Normally, you can catch me on CNN for two hours every day. And, as much as I enjoy my job, I wanted a break.
Last summer, I relocated to NYC, immersed myself in my new life, and have never been happier. At the same time, the wheel began to spin faster than it had ever done before. And I needed a REAL vacation after an especially trying news cycle.
So I requested two weeks off, something I’d never done in my 15-year career, and decided it was time to stop talking about Africa and really see it.
It took me reaching 35 to finally achieve a dream I’d had since I was 13 years old when a buddy and her father have whisked away on a safari in Kenya (I know, a safari at 13 — we should all be so lucky). Fast forward 20 years, and I can still remember her giddiness when she got home the Maasai Tribe tales, and the small giraffe figurine she bought me, which I still have stashed away.
I couldn’t just travel to Africa because I’d waited so long to take such a significant vacation. I’d have to climb a mountain — and not just any mountain, but the continent’s tallest: Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, which rises 19,340 feet above sea level.
Could I, however, pull it off?
As a journalist, I immediately went into data-gathering mode. I was given some advice. Read a lot of books. I went to REI to get some supplies. (Admission: I purchased stuff that required me to return home and Google.) In the dark, could you put batteries into your Black Diamond headlamp? How do you choose the best sweat- and water-resistant underwear? Mmmkay.) Finally, and most significantly, I found a wonderful partner who was eager to join me on my journey.
In addition, I increased my workouts to six days a week. Would it, however, be sufficient? I had a panic attack right before I departed for Tanzania. The night before my journey, my nerves got the best of me. So, what did this daring would-be Kilimanjaro climber do? I dialed my mother’s number.
“Mom, can you just tell me why I feel the need to climb the world’s tallest freestanding mountain again?”
She provided me with the assurance I required. “Because even at 9 months old, I can see you pulling yourself up and walking,” Mom explained. “You were a squatty, muscular baby who could walk! Because you have the ability to do so and will do so.”
What exactly is that remark? “Do you ever listen to your mum since she’s always right?” That ancient proverb was about to be put to the test.
It turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Here are ten lessons I learned from Mount Kilimanjaro.
1. It takes a village to climb.
Climbing Kilimanjaro takes a village. Tents, bathrooms, and food are carried up the mountain by Tanzanian porters for trekkers who aren’t used to the thin air. Mount Kilimajaro, at 19,340 feet (5,895 meters) above sea level, is Africa’s highest summit.
Every year, over 35,000 people attempt to climb Kilimanjaro, with only about half of them reaching the summit. On the walk, three to seven people die on average every year.
Tourists like me would never be able to do it without the guides, particularly the porters, who are local young guys who actually break their backs for the sake of reaching the peak. In my company, there were six of us trying the peak and 41 porters. 41, to be exact!
They carried tents, tarps, and toilets on their backs while balancing food sacks on their heads on any given day, often leaving us, heavy-breathing, sea-level inhabitants, in the dust.
They’d slither and squirm simply to be ahead of us when it came to setting up the following tent. We were awestruck every time they passed us (and felt like schmucks).
Without these Tanzanians, we would have never made it up that mountain. I know that whether I’m on Kili or not, I’m only as powerful as the people who back me up. When our porters greeted us at camp on Night One, serenading us with traditional Kilimanjaro music, I realized it. To hold the tears at bay, I had to tighten my fists until I got to my tent and let it all out.
2. The mountain is in charge.
At the Machame route gate, check your ego. Our group rapidly discovered that we were all first-born children (Translation: go-getters, goal-oriented, sometimes quite stubborn in our pursuits). We were humbled in a hurry.
Several of us, including me, became ill on Night Two. I had no idea I’d developed lactose intolerance at such a high altitude. Who knew such a thing existed?! You’ve never met an ice cream eater like me!
At 15,000 feet, forget about what you thought you could eat, how much water you needed to drink, and how you thought you should sleep. Keep your wits about you, respect Kili, and pay attention to your guide. The mountain is in charge.
3. The Guide is the guru.
A few nights before the climb, I met our guide Dismass Mariki through the tourist agency Abercrombie & Kent. He came to say hi at the hotel. He was really come to give us a once-over: Could these six Americans handle it on the mountain, I understood afterward.
I was sitting in our hotel with Allison, my adventurous trip companion-in-crime when I encountered Dismas. We’d just finished our 24-hour trip day and popped up our first Kilimanjaro Lager. Exhausted yet ecstatic to have arrived on African soil.
Dismas gave us a single look and said: “Mmmm. What’s this, beer? There will be no more beer after this.”
It was the start of wise advice from the 36-year-old parent. He’d soon be keeping the same close eye on us as he did on his two children back in Arusha. “There will be no milk for you. There will be no mango for you. Please don’t eat an apple so late at night.”
He is without a doubt the reason that all six of us made it to the top of the mountain (after all, he’s done it more than 200 times and even fondly recalls leading an 82-year-old and her three septuagenarian pals up there!).
I struck an unforeseen roadblock on the penultimate night, just an hour into our eight-hour frigid uphill slog toward the summit with the help of trekking poles: thirst. Slurred speech, dizziness, and disorientation. I was terrified.
I’d traveled this far and had no choice but to give up. I imagined the remainder of my group summiting without me, only to return and inform me of what I had missed. That never happened thanks to Dismas and his gang. He sprang into action, pulling garments from my body and forcing me to sit and drink and breathe. He came to my rescue.
