Climbing Kilimanjaro – a student’s perspective

The roof of Africa, the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro, should not be underestimated. Rising almost 6000m above sea level, you need much more than excellent physical fitness. You also need a determined state of mind.

There are plenty of articles out there written by experienced adventurers, but what about from a student’s perspective. We asked Annabelle Grimes, who climbed it with classmates from Nepal High School in Ottawa, Canada, what it takes to get to the top.

Students making a push to the summit of Mt Kilmanjaro

Students making a push to the summit of Mt Kilmanjaro

Before leaving Ottawa what were you most looking forward to about the Mount Kilimanjaro climb?

Besides the obvious prospect of successfully summiting Mount Kilimanjaro with all the members of my group, there were an endless number of things that culminated to my anticipation as the trip approached. I looked forward to experiencing African culture for the first time, and observing the animals I’d only ever watched on National Geographic. I also looked forward to bonding with my climbing-mates and seeing the vast and stark beauty of the mountain first-hand. I was overwhelmed by all the new experiences I would encounter, and I could hardly contain my excitement.

Can you outline the training you and your fellow students did pre-trip in order to make it to the summit?

Mostly, we trained individually for this trip; everyone took it seriously and prepared according to their own abilities. For example, I had an endurance and strength regiment that spanned for months in preparation. Before leaving, many of us did multi-day hiking trips in the Adirondack Mountain Range in New York State – a few hours’ drive from Ottawa. Being part of our schools’ Outdoor Education program, we already had strong backgrounds in camping and hiking, so no strenuous training was necessary.

Kilimanjaro is not a technically demanding climb, so nearly anyone with reasonable physical health and determination can hope to summit.

Students enjoying a meal on Mt Kilimanjaro

Students enjoying a meal on Mt Kilimanjaro

What was the most overwhelming feeling you experience on the trip?

I was overwhelmed by the outstanding work of guides, porters, and cooks during our trip. They contributed so much, not only physically and logistically, but also in helping maintain exceptional morale throughout.

As we climbed, many of us had the opportunity to get to know the women and men who accompanied us, and this offered a glimpse into a rich, welcoming culture. The incredible amount of work and effort that went into making our experience comfortable was astonishing, and for that we are so grateful.

What life skills did the Kilimanjaro expedition develop?

As it would be, a few of our group’s bags, including mine, were lost on our flight from Doha, Qatar. Unsure as to whether or when these bags would arrive, our group opted to rent necessities at the base of the mountain and continue on schedule.

With little more than the shirt on my back and a sleeping bag, I relied on my resourcefulness and the generosity of my fellow-climbers for dry clothes.

Our bags arrived on our third day on Kilimanjaro by some amazing feat of human coordination, but in the days leading up, I came to realize how little I can make do with. This realization translated to a new appreciation for all the luxuries I enjoy daily, and to a heightened perspective of my own materialism.

Success! WYA student expedition on the roof of Africa, Mt Kilimanjaro

Success! WYA student expedition on the roof of Africa, Mt Kilimanjaro

Was the trip or reaching the summit tougher than you expected?

I think all of us went knowing that summiting would be tough. Coming from Ottawa, our bodies were all unaccustomed to low oxygen environments.

Altitude sickness affects some far more than others, though because of its unpredictable nature, there was no way to know who would suffer. Though our route aimed to maximize acclimatization, everyone suffered to some degree.

Throughout, we remained wary of worsening symptoms, and our guides carried supplemental oxygen for emergencies. I personally struggled summit night with nausea and dizziness, but I went on the trip accepting that I might be forced to turn back and descend at any time.

That being said, we were all ecstatic to be able to summit alongside all of our friends, knowing that our suffering was entirely outweighed by the beauty and splendor of the journey itself.

Now you have returned home, having been part of a team that had 100% success on summit day, what are your most treasured moments from the trip?

I remember the day after summiting, how we were all ecstatic to have made it, and equally as excited to have plummeted down the mountain the thicker air. That morning, the sky was a clear blue, and as the sun rose up to meet us, we stood before all of our guides and porters who sang to us as a final goodbye. With the snows of the mountain as a backdrop, we all eventually erupted into song and dance together. Looking at everyone’s faces – those I had met just a short week before, but seemed to have known for far longer – I saw nothing but joy, laughter, and elation.

It was incredible; I’ll never forget my last morning on Kilimanjaro.

Campsite on Mt Kilimanjaro

Campsite on Mt Kilimanjaro.

Did this trip instill a thirst for adventure and travel?

Absolutely – and I know I’m not alone. It may sound cliché, but there is nothing more liberating than stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something wildly daring and new. I’m hearing that Kilimanjaro is just the first of the Seven Summits many of my teammates plan on ticking off their lists. I’m moving to British Columbia for university in the fall and I’ve started planning climbs in the Rockies and West Coast Trail backpacking next year.

Having climbed Kilimanjaro at the ages of 16 and 17, the bar has been set high for the many adventures that are sure to follow. I know for a fact that Kilimanjaro will not be the highest summit many of us will climb; even greater endeavors lie ahead.

Do you have advice for other students considering an international school trip?

I’d tell them that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. This is the stuff of life, and there’s no better time to venture into the unknown than if you haven’t before.

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