In life, a person has experiences that stay with them until the end, and they are unique to each person. These are the intangible treasures that money cannot buy. Along the way, we meet some people who remain a part of our lives, while other encounters are fleeting. Some convergences are so intense that they compel us to re-examine our values and have an irrevocable effect on us. Our trek up Mount Kilimanjaro was one of those experiences. This post is my tribute to those I will never forget—the guides and crew of Kilimanjaro.
Some people climb mountains to ‘conquer’ them.
I loathe that term ‘conquer.’ It’s an obnoxious word that reeks with arrogance, ignorantly condescending in a manner that reaches far beyond the mountains. And when people use it to say they reached the summit of a magnificent peak, it only illustrates the obliviousness of a self-important species that has existed only for an eyeblink in time. The mountains existed well before we arrived, and they’ll continue to endure long after we’re gone; we have dominion over nothing.
I never thought about ascending lofty peaks as an experience to defy anything except for any limitations placed on myself, sourced internally and externally, riddled with doubt.
I have great respect for mountains and nature. I’ve never thought about how scaling earth’s most magnificent features could have such a profound effect on the way I view humanity and the importance of connection—connection to our inner selves and each other.
On Sunday, August 15th, 2021, my husband and I embarked on a flight to Tanzania, our first trip to Africa. Little did we know we were undertaking a journey that would indelibly imprint itself onto our lives in an unexpected way that would endure well after we returned home.
The first item on our itinerary was to make our way to the scenic foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. We would spend a day leisurely enjoying the gloriousness of the region around Africa’s highest mountain and the highest single free-standing mountain in the world at 5,895 meters (19,340 feet).
As we strolled through the dusty plains with a Maasai guide, acclimating to a higher elevation than we’re used to in the greater New York City area, we lamented that we hadn’t yet seen the majestic mountain. However, our chance to glimpse upon our unfathomable destination would appear as the sun started to drop itself closer to the horizon, preparing to make its departure from our luminous realm as the evening darkened.
We had only briefly seen the mountain at that moment from a distance; it had been obscured by clouds the entire day. The scale of it hadn’t quite yet sunken in as we first gazed upon Mount Kilimanjaro, bathed in alpenglow, as the sun set over Kambi ya Tembo.
Our upcoming adventure to the Roof of Africa seemed inconceivable at this point as we stood gaping at the towering behemoth from our comfortable camp perched atop a hill overlooking a magnificent tree-dotted expanse bordering Kenya. The great mountain sprung from the earth, reaching into the ether, seemingly residing in another plane of existence.
We thought we knew what to expect, for the most part, having done a few long-distance backpacking adventures that included trekking our way through the Sierra Nevada of California and up Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. However, Mount Kilimanjaro was not Mount Whitney; it towered an additional 1,463 meters (4,800 feet) above the highest we’ve ever been so far (Mt. Whitney stands at 4,421 meters or 14,505 feet). It was in this moment, gaping at the landscape, brushed with a celestial artist’s pastel palette, that I knew this hike would not be the same as anything we’ve already experienced.
An array of feelings overwhelmed me—awe, excitement, and doubt. A part of me anticipated our adventure with a sense of confidence. Surely, I could do this. Thousands of others had done it; why not me? And a part of me was prudently cautious. We would be ascending to a height we’ve never ventured into without the protection of being inside of a jet-propelled aluminum tube. I was keenly aware of how nature and biology could work against the best prepared.
Our 9-day trek to reach Uhuru Peak (the Swahili word for “freedom”) began with a weigh-in of our duffels at Londorosi Gate. We were instructed that the gear we bring up the mountain (the stuff not packed in our backpacks) would be carried by porters and could not exceed 33-lbs. I was accustomed to lugging a cumbersome 46-lb backpack during our Sierra Nevada backpacking trips; I didn’t think the 33-lbs was unreasonable.
When I researched companies that would take tourists on a trek up Kilimanjaro, it was essential that I chose a company that would hold the highest ethical standards when it came to the treatment of porters. I did not want to be one of those foreigners who would try to save money by hiring a company that took advantage of the local people who relied on this work to make a living.
Hundreds of expedition members, mostly porters, gathered around a weighing scale that would determine the fates of dozens of duffels and bags. I was in awe at the number of men (I did not see one woman there except for amongst us tourists) who would be accompanying multiple groups of hikers up Kilimanjaro.
I needed an image that captured the essence of photojournalism for a photography assignment, so I walked around taking pictures. As I peered through the lens and pressed the shutter button on my camera, I was mindfully aware of the men to tourist ratio. I asked myself, “Are all of these men here to get these handfuls of clients to the summit?”
