Kilimanjaro was the first of my Seven Summits, the collection of mountains that comprise the highest peak on each of the world’s seven continents. It marked the beginning of one of the most colourful chapters of my life that took me to the Himalayas to the virgin forests of West Papua and the icy wastelands of Antarctica. It is also the one mountain to which I have returned, time and time again—each time leading a group of international women studying for an MBA at the Rotterdam School of Management. In total, I’ve been privileged to accompany 70 women on the mountain—for each, it has touched them in their own special way, but more of that later.
My introduction to Kilimanjaro took place a very long time ago when, as a student, I spent three glorious months working on a farm in Africa. My eyes fell upon its domed pudding shape across the savannah, or from the window of an aeroplane—always at a distance, beyond reach. But the germ of an idea was sown. It was years later when I was working as a journalist in London that a friend, Lucy, called me to seek suggestions on what she might do while on holiday in East Africa. No surprise that I answered, unreservedly, “Climb Kilimanjaro. Can I come too?”
Kilimanjaro might be the highest mountain in the African continent, but it isn’t a technically arduous climb. There are tricky features on the mountain, such as the Breach Wall and the jagged spire of Mawenzi that pioneering climbers have sought and scaled. But essentially, it is an oversized mound with gentle slopes running down to the sun-bleached plains of the Maasai steppe. And whether you climb it from the north, south, east or west, you can be sure of a footpath to the summit.
Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano—one of the best known in the world, in part because of Hemingway’s famous story of a dying writer, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”. In Swahili, Kilima Njaro means ‘the mountain that glitters’ and its snow-capped summit is an instant symbol of East Africa. It lies 250 miles south of the equator, just inside Tanzania’s border with Kenya. A quick glance at the map reveals a curious kink encircling the mountain in an otherwise ruler-strait boundary between the two countries, explained by the fact that, in 1886, Queen Victoria gave the mountain to her German grandson, Wilhelm, as a birthday present. The mountain is surrounded by the hot, dry plains of the Maasai steppe and is known for its widely contrasting vegetation. Of the Seven Summits, the highest mountain on each of the world’s seven continents, it is the easiest and most accessible to climb.
Entry to the Kilimanjaro National Park is tightly controlled, so climbers pay a permit fee to enter the gate—and for each party, it is obligatory to employ a local guide and porters. Tents, sleeping bags and food are usually thrown in, and for those opting for the well-trodden tourist trail—or the Coca-Cola trail—there is bunked accommodation to boot.
Pouring over maps, we opted instead for the Machame route, which curls around from the south, and which, back in 1991, was rarely climbed and would offer some sense of remoteness. A little more circuitous than the Coca-Cola route, it also had the advantage of taking a day or two longer, allowing us more time to acclimatise. As for the obligatory guide and the porters, we would welcome their company, of course, but we would provide our own camping equipment and food in an effort to be self-reliant as far as it was possible.
Before we set out, I spent hours on the telephone to Lucy, reading and checking lists, striking things off lists as much as adding things on, to all-importantly minimise the loads we were to carry. We decided we would carry equipment and clothing with us from home; we would buy food and fuel for our MSR stove locally. It was in Nairobi, I recall, before jumping on the bus across the border to Arusha, and then Kilimanjaro, that we wheeled a trolley around a supermarket to stock up for the climb ahead. I threw tens of chocolate bars into the trolley as fast as Lucy whisked them out again. “You will want those,” I insisted. To stock fuel for the stove we left until we arrived in Moshi, a small market town at the southern foot of the mountain. Fuel in Tanzania was notoriously contaminated at that time, and I spent the best part of an afternoon sitting in the garden of our guesthouse, filtering it from one can to another through coffee filter papers. Finally, we were ready for the mountain.
Kilimanjaro, as we know, is a populated mountain, the result of which is that much of the wildlife has been frightened away—a four-striped grass mouse was the sum total of my animal spotting. Yet, the mountain retains a character that is uniquely its own, and its unusual topography continues to fascinate. When Kilimanjaro’s snowcapped peak was first discovered by the missionary Johannes Rebmann in 1848, it was disregarded as mere fantasy for over a decade. The Royal Geographical Society of London held that snowfall couldn’t possibly occur, let alone persist, in such latitudes and considered the Rebmann’s report to be a malaria-induced hallucination. How could it be, on the equator?
It is, of course, a textbook illustration of the effects of altitude on temperature. To climb it, you walk first through banana plantations on the rich volcanic soils of its lower slopes, then through forest, heath, high desert, and finally—when the extreme altitude results in temperatures plummeting below zero—onto a glacial summit. Parallels can be drawn with walking across the lines of latitude from the equator to the north or south geographical poles.
Our journey was almost without mishap. “Poli, poli, sister,” the guide gently chastised, “slowly, slowly,” mindful that it never pays to force the body’s natural pace of acclimatisation. Slowly we climbed the mountain’s lower slopes, drinking excessive quantities of water and resting a good deal more than we had in years. Only our stove let us down, or rather the fuel—still clearly far from being free of grit and grime. The stove spat and spluttered and finally ended its days with a gasp of exasperation from me, and a humble acceptance of rice and beans cooked on the porters’ open fire. They had seen it all before.
With the patience of angels, they stood by and watched as we struggled in the thinning air on the upper slopes. The last day is a killer—rising at midnight and climbing “poli, poli” on the steep, grey slopes of scree on the mountain’s summit cone. There’s little chance of speeding now. Here, oxygen is in radically reduced supply. Every step is an effort—lungs gasping for air, feet slipping infuriatingly on loose scree. Poli, Poli. Breathe deep. Regroup. Find a rhythm. “Don’t fight nature but gently find a way to work with it,” I whispered to myself. This is the secret to conserving energy and making progress in the upper reaches of the atmosphere (and in life, generally, should we but remember).
At last, there was a hint of light in the expansive African sky and we found ourselves standing on Kilimanjaro’s caldera rim, looking out at a plump rising sun and far, far below, a blanket of pearly grey clouds stretching to the horizon. A slow stroll around the crater rim and we were on Uhuru Peak, the mountain’s highest point, taking in the view of two further summits poking their heads above the cloud. Far in the distance was Mount Kenya, a peak I had climbed the year before and, closer to hand, Meru—a volcanic peak that stands sentry to Arusha, some 50 miles away. It felt great stamping our feet in the snow, high up there on the roof of Africa. “We can climb that one now,” declared Lucy, pointing in the direction of Arusha. And in the course of the next few days, we did. The mountaineering bug, it seems, shows clear signs of being contagious.
Decades passed before I returned—this time, with groups of women from every corner of the world, studying at the Rotterdam School of Management. Each had to write what their expectations were and what lessons they had learned on the mountain. But the real learning was in the experience - with or without the written word. Most had never climbed or trekked before; many had never slept a night in a tent. The learning curves were steep, and the bonds built between the women were strong and lasting. They still gather to socialise and travel together, and network for that prized job. The mountain reflected something different for every woman: lessons on leadership, living with uncertainty, resilience, the power of pulling together, of camaraderie. But the two most profound and consistent teachings of the mountain were about confidence and a sense of purpose. One beautiful, value-led woman had been struggling with her choice of career for many years and wanted to work in humanitarian aid. The day she got home, she wrote her letter of resignation and made that call. I believe, without exception, that the women grew in confidence. One woman’s words spoke for all, “This mountain reminded me that I’m made of steel!”