Kilimanjaro was the first of the Seven Summits, the group of mountains that includes the highest peak on each of the world’s seven continents. It marked the beginning of one of the most colorful seasons of my life that took me through the Himalayas to the pristine forests of West Papua and the icy wastelands of Antarctica. It’s also the only mountain I’ve come back to again and again – every time I lead a group of international women studying for an MBA at the Rotterdam School of Management. In all, I have had the honor of accompanying 70 women on the mountain – each has enriched her in her own way, but more on that later.
I was introduced to Kilimanjaro a very long time ago when, as a student, I spent three glorious months working on a farm in Africa. My eyes fell on the domed pudding across the savannah, or out of the window of an airplane—always in the distance, out of reach. But the seed of the idea has been sown. Several years later when I was working as a journalist in London, a friend, Lucy, called me to ask for suggestions on what I could do while on vacation in East Africa. Not surprisingly, I answered unreservedly, “Climb Kilimanjaro. May I come too?”
Mount Kilimanjaro may be the highest mountain on the African continent, but it’s not technically a daunting climb. There are challenging features on the mountain, such as the hack wall and the rough turret of Mawenzi that pioneer climbers have sought and extended. But it is essentially a large-sized hill with gentle slopes that descend into the sun-bleached plains of the Maasai steppe. And whether you climb it from the north, south, east or west, you can be sure there is a footpath that leads to the summit.
Kilimanjaro Dormant Volcano – One of the most famous volcanoes in the world, due in part to Hemingway’s famous story by the dying writer, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” in Swahili Kilima Njaro It means “the mountain that shines” and its snow-capped peak is an instant symbol of East Africa. It is located 250 miles south of the equator, within Tanzania’s border with Kenya. A quick glance at the map reveals a strange crookedness surrounding the mountain in the confines of a ruling strait between the two countries, illustrated by the fact that in 1886, Queen Victoria gave the mountain to her German grandson, Wilhelm, as a birthday present. The mountain is surrounded by the hot, dry plains of the Maasai steppe and is known for its widely contrasting vegetation. Among the Seven Summits, the highest mountain on each of the seven continents of the world, it is the easiest and most accessible mountain.
Entry to Kilimanjaro National Park is tightly controlled, so climbers pay a permit fee to enter the gate – and a local guide and porters are required to be appointed for each party. Tents, sleeping bags, and food are usually thrown in, and for those who choose the popular tourist trail – or Coca-Cola Trail – there are bunk accommodations to boot.
Spilling over the maps, we chose instead the Machame Trail, which winds around from the south, which, in 1991, was rarely climbed and offered some sense of remoteness. A little more than the Coca-Cola track, it also had the advantage of taking a day or two longer, giving us more time to acclimatize. For the obligatory guide and porters, we welcome their company of course, but we will provide our own camping equipment and food in an effort to be as self-reliant as possible.
Before we set off, I spent hours on the phone with Lucy, reading and revising the menus, crossing things off the lists as much as adding stuff, to reduce the loads we had to carry. We decided to carry equipment and clothes with us from home. We will buy food and fuel for the MSR stove locally. I remember that in Nairobi, before hopping on the bus across the border to Arusha, and then to Kilimanjaro, we circled a cart around a supermarket to stock up on future climbs. I tossed a dozen chocolate bars into the cart as quickly as Lucy pulled them out again. “You’ll want those,” I insisted. To stock up on fuel for the stove, we left until we came to Moshi, a small market town located at the southern mountainside. Fuel in Tanzania was known to be contaminated at the time, and I spent the better part of an afternoon sitting in the garden of our guesthouse filtering it from canister to can through coffee filter papers. Finally, we were ready for the mountain.
Kilimanjaro, as we know, is an inhabited mountain, and the result is that many wild animals were frightened – the four-striped grass mouse is an animal discovery sum. However, the mountain retains its own unique character, and its unusual terrain continues to fascinate. When missionary Johannes Rebmann first discovered the snow-capped summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in 1848, it was dismissed as mere fiction for more than a decade. The Royal Geographical Society of London asserted that snowfall could not occur, let alone persist, at such latitudes and considered the Ribman report to be a hallucination caused by malaria. How could it be on the equator?
It is, of course, a written illustration of the effects of altitude on temperature. To climb it, you have to walk first through banana plantations on the rich volcanic soil of its lower slopes, then through forests, grasslands, high desert, and finally – when extreme altitude brings temperatures below zero – to an icy summit. Parallels can be drawn by walking across latitudes from the equator to the north or south geographic poles.
Our trip was virtually accident free. “columns and pillarsSister, ‘the guide slammed gently, ‘slowly, slowly,’ realizing that it never works to force the body’s natural pace of acclimatization. We climbed slowly up the mountain’s lower slopes, drank excessive amounts of water and rested much more often than we had in years. Only our stove lightens us, or rather the fuel–it is evidently still far from being free of gravel and dirt.The stove shriveled and smashed, and his days ended at last with a gasp of indignation from me, and a humbling acceptance of rice and beans cooked over the porters’ open fire.They had seen it all before.
Patiently the angels stood and watched as we struggled in the thin air on the higher slopes. The last day is fatal – rises at midnight and climbs”pillars, pillars“On the steep, gray slopes of a conical mountaintop. There is little chance now for speed. Here, the oxygen supply drastically decreases. Every step is an effort—lungs gasping for air, feet gliding infuriatingly on the loose roughness.” Polly, Polly. take deep breath. Reassemble. Find a rhythm. I whispered to myself, “Don’t fight nature but find a way to deal with it kindly.” This is the secret of energy conservation and progress in the upper reaches of the atmosphere (and in life, in general, we must not remember).
At last there was a hint of light in the vast skies of Africa and we found ourselves standing on the edge of the caldera in Kilimanjaro, looking out at the blazing sunshine, and far, below, a blanket of gray, pearly clouds extending to the horizon. A slow stroll around the crater rim and we were on top of Uhuru, the highest point on the mountain, looking at two other peaks poking their heads above the cloud. In the distance was Mount Kenya, a summit I had climbed the previous year, and closer to Meru – a guarded volcanic peak to Arusha, about 50 miles away. I had the great feeling of stamping our feet in the snow, high up there on the surface of Africa. “We can climb on that now,” Lucy said, referring to Arusha. And within the next few days, we did. The mountain climbing insect appears to show clear signs of being contagious.
Decades passed before I returned – this time, with groups of women from every corner of the world, studying at the Rotterdam School of Management. Each had to write down his predictions and what lessons they learned on the mountain. But the real learning was in the experience – with or without the written word. Most of them have never climbed or trekked hard before; Not many people slept one night in a tent. The learning curves were steep, and the bonds forged between the women were strong and lasting. They still come together to socialize, travel together, and network for this precious job. The mountain reflected something different for every woman: lessons in leadership, coping with uncertainty, resilience, strength of cohesion, camaraderie. But the mountain’s most profound and consistent teachings were about confidence and a sense of purpose. She was a beautiful, highly valued woman who had been struggling with her choice of profession for many years and wanted to work in humanitarian aid. The day she got home, she wrote her resignation letter and made that call. I think, without exception, that women’s confidence has grown. One woman’s words were speaking to everyone, “This mountain reminded me that I was made of steel!”