It's safe to say the elation from this trip still hasn't left me almost a month later. Signing up to climb the world's highest free standing mountain at 5,895 m (19,341 ft) is one of the best decisions I've ever made. Here's an account of my journey, the training, the kit, the people, the emotions. If Kilimanjaro is on your bucket list hopefully this will give you a taste for what to expect or give you that push to go for it.
September last year, just before my 40th birthday, I saw an IG announcement from the awesome all-female hiking group Galz Gone Wild (GGW) detailing their 2022 expedition to climb Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. GGW had partnered with Earth's Edge (EE), an Irish travel company that specialise in high altitude trekking, mountaineering and tri-adventure expeditions, to offer their GGW community the world's first all-female Kilimanjaro expedition. The demand was so high that 3 separate groups of women ended up going in July, August and September of 2022. We were the September crew. Our group was also going to have a videographer, Charlie Key (aka Chudley) join us on the trip to film the female African guides and porters. This added yet another exciting element as Charlie would highlight the challenges and experiences female workers encounter on Kilimanjaro (stay tuned to EE for the release...here's a sneak peek). Charlie proved to be one of the coolest people to share the experience with. We were all in awe of his dedication, skill and general awesomeness on that mountain. When I booked the trip I had no idea any of this was ahead of me or what to expect. I was excited and most definitely anxious those first months after booking.
From the outset the professionalism and organisation of both GGW and EE made the prep for this trip really easy. Once you register for an EE expedition you have your own portal on their website that details every requirement for your trip; vaccination requirements, medical declaration, insurance, doctor's consent, etc. They also offer a Safari booking as an add-on, which if you haven't been is amazing. They provide an extensive packing list that makes preparing for the trip so handy. As someone with very little hiking experience prior to this trip I needed all the guidance I could get.
Training days and weekends are included as part of the booking. We hiked the four highest peaks on the island of Ireland over a four month period from May to August and had a 2 day hiking weekend in Glendalough in preparation for Kili (yes, I say Kili now). My experience of hill-walking up to this point was the Sugar Loaf in Wicklow, the Hellfire Club in Dublin and Massey's woods also in Dublin. So it's safe to say I had work to do. The main motivator for me, at the time, was to challenge myself with something that was completely outside my comfort zone and would have me outdoors and active for as long as possible. What I didn't expect was how quickly I fell in love with hill walking. I am so grateful to have found it at this stage in my life.
Another big love I gained was for the crew of women that stood beside me on Kilimanjaro. My first time meeting the group was in June, 2022 when we walked Lugnaquilla, Wicklow (pic below). It was a stunning summer's day and I knew as soon as I experienced my first opening circle (individual check-in's before we set off on our hikes) that I would love every minute of this experience. Awesome weather and laughter followed us for each and every training day (bar Mweelrea, Co. Mayo where we hit the craziest combination of weather but still loved it - and the dip at Silver Strand was heaven). Glendalough was my first time meeting Jenny, aka 'Jennymanjaro', our EE expedition guide. Jenny would lead us on Kili along with the African team. Jenny is the most inspiring woman, having conquered Everest a few years earlier, and we all count ourselves extremely lucky to have been gifted her for our trip. She made us feel confident and secure in our abilities. She cheered as loudly as us at every milestone. It meant as much, if not more, to Jenny that we all summited. She is a complete pro and so much craic. We had an absolute ball together and would happily go on every expedition Jenny leads from now on. I'm so grateful to her for everything she did for me when I was missing my family those first couple of days. Those four training months have been among the most fulfilling periods in my life to date and we hadn't even set foot in Tanzania yet.
September 10th, 2022 came round so fast and it was time to head off on the real adventure. Although I was only going for 12 days, I cried saying goodbye at the airport and wondered for the millionth time was I doing the right thing. My three gorgeous children, Holly (7), Ethan (5) and Juliet (2) were little superstars and waved me off with their happy smiles, excited for my big adventure (pic below). Holly was upset but she was the woman of the house now and knew she needed to keep an eye on her Daddy while I was away ;) At this point I have to say I'm not sure I would've committed to this trip if it wasn't for my husband Jay (the other half of Sealieve) who from day one (and everyday since we met 14 years ago) was my biggest supporter. Anytime I questioned whether I should do it he was right there as the voice of reason making sure I didn't change my mind...he clearly wanted rid of me for a few weeks of peace!
