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Experience Kilimanjaro Through the Eyes of 12-Year-Old Grace Gunlogson

Hi! My name is Grace Gun­log­son. I’m 12 years old, one of the youngest peo­ple to climb Mount Kil­i­man­jaro. That’s a big deal because Mount Kil­i­man­jaro is the tallest moun­tain in Africa and one of the tallest moun­tains in the world! Here is a lit­tle about the climb.

Grace begins the ascent in the mon­tane for­est.

Our expe­di­tion begins in the mon­tane for­est. We walk through a jun­gle, avoid­ing mud and rain. The air is clean and fresh. Insects, mon­keys, birds and oth­er ani­mals cre­ate a sooth­ing sound. It sounds like the zoo but it’s for real! When you think of Africa you main­ly think of hot dry bar­ren dessert, but on the moun­tain the land­scape changes dra­mat­i­cal­ly. This rain­for­est is green, lush and warm, but in a cou­ple days we will hike to freez­ing tem­per­a­tures and ice cov­ered rocks. This day we walked only 3.2 miles, but gained 2000 feet. 

The climb­ing group.

We are joined with a Swedish fam­i­ly, a Hun­gar­i­an woman, and my fam­i­ly. My dad loves to moun­tain climb and owns a trav­el expe­di­tion com­pa­ny, so that’s why our fam­i­ly is tak­ing the chal­lenge. How­ev­er, my lit­tle sis­ter and grand­pa will only be able to go 12 of the way. With us are our guides and 55 porters. The guides are like gods of the moun­tain. They know every­thing about Kil­i­man­jaro from where to go and to the kind of sick­ness­es you can get on the climb. They also lead the way make sure we are okay and can help us when some­thing is wrong. There is no med­ical help except for the guides and porters. 

MM Guide Ben Mal­i­ty leads the way!

The porters car­ry all our bags and our tents, food, med­ical stuff, more stuff, their belong­ings, toi­lets, the cook tent, oxy­gen, and so much more. It’s a tough job but they are very strong. They car­ry mas­sive loads big­ger than their body on their backs and heads! We hik­ers also car­ry a day pack on our back. It is impor­tant to always car­ry sun­screen (even with snow), drink lots of water and a rain jack­et (it always rains in the after­noons). Many of the porters in oth­er groups have scraps of clothes, old causal casu­al shoes, but we try to take care of our porters to make sure they have good gear for the climb. Many have climbed Kil­i­man­jaro more than 200 times. One of our guides, Ben (my dad’s good friend), has climbed it even more times. He always keeps us ener­gized by telling us rid­dles and jokes and he is also very good at play­ing cards and telling sto­ries. He shoots the moon a lot when we play hearts and always tricks my team!

Warm­ing up and hang­ing out with the cooks.

Our tents are small, but most of the nights we are find­ing warmth in our mess tent and have amaz­ing din­ners and play so many rounds of hearts. My team (me and Ulri­ka) always win. Except for when Ben the guide plays and he wins! So at night it’s a lot of fun. We can hear the sounds of thun­der and light­ning and the wind. The stars are always out whether were sleep­ing on a cliff or the crater. On the fourth night we were above the clouds and a giant light­ning storm lit up the sky every sec­ond. It was scary, but amaz­ing. Some­times if the night is very clear, we can see all the down the moun­tain where a lit­tle vil­lage or town is. We know it’s there because all the lit­tle lights of the town light up the pitch black­ness. It’s so cool!

Each day we gain around 2,000 feet, with the most in a day about 3,500 feet. The last 3 days they are the dead­liest. Our route goes straight up and we start when it is below freez­ing. The sum­mit will be the best reward for all our hard work. From the sum­mit we descend 9000 feet. By then we are almost com­plete­ly exhaust­ed, and can’t wait to spend the night back at a com­fort­able lodge. Dur­ing each night it goes way below freez­ing and with­out the right gear, you freeze. Luck­i­ly no one has got­ten sick, but often we get a headache or stom­achache due to gain­ing ele­va­tion. It gets hard­er to breathe minute by minute.

