The Great (Baboon) Train Robbery – Arusha National Park

Y’ALL I AM MAKING EYE CONTACT WITH THIS BABOON. There is nothing separating us. We are breathing the same air.

The baboon is in the car. “Whoa, whoa Bails, don’t you mean a different preposition? On, around, before, beneath-” NOPE, I do not, folks. THE BABOON IS *IN* THE CAR.

After the 3am arrival dinner (pre-breakfast?) I slept hard in my Itikoni Camp tent, halfway up the slopes of Mt. Meru, in the heart of Arusha National Park. I wake up around 8:30 and tug my earplugs out to the rumbling ‘whirrr’ of colobus monkeys and birdsong. Sleepily washing my face using the still very hot thermos of water from last night and fumbling, figured out the chemical toilet situation. I stepped outside to a whole new world.

After my first (two) mugs of strong Tanzanian coffee and a truly massive breakfast, Ben met us in the ‘lounge’ tent for a trip briefing, which included some of the deep history of Tanzania, Kilimanjaro, and cultural norms to be aware of.

  • Did ya know (bc I did not): Tanzania is the compound name of two countries – Tanganyika + Zanzibar = Tanzania – which merged in 1964
  • There are over 55 million people who live in the country and over 125 tribes
  • Most people are trilingual – speaking their tribal language, Kiswahili and an additional language like English, French, etc. and many speak additional languages – quadlingual? When does ‘multilingual’ kick in? Pentalingual? I feel like there is a ORU joke there but I’m just gonna leave it alone!
  • Swahili or Kiswahili Swahili is a ‘lingua franca’ aka a language that bridges the 125+ tribes in Tanzania (and the many outside of TZ) and spoken by over 100 million people in Tanzania, Kenya and surrounding nations. When speaking Swahili, the language is called Kiswahili – but when talked about in English it’s usually called Swahili.
  • The Kilimanjaro routes (there are several) are named for the village(s) located at the bottom of each trail – I took the Lemosho route but other popular ones are Machame, Marangu and Rongai (which starts in Kenya)
  • Ben’s been guiding on Kilimanjaro for 25 years this year – he’s seen it all – and always with Mountain Madness
  • The Chaga (sometimes written Chagga) tribe are the ones around Kilimanjaro; Ben is from the Chaga tribe and his extended family still lives in the Kilimanjaro area.
  • Arusha is both the name of the city and the region (and the national park we’re in) – think of it like a city and county/state name – and when people say “I’m from Arusha” it could mean either!

We plan to go on a short afternoon hike after a light(er) lunch (seriously – this whole trip – there is SO MUCH FOOD and it IS ALL DELICIOUS). Our park ranger, Tony, leads the way; casually wearing a bolt-action rifle on his shoulder.

It feels so good to stretch my legs a bit – my body has been training training training for so long that 2 days in transit has felt almost oppressively still – and the guides are subtly watching how we walk and breathe to gauge the level of support we’ll need on Kili. We stop often to note animals, plants and tracks; Ben, Geoffrey and Tony have eyes like hawks and can spot critters on a dime.

We return to camp, spotting our first giraffe through some trees, eat dinner and do a gear check – I have everything I need and it’s now got Ben’s official stamp of approval – I continue to make some cuts, asking myself “Is this need to have or nice to have?” and make a plan for tomorrow’s game drive. Since J and I both came a day early (remember how KLM was like ‘come on time and pay $2000 more or come a day early and…save $2000′ and so…I have chosen the better path? Yup. We’re going to continue exploring Arusha National Park and Momella Lakes (there’s 7!) with our bonus day.

Monday morning blooms bright and after a hearty breakfast – Robert makes omelettes an art – we tuck into the Land Cruiser and head out for a walking safari with Tony, Ben and Geoffrey. We stop in a massive open savannah and my eyes hungrily drink in this view.

It’s wild and magical and unbelievable how we just…walk…through this area. There’s so. many. animals that it’s like going to a zoo but there’s no walls. In just this one open area we see baboons, buffalos, giraffes, warthogs, bushbacks, ducks, and more just harmoniously living. It feels like we’re getting away with something secret and wonderful; we’re mostly hushed except for a soft word from a guide (or Tony) to keep (or stop) walking in certain spots. The water draws all the animals to this spot and they find an unspoken rhythm taking turns at the stream.

We drop off Tony at the ranger station (don’t worry, he’ll be back!) and head with Ben & Geoffrey to explore the Momella Lakes and eat some lunch. We drive up on these pals – aren’t they cute? THERES A BAYBEEEEEEE!

BUT y’all, that baby is Matt Damon and the adults are Brad Pitt & George Clooney because this isn’t ‘cute game drive’ this is now Oceans 11: Tanzania. After stopping in the Land Cruiser to photograph this troop (yes, a group of baboons is a troop) through the open roof (it pushes/pops up so we can stand and photograph from inside the car), we start to pull away and I have my head out the side of the car window snagging final shots. I look over my shoulder and spot a baboon running up beside the car, thinking ‘oh cute, it’s like a Dalmatian chasing a moving car or whatever.’

Me:”Geoffrey, there’s a baboon running next to us on our side.”

Geoffrey: “Oh, where?”

Me: *looks back over my shoulder* “Oh I don’t see – oh I think it just jumped on the back tire”

For context – this is our Land Cruiser – 2 spare tires on the back. The driver’s side is the RIGHT – as is the side of the road driven on. My de facto ‘spot’ this whole trip is the right (driver’s) side and J and I unspoken stick with those sides for the next 15 days.

Me: *looks up* “Oh my gosh, it’s on the [open] roof”

Like Y’ALL I AM MAKING EYE CONTACT WITH THIS BABOON. There is nothing separating us. We are breathing the same air.

And then the baboon is IN the car. He’s jumped inside.

SERIOUSLY in less than 10 seconds it’s:

  1. Baboon running beside us
  2. Baboon on tire
  3. Baboon on roof
  4. Baboon in CAR IN THE CAR IN THE CAR IN THE CARRRRRR

And I just need to say – have you ever seen someone’s face when they’re panicking a bit but trying not to look panicked so you don’t panic? When I say Geoffrey and Ben’s faces looking back at that baboon…that is the face they both made. The ‘don’t scare the clients’ face, throwing the car into park, both shouting in Swahili and Ben threw a water bottle at this baboon and all I can think is THERE IS NO WAY FOR THIS DUDE TO GET OUT EXCEPT GOING BACK OUT THE WAY HE CAME IN HE’S GOING TO NEED/WANT AN EXIT OH MY GOSH I AM GOING TO GET BIT AND GET RABIES BEFORE I EVEN CLIMB KILI

and pretty much treated this baboon like a weird person hollering on the train in Chicago – I turned my face/body into the corner of the door, hunching over my valuables (read: camera) and waited for the rant to be over. Rule 1: don’t make eye contact. I’m serious fam, I’m a Krav Maga certified instructor but like…the most important lesson is to know when you shouldn’t engage in a fight. And I was not here to get bit on DAY TWO! This was a jacked male baboon who had been doing Gym, Tan, Laundry and STEROIDS and I avoided this juiced up guido, who not only came in our car but ran up and CHECKED THE SEAT POCKETS. Seriously, he was right next to me and checked the pocked of the seat in front of me.

Between the baboon screeching and Ben/Geoffrey hollering in Swahili and me just hiding out in the door’s buttcrack, the baboon grabbed our lunchbox (think those big pink cardboard cake boxes) and jumped out of the car the same way he came in – through the open roof. Jokes on him though, that box is hinged, so our wax paper-wrapped lunch items fell out and dude left with an EMPTY cardboard box. Ben and Geoffrey jumped out, throwing stones and yelling as a ranger car spins up in a cloud of dust and two rangers jump out, berating the guides for getting out of their car in this area (a big, well-signed faux pas).

I turn to J, wide eyed, and say ‘did that really just happen?’

Ben and Geoffrey get back in, laughing with the rangers, who return the empty box that Danny Ocean had angrily discarded, explaining we were the third car hit that day. This was getting to be a common spot for this troop to prey on safari vehicles; and they’re so smart that they knew to jump in the open roof, check the pockets and where lunch is usually kept. In 25 years, Ben had never seen anything like it.

So…I learned the word for baboon is ‘nyani’ and we used it. A lot. I didn’t trust an open roof near a troop of baboons the rest of my time in Tanzania. Not afraid, just…wary. Y’all know they got a whisper network going on to talk about gullible tourists and I was not here to get got twice in one trip!

Something was in the baboon water today, I swear – Robert, our chef – had another baboon encounter with one coming in the open door to the camp kitchen. He had to shake a machete at it! Mercury rising or whatever; nyanis were making bold moves! We came back to camp to an absolute feast; Robert outdid himself with our ‘night before starting to climb Kili’ meal. Pork chops, purple yams, chicken, lamb kabobs, grilled veggies and a breathtaking lemon passion fruit cheesecake that I wanted to roll around in. Critical vocab was quickly learned and deployed – ‘tamu sana’ – very delicious.

They had to roll me outta that meal tent; Tony walked J and I to our tents, which he’d done each night. Honestly, I’d thought it was a bit overdone, something they probably do for tipsy clients or those too old/young that might get lost, etc. A bit of theater to keep clients feeling ‘safe.’

Well, serve me up a plate of crow, people.

,Following Tony we waddled quietly in a ‘I’m very full and sleepy’ pace to our tents, under a wide, almost full moon. I breathed deep that fresh, mountain air, thought ‘whew, smells like manure,’ and suddenly he just. stopped. and put a hand up.

We stopped too. After our safari walk earlier today, we knew – when Tony stops – you stop. But I didn’t see anything. Not taking a step, I raised up on tiptoe and craned my neck to look around the corner, where all of Tony’s focus was. He slowly shifted the rifle off his shoulder and held it, ready, in his arms.

You know it’s serious when the rifle comes off the park ranger’s shoulder. Their job is to protect you and the animals, in that order. They’ll always try a warning shot to scare an animal, but if needed, they’ll put it down to protect you. My eyes snagged on the swooping curve of a massive, male cape buffalo’s horns in shadow, just outside the floodlight’s reach. I knew now why I’d smelled manure. We’d been told about big, solitary ‘bachelor’ buffalos earlier today; they’re big and mean. And we were less than 20 feet away from one, with a bolt action rifle and some paltry bushes between us.

We waited, silent for probably 2 full minutes, in a standoff. Turning his head but not looking away from the buffalo, Tony spoke so quietly that we had to half-lip read: “Walk backwards. Very slow.” We took two steps and the buffalo bolted, thankfully away from us. We laughed, breathing shakily to expel the adrenaline. Unlike previous nights, Tony walked us all the way to the door of the tents and waited until the double zip was completely sealed.

“Usi Kumwema” he called.

“Lala salaama” I hollered back.

⛰️✨ We start up Kilimanjaro in the morning ⛰️✨


Bailey’s Kiswahili Vocab for the Day(s): A Series Written Phonetically

(AKA how I thought it should be spelled, likely v wrong)

  • Jambo: Hello/Hi
  • Asante: Thank You
  • +Sana: Very/a lot
  • Mambo: What’s up
  • Habari: How are you
  • + Asabuhi: This morning
  • + Mchana: This afternoon
  • + Ageoni: This evening
  • Nzuri: Good
  • Sawa: OK
  • Poa: Cool
  • Lala Salaama: Sleep Well
  • Usi Kumwema: Good Night

In Transit

It’s been awhile since I’ve traveled internationally – but more than that – it’s been 6+ years since I traveled somewhere new internationally. I forgot how fun it is to have a completely new experience. To blend nerves and discovery together and not be totally sure it’ll work.

I slept most of the way to Amsterdam; a good plan on an 8-hour flight that left Chicago at 4pm. We descended through the misty, Seattle-esque clouds around 7am local time and I was looking forward to hanging out in a lounge for the 4-hour layover, using them sweet lil credit card perks, only to find out it was closed. Boooooooooo! C’mon capitalism! Do your girl a solid! Instead I snagged an iced coffee (I mean, it was Seattle weather), watched some Ted Lasso and did a 10-minute meditation in a quiet nook of the terminal.

