I Climbed Mount Kilimanjaro — Tips for You to Tackle Your Own Climb

As readers of this blog may know, I have been working towards climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for the better part of a year. And I can now report: I did it!

On July 4th, my family set out to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa.  My heart was deeply committed from the day I decided to attempt this journey.  When I am “all in,” there’s no stopping me, and this was certainly true for this trek.

Our adventure began in Tanzania where my daughter’s suitcase did not arrive. Having followed the advice of many, we all traveled with hiking boots in our carry-on’s in the event one suitcase missed a connection. This is a must-do tip for anyone traveling to make such a trek. Most gear you’ll need can be rented or replaced but broken-in boots are irreplaceable.

[I’ll Be Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro Next Week: The Mantras That Prepared Me]

July 4th, the day we begin our trek! 6:30 am: Wahoo! My daughter’s bag arrives on our doorstep! After some organizing for the day and loading up her day pack we are off!  At the Machame gate we sign in and begin walking through the Rain Forrest. The terrain is lush and thick with vegetation and considered the most beautiful of the trip because of its wide views. We see varieties of flowers and plants with stunning colors. This first day is straight up, through the forest up to an altitude of about 9,000 feet. After close to 8 hours we arrived at our first camp and were greeted by our A team of 34 porters and guides, singing to us and welcoming us into camp. It was an emotional and inspiring moment. These guys have hiked past us at exceptional speeds carrying everything on their backs to create “camp.” Our tents are large and spacious, sleeping bags warm and cozy, and our first hot meal on the mountain is fresh and homemade! Feeling incredibly blessed to be with Orca and the Summit Africa team. Grateful that all my research led me to the very best guides we could ask for which was clearly obvious already.

Days one – four were spectacular. We traversed mountains, climbed the famous Barranco Wall, briefly went up to 15K feet for lunch at Lava Tower. When hiking alongside our expert guides they chatted with us about our lives and theirs, asked us about the USA, politics, family, and they reminded us to sip water and eat snacks. It was expected that we drank at least 5 liters a day. This in itself is a challenge. We were blessed with amazing weather. Sleeping at night was a challenge both due to the altitude and the need to run to the bathroom after drinking all of that water each day.

[I Decided to Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in My 40s]

Night four, the day before we would attempt to summit was my mini-meltdown moment. It ended up being ironic because my meltdown actually produced the best results for me the following day for the summit. I was definitely exhausted and fighting an altitude head ache. Our guide Orca likes to do a total test run in full gear the night before summit. As it was getting dark we suited up in all our gear, limited our backpacks to the bare essentials and set out to hike. Everything went wrong with my test run. I got frustrated because up until that point things had been going so well for me. But, I had added a liner sock for extra warmth and my feet lost circulation and my toes became cold. I was unable to feel comfortable drinking water out of the Nalgene bottles instead of a camel back. Typically, camelbacks freeze on summit night. My glove liners made my mittens too tight. I could not grasp my poles with the mittens because the pole handles were too large. I crumbled and it took all my strength not to break down and cry. I stumbled into dinner defeated and exhausted, I had to force feed myself some food as my appetite was suffering at the high altitude. I just barely made it through dinner.

But, that night in my sleeping bag I had a serious epiphany. I reminded myself I had the power to push forward. I repeated the quote, “When confronted with a challenge, the committed heart will search for a solution. The undecided heart searches for an escape.  A committed heart does not wait for conditions to be exactly right. Why? Because conditions are never exactly right.” I got my head right. I arrived at breakfast energized and with a plan. Scrap the second sock, scrap the glove liners and substitute with 2 sets of hand warmers, borrow Orca’s poles which have a smaller handle, beg Orca to let me attempt using the camelback with the insulator piece instead of having to navigate the Nalgene bottles. (this last one was tough because now I would be required to blow back all the water into the camelback after each sip I took to avoid freezing on our 20-degree summit night). But I planned, and accepted the conditions and was beyond motivated to make the night a success.

Summit night came, and we did it! We reached Mount Kilimanjaro’s first peek, Stella Point, right as the sun broke through the horizon. It was so beautiful and our timing was perfect. Don’t get me wrong, those 6 hours in the dark hiking up the side of the volcano was not easy. Your breathing is labored and it is indeed cold. I was lulled and calmed by the gospel music the guides sang to us as the head lamps worn by all lit our path up and down the mountain. I practiced gratitude in my mind, remembering all the kinds words, well wishes, and good deeds my friends and family sent me off with. I felt the warm hugs I was meant to carry with me all week, I listened to play lists made for me by friends and family, I remembered all those who supported me over the months of training, those who hiked and trained with me. Upon reaching Stella point you have to walk an hour more to the point at Uhuru peak. I was told that we are probably the last generation to walk amongst the glaciers, as they are melting and will soon be gone. The beauty and simplicity of the snow, ice and sunshine is breathtaking.

[Read Maria Shriver’s latest ‘I’ve Been Thinking’ essay]

Departing the next day was bittersweet. The bonds we formed with the team run deep. They see you at your most raw and weakest moments as well as your best and most celebrated. They have watched over your every meal, water quantity, toilets, and tents for 7 days. The kindness they embraced us with over the week formed a profound bond that we will always appreciate. We will forever remember the A team and their love for us that amazing week living amongst the clouds on the highest African mountain. Asante Kili! (which means thank you Kili).

PRO TIPS: If you’re ever interested in climbing Kili, I’ve put together some must-know info that I learned along the way: 

Tip: Pack your things in large 10-gallon zip lock bags that label what they contain. This helped us identify things more easily as we added different layers of gear for different terrain and weather, usually in a dark tent.

Tip: Carry your boots in your carry-on bag.  Everything is replaceable if your luggage gets lost except the value of broken in hiking boots.


Tip: Make sure your wind/rain pants have pockets and Velcro up the legs. Mine had neither and proved to be a hassle when I would add or remove them and didn’t want to remove my boots. Also, I love having pockets in everything and quickly missed having useful pockets in my wind pants.

[Read Maria Shriver’s latest ‘I’ve Been Thinking’ essay]

Tip: Bring an empty trash bag for all your dirty clothing. This is a must!

Tip: Bring a wide variety of snacks for the daytime. We quickly tired of our limited supply.

Tip: Bring a medicine kit that covers everything so you can be prepared for any illness including the common cold!

{Image credit: Pixabay}

About the Author

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Stacy Valner is the Founder of the Phase One Foundation which she created in 1999 after her husband’s battle with Stage Four Cancer. Stacy’s continued work with the foundation includes funding research for clinical trials and ensuring the foundation continues to grow and thrive. Stacy lives in Los Angeles with her husband of 26 years and is the lucky mother of four children. Connect with Phase One Foundation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Read more from Stacy Valner

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