After weigh-ins were completed, we loaded up into the jeeps to make the short journey to where we would begin our hike—the New Lemosho Gate—where we were provided a hearty meal to fuel us for the first march to Mti Mkubwa Camp (‘big tree’ camp aka the ‘Forest Camp’).
Shortly after eating, we were introduced to our trekking team; my jaw dropped. There were 9 of us clients and 55 team members! We, the Simba group, consisted of four couples, a solo US military veteran, 4 guides, a dozen core team members, 4 personal porters, and the men who would perform the monumental task of transporting all our (the clients) gear, camp equipment, food, and everything else we would need up the mountain.
After the introductions and trip briefing was concluded, the men began loading up. I saw our bright yellow North Face duffel bags being packed into a sack, along with who-knows-what-else, hoisted upon the head of one of the porters. To my horror, that porter also carried his own kit in a backpack that appeared just as full as the one that I’ve carried on extensive backpacking trips.
I don’t know why I was horrified. What did I expect? Each man would need his own gear, and who would carry that for them? Reality struck me in the face, swiftly and stinging. I watched these men, one by one, pass me by, carrying loads that would make my knees buckle. I thought to myself, “Oh, my goodness! I am one of those people. I will saunter up this mountain with the bare minimum in my pack while someone else bears my burden.”
At that moment, I felt guilty. It didn’t matter how much money we paid to compensate the efforts of these men; it could not lessen the weight I felt on my conscience. And it was at that moment, I was determined to carry all my camera gear myself—equipment that weighed almost 10 pounds. And I did haul that gear the first day until I was instructed to give it to the personal porter I fortunately hired.
Porters. This is the word that is commonly used to describe the men (and women) who haul trekkers’ gear, camp equipment, and provisions up and down the slopes of Kilimanjaro. However, this term does not accurately portray the critical function these folks perform to ensure successful summits for even some first-time adventurers. In some instances, this term could even denote an uncomplimentary perspective that some deem acceptable, especially when justified as a paid service. From this point on, I opted to not use the term ‘porter,’ where practical, and chose to refer to these protagonists as ‘the team.’ Still, inadequate terminology.
Some team members chose to use the word ‘soldiers’ as opposed to ‘porters’; however, that term did not seem appropriate to me either. Although, that term does reflect the perseverance and steadfastness displayed by every member of our team, I can see why it’s used.
When planning our trip, I debated hiring a personal porter (for lack of a better term). After all, I’ve always carried my own gear myself on every backpacking trip, all 46 pounds of it. Why should this time be any different? And this time, my backpack would weigh only 25 pounds; I surely could handle that, right?
This was uncharted territory for me, and I was unsure how I would perform at such a lofty elevation. So, I ultimately decided to employ someone to help me, just in case. That someone would be named Robert. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.
It became almost immediately apparent that there was no sauntering up this mountain. As the days progressed, it became evident that I would depend on my sidekick, Robert, more and more. If it weren’t for him, I’m not sure if I would have made it to the summit. I had way too much that needed to be carried, especially when we needed to have 4 liters of water for each day’s trek.
As an unfavorable circumstance struck two days before our trek even started and continued to plague me for the entire trip (let’s just say it was of a relentless feminine nature), I also became dependent on the guides as they took turns carrying additional items of mine. It’s not uncommon to become weaker the higher you ascend due to the lack of oxygen; however, my situation amplified my deteriorating stamina.
This expedition presented me with challenges unlike any that I’ve experienced before, and with that, my reliance on others was a necessity. For me, these circumstances created a bond that inseparably attached me to those who live halfway around the globe.
Robert served as more than someone that would help me carry my gear; he became a companion and a brother. He gave me Swahili lessons and graciously listened to me as I would bungle through trying to express myself in his country’s language. Fortunately for me, he spoke English very well, and I was able to convey my meaning without too much embarrassment.
Our lead guide, Alex, whom I fully trusted with my life, taught me that I still have a lot to learn about trekking up mountains. After all, with well over 100 ascents under his belt, he would know better than anyone else the decision-making involved in ensuring successful summits and the importance of making safety the paramount objective. He became my mentor, protector, and someone with whom I could express myself without feeling ashamed of the vulnerability I felt. He continuously encouraged me and kept me in the positive mindset required to reach the summit.
Along with Alex, our three other guides—Liberate, Jackson, and Paul—would ensure that none of us faltered. Step by step, one by one—pole, pole (slowly)—they took turns leading us.