Waiting to board the AMS > JRO leg, I saw so many people at the gate who looked like me – daypack, hiking boots, REI-ish layers – and had that same feeling: what are y’all doing on my special adventure?! On one hand I’m aware many, many people go to Kilimanjaro (and Tanzania, the Serengeti, etc.) in general and on the other hand it felt odd to have spent 2 years overall preparing for this thing so incredibly solo (being isolated in a pandemic, living/working out alone, etc. for the past year and a half) but being surrounded by other people realizing their dream ON THE SAME DAY AS ME. I may be your only friend/family/person to climb Kilimanjaro but trust me; there’s literally hundreds of us at any given time.

After an easy, uneventful 8-hour leg south to JRO, we arrived around 9pm local time. Seated in row 43 of 45, it took me awhile to get off the plane. I almost vibrated with palpable excitement, looking out the window at the bright letters KILIMANJARO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT. We rushed outside, groaning with relief in stretching our legs…to get into line. A huge line. A cozy, 75 degree darkness enveloped us, sandwiched between the outer walls of the airport and the massive KLM jetliner we’d evacuated, bottlenecking to be paperwork-checked.

  1. Get in 300+ person line and slowly get to the front of the pack.
  2. Get waved over to one of 10 people checking paperwork, temperatures and IDs.
  3. Paperwork approved, temp check ok – go stand in a different line to pay the $10 COVID test fee – with a credit card machine that is out of receipt paper so they’re handwriting/stamping all receipts, taking forever
  4. Go inside, get pretty thorough COVID rapid test up the schnozz
  5. Booty barely touching the waiting area seat when they loudly call your FULL GROWN FIRSTNAME MIDDLENAME LASTNAME and hand me the (thankfully) Negative results
  6. Get in different line to get a visa, fill out paperwork, scan all ya fingerprints, you’re Jason Bourne now
  7. Pay $100 for the privilege of the finger scanning
  8. Go to a different window to get a receipt for paying $100 for the Bourne finger scan
  9. Go get your bags from the floor (they’ve been nicely pulled from the carousel and set in a line with the other hundred bags, watched over by airport staff)
    ***It’s been 2 hours since you landed***
  10. Bathroom break
  11. Put all bags (including carry on) back through another X-ray machine so you can leave. X-ray attendant is halfheartedly scrolling on their phone.
  12. Finally emerge out into the night, where 50 Tanzanian men are all holding signs with various safari company names on them in varying fonts and font sizes

Honestly? I just started scanning left to right. I was the only person to walk out the door at that moment, so they’re all just watching me stand there, eyeballs glazed over. I started at my 9 o’clock and was going clockwise through all the names, standing in one spot like a spooked baby horse when – suddenly – out of nowhere this guy pops through the ring of men, saying “Mountain Madness?”

“YES” I gratefully breathed as he and another guy, fully masked, took my bags and led me past the other guide companies, closer to the parking lot. “I’m Ben” and “I’m Geoffrey,” they added, as I felt my shoulders finally droop below my ears. Someone else was in charge now. I could rest. There was no more big, solo decisions to make, things to coordinate, etc. It was a relief to have someone else take the wheel.

I think that was one of the things I was most looking forward to on this trip and I didn’t fully realize it until I got back home. There’s only a few people that I’ve talked to about it that really get this, and they’re also single women. Its not unique to us but there’s a unique perspective to it. It’s exhausting to have to do all the things alone. Not just the tasks of living (although that’s a lot) but also the decision-making, the weighing of options, the research, etc. When you’re in a couple (or family) you can take turns wearing those hats, even if one of you does it most of the time, it’s rarely all of the time for all of the things.

You have to get up for work no one is going to wake you up so set your alarm ok it’s time get up and decide what to wear I’m hungry but what are you gonna eat you should use that cookbook that mom got you or maybe just get on google and type in the ingredients you have and see what looks good do not open Grubhub you’ll never cook and those bell peppers are 84 years old in the drawer you gotta do it today or they’re going to rot on you ok I found 2 recipes for stuffed peppers well when are you going to cook it you just started another episode of L&O SVU ok but are you going to eat it like a wolf out of the pot because why get another plate dirty it’s just you and you’ll have to wash that dish oh you’ve just used the same 3 dishes for the last week that’s ok who’s gonna know oh lord that trash has gotta go out I’ve pushed it down too long gotta take the rent check to the post box on the corner tomorrow or it’ll be late I also gotta look at flight times so Mom knows when I’m coming home for the holidays but need to check and be sure it doesn’t conflict with work or theater schedule are my plants dying? when’s the last time they were watered – well – if I didn’t do it then no one did it…etc. etc. etc.

I know there’s beauty in the freedom to make my own choices and it’s a privilege to have the financial flexibility to live alone. Most of the time I’m aware and grateful for it but sometimes it catches up to you – that mental & emotional labor – and the fact that you can’t take all the hats off. The Beret of Personal Responsibility is glued on, y’all.

Standing in the black-velvet Tanzanian night outside the airport, there was a palpable, physical (and mental and emotional) sigh, listening to the bugs softly chirp, a light breeze soothing my almost 24-hours of travel soul. Someone. else. was. in. charge. I took a step away, pulled down my mask and gazed up at the star-flecked sky, gulping in fresh air and rubbing the mask lines imprinted on my scalp. I could rest now. I’d done everything right – I’d trained, I’d prepared, I’d executed, I’d been in the right places at the right times with the right paperwork and my reward was finally here – someone else in control. Glorious.

We tossed our duffels and bags in a khaki-colored Toyota Land Cruiser and started the 90-minute drive out to Arusha National Park and Itikoni private camp, where Mountain Madness has taken clients for decades. It was just after midnight, but to J (our other hiker) and I it was about 4-5pm to our stateside origin bodies. With our whole car vaccinated (and J and I very freshly PCR tested (in the states pre-flight) and rapid tested (about 1 hour ago in the KIA airport) negative for COVID), we took off our masks and happily chattered away. I didn’t even know J’s name before I left the country yesterday and was about to spend a week+ on a mountain with him and the guides, so I was curious.

We turn off the main road into Arusha National Park and put the Land Cruiser into 4-wheel drive for the rugged, teeth-jostling final 30 minutes of the trail. It was too dark to take any photos but we leaned forward, hopeful we’d see a critter or two illuminated in the hazy lights of the car, and were rewarded with half-glimpses of a giraffe and a cape buffalo just off the road. Pulling into Itikoni just shy of 2am, we were taken to the mess tent and introduced to Po, who had made a full meal for us.

Y’all, I know my brain was like ‘hey girl, it’s only 6pm-ish’ but also, after 24 hours of travel I was ready to big sleep. And here an incredibly nice crew made us a full multi-course meal – tangy, brightly-colored salad, freshly sliced steak, even a hand-crafted dessert – and were smiling, waiting for us to eat. They offered me a beer or a glass of wine but I knew I’d be out before we hit ‘asante’ if I did. When my eyelids were heavy and belly full, Ben, Geoffrey and our armed camp ranger, Tony, walked us to our spacious private tents and after a brief tour (how to use the toilet, wash my face, take a shower, and to not to leave the tent while it was dark (there was an emergency whistle if I felt unsafe!)), I said goodnight, zipped the inner and outer tent door and crawled into bed just before 3am, pulled up my sleep mask, squished in my earplugs and slept a deep, dreamless, thankful sleep.

Note to self: Panoramas in split light are…not great. Left side is a desk, 2 coat racks, 2 benches for luggage (1 per person for a couple), behind back ‘wall’ is toilet, shower, double sinks, hot water thermos for washing my face, etc. My back is to the front of the tent, including thick canvas double-zip door.

[Sidebar pro-tip if you’re going to KIA in the next year-ish: You can pre-pay your COVID test and you can pre-file/get your Tanzania visa online but I didn’t pre-do either and still beat the other travel/hiker in our group out of the airport by 20+ minutes. Normally I would have pre-done both but, shrug, six of one and a half-dozen of the other, you know?]

Next Up: Itikoni Camp & Arusha National Park (Days 2-3)

  • Baboon Danny Ocean
  • Swahili 101
  • We get up close and personal with why our camp ranger carries a bolt action rifle

Finally.

I stared at the ‘Out of Office’ banner splashed across the top of my work Gmail and gave a half-hearted cackle and fist pump – and then couldn’t stop – I stood up and suddenly it was way too hot. I whipped my shirt off and just stood in the middle of my living room having a Disney villain moment clad in a sports bra.

“It’s happening,” I muttered to myself in increasingly loud increments. I ran to the bathroom to look at my face and said it in the mirror like a mantra. “It’s HAPPENING. It’s hApPeNiNg.” I put on some music and couldn’t stop dancing maniacally. If you think this is a fever dream/memory – here’s proof:

Yeah, it’s a video, and yeah, I’m taking that one to the grave.

Everything to be done was done.

  • The packing – ✅
  • The PCR COVID test – ✅ – and results were in: NEGATIVE
  • The OOO Gmail, Slack, etc. for work – ✅
  • Someone to water the plants & grab mail – ✅
  • The fridge food – eaten – ✅ (and the next day’s breakfast & lunch set up ✅)
  • Downloads of podcasts, support videos (friends, parents, my trainer Brian), audiobooks, book books, etc. – ✅
  • House cleaned top to bottom – ✅
  • Travel outfit set out – ✅
  • Folder of critical travel documents, copy of passport, trip insurance, TZ address for on-the-ground Visa, etc. – ✅

All there was left to do was execute on the plan.

Day 0 – Friday, September 10

I remember thinking, ‘wow, what if I don’t sleep tonight? I’ll be so excited the adrenaline will probably keep me up.’ And promptly knocked out around 11. I set a 9am safety net alarm, but woke up around 7:30am – my flight not being until 4pm. I made a french press of coffee and sat quietly on the couch, drinking it slowly and looking at my bags. I had a checklist on the door of final things to confirm while going out (take out trash, triple check you locked the door), and a smaller one on the kitchen table for different final things like a gov’t form I had to complete w/in 24 hours of arrival in TZ and writing Katie a note about my plant children’s care, writing my rent check, etc.

I’d fortified myself – a weird word, but true – with emotional boosts, should I need them. My fresh journal has a ton of recently-installed stickers, phrases and quotes making me think of places or people or feelings that would help lift my moods on tough days/nights.

  • Mt. Baker, celebrating my first summit
  • A Bryce Canyon groundhog that makes me think of my sisters ‘ALAN! ALAN!’ joke in AZ & Zion
  • The fear litany poem from Dune
  • A beautifully terrifying Gritty masterpiece from Dana & Adam
  • A fortune cookie stating “Depend on your feet, you can climb the highest mountain’ I got about 5 years ago
  • 2 excerpts from Psalms (121 & 139)
  • Some manual camera settings for night photography (that I did not use)
  • 3 Instax polaroids of my friends/family
  • Korean sticker saying 대박 – ‘awesome’
  • “The finish line is for the ego, the journey is for the soul” quote that’s followed me across this 2-year saga
  • A card tucked inside with a quote from St. Therese of Liseaux (also attributed to St. Therese of Avila and Minnie Louise Haskins 1908 book of poems, but still hits me): “Today may there be peace within, may you trust that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith in yourself and others. May you use the gifts that you have received and pass on the love that has been given to you. May you be content with yourself just the way you are. Let this knowledge settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.”

I felt as prepared as prepared could be. The week before the trip everyone kept asking ‘do you feel ready?’ And I did. Body, mind and spirit – I was ready to go – there were no more muscles to build or last-minute-shove-this-in-the-bag epiphanies or frantic items to buy.

A friend came by and picked me up around 1:15pm to head to the airport and I finally breathed out – we were on the path – plan in motion. We missed our airport turnoff and laughed, looping around and finding a modified route back to Terminal 5, O’Hare’s international wing.

4 bags surrounded me: North Face 71L Base Camp mountain duffel, medium-size suitcase, 35L hiking pack on my back, and my Mountainsmith Tour bag on my shoulder with things I’d actually need during transit (travel folder, passport, all camera gear, phone, electronics, book, sunglasses, possible three hand sanitizers?). As I navigated the airport, I thought, ‘I don’t think I’ve had to do a full 4-bags airport dance since I moved back from Korea 6 years ago.’

