A Trudge to Glory: Climbing the Tallest Free-Standing Mountain in the World

by Nate Widom

Crying and cheering, a party of five accomplished a fantastic feat. Once they made it to the wooden marker on the top of the mountain, they looked out and saw beautiful, diverse land below the cloud cover. However, getting to such stunning scenery wasn’t easy and involved a lot of perseverance through harsh conditions.

Longtime HAC member Jeanne Rapley organized a group trip to Tanzania with other members this past July. They saw everything from exotic animals to a woman’s cooperative specializing in fresh honey and coffee. However, they also accomplished a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that many won’t experience—they climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

“I’ve went before. This is the second time I did it. In ‘17, I went as part of a large group of people that I didn’t know and really enjoyed it,” says Jeanne. “I wanted to take people back there and share Tanzania with them because it was just an awesome place to visit, and the people there are wonderful. For most people, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, but the fact that I got to go back was just amazing to me.”

The trip was initially planned to occur in the summer of 2020. However, Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns delayed the trip to July 2022. The group’s original size would’ve been eleven, but only five could make it for 2022. Joining Jeanne were her husband, Tom Coons, her daughter, Lizzy Coons, and HAC members Carey Nathan and John Pesthy.

“When the world was put on pause for a little while, I finally got into working out and running. One day my mom asked if I would hike Kili’ with her, and I couldn’t think of a reason to say no, so I said yes,” states Lizzy. “I have never done anything like this before. Growing up with my mom, who is always hiking, gave me a head start on what to do and expect.”

The World Wildlife Fund reports Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro is about 20,000 feet high. It’s not only the tallest mountain in Africa but the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. Kibo, the mountain’s highest peak, is a dormant volcano.

According to Jeanne, hiking Mount Kilimanjaro is a more approachable experience compared to a steeper, snowy mountain like Mount Everest. “You need to have skills to traverse over the ice and climb up [Mount Everest]. You don’t need skills like that to climb Kilimanjaro, so it’s a little more accessible to the average person.”

However, the climb is still a massive feat. “That doesn’t mean it’s not steep, and that doesn’t mean it’s not challenging,” Jeanne states.

If you’re interested in taking the hike, you can’t just simply show up at the mountain and begin. The trek has several environmental challenges, so guides must join every group of hikers for safety. These guides do more than help travelers traverse the mountain – they are also medically trained, routinely check pulses and heart rates, and make sure you’re eating and drinking.

Jeanne booked her guides through Serengeti Pride, a Tanzanian company. Supporting a Tanzanian business was important to her because most guide companies are international, so any revenue may not directly support Tanzania.

Throughout the hike, the group would become close with the guides, and the guides would join them for dinner. “Our trail guides did a great job encouraging us,” John mentions. “They were always ready to assist, talk about the wildlife and flora and fauna along the trail, and monitor our health.”

Even though she coordinated the trip from home, Jeanne had to select the desired route with the guide service. The group opted for a more indirect and lengthier course that would allow them to acclimate to the conditions. In the end, they completed an 8-day climb–six days up and two days down. According to Jeanne, most people opt for a more direct trail that takes four to five days to complete. However, the success rate for that trail isn’t as strong because people have less time to adjust.

As they hiked in the winter season of Tanzania, the weather was generally mild, around 70 degrees. Not only was the climb steep in many areas, but it covered many different ecosystems. They saw a vast range of wildlife from monkeys to birds and surprisingly dealt with no bugs other than occasional flies.

“The ascent is an exciting series of zones that begins with jungle, followed by forest, and eventually above the tree line. Even above the tree line, the landscape is unlike anything I have experienced,” states John. “The combination of the crater, snow, volcanic rock, and the remaining glacier formations seem desolate and beautiful at the same time. By the time one makes the summit, the terrain and colors around you seem more like what one might see on Mars.”

According to Jeanne, the biggest obstacle was dealing with altitude. “All of us had some altitude sickness of one sort or the other,” she tells. “Some of us had headaches and some of us threw up.” Not only that, but the group also hiked in the dry season. Therefore, dust was aplenty, and the group got several bad coughs.

To get acclimated to the elevation, the group would hike to a high point during the day and traverse back down to camp at dinnertime. They would then wake up, have breakfast, and be ready to hike again at 8:30 the following day. They rinsed and repeated this process until they reached the summit.

“You have to take a medicine called Diamox (which is a diuretic) to help prevent altitude sickness,” recalls Carey. “You also have to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate for the same reason.” For Carey, this resulted in a lot of sleep deprivation. Throughout the frigid nights, Carey would wake up about every two hours to climb out of her sleeping bag and put on her gear and headlamp to trek to the bathroom area.

During the hike, the group had to deal with crowds at a few campsites. “We got into one camp, and we were like perched on the side of the mountain because there wasn’t any level ground anywhere [due to crowding] to put tents up,” mentions Jeanne. Although the group hiked a less crowded trail, at a point closer to the summit, all paths conjoined, and that’s where most of the crowding occurred.

Even though the conditions at the camp weren’t ideal, it was much more manageable than backpacking due to the porters. “The vast majority of people have porters—it’s a big industry for them,” mentions Jeanne. “For a lot of people, that’s basically what they do for their career.”

Unlike the guides who join hikers on Kilimanjaro, porters are not required. However, they are commonly relied on because they take a lot of stress off the hikers. Porters will carry most of the gear a hiker supplies except for their day packs. In Jeanne’s group, there were about five or six porters per person on the trip. They carried items such as tents, chairs, cooking equipment, and food up the mountain.