It was only the second day when my Achilles tendons and calves started to torment me, an issue that usually takes dozens of miles to work itself out. The agony prevented me from keeping up with the rest of the group since I had to stop frequently to stretch out my lower legs; however, Liberate dropped back with my husband and me to lead us separately at a pace I could manage. From that point on, we shared a special camaraderie with Liberate. We walked, talked, joked, and enjoyed each other’s company.
Jackson offered us a special treat as he led the pack. We were enlightened to all the different species of plants that inhabited the landscape. As we walked along, Jackson would rattle off the scientific designations of flora that flanked the path, along with the common names. I can’t even repeat them because the monikers left my mind almost as soon as they were uttered; however, Jackson knew them all. We called him ‘The Professor’; however, later, when we learned that he summited and descended Kilimanjaro last year (2020) in only 12 hours at the age of 39-years, he became dubbed ‘Action Jackson.’
Paul, the quiet one. He didn’t say too much; he led with intent. A couple of times I followed next in line, I caught him looking back at where I placed my feet on some of the tricky terrains to ensure that I didn’t tread somewhere that could result in an injurious stumble. He was careful and deliberate, and I knew that I was in good hands with him. He made me feel at ease.
Humphrey, the medic, always there, was shadowing us closely the entire way. Every time I would look back, there he was with a large duffel marked with an orange cross atop his shoulders. What he carried in that hefty-looking bag was nothing short of a mobile hospital— an AED (automated external defibrillator), a PAC (portable altitude chamber aka hyperbaric chamber), two 4-liter oxygen cylinders, a portable stretcher, and of course, a first-aid kit.
Thankfully, our lead guide Alex, the one ultimately responsible for all the clients and porters and trained in using all this equipment and life-saving procedures, didn’t have to jump into action on this trip for any emergencies. But if the need did arise, he would have had whatever we needed to treat whatever ailed any unfortunate casualty. And if, for some reason, Alex was incapacitated or was unable to manage some sort of catastrophe by himself, Liberate, Paul, and Jackson are also fully trained to do whatever may need to be done. (And this, folks, is one of the differences between using a company that places emphasis on recreating safely and responsibly and one that tries to cut costs.)
It’s hard to explain the monumental effort it takes to engage in an endeavor as aggressive as ascending Mount Kilimanjaro. Folks say that what I did was a great accomplishment. I suppose that is true; reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro was one of my most outstanding achievements, and sure, it took energy on my part. However, it could not have been done without the support I received from the 55 men that accompanied me, and the distinction is not my own.
I walked. I put one foot in front of the other. I did not have to haul the tent required to shelter me from the elements or expend valuable energy setting it up. I did not have to carry the clothing needed at night to keep me warm, preventing me from becoming hypothermic. I did not have to tote the food I would consume for the 9 days, fueling my body so that it would propel me forward and up (and down), nor did I have to prepare that food. Also, I did not have to expend valuable energy fetching and purifying water. I did nothing except unpack my sleeping bag and change my clothes. My responsibility was simple—just walk.
Anyone who engages in extended backpacking trips knows the feeling of having to do all these things after a day of trekking. It can be cumbersome and draining.
One of my most beloved luxuries on this trip—not having to dig and use a cathole! Until you’ve had to do this, you cannot possibly understand how much toilets are taken for granted. Two men ensured that our tented privies, housing glorious, comfortable thrones, were ready for use and never runneth over. Simon and Faraja, our ‘pilots,’ were pivotal to me not being miserable thanks to my early morning anxiously overactive digestive system. These tented tabernacles were my refuge.
Butta, our camp manager, kept camp running like a well-oiled machine. We had everything done for us; it was like magic, except it wasn’t. Many men did this for us in the background seamlessly. In the morning, the team would leave after us, and somehow, they would arrive where we would have lunch before us. The dining and toilet tents were already erected, and our midday meal was already prepared. After lunch, they would break down the site after we left, but somehow again would be up to the campsite before us with sleeping tents, dining and toilet tents raised, and snacks ready for teatime. Dinner would follow soon after. The extraordinary process would commence the following day again.
Jonas, Isaac, and Emmanuel ensured that our bellies were filled with scrumptious and plentiful meals that I can’t even make at home. Our cook, Jonas, was a culinary genius; I have no idea how he prepared those elaborate meals we chowed down on. Some of us suspected that there was a secret gourmet kitchen hiding somewhere within the mountain because we couldn’t fathom how you could make bread and bake a birthday cake using a stove that is carted up the mountain in a duffel bag. And we thought that perhaps there was some magical food fairy that accompanied us up because the variety of food was mind-boggling.