In line for KLM, I found myself – shockingly – unaware of a form I needed. I felt my spine lock up until the rep said ‘just scan this QR code and you can fill it out online.’ Rapidly filling out a declaration form for the Netherlands (my stopover in Amsterdam for 4 hours needed it, I guess (tl;dr they never looked at it once)), I got to the front of the line and pulled out my travel folder. I glanced to my left, where another man stood with a duffel and a pack, answering the agent’s query ‘Headed to Tanzania.’ I was surprised to see another person in Chicago leaving on the same flight, also headed to the same place; I’d felt like I was on some grand unique hero’s journey and here this random dude was on a parallel track to my story!

Standing in the security line, I was a little bored, so I pulled out my phone and checked work – I KNOW – and someone I’d never met had messaged me, asking about putting a meeting on the calendar next week. I chuckled and typed, ‘I’m literally standing in the international departures TSA line at ORD headed to Africa; unless you want to wait 2.5 weeks, you’ll probably want to find someone else.’ Apparently the OOO notification wasn’t that noticeable…

Once in the terminal, I finally used my fancy credit card perk (getting a travel credit card in Oct 2019 was a stellar move, jk) and hung out in a lounge until boarding. I was reading Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds, and craving those last minute Kili-cramming moments. Do you know they give you free Diet Coke in there?! They doooooooooo.

Boarding call. Everyone was casually sitting and I was practically vibrating. I just wanted to shout ‘I AM GOING TO AFRICAAAA I AM DOING IT IT’S FINALLY HAPPPPPPENING’ but I was not here to get dragged into the Jack Bauer bowels of O’Hare 5ft from the finish line, y’all. We boarded, and I wound my way to my seat in the back of the plane. It was pretty empty – just how we like it! I tucked away my hiking daypack above and snugged my Mountainsmith under the seat in front of me, buckled my seatbelt and sat back, sighing in relief.

A feeling was overwhelming me. A peace that I’d done everything that could be done. Everything happened exactly as I’d planned, thought, worried and laid out for almost 2 years. Wheels in motion and there was truly no turning back now. I was so happy. Happy happy happy and incredulous. I couldn’t believe it was happening. Genuinely I had half-thought it could still be canceled, up until now. That I’d have to use that travel insurance at the last minute. Tears rolled down my face. I took a picture – it was not a good look – but I didn’t care. I realized there was one more thing I wanted to say before leaving US soil.

I’d never truly considered how dangerous this was. Things happen, you know? People still die on Kili; on average about 10 people per year (stats pre-2020 bc COVID) out of ~30,000 who attempt the climb. It was still a dang mountain, and a big one. Literally one of the Seven Summits. Sure, it wasn’t a technical climb like Baker. No abominable snowpits to be swallowed by or glacier ridge spines to tip over on. But it was a formidable mountain; altitude sickness can make your brain swell, or pulmonary edema can make your lungs explode (apologies for the science inaccuracy but I think that’s close) or you can just trip and hit your head on the wrong rock.

I don’t have a will (Will?). I think I’d googled it like 2-3 weeks before leaving, but you know, it was an insanely busy season with work and we were still doing all the final prep/workouts/I was big-time preoccupied. Seated in 43I, I wanted to have one more word to y’all on my trip and also, I don’t know, kinda ‘eulogize’ if something happened. If I didn’t make it over the ocean, or I didn’t make it up this mountain or if a zombified giraffe went to town on my spleen and I didn’t make it back…I wanted my people to know I was still glad I went.

This sounds hella morbid (and I am writing it on Halloweeeeeeen *ghost voice*) but I didn’t feel freaked out or strange doing it. If something happened I wanted y’all to know I was still going to be happy I did it. That I did a big, wild, I-am-not-sure-if-I-can-but-I’m-gonna-try kind of adventure. That I leaped when my landing spot was still cloudy, not fully clear. Big swing and not sure if it would be a home run or a whiff. I wasn’t going to regret this decision, no matter what. I typed and retyped several times, tears running down my face, thinking about what would bring peace (if needed) and be authentically my voice.

“I’m going to go do this thing – chasing something fun and unsure and wonderful – I’m in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. 

Hakuna Matata, bbs 🏔🐘✨

The pilot came over the intercom in Dutch, then in English, and the flight attendants began striding up the aisles, checking for compliance. I looked left down the completely empty row 43 and put my head on the headrest, willing myself to stop crying because the snot inside my mask wasn’t helpful for ya know, breathing.

We pushed back from the gate. I sucked in one, happy sob and looked out at the tarmac and smiled so big that my cheeks lifted my glasses up.

Finally.

Tinker Tailor Writer Editor Catch Upper

I can feel that I’m putting off writing about the trip. Just a little bit. I will write about it. You know those first moments of a relationship – when you’re not telling people – and it’s private and special and just the two of you? That’s a little how it feels. That and I’ve only been back 10ish days, but it feels like forever and 5 minutes ago, teeth jostling loose on Ngorogoro Crater dirt roads in the Land Cruiser and waking up in my frost-coated orange tent halfway up the mountain.

I’m working on it – telling you about this jaw-dropping adventure – the highs, lows, critters, and the unforgettable men who kept me safe, made me laugh to the point of tears and saw through my brave front. I’ve edited down from ~3300 photos (2700 DSLR, 600 iPhone XR) to ~650 that represent the experiences and feelings, the smells and sounds, the dusty, wonderful moments in Tanzania.

Serengeti vistas

Life is also reminding me of all the things I set to the side while training (and doing) this journey.

  • Work – Still in a record-breaking hiring season for the vertical I support, and getting back up to speed on projects we’d already set in motion.
  • Comedy – I was cast into the ensemble of Laugh out Loud Theater in Schaumburg in late July, and I’m ramping up in new cast member rehearsals and attending shows to acclimate to their process. RIFF, the music improv show I’ve been a part of, is also getting a run at the Annoyance Theater this fall/winter!
  • Personal – Between the ‘Panini,’ busy summers and me training/working out every day but Mondays, I haven’t seen many people in the last year and a half. Those 6-hour Sunday walks didn’t leave much time! So I’ve been doing a looooooot of catching up! I went out FIVE TIMES this week – pre-panorama me scoffs – but it’s a big step up from pre-trip me. I may have overdone it a little but it’s a such a good thing to be reconnecting with so many folks. Have I done trip laundry no I have not buzz off to the next bullet, y’all *pushes down laundry hamper, sits on it*
  • Fitness – Um, noooooope. And it feels weird. This was such a massive chunk of each day/week. I don’t know what my next fitness step is. Do I rejoin my gym regularly? Do I just see Brian weekly? Do I go back to at-home workouts? What’s the new goal; I’m not great at consistency in this realm without a little fear-of-something in me like my Krav instructor cert date or climbing Kili.
  • Things I’ve been wanting to do: Take Photo II at Chicago Photography Classes, a dance class at Old Town School of Music in my neighborhood, some domestic travel to see friends, some LinkedIn Learnings on new topics, attend weddings, etc.!

Thank you thank you thank you to all of you have reached out by text, Instagram (or blog) comment/DM, Facebook post, via-a-family-member or friend – I am very excited to start knitting this story/pictures together and I’ll have the first post by the end of this month or I will not touch a Diet Coke for all of November.

THOSE ARE HIGH STAKES. Here’s an absolutely unbridled, child-like joy selfie as a reward from Day 1 in the Ngorogoro Crater! Look at her face! I remember thinking ‘there’s so many of them’ in total wonder. And then we saw hundreds more over the next 4 days; zebra babies and zebra bellies and zebra(s) crossing the road at. their. own. pace.

The Departure Has Arrived

We’re here. The day has crept closer and closer and today she’s ready.

From announcing in my 2019 life review that I was going to climb Kilimanjaro in October 2020 (ah, EOY 2019, you calm before the storm) to fleshing out the reasons I was doing it (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) to getting the heart crushing news that it was delayed the day after I was told ‘it’s on!’ in January 2021 and dealing with the emotional fallout and re-training.

From the trip-specific gear gathering dust now safely tucked into my bags to the hometown mountain I was scared of but conquered in July, it has been a long season. And now…we do this.

In February I wrote:

It is 210 days until September 19th, 2021.

209 sunrises to go. 

209 beats of rest in whatever time signature this song is in. 

209 blank pages until book 3.”

Heart siren – it’s time to see the clouds beneath us and sing this song.

Capable, strong body – you’re ready, you’re prepared right, you can, you can you can.

Soul who told herself ‘no’ too often – you are more than enough, it’s time to ‘yes.’

Welcome to Book 3.

Radio Silence

“Wifi? Where we’re going we won’t need wifi.” – Doc Brown, 2021 (probably)

Since I’ll be AWOL on the internet for pretty much this whole trip I thought I’d give a rundown of where you could find me (why? for what reason? LET ME BE) on my Kilimanjaro sojourn and which day you can raise a glass to my likely summit! A lot of this was lifted from the Mountain Madness (my guide company) itinerary and is heckin’ useful.

Day 0 – Friday, 9/10

Depart home late afternoon and fly Chicago > Amsterdam (sadly, not leaving the airport; I’ll be back to explore another time, I promise), +7 hour on US Central and +9 on US Pacific Time.

Day 1 – Saturday, 9/11

Fly from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro (JRO) Airport, landing around 9pm. I’ll have a rapid COVID test and get my Tanzanian visa; a Mountain Madness rep will meet us and drive to their private compound. I’ll be +8/+10 hours ahead of CT/PT, respectively.

Day 2 – Sunday, 9/12

This is a bonus day – most people fly in/land this night – but it was $2100 cheaper to fly in a day early! So fingers crossed we do something fun local like visit a coffee farm, shop in Arusha or walk around a bit.

Day 3 – Monday, 9/13 – Ele­va­tion: 6,500 ft / 1981 m

Trans­fer to a pri­vate camp in Arusha Nation­al Park. Here, at about 6,500 feet / 1981 meters, we’ll begin to accli­mate; Chicago is about 597 feet above sea level. With only our climb­ing team (guides, porters, fellow climbers) here, we’ll ease into our adven­ture, enjoy some game view­ing, try to relax from trav­eling, and pre­pare for the climb.

Today our guide(s) will host a trip brief­ing and review our equip­ment. There may be time for a walk or game dri­ve, which will be tak­en out into the grass­lands for views of African game and Mount Kil­i­man­jaro, as giraffe, buf­fa­lo and ante­lope usu­al­ly seen in the area.

Day 4 – Tuesday, 9/14 – Ele­va­tion: 9,000 ft / 2743 m 

MON­TANE FOR­EST — LOMOSHO APPROACH – Hik­ing Time: 3 – 6 hours (3.2 miles / 5.2 km)

After a short dri­ve through the grass­lands and scat­tered Maa­sai vil­lages we’ll arrive at the for­est edge of Kilimanjaro Nation­al Park. From here we’ll walk a few hours through the undis­turbed lush jun­gle to our camp for the night. Our Tan­zan­ian guides will share their knowl­edge of the local ecol­o­gy as we walk through the fan­tas­tic plants and trees, hear birds, and see oth­er exot­ic wildlife. Y’all know I’mma be asking tons of questions here. With luck we’ll be able to see Colobus mon­keys and signs of ele­phants on the walk to camp. If I see an elephant I will attempt to hold in an excited squeal. ATTEMPT. Upon arriv­ing at camp, we’ll find our tents set up as well as hot tea and snacks wait­ing for us in the din­ing tent.

Day 5 – Wednesday, 9/15 – Ele­va­tion: 11,400 ft / 3474 m

SHI­RA PLATEAU — WEST SIDE – Hik­ing Time: 6 – 8 hours (4.8 miles / 7.7 km)

Our Tan­zan­ian guides will greet us at our tents with tea and hot water to wash with before enjoy­ing break­fast as I try to rouse my carcass and tame my inevitable hair tangles. We’ll take our time walk­ing through the for­est, which enables us to accli­ma­tize com­fort­ably and spot the plen­ti­ful game and bird life while enjoy­ing the views down canyon through breaks in the jun­gle. Today’s hike will take us through the Mon­tane For­est and the Hage­nia Zone. We will point out the unique envi­ron­men­tal dif­fer­ences that char­ac­ter­ize these sep­a­rate equa­to­r­i­al zones. Harlan Kredit would be proud (I think). I shall endeavor to ask as many kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species as possible and reward myself with a Jolly Rancher.

