On International Women's Day, March 8, 2016, I summited Mt. Kilimanjaro with a team of badass women.

We climbed to raise awareness of violence against women in war zones and money to fund grassroots organizations helping survivors with the One Million Thumbprints organization. We had just come to Tanzania after spending time with sexual violence survivors in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Those women were our inspiration and examples of courage and resilience. We climbed to honor their strength and amplify their stories and voices.

This is part of a series of posts about my #1MTclimb4peace charity climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro on March 8, 2016 (International Women’s Day) with One Million Thumbprints. Please click the category #1MTclimb4peace to see all of the posts in the series.(more coming soon) 

**Disclaimer: Below, you will find that I am brutally honest about climbing Kilimanjaro. You may scratch your head and think, “Why would anyone in their right mind want to climb that mountain?” Ha! Although I have no immediate inclination to ever do it again, I wonder if it is like childbirth…. the farther you get from the experience, the less brutal you remember it being?! Who knows. Having said all of this, I am SO glad I was a part of this particular trip and team. We climbed for a myriad of reasons… many of which we had just met face to face in the DRC. We climbed to amplify the voices and the stories of our suffering sisters living in war zones around the world. And getting to the top of that mountain, together, was worth every single, brutal step. Personally, the climb would not have been worth it, without the camaraderie, support and shared purpose and vision of the One Million Thumbprints Climb for Peace team. With them, this experience was truly life changing and actually enjoyable (clearly…. since I just got a tattoo to prove it!). And I have absolutely no regrets. But I still would have appreciated knowing the following 10 (+1) things ahead of time.**


1. #kililips – I woke up on the morning of Day 4 with a lower lip about 5 sizes too big. WHAT THE….? No one told me this would or could happen. I was not mentally prepared. Over the next 3 days, nearly half the team got their own #kililips. We assume it has to do with altitude issues and/or sun exposure??!! No one has yet to adequately explain it to us. But it was a thing. A really uncomfortable and somewhat self conscious thing. (although as soon as you looked around and saw 3 others with lower lips larger than life itself, you didn’t feel quite as self conscious). 

(my teammate's actual lips - shared with permission)

2. Diamox – the altitude sickness prevention medication, makes you drowsy. So, when the guides suggest taking a double dose of it (relax, its well within the normal dosage of the medication) right before you start the midnight 8+ hour trek up Kilimanjaro, just know that its like taking a Benadryl or two and then putting on all the clothing you have and going out into the pitch darkness and walking at the slowest snail’s pace you can possible go while still moving forward… straight up a mountain. Diamox is good, and I am thankful I took it. Falling asleep, repeatedly, while walking up a cliff in the pitch darkness, was not so good and just a little, teeny, tiny bit terrifying.

3. Toilets – Whatever company you go with… pay the extra money for a toilet tent. It is still primitive. But holy toilets… for those with any gastro issues, after a long day’s trek or on the backside of summit day (i.e. when every muscle and bone in your entire body is screaming in pain), it is pure luxury necessity to be able to sit on a toilet rather than squat over a hole.

4. #kiliskin – Ok, so you pack and pack and pack everything you can think of that you could possibly need for 6+ days on the mountain. Everything but sunscreen, that is. *smile* Luckily you have 13 other friends who did not make this mistake. So you diligently lather up each morning with the 30-50SPF creams. And you still get fried to a crisp. F R I E D. As in your ears get so burnt they split open. And your lips split and your skin has raging sun blisters. All of which mean that about 5-6 days later, you are a walking reptile, shedding flakes of skin (in all sizes and shapes) everywhere you go, and especially on all of your clothing. For those of us whose go-to mountain uniform was all black, this was more of a problematic issue. And if you happen to be of Asian descent (as two of my friends on the team are), this will be a potentially traumatic experience as your first and only sunburn/blistering/peeling experience. (I will refrain from posting a photo of this phenomenon – you are welcome.)

