(WOMENSENEWS)–When I was 22 I climbed Kilimanjaro in my tennis shoes.
I was teaching in Kenya and, always up for an adventure, didn’t even blink when two Englishmen I knew suggested a trek to Africa’s highest point. We had parkas, sleeping bags, two porters and the mountain all to ourselves. While the feeling of euphoria I felt when I summited to 19, 341 feet remains fresh, so is the memory of gasping for air as my African guides pulled and pushed me to the top.
So six months ago when a colleague invited me to join a group of women, most of them journalists, who were climbing Kilimanjaro in July, my first reaction was a genuine "been there, done that." Now I’m 68 with arthritic knees and this proposed trek was even longer than my first; seven days instead of five.
But the challenge took root in me and the enthusiasm of the other nine women in the group was contagious.
I was soon onboard. While I didn’t feel I had anything to prove, I wondered if I still had it in me to push myself to the outer limits of my stamina and endurance.
Our group was in our 50s and 60s, plus a 22-year-old college graduate who wanted to climb with her mother. Sadly the group organizer, Lois Romano, a Washington Post reporter, broke her foot just weeks before our scheduled departure. Only one other woman in our group had climbed Kilimanjaro before, when she was 14 in 1964. Everyone else was a relative novice to this kind of mountain experience.
Most of us knew at least one other woman in the group, but that was it. We connected quickly over our eagerness to conquer Kilimanjaro and our love for the news business.
Wearing Sturdy Shoes
Our trip was organized by Alpine Ascents International, a leading outfitter for mountaineering based in Seattle. Alpine provided the tents, food and the 75 porters who transported all our gear and supplies up the mountain. All we had to carry in our day packs were extra clothes, several liters of water, cameras and snacks.
We were led by Garret Madison, a 32-year-old wonder from Seattle who had just returned from his fourth conquest of Mount Everest.
We set out on the Machame Route, one of seven trails to the summit. This time, instead of tennis shoes, I wore a sturdy pair of hiking boots with gaiters to keep out dust and stones.
Machame is a less-traveled and longer path. That meant smaller crowds of climbers and more time to drink in the lush scenery of heath forests and moor lands that gradually give way to the rugged and severe terrain of volcanic rocks.
We hiked for six or seven hours every day and often had to claw our way over car-sized boulders. As we stumbled into camp in the late afternoons, the African porters greeted us with cheers and Swahili songs, "Kili! Hakuna Matata!"
As we climbed higher the air was thinner and colder. The extra days of climbing gave us time to acclimatize though. "Climb high, sleep low" was our mantra, so we camped at night at a lesser altitude than we’d hiked to during the day.
Our guides also cautioned us to walk slowly, "polepole" as they said, to maintain steady breathing and an even pace.
Less Than Half Succeed
It’s estimated that 15,000 people attempt Kili every year and that less than half make it; most are struck down by altitude sickness–dizziness, nausea, severe headaches and extreme fatigue–which befell several of our group as well.
What sustained us, besides the energy bars and quarts of electrolyte drinks, was the camaraderie. Our group shared extra socks, cough drops, bandages and remedies for headaches and indigestion. We rallied members of the group who succumbed to nerves and anxiety. We told stories and discussed our careers, raked over the bad bosses that plagued good journalists, dished about recent sex scandals and were grateful to be 6,000 miles away from the debt ceiling crisis. One woman who found she had service on her BlackBerry somewhere past 10,000 feet was heard to moan, "I have 150 messages!"
On summit day, we awoke at midnight at Barafu, our high camp, at 14,650 feet. We had nearly 5,000 feet to go to reach the summit. It was cold.
We bundled up, pulling on layers of long underwear and pants before swaddling ourselves in down jackets. As I headed out into the night, I was amazed to see hundreds of bobbing headlamps snaking across the mountain. The various routes up the mountain had converged into one path to the summit and there were at least a 1,000 climbers heading to the top.
A Personal Push
While the camaraderie of the women had supported me throughout the grueling hikes, the push to the summit was more personal. I wanted to feel the surge of wonder again as I had 46 years earlier when I stood on the top and realized no one in Africa or all of Europe was standing on higher ground than I. My legs got wobbly half way up. My hands were frozen. I felt dizzy and desperate for water.
At last, after nearly eight hours of climbing, we were at Point Stella on the rim of the crater. But the actual summit was another 660 feet further. For the final push, I drew deep into myself for a strength I didn’t know I had–or needed–when I was 22. I was too close to quit.
The sun was brilliant in a cobalt sky. Just like it was on that day back in 1965 when I posed for one photo with my African guide on that lonely, empty wind swept peak and signed my name in a book in a bolted box.
The box was long gone, replaced by a crude wooden sign congratulating us on reaching Uhuru Peak. I stood there surrounded by my joyful support group of women, feeling how great it was to be back and on top again.
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Jurate Kazickas, a former Women’s eNews board member, is a writer living in New York City who hikes occasionally in Wyoming.