked out and only remembered arriving at the top!

When we reached Stella Point at 18,652ft, Dave (a trained EMT) quickly assessed each of us before clearing us to continue on to Uhuru Peak to 19,341ft. 

He broke the news to two gentlemen that their lives may be at risk and they should not continue on. One of them began to cry, crushed and disappointed that his year of training and preparation was not enough. They were both struggling with AMS (acute mountain sickness) and were asked to descend immediately. One refused and asked to be able to attempt to summit, he went on against our guide’s advice and only made it a few steps before agreeing to descend.

I felt incredible, totally healthy, exhilarated, and excited to make the summit. I had energy remaining and felt strong. I also felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest, every breath was a huge effort. One step forward took every bit of concentration and focus I had left. I guess they call it the Kilimanjaro Zombie walk for good reason, everything was in slow motion. Every time I looked up and thought surely I must be close, the trail extended beyond my view and I had to keep going. Looking down along side the trail at the glaciers all around us was other-worldly. The landscape was barren of life, nothing but lava dust and rocks and glaciers, sitting above the clouds and the sun rising below us.

I was really proud to be walking behind our oldest trekker, 63yr old Dora who traveled to Kilimanjaro all by herself. She was inspiring! Our group was led by Kevin, Dora, myself and Sabrina to the summit. We knew we were close to the top when we started passing people returning from the peak, each of them giving us words of encouragement: “You’re almost there! Keep going! Congratulations, you can do it! It’s so worth it, keep going!”

Finally the famous Uhuru Peak sign appeared and the trail leveled out. Breathing somehow became easier (adrenaline?!) and we scrambled to take all the photos we could, each of us posing with banners, and keepsakes we brought with us to commemorate the climb. I continued past the sign though off the trail about 20 ft towards the glacier in the distance.

I sat down by myself for a moment and said a prayer thanking God, Buddha, the universe and my Uncle Lynal for blessing me with this moment. Many times during the trek over the past week I was overcome with grief. I fought back tears so many times during the hike, thinking of my Uncle who had passed away a few weeks before I left for Africa. We were so close, he was like a Dad to me and I was angry and sad that he was gone. I kept telling myself to hold on to the sadness, keep walking, I could let it go when I summited. So there I was at the summit but I could only cry for a minute, I was so elated to be there that the sadness wouldn’t come. I quietly spread my Uncles ashes I had brought with me and wished him peace on his journey.


We only spent about 15 minutes Uhuru Peak. There was such a steady stream of people arriving and taking pictures with the sign, that we had to hurry to get our photos in and get out of the way to let everyone have a turn. Our guide let us know it was time to leave so we could begin our 18 hour descent as a team.

2_ What do you most remember now of your brief time spent at the top of the world ? 

What I remember most about the trek is my excitement and absolute love of the journey to get there. The moment at the summit is just a moment, an almost overwhelming sense of accomplishment, but it’s the months of training, hard work, excitement and joy from the process of getting there that I love the most. That, and seeing the Milky Way at night, the absolute quiet and stillness of the earth above 15,000ft.

RMI Expedition  Group lead by guide, Dave Hahn 

3- Describe the expedition group ? 

I filmed a video with my GoPro of the journey and took a moment at high camp at 15,000ft to interview each of my fellow trekkers. I asked them to give their name, age, where they were from and if they could give one piece of advice to someone considering Kilimanjaro, what would it be? So fun to hear their responses! Everyone in our group of 10 hikers was over the age of 50, except me and Sabrina. Our oldest trekker was 63, Sabrina was the youngest at 38. We had several solo hikers who traveled on their own, one married couple, two cousins trekking together and Sabrina and I were the only two hiking as friends.

On the second day of our trek, personalities started to emerge. I suggested that we have a little fun giving each other nick names. We had to earn our Trail Name from the group, it couldn’t be an existing nick name and we couldn’t determine our own. The names were a fun reflection of our personalities:

Keith Kevin 
      We couldn’t remember his name, so we called him both.

Dora the Explorer 
Her name was Dora and she traveled the world extensively all by herself!

    He worked for Disney and talked about it incessantly. He was also a Duck Captain, professional Actor, retired military pilot and stand up comedian. He failed to summit, he made it to Stella Point.

Wall Street
He was an investment broker and talked about it incessantly!

Madam President 
She worked at the White House during the Bush administration and was very polished and proper.

She wouldn’t let us choose a name for her, she gave this to herself because she was always at the back of the pack and fell several times and had a  hard time getting up steep or rocky inclines. This was our hiker who stoppedat 15,000ft and was not able to summit.

Mama Simba 
This name was given to our sweetest member by our local 
Tanzanian guides.  She was part of the husband and wife couple married to Wallstreet, and was a Trail Mom to us all ;)

A solo traveling gentleman who was a Park Ranger back home and the 
sweetest, most knowledgeable member of our group. He failed to summit, 
he made it to Stella Point.

Goldie Locks 
This was Sabrina’s trail name, for the fact that her hair looked amazing 
even after 7 days without a shower!