Day 6 – Thursday, 9/16 – Ele­va­tion: 13,500 ft / 4115 m

MOIR CAMP – Hik­ing Time: 3 – 6 hours (4 miles / 6.4 km)

It will take us rough­ly three hours to hike across the Shi­ra Plateau and then one hour up the west­ern slope of the Kibo Mas­sif. Our Camp will be in the upper Heath Zone. We pass the Fis­ch­er Camp, which has a plaque ded­i­cat­ed to Scott Fis­ch­er, friend and founder of Moun­tain Mad­ness. In the 1980’s, Wes Krause and Scott Fis­ch­er pio­neered the Shi­ra Plateau route on Kil­i­man­jaro, which we trav­el. The views of the moun­tain at sun­set and sun­rise are tru­ly spectacular – I’m attempting to make the instructors at Chicago Photography Classes proud (or at least not embarrassed!).

Day 7 – Friday, 9/17 – Ele­va­tion: 15,000 ft / 4572 m

LAVA TOW­ER – Hik­ing Time: 5 – 7 hours (3.6 miles / 5.8 km)

After break­fast, we’ll slow­ly hike to 14,850 feet / 4526 meters, just under the ​“Lava Tow­er.” This will be our first intro­duc­tion to the Alpine Zone where the only plant life is the hardi­est of grass­es and lichens. We will have a spec­tac­u­lar view of the final route of ascent up the West­ern Breach. There is an excit­ing option­al rock scram­ble (non-tech­ni­cal) to the top of this unusu­al lava tow­er – its gotta be easier than the Roman Headwall, right? The views from the lava tow­er sum­mit of Mt. Kil­i­man­jaro, Mt. Meru and the sur­round­ing val­leys are quite impressive – fingers crossed I capture them in their glory.

Day 8 – Saturday, 9/18 – Ele­va­tion: 16,000 ft / 4877 m

ARROW GLAC­I­ER – Hik­ing Time: 2 – 3 hours (1 mile / 1.6 km)

The West­ern Breach ascent route is now in full view. We spend a few hours climb­ing to the base of the route and make camp near the Arrow Glac­i­er at 16,000 feet / 4877 meters. To fur­ther our acclima­ti­za­tion, we take an after­noon hike up a spec­tac­u­lar ridge fur­ther up the route before relax­ing in camp. This camp is famous for the absolute­ly mag­nif­i­cent sun­sets, which illu­mi­nate the African sky.

Day 9 – Sunday, 9/19 – Ele­va­tion: 18,700 ft / 5700 m

SUM­MIT CRATER CAMP – Hik­ing Time: 7 – 10 hours (1.6 miles / 2.6 km)

A looooooong day but should make the next day easier. Today we climb up the West­ern Breach for about sev­en hours to the top of the crater rim. There will be time to explore the inner crater before mov­ing to our high camp on the crater floor. It is com­mon to find snow along this sec­tion of the route. Our high camp will be next to a spec­tac­u­lar glac­i­er and the sum­mit mere­ly a short hike away! The rest of the day will be spent drink­ing lots of liq­uids and enjoy­ing anoth­er fab­u­lous sun­set dinner (plz yes).

Around 8-9pmish for you Central folks and about 6-7pm for the Pacific ones – this is when I should be summiting (the next morning for me) – raise a glass at your dinner (or from your couch) and I betcha I feel it.

Day 10 – Monday, 9/20 – Ele­va­tion: 19,341 ft / 5895 m

SUMMIT DAY, Y’ALL – Hik­ing Time: 1 – 2 hours to summit

This is one of the big reasons I chose MM; I loved the idea of camping in the crater, close enough to touch the stars at 18,700 feet, and making the very hard summit day/night a little easier. After break­fast, we’ll leave camp and hike to the top of the crater rim. From there it is just a ten-minute hike to Uhu­ru Sum­mit, the high­est point in Africa at 19,341 feet / 5895 meters! We arrive at the sum­mit and are reward­ed with clear views before the mid-morn­ing clouds roll in. We will bask in the glo­ry of our accom­plish­ment, grab a bite to eat, enjoy the views and take lots of photographs. PLZ BATTERIES DO NOT FAIL ME NOW. I SURVIVED CHICAGO SNOWPOCALYPSE WITH AN iPHONE I GOT THIS.

Now we go down, down, down 9,000 feet and descend to Mwe­ka Camp – Ele­va­tion: 10,500 ft / 3200 m

Hik­ing Time: 8 – 10 hours to camp (6.8 miles / 11 km)

After sum­mit cel­e­bra­tions we will begin our descent past Bara­fu Hut and down to our camp near Mwe­ka Hut, where our porters will have pre­pared a spe­cial cel­e­bra­to­ry feast! We will have descend­ed almost 9,000 feet / 2743 meters today and will feel intox­i­cat­ed by the oxy­gen rich air. AIR DRUNK AIR GUITAR, GO GO GO. Will sleep a deeeeep sleep.

Summit day is ~10-12 hours and that’s a ‘shorter’ one compared to other companies. Although Baker took 16 hours so honestly, bring it, Kili.

Day 11 – Tuesday, 9/21 – to 4500 feet / 1372m, then drive

Hik­ing Time: 4 – 7 hours (5.2 miles / 8.4 km)

Hik­ing time will vary depend­ing on the trail con­di­tions while trav­el­ing through the lush veg­e­ta­tion at this ele­va­tion. Rain can occur any time of year at this loca­tion and can make the trail mud­dy requir­ing a slow­er pace. Once we have descend­ed the 4,500 feet / 1372 meters to the road head we will have our lunch and say good­bye to our moun­tain staff before head­ing off to safari with our same guide team. We’ll night at Ikitoni Private Camp (where we started) before transferring to safari the next day.

Day 12 – Wednesday, 9/22

LAKE MAN­YARA NATION­AL PARK AND NGORON­GORO PRI­VATE CAMP

Safaaaari szn, bbs! We con­tin­ue on our jour­ney with a vis­it to Lake Man­yara Nation­al Park, a park Ernest Hem­ming­way described as ​“the loveli­est I had ever seen.” Found amid the vari­ety of ani­mals is an abun­dance of bird life, includ­ing the pink flamin­gos that enjoy the water-based micro­cosm of the lake and its envi­rons, all of which add to the eco­log­i­cal diver­si­ty of your safari. After our vis­it we dri­ve to the high­lands of Ngoron­goro Crater Con­ser­va­tion Area. We stay for two nights at MM’s deluxe pri­vate camp at Ngoron­goro, near Olé Dorop’s, our Maa­sai friend and walk­ing safari guide.

Days 13-16 – Thursday, 9/23 – Sunday, 9/26

Continue exploring Ngorongoro and Serengeti, seeing animals, visiting villages and taking all the photos my heart can stand! Return to Arusha for our final night.

Day 17 – Monday, 9/27

Another ‘bonus’ day that saved me another $2100 on the flight – shop, connect, savor – and fly out at 9pm from JRO > Amsterdam.

Day 18 – Tuesday, 9/28

Fly Amsterdam to Minneapolis (there were no directs to Chicago, so odd); then MSP to Chicago, landing around 3pm local time. Customs, bags, Lyft, home. Greet my plants, eat whatever dry goods I’ve squirreled away in the cupboards and likely crash/sleep because my body will still be +8, soul stuck in Tanzania time.

So that’s the plan…

10,781

We’d all slept like trash. Every muffled squeak as someone rolled over on a sleeping pad. Every critter wandering in the dark, snuffling for snacks. A soft throat clearing. I doubt I slept 10 minutes between 9pm and my 2:00am alarm. It was a relief when someone else’s alarm when off at 1:45; the whole camp had been holding our collective breath, awake, waiting. 12 sleeping bags unzipped at once and the muted glow of headlamps made each tent a brightly-colored lantern in the moonlight.

I was glad I’d set out everything I’d needed the night before – the layers to wear, the gear already 95% packed, the snacks tucked away in side pockets, the water pre-purified – my eyes felt gritty, like college all nighters or red-eye flights. B and I didn’t really speak; we didn’t need to. I got up and grabbed hot water for oatmeal; shoving some bites in my mouth quickly before my nauseous brain caught up to my stomach’s signal of ‘hey, I’m not really in the mood right now.’ Double-knotting my rented boots and triple-checking my (and B’s) gear I ran and re ran through my mental lists.

Just before 3:30am, we set off up the narrow, protruding spine beside Easton Glacier, summit-bound on Mt. Baker. It was hushed other than the crackling groans of the glacier to our right, but we were in high spirits. The only light was a constellation of headlamps before and behind me, and the massive, round moon on our left. We walked on the dusty ridge, mostly in silence except to murmur a word of caution to another hiker about a thorny spot. The group broke off into two chunks, with B and I linking up with the ‘fast guys’ group and one of our guides, Peter. We pulled ahead and began sinking our feet into snow, duck-walking the way we’d been taught the day before at ‘Snow Camp.’

The sky softened to a salt lamp pink – the moon still holding court – but not for much longer. We reached our ‘snow from here on out’ point and sat to snack and put on our crampons, helmets, harnesses and roped up, each holding an ice axe. As the groups converged and the guides divvyed us up, we laid out our intentions for the day and pace plans.

We’re put in a group with Kush, our rope guide. He’s followed by B, myself, and a couple from Seattle behind me. A pack of 5 all ‘summit or bust,’ with all of us (sans Kush) on our first technical climb. We shuffle out, slowly figuring out the rhythm of having people before and behind and keeping the rope slack (but not too slack). ‘A smile,’ they say – not dragging – and not pulling on teammates. One hand clutches my trekking pole, the other wraps around the blade of my ice axe. They are decidedly not the same height, giving me a lurching gait up the mountain.

Don’t step on the rope don’t step on the rope shoot I stepped on the rope maybe I can get off the rope before B notices okay got away with it this time don’t step on the rope don’t step, step – step – step – step – okay I’m doing it okay this isn’t so bad aw man I stepped on the rope again good lord we have so far to go, don’t look just focus here HERE here brick by brick, bite by bite, step by step you’ll lead me and I’ll follow you all of my daaaays what is that song? Oh right, walk with your toes out, Alex said it saves your calves, and I’ll need them more, my butt is tougher, I have a very tough butt. All those stupid box step ups thank God Brian still never made me do box jumps what was the french word for the way we’re walking again? Oh plie – right – like ballet – I should sign up for a class at Old Town when I’m done with Kili –

This was it. The whole way. Welcome to my brain.

We took breaks ~every 35-50 minutes on the way up. Sinking my butt into the cold snow was such a relief, even if it was damp as I stood up. Steam was probably coming off me; I shed layers and unzipped as we walked but after 2 minutes on a break would start to shiver as the sweat (and snow) rapidly cooled me down. Snacking on gummies, goos and Sour Patch Kids, the sun peeked over the skyline and poured down the ice towards us. I looked over my shoulder and gasped at how far we’d come. I looked up, wondering when we’d see the infamous Roman Headwall. I’m wildly grateful that at no point in the first 6 hours did someone say how far we were from the top.

Gradually, one climber peeled off with a guide, headed back downhill. The groups shuffled, and our pack had to pick up the pace. I began to chatter at B – for her and for me – to just give my mind something to do as my body got whiny, got tired, got very over just keep swimming-ing along. Songs from our childhood (Pocahontas was a favorite), did she think Mandy Moore moved faster than us (she’d climbed Mt. Baker literally the week before), and on and on, stepping over small crevasses slashing the snowfields and further up, further in.

We stopped to lunch just below the headwall around 10:30am. I hadn’t googled it – the only thing I knew was a brief blog/writing on Mountain Madness’ website, written by a previous climber. I thought it was like a 100-150 ft. difficult bit. Over in 10-20 mins max.

Reader, that was not accurate.

