Sheila Buemi-Moore trekked to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro on International Women’s Day as a gesture of respect and solidarity with womenkind worldwide.
Killin’it in Kilimanjaro
How did it happen?
On scrolling down the weekly IFUW update in mid February I read a text asking « Need a Challenge ? » and all details lead to two organisations :
WHOA – Woman High on Adventure, a travel company located in New York City that gives back and supports local women in the communities they visit.
LTC – Ladies Trekking Club located in Estonia and founded by Janika Vaikjärv. The purpose of this Trekking Club is to value education and to mainly support Masaii girls.
This information caught my eye. Living in Switzerland we are surrounded by mountains and climbing them is even better.
These two organizations have a plan to raise funds to promote education for two specific schools, one located in Tanzania and the other in Kenya.
How do they plan to raise funds?
Organize an adventure to Climb Kilimanjaro and reach Uhuru Peak at 5,895 meters. A percentage of the fees paid by the participants will be contributed towards these two schools.
The financial objective is clear. Whether it’s physically feasible is unknown.
Then comes another question….and what about IFUW’s role in this? After all, I read about this challenge on IFUW’s website and it was there because education goes right down our alley.
The deadline for registration was yearend so obviously it was too late. I put the email aside but couldn’t delete it just yet. An hour later my fingers point back to it. Why not just send an email to enquire?
Within the hour I had an answer from Allison, one of the founders of WHOA living in New York who explained that I could still register if I could manage to get my plane ticket, visas, vaccines, malaria pills and other meds, fill out all the WHOA forms, confirm travel insurance, medical status, prepare all the mountain gear and make sure I’m at Kilimanjaro airport in 2 weeks. And of course, I will need to be fit. The women are aged between 20 and 30 with a few exceptions but one clearly at the other end of the scale – me. With Allison all the above sounded easy. The most important for her is the mindset of the women and taking advantage of such an adventure.
I take a closer look at this trek and the 2 schools it wants to fund:
1) Give a Heart to Africa, located in Moshi, Tanzania and founded by Monika. She focuses on adult education by providing free business training. All women are mothers who need financial independence.
2) Tembea Girls High School located in Kajiado, Kenya and founded by Debbie. The objective is to help finance a soccer field. The girls are aged between 15 – 17 years.
The following day I am back at the IFUW Geneva Board Meeting and explain the purpose and feasibility of participating in this trek. The Board is not only positive but specifically requests that I participate in the advocacy work that comes after the trek. In addition IFUW would open sponsorship to its members to raise funds for an independent IFUW fellowship.
Skype discussions pursue between WHOA founders, Allison Fleece and Danielle Thornton, our IFUW President, Catherine Bell, Executive Director, Danièle Castle and the undersigned and we reach an agreement to support the empowerment and education of women.
With the green light on both sides I realize that 2 weeks is cutting the preparation short but the adventure has already started.
So what next?
Fortunately I already had all the mountain gear I needed so that saved considerable preparation time for me. The rest was done in a blur.
Without knowing anyone I was greeted with wonderful enthusiasm by Allison and Danielle at Kilimanjaro airport (JRO). They organized a welcome dinner the following evening which included a total of 28 women participants all keen on “Kilin it”. We were also introduced to Godbless (or Goddi, as we nicknamed him) who was the lead mountain guide. He in turn introduced us to the guides who would accompany us. You can’t climb Kilimanjaro without a guide and it takes 3 years of training before gaining the assistant guide title. They know Kilimanjaro like the back of their hands, its landscape, its flora, the wildlife, and all the obstacles that one encounters when heading towards the summit (winds, temperature, AMS, fatigue).
There are different routes to reach the summit. Our guide chose the Machame Route. WHOA treated us with sweets, i.e., fast releasing carbohydrates to keep us fuelled with energy throughout the day. I also find a little booklet containing general information and some proverbs. The first proverb I read says:
“Travelling is learning” – Kenyan proverb.
I begin learning a few words of Swahili like Jambo (Hi), Mambo (How are you?) and Poa Kichizi Kama Ndizi (crazy cool like a banana).
March 3rd – Dwende (let’s go). We drive to Machame Gate (1,800 m) at Mount Kilimanjaro National Park. From there on we will be trekking to reach our goal of 5,895 meters by March 8th. Our journey for the first day is to reach Machame Camp (3,000 m) about 11 km. We walk through the first climate zone, the rain forest. Yes, it rains but the surroundings are lush, green and filled with giant ferns, vines, juniper, violets, orchids and the famous Impatiens Kilimanjari. I meet my tent pal, Sandy who lives south of Chicago. As she is a doctor we start talking about the pros and cons of taking Diamox as an AMS prevention. She decides to adopt the turtle technique and never stops for any breaks. “Pole, Pole” (slow, slow) and she is often second at camp.
March 4th – We leave Machame Camp for Shira Camp (3,000 – 3,840 m). We are still in the rain forest so put on our rain jackets and gaiters.
We reach the tree line and enter our second climate zone, the heath land. The mountain trek becomes real. The land opens into a landscape of shrub land habitat. Eventually it opens up to another climate zone, a low alpine zone a.k.a. Moorland. Here the vegetation gets sparse, few flowers but plenty of Giant Lobelias and Senecios Kilimanjaris. They look like stubby palm trees.
March 5th – Up at our usual 6:00 am call and greeted with hot tea or coffee and a bowl of warm water to wash. The night was cold and when I got out of the tent I see the canvas covered with a thick layer of frost. A bowl of porridge warmed us up while watching the sun rise. At 8:00 we headed towards Lava Tower (4,600 m) and then down to Baranka camp (3,950 m). The purpose over the next few days was to acclimatise ourselves to high altitudes. AMS is one of the most important obstacles climbing Kilimanjaro. Some were getting headaches, dizzy spells but nothing serious. The weather was overcast and it snowed timidly but only for a short moment.
