Climbing to the top of Africa for the children of B.C.: My journey to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro
“Twende…polepole.” These were the Swahili words we’d heard over and over for the last five days. “Go…slowly.”
The morning was dark and very cold. The altitude, nearly 5,800m (19,028 feet), had sucked the life out of most of us, leaving us tired, nauseated, and with searing headaches. The only accompanying sign of life among our group and African guides was the sky full of twinkling stars, brighter and more vibrant than I can ever recall seeing anywhere in my life.
Were we done? Was our task complete? Had we reached the summit? Not yet. A little higher to go still. Turn your headlamp on, get in line, and climb towards the stars. Polepole. Slowly.
How It All Began
This was a journey that was months in the making.
Our team was made up of 11 individuals, all representing the not-for-profit group, Summits of Hope (SOH). For almost 16 years, this organization has been raising money for BC Children’s Hospital Foundation by hiking some of the highest peaks on the planet.
My invitation to join this group on an expedition had come in 2014 during the BC Children’s Hospital Miracle Weekend Telethon when climber Pieter Dorsman suggested I sign up. Naturally being an adventure seeker I said, “Sure, I’d love to go!” But I was still knee-deep in meteorology school, making the trip that fall impossible. The following year at the telethon, Summits of Hope donated over $204,000.00 to BC Children’s Hospital Foundation and, after the cheque presentation, SOH President Russ Barstow told me they were saving a spot for me on the 2015 team. How do you say no to that? You don’t. You go and have the experience of a lifetime.
About three weeks before our Vancouver departure, the majority of our team had a chance to meet at the Mountain of Toys event hosted by SOH at BC Children’s Hospital where over $5,000.00 dollars worth of toys were donated to the playrooms. It was wonderful to meet my fellow climbers and get a sense of their anticipation for our adventure, but the highlight of the event was meeting the children themselves, some of whom were able to join us in the playroom. Those too sick to join us got personal visits in their hospital beds. These children were the inspiration for our climb and their names were written on a flag we would carry to the top of Africa.
It was at this event that the journey really began for me. Meeting the children and their caregivers put a clearer focus on the importance of what we were doing. I felt an immediate sense of responsibility to make it to the summit. Carrying that flag with the names of some of BC’s sick kids would be an honour. But it wasn’t solely this flag that would be kept close as we climbed. From my first steps on the mountain to my last, I also carried with me prayer flags containing messages from people who had donated to my effort. Some were messages of hope, luck, encouragement, and inspiration, and others were prayers for those currently battling illness and remembrance of loved ones who have passed.
The bonding process for our team had begun days before setting foot on the mountain. Not only had we travelled together from Vancouver, but on our first day in Tanzania we visited two orphanages, delivering much needed school supplies, clothing, and other necessities not so easy to come by in this poor African nation. Children as young as two and as old as 12 live in these shelters. Their parents are mostly victims of HIV, and if their grandparents can’t take them in, they end up in these small concrete houses off the beaten dirt path. It is here they live and receive an education, and where one can’t help but feel the love the adults have for them. These teachers and caregivers help to ensure their safety and well-being, and make sure they receive schooling and learn English as best they can to put them on a track to success. Learning English, we were told, would give them the best chances for a better job and therefore a life full of opportunity.
We were strangers yet they welcomed us into their homes with smiles, drawings, and songs. They greeted us with handshakes, introduced themselves by name, and held our hands as we toured their barren living conditions. Coming from the opulence of Vancouver and all the comforts of the modern world, it was humbling to walk into this modest environment where the classroom is no bigger than a large walk-in closet, and where half a dozen children sleep in one room lined with bunk beds. I immediately knew this experience would stay with me long after returning home.
A beautiful little girl, no more than three years old, ran towards me and wrapped her tiny arms around my neck. It isn’t fair that she’s beginning her life here and it will likely be years before she understands what happened to her parents, but she’s not alone in the world and hasn’t been forgotten. She is loved.
