In early January, MusicRow Publisher/Owner Sherod Robertson successfully climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, reaching the summit, the highest point on the dormant volcano.
Embarking on a 7-day hike on the Lemosho route, Robertson reached Mount Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Peak on Friday, January 6, 2023 at 8:34 a.m. East Africa Time.
Located in Tanzania, Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world, reaching a peak of 19,341 feet above sea level. Uhuru Peak is the tallest summit on Kibo’s crater rim, the highest of the three dormant volcanic cones that make up Kilimanjaro.
Made up of ash, lava, and rock, Kilimanjaro is one of “The Seven Summits,” which also include Mt. Everest in Asia, Aconcagua in South America, Denali in North America, Mt. Elbrus in Europe, Puncak Jaya/Mt. Carstensz in Australia, and Mt. Vinson in Antarctica.
Why did you want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro?
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was never on my bucket list. However, when I was approached by a friend as something to consider, I honestly couldn’t find a reason not to do it. I guess you could say the mountain summoned me and I had to oblige.
I also saw it as an opportunity to help define how I age. While I can’t stop the aging process, I do have control on how I define aging and how I evolve as I get older. As it turns out, our first day on the mountain was January 1, 2023 and this year is a big milestone birthday for me. So it all seems a little poetic on how the timing of this adventure turned out.
What did your training involve? How did you prepare for such a challenge?
I hiked around 100 miles here in Middle Tennessee in the months leading up to the expedition in Tanzania. I thought I was ready. In hindsight, I probably should have incorporated more strength and endurance training. Lifting weights to increase muscle strength and jumping rope to build endurance would have really helped. Those are key when you are tackling something as difficult as Mount Kilimanjaro. But it all worked out in the end and I’m really pleased with how my body responded under those conditions.
What was the most unexpected aspect of your adventure?
The first surprise was before I even got to the mountain. This was the first time I had ever been to Africa, and although I was visiting a strange land, it seemed very familiar on a deep and spiritual level, almost like I was home. Strange, isn’t it? I sure didn’t expect that. However, I have learned that many scientists believe humans originated from a single point in Africa and then migrated across the world. So perhaps on some level, I was home after all.
As for Mount Kilimanjaro, the danger of this trek had completely escaped me. I knew it would be difficult and I mentally planned for that. I knew there were people like former tennis star Martina Navratilova who was hospitalized in 2010 after her publicized attempt to climb Kilimanjaro was cut short when she experienced high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). This is something every climber is aware of since it’s a potentially fatal form of altitude sickness. She only made it to 14,800 feet, so I knew this was not going to be an easy hike up a mountain. I also knew the success rate reported across all climbers is around 65%, so I was mentally prepared for the challenge and knew my success was something I was going to have to earn.
However, any danger had fallen off my radar. Despite all of the planning, research, and training, it never crossed my mind that this was dangerous, but I became very aware of it once I was on the mountain.
How so? Did you really feel you were in danger during the climb?
In a word, yes. Now granted, the death rate of those climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is extremely small. Out of some estimated 30,000 people attempting to climb the mountain each year, the average reported deaths are somewhere around 10. Those are pretty good odds.
But on the fourth day when the trek included climbing Barranco Wall, I became very aware of the danger. The Barranco Wall is 843 feet high and located on the side of Mount Kilimanjaro. Climbers refer to it as a scramble, meaning it does not require mountain climbing skills; however, you do have to use your hands and upper and lower body strength to traverse the boulders. Perhaps it was my age, my physical fitness, or my fear of heights, but this was a real challenge for me. Many consider this challenge their favorite day; however, I couldn’t escape knowing that if you fall, you don’t simply break a bone or fall on your ass. You are very high on the mountain and there’s nothing to catch you if you slip and fall. There are no safety nets, no cables to hold onto. It really got in my head. And it was raining that day which added another element. I knew one slip of a misplaced hand or foot could be tragic and I just couldn’t mentally get past it. But I did what I had to do. I faced those fears, I showed up, and I did the work. I actually ended up doing really well that day, but I found that day particularly stressful.
As I reflect, I think the real danger is what occurs in your head and how you process and manage it. It’s a fascinating experience to see how your body and mind react to being pushed to their limits. I found that process really interesting.
Who all were you hiking with? What was camping like each night?
This adventure included two of my very best friends in the world, Rachel Fontenot and Jay Krenson. We have known each other for many years and were very supportive of each other throughout the climb. That goes a long way. Although we were hiking together, we all had very different experiences. That’s what makes this journey so incredible. We successfully climbed the mountain together and supported one another, but the experience became very personal on many levels.
Each day, we stayed in a new area on the mountain as we slowly made our way to the top. The three of us had a team of 32 people which included guides, porters, a chef, a camp manager, and many others who helped us on our journey. They are the real heroes. Without them, there is no summit. They would break down our tents each morning and move them to the next camp each day, bypassing us along the way. They cooked our meals, carried our supplies, and performed daily medical assessments. They were our biggest cheerleaders and by the end of the adventure, we all had formed very strong bonds. They taught me so much about their land and culture. I will always remember them fondly.
Did you ever feel like quitting and stopping the climb?
No, never. I would have died on that mountain before I retreated. I’m not sure why, but I had never been more committed and determined to do something in my life. Even as my body felt like it was shutting down, it never occurred to me that stopping was an option. I was aware the guides had the power to call off the climb if my health deteriorated too much or if I required oxygen. Their goal was to get me to the top in a safe manner. My goal was to keep climbing. Fortunately, our goals aligned and I made it to the top.
