Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro: How I went from sitting at a desk to ascending Africa's highest peak

Saba Ali and Sumaiyah Ahmed climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Saba Ali and Sumaiyah Ahmed climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. (January 2014) Photo Credit: Saba Ali

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I learned two lessons while climbing Africa’s highest peak: Drinking up to four liters of water a day and applying ample amounts of sunscreen provide a more effective facial than any high-end spa; and reaching the top of a mountain, much like life’s seemingly insurmountable tasks, is about putting one foot in front of the other.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet), having turned around 980 feet short of that enviable goal during my climb earlier this month. The reasons why vary, but my travel story isn’t about the destination, as cliché as that sounds. It’s about how someone like me, a web producer whose idea of a workout is her fourth-floor apartment walkup, was even able to make the leap from sitting at her desk job in Melville to watching the sunrise at 18,500 feet above sea level.

To say that anyone can climb Mount Kilimanjaro would be a disservice – a somewhat dangerous one. However, Kili is by far one of the most accessible summit climbs for the average person. No technical mountaineering experience is necessary – just a broken-in pair of hiking boots, a warm coat and a whole lot of perseverance. That’s oversimplifying the situation, but, unlike Mount Everest (27,940 feet), this climb doesn’t require oxygen tanks, ropes or a written will.

My friend Sumaiyah is the one who proposed taking on the challenge. Between the two of us, we've hiked Harriman State Park, Breakneck and the Palisades in the tri-state area. Africa was already on our radar since we both have family in Nairobi, Kenya. I had climbed before, too, both Huayna Picchu (8,924 feet) in Peru and Mount Kinabalu (13,435 feet) in Malaysia. While ascending the former during the region’s rainy season, I can still recall a conversation with my fellow traveler about writing down our last words on Post-its as we grappled with the slippery and steep rock surfaces.

To climb again wasn’t an easy decision. Aside from the obvious risks of such an endeavor, there was also the cost of the camping equipment and guide services. Plus, our schedules didn’t allow us much flexibility in finding a group to join. If we climbed, more than likely, it would be just the two of us.

While I could think of several reasons why climbing was not a sound idea, there was one reason why I couldn’t decline: No other experience would ever compare. I have snorkeled in Bali and flown through the air strapped to a zip line over Costa Rica’s rain forests. Climbing Kilimanjaro would top all other vacations.

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What I learned:

1. All about the mountain. Mount Kilimanjaro has three peaks, or volcano cones: Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira. The summit, called Uhuru Peak, is located on Kibo. To get to Uhuru, you can choose from about six distinct trails that take about four to eight days to complete. We chose the six-day Rongai route, which started in the forest, took us through the moorlands and alpine desert up to the summit, then back down the Marangu trail into the rain forest. This 50-mile stretch is one of the easier routes, considered by most trekking companies as moderate to strenuous. The more days you spend on the mountain, the better the acclimatization, which allows your body to adapt to the decreasing oxygen levels.

2. The cost. From the numerous blogs I had read, I expected, during the climb, to go through about every emotion possible. But before even stepping onto the rich, red African soil, I skidded through a range of feelings, including gut-wrenching fear about the price tag. The climb, minus the airfare, can cost between $1,300 to $5,000 per person. On the higher end, what I like to call "princess packages" include mess tents, cots, portable toilets and oxygen tanks. Climbers have to sign up with a company in order to climb. The bigger the group, the less you pay. Some of the higher-priced companies offer economy versions, or will refer you to a budget company. I highly recommend Marangu Hotel, a highly rated budget company and also one of the oldest. It not only provided all the camping equipment, but filled in any gaps in terms of cold-weather gear and accessories.

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3. Preparation. The first question I was always asked about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was, “Are you training?” You do not need to run miles like a marathoner, but you do need to be acquainted with a treadmill or elliptical machine. The goal is to increase lung capacity, how long you can run without panting. There are six-month and three-month training plans online, but I decided on my own version, the three-week plan. (Thank you Eastern Athletic Club of Melville for not questioning the intentions of the headscarf-wearing, Muslim woman in hiking boots on the treadmill carrying a 15-pound backpack.)

Working out helps, but it doesn’t diminish the chances of enduring altitude sickness. Also called acute mountain sickness, with symptoms including nausea, diarrhea and headaches. AMS is a consequence of a lack of oxygen at high altitudes. The best way to not get sick is by trekking slowly – “polay, polay” in Swahili – and allowing for the maximum amount of time to acclimate prior to reaching the summit. Doctors will also prescribe Diamox to be taken beforehand, which helps a bit. Altitude sickness, if pushed, can lead to pulmonary or cerebral edema – both which can be fatal.

4. Shopping essentials. Trekking through Kili is extraordinary because the climber gets to experience several distinct environments ranging in temperature from the high 90s of the rain forest to below-freezing 20s of the alpine forest. A passing rain cloud could mean getting drenched in the span of a few minutes. Climbers constantly take off and put on layers. Packing means having everything from techwick baselayers designed to eliminate the collection of sweat to thick fleeces and snow gear. While trekking companies provide lists, the sales people at stores like Eastern Mountain Sports, many of whom are avid climbers, can help talk you through your wardrobe. You don’t want to overpack, because the porters will only carry so much weight. (More on them below.)

Don’t worry about looking fashionable underneath all those layers, as you won’t encounter a mirror until your return. Other supplies to think about are protein bars, water containers to carry about four liters, and lots of toilet paper. The key is to keep drinking and urinating. Also have small treats on hand for your porters and the friendly children who live in the farming areas at the lower altitudes. You’ll be surprised to hear these kids ask for chocolate instead of soliciting shillings.

5. The crew and accommodations. The porters and guides who accompany you on your adventure can be the best -- or worst -- part of your trip. Marangu Hotel provided the two of us with a team of 10 people, a small village. We had six porters: a waiter, a cook, a guide and an assistant guide. Remember, this was the budget package. The porters carry the load, everything from the food to the tents. They will walk ahead to set up camp.

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On arriving at our camp, after walking for several hours, our team would greet us with smiles and "jambo" and "karibo" -- hello and welcome in Swahili. David, our waiter, would ask how we were and bring warm water to wash up. He’d also set out a tray of popcorn, cookies and tea to replenish our energy reserves before dinner. Meals were prepared on site and consisted of porridge, fruit and eggs for breakfast, sandwiches or roasted chicken for lunch, and pasta or stew for dinner. The menus vary depending on company.

My family’s – and my – main concern was that Sumaiyah and I were not trekking with a group of people we knew. Our safety and well-being depended on unfamiliar men and up a mountain where there wasn’t really a way to find help. Those anxieties were dispelled the very first day. Our crew, though many of them didn’t speak English, dealt with us with consideration, respect and care. They shared stories about their lives off the mountain, their farms and families. Some even sang to keep our minds off the walk. I never felt the least bit uncomfortable, even when improvising bathroom facilities behind a rock or a bush, which happened quite often.

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro isn’t for everyone and won’t be found on many travel top 10 best vacation lists. However, while memories of beach resorts and inspired city architecture become pixels posted on Facebook, the adventure of my climb will forever be embedded in who I am. In those six days, I went through every emotion, from the awe inspired by the unimaginably stunning landscapes to the utter exhaustion that eventually kept me from reaching the very top. I measured time in terms of distance and meals, not days of the week. I was part of a mobile community where status updates were shared with a smile and words of encouragment, not posted and critiqued. The only destination that could top this experience would be a lunar landing. Or maybe trying for the summit again one day.

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