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 1⁄2 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.