Climbing Kilimanjaro

This month is a special anniversary.  Five years ago, after a year of planning, eight of us made the journey to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro. I hadn’t expected the climb to be easy, but I had a reality check on the immensity of the undertaking our third day on the famous mountain.

At 19,340 feet above sea level, Kilimanjaro is the largest free standing mountain in the world.  It is not a technical climb – there are no rock faces to scale with ropes or great chasms to cross with ladders – only a long upward trek through endless volcanic rock in a barren landscape as the air gets thinner and harder to breathe.

We began our climb on the Machame Trail in early March 2009 with a crew of thirty.  Our crew included the guide leader, several assistants, a cook, and multiple porters who carried all our gear for the seven day hike.  It would take five days to go up and two days to return.  The slower climb was recommended to help with acclimatization to the thinning air since altitude sickness is the real challenge of Kilimanjaro and one for which there is really no adequate advance training.  Who would be affected, and how badly, could not be predicted.

We were in high spirits for the first two days.  My husband, Gilles, and I did not have any previous hiking experience, nor had I ever camped.  Here I was, a woman in my fifties, experiencing for the first time sleeping on the ground in a tent.  We had no access to water except for a small tray of warm water given to each couple, twice a day, to share for washing.  Our water bottles were filled each morning by the crew for our climb that day.  Food was basic – at best – and unappetizing.  Sanitation was nonexistent.

The effects of altitude started to impact us as we ascended towards 13,000 feet.  All movement became increasingly difficult and I had a vague awareness that I was no longer thinking clearly.  I began to experience gaps in memory where I could no longer recall chunks of time and I was lagging far behind the rest of the team.  They could no longer be seen or heard in the fog we had encountered that afternoon.  I was grateful when Gilles came back to look for me.  I felt lost.

That evening our camp was setup at the base of Barranco Wall – a rock face about 200 feet high – which would be the start of our climb the following morning.  I looked at that wall, dizzy and nauseous from the day’s hike, and couldn’t begin to imagine how I was going to be able to continue.

At dinnertime, two of us talked to our guide about aborting our climb.  For the first time – but not the last time before this hike would be over – our guide lied to us.  We were told there was no route for evacuation and the only way out was by continuing forward.  We knew he was lying.  His job was to get us to the Summit and he was going to tell us whatever lies were needed to keep us going.

During the night, Gilles and I were both struck with what we called African Stomach.  The combination of poor food, unsanitary conditions and the altitude had turned our insides to liquid.  I stood in the cold darkness outside our tent, covered in my own excrement, looking at the glacier at the top of Kilimanjaro glowing in the light of the full moon.  In that moment, I registered two thoughts – how completely surreal this moment felt and, why had I thought this would be a good idea?  I was too sick for my brain to really acknowledge the simmering panic as anything more than a curiosity.


Our camp at the base of Barranco Wall

Ultimately, I went on to conquer Barranco Wall and eventually made the Summit, but during that third night on the mountain I had discovered an undeniable truth – we are capable of so much more than we think. I continued on in spite of the difficulty breathing, the nausea and an overwhelming desire to simply lay down and go to sleep forever.  Big chunks of the climb were lost in the mental fog that permeated every hour we were above 13,000 feet – but I had kept on going.

Barranco Wall will always remind me that no matter how difficult a moment might be, I am stronger than I think and I can persevere.  Reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro will always be a personal triumph.  I had made it!

Scramble near the top of Barranco Wall

Scramble near the top of Barranco Wall


Standing on the top of Africa with Gilles – March 2009

About Joanne Sisco

Retired but not idle. Life is an adventure - I plan to continue to embrace it.
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25 Responses to Climbing Kilimanjaro

  1. Pingback: K = Kilimanjaro | My Life Lived Full

  2. Wow! It was worth all that just for the picture at the end! Amazing!


  3. I was convinced to start with that this was a piece of fiction for your writing course. You are truly amazing! 😯


    • joannesisco says:

      lol – I’m not sure I’m all that amazing but the experience was definitely memorable! Someone told me after this trip that maybe I needed to reconsider the people I was calling friends 🙂
      Amazingly we still are very good friends.


  4. assmarques says:

    Reblogged this on Sucess generator.


  5. LauraDaltry says:

    Reblogged this on Laura Daltry's Surfing Blog.


  6. kirisyko says:

    Reblogged this on Sykose Extreme Sports News.


  7. Magdalena says:

    What a great telling this is. I am even more in awe of your accomplishment now.


  8. davecenker says:

    Amazing. You capture the emotion, turmoil, persistence, and ultimately joy experienced as a part of this expedition. It is one thing to speak about perseverance and the ability to triumph over our personal struggles. It is quite another to live through an experience such as that and be able to share it so eloquently. Very well done, on the accomplishment and on the heartfelt post 😉


  9. This is incredible! It brought tears to my eyes. Well done you!! xxx


  10. bulldog says:

    You climbed Kilimanjaro??? Joanne, I stand in awe of your accomplishment… what an achievement, brilliant…


  11. nancytex2013 says:

    Wow, Joanne. Wow.

    I’m always shocked when I hear stories if people who just decide to tackle Kili with no training.

    I missed an opportunity to join a few friends from the BL Resort (and the hiking program manager) on a trek to Kili this past January. Job search took priority. It was the right decision, but I’m still sad and envious I wasn’t able to join them.

    I watched their Facebook updates as they trained – hours each and every day – in prep for their trek. And they still struggled on the climb!

    Kudos to you for achieving this amazing summit – especially with no formal training. I’m so glad you made it up and down safely.


    • joannesisco says:

      I wouldn’t exactly say we had no training. Although Gilles & I weren’t hikers, all 8 of us were (and are) endurance athletes – marathon runners and Ironman competitors. We continued with our swim/bike/run training but also had to break in our hiking boots and add considerably more hill work. You are right though – all 8 of us still struggled on the climb due to altitude and African Stomach.
      As proud as I am of the achievement, I’m not sure that I would ever have tried if I had known then what I know now.


      • nancytex2013 says:

        My bad for assuming you were without any training. I misinterpreted your intro as you hadn’t prepped at all. (and others I know didn’t…at all!) which I found crazy given how hard I’ve trained for hikes at 12-13,000′.

        What an amazing experience – I’m envious, even with the African stomach.


        • joannesisco says:

          I’ve heard the failure rate is about 60% which I guess accounts for all the people who think that a ‘walker’s climb’ means that no training is required.
          We were pretty naive thinking that ‘we’re Ironmen’ therefore we should be ‘ok’. Hubris! … it will get you every time!


  12. Such a compelling account of your challenges, your determination and your ultimate triumph! The climbing of Kilimanjaro obviously represented something very important at that point in your life – thanks for sharing this inspiring tale.


  13. Lynn says:

    Joanne, this is amazing! What an incredible accomplishment & one I am certain you must look back on with such pride in yourself for soldiering on!


  14. sueslaght says:

    Joanne i have goosebumps reading this. Truly! You should be so proud of this amazing accomplishment. I hung on every word of this post.


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