We brought gifts and supplies that would help sustain these outposts for months and maybe years to come. Witnessing the joy a package of pencils and some new socks brought to a child’s face left me feeling elated, but I also felt ashamed of the material possessions we hoard and take for granted here in the western world. It gave me the desire to come home and remind everyone that it’s the small things that can make the biggest difference to a person in need. Pay it forward. These children have nothing but they’re happy, and they gave us so much more than we gave them.
Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest peak on the African continent and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. It sits right on the Tanzanian border with Kenya and its summit, Uhuru Peak, rises in isolation at an impressive 5,895m (19,341 feet). It is a dormant volcano, often shrouded in clouds which make it impossible to see on approach. It keeps its true beauty a mystery until you have a foothold on a path to the summit, which acts as a beacon, guiding and inspiring you. It’s name, Uhuru, means freedom. It’s well named, because freedom was a state we would all come to experience on the climb.
Summits of Hope has sent climbers to Mount Kilimanjaro many times, so I knew we were in very good hands with capable guides and leaders who had all summited before. The first day was very hot and muggy. Trekking through the Rongai Forest at the bottom of Mount Kilimanjaro was sweltering and dusty making it hard to breathe. Polepole…slowly. Even from our first step on the mountain we were instructed to go slow. It was like a lumbered shuffle, as if we were lazily meandering along with no particular destination. Only our destination was the top of Africa.
Going slowly at the bottom ensures success at the top. We were told the most important thing we could do on this journey was not rush — ever. Our bodies would need time to clue in to the fact that we were climbing higher and higher in elevation and would respond by creating more red blood cells. This would help us in the days ahead as we got closer to the summit where the air was thinnest. It’s the red blood cells that carry oxygen through the bloodstream. Gord Denhoed, a New Westminster firefighter and one of our seasoned SOH climb leaders explained it to me in layman’s terms. “Think of it like train cars on a track,” he said. “In each of those train cars are your red blood cells. The slower you climb into higher elevation, the more time your body has to put more train cars on the track and fill them with red blood cells. If you climb too quickly, your body won’t have a chance to respond.” It was this analogy I returned to each day as it got harder and harder to breathe.
Days one, two, and three were challenging, but not overly difficult. The nights were cold, but not unbearable. We felt the effects of the altitude, but they didn’t hamper our progress. Each morning we awoke to bright blue skies and a clear view of the peak. Uhuru stood impressive and dominant in the landscape and was our directional signal before the clouds rolled in. At night, it was the stars’ turn to shine. The half moon, blindingly bright with the Milky Way illuminating the night sky, forced us to look up in wonder at the natural beauty all around us.
Friendships started to develop early on. We had gotten past the formal, interview part of being new in each other’s company (Where were you born? How many siblings do you have? Why are you doing this climb?) and the conversations became more in depth. The stories became more personal and trust developed. We were a team. On day two, I opened an impromptu weather school. People are fascinated with the weather and often want to learn more. So, for hours as we climbed, I taught the team about how weather works, what the different cloud formations tell us, and what a 30% chance of showers really means.
It was also on day two that I began recording video updates.
By the start of day three, the increasing difficulty of the climb was starting to show.
The fourth morning found us at an elevation of 4,328m (14,200 feet) and the effects of the altitude were evident in lowered energy levels and how difficult it had become to breathe.
But the most challenging days were still ahead. There were times that truly tested our mettle and drove me to an ongoing internal dialogue to remind myself to focus on my breathing and putting one foot in front of the other. “Don’t stop. Keep moving. Slowly. Breathe…in through your nose and out through your mouth. You can do this. This mountain is not bigger than you. You will make it to the top.” I grew quiet, mostly listening to conversations around me. Pavel Bains and Peter Schmidt’s ‘Top Five Lists’ kept us thoroughly entertained and wonderfully distracted. Rachel Warner’s “What if…?” and “What would you do…?” style of questioning allowed us to fantasize about different life scenarios and be outrageous with our answers.
The altitude on day four hit as we traversed The Saddle, a barren and vast expanse of landscape that resembles the surface of the moon and put us right in line with the summit. We walked slowly uphill for eight hours to 4,750m (15,585 feet), stopping only for lunch and to take a picture of the team holding the flag with the names of the patients back at BC Children’s Hospital.