This was my trail name, I was so excited about fresh bacon made for 
breakfast on the trail that our chef made extra just for me, 
wrapped in tinfoil for me to take on the trail every day as a snack. 

This was our guide, Dave Hahn’s name. 
Even though he wanted to be Han Solo, 
we saw him as our wise teacher andleader of all Jedi Masters ;)

4_ What surprised you most about the group ?

What surprised me about the group was our ability to be compassionate and kind to each other the entire time. We got on each other’s nerves a little by the end of the safari but overall we were very accommodating to each other even though we had such diverse backgrounds.

5_ Tell us about the RMI expedition guide Dave Hahn ? What did you appreciate most about him and his vast experience as a guide ?

Dave was an absolute treat! We were so incredibly lucky to have him as our guide. He is a world renowned mountaineer, holding the World Record for Everest Summit success (for a white man, as he put it, only Sherpas have summited more than the 15 times he’s made it to the top).

I appreciated his absolute humble nature, he told so many amazing stories of treacherous climbs, saving people’s lives, achieving national and international awards but always with the most “oh gosh, I’m just like everybody else” kind of attitude! He was super funny and kind to everyone, he had the patience of Job.

6_ From a technical perspective regarding climbing, what did you learn from Dave ?

Two very important things that Dave taught us was the “rest step” and the “pressure breath” techniques that helped us summit. The rest step puts one foot in front of the other and pauses for a few seconds, keeping your weight on the leg behind you, allowing your leg muscles to rest, before shifting your weight and taking another step. This tiny maneuver allows you to save energy instead of taking one constant weight bearing step after another. That tiny rest after 7 days of trekking all day every day to 19,341ft makes a huge difference!

The pressure breath taught us to blow a quick, complete breath out like we were blowing out candles, every few breaths. It actually helps oxygenate your blood, RMI references the technique here:

The other thing Dave taught us is that anyone can climb a mountain of any height, in his words: “as long as you point yourself in the right direction.”

6_ Did you get to know the porters ? Tell us about their role ?

I didn’t get to know the porters as well as some of the other members of our group. I didn’t spend as much time chatting along the trail. I spent more time in my own head thinking. I did chat a bit with our lead guide, Güenther. He told me he was a local farmer by trade, he grew coffee and bananas which is very common in the Kilimanjaro area. His actual age was a mystery to us because he gave a different answer to everyone that asked: 40, 45, 55, and 60. He said he leads expeditions to the summit of Kili 3 times a year, all within 3 months. I would guess his age to probably be closer to 50 or 60.

We often marveled at the athleticism of the porters, carrying up to 30lbs sometimes balanced on their heads while walking the same trail we struggled on. After we left in the morning, they packed up our entire camp, raced past us on the trail and set up camp to be waiting for us when we arrived.

We got to know our primary 4-5 crew members who walked among us on the trail and cooked our meals each day much more then the rest. The other 45 crew members were mainly in the background so we didn’t hear from them directly while they worked to set up and break down campsites.

Our RMI guide Dave reminded us though that although our crew were much faster on the trail carrying much heavier loads, their bodies took a much heavier toll as a result, shortening their life expectancy compared to ours. 

7_ Were you ever scared ?

No, I wouldn’t say anything about the trek scared me. I was only afraid that I would not summit. Others that said they were afraid of heights were scared on the third day when we had to scramble our way up the Barranco Wall, literally hand over foot up a very steep ledge only the width of our feet while hugging the cliff wall so porters could pass us on the ledge carrying very heavy loads. If we moved unexpectedly, we could have thrown the porters off the ledge so we were advised to hold very still when they passed. They were probably more scared of us that day!

Jenell and Sabrina 

8_ Any issues with your and Sabrina’s health and fitness during the climb ?

Yes, but not until the end of the trek. After the summit Sabrina confessed that she blacked out for about an hour. She didn’t remember the final hour of our climb before we summited, but she had no idea during the climb that anything was wrong. I couldn’t tell anything was wrong with her either. She said she could remember reaching Stella point and everything after, and leaving camp at midnight but still can’t remember me telling her to give her pack to the guides.

My knee was my only health concern, I had already become accustomed to it hurting every day before the trek when I tore the meniscus during a SUP race. I did not wear a brace during the trek and was careful to use hiking poles the entire time to help me with stability. It wasn’t until the last two days descending the mountain that my knee really became an issue. By the last few hours on the last day after walking downhill at a steep incline for almost 18 hours, my knee hurt so bad I was almost using my trekking poles as crutches. But even my good knee hurt from the abuse, so as soon as I rested the next day I was back on track.

9_  Did you have time for yourself during the climb ? How so ?

Almost none at all, our guides kept us together as a group for safety. And, there were so many other expeditions on the mountain at the same time, we were constantly surrounded by other groups and porters coming and going.