March 6th – Left Barranco camp to climb up the “wall”. No poles allowed as we had to use all fours in some areas. We were always greeted by the white necked ravens. After climbing the wall we had two small valleys to cross. We could see our camp clearly on the mountain side but had to go down and up twice before reaching our campsite at 4,000 m. We had entered our 4th climate zone, namely the alpine desert. We had a thunder storm during dinner and lots of rain during the night. Regardless, we were snuggled warmly in our tents dry as ever.
March 7th – Left Karanga camp for a shorter trek today. Arrived at Barafu base camp at 4,600 m. Had lunch at 14:30 and was briefed by Goddi, the leader of our trekking expedition. Always calm, saying only what is needed he described what to expect and what to wear. Our wakeup call would be at 11:00 pm and departure for the summit at midnight. 1,295 meters up. I cannot possibly go to sleep at 4:30 in the afternoon so take a sleeping pill. At 11:00 pm we are up and have popcorn and biscuits for breakfast. We had layered our clothes and had our headlamps on. All was dark but we were excited, tense and ready to attack this final stage of our adventure. The stars were spectacular and Michelle, one of the climbers, pointed out the Southern Cross to me.
March 8th, midnight – The first 30 minutes were steep but Goddi had warned us that the climb would change. Everyone had their water and insulated tubes. As we climbed it got colder and colder. We broke out into groups each going at a different paces. We took breaks every hour but the cold prevented us from breaking anymore than 2 – 3 minutes. At 5,000 m altitude we reached our 5th and last climate zone, the arctic summit zone. The oxygen level is about half that at sea level. Our tubes had frozen. I was “chewing” my tube to try and get some water to come through. Nothing doing. We were all thirsty and then one of the guides reached us and said “Anyone for a cup of tea?”. A gift from heaven had reached out to us and we all cherished the warmth and thirst quenching drink. These guides were our angels. The guide I followed named William (or nicknamed King William) was incredible. He was climbing without gloves (he kept his hands in his pockets for sure) and was singing the whole way through. I don’t know how he found his breath to sing but we were listening to his chant which sounded like a lullaby, not to put us to sleep but to soothe our minds and it was helping. When the going was getting rough and those thoughts of “Why are you doing this?” started entering my mind, I heard William shout “5 minutes to Stella Point” (5,670 m). We then knew we were heading for home run. Our mindset changed to “we are almost there”. After Stella Point we know we have roughly 45 minutes to reach Uhura Peak and it is not as steep. That helps.
At Stella Point the plan was to watch the sun rise but it was still dark and too cold to wait. We continue to Uruha Peak, stopping briefly to turn around and watch the sun rise. Not only is nature at its best but an incredible glacier wall unfolds before me on my left. This is the Furtwängler Glacier, an enormous icecap that once crowned the summit. It is still impressive. With the first morning glow of light reflecting on its blue tinted ice walls, all appears surrealistic, like a living fairy tale. On my right I can see the outline of one of the craters and the sun is now rising in splendour. This is why I love to climb mountains.
Uhuru Peak is the highest point on Mount Kilimanjaro and the continent of Africa. Although classified as a mountain it is actually made up of three volcanic cones that were formed by the Great Rift Valley – Shira, Mawenzi and Kibo. Uhuru Peak is the highest summit on Kibo’s crater rim.
About 60 climb Mount Kilimanjaro daily and many of them want to be there by sunrise. Many do not make it primarily because of AMS.
Celebration – Yes!!!
We all made it! All 28 women from (Estonia, Germany, Great Britain, Iceland, Switzerland/Canada, USA, (incl. Porto Rico), Russia and Tanzania, shared 6 days together to reach a peak, to explore the mountain together, to take ourselves out of our comfort zone and to celebrate with you all International Women’s Day. Our 100% success rate was based on support, determination and excellent guides. IFUW jointed WHOA and LTC with the same dedication to “Your Wildest Dreams – may they continue to be larger than life & inspire others to do the same.”
Our journey back was long and difficult. First to base camp and then Mweka camp.
March 9th – The following morning we said goodbye to our porters, our guides and cooks. It was another chant with singing and dancing. We then descended to the park gate. I hate going down mountains. My toes suffered considerably but when we finally made it back to Machame gate, we celebrated, we ate, we drank and we sang a Swahili song taught to us by our guides. Have a look at the filming and pics.
To all you IFUW members a huge thank you for your belief, your values, support and words of encouragement to inspire me to take on this challenge. You were with me the whole time. IFUW’s logo and banner reached the top!
To our IFUW Board members who remained open and committed to another new challenge in the name of IFUW .
To our Executive Director and staff members who helped me get organized with IFUW’s advocacy work and remained positive the whole way through (even when there was no internet access).
To Nina, our communication manager who started this whole adventure with her IFUW updates
To Allison and Danièle a huge WHOA hug. What a great adventure to share!
To Janika for her strong belief in Dreaming and Doing. She has many stories to tell, including a book.
To all those determined and adventurous young women whom I discovered, admired and shared fun, friendship and compassion. What a treat to get to know you all.
To Sandy, who was the coolest tent buddy I’ve met. Living in a tent for a week and noticing that as time passed, the simplest things like rolling out our sleeping bags or blowing up our pillows became a major feat. The lack of oxygen and sheer exhaustion brought on the giggles.
I hope our paths will cross again on another journey!
Allison and Danielle leave quotes everywhere. Here is another for you:
“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” Eleanor Roosevelt.
Sheila Buemi-Moore March 2014