One does not simply wake up one morning and decide to walk up Mt. Kilimanjaro. Unless you’re one of the Tanzanian porters who do it for a living, it takes a months of training beforehand and a tremendous amount of physical strength, inner strength and sheer willpower to summit the 19,341-foot peak in Tanzania — the highest peak in Africa.
And even if you’ve put in all the necessary work to get in climbing shape, there’s no guarantee you’ll be ready for what the mountain throws at you. Approximately 35,000 people attempt to summit Kilimanjaro every year, but only about half make it to the top.
There’s altitude sickness to contend with along with ever-declining temperatures as you near the top, winds that seem to come out of nowhere and gnarly blisters, bruises and lost toenails. And don’t forget the utter physical and mental exhaustion that comes from hiking 30 to 45 miles (depending on your route) straight up a mountain for six to 10 days.
We spoke with the women of #KiliClimb2016 to find out what it really takes to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro — both physically and mentally — and find out whether they would do it again.
The Birth of #KiliClimb2016
In September 2016, a group of 17 inspiring women (and their guide, Discovery Channel host Jeff Evan) dared to summit this mountain — the highest freestanding mountain in the world.
Their goal? To empower themselves — and women everywhere — to face challenges together and break down barriers. Their core philosophy was, “Together we are stronger than we could ever be apart, and we are stronger than whatever is in our way.”
The group started with Evans, Heather Thomson (a name you may be familiar with if you’re a “Real Housewives of New York” fan) and Remembrance “Memmy” Staber (a certified personal trainer and ambassador for the nonprofit organization No Barriers), who has been friends with Thomson since fifth grade.
“We put the idea of the climb out to the world through the internet and social platforms to announce we were doing it and to open applications to build our dynamic team,” Thomson says. Some of their other friends joined in, while others were strangers “brought together through a call to adventure and an opportunity to instigate change, ideas and new paths individually and as a team.”
The final group also included Yvonne Heib (a retired military veteran), Angie Shireman (a mastectomy and brain surgery survivor), Amilya Antonetti (entrepreneur and CEO), Edie Magnus (a journalist and professor at Mercy College) and 11 other women from a variety of backgrounds.
“During training I learned a lot about myself. I found that I could push my body and my mind far beyond any limits or beliefs I had once thought. Having several hours of solitude in the mountains not only prepared my body, but also brought me closer to my true purpose for this climb. I was climbing to LET GO and to begin again.” — Angie Shireman, climber and owner of Good Vibe Tribe Jewelry
Prepping for the Climb of a Lifetime
Though the climb itself lasted seven days, most of the climbers started training four to five months ahead of time. And, as you might guess, training involved a lot of hiking.
“I started four months out, and I trained by hiking five days a week,” says Staber. Her hikes ranged from short outings of three to five miles to longer ones of eight to 10 miles — all while wearing her 15-pound pack.
Many of the women also tackled some of Colorado’s 14ers to prep for climbing at altitude. For those unfamiliar with mountaineering lingo, that’s any mountain higher than 14,000 feet in elevation. And in the U.S., there’s no place with more 14ers than Colorado.
“At least once a week, I climbed a 14er,” says climber Ellie Weihenmayer of Golden, Colorado, who, in addition to the hikes, worked out two hours every day (sometimes at 6 a.m. or 10 p.m.).
“These climbs were the perfect replication of the days I’d find on Kilimanjaro where at the top I’d say, ‘Ok. That climb was certainly tough enough.’” Weihenmayer had previously attempted to summit Kilimanjaro, but tapped out before reaching the top. So this time around she was even more determined.
But, just as with any physically demanding endeavor, it was vital that the climbers’ training revolved around functional movements. “It was about training my entire body and then preparing it to be able to lift itself and push up on rocks,” says Thomson.
So her trainer, Will Torres, had her focus on exercises like step-ups, box jumps and weighted walking lunges. The focus was on full-body strength training, with a special emphasis on core work, which meant doing exercises like Turkish get-ups, weighted butterfly sit-ups and lots of squats.