Luckily though, I was able to create a space to hike in solitude for about an hour on the final day during our descent. I created a gap between myself and the rest of my group on the trail. We had naturally separated into small groups of fast hikers and slow hikers. Our RMI guide Dave Hahn always stayed at the very back of the pack with the slowest hikers to ensure their success. Our local Tanzanian guide, Güenther, led the fast hikers and established our pace and schedule for the day. He had the most knowledge and experience on the mountain so he was always in the lead.

On the last day, I hiked faster than our slow group to get ahead and out of site of them, but let myself fall behind and out of site of the fast pack. This gave me about an hour during the jungle portion of the trail all to myself. Normally our trail guides wouldn’t allow this, but I think they were eager to be done on the last day and let me tell them to go ahead without me. It was absolute bliss while it lasted, not listening to anyone talk about work, family, politics, money, or how tired they were! I was able to really hear and enjoy the sound of birds chirping, the breeze in the trees covered in Spanish moss and the hum of insects and calls of monkeys in the trees. I coined a term to describe it, I call it “minding the gap”. I did it in Peru trekking to Machu Picchu and was happy to get to do it again in Africa.

10_In addition to reaching the summit, what other aspects of the climb were memorable ?

So many things like the incredible White Necked Ravens that followed us almost all the way to the summit. The weird plants you’ll never see anywhere else in the world, the massive Eagle that appeared at high camp for just a few minutes soaring above and then disappeared. The Milky Way that lit up the night sky like I’ve never seen before, the absolute stillness of the earth at night with no animals, traffic, lights or manmade machines for miles at elevation.

The utter sense of satisfaction every day that I worked hard to get there so I could really enjoy the moment I was experiencing.

The Boots ! ! 

11_ What advice would you give to those considering signing up for the Mount Kilimanjaro expedition ?


But seriously train months before, although being in the best shape of your life isn’t absolutely necessary to summit (altitude sickness can take you out no matter how healthy or strong you are!) it makes the difference between feeling confident and comfortable during the trek, or being anxious and exhausted the entire time.

Also, I suggest taking Diamox during the trek and testing yourself on it before you go. Our guide told us not to take it unless absolutely necessary because he believed it was like using a “hammer on a thumb tack” and that we should “allow ourselves to feel altitude sickness as a part of the experience.” I believe one of our trekkers took that advice too much to heart and only took Diamox on the summit day when he was beyond help and suffered greatly. He admitted after ward that he had been feeling sick days before but thought our guide’s advice meant that Diamox was like aspirin and you could take when you were in trouble and the symptoms could be controlled.

I took Diamox starting two days into the climb, but only took ½ the RX amount until the day before summit, when I took the full RX recommended. My personal opinion and experience during training was that it enhanced my performance, it certainly didn’t hurt it so I chose to use all the tools I had available to me to be sure I was able to summit successfully.

12 – What was the safari like ? Were you able to settle comfortably in this wonderful experience just days after reaching the summit of the Mountain of Greatness ?

You would think that might be difficult to do, but we really enjoyed the Safari experience to the fullest. Because it took us two days to descend and we had one day at the same hotel we stayed at before Kili, the transition to Safari was an entirely new vacation. The experience was awe inspiring and life changing just like the mountain trek.

When we entered the Ngorongoro Crater, near the location scientists discovered Lucy, the oldest humanoid remains ever found (3.2 million years old) it truly felt like we were experiencing the birthplace of mankind.

The protected area was like a movie set, where we saw zebras, water buffalo, hippos, jackals, hyenas, millions of pink flamingos, gazelles, wildebeests and an almost unlimited number of monkeys and birds. The most rare animal we saw from the safety of our vehicle was a black rhinoceros.

We visited a Maasai village which was the highlight for me. I learned that this ancient tribe lives life today much like they have for thousands of years and have fought for the freedom to do so amongst the wild beasts on protected lands where no other humans are allowed to occupy. They subsist almost entirely by herding cattle and have a very special relationship with the animal. It was fascinating to me. We saw many Maasai people in villages and towns dressed in their traditional shuka herding large herds of cattle with no fences, or vehicles but only by carrying a stick and running along side the animals. They seemed so regal, their stunning jewelry and bright colored clothes were such a contrast against their drab surroundings and dark skin.

It was so enjoyable to stay in such stunning accommodations that were such a pleasure after sleeping in a tent on the ground without a shower for 8 days! 

13_ How has this amazing experience influenced your life ? How are you different now than before you traveled to Tanzania to climb the tallest free range mountain in the world ?

I would say that it has definitely influenced my life in a very positive way to see the culture of east Africa, the townships, the people, their economy, the beauty of the land and animals. It expanded my understanding of the world, our differences but what makes us all essentially the same.

The trek itself has given me a point of reference that makes me feel like I can accomplish absolutely anything. I literally hear myself saying “of course I can do that, I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, I can do anything!”

14_ If you could title a book written about this experience, what would the title be ?

I would love to write about my experience, I’m not sure this would be the actual title of my story but right now I can imagine calling it something like:

“One Foot in Front of the Other, One Breath at a Time – Learning the Secrets of Life while Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro”