2017-10-02 / ReBooted

Mountain Majesty

Jill Gleeson

I’ll cut to the chase and tell you I did it. I climbed the tallest freestanding mountain on the planet, the mysterious and magical Kilimanjaro. At 19,341 feet, it’s also one of the Seven Summits, as the highest mountains on each continent are collectively known. It was by far not only the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done, but also the most difficult mentally. Climbing Kilimanjaro hurt, badly. There was a night I wept inconsolably in my tent, questioning what in the hell I’d been thinking. I was, at various points, freezing cold, soaking wet, filthy, nauseous and dizzy, with crushed toes and leg muscles that screamed.

But standing atop that beautiful beast, looking down thousands of feet on the place where mankind began, was also the greatest achievement of my life. It filled up my soul, not so much with pride, but with simple, shining gratitude. Gratitude for the chance to test myself against Kilimanjaro. Gratitude for making it all the way to the top.

The trip took seven days — six up, one down — and was conducted with military precision and no small amount of good humor by our guides from Explore, a company that offers adventures all over the world. Led by the vastly patient Chunga, the expedition began easily enough, with a 4-mile hike that took around three hours. It wasn’t cold that night, our tents were still clean and nothing hurt. I remember thinking that perhaps the climb would be easier than I imagined. It wasn’t.

The next was a long, hot slog for five hours. We gained 2,362 feet of elevation in 5 miles. I had my first bout with altitude sickness — feeling so dizzy and sick that all I could do was look down at my feet and force them forward. Two of the girls in their 20s actually vomited, but I managed to keep down my lunch. That night, the porters and guides, some 45 of them for 15 of us, serenaded the mountain with songs in Swahili, pulling us to our feet to dance with them as Uhuru Peak stood sentinel in the distance.

The next day a 79-year-old Welshman quit, too altitude sick to continue. The rest of us trudged on, some days shorter, some almost unbearably long. One afternoon — the only day I’d neglected to stuff my waterproofs into my backpack — it rained for four hours straight.

My best day was Day Five, when we scaled the Barranco Wall. A rocky cliff 850 feet high, it wasn’t a completely vertical ascent, so we didn’t use climbing ropes. But there were moments scary enough several of the team wept. For me, the adrenaline high was wonderful; I was so happy bounding up and down the boulders one of the guides nicknamed me “Mama Simba” because, he said, I was “strong and brave like a female lion.”

I don’t know that the name stuck after Summit Night. We began the ascent at midnight, climbing inexorably upward in the freezing dark, so cold my hair frosted white almost immediately. Chunga would only let us stop every hour, for five minutes, knowing that we might give up if we were permitted to rest longer. Altitude sickness set in quickly; queasy and faint, I had trouble drawing breath. Every movement was a struggle, every footstep a victory. When the sun rose and I saw how far we’d come, and how far we still had to go, I whined like the hurt animal I was, deep in the back of my throat.

But I didn’t quit. After eight hours and ascending more than 4,100 feet, I reached the peak. I was above the clouds, above even Kilimanjaro’s shining glaciers. Tears came to my eyes, but there was little time for congratulations. The altitude was too dangerous. Down I went, descending sharply for hours, my toes slamming brutally into the tips of my boots, turning my nails black. All told, I spent about 20 hours that day on my feet.

As I type this, I’m still recovering. My stamina has yet to return. But summiting Kilimanjaro has changed me inexorably for the better. I know now I can accomplish the near impossible. I’m stronger than I’d imagined — and anxious to continue to test that strength. So much so I’ve begun preparations for my next adventure with my trainer, Steve Jury, at Victory Sports and Fitness. There’s no stopping me. Not now, not ever. That’s the gift that mountain in Africa gave me. •SCM

For more information about climbing Kilimanjaro, visit

Jill Gleeson is on the biggest adventure of her life. Follow her journey on her blog at and via her column at

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