5. Distance – So, technically you know how long your trek is. You read all the day-by-day distance and climate zones you will be going through. It sounds exciting and adventurous. At first. But, as in most things, reality doesn’t really translate accurately from projection. No one tells you that you end up walking a half marathon AFTER you summit. Yes, the euphoria of summiting is amazing and fills you will energy and excitement to spare. But the minute you start down the mountain and the pain in your knees, feet, toes, back and lungs kicks in, the euphoria makes a quick exit. All you can think about is getting back to basecamp and either diving in your tent to get horizontal, or collapsing in a chair to get off your feet. So you push it, through the pain (and in my case, through a hail storm!) down the mountain to base camp. Along with a hot cup of tea you are greeted with “Good job! Now repack your backpack and walk down to the next camp… just a few more hours.” And all you want to do is cry. And then you wake up and walk over 12 miles to get out of the park.

(the long walk home, out of the park on day 6)

6. Summit Day – It is horrible. Really, I am just being as honest as I can. I found precious few who would honestly describe the day, so I am going to go there. As stated before, you start the midnight trek exhausted, and then add a dose medication that makes you literally fall asleep on your feet. You have read all about “Pole, pole!” the Swahili phrase, “Slowly, slowly.” But you don’t really understand HOW slowly until summit day. I mean, you have gone pretty freaking pole on the previous days (some of which you are thankful for, some of which you think is crazy). But summit pole is a whole different animal. I don’t think I can adequately describe how pole you go… just imagine the slowest you can possibly move and then know that it is slower than that. I don’t say this to knock the system or the guides. Our guides got all 15 of us up that mountain, so I have faith in their methods. I just wasn’t mentally prepared. Because of how slow you are moving, how dark it is and drowsy you are, you actually fall asleep walking. Over and over and over. It was terrifying once we got to the steep switchbacks. Terrifying. And mentally very hard to deal with. I just kept thinking, “This is the most miserable I have ever felt…” When you summit, all becomes well again in your soul. Euphoria. Adrenaline. Tears. All good things. And then you start down. And the pain kicks in. I didn’t have knee problems until coming down the mountain. My feet and toes and knees and quads and back and shoulders were screaming in pain. UTTER MISERY. And those last “few hours” walking to the next camp down the mountain were the hardest few hours of the whole trip (in my experience). I wish someone could have recorded me walking into our camp on summit day night (not base camp, the next one down)… I was close to crawling because my legs and feet hurt so badly. I literally could barely move. I collapsed into my tent, skipped dinner, grumbled and complained to my tent mate for some time and nearly cried myself to sleep. We started climbing that day at midnight. I did not collapse into my tent until almost 8pm that night. There were about 3 stops during the day for anything more than 5 minutes. Brutal. Utterly, completely miserable and brutal. (but worth it, remember?) Oh and guess what? You have to walk 12 more miles the next day…. This news will make you cry. Or scream. Or hit someone.

(climbing about 80% of the way in pitch darkness is no joke)

7. Sleep – So, guess what? You can’t take sleep aids on the mountain. No benadryl, ambien, xanax, or anything. This was a real issue for many of us on the trek. You know how much energy you will need day to day, and you know you need precious sleep and rest. But sleeping on the hard ground in a tent isn’t something your bad self is used to…. thus, there will be a lot of sleeplessness. I can’t speak for the whole team, but I felt that in the end, people got what they needed, even if it didn’t seem like it. There was much angst in the beginning over the lack of sleep, but towards the end of the journey your body just takes over. When I literally collapsed into my tent on summit day night, I started to cry thinking about having to get up at 6 am and walk another 12 miles to get to our vehicle that would take us back to our hotel (and a bathtub). I thought it would be literally impossible, physically, considering how much pain I was in. But sleep, although fleeting on the mountain, is incredibly healing. I can’t tell you the amount of times someone was sick, spent, in bad shape and a nap or a night of sleep seemed to restore health to their muscles, hearts and minds. I know it did for me. I woke up on Day 6 and although sore, wasn’t in screaming pain. It also helped that the walk was a beautiful trek through the Tanzanian countryside. Trust the process. Sleep will come when you need it…. and it will heal you in ways you never expected.

8. #kilitoes – So, many of us have come home with toe…. issues. Some are classic “marathon toes”, but some of us have some mystery issues with our toes. Mostly the right toes. I have yet to figure this out, but the fact that several on the team are experiencing this makes me think you need to know about it. Personally, it’s the toe next to my right big toe. It doesn’t hurt, there is no pain. There is also no feeling. But I can feel it when I touch it. Weird? Crazy? Yes. One teammate described it as feeling “detached from my body.” Yes. That. Just felt like you should know you might have weird toe feelings (or lack of feelings) after the climb. Knowledge is power. 

