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Peak Experience: Summiting Kilimanjaro

Indagare’s Diana Li recounts her trip of a lifetime, summiting Kilimanjaro, at 19,000 feet, the world’s tallest freestanding mountain.

Yes, you can. No, you can’t.

I had been fighting with myself for five hours, since midnight, when we began the final ascent to the summit. Any positive thoughts were offset with questions like, “Why had I willingly subjected my body to these elements?” Despite my eight layers of gear, I could barely feel my fingertips as I clung tightly to my hiking poles. And despite six days of acclimatizing and practicing deep breathing three times a day for months before the trip, I was winded. As the sun started to creep over the horizon, I could no longer suppress my nausea and ejected all the energy bars and liquids I had forced down to keep me going. So close, yet so far.

While recovering, I interrupted my loop of internal dialogue by recalling the story our remarkable leader, Dismass, told our group of ten during the very first hour of our climb. Among the many theories about the origin of the name Kilimanjaro is the local legend that long ago, the chief of the Chaga tribe (the third largest in Tanzania) sent a few dozen men to determine what the white substance was on the top of the mountain. Most died, and the few who returned deemed the trek a kilemakyaro, or “impossible journey” in the local dialect, which was then pronounced Kilimanjaro years later by geologist Hans Meyer, the first person known to have reached the summit, in 1889. As I stood 456 feet from achieving the same feat, I understood its aptness.

Rising to 19,341 feet above sea level from the plains near the municipality of Moshi, in Tanzania, Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa, putting it among the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each continent, and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. There are seven official routes to the top: Machame, Lemosho, Marangu, Mweka, Rongai, Shira and Umbwe. Machame (which takes six to seven days) and Lemosho (six to eight days) are the most scenic and thus most popular. But Kilimanjaro is not just a mountain—it comprises three volcanic cones, the oldest of which started erupting two and half million years ago. Composed of many layers of ash and lava, it is home to 1,200 plant species, so every day of a climb is through a different landscape, some feeling like a different planet.

Related: Seven to Know: Mount Kilimanjaro

Three months before traveling to Tanzania, I started training by hiking as many urban trails (flights of stairs) as I could in New York. My greatest fear was not being able to make the summit because I wasn’t fit enough or able to acclimatize. What I foolishly did not realize was that my success on Kilimanjaro would depend less on me than on the community of people who became my family for one week.

It takes a village to summit. Supporting my group to the top was an incredible team of 67 guides and porters and Dismass. No ordinary guide, Dismass has summited hundreds of times over the course of 14 years and leads a loyal crew that includes Effata and Praygod, who know the name of every native plant and animal; Goodluck, a top chef who cooked some of the most delicious meals and best vegetable soups I have ever tasted; and Nuru and Calvin, who were always ready to lend a helping hand at camp. Each morning, when we finished breakfast and stepped out of the mess hall tent, all of our individual tents and gear had vanished. Everything was packed and in transit, so our nomadic homes were already set up when we arrived at the next camp. A couple of porters left at the crack of dawn to guarantee we would have the best camping grounds that evening.

Related: Into the Wild: Tanzania

Often when I was tired or wanted to take a break, I was motivated by the awesome endurance of our smiling porters, who raced past us with 15 kilos of equipment balanced perfectly on their heads while we breathed heavily, carrying only day packs. I was so fortunate to have guides as seasoned and expert as Dismass and his team, 97 percent of whose climbers make it to the top, compared to an average 62 percent for other guides. And my fellow hikers made this experience more profound than I ever could have imagined. I was reminded that the greatest pleasure comes from deep conversations with friends. We are most happy on airplane mode, forgetting the time and allowing ourselves to be absorbed by our companions. My downloaded audiobooks went unheard, the pages of my notebook were left unfilled. Our group, which we dubbed the #KiliKumi (kumi meaning “ten” in Swahili), bonded over discussions of religion, culture, relationships, travel and politics that made our long hikes fly by. We moved up the mountain as a unit, and each of us knew how every other person was feeling—who was battling a headache or knee pain or nausea. We started as individual travel professionals from across the U.S. and Canada and ended as a team of friends whose shared journey of a lifetime created a bond impossible to break.

Driving past the purple jacarandas in full bloom on the way to the airport at the trip’s end, I reflected on the imprint Kilimanjaro had already made on me. For seven days, I completely disconnected and experienced true stillness, and it made me stop and think about what it is we are chasing. My first of the Seven Summits opened my eyes to a new way of travel, something I did not think was still possible after journeying to more than 50 countries. Instead of just crossing a sight off my bucket list, I traveled within and discovered more about myself than my surroundings. I had time to listen and be fully present. I focused on achieving a goal with a community that taught me oneness and perseverance. Kilimanjaro stripped away all distractions to show me that connection, mindfulness and wilderness make me happiest. To borrow the words of John Muir: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”

Contact Indagare for assistance planning a journey hiking Mount Kilimanjaro. 

– Diana Li on May 9, 2019

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Instead of just crossing a sight off my bucket list, I discovered more about myself than my surroundings. I had time to listen and be fully present. I focused on achieving a single goal with a community that taught me oneness and perseverance.
~ Diana Li

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