About two hours before reaching the summit, it felt like my body was shutting down. I wasn’t gasping for air and my breathing wasn’t particularly labored, but we had been hiking for many hours up a very steep ascend and I was exhausted. If I’m being perfectly honest, I thought that might be the end. I remember looking down at the ground and wondered if this is how I was leaving this world. It may sound dramatic, but during those moments, I felt very disconnected from life. I had never pushed my body to those extremes before so this was new territory. With the high altitude and exhaustion, my body was at its limit. All I could do is focus on that next single small step, nothing more. And that is what gave me the ultimate victory. Such a metaphor for life, isn’t it? One step at a time.
What are some of the lessons you learned on this adventure?
Wow, there’s so many. And the most profound lessons are deeply personal and probably things I’ll keep to myself. You’ll find that people who reach the summit often describe their experience as transformative and life changing. I am no exception. I will still be learning from this experience in the months and years to come. When you are young, you feel invincible. Then you grow up and know better. I feel like I’ve tapped back into that innocent state of feeling invincible and it’s a great feeling to revisit at this age.
I also now have a deeper understanding and respect of how my story ends. An adventure like this really makes you reflect and take stock of your life and purpose. Hopefully, there are still some empty pages in my life’s book to be completed, but if I skip to the end of the book and take a peak, I know what happens to me. I don’t make it. I die in the end. I realize that’s an obvious observation, but once you really understand that, in a deep and profound way, it becomes both grounding and liberating. It has taught me to swing big. After all, I have nothing to lose.
How did it feel once you finally reached the summit? What were your first thoughts?
For me, it was very emotional. As I approached the summit, I wasn’t in the best shape physically or mentally on that particular day. I wasn’t really speaking to anyone at that point. And with any break offered, I would immediately sit down and retreat inside my head. I was aware of my surroundings but I had such little energy, I wasn’t interacting with the others. It wasn’t by choice, I just couldn’t. I was in survival mode.
Before you reach the summit, you first arrive at Stella Point. It has an altitude of 18,885 feet and is one of three official summit points on Mount Kilimanjaro. The views are breathtaking. All climbers who reach this level receive the official Kilimanjaro climbing certificate. When I reached Stella Point, I was at one of my lowest points. It’s about an hour from the summit. We stopped there to take photos, take a break, and drink hot tea. I remember being so exhausted I could barely communicate with the guides because it was a challenge for me to speak. I recall being encouraged to drink tea. The guides ran over and poured glucose powder in the tea and encouraged me to drink it quickly. I did as I was told. While others were taking photos, I knew I didn’t have the strength to get my phone out so I just sat on a rock with my head down. Fortunately my personal porter, Athumani Ally, came over and unzipped the pocket on my pants and took out my phone. I was able to put my finger on the phone to unlock it and he started taking video so I would have some documentation of reaching this point. That’s the level of attention Athumani gave me throughout this expedition. He was by my side every step of the way and was an integral part of my success, along with the other guides and porters. My gratitude for them is enormous.
After the break, I continued onward and I’ll never forget how I felt as I finally reached the summit at Uhuru Peak. It’s very difficult to describe in words. I felt depleted but a wave of renewed energy flowed over and through me. I spoke very little but there was a crystal clear clarity that I had never felt before in my life. Through the tears, I realized I had been successful at the single hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s such a surreal and overwhelming feeling. I will cherish that feeling forever. The much needed adrenaline brought some life back into me and I was able to slowly walk around, take photos and be fully present in this transformational moment in my life.
After reaching the summit, you still had to come back down the mountain? How was that process for you?
We couldn’t stay at the summit very long because the oxygen is so low at that altitude. So after twenty minutes, we started our descent. You would think if I was barely hanging on physically and mentally to reach the summit, I wouldn’t have any energy to descend. But it’s actually the exact opposite. With each step down the mountain, there is more oxygen and your body reacts very positively to it and becomes more energetic. Two of the guides, one on each side, decided to show me how they go down the mountain by taking enormous strides and alternately landing on the heel of each foot and sliding until you naturally stop. After an hour or so, they suggested I was doing well enough to descend on my own and unassisted. It was the most liberating feeling I’ve ever experienced. What had been a tortuous path slowly ascending to the top, turned into an energy-filled, fast-trek trollop down the mountain. The juxtaposition of the two was quite an experience.
Would you recommend others climb Mount Kilimanjaro? Would you ever do it again?
The experience I received is priceless and my life will never be the same. It is without a doubt the greatest gift I have ever given myself. If you are called to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, you should do it. The company I used was Altezza Travel and I would use them again. They were amazing to work with. However, I have to point out that this is not an expedition you take lightly or treat as a vacation or casual adventure. It takes a high level of mental and physical fortitude to do something like climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
Would I ever do it again? I can’t say it’s completely off the table. It would be interesting to see how I could improve my mental and physical experience. Maybe a second trip for another milestone birthday? Who knows? But if a compelling reason for me to climb Mount Kilimanjaro appears, I may indeed find myself on that mountain again.
If you had to sum up your experience in just one statement, what lasting life lesson did this experience give you?
The level of strength and determination that I had to tap into not to just reach the top of the mountain, but to simply survive and keep moving forward, were elements that I didn’t know I possessed. It’s an amazing discovery that I never knew existed. It took me traveling across the globe to discover what I always had right here inside of me. Life can be funny like that.
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