(My toes on day 1 of the climb. Again, because I want you to come back and read this blog, I will refrain from posting post-climb toes. You are welcome.)

9. Climate – I researched as much as I possibly could about the weather on Kili. And the overwhelming response was “It is unpredictable. Be prepared.” I am here to testify to this fact. We came prepared for it to be so cold we couldn’t see straight. It was not. We had mostly clear blue skies and sun for most of the trek (which also contributed to #4 above). Some clouds and a few drops of rain came in and out a few times, but nothing sustainable or more than just a few minutes. Until summit day. We all summited Gilman’s Point in perfect clear blue skies and relative warmth. I summited with nothing but one Under Armor cold gear base layer shirt on. But 2 hours later, just as we were approaching the Uhuru Peak summit, the clouds has rolled in. And with them hail, snow and rain… for hours. I walked down the mountain in a whiteout… fog, hail, snow. It was crazy. By the time we started walking to the next camp, though, it was clear blue skies again. And the day after we got back to our hotel (day after the trek ended), it rained for 2 solid days. We looked up at Kilimanjaro as we left Tanzania and it was covered with a distinct layer of white. It is truly, truly unpredictable. Good luck with that. 

(Clear blue skies at the first summit, Gilman's Point)

(Totally enveloped in clouds just an hour later.))

(Whiteout with hail and rain coming down the mountain!)

10. Landscape – Ok, there are endless images of Kilimanjaro and the treks and various routes. You see all of this. But do you really SEE that you are actually walking across MARS? Because that is exactly what it feels like from Day 4 on. There is nothing. No vegetation. Just dirt and scree. You see all of this, but it does not compute in your brain until you are walking, for hours and hours, across no-man’s land and you feel like you are on an alien planet. I tell you this because in my past experience, hiking treks were always full of beauty…. you know, like hiking in the Rockies in Colorado, or the Pacific Northwest or the Alps. There is beauty everywhere… at every turn, vista and lookout. NOT SO ON KILI. I think that is one of the reasons summit day is so hard… you are summiting a mountain on Mars. The only beauty you see is when that precious sun emerges and warms you up (soul and body) and you see the clouds below. But other than that, its lots of dirt and rocks. Just be prepared. The first and last days of the trek are breathtaking in the rainforest and low alpine zones, which is a very redeeming fact on the tail end of a Kilimanjaro trek. 

(The moment the magic happened on Summit Day... sunlight, energy, adrenaline, hope.)

("The Saddle" on day 4. Truly a no-man's land.)

11. Guides – No one tells you how amazing they really are. No one. Sure you can read the reviews and such, but if you luck out and get the kind of guides we had, you will be blown away at the quality of care and the work they put in on your behalf (meaning you personally, as well as your team as a whole). They get to know you by name, early on. They watch and learn about your health and how you are adjusting to the climb. They are like walking therapists when you find you think you can’t do something they have come to believe you can do. They whisper strength and encouragement into your ear (and soul) when you need it the most. When they tell you they will get you up and down the mountain safely, they will. And they do. Pick a good company. Do your research. And trust your guides. Pay them well. Talk about them afterwards. We could not be more thrilled with our experience with The Africa Walking Company (search tripadvisor or google for reviews. We booked them through Africa Travel Resource). 

(We requested as many female guides as possible as our focus was empowering and advocating for women this trip.)

(Amazing team!)

(Our head guide... he has summitted Kilimanjaro over 300 times. )

I hope these tips are helpful for you as you dream about and plan for climbing Kilimanjaro!

My greatest advice is to climb with a team of friends or peers. You will need each other to keep on keeping on. You will want to cheer each other on and cry and hug at the top. And maybe even help carry you down. You will make memories for a lifetime and experience such an amazing sense of achievement and accomplishment when you summit. And you will summit... as long as you trust your guide and do what he/she tells you. No question. Above all, HAVE FUN and say hello to Uhuru for me! If this guide has been helpful in any way and you have your own summit story... I would love to hear it! Contact me at chelsea@thestoryographer.com !