Then there was Simon and Gerald, who would greet us every time we reached camp. Simon would grab my backpack while Gerald would relieve my husband of his before escorting us to our tent. The men would dust us off, ridding us of the powder-like dirt that coated our legs and boots, before helping us to remove our hiking gaiters. Those two were our welcoming committee, congratulating us on a day well done. I looked forward to seeing each of them at the end of every day.
Camp was our home away from home. All the men who spent the nine days with us, our Kilimanjaro crew, made us feel comfortable and welcome; this team became our family. Words cannot adequately express the gratitude I feel towards these men, nor can words sufficiently describe the emotions I feel due to what I’ve experienced. Profoundly overwhelming is probably the best I can conjure up.
I’ve been greatly affected by our experience on Mount Kilimanjaro, not only by the mountain itself but mainly by the people that made it possible.
Tanzania—the land and its people—is a wondrous place that I absolutely wish to visit again. We made some new friends along the way who will forever live in my heart, and I hope to see them again too.
So, when I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, I did not conquer any mountain. Contrarily, I was humbled beyond what I thought was possible. The real champions of the most incredible mountain in Africa are those who hold it in reverence and enable regular folks like me to live out their dreams—the guides and crew of Kilimanjaro.
Asante sana! Nitawakumbuka daima!
A Very Special Thank You
Each person who accompanied us on Mount Kilimanjaro deserves to be recognized. All these men were instrumental to every member of our group making it to the summit, a 100% success rate! Congratulations on a job well done, and thank you from the bottom of my heart.
|Alex John Laizer (LEAD GUIDE)
|Liberate Tesha (SUPPORTING GUIDE)
|Jackson Kiwelu (SUPPORTING GUIDE)
|Paul Mayo (SUPPORTING GUIDE)
Camp Crew and Trekking Team
|Raphael Butta (CAMP MANAGER)
|Jonas James Mwaringo (COOK)
|Isaya Samson Kitema (WAITER)
|Joseph Christopher Ngowi
|Emanuel John Kisasa (ASST WAITER)
|Azimudi Abdala Sheshe
|Humphrey Kileo (MEDIC)
|Alfan Ismail Swalehe
|Simon L Kweka (TC1) aka ‘the Pilot’
|Samwel Manase Ndwete
|Faraja Gabriel Kivuyo (TC2) aka ‘the Pilot’
|Gerald Daniel Mtui
|Nasibu Juma Dossa (CC1) Camp Crew
|Vitalis Maganga Mure
|Alex Adam Ruben (CC2) Camp Crew
|Simon Paul Sablack (CC3) Camp Crew
|Saltary Joseph Temba
|Zuberi Kasim Mbwilo (PC) Porter’s Cook
|Godwin J Nsunza
|Damas Jackob Sanka
|Mussa Naftal Ngomuo (MP KPAP)
|Saidi Omari Ngwese
|Rafael Sangau Laizer
|Emanuel T Nyamanche
|Noah Kefas Ndanengu
|Pascal James Kombe
|Godbless Abedinego Mmbasha
|Museeni Saruni Mollel
|Emmanuel Joseph Nade
|Mark August Mtui
|Zephania Meshili Laizer
|Calvin Deo Kyara
|Mbwana Juma Mwanfundo
|Godfrey Samwel Shoo
|Gerald Raymond Lyimo
|Venance Valerian Mato
|John Henrico Kilugala (PP) Personal Porter
|Deo August Mtui
|Alfred Simon Mnango (PP) Personal Porter
|Gerald Isack Nyiti
|Joseph Joseph Mapima (PP) Personal Porter
|Wiliam Emanuel Mzava
|Robert Sichalwe (PP) Personal Porter
|Lazaro D Pallangyo
I’d also like to recognize Thomson Safaris, a leader in ethical and responsible tourism in Tanzania. It is through their unparalleled devotion to the fair treatment of guides and porters that enabled us to conscientiously embark on this extraordinary journey.
Thomson Safaris are founding members of the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP), which establishes and monitors porter ethics to improve porter treatment industry-wide. The men and women they work with receive some of the highest compensation packages in Tanzania.
Members of our Kilimanjaro trek team lead us up the mountain. From Left to right are Robert (my personal porter), Alex (lead guide), Liberate (supporting guide), Humphrey (medic), and Jackson (supporting guide).