Travel is about the Journey: Climbing Kilimanjaro

Karen Gershowitz's picture


More people have climbed Kilimanjaro than one might imagine. I asked everyone I could what they knew about Kili. After much well-intended but useless advice, Sue, a client of mine, provided some crucial tips: “It’s freezing on the top. Bring the warmest clothes you have.” She shivered in remembrance. 

Next, “The food is lousy.” Sherpas would carry our gear, she said, and we’d only need a day pack. Finally, “you must go slowly because of the altitude. It was tough for me to breathe whenever I walked at even a normal pace.” That was okay; I had every intention of a slow trek. Then I gulped. Sue ran marathons. If she had gone slowly, snails would be rushing past me.

Then the killer comment: “If you can’t make the last few steep feet at the top, the sherpas will get behind you and push.”

For the next few months, I worked out frantically, fanatically to prepare.

After a photo safari, on our way to Kili, my friend Diane and I got our first look at the majestic, snowcapped mountain. It rose high above the hot, dry landscape. It’s very large. Fear bubbled up. I pushed it down. There was no turning back.

Ready to start hiking Kilimanjaro

The orientation meeting, given by a woman in her eighties, was encouraging. She’d climbed Kili a few months before. If she could do it, so could I. Gracious and forthright, she described the five days and showed us the route. Her most essential piece of advice: go slowly. The word in Swahili is poli. “Poli, poli. That’s how to get to the top.” It became a kind of mantra.

The trail on Kilimanjaro

The next morning, we met our hiking companions: four doctors from Sardinia, Mario, Marco, Franco, and Isabella. They all spoke minimal English. Diane and I do not speak Italian, unless you consider ciao, pizza, pasta, and espresso speaking Italian. Despite our language incompatibility, we communicated well using inventive sound effects and charades.

Short and stocky, our guide had a gold front tooth and a huge smile. As we set out, he uttered the first of many “poli, poli’s” we would hear over the next five days.

Sherpas with gear at beginning of Kilimanjaro hike

We began the hike in shorts and T-shirts, at an elevation of about six thousand feet through lush rain forest. We walked at a comfortable pace uphill for six hours, the trail wasn’t steep. It got less verdant and colder as the day progressed; when we reached the first huts, we’d climbed over three thousand feet. At nightfall, the temperature dropped sharply, and we snuggled in our sleeping bags, exhausted.

The next morning, we continued walking through rain forest. Midmorning, we passed through an area of scrubby brush and dense fog. An hour later, we emerged into clear, open air. With a start, I realized we had walked through and were now above a layer of clouds. The air was thinner and breathing more difficult. Poli, poli became a constant theme. But really, there was no choice except to go slowly. We trudged on a well-worn path through thinning vegetation. The higher we climbed, the scragglier the plant life. 

At the second set of huts, at 12,500 feet, we should have been in the middle of nowhere. Instead, a cluster of A-frame cabins spread across the landscape. These huts are the crossroads where people ascending and descending the "tourist" route sleep, and where technical climbers stop before leaving for more difficult ascents. People in the communal room chatted in dozens of languages.

As the day neared its end, I watched the sun sink down into the clouds, not the horizon. All around me, the layer of white fluffy clouds was luminous red and gold. The colors shimmered and gradually deepened into darker crimson and purples. Then, as if a switch had flipped, it went black. Within minutes, the sky was awash in stars, more than I’d ever seen.

Day three was endless, cold, and unnerving. We walked through the last of the scrub and came onto what looked like a moonscape—large stones, soft sand, and no vegetation. We plodded along with little to see. Dust kicked up all around. At this altitude, with thinner air, our pace became slower and slower. 

At lunch we got our first glimpse of that day’s destination, the cabins at 15,500 feet. They didn’t look very far away—we’d probably be there in an hour or two. But, Kafkaesque, for the next four hours, the cabins didn’t seem to get any closer. We walked and walked, the effects of the altitude making us a little headachy and nauseated. The destination stayed far away, elusive. We became discouraged, but there was no choice—just put one foot in front of the other, poli, poli. The trail is a mild, steady incline, but at that altitude we might have been scaling a cliff.

The thermometer outside the hut showed thirty-three degrees. Inside was only marginally warmer. Without a word, each of us rolled out our sleeping bag and climbed in. Totally exhausted, I was asleep by four thirty in the afternoon.

At midnight, the guide woke us to prepare for the final ascent. Starting the final ascent at that ungodly hour is so climbers will be at the mountaintop for as short a period as possible. It’s timed so that if you make it to the top, you see sunrise. The odds of making it to the top are one in three.

In pitch-blackness, our guide led the group with a single small lantern. Each of us was accompanied by a sherpa. Like a chain gang, we scuffled along, no sounds except for hard breathing. My head pounded and my breaths were shallow and fast.

After about an hour we heard retching; the altitude had claimed Marco. The only cure for altitude sickness is to return to a lower altitude. His Sherpa took him by the elbow and led him down. At that altitude, death is a real possibility, and they don’t give you a choice.

The trail became steeper. Scree—slippery gray, powdery gravel—meant that for every two steps forward, you slid back one. I walked in a trancelike state, all energy focused on moving forward, my mind empty of all thought.

I felt bile climbing the back of my throat. I tried to hold it back—I was going to the top. But the retching wouldn’t be held back; a firm hand grabbed my elbow and turned me around. I was too ill and exhausted to feel disappointment, relief, or anything else. I scrambled and slid back to the cabins, where I collapsed into sleep. 

Only Diane and Isabella made it to the top. One-third, as predicted. The return trip was uneventful. 

The climb pushed me to my limits, both in preparation for and during the climb. I’d never thought of myself as physically adventurous; with this experience, I proved to myself I could keep up if I set my mind to it. I’d seen an astounding sunset and a carpet of stars. During moments on the final struggle to the summit, I’d experienced a complete emptying of my mind, a Zen state usually achieved only after years of intensive practice. 

Though disappointed I hadn’t achieved the summit, I know that wasn’t important. What mattered both on this trek and in life was not the destination, but the journey.



Karen Gershowitz, author of Travel Mania: Stories of Wanderlust, has been traveling since age 17 when she boarded a plane to Europe and stayed there for three years. She has since traveled to more than 90 countries, experiencing countless bold, once-in-a-lifetime adventures: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, trekking atop an elephant in Thailand, hiking in the blistering heat of the Moroccan desert—and much more.

While studying ceramics as an undergraduate at the Kansas City Art Studio, Karen proposed and received a grant to photograph ceramics studios, potters and their work throughout Japan. She later built a career as a marketing strategist and researcher with companies who sent her around the globe to conduct focus groups, interviews and
meetings. She lives in New York City, but is a citizen of the world.

Her book, published with SheWrites Press, will be available July 2021.

Find her online at:

Travel Mania: Stories of Wanderlust by Karen Gershowitz



All photos courtesy and copyright Karen Gershowitz, published with permission