The fourth highest summit in the world. Tallest peak in Africa at 19,341 feet. It is estimated that 10 trekkers a year die on this mountain, often due to altitude sickness and rockslides. Less than 40% of people that attempt this feat make it to the top. The first successful ascent occurred in 1889 by a German named Hans Meyer.

Last fall 2014, I decided that, I too, would attempt to ascend Kilimanjaro. I read other people’s accounts on what to wear as not to freeze, how to dig a hole to poop and leave no trace behind, and how to make sure my phone and camera batteries would also not freeze so that I would have some evidence of my accomplishment. I was often asked, why on earth would I physically torture myself on vacation? Wasn’t I scared of Ebola? And then having to explain to people that Tanzania was on the eastern side of Africa and over 7,000 miles away from the action.

Using my United Mileage plus miles, I made the 39-hour adventure just arriving in Tanzania. I landed at the Kilimanjaro airport, and with the other westerners, waited in line for our health screenings and to fill out visa forms to enter the country. The most similar thing that I had done prior to this was hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and that ONLY went to 11,000 feet and was three nights of camping. OH, did I forget to mention that we would be camping for seven days on Kilimanjaro! My friend, Sydney, was the common denominator between the five of us and organized the trip. We were a rag tag group of four females and one guy. Everyone only knew one other person but I assumed anyone crazy enough to camp and hike Kilimanjaro was easy going enough for me to get along with for a week. Little did I realize was that what we embarked on was a perfect social experiment as it is always interesting to see how people change and react when out of their comfort zones. I recorded audio messages for my boyfriend each day of the hike in order to remember how I felt each day…which was overwhelmed! It is hard to explain but there is SO MUCH BUILD UP to the summit day and it is hard for us Type A-ers that we could not begin to prepare or understand what we were in store for this week.

The first day we hiked only 10 miles and made it to camp. The amazing local porters and our entourage of 20 had already been there for hours and set up our camp. I am normally vary wary about popping pills, even Advil for minor aches, but I was on this climb with two ER doctors and my personal pharmacy that I also brought, so I found myself popping four to five pills a day of Diamox (for altitude sickness), Maladrone (for malaria), Cipro and Pepto (stomach issues doh), and Ibuprofen (to prevent and ease any pains).

Over the week, we traveled through many different ecosystems: the rainforest, monkeys and weird crawly things, and out-of this world vegetation. As we climbed closer and closer to the top, there was not much but left but rock and snow and looking down at the cloud level to see glaciers in the distance. It was like living and breathing seven episodes of Planet Earth on the Discovery Channel.

This was the perfect time to disconnect and contemplate my place in the universe and connection to the environment, how I got here and where I want to be. It was peaceful and quiet (except for my random comments to my group) and breathtakingly beautiful at each camp along the way. As cliché as it is, I realized that conquering Kilimanjaro was COMPLETELY, MIND OVER MATTER. The mountain is really a perfect metaphor for our minds and one needs to summit the mountain in our heads that can stubbornly stand in the way. When pushed, our bodies are capable of some incredible things, and overcoming self-doubt and mental weariness allowed me to discover the true heights of my physical and mental capability and strength.

Let’s jump to Day 5. We made it to 15,000 feet! It is very dangerous to be at that high altitude for very long periods of time so when we were told we were going to have an early dinner and then “nap from 7-11 pm to wake up and then SUMMIT at 12 am!” Now I understood why they told us to bring flashlights! It also started snowing / hailing (I wasn’t sure; I’m a California girl!) and my mood turned foul. I had a breakdown in my tent and decided I must be completely insane. However, as it often goes, the sun later came out; the clouds parted; my body warmed up; and I experienced some most amazing views. I instantly felt a little less crazy.

By: Michelle Teng