4. Take a deep breath.
You must learn to breathe differently when climbing at heights of 13,000, 15,000, and 19,000 feet, for acclimatization purposes. It’s a deep-breathing method that Dismas taught us at a young age and reminded us to do at all times of the day. It became almost meditative for me.
We could see how this breathing would save us every time we put the pulse oximeter on our fingertips at mealtime to test our heart rate and blood oxygen levels.
Now, I don’t intend to bring all of this high-altitude breathing home with me, but if my world starts to spin, I’ll know what to do.
The story of how Africa’s highest mountain became a tourist attraction
With each passing day, the glacier-capped top of Kilimanjaro became more visible. It got increasingly intimidating as time went on. We’d turn our heads, look up at the peak, and softly wonder: “Are we going to summit THAT?” hours into our daily hikes.
6. Get used to the stinking smell
So, as we’d be going uphill, dodging huge and small boulders, and scrambling along rock walls, it’d be easy to become temporarily entranced by the peak’s grandeur, losing our footing and tumbling that is why sometimes trekking poles come in handy.
Whether climbing Kilimanjaro or attaining my next professional goal, my advice is to look ahead for a time, then keep your head down and plod on.
That’s correct. The foul odor. There hasn’t been a shower in seven days.
As someone who is fortunate enough to have two gorgeous people do my hair and makeup every day for work — and who has to take attention to my looks (don’t be deceived, you should see me on the weekends), this no-make-up, no-showering thing was definitely a stretch.
I didn’t even bring a tube of lipstick with me. I purchased dry shampoo and just used it once. Due to a lack of water, I was unable to shave, which resulted in a less-than-pleasant appearance beneath my hiking pants. Not to mention the fact that I had never spent more than a weekend in a tent before this trip.
And believe me when I say that letting go of all of that was surprisingly LIBERATING. I’m already dreaming up plans for my next shower-free vacation.
7. No cell signal, no problem!
Seriously, how many countries on the earth allow you to tell your boss, “Sorry, but I’m traveling for a week to climb a mountain and won’t have Wi-Fi or cell service”?
I believe the last time I tucked my phone away like that was in 2006, long before I started obsessively checking Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook whenever I was bored.
I worried if I would start to twitch if I didn’t have access to a phone. Are you breaking out in cold sweats?
None of the aforementioned.
Instead, the six of us and Dismas would sit down at a table and talk about politics, movies, and Africa, face to face and without distractions.
My friend and I didn’t speak for an hour after leaving the mountain and having access to the Internet because we were catching up on texts and emails. We then opted to switch off our phones practically simultaneously. They were suckers of souls.
Yes, I am thankful for technological advancements. But I’m grateful for the off-switch experience as well.
8. Have a good time and laugh a lot.
I laughed more than I ever thought possible at that altitude, thanks to my tentmate Allison and a 60-something Broadway actress on our tour.
We were a bunch of idiots. We were on the verge of becoming impolite. After the upchuck, we even laughed upward. (On this expedition, we came extremely close!)
We discovered that keeping our spirits up and our mind off the steep climb ahead might be accomplished by playing song games, 20 Questions, or making jokes. What’s more, you know what? It was successful. How many people do the chicken dance after conquering Mount Kilimanjaro, for example?
9. ‘Pole pole’ is a phrase that means “slowly”
“Go gradually,” in Swahili, is the slogan when ascending Mount Kilimanjaro. You can’t control your respiration if you try to climb too quickly. If you panic, you’re doomed. You must instead take it slowly. As they say, “pole pole.”
This proverb came in handy on top night. We got up at 10 p.m. to pack our belongings and get ready to leave. We started the walk to Uhuru Peak at 11:30 p.m., and as the air became thinner and the temperature dropped throughout the steep ascent, our guide and porters kept whispering, “pole pole.”
I intend to take those two small sentences and apply them to my life back in New York.
When the speed and energy with which I flourish begin to swirl out of control, “Brooke, pole pole, pole pole, pole pole, pole pole, pole pole, pole Pole, pole, pole.”
10. What summit are we talking about?
We have all reminded ourselves why we’d come all this far as the days drew closer to summit night and the fear grew more extreme for some.
It was all about Africa for me and undertaking an out-of-the-box task. Kili was about bragging rights for some. Every day, we hiked for hours and hours, but the ambition of reaching the summit kept us going. Mercilessly. We’d spent a lot of money to get to this position. It was within our reach by Day Six.
Seeing the Uhuru Peak sign, which is made of wood. I took that picture. Taking everything in. Would you believe what happened when that time came?
Would you believe that once that moment occurred when the sun rose over Tanzania, our group only lasted six minutes at that altitude before sprinting down the mountain?
But we’d traveled so far! And, yes, we accomplished our objective.
But it won’t be tromping through Kilimanjaro’s snows and reaching the summit that will stick with me the most. It’s not singing when I close my eyes and think of my seven days on Kili. Dismas is the name of the game. It’s the awe-inspiring views of the stars above.
It’s about the journey, as difficult as it is for this goal-oriented CNN anchor to admit.
Back to my mother, who assured me that I would make it. Sure, sure. She was absolutely correct. And I’ll be honest: I’m already planning the next step.