We arrived in Arusha, Tanzania on Sunday 11th. We had one night to rest and we would hit the road to Kilimanjaro National Park the following morning. That first night in Arusha we met another EE expedition group who had just returned from summiting Kili. They were absolutely buzzing and the feeling of anticipation that that would be us the following Sunday sent us all to bed in high spirits.
We got to Kilimanjaro National Park mid-morning on the 12th. The African company that would bring us on to the mountain, African Zoom, led by the amazing Maggie Samson were busy getting all the gear that needed to travel with us ready to go. In terms of carrying your kit. Each day we would carry our own personal backpacks (roughly 8kgs - mine was a 30L capacity) with wet gear, base layers, first-aid items/medication, water (I had a 2ltr water bladder - mine leaked and had to be duct taped but others had the same one and theirs were grand), snacks, hats and walking poles (my poles were from Lidl). Our amazing porters would carry our duffels, that needed to be 15kgs or less, each day to the various camps. In our duffels we had our sleeping bags (these took up the most space - I rented mine from Adventure.ie in Laragh, Co. Wicklow - they are fantastic to deal with), down jacket/mitts for summit night (again rented from Adventure.ie, footwear for camp (crocs/runners are a good choice), toiletries (kept to an absolute minimum), nalgenes (I brought 3 - 2 500ml for extra water and to use on summit night and 1 large mostly to use as an emergency wee bottle at night - no I didn't mix them up ;)), snacks, chargers/power banks/kindle, change of clothes. Just on electronics, my power bank died about halfway up. If it wasn't for the soundness of the girls who lent me theirs I'd have been without a phone to take pics. Make sure you invest in a decent one and keep it warm at night (store it in your sleeping bag along with your phone/kindle etc). Make sure you wear your hiking boots travelling, the last thing you want to do is to have to break in new boots if your check-in bag goes astray. I had two sets of clothes for the week; 2 merino wool tops long and short sleeved, two fleeces, hiking leggings, underwear, 4 pairs of socks (1 liner, 2 everyday, 1 heavy), merino wool buff. By far the best investment I made was anything merino wool. I wore the same clothes for a solid week, no shower facilities just bowls of warm water to wash, and my clothes genuinely didn't smell. I used the merino buff to cover my nose and mouth when the dust was high. You can breath much easier through merino than synthetics. A great tip we got from the previous groups was to bring a bum bag. So handy for smaller easy to access bits like hand sanitiser, phone, tissues, snacks. I followed the EE packing guide and got tips from others who have been on these trips so kept my gear to a minimum. Minimising your duffel to the essentials helps you to be more organised but more importantly you're not asking someone else to carry items that you don't need. Definitely bear this in mind. I really didn't have anything I didn't use or find useful. It saves you money on unnecessary kit too so win win.
About 2.30pm on Monday 12th we finally set off to begin our adventure on Kilimanjaro. Led by Lulu, a female guide, who told us about her young daughter and the shop she has in Arusha. Like so many other awe-inspiring guides we met, she couldn't remember exactly how many times she'd summitted Kili so far. For us to acclimatise gradually and have greater success of summitting we were on the 7 day Machame trial also known as the Whiskey route. We would make gains daily to various points and descend lower to sleep. The adrenaline up to that point was high, we walked through beautiful rain forest covered in mist. It was stunning. No rain, just awesome surroundings. By the time we reached Machame camp (2,835 m) at around 7pm I was wiped. We ate dinner together in the mess tent (pic below). This would be where we'd spend all meal-times during our 7 days on the mountain. We were greeted by our amazing team who would prepare and serve our meals daily. Empesa, kept us on our toes announcing mealtimes and making sure we ate plenty. He told us all about the time he cycled, yes cycled, to Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro. Such an impressive achievement with the coolest summit picture to prove it. Just amazing stuff. Every day we were more and more impressed by the people that led us up the mountain.
