WILD & FREE #3 - MOUNT KILIMANJARO by Taylor Collins

In the spirit of adventure and lifelong promise to live an epic life alongside my lover, this May, Katie and I traveled to Tanzania Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. In a legendary 6 day journey, we summited the worlds largest freestanding mountain in ultra fashion while crushing EPIC bars by the box. Mount Kilimanjaro has 9 different ascending routes, which offer varying degrees of difficulty and environmental diversity. After extensive research, we selected the Machame Route due to spectacular views, challenging summit, and daily climate variation. The route is 37 miles long and contains over 27,000 feet of elevation change. As “flat landers” living at 400 ft elevation in Austin, TX, the summit altitude of 19,345 ft seemed surreal and practically unfathomable. Prior to our journey, we have only reached heights of 14,000 ft in Colorado (which Katie experienced serious altitude sickness). Statistically, out of the 15,000 people who attempt to reach the peak each year, only a skim 40% are successful. Although the Machame Route is considered more difficult than others (both longer and steeper), it has a higher success rate due to sleeping at lower base camps than other routes (allowing better acclimation to altitude). Always up for an adventure as well as an excuse to push our bodies and minds to new limits, we embarked upon our journey with wondering minds and open hearts.

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Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in May is considered the “rainy season”. We intentionally visited during this time of year because its off-season for tourist travel and other ascent attempts. We only passed 3 other groups of hikers on the entire trip! This solitude allowed us to connect to the mountain and helped our minds focus on the moment-by-moment trek without distraction.

4Katie was obsessed with the ominous moss known as "Old man's beard"

We started the voyage at Machame Gate and quickly ascended a stunning 3,945 ft in only 4 hours! Our legs felt great and we kept pushing the pace. The mountain guide questioned our decision to go fast and warned us that starting the climb too quickly could be catastrophic by day 5. Little did he know, we were fueling our bodies with EPIC bars. Day 1 was spent hiking through farmland and rain forest. While in the forest we spotted endless swinging monkeys and lush green vegetation. This was Katie’s favorite climate.

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Day 2 took us from tropical to heather and moorland zone 3. This climate was my favorite as it is full of wild grassland and flowers. The trees are replaced by small shrubs and full of enchanting birds. This zone allows spectacular views of the mountain ahead and plenty of unexpected false summits! A total 3.5 miles of uphill elevated our bodies another 2,600 ft and lasted 4 hours.

 

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Our second night on the mountain was restless due to a Canadian couple who pitched their tent right next to ours! This disregard for proper camping etiquette (never pitch a tent right next to someone else, especially if you have an entire mountain to select from) was magnified by the man suffering from serious sleep apnea. For hours he snored like a grizzly bear in mating season. One of the highlights from the climb was when Katie threw a boulder at his tent to wake him up at 3:00am. To our surprise the rock startled the man, which somehow stopped the snoring for the remainder of the night!

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Day 3 was full of dark skies and low clouds. The peak of Kilimanjaro was hidden for the entire hike and we navigated our bodies through highland desert. The nighttime temperature began falling below 0 degrees, and we replaced our short sleeves for wool base layers. This zone was characterized by obvious signs of volcanic activity as far as the eye could see. The distant glaciers on the peak became noticeable, but seemed like insignificant pieces of ice. This was one of the most dramatic landscapes we have ever witnessed! Camping here felt like a post-apocalyptic experience.

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Day 4 landed us at Barafu Huts (15,360 ft). This is the summit base camp and offers dramatic and intimidating views of the task ahead. Our bodies still felt strong leading up to this point, but the climate change was taking a toll on our energy reserves. While at Barafu Basecamp we experienced snow, 60+ mph winds, and 15-degree Fahrenheit temperatures. We stayed in our tents to protect our bodies from wind chill and munched on frozen bacon bars that now resembled bacon popsicles. We went to bed early that night because we would start our final ascent at 3:00am!

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Day 5 started with an unruly 2:00am wake-up call. The night was restless as our tent danced with the non-stop windstorm that sounded like we were inside a tornado. The good news, our bodies were warm and we optimistically put on 4 layers of clothing. After 1 hour of getting pumped up, we set off on our final ascent in a cloudless dark night.

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This final ascent was a beast! Breathing in air that was chilled to -4 degrees Fahrenheit at 17,000 ft was incredibly challenging. Both Katie and I struggled with the lack of oxygen our bodies demanded and this was captured perfectly when I kept warning Katie to watch out for “pink foam” on the mountain. With the majority of limited oxygen going to my quads, my deprived brain thought the snow was pink toxic foam. Insane in retrospect, but very real at the moment. Katie and I both locked into tunnel vision and slowly followed the circle of light emanating from our headlamps up the mountain.

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Within 2 hours of ascending, our water bottles had frozen solid, our extremities were numb, and our hearts were at an uncontrollable 160+ bpm. Slowly and surely we pushed onwards while encouraging our guide to “pick up the pace” so that we could generate maximum internal core temperature. Finally we reached Stella Point (18,872 ft) and decided to avoid taking a break. We could see the summit and had only 20 minutes of fast hiking before we would arrive. This is the point during the hike were most people give up. It was -30 degrees Fahrenheit with wind-chill and our bodies were zapped. What lay ahead was one of the most challenging 20 minutes of my life!

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Alas, we reached Uhuru Peak (19,340 ft) and rejoiced at the top of Kilimanjaro. Katie and I were overtaken by joy and celebrated our summit. While only lasting a brief 7 minutes on top, we quickly started the descent with fury to return to warmer temperatures and richer oxygen! It felt like we were fish out of the water and our survival instincts were kicking in strong. After a glute and calf exploding 4-hour climb coupled by a quad exploding 3-hour descent back to our tent, our bodies were exhausted. We took a 1-hour power nap to both warm up and regenerate our limbs. I slept so hard that I woke up with drool all over my face (this only happens when I am 100% drained).

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Over the next 24 hours we descended the remaining 14,000 ft with legs that felt like jello. It was crazy to loose so much elevation within such a short period of time. We must have tripped and fell at least 10 times each!

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Although we questioned our sanity during the final ascent, back at the mountain base we were so thankful to have accomplished such a stunning journey. Tanzania is an amazing land that epitomizes the spirit of adventure! Spending time in the mountains inspires us to continue creating products that not only sustain our land, but also heal and restore our bodies and soul. Much like during a multi-day backpacking trek, you have to respect the formative mountains as well as our bodies in order to sustain the adventure of life. A humbling respect as well as profound gratitude for Mother Nature is the foundational base for how we fit into the world.

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