Kilimanjaro by Erin Farwell

IMG_3021_1In 1999 my husband and I traveled to Africa to climb Kilimanjaro and see the Serengeti. With my house a disaster, I try to remind myself that I can accomplish difficult things if I put my mind to it and thus I share the following:

I knew where the top of the mountain was by the absence of stars. Kilimanjaro’s presence was as demanding and powerful at 1:00 am as it was in sunlight. We judged our distance to the summit by the stars. Where full blackness ended and the stars began, this was our destination.serengeti-kilimanjaro-andy-freeberg-3-039w-pano

This trip had been planned for almost a year. Now, in the cold and dark, five days without a shower and two more until I’d feel hot water again, it didn’t seem like such a good idea. Up to this point we hiked in daylight but we started for the summit just after midnight, with only a few hours rest behind us and a long trail ahead.

The heavens twinkled with stars unfamiliar to my north-of-the-equator eyes. The night was unmarred by streetlights or other light sources except for our headlamps that lit the trail before us.

I climbed slow and steady behind my husband who followed a pace or two behind our guide. The rest of our group was ahead of us, their headlamps shining on the trail above. I was the slow one, unofficially voted least likely to succeed. Always last. Still, I climbed, determined to make the summit.

The scree, a loose mixture of gravel and volcanic ash, was as slick underfoot as the mud on the trail the first day of our climb. Five days ago, monkeys had leaped from branch to branch kilimanjaro-machame-route-day1in the rainforest canopy, marking our progress. We have been above tree line for three days, now. At 16,000 feet bushes and grass were also below us.

The steep pitch of the trail and the scree required us to use switchbacks. A few short steps. Turn. A few more steps. Turn. Slowly, we gained elevation. The summit was at 19,340 feet. The highest point on the African continent. Step. Step. Turn. Step. Step. Turn.

By 4:00 am we had hiked in the dark for 3 and had at least four hours to go. My body ached and my feet were sore. One member of our group lost the battle with altitude. He passed us, returning to base camp. I wanted to join him.

Our guide looked me in the eye and said, “Mama, you can do this. Keep going.” He turned and continued climbing. I followed.

Walking had become a mindless activity. Step. Step. Turn. Step. Step. Turn. I followed the lights of those who led. The landscape was hidden in the dark. I wanted to go back. I wanted to continue. Yesterday had been my birthday. I wanted to be able to go home and tell people that at 37 I had summited Kilimanjaro.

I raised my head to gauge our progress against the stars. They were close. Stars!

I stumbled on a rock. The trail demanded my attention. I raised my eyes again.

Mount KilimanjaroI stopped. The stars had moved. How could the stars have moved? Headlamps. I had not seen stars but the headlamps of people who were ahead of us. The void of the mountain still loomed over me. I turned my face back down to the trail.

Oxygen became scarce, my breathing labored. Mike’s was as well. Our guide continued his steady pace, unaffected by the altitude.

Yesterday the porters who carried our gear to the last base camp had raced ahead of us and then stopped for cigarette breaks along the trail. I gasped for breath as I passed them happily puffing away. I hated them.

The realization that I could make out bits and pieces of the landscape brought me back to the present. Morning was near. Looking up, I could see the saddle of the crater’s edge, Stellar Point. From there we would follow the rim to the top. Close, but not close enough.

Light slipped along the terrain. I could make out the tired features of my husband’s face, thekilimanjaro-climb1 bored look on our guide’s. The scree became a seen enemy, the trail harder because it was visible. Fatigue, lack of oxygen and the sight of the steep winding trail forced me to focus mentally and physically on the task at hand.

Looking behind us to the east, we saw the sky glow orange with the coming sun. An ocean of clouds surrounded the mountaintop, moving with its own tides. It made an island of a nearby peak. There was nothing below. The rest of the world was lost. There was no place to go but up.

We reached Stellar Point in full morning light. My husband took pictures while I lay in the scree. “Look,” he said. “It’s beautiful.” Then he panted at the effort it took to say those few words.

I lay on my back, looking at the sky, exhausted. I wanted to go down. Now.

Our guide sensed rebellion. He pulled me to my feet and turned me to face the crater. It looked deceptively shallow. Then I realized that the small line running near the edge was a trail. The people on it were not visible to the naked eye. The glacier on the other side of the rim was a mass of vertical lines of icy blues and grays.

“Look.” Our guide directed me to follow the line of the crater to a far edge. I could see the sign that marked Uhuru Peak. Freedom Peak. The summit. I could see the summit. If I could see it, I could get there.

We picked up our packs and started around the rim. At a lower altitude, the walk would have taken less than 20 minutes. With 50% less oxygen than we are used to, it took over 40.

I staggered slightly, feeling drunk. I couldn’t walk a straight line.Kilimanjaro-Climb-Tours

The trail cut through an ice field. Wind had turned the ice into sharp-pointed stakes. I was afraid that I would fall and impale myself. Blood on one of them let me know that this had happened to someone. The guide walked behind me, ready to right me if I tipped too far.

I expected to see the sign around each bend and was continually disappointed. I felt as if I would never catch my breath again.

kilimanjarosignAnother bend. No expectation now, but there it was.