First – Kush cautioned us that this was not a place we could stop and pause to catch our breath. There would be no butt-sitting, Sour-Patching, reflective moments; anything more than a one breath pause would be dangerous to someone else on our rope line, vulnerable to the rapidly warming (and melting) snow.

Second – Did we want to continue? We were the last summit-bound rope team of the morning – from our company and any others. Groups were coming down as we were sitting at the bottom of the headwall, making our decision. We needed to speed up if we wanted to summit – and speeding up through the hardest part – where we couldn’t pause/take a break.

As we ate, looking at each other, I thought about the summit. I’d always thought it would be such a big deal. Just that week I’d written a post here about how summiting really mattered to me. That I was a prideful little dragon who wanted to roar from the top. I can’t believe the same person is telling you this now but – at this moment sitting at the base of the headwall – butt damp, 7+ hours into this exhausting climb, still 2+ hours from the top and considering if we should continue…I did not care.

I felt wildly proud of how far we had come. This was the view:

All those halting, sliding, crampon-footed steps. I was tired. I was still ok to keep going but I was worried about being 2+ hours still from the top. I knew the snow was softening. I was nervous about the crevasses we’d stepped over on the way up being stealthier, cracking open further in the sun as each second ticked by. I say nervous – but afraid is more like it – these abominable snowman caves were scary and only getting scarier.

I thought about the night before, laying in the darkness next to B. The sun had just set and a soft haze helped us just make out our features as we faced each other, curled up in our sleeping bags like parentheses.

“I’m scared,” I whispered. A tear ran down my face as I admitted it to her, and to myself.

I was scared that if I couldn’t summit Baker, that I couldn’t summit Kili. That something in my body or spirit was too weak, too chickenshit, that despite over a year and a half of training that Brian and I hadn’t found my secret Achilles Heel, some secret streak of physical or mental cowardice, and it would somehow shamefully rear it’s head on the side of the mountain. Someone had been airlifted off Baker just the weekend before, barely misstepping, slipping and injuring their ankle so bad they couldn’t walk.

“Me too,” whispered B. We sat in that uncomfortable silence. There was nothing left to add. There was no changing the path. Several times following in that sleepless night I went through this mental cycle where my body tried to produce an excuse. “Am I sick?” I’d thought countless times. “No, you’re not. You’re just freaking out. Try to sleep,” the angel on the other shoulder whispered back. I felt panicky, checking my heart rate on my watch, but it was relatively normal.

Repeat.

Repeat.

I sat just below the headwall, looking at that view. All that boastful, puffed-chest pride just seemed like cotton candy now. I’d thought the idea of summitting was such a big deal; it certainly looked huge as it twirled up in my mind before the trip. Every whisk around building another layer of spun sugar, another layer of why it mattered to summit. The summit matters, the summit matters, the summit matters. Sitting there, though, it was like that cotton candy in a rainstorm. Just a sad, sodden little lump of sugar – it never mattered. Or it mattered so much less than what we’d already accomplished. We’d come so far. If we had chosen that moment to not summit, I wouldn’t have been mad.

I know that sounds so incongruous with that previous post. And it was. It didn’t line up with what I thought I would feel. I think I would have come back. Attacked Baker again. Felt challenged to strap crampons back on and take on Koma Kulshan. I was truly at peace with the effort we had done. 7 hours of pushing, clawing, sweating. We all took a few minutes to sit with that idea in our souls. That we had come far enough. That we had nothing to feel ashamed about.

Kush checked in with each of us.

I tried to catch B’s eye – to tell her I was at peace with us stopping here. I didn’t want her to feel like my cotton candy pride was influencing her decision for her safety, for our group’s safety. She was facing away, looking west; gazing over the ‘horns’ of Lincoln & Colfax Peaks towards Whatcom County, having her own moment with her soul.

“Yes,” she said. We made eye contact. I asked her again if she was sure.

She was. I was. We were.

We went.

I don’t know why it’s called a headwall. I googled it when I got back and didn’t feel like I got a clear answer. Something like ‘the final push before a summit,’ which I guess is accurate. In my head I’d thought it would be an icy stone-ish scramble; maybe we’d have to use our hands.

It was a single track slushy snow ledge, winding around crevasses I genuinely was too frightened to look into. I felt like the crevasse would notice me, like the Eye of Sauron, and I didn’t want their attention. Focusing my mental and physical energy to being present, aware of the rope, each step a precision placement as we inched alone, ice axe then trekking pole, ice axe then trekking pole, never stopping for more than a deep breath.

The top of the headwall was ‘messy,’ per Kush. Not wrong, and yet woefully light on details. It was like the devil’s gravel playground; every rocky step you thought would be solid was mush gravel and those you thought would be mush gravel were strangely firm as your crampons screamed, scraping over glacier-fed rivulets and streams of dirty water. All I could think was “1, get through this, 2, stay present, 3, if this is bad now what will it be like on the way down as we’re shaky in an hour or two?” Walking out of the headwall we let out a relieved ‘whoop’ to be back on our faithful pal, ole’ snow. We trekked across a pretty flat 30-minute stretch, the false summit, towards a little ‘dirt mound’ that is Grant’s Peak, the true summit of Mt. Baker.

The wind whipped at us – with nothing to block it at the top of the world – and our sweat cooled as we pulled on whatever layers were left. Dropping our packs and unroping, B and I leaned uphill, arm in arm up the dirt track at the end. A small box was at the top. I never looked inside; it made me think of geocaching and felt sacred. We looked around in wonder, grabbing a few pictures and marveling at the views of Rainier, Shuksan, Glacier and countless other Cascade peaks jutting into the horizon. B waved at Baker Laker, where a co-worked was camping this weekend. After a round of photos, we looked at each other and said ‘let’s go.’

Everyone has asked me “How long were you up at the summit?” and literally everyone is so disappointed when I say “10 minutes.” “Only 10 minutes?! Why?!” Because we’d seen what we needed to see – the summit! We felt accomplished, we got our photos, we ate some snacks, we were very tired and knew it was 5-6 hours down; including the increasingly treacherous crevasses, the rapidly softening headwall, and fighting our own mental exhaustion. At this point we also thought we were the last rope team heading down on the mountain; potentially risky/dangerous if anyone needed assistance or fell. B peed behind a hump of snow, we latched up our pack wait belts, roped back up and took one last glance at our accomplishment, beginning the descent.

As we marched back through the false summit snowfield, we crossed another team – relieved we were no longer the last ones on the mountain and someone was coming behind us – we murmured verbal encouragements as others had given us and trekked on. The gravelly top of the headwall was as treacherous as we’d thought it would be; two team members slipped slightly, soaking their boots/butts in the frigid, murky water. I fleetingly thought about how grateful I was for all those stupid core stabilizing moves Brian had made me do, each hip extension, PT stretch and superman back flexion alone at 11pm on my belly in mid-2020, afraid of our own groceries.

There was no time for other thoughts, though. Every step had to be perfect. All I wanted to do was disassociate and take my mind away – to Kili, to invent dumb songs because I missed RIFF, to thinking about the raspberry pie I was promised – but I couldn’t. I thought about that idea from “The Good Place,” the one about ‘what we owe to each other’ and I felt I owed my teammates my mental focus. Each of us protected each other by carefully placing each wide, cowboy-stanced, cramponed foot down with intention. We gave each other the gift of razor-sharp focus as we descended down, down, down, Kush in the back quarterbacking our route from above.

‘Go faster,’ he called – and I accidentally glanced at and quickly away from a crevasse – hoping it hadn’t noticed my gaze. We picked up the pace, heel-plunging down as the sun beat on us. It felt like walking in an exceedingly bright orange Slushy; our poles and ice axes catching us every 4-5 steps as a seemingly-firm step made our feet slide forward. It was only when I got back and looked at photos that I realized the orange/brown haze of the snow I’d been seeing all day (assuming it was dirty) was my glacier sunglasses filtering the glare. My photos looked a lot better than I thought; everything I saw looked like a toasted meringue on top of a pie but the photos were just high-exposure white on white.

We finally reached the bottom of the headwall and paused at our former lunch spot. There was a ‘dicey’ spot just below us; I remembered feeling like ‘whew that’s risky’ on the way up and thinking at the time ‘that’s gonna suck on the way down.’ And it did. It kept sucking. I remembered stepping over 4-5 cracks on the way up and about 3 truly spooky spots.

Well, the spooky spots had been fruitful and multiplied in our absence. The sun did her job (and us no favors) and we slid and slushed all down that mountain. For 6 hours we went down and down and down. Multiple times I thought (and said) ‘we cannot have come up this way. Nothing here is familiar.’ The artist formerly known as ‘strong butt and thigh game’ had the shakes and loudly let me know anytime we paused for more than 3 seconds. We were quiet as we descended, all alone with our thoughts, narrowing to ‘just this step’ and resetting each time. At one point, everyone but AJ (our anchor) and Kush had fallen multiple times in one minute. “You all are probably setting some kind of record for falls,” Kush deadpanned from the back. I didn’t have enough energy to laugh as my foot slipped again.

It was hot. We’d all stripped back down to sun shirts, stowing our fleece and jackets in our bags. B and I were very low on water; we’d brought 5 liters between us and it wasn’t enough. Our team shared; but I knew I was dehydrated. Enough punishing walks roaming around Chicago and I knew my signals. I hadn’t peed since we left camp, over 12 hours before, nor did I need to pee.

‘Just this snowfield, that has to be the last one’ I told myself, dismayed at each new snowfield we saw. ‘Pick up the pace,’ Kush called again to AJ, and the long-legged dude obediently ratched up the speed of descent, making us all groan. At one point I remember chastising myself and saying ‘listen you either walk off this mountain with your own two legs or get helicoptered, get it together, we’re not falling here, this close to Kili.’ I slipped again. It felt unending.

The snow eventually gave way to snow and rocks, and wet, dark gaps between stone and ‘berms’ that we were cautioned to avoid. We looped around an outcropping I felt looked like “The Martian” and I finally recognized where we’d initially sat to put on our crampons in the pre-dawn light with Peter. ‘Only a little further’ said Kush and I recognized the same tone that aerobic instructors use as they promise ‘just 15 more seconds’ and give you another 20 burpees. My feet felt bruised and soaked as snow had snuck in on our mushy descent; what had felt like cooling relief now felt like probably blisters and audibly squished as we pulled off our crampons. I finally needed to pee but didn’t trust my body to squat; I also didn’t think I had the energy to de-rope, walk off trail, take off my harness and come back without just saying ‘leave me here’ and likely meaning it.

We reached ‘high camp,’ about 20 minutes from our campsite at ‘low camp,’ and de-cramponed. It felt a bit like stepping off a treadmill as my gait re-adjusted to normal booted life. AJ and Amber scooted ahead, and B and I walked slowly like two female Frankensteins back onto the spine of the Easton Glacier ridge.

I remember thinking ‘don’t fall now; you’re probably not going to get back up.’ Kush slowly walked with us as we silently made our way into camp. It was just past 7pm. Someone snored happily in one of the tents. B and I slumped into our tent; beyond spent. I put on fresh layers and slipped into my camp shoes (Crocs!) and went to go have a very-delayed pee break; genuinely too scared to look at the dangerously dehydrated color after 16 hours.

I grabbed some stuffing and mashed potato dinner with shaky hands, weakly smiling at another hiker who was back and happily chattered away about their team’s experience. I nodded politely and walked off to refill and repurify 2 liters of water for B and I. Sitting on a small boulder next to the brook, circling my Steripen around and around the rim of my Nalgene bottle, I looked at the alpine meadow, towards the setting sun, and briefly felt my tired little dragon give a tiny wing flap. Like when your dog is tired or sleepy, laying on the ground and you call their name and they give a single tail wag, a soft ‘wap’ onto the floor. They’re tired but they acknowledge you – that was it. A brief ‘thank you’ to my mind and body for the focus. For the grit. For not giving up. I was too beat for any other reflection.

The following afternoon, I waited in my bathrobe for B to get done with the shower and I looked out at Baker from the window at my parent’s house. Bathed in pink and lavender as the sun set, I couldn’t reconcile this view with these legs with that experience the day before.