“We perfected full-body strength training and really owning the core,” Thomson says. “I perfected the movements before I added weight, and then I added weight with perfect movements. That made all the difference.”
“Kilimanjaro places an importance on your workouts like no other. The harder you work, the more fun you’ll have on the mountain. But what I found after months of working out; the fun really starts when you simply say yes.” —Ellie Weihenmayer, second-time Kilimanjaro climber
“Kilimanjaro is not to be taken lightly. You are miles and miles away, high up and away from civilization. And the people you choose to lead you to Africa’s roof must know what they are doing.” —Heather Thomson, climber and Real Housewife of New York
What Happened on the Mountain
With the exception of summit day, the women hiked about seven hours each day. “Pole, pole (pronounced pol-ay, pol-ay; it means ‘slowly, slowly’ in Swahili) was the pace,” says Thomson. She noted that going too quickly increased your risk of some of the more severe side effects of altitude sickness and burning out early.
Every morning the team woke up early after not much sleep. “You leave your tent dressed with all your gear packed and your day pack prepped, water bladders filled, go get some morning grub and set out for the day’s journey,” Thomson recalls.
Each climber’s day pack could weigh no more 25 pounds (not that you’d want to carry more than that anyway). They also each packed a second bag of up to 35 pounds that was carried by Tanzanian porters (it really does take a village to summit Kilimanjaro).
The porters broke down camp every morning (and passed the climbers en route) with the entire camp and the bags on their backs and on their heads, moving ahead to prepare for lunch break, and then on to rest camp that night, Thomson says.
Summit day, however, was completely different. “That was the hardest day of all because you’re at your highest altitude,” Thomson says. “It’s freezing. The wind is whipping. You have no oxygen, and you don’t sleep that night really at all…. There’s a feeling like you’re not yourself, you’re not in touch with your own body.”
The team set out at 1 a.m. in the pitch dark and freezing cold. And then they hiked, all too aware that they had a 17-hour day of hiking ahead of them. “You start up that mountain with headlights on the bands around your head,” Thomson says.
“It’s like you’re watching a line of lights go up the hill. That’s what you see. There’s other expeditions ahead of you, and there’s expeditions behind you. You’ve just got to keep moving. Someone said what it was: It was almost like you’re walking toward hell.”
At one point, acclaimed photographer Marion Kaufer passed out from exhaustion. “She was working so hard at climbing and lugging that big camera of hers, moving ahead and falling behind to get the shot, and in the thin air over 16,000 feet, she passed out,” says Thomson. Fortunately, Evans came to her rescue and ensured that she made it off the mountain safely. “He saved her life.”
Once the sun rose, the climbers got a bit of relief. However, most of them still wouldn’t reach the summit for a few more hours. Between 9:30 and 11 a.m. on September 25, 16 of the 18 women (plus Evan and their videographer) completed their quest and reached the top of Kilimanjaro.
“It’s really super powerful. You feel invincible,” Thomson says of reaching the top. “You feel a sense of euphoria, like you can kind of do anything.”
“But here’s the kicker,” she continues. “You summit. You make the top…. Now you’ve got to go back down. You have a solid eight-hour day still ahead of you.”
That’s right: What goes up must come down. And there’s no moving sidewalk to make things easier. And definitely no Uber. Thomson recalls the moment when one of the climbers, Edie Magnus, announced to Evans, that she was done. Her knees couldn’t take anymore, so she was going to walk to a nearby village and call a cab.
“Totally not in reality of what was happening until Jeff has the unbelievable skill set to knock her into reality,” Thomson says. “He’s says, ‘There are three ways off Kili: You walk off, you can get carried off or you can call a chopper for a nice chunk of change….’ And what does she do? She walked down the mountain!”
So what’s next? The world is their oyster. “Now that we did it, I’m hungry for that high again, that adrenaline rush,” says Thomson. “So now I have to figure out the next one.”
To learn more about #kiliclimb2016 go to KiliClimb2016.com.