We travelled with a group of 45 African guides, porters, cooks, and servers. These 44 men and one woman were our lifelines. (The video above includes footage of some of them.) Every day I marveled at how incredible these people were in everything they did, from setting up our camps and cooking us three meals a day to carrying our duffel bags, tents, and supplies. With barely a fraction of the warm-weather gear we had — yet equally feeling the effects of the altitude — these people kept us comfortable, nourished, and entertained. They sang songs in the morning before we set out and came to our aid on the mountain if our day packs had become too heavy to carry. This is the work they do to support their families and while they will never be rich, they are happy and grateful.
One of our guides, Daniel, told me his longest run on the mountain was 26 days straight of going up to the summit and back down, over and over again before having one day off at home. I couldn’t imagine getting to the bottom and then literally turning around to go right back up even once, let alone for 26 days. My porter, Donadee, wore nothing more than a fleece pullover and thin cotton pants. He spoke broken English but I could tell he was proud to assist me. In the end, I gave him some of my clothing and toques to show my appreciation for all he had done. “Thank you, for my family,” he said. They were our lifelines.
The push to the summit was a two-day affair that began with a nine-hour climb up the northeastern face of the mountain, a steep switch-backing scree that took us to the rim of the Kibo crater. Saying it was tough is an understatement.
Climbing into the thinnest air yet, most of us grew quiet as conversation had become exhausting. Our climb leaders, Gord Denhoed, Tom Higashio, and Kelly Oliver have more than a dozen summits of Mount Kilimanjaro between them. Their words of encouragement, “Looking good, team!” and “Great job, everyone!” helped us push through the discomfort. My head had started pounding and I had begun to lose my appetite, which was ironic because it was then I needed the calories the most.
We descended into the crater where we would set up camp and attempt to rest at an elevation of 5,600m (18,375 feet). Our porters met us half an hour out to take our day packs from us. Even with the weight off my back, I knew I could only take a few more steps.
It was hard to appreciate the lunar-like beauty of the crater, which housed spectacular glaciers tens of thousands of years old. I wanted to walk towards them but I couldn’t. The thin air had halted us and as the sun began to drop below the horizon, most of us had succumbed to nausea and temple-piercing headaches. These are normal symptoms of altitude and we were warned to expect them, but it was still hard. Barely anyone ate dinner that night. We opted instead to lie in our tents, all too aware of how difficult it was to breathe and tracking our rapid heart rates at more than 120 beats per minute. I think I slept an hour that night and, even then, my sleep was broken.
It was cold in the crater that night. The temperature dropped well below -12°C. The next day we would reach the summit.
4:34am, dark and cold. It was time to go. Polepole. Slowly.
The sky was bright with stars but our path was illuminated by our headlamps. I wasn’t feeling well and silently wondered if I would make it to the top. It must have been obvious because the next thing I heard was, “Kate, give your day pack to Daniel.”
“No, I can carry it,” I said.
In the end, I gave it up. It was not the time to be a hero.
Along a steep, jagged, and rocky path, we climbed a short hour and a half to the summit. As we went higher, the sun began to rise, colouring the sky with vibrant hues of red, orange, and yellow. It was breathtaking.
At the edge of the mountain we could see the summit in the distance. Uhuru Peak, the top of Africa, 5,895m (19,341 feet). Three more minutes and we were finally there.
Humbled, elated, proud, and tired, I hugged my teammates and allowed the tears to well up in my eyes. We pulled out our prayer flags with the messages of support and encouragement, remembrance and inspiration, and flew them in the wind beside the flag holding the names of the kids at BC Children’s Hospital. It was a moment I will never forget.
It took six days to get to the top. We climbed to support the sick kids in our community. Along the way, we experienced a gamut of emotions, witnessed strength in the face of adversity, and felt the power of the human spirit. We’d been pushed well beyond our comfort zones and had made friends for life.
And at the peak known as ‘freedom’, our task was complete.
Thank you to Summits of Hope for the experience of a lifetime and for showing me that anything is possible. Thank you also to everyone who supported me with words of encouragement and generous donations for BC Children’s Hospital Foundation.