“I climbed that. These legs did that.” I kept whispering to my soul. I believed it (and my legs wouldn’t let me forget) but it seemed almost dream-like. Even though it had been less than 24 hours ago. A whole mountain. From the 4 hour hike in, the 16-hour summit ascent and descent day, the 2.5 hour hike out that next morning – I remembered all of it and fleeting pieces of it at the same time – the memories firming up like setting cement in my mind.

I woke up the next morning and padded out onto the deck, warming my palms with a mug of coffee, gazing at the sunrise coming up over the crest of the peak.

I spoke out loud to myself, hushed. “I did that. I did that with these legs, and this body, and that whole mountain.” I kept repeating it because I almost didn’t believe it. 10,781 feet. Of grit. Of fear. Of focus. Of exhaustion. Of Sour Patch Kids. Of hours of workouts during a pandemic where I was alone, sobbing in my apartment. Of Zoom calls and masks and virtual happy hours. Of disappointing trip cancellations and build-up of pride and the humility of shakily clinging to the side of a crater, 7 hours in. Of wonder, and joy and raw beauty out in the wild. This world isn’t tame.

My heart siren burbled a question and I shook my head. “Not yet. Let’s just enjoy this one for a bit.”

The Pre-Game Mountain

By the numbers, I shouldn’t be more nervous climbing Mt. Baker this weekend than Mt. Kilimanjaro in September. A hunky looming beaut visible from my parents’ backyard, you can’t miss Baker if you live in Whatcom County (or the lower mainland of BC).

I took this
This one too (my mom hates this tree in the middle)
This is pure internet screenshot

Per Wikipedia “Mount Baker, also known as Koma Kulshan or simply Kulshan, is a 10,781 ft active glacier-covered andesitic stratovolcano in the Cascade Volcanic Arc and the North Cascades of Washington in the United States. Mount Baker has the second-most thermally active crater in the Cascade Range after Mount St. Helens.” YEAH I’M CLIMBING A VOLCANO, FAM.

Our main girl Kilimanjaro is 19,341ft. Almost double the height of Baker. But Kilimanjaro isn’t a technical climb – which is a weird phrase to say considering it’s one of the Seven Summits – but it’s really just a long, hard hike at high altitude. It doesn’t require any true technical mountain climbing gear like Baker: helmet, harness, ropes, crampons (aka them shoe spikes), ice axe, there are crevasses to fall into, you carry all your gear (Kili has porters), etc.

Which…is pretty obvious from the photos above ^^ that thing looks technical as all hayllll

Kili just has a lil snow at the top/last day of your hike and is managed in boots/with trekking poles. I understand Kili. I feel like I know Kili. As much as possible without actually going (yet). I’ve been devouring content about it for almost 2 years – blogs and videos, my computer (and phone) wallpaper is Kili, a tapestry of Kili on my wall, following the #kilimanjaro tag on Instagram, reading books and packing (and repacking) lists, my OBGYN telling me at my annual last year about her trip in 2012 (you have not lived until you’ve talked about the right and wrong type of leg gaiters as a speculum is inside you, trust).

Climbing Baker entered my brain last summer when I half-joking asked my sister Brianna, ‘did you still want to climb Baker before you turn 30? Because I’ll climb it with you.” AND THEN SHE SAID YES.

…it scares me. I feel like I’ve been watching the date grow closer and closer out of the side of my eye. Like when you don’t look right at a spider because then it KNOWS and it might JUMP at you because you shouldn’t look them in the eye(s) and INVITE them into your PERSONAL SPACE. It’s like 8-legged smol bears. It’s bears you shouldn’t look in the eye, right?

Baker is my hometown mountain. I see it every time I go home because you literally cannot miss it. Its straight out the kitchen window. It’s driving right at it east on Badger Rd. It’s the end of the eyeline on (no joke) Bakerview Rd. in Bellingham. I know several people who have climbed it; people I went to high school with, people’s spouses that I went to high school with, and I’m sure a myriad of people I don’t know about but do know have climbed it. I’ve skied on it. Hiked around it. Randomly someone I work with at Le ‘hub climbed it 3 weeks ago and summited.

I’ve been training for almost 2 years to climb a mountain and I’m terrified of what it will mean for me if I can’t do it. I know there are a load of reasons why we may not summit – legitimately – bad weather, a fellow climber’s injury, a guide making a safety call, etc. But I just am so scared it’s going to be me. That I will be the weak link. Mentally or physically that something will go wrong in me and I’ll have to look at that mountain every Christmas and Raspberry Festival and family milestone and hold a little shame nugget in my heart.

2 years of sweat and tears and gear lists and telling people and another mountain in 6 weeks and if I can’t climb Baker, can I climb Kili? Its not great mental game/sports psychology to think about not making it, but I think I need to. I wrote down this quote I read awhile back “The finish line is for the ego. The journey is for the soul” on my whiteboard and I hate it.

I need it but I hate it. Because I recognize my ego creeping up.

I think some wonderful things have happened in my soul over the last 19 months of mountain prep.

  • Organically met several people that have climbed Kili – my aforementioned OBGYN, a REI employee helping me with packs, a fellow guest at Jason & Reagan’s wedding – the absolute joy at talking Kili with people is amazing. They have been changed by this trip. And not once did I think to ask any of them “did you summit?”
  • Made a true friend in my randomly-assigned-by-LSAC personal trainer, Brian – I’m sure I will write a wildly emotional post about how his partnership in this process has been crucial – and how I was doubtful the head of triathlons was my ‘person.’ But through injuries and my emotions and a pandemic and no gear (we were literally having me do kettlebell swings with a grocery tote and 5/7 Harry Potter books for awhile) his creativity and care has helped shape this journey and kindly nudge me back on course.
  • Had a north star to mentally and physically focus on when the world went to…absolutely uncertainty this past year+. Even though the Kili date has changed twice I always knew it was going to happen. And telling myself that each workout, each dumb PT stretch (I look so, so foolish doing them), every emotional breakdown as I still CANNOT DO A NON MODIFIED PUSH UP I just tried to look at this wall tapestry and whisper ‘keep going.’
(this is a stock photo not my apt)
  • I’ve actually learned about my body; what it is capable of, what it really has opinions on (hello hip flexors, my nemeses), how feeding it right during a long, multi-hour workout makes ALL THE DIFFERENCE and its taken me far, far too long to get here. I grew up playing sports. Lots of sports. How did I not know some of this?! But you know, better today than tomorrow. I’m better at listening to what hurts, dissecting it, knowing what’s ‘mind over matter’ and what’s worth slowing down on. ALSO did you guys know that quad means FOUR like FOUR MUSCLES IN YOUR THIGH I’m 33 how did no one tell me this until TWENTY TWENTY ONE you should have seen Brian’s face I’ve never seen someone so disappointed and trying to hide it as I truly howled with laughter.
  • Had A Wild Adventure to Plan; it’s been a long time since I felt like I was on a true new adventure. I moved to Chicago 6 years ago from Korea and while there have been several mini-adventures, there hasn’t been a truly wild one since. One of my favorite Kili books has been “Kilimanjaro Diaries,” by Eva Melusine Thieme. I spent several long walks around Chicago listening to the audiobook and at the end (or jump to it in the link above) she writes a list of ‘What the Mountain Taught Me.’ I highly recommend checking out the post above because it’s also excellent life lessons but these ones ring especially true in me:
    “- Wherever you are in life, it’s always a good idea to plan a new adventure. (But get yourself some good boots and take a few extra packs of wet wipes.)
    Everyone needs a mountain to scale in their lives. When you’re younger, life supplies many a mountain – graduation from high school, going to college, landing a good job, getting married. But during the middle years of your life, things get awfully flat (though often rather bumpy). Climbing a real mountain almost certainly helps put things in perspective.
    Consequently, it’s okay to do what you want or must do, even if it sometimes means doing it alone, when others don’t want to come along for the ride.
    You can always take another small step. Pole pole. There is almost no limit to what you might accomplish in life if you just go about it pole pole, one step at a time. If you’re overwhelmed by the task (or mountain) ahead, concentrate on the feet in front of you. Or on the garden trowel, if you must.
    It’s always good to have a change in scenery. If your life seems drab at sea level, maybe you need to take it to high altitude. At least that’s how it worked for us. The higher we climbed, the thinner the air, the more we laughed.”

So I know there’s been a wonderful and good journey in my soul. But my lizard self; the dragon that guards my soft pink heart at the center of my hoard of gold coins, she wants a summit. I don’t know how she’s going to react if she doesn’t get it. She wants it bad, y’all. She wants to stand on the mountain and look down at those clouds and open her jaw and ROAR. That’s the heart siren at full volume. To scream that it was all worth it. And is it still worth it if she can’t roar? Logically I know the answer is yes. But she wouldn’t be satisfied.

In re-reading that paragraph I feel it’s vital I tell you I could not be more sober. I haven’t even had a Diet Coke today.

I guess that’s the ego then, the dragon. My scaly self that wants to summit. That wants to cross the finish line. That isn’t sure if its worth it (time, money, effort, etc.) unless I stand at the top. I need to sit and reckon with the dragon and the logic of knowing this has all been worth it even if I don’t summit. That I’m a changed person from this journey regardless of where my boots land.

So as I make my packing spreadsheet sitting among a nest of REI Garage Sale finds and prioritizing the fancy performance laundry that needs to air dry for 2 days before flying ORD > SEA this week – I want to tell you (me) something.

I am scared and I’m doing it anyways.

I’m fully packed and I’m convinced I forgot something.

I’m taking my ego, yes, and I know my soul holds a certainty that I’ve done all I could.

I haven’t come this far to give up before the race even starts. Also I’m mildly convinced my body will activate some latent Pacific Northwest super power upon landing and it’ll boost me up Easton Glacier and if one of you says it’s weed I will ban you I swear it by the power vested in me by the state of…the internet.

So if you’re into sending vibes or prayers send some over:

  • That Brianna and I won’t murder each other in our tent for 2 nights we are not known for smooth camping skills
  • That the THREE different types of bug repellent I have will keep the biting flies and mozzies away from my sweet juicy body
  • That Tom Hiddleston will quote Shakespearean sonnets to lull me to sleep by earbud or by presence (I’m not picky)
  • That I take at least one good picture of Baker to justify buying a fancy polarized filter and lugging a DSLR up there
  • That some raspberries will still be in season because the one thing I’ve asked my Mom for post-climb is a raspberry pie and we are at end-of-season barrel levels
  • That I don’t revert to my improviser default of MAKE THE PERSON LAUGH when trying to distract our guide from some physical thing about myself (likely trying to put on a harness right (why must there be SO MANY LOOPS))
  • That my body doesn’t do what handsome PT calls a ‘textbook inflammation response’ where my knee got BIG MAD in Zion in April but had never happened to me before in 33 years of sports life #themgoodknees
  • That no matter what happens on the side (or top) of the mountain I have grown up orienting my life around, my dragon and my soft pink heart will be satisfied by my effort and still hungry for the next one.

See you Sunday, pals.

UPDATED: Gear, My Dear

UPDATED now post-trip! Originally posted early June 2021 and now refreshed 1 month post-trip in October 2021!

A couple people have asked about my Kilimanjaro gear list – whether for the trip trip or just what I take for these long, 5.5 hour walks (which are scaled back since the trip delay) – so I’ve built out what’s currently working for me and some tips to how I got it!

The benefit of having a year+ to prep for this Kili hike is having had time to buy items off-season, to test them, sometimes to return them or upgrade, or wait for a sale I know is on the way. I genuinely, personally own everything on the list below, and I’ll link them all out even though I sometimes didn’t buy them the places they’re linked, they just came up first when I googled for this post.

