View From The Top

January 2, 2009, 7:24 AM. I was on top of the world. In reality, I was on the roof of Africa, having just reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. This was truly one of the most spectacular, exciting, exhilarating moments of my life. And what a way to start the New Year.

My friend Karla and I hatched this crazy plan a few years earlier, after watching the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” We talked about seeing the glaciers that cap Kilimanjaro before they disappear, which experts predict could happen within the next two decades. What began as a casual conversation over dinner ultimately turned intoplanning the trip of a lifetime. It took months of training to prepare (I definitely had my work cut out for me — Karla was a long distance runner with two marathons under her belt; I had never before belonged to a gym) and one ”practice” hike at Bear Mountain in NY to break in our new hiking boots. Experienced hikers we were not.

At 19,340 feet, Kilimanjaro is fourth highest of the Seven Summits (behind Everest, McKinley and Aconcagua), and the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. But while it’s a long haul and physically demanding, the climb doesn’t require any technical skill or mountaineering experience — which was a good thing, since we clearly had none. The biggest challenge is the altitude, which can cause everything from headaches, shortness of breath, dizziness and fatigue, to pulmonary or cerebral edema in the most extreme cases. The best way to prevent high altitude sickness is a slow ascent, a concept we would have no problem embracing.

We arrived in Tanzania late at night on December 28, and were picked up early the next morning to head to the Marangu Gate, where we were met by our guide and a team of porters (and a fantastic cook) who would accompany us up the mountain. We couldn’t believe all of these people were there just for the two of us, but we were happy to do our part to support the local economy. After packing up our bags and getting outfitted with walking poles, headlamps and a few other necessities, we were on our way. The total trip would take six days — four and a half up and one and a half down. Those first four days were tough, but very manageable, and we were so excited by the entire experience — from the incredible scenery to the people we met along the way — they seemed to fly by.

January 2 was a different story. We woke just before midnight to set out for our summit attempt from the campsite at 15,000 feet. There was an arctic chill in the air that went straight to my bones. The majority of the climb was in total darkness, save for a little circle of light from our headlamps illuminating the path directly in front of us. Later that morning, as we retraced our steps on the way down, I would realize how grateful I was that I couldn’t see anything beyond a few steps in front of me. In daylight, I saw just how steep and seemingly endless the trail was. In the dark, I convinced myself I had only a few more steps to go. Even as my breathing was becoming more strained, with the altitude really starting to take its toll, I just kept willing myself to go one step further, to make it around one more bend of the switchback trail. Each time I put one foot in front of the other, I was one step closer to the top. It was the most obvious, simple thought, but for some reason it kept me going.

In my mind, I was composing an email I couldn’t wait to send to my family and friends a few days later. If asked, I would have said that I didn’t really care if I made it to the summit; I just wanted to enjoy the experience and give it my best shot. But the closer I got, the more singular the goal became. And the thought of that email propelled me forward, even when I wasn’t sure I had the physical or mental fortitude to go any further. Not only is hiking in freezing temperatures at over 18,000 feet physically demanding, but hiking in the dark staring at nothing but the footsteps in front of you for hours and hours on end can be mind numbing.

Just when I thought I really couldn’t go any further, our guide shouted that we just had a few more feet until we reached Gilman’s Point, where our route met the crater rim. After hiking for a solid 6 hours, we were now just an hour and a half from the summit. With the steepest part of the climb behind us, we gave our legs a brief rest and then made the final push to the top.

The sun started to rise shortly after we left Gilman’s Point, giving us our first glimpse of the glaciers – the impetus for this crazy adventure. As we walked around the crater rim, we marveled at those glaciers, grateful we had the opportunity to see them while they’re still around. They are absolutely majestic, and being so close made it easy to see why they had captivated Hemingway, immortalized in his short story.

Those last hundred feet as we approached the summit, Uhuru Peak, felt like sheer euphoria (mixed with a tinge of high altitude loopiness). It seemed as though we could see all of Africa from our vantage point, and we were simply in awe of what we’d just done. It was easily one of the best moments of my life. Standing on top of that mountain, I felt fearless, determined, like I could do anything I set out to do. That is something I think will stay with me always.

After a short celebration, it was time to begin the long descent. And two days later, I sent that email. It read simply: “We Kilied It!”

Posted by: Karen Silberg, Account Supervisor