Day two led us to Shira Camp (3,750 m). This was a long, tough walk. It was like a never-ending staircase. We couldn't really see where it ended or led to. Every time you thought the terrain would level off or change, the 'steps' reappeared. We made it to Shira, our home for the night and it was really cool. There's a cave there where years ago the African porters and guides would sleep (pic below). It's by no means protected by the elements and you could just imagine the conditions those teams had to endure with little to no comforts. That evening we had chicken and chips for dinner, with sides of salad and fruit. We were elated, chicken and chips on Kilimanjaro, it was pretty surreal. However, this was also the day my digestive system decided to kick off a dirty protest. I would spend the rest of the trip hoping I wouldn't soil myself. Imodium became my best friend and I appreciated even more that we had Charlie (another Charlie), our very own expedition Doctor, to tell us this was all perfectly normal. Charlie was another person that went above and beyond to make the trip not only safe but fun for us too. It helped that he'd conquered Kili before and we didn't hold back with the questions, concerns, in-depth descriptions of our ailments and feelings...the poor man he must have had PTSD prescribing Imodium after that trip ;D It was this day that Lisa, Momma Simba, who also left very young kids to have this adventure, became my comms Queen. I can't thank you enough Lisa for selflessly offering your phone day or night so I could send and receive pics of my little beauties. You looked out for everyone on our trip and we're so grateful to you.
Day three we hit Lava Tower (4600m) this is when the fun really started. The effects of altitude would really kick in. For me it was shortness of breath, possibly the loose bowels, tingling fingers and lips and some nausea. If you've been to altitude you'll know there is an option to take altitude sickness medication. We all opted to take it and without it I'm sure all these symptoms would have been magnified. Altitude sickness is really serious. Doctor Charlie briefed us comprehensively on what to expect and we felt prepared when it kicked in. He also spoke about how letting symptoms worsen, maybe through sheer perseverance to keep going, can in extreme cases lead to pulmonary oedema or cerebral oedema. Neither sounded very appealing so we all made sure we were taking our meds as prescribed and we would notify Charlie if we felt something wasn't right. As a group we ranged in age from late twenties to mid forties. We had various levels of fitness and mountaineering experience. We all felt the effects of altitude in different ways. It is not something you can really prepare for, how your body reacts is completely unique to you. There are Altitude classes which I did for two months the previous Sept/Oct at The Altitude Zone in SBG, Dublin. And altitude masks you can wear during high intensity training (athletes use them to learn how to extract more oxygen from each breath making them more fuel efficient). This type of training doesn't guarantee your body will adjust smoothly to altitude, however you'll benefit physically so if you're planning on doing it, again, it's another win win.
Day four we tackled the Baranco Wall. I loved this day so much. It would be my first real scramble up a mountain. It was so exciting. We would be assisted at any tricky parts, our African team always on side to make sure we felt comfortable and confident to progress. Fuso, the most experienced of our African guides, was a huge support to all of us. He had everything running so smoothly that we never felt under pressure or unsafe. My footing wasn't always right but they guided me up where necessary making the whole experience a memory I'll never forget. That day has given me the confidence to want to attempt more challenging expeditions in the next few years. That evening we camped at Karanga (4,000 m). This was by far my favourite camp. I will never forget sitting outside on a chair above the clouds, watching the sun set, feeling like I was literally on top of the world while Annie, my favourite American, put cool hiker plaits in my hair (pic of Karanga sunset below). This was such a special moment for me, when complete gratitude for the entire experience had started to sink in.
Day five things really ramped up. It was almost showtime. We set off that morning and hit Barafu Camp at 4,673 m by early afternoon. About an hour later we reached Kosovo camp where we stayed before we would set out for summit attempt that night (pic below looking up towards the track we would take to Stella point). We had lunch and tried to sleep (or rest as we'd started calling it). I can't say I, or many of the others, got much rest but it was nice to have some quiet time and mentally prepare for the final push. I had set my alarm for 10.45pm, we were to eat breakfast at 11.15pm and be ready to go by 12 midnight. Usually by the time we're getting up the camp is full of chat and hustle and bustle but that night camp was eerily quiet. So quiet that I ended up dozing off after my alarm went off and woke up at 11.08pm. The panic of being late on the most important day/night was the perfect distraction. I don't think I had a single other thought bar 'I can't believe I've done this' as I wolfed down spoons of porridge. I don't know if anything can really prepare you for your first altitude summit. But we'd put all the work in and just had to hope our bodies would play ball and get us up those final 1200 or so meters.