My tips to (almost) never paying full price:

  • List, List, Baby – You can’t shop for what you don’t know you need/want. What do you need vs. what’s nice to have? Once you have your list of needs (knock off the things you already have that can do double duty, ie camping items like a sleeping bag or wool layers you already own because you live in Chicago aka Polar Vortex’s Fyre Fest), prioritize. What do you need to start training with ASAP? For me, I needed boots right away. There were a lot of ‘kilimanjaro packing list’ ‘women packing kili’ Google searches in the early days. If you’ve chosen a guide company for a trip make sure you check their custom list too. Sometimes they provide items you don’t need to buy or offer rentals so you don’t need to buy your own (like gaiters, sleeping bags or trekking poles).
  • Sale Away – If you know a sale is coming, try to hold out. I narrowed down pack options to the REI Traverse 35L for women, and then sat in wait for the Memorial Day Sale. It had been 50% off in May 2019; it was not that deeply discounted in 2020 but it was 30% off so I bought it then. Usually when a big outfitter does a sale, others do too because FOMO; Moosejaw almost always does a big sale when REI does theirs, Backcountry, etc.
  • Get Around – You don’t need to buy all the things from REI! I’m a massive fan of REI and did get a lot of my items there. One of their employees took 40 minutes to share her experience on a trip to Kili and recommendations. However, you can be thrifty and still REI. Support the co-op – also, pals – just buy the REI membership. It’s $20, one-time, it’s good for life, you can return items even if you used them for up to a year. I’m SERIOUS. Go do it. It’ll literally pay dividends and you get access to so much. INCLUDING my favorite: the Garage Sales. I have cleaned UP at REI from their Garage Sales, Outlet and Used sites. If you get a coupon on top of GS/Outlet/Used? Your wallet and you do a secret high five. You’ll know it when you see it.

    Other places I bought gear – Moosejaw, Eddie Bauer, Campsaver, Backcountry, MountainSteals (Moosejaw’s discount site), Sierra Trading Post (TJ Maxx/Marshalls/Homegoods gift cards work here!), Patagonia & North Face’s Renewed/Used & Repaired sites (most brands have some kind of outlet, used or renewed site, you just have to google it), Nordstrom Rack, Zappos, DSW, and yes, Amazon when needed, sigh. Check thrift stores – if you’re on the North Side of Chicago I stan my local ones like Play It Again Sports or Family Tree Resale on Lincoln – or digital thrift stores like GearTrade! Don’t overlook other sources like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace too. It’s summer and people been inside for 15 months – Summer Garage Sales are the SPOT in 2021!
  • Sell Yeah – Remember REI Used? Just did my first trade in with them – I have jackets I’ve grown/shrunk out of in the past year – and they sent me the mail in kit, etc. Just got an email that I have a $100+ gift card now to spend! YES! YOU DO NOT NEED ALL THOSE THINGS IN YA CLOSET, UNDER YA BED, STUFFED ABOVE THE HAMPER.
  • Don’t Marry an Idea – This is hard but – do you need the newest colors or features? Nah. It’s easier to find discounting on past-season colors and on clearance! Get something you can live with though; if you hate it it’s probably not worth it long term.
  • Let Yourself Be Blessed – This is a bit of a luck/hit and miss/no guarantee but I wanted to mention it. I messaged someone on FB Marketplace about a North Face Base Camp Duffel and when I showed up to buy it for $70 he asked where I was headed with it, when I said Kilimanjaro he gifted it to me. I almost cried. He said ‘have a wonderful trip and pay it forward someday.’ FOR REAL. A friend recently asked if there was anything I hadn’t bought myself and when I bashfully shared I had a ‘good enough’ fleece layer but there was one on my wish list they bought it for me. There are people who want to invest in your journey. Let them. That may be time, money, gear or emotional support. Allow them to be part of your story and success too.

The following is my ‘before trip’ list – and all has genuinely been tried out – but I’ll keep editing while I continue training and even after the trip (September 2021) so you know what was useful, what was overpacking, and what was just ridiculous.

UPDATE NOTE (Oct ’21): I found when actually packing/weighing my mountain duffel at home before the trip that I was over the weight that my company said was the limit – which was an uncomfortable level of panic the 2-3 days before leaving – everything I had was on their list, so why was it overweight?! Remember to check your guide/company’s weight limits (they can differ) – you don’t want to be the a*hole asking a porter to compromise their safety nor having to do a gear reshuffle on at the entry gate where rangers weigh your bag publicly! Pre-weigh at home and check if there’s any wiggle room; also remember you can put things in your day bag (snacks, etc) that could be a little more weight at the beginning (Days 1-3) when you’ve got energy/less likely to experience altitude issues and as you put more clothing layers on during Days 2-5 you can backfill those snacks into the duffel, making a close-to-even exchange of weight. Also tbh, eat ya snacks, you brought ’em for a reason, right?

✅ – I did end up taking this model/item

🚫 – I didn’t take this model/item

↔️ – Exchanged for a different model/item or took a different quantity!

📝 – Adding a note in bold about this item post-trip!

Testing a lot of the items on Baker helped a lot – mostly clothing but some gear – getting a good bead on what was ‘nice to have’ vs ‘need to have’

Pack & Gear:

  • Hiking BackpackREI Traverse 35 – The golden color almost got me but a cranberry, green and blue combo?! Bails 101!
  • ✅📝 WaterPlatypus 3L Reservoir & Nalgene 32oz, plus a Katadyn UV Water Filter SteriPen and copious Nuun tabs/powders for taste & energy. I will say, label your Nuun powders well or leave in original packaging. And be aware if you do Gu or other energy gels put in your checked baggage if over 3oz because ya girl lost one like a rookie at TSA!
  • Dry BagSea to Summit Ultra-Sil 13L – I plan on putting my camera gear in here and any other tech, battery pack, etc. It was on my wish list forever and I found it at an REI Garage Sale for $4 and change!
  • Trekking PolesBlack Diamond Trail Backs plus these rubber tips since I train/walk on the sidewalk/street in Chicago. I’ll pull the rubber tips off before I leave; I’ve taken them off when walking on icy sidewalks and they’ve saved my cute, round bacon multiple times.
  • Sleeping PadKlymit V Insulated Ultralight – make sure you check the R value for warmth if your trip needs it! Also – test it out and lay on it – make sure you can actually get comfortable on it, in your sleeping bag! Otherwise it’s a cold, miserable realization in ya tent.
  • 🚫📝 PillowOutdoor Vitals Ultralight – not sure if I’ll take it or do the classic ‘clothes as pillow’ move but I got it for free so…? Classic clothes as pillow for the win! Not worth the weight even though it was super light.
  • ✅📝 Sleeping BagNorth Face 0/-18 Furnace Down Bag – do your research on the temp rating – there’s lots of variance in the ranges, how warm/cold you sleep, gender, etc. Some Kili routes stay in huts vs tents and that can flex what you need re: Sleeping Pad/Bag/Liner. Adding here – practice how to zip up the top/wind baffles and the cinch cord before you are on a mountain. You’re welcome.
  • Sleeping Bag Liner Sea to Summit CoolMax – keeps your bag clean/less likely to need washing and another warm layer
  • ✅ 📝 DuffelNorth Face Base Camp Medium 71L – specifically for Kilimanjaro there are weight limits to your duffel to protect the porters, so the medium/71L was best for me as a chronic overpacker. This will carry everything I’m not wearing/carrying during the day, including my sleeping bag, add’l clothes, gear, med kit, etc. Also – petty – but I really loved the mountain color scheme on mine and knew it would help inspire me during training and be pretty unique from the other solid-color North Face Base Camp duffels on the side of the mountain. Whew. I was at max capacity with everything in this bag. And the weight was 2lbs over the weight when I was at home. We made it at weigh-in at the gate (10kg) but I was pretty anxious they were going to walk over and make me empty it. For some reason, no matter how many layers I was wearing…I still had to really lean to close this bag every morning. If you’re thinking about a Base Camp duffel size-wise I’d say do the L size (mine is a M, 71L) but I’m also a chronic overpacked so I definitely would have had an easier time zipping it shut but would have struggled to cut items when I had room to spare.
  • Compression Stuff SackKelty Compression Stuff Sack – I have the XL but could have gotten a L (it was out of stock) to smoosh my sleeping bag smaller in the duffel.
  • 📝 Tent – if you’re like ‘wheres the tent Bails are you sleeping outdoors on a MOUNTAIN with CRITTERS’ – this item is provided by the guide company so while I personally own a tent (hi, 2-person Coleman Sundome I got for $25) I’m not taking it with me to Africa. They use the Mountain Hardware 3-person Trango model; they usually have 2 clients : tent but they gave me and the other climber our own. Great for privacy and hanging my sweaty ‘laundry’ to dry at night, but pretty cold! I would have loved another person’s body warmth in there, haha! Lots of door options, places to hang stuff, etc.

Feet:

  • ✅ 📝 BootsLowa Renegade GTX Mid – seriously, do go at least a 1/2 size up. This was super worth it to buy from REI and test out; I did end up returning to go up 1/2 a size. Your feet will swell and you likely will need more room if you’re doing multiple sock layers such as liner/hiking sock (which I do). A helpful test was to put on my intended socks, lace them and walk down a set of stairs to see if my toes touched the front or not. Y’all – I looked at my boots post trip and they are worn through in the heels. I don’t think it was the mountain; I think it was probably Chicago sidewalks. Still, weird that I never noticed/looked!
  • Socks – Darn Tough Vermont (Micro Crew, Boot, Mountaineering) – I was a Smartwool lifer until I tried Darn Tough and I’m just mad it took me this long to find the greatest sock(s) of all time. NO CONTEST. Thanks Johnny B for the realization!
  • Sock LinerSilk REI liner, Icebreaker Wool Liner – didn’t start to need these until my walks got over 2, 2.5 hours and I was so glad to have them!
  • 🚫📝 Foot Stick to avoid blisters – this thing is GOLDEN for my feet; I finally found a good blend is a little of this BodyGlide stick on my common blister spots, a sock liner, then the wool hiking sock *chef’s kiss* I found that some preventative taping worked better the longer my walks get; using pre-wrap, second skin and cheap fabric tape from my med kit/local Dollar Tree.
  • ✅ 📝 Camp ShoeCrocs – sigh, yes. No one is stealing these ugly, insanely bright things. I waited until a triple-down on Zappos (sale, birthday coupon and points) so I at least could look myself in the eye for spending as little money as possible on these. Apparently they are the best shoe to put your swollen, end-of-day feet in and wear around camp; also v lightweight and easy to rinse off if muddy. Still true, but I will say they’re pretty cold on the frosty nights – I mean – there’s holes in them. Starting on the 5th night I just wore my boots all the time. It’s nice to let your boots dry out but also it was just so cold in the Crocs once the sun went down, even with double layered dry socks.

Basics:

  • ✅ ↔️ 📝 UnderwearIcebreaker, Smartwool and Woolx I realized on the long 6+ hour walks in the summer that sweaty booty chafing was a real one, so I got 3 pairs of Exofficios, which was a great choice in the hotter lower days and easy to wash/dry when we were in our overnight between mountain/safari SORRY THIS IS THE REAL REAL TALK, Y’ALL
  • ✅ 📝 BraIcebreaker Longline and Smartwool – if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year that I’d tell you it’s the value in wool items for heat and cold, breathability and how rarely they smell/stink. Plus, nothing I own is as itchy as you think it might be since they’re blended w synthetics. Sooooo…wool takes awhile to dry…especially when it’s frosty overnight in a tent. I still think this was the right smell choice but wish I’d taken out the liner cups, which took longer to dry slash sometimes may not have been dry. But even when damp, the wool did what it’s supposed to and kept me warm!

Bottoms:

  • ✅ ↔️ 📝 Base LayersOdlo, Icebreaker, Patagonia – The Odlos are amazing; wide, soft waistband but don’t fall down after several wears. If you can snag them on sale they’re so worth it. I’ve been wearing them all winter in the house too! The Icebreakers are also great for warmth but that thin waistband does migrate/dig in. I only ended up taking 1 pair of Odlos and the Patagonias; it was for weight. Really there were only 2x when I wore both at the same time (Mornings of Day 6 & 7); the Icebreakers went out due to weight and that waistband.
  • ✅ 📝 Hiking Pants – Eddie Bauer (Guide Pro Pants ) – If you can snag these on a 50% off sale they’re awesome – also sign up for the EB Adventure Rewards because every other month they’re like ‘here’s $10 use however you want no minimum’ so hitting a 50% off sale + $10 off really is a sweet spot! I will say – I like the pants much better than the leggings, they may get voted off the (duffel) island. The leggings are the weakest link, goodbye, they did not come
  • Fleece PantsColumbia Exploration Pants – I’ve layered these with base layer and hiking pant this past week in the 0-10F degree range while walking and they’re perfect; also love me a zip pocket to keep all my secretsss.
  • Rain Pants/ShellREI Rainier Full-Zip Pants – used twice, stayed dry!
  • 🚫 📝 ShortsEddie Bauer’s Guide Pro Shorts – the pockets, the length, all perfect for long walks/hikes I ended up taking them on safari but not the mountain; I am too lazy to put sunscreen on my legs and after having a sun rash in August I was like, ‘I’ll just wear pants, even on the lower elevation days.’

