Last winter I attempted a climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I’m not a mountain climber or an adventurer—hikes on the Billy Goat Trail not far from my home are about as adventurous as it gets for me—but I had been hired to document the Ladies Trekking Virtual Club’s climb to support the education of Masai teenage girls and to buy schoolbooks for elementary school students living around the mountain.
The climbing party consisted of ten women from America, Estonia, Italy, Malaysia, Singapore and Mongolia. For many the trek up the 19,341-foot mountain was something they had always wanted to do; for others it was a major step in changing their lives. For me it was a job. My photos would be used in Dreamers and Doers, a book that would help raise funds to buy school supplies and underwrite scholarships.
The trek started on a wonderful clear day that we embraced with optimism. Then the cold of the first night on the mountain stunned me. Even though I was clad in a thick down jacket, heavy gloves and snug hat, the bone-chilling winds cut through. My tent and minus zero sleeping bag offered little protection. When altitude, cold and the effects of thin-air medication drove me out of my tent, I saw the mountain bathed in ghostly moonlight. Freezing, dizzy and with a pounding head, I desperately wanted to crawl back into the scant comfort of my tent and sleeping bag, but if it’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to take the picture when it appears because there might not be another chance. So for 20 numbing minutes I sat on a frigid rock taking pictures. Sure enough, that was the only time I saw the mountain in that glorious moonlight.
The headache, nausea and dizziness increased as I made my way up to 14,000 feet. Finally, on day four, I decided it was better to walk down than be carried. A fellow climber—the journalist who was to edit the book—decided the same, and a guide brought us off the mountain. We went slowly, the guide explaining the flora and fauna as we walked. I photographed bits and pieces: a water buffalo hoofprint preserved in moist soil; a cluster of white everlasting flowers snuggled in a crevasse of a lichen-covered boulder; the bleached horns of a baby eland antelope that had lost its way. On the trek up I’d been too focused on keeping up with and photographing the group to notice the incredible beauty of this stark landscape.
The closer I got to ground level, the better I began to feel. Looking back I realized that I should have arrived earlier to adjust my jet lag, and I should have started ahead of the trekking party and waited for them to pass at various points rather than do the short bursts of keep-up activity that were a perfect formula for mountain sickness.
With the rest of the crew down, we headed off to the schools to distribute the books purchased with the funds raised from the trek. We also met with the young Masai women whose tuitions were being paid by the LTVC.
Back home and at sea level, I returned to the Billy Goat Trail, traveled it in record time and was full of energy afterwards. I commented to my husband that this trail was technically much more difficult than the gently slopping pathway I’d hiked on Mt. Kilimanjaro. The only difference was about 14,000 feet.