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From our friends at Thomson Safaris

Guest blogger  Helga Ausman on climbing one of the world’s great peaks–at 78.

helga at summit of kilimanjaraFive years ago when I was climbing Mt.Shasta (14,162 ft) I found myself surrounded by experienced mountaineers who had climbed just about every mountain in the US and abroad. As a total greenhorn who had never scaled a mountain, I had a chance to learn much about the world of high altitude climbing. They all were talking about Mt. Kilimanjaro (19,340ft) and what an awesome and challenging mountain it is. After having successfully reached the top of Mt.Shasta, I vowed that some day I would try this mountain in Africa.

I finally decided that this would be the year to do the climb. It was a long process of intense training – high altitude had never bothered me but I had to contend with my gripping fear of heights. In February of this year I set out for Africa. While there I delivered donated school supplies for the children in Arusha before meeting my climbing group and starting the uphill adventure. Statistically, we only had a 40% chance of making it [statistic for all routes on the mountain].

Our expedition by Thomson Safaris consisted of three women, eight men, four of the most well trained and professional guides, and 42 porters to carry all the gear. As it turned out, I was the only grandmother of the group, so I was given the nickname by the natives of “Bibi” – the Swahili word for grandma. I was touched they had given me that moniker.

We spent time hiking through the lowland bush led by a Masai Warrior who told us his tribe’s history and guided us to see wildlife in its natural habitat. Afterwards we had several briefings by Wilfred, our main guide, with a detailed description of what to expect. We were to carry 10+ lbs. each, including rain gear and any personal items. Each porter was to carry no more than a 33 pound duffel bag. Thomson Safaris is very serious about the weight load limit. Our gear was weighed twice just to make sure.

There were five climate zones to pass through (from lowlands to the summit): Rain Forest Zone, Heather Zone, Moorland, Alpine Desert & the Arctic Summit Zone at 19,000 ft and above.

Three land rovers took us to the trailhead on a rain-soaked dirt road. Before we even reached our destination all the cars became stuck in the mud, so we ended up hiking the remaining miles to the “trail head”. Then the real challenge started.

There are five different ways to climb the mountain. The “coca-cola” route is said to be the most used, easiest and populous one. We went the most beautiful and least traveled one [Western Approach Route], 58 miles in all.

The first day was beautiful, straight up through the jungle with colorful birds and bright flowers. We were up to our ankles in mud and wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. Every day brought us through a different climate zone. We climbed 6-8 hours for seven days. Luckily, meals and tents were set up by the time we trudged into camp at the end of each day. When we finally reached 19,000’ (so near the summit) at noon, we had been up since 4am. At that point we had a choice to either continue to the top (another 340’) with reduced available oxygen or continue to the camp around the corner of the mountain and spend the night there with a fresh start the next morning. We all agreed to continue – it turned out to be the best decision for the group.

At that point I found myself surrounded by the porters spontaneously singing and dancing shouting “Bibi,Bibi”. I joined them in their joyful dance totally unaware that at that altitude, one really needs to preserve energy. A strong, positive mental attitude had helped us all; we supported each other. Finally, we reached the top. All eleven of us made it which is highly unusual [based on all routes on the mountain]. We thought we had it made, totally forgetting that as we had gone up, we now had to get back down!

The two day descent was much more difficult and dangerous. We all were extremely happy when we “landed”. Once there, we were required to sign out of the obligatory government record office. We lined up and when it was my turn the officer, watching every pen stroke, broke out into a loud “congratulations” and shaking of hands. He explained that I am the 2nd oldest woman to ever reach the summit successfully. What a surprise! I am 78. The eldest was 82.

Then came the ceremony where we received our hard-earned certificate of completion. Our porters created the celebratory music and dance. Each recipient was called forward. I was the last one to be called and as the song and dance started, without warning three men lifted me up on to their shoulders carrying me around singing and shouting “Bibi,Bibi.” Was I surprised!

I had not been back to Africa for more than thirty years. However nothing seemed to have changed. In villages, cows are still dominating the streets, many fresh fruit and veggies were displayed outdoors and little kids were everywhere. People were most friendly, hospitable and seemed naturally happy. We saw no tourists neither did we see tourist shops until we were at the airport.

To sum it all up: Physically it was rather strenuous, mentally it was highly challenging, and spiritually it was most uplifting. It is definitely no walk in the park. An adventure I would never have wanted to miss. We met as strangers and we parted as friends, comrades-in-arms. Today we still stay in touch by email and are planning a reunion next February.

Let’s not be afraid of failure because it is no more permanent than is success. It is good to try something we think we cannot do because we find out, we can.

More on Thomson’s Kilimanjaro treks