was making it up to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. And that’s saying a lot, because I’ve done a lot of tough workouts before, being an athlete for eleven years of my life and rowing at the pre-elite level.
Yet there was something about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro that topped every other thing that I have done. When you are doing a tough workout, you feel like you are dying physically. But when I was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, not only was physical exhaustion involved, but also the toughest of nature’s elements – extreme cold which made it so you couldn’t move, as well as high altitude which made it so you couldn’t breathe. The cold, exhaustion, and altitude combined to make you a little loopy, quite incoherent, and lose all motivation for going on. Sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it?
Having a few days off of ministry at the end of this month, thirteen people on our squad decided to take on this challenge of climbing to the top of Africa and the world’s highest standalone mountain. Although many peaks can be done in one shot, Mount Kilimanjaro takes multiple days in order to let your body to adjust to the high altitude – the summit is 19,341 feet tall. While the recommended length of time is six days, we chose to do it in five days, naturally.
The first day we started at the Park Headquarters (5,905 feet,) were treated to a delicious lunch, then trekked up the mountain to Mandara Hut (9,000 feet.)
Here is a photo of Katy and I, with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background:
The next day we woke up and hiked to Horombo Hut (12,335 feet), and then the third day we hiked to Kibo Hut (15,518 feet).
That night was the epic night, the night that made us say that hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro was the stupidest and yet most glorious thing any of us have ever done. I’ll give you the play-by-play:
11:01pm – Alarm goes off. Seriously? I don’t think I even slept. I wonder if it counts as a night’s sleep if you wake up at 11pm. Put on hiking clothes: Five layers on top, Four on bottom. Watch Charlie put underwear around his arms to keep them warm. Yes, we’re that desperate and underprepared. I wonder how badly I’m going to freeze.
11:35pm – African tea & ginger cookies. The hot water feels so good in my throat and stomach…Super thankful for the way that caffeinated tea wakes up my body.
11:50pm – Finish packing my pack. Really excited and nervous. Steal Matt’s idea of stuffing his down sleeping bag inside of his outer jacket to keep warm. Guides look at my jacket as if I am crazy and try to convince me not to wear my sleeping bag up the mountain. Wait for others outside.
12:10am – Hold hands and pray for our journey. Take our first steps up the mountain. We’re really doing this. We’re really climbing the highest mountain in Africa. I concentrate on following the footsteps of the person in front of me. Step, step, step. Guides keep telling us, “Pole, pole” – slowly, slowly. Is it possible to walk any slower? I despise marching in a line like this.
12:34am – Hands feel like they are going to fall off. Guides help me put on my big gloves. This is really hard. We have at least five more hours of this? I wish I could just get zapped to the top of the mountain.
12:45am – Water break. My gloved hands can’t undo my backpack, so the guides have to unzip it for me. Then I can’t unscrew the bottle, so they do that too. I feel completely, utterly helpless – I can’t even give myself water.
1:08am – Turn on my ipod: worship music – gotta love Will Reagan. Feeling really good. Energy rising within me. Take a deep breath, then sing along to the words “There is power in the name of Jesus.” Have to stop to breathe for a minute. Note to self: don’t sing songs at 18,000 feet altitude while hiking up a mountain.
1:39am – Thank you, God, for the full moon that is guiding our steps. It’s so light that we don’t even have to turn on our headlamps. Stunningly beautiful. But the moon also lights up the mountain behind us – it is so tall. It doesn’t even seem like we’ve made any progress. How am I ever going to make it?
2:07am – Water break. Get real cold. I see others keep going up the mountain, so I follow them. Realize it’s the wrong group so sit down on the hill and wait. I am alone and thirsty and yet can’t open my waterbottle. This sucks.
2:34am – Water break. Shivering. Sit down and don’t want to get up. All my body wants to do is rest. Dream of laying down and sleeping.
3:00am – Ipod battery runs out. Motivation is dwindling – Now you’re going to have to fill me up, God. Hear that Travis and Caleb are puking. See one of our guides stumble. Say a prayer for each of them.
3:34am – Moon goes behind the horizon. I can’t see anymore. Breeze picks up; getting frigidly cold. I notice Megan’s waterbottle has frozen solid. Whose idea was this? I wonder why I ever thought this was a good idea.