Tops:

  • ↔️ 📝 Sun Shirt – 🚫 Mountain Hardwear Crater Lake Hoodie – I love these so, so much that I own three of them. As a pale goblin I need to hide myself from the Sun’s vengeance and these rock, hands down. SPF/UPF 50, a hood, thumb holes to cover hands, lil zip pocket for keys – plus – super thin so you stay cool! Note that these can smell t-e-r-r-i-b-l-e after one sweaty, sunny wear since they’re 100% synthetic. Wash ’em or learn to live with it. I do love this model, but coming back from Baker I was lured into the Exofficio store with a huge sale sign and found 2 sun shirts with their built-in bugspray tech – and the idea of a UPF sun shirt and bug resistance was awesome. I brought like 4 sun shirts to TZ but only one on Kili (the other 3 on safari). They were going to smell no matter what, might as well take just the one. I wore it every day but one, I think. Just learn to live with it!
  • ✅ 📝 Base Layers – 🚫 Odlo, Helly Hansen, 🚫 Smartwool, Patagonia – I never got the hype about Helly Hansen before but she’s currently my fave with the 1/4 zip. I ended up just taking the HH and Patagonia; one light, one mid/heavyweight. The Odlo one stayed home even though it’s a comfort fave; it’s the same weight as the HH and I liked the convertible-ness of the HH quarter zip!
  • ✅ 📝 Fleece LayerWomen’s Monkey Fleece Hooded – I’m linking the Men’s one here because I can’t find the women’s (discontinued?) but this thing was my wish list item I was gifted and it’s phenomenal. Four functional pockets in a WOMENS CLOTHING ITEM?! RING A BELL! This was everything and more. I loved this; probably the MVP item.
  • 🚫 📝 Soft Shell JacketStormtech Performance – not sure I’m going to take this one, jury is still out (aka I’ll weigh the duffel and decide). My current layer system without it is good/solid. Officially soft shells are on a lot of lists but I am leaning towards ‘no’ for this item in my system since I run hot. I might sneak an extra thin fleece layer instead to sleep in – an Arcteryx Delta LT Women’s Jacket I was so warm in my layer system; just necessary weight. I did take my Arcteryx fleece for non-mountain nights though!
  • Puffer LayerMarmot Quasar Down Hoodie – can fit under the hard shell since it’s thin!
  • Hard Shell GORE-TEX Jacket REI GTX at first because I was a size 16/18 and needed to fit all the above layers underneath; it came in a 2x. I found a screaming deal at Nordstrom Rack with a +25% off ‘Clear the Rack’ discount on this XL Mountain Hardwear Rain Shell I (and m’layers) now fit into. The big reason to upgrade? Pit zips. Do not discount these. Pit zips are so worth the upgrade to stay dry but not overheat.

Accessories:

  • ✅ 📝 GlovesMountain Hardwear Firefall GTX Mitten – What?! A MITTEN?! Yup. I tried out a GORE-TEX outer glove and it was too cold for me plus didn’t have good grip. I kind of figure if you’re not going to get good grip in a glove you might as well get warmth with a mitten. Another sell for me? Having a ‘leash’ to slip them off and use my camera with just the glove liners and not drop the mitten while doing it. OK honestly? Only wore them once and they were so cumbersome. I wish I’d done gloves or just powered through. I wore the liners below for 3 days solid; they’re a ride-or-die item. The mittens were meh; mostly I slept in them on the coldest nights.
  • Glove LinerIcebreaker Quantum – good for a single layer when cool or warming up or to layer under the mittens. Plus since it’s a glove (not mitten) I get that finger dexterity back.
  • Sun HatAdidas Superlite UPF OR 🚫Sunday Afternoons Ultra Adventure Hat (did take this on safari though)– SO nerdy in the Sunday Afternoons hat but it does have an all around brim, which is good for Bails vs. Sun. But the Adidas has been my go-to in Chicago with my sun hoodie pulled up in the back. I need to choose…
  • Warm HatCarhartt Acrylic Hat OR 🚫 Columbia Beanie – literally a vanity decision here too just need to make it *sing-song voice* but which color do I like betttttter
  • Sunglasses – 🚫 Eddie Bauer Preston Polarized have been my all around but I had to buy some Julbos (I got the Chameleon for Spectron 2-4 UV) for Mt. Baker (end of July) so I’ll probably take those unless they have some super rage-y issue
  • ✅ 📝 Various neck gaiters/buffs – Turtle Fur, Buff, etc. Ended up just taking 1 merino wool Buff, 1 standard bright pink-ish Buff and a Mountain Madness one the company gave us before Baker!
  • ✅ 📝 GaitersOutdoor Research Rocky Mountain – got to try these for the first time in a verrrry deep snow in Chicago in Feb and they were poifect! We wore these EVERY DAY – it was so dusty on Kili. I thought we’d wear these just to really descend but we wore them all day every day on the climb up and down and I was happy we did. Make sure you’re comfortable in yours and you can put them on/off easily!
  • Camera/Gear – I’ve already owned my Canon T6i for a couple of years but some additional accessories were a clip from Peak Design, monster battery pack from RAVPower and an upgraded camera strap (Peak Design again)!
  • 🚫📝 SheWee – OK, this was like, low on my list. They’re on most company lists but not many personal Kili lists. I didn’t think I’d get a FUD (female urination device). But then I had a glorious conversation with my OBGYN at my annual and found out – clad only in a paper gown – that she had climbed Kili in 2012! We chattered away happily while checking me for lumps, bumps and good health and she was like ‘you have to get one.’ I said, ‘really?’ and she says ‘it’s not just for privacy but honestly? Your legs are going to be so tired and shaky that you will struggle to keep your balance when you squat. And there’s not always somewhere out of the way/off the path that’s safe.’ Which hadn’t occurred to me – from both a muscle exertion and safety angle – and I trust her, so I got one. I’ve only used it once outdoors, with questionable success. I didn’t pee on myself but I like, couldn’t pee? Lifetime of don’t-pee-don’t-pee while standing up is hard to turn off. Apparently I need to practice in the shower, per the company – and I just ended up squatting in the trees on that aforementioned questionable success attempt! I tried, y’all. I couldn’t figure it out without peeing on myself in the shower. And you know what you don’t want to be on the side of a mountain in enclosed mess tents, etc. with other people, rewearing the same clothes every day for 8 days straight? The girl who pissed on herself. So I left it here *shrug*

There’s other small gear things to list out like items in my med kit, etc. that I don’t have links to but I’m taking – it’s a long list of ‘you might need so you should probably bring’ from ✅ Pepto Bismol to ✅ Diamox to 🚫 WonderWoman bandaids. There’s also more of the typical items you’d think of taking – ✅ TP, ✅ bug spray, ✅ sunscreen, ✅ luggage tags, ✅ RFID passport wallet, etc. But this is 95% of my gear list and what I plan on using! Let me know if you have add’l ideas or tips or questions and I’ll update. Happy hunting! I might flesh out this section a bit more; there were a lot of nice-to-haves that I ended up leaving here or leaving in my suitcase at HQ after gear check with our lead guide/I had a hard ‘do I really want to carry this myself’ conversation. Feel free to comment/ask any questions!

Gettin’ Grown

Things that are not news to other people but was news to me: It is a fascinating perspective, watching someone go from newborn to adult. I can feel all the parents, grandparents, aunts, etc. side-eyeing me with a soft, ‘duh, Bails.’

But I’m not a parent (or grandparent), and while I am an aunt, I’m not talking about my nieces or nephew.

Less than 2 weeks ago, my youngest sister, Emmalee, graduated from Grand Canyon University’s Nursing School and I cried, y’all.

With my trip cancelled in January, I didn’t have another other adventuring on the books until Baker (sub-90 days now! It’s real! I had to pay the grown-ass invoice!). My parents invited me to come to AZ for Em’s graduation and some post-grad National Park work – and at this stage in the game anywhere with hikes/elevation is helpful to the game. Flat Chicago is my boo but also, she flat and the mountains I’m gonna climb are decidedly not.

My relationship with the 4th born gap bb as a 2nd-born-but-headstrong-1st-girl-vibes has always been strong one. I was a middle kid for a long time. 2.5 years after Z, and 3.5 years before B. Senior : Freshman to Senior : Freshman for the 3 of us in school.

I was in Mr. DeBoer’s 5th grade class, a month shy of 11 when Em was born in November of ’98. I remember laying next to B in the back room of Nana & Papa’s old house; we knew Mom was in labor, but you know, bedtime rules at Nana’s house wait for no baby. We were almost asleep when Nana came in and told us – Mom had had a girl.

What a girl. What a baby. Happy cheeks. Happy laugh. Happy smiles. We used to sneak in to wake her up from her naps because she was so cute (and also you were her favorite if you took her out of the crib). Good gawd, she was popular with my friends. Everyone loved her – she made my teen season easier with her easy smile – and so many of my friends’ siblings were past their baby years.

My college season in Oklahoma was punctuated with visits home – seeing the leaps in her experience, her height, her basketball skills – and the gut-wrenching difficult goodbyes, every time. She’d weep, clutching my neck and sob out, “Can’t you just go to Whatcom (Community College)? You make such good sandwiches; can’t you just work at Subway?”

1 – 1000% true. A direct quote. And also 2 – yeah – I do rock a great sandwich. Subway could never.

But the HEARTSTRINGS whew. I’ve spent my adult life leaving and re-leaving and those were some of the first leavings and they still make my emotions well up.

After college I still came home about twice a year; she was in her teen phase and sports, school, all of it. I did 2 years in Korea, moved to Chicago – she finished high school and started at GCU in Phoenix. Being with her were always some of the best moments – driving to get sandwiches, watch her games, her practices, belting out Ke$ha.

And yet. Despite me not living with her for over half her life…what a kid. What a woman. What a nurse.

I don’t need to live close to know to see the kind of woman she’s become. I see her influence in the community she’s knit around her. The Instagram comments, the adventures, the brilliant sound of her laugh among friends.

I don’t need to see her in a hospital to know how she touches every life she meets – body, mind and spirit. There’s a reason her fellow nursing students in her cohort gave her the Florence Nightingale Award.

I don’t need to live with her to know she’s the kind of person who asks if you want anything when she runs to town. She’ll tell you when there’s food in your teeth, too. I KNOW. Put that on your resume under ‘special skills,’ Em.

A coffee junkie, someone who doesn’t have a piece of clothing that looks bad on her (I’m serious, I’ve seen her wear a huge random Old Navy t-shirt of our Dad’s and it WORKS?! SOMEHOW?! It should be a crime), can double-french braid her own hair, can appreciate the hits of Cascada (truly great), a study NUT (you should see her notebooks), and now – a nurse. Still-to-take-the-NCLEX-but-still!

As B pinned Em, now the third nurse in the family (B and our sister-in-law Laura being 1 & 2), I stood there, hot as hell, in my thrifted jumpsuit, hiding my shiny tears behind my fancy camera and clicked away. Documenting this grown-ass adult shining. Proud. Happy.

I changed this person’s diapers (Sorry, not sorry, Em).

And now she’s holding a diploma with a her grad cap.

Spending the next few days eating her dust as we hiked (I plod, she billy goats), spending ~15 hours in a car, shouting ALAN ALAN down the Narrows with her and B – a gift. A gift to be friends with this fellow adult. To take our first spin class together. To belt One Direction. To tetris her belongings into a storage unit before she moves into her first apartment.

She’s got her human side, yeah, I promise. But today’s post is for celebrating her – she can have a pass – and maybe I’ll make her a sandwich. If she’s good.