This past Thursday I had a coffee meeting with a woman who arranges all kinds of travel for all kinds of people. Deb asked me about Kilimanjaro, which I had trained for and summitted back in 2013.
She said quite rightly that “lots of women- and men- say I couldn’t possibly do that.” Well, they’re right.
I couldn’t possibly have done it either until I set it as a goal and put my all my attention towards training for it.
I was sixty at the time. About six months prior, I’d had surgery on my left knee. My VA ortho doc told me that I should be happy with 80%. Since I considered that a gauntlet, the afternoon after I’d had surgery I was doing laps around my hospital room floor. Nothing motivates me more than a road block shoved in my face by a male doctor. However let’s be clear. I’m no uber-athlete. I work at being in shape, but I wasn’t in that kind of condition by any stretch.
Some many months later, after retraining my knee by running stairs at a local outdoor amphitheater, I had decided to spend a month in Tanzania. A dear friend- a one time NFL player- told me to climb Kili. I whined about my knee. To his credit, Michael called bullsh*t on me. He said, quite rightly, “The snows are melting fast. And if you don’t do it now you will regret it forever.”
As soon as we hung up I called my safari operator and added the climb. Seven months to prepare. I knew absolutely nothing.
Prior to Kili my workout program consisted of three nights a week bodybuilding at the gym, and three days a week running stairs to keep my knee and legs in shape.
I researched everything I could about Kilimanjaro: how to physically prepare, what to wear, what to take. I balanced that with what I already knew and had in my gear room. Put together a mean training program which I gradually increased each week until I was working out four hours a day, six days a week. Biking, running stairs, hiking fourteeners, bodybuilding, swimming. I train at 6200 feet, and my back yard is full of high mountains. However no matter how much you train you cannot prepare for altitude sickness. For that you must educate yourself and choose an operator that is completely committed to safety, as was mine, E-Trip Africa.
I found a younger woman to ride my high end bike with every Friday morning. When I began that year I could hardly work the gears. Her tiny butt disappeared up hills, humbly reminding me of my rookie status. By August I was right on her tail for the entire 17 miles we regularly rode. Keeping up was a badge of honor. As a pro she could have left me in a cloud of dust but she kept the pace strong and hard enough for us both to get a workout.
I gathered my gear list, based in part on what E-Trip Africa had provided and also what I had researched from other experienced hikers. It was very common to run into fellow Kili hikers wearing the exact same orange Patagonia hoodie that one person had recommended. I had it, too. It stank, as promised, but it worked.
As with all endeavors of this kind, along the way I had my share of naysayers. People who told me how hard it would be. That I would bonk. As an “old woman” it would be too hard. I was told that training on stairs was no way to train for Kilimanjaro. Really? I was running between 2400 and 3600 stairs at a time, four days a week, at 6200′. I turned my legs into Hummers and my lungs into endurance machines. The Colorado fourteeners I hiked were almost too easy. Not in a million years would I have ever thought such a thing was possible. But there I was, doing it. Week after week after grueling week.
Hogwash. Pure, unadulterated hogwash.
The night we summitted, the 30-ish climbing partner I’d been paired with bonked long before I did. The guides took her pack. I got mine, which weighed about 25 lbs, up to about 500 yards short of the big green summit sign. Because my water line had frozen I’d had no liquids for hours and was dizzy with lack of sustenance and hydration. However I made it, both up and back down, with the help of my guides and an excellent porter team.
As I was to find out later, especially when I took on both Macchu Picchu and the Everest Base Camp climbs within the next seven months, the people who have the worst time on these climbs are overly ambitious young male athletes who believe they can race the mountain. That’s the fastest way to come down on a stretcher. Older folks who understand and respect their limitations have a better success rate and tend to summit consistently. That’s great news for those of us over fifty.
Learning to walk “pole pole” or “slow slow” as instructed by the guides, to be checked each morning for both your heart rate and your oxygen content are part of staying safe. Each day you hike higher for acclimatization, then hike back down to sleep. Good outfits, like E-Trip Africa, ensure that if you can’t summit, or are too sick, you stop. You rest, retreat, or go back down the mountain. Not all guide outfits work that way. Another thing I valued about E-Trip was that by the time I worked with them, their summit team had been together some six years. That’s unheard of in this business and speaks to fair pay and good management as well as excellent camaraderie.
One of my guides, August, had already summitted 320 times. That’s incomprehensible. That’s competence. He was quiet, kind, capable and very efficient. Funny when he needed to be, and right there when I cranked a leg on descent to help me get back down.
Preparing for Kilimanajo is just like getting ready for any other major endeavor. It takes research, a great deal of patience, and hard, hard work. Some 25,000 people attempt the climb each year, with altitude sickness and weather causing the rest to give up. A good friend of mine made it to 17,000′ on summit night and simply could go no further. The stats don’t show those folks. She was simply beyond tired. For her, partway up was her Kilimanjaro. And that was summit enough. No matter where we begin, we’re going to be challenged. We will get tired and sore. We will be exhausted. We will dream of giving it up and going to bed and saying “I’ll do this next year.”
What differentiates those who do stand next to that green sign and those who don’t- or on any other iconic peak in the world- is our willingness to endure. To trust our remarkable bodies to continue to build muscle and endurance at any age. To develop a sense of humor about the vicissitudes that are an inevitable part of an endurance trek, whether it’s a thru-hike, an epic climb or a triathlon. To begin the climb as a rookie, humbled by the mountain, and learn her secrets as we climb. As August told us one night in the dinner tent, “Kilimanjaro has a lesson for each of us if we are willing to hear it.” She taught me how to receive help when I needed it.
Age isn’t a factor. Willingness to work is. So whether you’re getting ready to climb Kilimanjaro or any other of the world’s great peaks, it has far more to do with preparation, both mental and physical, than it does with age. All kinds of folks make it to the top who aren’t athletes, who aren’t young and lean and have perfect bodies.
They were simply willing to do the hard work to get there.