Day six summit was in our sights. Just after 12 midnight we headed off. Even with all the great advice and guidance on how to layer for summit night I struggled. In hindsight, more winter/night time treks in Ireland might have given me a better idea of my personal comfort levels. Instead I wore too much, an easier mistake to rectify than wearing too little I guess. Those first 10 minutes I honestly thought I would pass out. My core was boiling but my fingers felt like they'd snap off. It was pitch black and bitterly cold, around -15 degrees celsius as we set off. We stopped briefly to readjust. I vented and changed gloves and managed to find a happy medium. Water bladders without insulation will most likely freeze on summit night so I had two 500ml nalgenes filled with warm water in the inside pockets of my lighter down jacket. This is the water I drank en route. Not as convenient as a water bladder but it was perfectly manageable. I wore thick blister proof hiking socks most people wore liner socks but I wasn't keen on mine as the fit wasn't great (more reason to try & test every single thing you bring beforehand) and I didn't want to risk it. My feet were perfectly fine with just the socks. I had merino base layers, a fleece, my lighter down jacket, the rental down jacket, liner gloves, mid weight gloves and the rental synthetic mitts over those (and still my fingers were the coldest part of me), a fleece hat and fleece headband over that to give my ears extra protection. We stopped every 45-60 minutes and each stop gave me a new lease of life. I ranged from feeling elated to nauseous, to dizzy, to breathless and back to elated again. It was a mad mix of emotions. All the while listening to Fuso and the rest of the guides singing us up that hill. They kept our spirits alive during those 6+ hours. I needed to hear every song, every chant, see every look of encouragement, take all the help they offered (which was over and above anything you'd ever expect) to get me up to Stella point (5756m's). My fellow galz were similar, a couple of people were really unwell, needing to vomit and take a few minutes to rest. One of our group was particularly unwell. Emer, the most beautiful soul and absolute champion, had to mentally and physically dig deep. With the help of Doctor Charlie she was 'strong like a lion - 'Imara Kama Simba' and made every single one of those steps to summit. I'm not sure I could've done it, our pride and awe at what she achieved that night/morning was immense.
From Stella point to Uhuru Peak (the end game) was another hour. We traversed the edge of the dormant volcano's crater. There were huge glaciers off to the side and the sun was finally beginning to rise. The ground levelled off, the end was near and the emotional floodgates opened. I was that half laughing, half crying and I couldn't stop. I'd never felt so proud, so in awe, so knackered. We were almost there and our surroundings where, to me, other worldly. They were the most beautiful sights I've ever seen. Even now thinking of how awesome it felt being right there, at that moment in time, with that crew, all the emotions come flooding back. We walked quietly and finally we were there at a fairly inconspicuous sign telling us, congratulations we'd hit 5,895 meters (19,341ft). We hugged and cried and cried and hugged and tried to let the realisation of our achievement set in. Then it was time for our group photo at the sign. That was a bit of madness to be honest. It was 6.23am at 5,895 m and it was like flagging a taxi outside Coppers at 3am. There were guides fighting for places for their groups to get that all important summit pic. Everyone exhausted but those elated grins were everywhere. We got the shot, our expressions a mix of pure joy and bewilderment. I love the realness of that photo. We did it and I will be forever grateful to every single person who made that trip what it was...an unforgettable magical joyous experience that I will always cherish.
To Alice, Annie, Antoinette, Bobbi, Caoimhe, Emer, Katelyn, Laura, Lisa, Rachel...love you all. I hope each of you know that every chat, every kind gesture, every shared snack, every laugh, every hug meant the world to me. There are bonds made that will last forever so you can forget about ditching me now that we're back. Thank you for the time of my life, before during and since Kili. Imara Kama Simba you beauties.
To Jenny (Jennymanjaro), Charlie (Chudley), Charlie (Doc),...you guys made the trip what it was. A pleasure in every possible way from start to finish and beyond. If we could recreate it all again I'd be there in flash. It was magic.
To everyone who helped us at African Zoom, Tanzania... Maggie, Lulu, Mariam, Innocent, Eddison, Empesa, Fuso, Walter, Freddie. There aren't enough words to convey my gratitude to you guys. Your knowledge, energy and spirit kept us going in every possible way. 'One team, one family, one family, one team...' thank you.
To Mel at GGW, you're amazing. What you've achieved with this community is something else.
To Joyce at Earth's Edge thank you for all the info and constant updates. I know we've all needed your advice at some point leading up to it.
To my dear friend Imodium...you held me together for the most part, I couldn't have done it without you ;D
And finally, to Holly, Ethan and Juliet. You were absolute superstars supporting Mommy for 5 months so I could give my all to this trip. I am amazed by you guys every day. You light up me and Daddy's lives and we love you so much xxx
Jay, you're awesome. You make anything seem possible. Thanks for making me laugh every single day. Roll on Mont Blanc ;D