Grace, left, with MM Guide Ben Mal­i­ty, Mom, and Dad.

From the start to the sum­mit we walk through lush jun­gle, up to giant heather for­est, to desert-like land­scapes with no veg­e­ta­tion, and final­ly where there is only snow, ice, and rock. On the long walks between camps we have lots of choco­late and even Nutel­la! My dad showed me how to use my ice ax as a fork for Nutel­la that is sol­id like big choco­late chunks because it’s so cold! We also eat lots of Swedish and Hun­gar­i­an can­dy. Super good! I have tried a lot of new foods when I went to Africa. Some good, some very weird! 

Even then some days when we get up at 4:00am at night and are just walk­ing straight up in a cloud, I want to stop it hurts too much, even with a lot of choco­late! It is weird too that I am one of the youngest to climb it and I miss peo­ple my age. All in all it is quite an adven­ture though, and I longed to reach the summit.

Grace climb­ing in the West­ern Breach.

The day we went up the West­ern Breach we gained more than 3,500 feet. The Breach is the hard­est day. We gained the most ele­va­tion. We start­ed very ear­ly morn­ing, when it was still dark, so I could not see where we were. It was a hard day because it seemed like a straight up cliff with a lot of ice and loose rock every­where. I thought it was impos­si­ble to get to the top. You would see a cliff to go to and 2 hours final­ly get there only to find 6 hours more of climb­ing. If you looked down, it was ter­ri­fy­ing. Straight down, and you’re dead. Many peo­ple have died on this route already. We didn’t have ropes or cram­pons either (like on Mt. Bak­er) and so I held our head guide’s hand like a baby the whole climb. Some­times when I was freez­ing exhaust­ed and sleepy, I would get dizzy and scared of the height and kin­da cried and whined. 

Grace in a steam vent inside the sum­mit crater.

Final steps to the summit. 

The morn­ing we are going to the top I got up at 4:00am. I could hear some­one in anoth­er tent throw­ing up and cry­ing, but they choose to go up the moun­tain. I was freez­ing that night and I shook vio­lent­ly and my lips were pur­ple. When we began the climb, I want­ed real­ly bad to go down. It hurt when I took a step and it was extreme­ly hard to breathe. But, FINAL­LY we reached the top. That was the hard­est day of my life. I found out lat­er, when we went down, that even though many say the route we went is the hard­est and dead­liest, in a way it is bet­ter, because as we went down hun­dreds of exhaust­ed trekkers hiked up a dif­fer­ent route and lots of them were cry­ing and some even had to get car­ried on their porters back! They were not even close to the sum­mit! Many peo­ple looked like they were going to die and often didn’t make it. They could be old or young, but it hap­pens more than it should. When we went down through it was eas­i­er for us, because it was short­er, down­hill, and we were just relieved we made it to the top, and there was more oxygen!


Start­ing the descent. 

On the last night we were pooped. We spent the last night in a rain­for­est’ and cel­e­brat­ed New Year’s (even though it was on the sum­mit day) and had a HUGE feast with a huge ham and AMAZ­ING food and desserts. I had my first cham­pagne (they made me) — it was so fun and we told sto­ries, laughed and played cards, and had par­ty pop­pers and dec­o­ra­tions. One of the porters acci­dent­ly car­ried the ham to the sum­mit! Whoops! On the way down, me and Ella ran last 5 miles, and sang Kil­i­man­jaro! She wrote it down along with oth­er Kiswalle words. I saw a dead gecko on the trail! When we reached the bot­tom we cel­e­brat­ed, had one last pic­nic and left to the lodge. Thank good­ness that’s over!

New Year’s feast with giant ham.

Final view of the moun­tain as seen on the hike out.

~Gra­cie Gun­log­son. All pho­tos by Mark Gunlogson.