Katie Cutting is a native Vermonter, adventurer and outdoor enthusiast. You'll find her anywhere from the Long Trail to the peaks of Africa. Recently, she voyaged to Kilimanjaro's summit on a fundraising trip. The funds raised benefit an orphanage in Tanzania. Read about her amazing summer experience hiking up the highest mountain in all of the African continent>>
I have a problem where I say “yes” too much; So, a few months ago when my friend Molly asked me if I wanted to join her and her sister Kelly on a trip to Africa for a fundraising climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro, my answer was automatic: “Let’s do it!”
Molly and I went to high school together, and Molly’s older sister Kelly coached both of my younger sisters in field hockey and lacrosse. Kelly first travelled to Tanzania in 2013 where she volunteered with the Tuleeni Orphanage, an organization supported by Neema International. Two women who run Neema International mentioned climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro as a fundraising effort for their organization and Kelly was all in. Our fundraising is helping build a new primary school for the children at the orphanage and other at risk youth in the community.
As a team of Vermonters who are used to variable and harsh weather, we discussed the gear that we were going to pack ahead of time. Vermont-based Darn Tough socks are the best for hiking, and Turtle Fur supplied us with neck tubes, sun hats and headbands to protect us from both the sun and the cold. These combined with some Vermont Maple Syrup energy packs finished off our home state equipment list! We were ready to go!
Onward to Mt. Kilimanjaro! The highest point in Africa and the tallest free standing mountain in the world! We flew into the Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania amidst a prolonged rainy season, clouds covering the skies and hiding the giant mountain above us. One of our first stops was the plot of land that Neema International recently bought, the site of the new school that we are fundraising for. We were joined by another fundraising climber, named Rita, and we had our team of four! The next day we started the climb! Pristine Trails is the company that Neema International has a partnership with, and they supplied us with two guides and a team of fifteen porters. Fifteen porters! We had a small army to help support us up this mountain! And they were all incredible! They would hike past us carrying packs way heavier than ours, set up camp, and start making dinner. In the morning they would prepare breakfast and then breakdown camp, passing us on the trail an hour later with the heavy bags on their backs and sometimes an extra bag on their head!
We found ourselves walking a wide stony path in the lush rain forest that surrounds the base of Mt. Kilimnajaro.
We ascended a steep rocky ridge-line in the foggy and cool morning air, starting to catch hints of blue and sunshine in the grey mist above us. After a few hours we walked out of the clouds and caught our first glance of the mountain ahead of us. “Wow! There it is!” Our jaws dropped. It’s beautiful! And so big! And so far away…
That evening on our way back from a quick acclimating hike (hiking up to around 13,000 ft, hanging out for 20 minutes, then returning to our camp at 12,615 ft) I learned how to count to ten in Swahili.
The third day seemed to dawn early and we started a long day of slow and steady ascent over sun exposed and rocky terrain. We left the rain forest and sheltering trees behind us, now existing in a world that consisted of the summit in front of us, the empty land between us, and the shifting white bed of clouds covering the land behind and below us.
"We left the rain forest and sheltering trees behind us, now existing in a world that consisted of the summit in front of us, the empty land between us, and the shifting white bed of clouds covering the land behind and below us."
Mind wandering, I asked our guides to keep teaching me numbers. After memorizing how to count by tens, I was able to count to one hundred. Mia moja! We had plenty of trail left for the day, so I decided to keep going. 101, 102, 103… We found a rhythm, where every ten numbers we would all make sure to drink some water, trying to fulfill our quota of drinking 3L while hiking during the day. ‘Maji maji!’ Water water! We would all yell out after another set of ten. As we continued to ascend, the counting became slower, the pauses longer, my breathing breaks longer, the altitude robbing us of the Oxygen rich air our bodies were used to. Mia saba *breath* telathini *breath* moja! (731) Mia saba *breath* telathini *breath* Um.. *breath* What number am I on again? *breath* Oh yeah! *breath* mbili! (732).
Counting aloud from 1, it was around 5,000 that I started making a lot of mistakes and kept forgetting what number I was on... enough that my guide started to joke with me. "This is how I check your vital signs!" he laughed. “This is how I know that the altitude is affecting you!”