.4:00am – I can’t do this. It’s too hard. I feel like I’m dying. This was stupid, really stupid. Repeat “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” in my head. It kind-of helps. Or does it?
4:48am – This is torture. How much money did I pay to do this? Someone says, “This is hell on earth” and I tend to agree…Everyone keeps asking how much farther we have to go and somehow the numbers keep increasing. I wonder how that is possible or if my mind is just not working anymore.
5:08am – Dizzy. Very dizzy. Stumbling. Thankful for my poles to help me so I don’t fall completely over. Walking, one foot in front of the other. Wanting nothing more than to stop and catch my breath…Then when we do stop, my body starts shivering and I want nothing more than to keep going. I can’t decide if I want to stop or go. Go or stop.
5:13am – Porters help me to get out my caramel/chocolate candy from my bag. Sugar tastes good in my mouth and gives me a little energy. How much longer!?!
5:37am – Faint blue in the horizon. That means that the sun is coming, which means warmth. Praise the Lord! Every few steps I look behind to the ever-changing colors, which diverts my attention from the pain inside and outside my body.
6:00pm – Porters say we have fifteen more minutes to the top of Gilman’s Point. We can do it! Then they lead us up, over, and through massive boulders. Seriously!?! It takes so much energy to pull your body up even one step. Yet we have to make it for the sunrise…
6:18am – Make it to the top of Gillman’s Point – hallelujah! The reddish orange clouds are so beautiful. The sun comes over the horizon, bathing everything in beautiful glorious light. I’ve never been so happy to see the sun. Just like Jesus – from dark to light. I feel like laughing and crying at the same time but my body can’t figure it out. I eat another piece of candy and leave some for the others.
6:30am – Have to pee but my fingers are so numb that I can’t undo the button on my pants. I have to ask one of our guides to help and somehow I don’t care how awkward it is.
6:43am – Set off for Uhuru Peak, the actual mountain summit. The guides say that our journey from here is relatively flat, thank goodness. Feeling a little better now.
7:18am – Who said that this was a flat walk? There are so many hills. Up, up, up. This place looks like Mars. My body wants to stop. I don’t care anymore. Can’t I just turn around now?
7:49am – Others pass us coming down the mountain. They tell us, “Good job! You don’t have much longer.” I wonder how they can be so cheerful when I feel like crap.
8:08am – Make it to Uhuru Point. It’s the end but it doesn’t even matter anymore. Eat some peanuts. Give some to Ashley but she can’t figure out how to get them from her glove to her mouth. Try to smile for a picture but fail miserably
8:45am – Start our way back down. Feel terrible and want nothing more than to feel better. Eat an apple at Gillman’s Point and stare at the massive cliff in front of us – We came up this whole way? Did last night really happen or was it just a terrible dream, a nightmare really?
9:38am – Slide down the mountain “skiing” down the gravel slopes. Guides tell me to go “pole, pole” but I ignore them. The only thing on my mind is laying in my bed and sleeping
11:00am – Pull off my shoes. A layer of gravel pours out onto our floor. Crawl up into my bed and sleep…
1:00pm – Wake up. Have soup and fruit for lunch, then head back down the mountain. Walk for 2.5 hours, then sleep at Horombo Hut.
All in all, we hiked for about fourteen hours that day. I’ve never been a part of something that was so paradoxical – It was miserable, and yet glorious. Tiring, yet life-giving. When you’re climbing, you want nothing more than to die, and yet afterwards you want to do it again. As we discussed our experiences, Bryan put it best: “It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, yet worth every penny.”
I’m learning that there’s something about trials and hardships that is surprisingly addicting. Romans 5:3 says “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” When we engage in trials, in pushing ourselves beyond our limits, God does something in our hearts that does not leave us unchanged. Indeed, trials are God’s tools for molding us and building us into the people that He wants us to become. Some hardships are small and some are 19,000 feet tall, but when there is none of you left, you have no other options than to invite God into the equation.
Personally, I know that I couldn’t have made it up the mountain without Christ’s strength within me. Because when I was weak, He became strong. Yes, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was the hardest thing that I have ever done. But I wouldn’t have traded this experience for the world.
Here’s the awesome video that my squadmate KJ made about our journey up Kilimanjaro:
WR Month 5: The Adventure from KJ Blair on Vimeo.