“You get up in the morning, put on your day pack, take off, and the porters will clean up where you’re camping. They pack everything up, and an hour later, they go flying by you. About half of them stop at lunchtime at the lunch spot,” states Jeanne. From there, they set up a tent for the group and cooked lunch. Following lunch, the group will continue to hike and are welcomed a few hours later to a fully erected campsite with their porters now cooking dinner for them. Due to the porters being so acclimated to traversing the mountain and dealing with the high altitudes, they can do this swiftly.

And once the team reached the top of the mountain, they felt the satisfaction of conquering such a difficult and lengthy task. “You get up there, and you realize you all worked hard to get there,” recalls Jeanne. Not only that, but according to the group, the scenery was unbelievable. “We all were cheering as each of us got up there, and the guides were cheering for us.”

“It was a long day that took everything out of me,” Tom says, remembering the day he reached the summit. “We were, of course, fully exposed to the sun and around 17,000 feet before summiting at 19,300 feet. This is when nausea and the altitude can really impact you.”

However, for Lizzy, seeing her father struggle was challenging. “When we reached the summit, I was feeling all kinds of ways. My dad was at his worst with altitude sickness, so the only thing running through my mind was to get him in sight,” she describes. “I ended up running down to him and walked back up to the summit with him and the guys who were helping out. He wasn’t making much sense and was saying some weird things, but once he saw that summit sign, he bawled his eyes out. So, of course, I start sobbing, then I realized all of us were crying. It was hard to believe we actually made it.”

The group arrived at the summit around 5:00 pm to clear skies. “We were looking down at the clouds below us like the view from an airplane window. It was quite emotional,” Carey mentions. “I felt so proud of myself and our group.” Because everyone in the group was a current or former Run HAC member, the group posed for a photo at the top with their Run HAC shirts.

“At a certain point, you get high enough, and you’re hiking above the cloud cover, so you look down and you’re seeing nothing but clouds,” Jeanne recalls. “And then we can see out across the crater…and we can see the glacier over there. And the sun was basically setting when we hiked down into the crater, and it was beautiful.”

The group ended up sleeping in the crater at the top. Due to the area’s high elevation, it was cold, and the group needed to sleep in layers. But after a good night’s rest, everyone was ready to traverse back down. There is a down-only route that’s far more direct, but that didn’t mean the challenge was over. “There was excitement to get back down, but [we] also wanted to remember to take in the views and moments of all of us working together,” says Lizzy.

“Going down is very hard on your joints,” Jeanne notes. “Your hips and your knees, they get really sore. Going up tests your lung capacity but going down puts a lot of stress on your joints. I didn’t tie my shoes right, and I lost the feeling in the toes of my feet. It’s taken a while to get that back.” Carey adds that the descent required concentration due to the risk of falling or twisting an ankle.

The group would use poles to assist them in the trek down. Once beginning the descent at the top of the mountain, the group could almost ski down the loose gravel. However, they had to deal with the constant pounding on their legs from walking downhill toward the mountain base.

As the hike concluded, Jeanne recalled the group walked “funny” for a few days. Some also had to get over their cough thanks to the dust. Nevertheless, everyone was back to normal once they went on a safari after the hike.

The team prepared for the journey by backpacking on weekends at hilly local parks for a few hours. However, finding a nearby comparable mountain to prepare for such a trip isn’t realistic. The tallest mountain on the east coast—North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell—is 6,684 feet above sea level, according to the National Park Service, about a third of Mount Kilimanjaro’s height.

“The better trained you are, the more you’re going to enjoy it, but even if you’re trained, there are still going to be painful and hard parts,” explains Carey. “You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, one step at a time, rest when you need to but keep making forward progress.” Carey recommends traveling “polepole” – a Swahili word that translates to “slowly” – on the mountain and recovering with a post-climb beer and safari.

In addition to learning how to set up sleeping gear, backpacking newcomer Lizzy recommends making necessary dietary changes. “It would’ve been nice to have [learned about camping equipment] since I would wake up halfway off my mat and my sleeping bag completely backwards on me,” she explains. Also, she missed her pets and iced coffee on the climb.

John advises anyone who wants to climb Kilimanjaro to train their quads and glutes due to the movements reminiscent of skiing on the descent. His body felt less sore within a few days, but his cough lasted a bit longer. He recommends wearing a bandana to avoid dust sickness as much as possible. He also raves about the hospitality he and the group received. “The Tanzanian people are warm, hard-working people who are going through a terrible drought (as much of East Africa is). Since they farm for their personal survival, the impact is unimaginable for most of us. This made the dedication of our crew and their genuine friendliness to our group humbling.”

In the end, Jeanne is very proud of the people who joined her and enjoyed hiking in a small, intimate group. “My daughter who went, Lizzy, she never backpacked before, so she [had] never really slept on the ground and got up and hiked every day,” she mentions. “She was just a trooper, and she did amazing! Neither Tom, nor Carey, nor John had ever done anything this extensive and climbed anything near this high before. And I can’t believe how well they did.”

“My big takeaway is that for me, this trip was more about the people and getting to spend time with my family and friends,” says Jeanne. “Kilimanjaro is the highest thing I’ve ever hiked, but I hiked the Appalachian trail and went backpacking every summer. To watch my family and friends do it, not having that kind of background, and to watch them push themselves through it and celebrate their success meant more to me than the fact that I got to the summit.”

Jeanne recommends that anyone with the time, money, and willingness to persevere climb Kilimanjaro. “The guides are awesome, and they work really hard to make it happen for you,” she mentions. “If you’re willing to stick to it, anybody who comes to the gym regularly can probably do it. If you’re willing to put up with some discomfort and you’re willing to work at it, you can do it.”

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