Midday on day four I made it to 1,000. Elfu moja! Success! After one thousand I decided that I was okay with investing more energy on focusing where I was walking and breathing. The cold winds at the upper elevations would whip at our faces, and I would constantly be pulling my Turtle Fur neck tube higher, protecting myself from windburn. Despite the cool wind, the sun beat down on us relentlessly, affecting us ever more the higher we climbed. Covering our faces with our trucker hats and neck tubes, sunscreen rubbed onto our faces religiously, one day we forgot our poor hands and some sunburned fingers were the result, the sun reminding us to cover every inch.
The surprise benefit of these neck tubes came in when I found them equally useful in camp at night, pulling it again high up over my nose as I ventured into the camp bathrooms. An experience all on their own, the little stalls were sometimes concrete and sometimes old and rickety wood, with only a little hole in the center of the room. Sometimes two raised steps were provided on either side of the hole. Unfortunately, common symptoms of altitude sickness are nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, so as one can imagine, the smell was not very pleasant. I don’t think I ever took my neck tube off after day 2 until it started getting colder, and even then I just switched it out for a warmer one!
We reached Base Camp at 15,223 ft around 1 pm on Day 4. We slept for two hours of the afternoon, lounging like lizards in our wind protected and sun baked orange tents. Waking at 4:30 pm, we had a summit debrief and then an early dinner, retiring back to our tents around 6:30 pm, as the sun set and the unrelenting high altitude cold began to creep in. We wore every layer of clothing to bed that night, and with a water bottle of hot water at my feet, neckie pulled up to my nose, gloves and handwarmers on my hands, tucked into my puffy coat, sleeping bag liner, and sleeping bag, I could still feel the cold settling in to the top of my sleeping bag and anything not cuddled in tight. I drifted between sleep and an uneasy wakefulness, wondering how the next 24 hours would go.
We woke again at 10:30 pm, starting our Friday while still technically in Thursday. We left camp in the dark, aiming to get to Stella Ridge by sunrise. We were the first group on the trail, and as the night wore on, I watched a growing number of headlamps zigzagging in the distance behind us, illuminating the trail that we had already covered. One step after another. Fighting dizziness and light-headedness. Trying to quiet the nausea. My head now repeating a series of questions along the lines of “What the heck am I doing?! Why am I out here making myself miserable?!” The feeling of being so cold. Fingers and toes slowly becoming numb. The endless trudge into the black night. Continually walking up and up. Wanting to stop and take breaks, but as soon as we did my nausea would become stronger, too uncomfortable to stay still for very long. Finally we came up over the ridge of an especially long, hard, and steep push. Stella Point. Only one hour left!
A dark burnt orange color started to outline the horizon line, breaking up the darkness around us. Some sense of sky and earth yet again. Our final push is slow and labored, although the trail before us along the summit ridge is mercifully a gradual incline.
Relatively easy terrain (if we were at sea level at least). Each step is grudgingly given to the icy snow crust beneath us. Turning my head to see the growing colors of the sunrise to our right I stumble, my head confused by the change of direction. Finally the summit is in front of us, the iconic Mt. Kilimanjaro sign visible and growing larger with every step. We made it! We had flown around the world and spent months preparing for this climb. We made it to the top and all we wanted to do was take our pictures and get down. A few snaps, a few sips of water, and we happily started our descent.
Three hours later found us back at base camp, crawling into our sleeping bags gratefully, given a few hours to rest, relax, and revel in what we had just accomplished. Waking at noon we ate some lunch and then packed our bags yet again, hiking down a different trail than we had walked up, to our final night camp around 10,000 ft, finally sleeping and breathing easily.
The next morning covered the remaining distance, bringing us to the exit gate. Saying goodbye to our awesome team of guides and porters with a celebration of singing and dancing we were still processing what we had just accomplished. Our van shuttle brought us back to town, back to the bustling and noise of civilization. That night found us finally showered and clean, cocooned in mosquito nets, and relaxing into beds. We did it! We had hiked it! Yesterday’s summit already felt a lifetime away.