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This is What Happens to You When You Hike Mount Kilimanjaro

Some 15 years ago, I was part of a film crew in Kenya where we briefly encountered a group of Europeans embarking on an expedition to the summit of Africa’s highest peak, Mt. Kilimanjaro. I was jealous, in awe, and beyond excited for them. All these years later, and in search of an exciting way to spend a milestone 40th birthday, I decided to follow suit and also attempt to ascend all 19,341 feet of this African giant. Alongside me were two long-time friends and fellow adventurers, Kris Semb and Theo Von. The three of us convened in Arusha, Tanzania, where we met our expert guide and team of local porters. We strategically selected the 8-day Lemosho route, which we chose for its world-class scenery and its ideal acclimatization itinerary, helping us best adjust to the high altitudes we would be confronting throughout the journey. After days of tenacious hiking, several below freezing nights in tents, and some highly questionable mountain meals, our five-person summit team stood tall together on the glorious roof of Africa, as the sun rose on January 12th. Below are 10 reflections from my journey to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

1. Climbing Kilimanjaro is beyond legendary.

The hardest part is just showing up. Do not deliberate on whether the amount of effort is worthwhile—it is. If you can do it, you should. Any time spent on deciding whether to go or not is time wasted. Set the date now, do the prep work, and just go.

2. If you are forming a trekking group, choose that group carefully.

The moment you announce your intentions of climbing Kilimanjaro, you may get interest from a multitude of individuals hoping to join you for the expedition. Do strongly consider that Kilimanjaro is both an intimate and intense journey and altitude can diminish your patience and severely erode your diplomacy skills. Choose your fellow trekkers, if any, wisely.

TheoAtTopSign3. Bring a better camera than just your iPhone.

If you simply want to capture pictures for a basic accounting of the trip, your smart phone camera will do. Trust me, however, that when you are in some of the most dramatic landscapes on the planet and experiencing one of the most epic adventures of your life, you will want a camera that can capture the true essence of Kilimanjaro. Personally, I brought along the Canon 5D with a 24-70mm, f2.8L lens and am forever thankful I did.

4. The porters of Kilimanjaro are superhuman.

Not unlike the world-renowned Sherpas that support grueling treks up Everest, Kilimanjaro’s porter community consists of men (rarely do you see females in this role) originally from the local area who carry everything from food and tents to western toilets for the many foreigners that attempt the journey. They benefit from growing up in high altitude villages, allowing them an incredible level of fitness and finesse when traversing their way over rugged and steep topography. Their abilities will humble even the greatest of sportsmen.

5. Allow yourself to be in awe—but not for too long.

On a clear day, the glacier, which semi-crowns Kilimanjaro’s peak, makes for some of the most breathtaking scenery the world has to offer.  The only tease is that you can’t sit up there all day and stare, as it’s not safe to linger too long with air pressure so low at that high altitude. Sadly, scientists predict that most of Kilimanjaro’s ice will melt over the next 2-3 decades—so get there soon.

6. Bring some meaningful music.

I didn’t listen often, but when I did, it was Bob Dylan.  For me personally, nothing quite evokes my human spirit like a ramble across a stretch of wild terrain to the sounds of some lyrical folk music. My personal Kilimanjaro soundtrack, which included Highway 61 Revisited and Modern Times, was especially enlightening after accomplishing the summit and beginning the descent back down the mountain.

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7. Like life, Kilimanjaro is about the journey and not the destination.

Considering I trained 2-3 hours a day for three months leading up to the trip, at times I was focused too much on testing my fitness level, approaching several of the day hikes as if they were a race to the next camp. Undoubtedly, some of my favorite moments were when I slowed to take in and appreciate the beauty and otherworldly magnificence that Kilimanjaro affords those that venture its way.

8. Don’t make the journey all about your own success.

Yes, attempting Kilimanjaro is a remarkable personal endeavor. You train hard, you research the routes, you purchase all the right gear, and you invest considerable money, energy, and time into this venture. Your focus is squarely on your mission, your health, and your ability to succeed. With that said, of all the personal goodness I have mined from successfully summiting Kilimanjaro, I consider my most exceptional moment that in which I helped a fellow trekker stay committed to his goal after he had seemingly given up hope during the frigid night’s final stretch to the summit. We ran into him on the dark trail around 3 a.m., shortly after he started to descend, and mere hours away from the summit. We were able to re-focus and re-energize him and, soon enough, we all arrived at the summit together. His triumph, in the face of total despondency, afforded me some of my greatest satisfaction from the journey.

9.  Afterwards, get ready for the best shower of your life.

After 8 days of Herculean efforts, with limited access to water along the way, the arrival back to your local hotel typically culminates with the heavenly experience of a steaming hot shower. Seemingly every Kilimanjaro adventurer boasts about this relatable post-trek experience.

10. Don’t stop there.

There is no obvious path to unlocking one’s own best life, and obviously people start from a myriad of places with a multitude of aspirations and realities. That said, Kilimanjaro reminded me that the pursuit of an interesting life, one with adventures, challenges, triumphs and many a locale explored, is always a most righteous one.

Kevin Morra is an award winning Television and Commercial Producer/Director and a partner at Swift River Productions, Inc. He lives between Los Angeles and New York City and travels extensively whenever possible.