“You are at Uhuru Peak, 5,895 meters. The tallest point on the African Continent. The largest free-standing mountain in the world.”


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27 thoughts on “Kilimanjaro by Erin Farwell

  1. What an exciting post Erin. Although I’ve traveled a lot I have never been to Africa. What a fantastic way to spend your birthday. You wrote this post so well. I love the poetic images and the humor you used to keep the reader involved. I have a friend who made that same journey and she said “It’s no place for an old lady to be, but I did it!” Your sense of continuing on when the going got rough is an example of courage. Good job! What a memory to have and hold!


  2. Erin, you are certainly a woman to be admired (and I do!) I can never imagine doing something so rigorous that requires so much persistence and faith. One can certainly apply the numerous lessons in your blog to life … and I needed this today as this month has been a terribly difficult trail to walk and it continues to be so this Easter morning. Having you as “my guide” and this weekend remembering the steps and sacrifice of my Lord and Savior I am inspired to take each step, one by one, through this time of struggle in my life.


    1. Oh Gayle, You have been on my mind so much in the last few days and now I know why. Whatever struggles you have, please know that I care for you deeply and pray for you often. Small steps, not big leaps, get us to the top of the mountain. Thanks for your comments, Erin


  3. Wow, what an adventure! Loved your descriptions. Well done.

    How did you prepare for going so high? I have problems with my breathing at 8,000 ft. Can’t imagine climbing more than twice that. My hat’s off to you.


    1. I live in Atlanta so my father-in-law and I climbed Kennesaw Mountain about 3 times a week, going faster and faster each time. It isn’t very tall but it was all we really had so we used it. I’m allergic to the altitude medicine everyone else used but I had the fewest symptoms so it all worked out. Thanks for commenting.


  4. Don’t you just love the sense of accomplishment when you finally reach your goal, and then have to decide what the next one is?

    What a great post, I was with you in spirit as you told you tale. I don’t do much climbing, but understand the lack of oxygen. Living in Colorado at 6,000+ and most everything gets higher, I can relate. Thank you so much for sharing this piece of life. Loved it. Doris


    1. Thanks Doris. My grandparents used to live in Estes Park (they retired there) and I loved visiting. I’d hike all day with my grandfather then play scrabble all night with my grandmother. there is even a small trail in the Rocky Mountain National Park named after my grandfather and another man. My grandfather was Jack West. Love your part of the world. Thanks for commenting.


  5. Kilimanjaro! An accomplishment quite worth remembering and telling others about in stirring tales. Never, never, never give up.


    1. I have a problem with my knee ever since I did this. Going up wasn’t a problem but it didn’t like going down for 1 1/2 days straight. My neighbor also has problems with one of her knees because she fell off her back porch. I like my reason better. 🙂 I didn’t think I could make it to the top and now it helps me remember to keep going. Thanks for the comment.


  6. Erin, what a wonderful experience and I congratulate you for finishing your trek. Africa looks so beautiful. When we visited an area by Pikes Peak, the air was thin, and we had a hard time breathing. I’d never make it up Kilimanjaro. Thanks for the exploration. Cher’ley


    1. Thanks, Cher’ley. It was a true adventure. Later we went on safari and saw lions, cheetahs, baboons, giraffes, leopards, etc. all in the wild, no fences,nothing. A truly amazing experience.


    1. Of all of he people in our group, I was the only one who couldn’t take altitude medicine because I’m allergic to sulfa and it’s a sulfa based drug. I also had the fewest symptoms. It is exhausting be that high and everything seems harder, walking, dressing, eating, etc. Still, great views and not something most people experience for themselves so it was worth it. I learned a lot about myself on that trip. I need to get back into shape so I can take my daughter.


  7. Those are the experiences that are worthwhile and so memorable, Erin! Well done for such a fantstic achievement. My nephew climbed Kilimanjaro in 2012 and I was so excited when his guide posted a photo on FB of his party looking across towards the highest peak- the guide having satellite communication. When you put in such dogged effort that’s when it’s a really worthwhile enterprise.


    1. congrats on your nephew for making it to the top. Most don’t. I almost gave up at Stellar point but I realized how disappointed I’d be with myself for the rest of my life if I had gotten close enough to see the sign marking the top but didn’t finish the journey. I learned a lot about myself in that moment. Thanks for your comments. 🙂


  8. Wow, Erin, you described everything so well, I was short of breath and cold all the way! You did a great job of taking us along on the journey in our minds. And my hats off to you for your great accomplishment. I admire you.


    1. Thanks, Neva. It was a truly amazing experience. We went on safari afterwards and that was also amazing in a different way. I need to get into shape so I can take my daughter someday. Thanks for the comment!


    1. Thanks, Sherry. The ice spikes gave me the willies, too. Fortunately I didn’t have to go past them again on the way down, we took a different route to our base camp. Thanks for your comments. 🙂


  9. Wow, what a story, Erin! Great post–and amazing accomplishment. Congratulations for sticking with it even when you wanted to quit–and for telling the story so well. It was compelling reading.


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