To the Roof of Africa ROC's trip up Mt Kilimanjaro

By Jane Treat

(C) Jane Treat, 1998

The following article has been edited by Renee O'Connor and Sandra Wilson.


I stopped by the convention in Valley Forge while on my vacation last fall and heard Renee’s story about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. She was funny and thoughtful during all the questions, but when she started to tell about the mountain, her posture and the focus of her eyes changed. I sat right up to pay close attention; something important was about to happen.

I’m a professional storyteller, so I couldn’t help but listen to this "story" of a woman who met a mountain and with great courage found her way to the top through struggle, weakness and pain. The world’s myths and spiritual literature are full of such stories – of a young woman (or man) who heads off for fun and adventure, and ends up on a true quest for wisdom, power, vision, etc. Renee’s story is a classic and contains images of some of life’s most profound themes. When I returned from vacation, I found myself telling people about Renee’s experience and watching their eyes widen in wonder as they heard the life lessons embedded in it. I knew I had been deeply moved by it, and it became a pleasure to share it with others. Renee` has generously given me permission to use her story in my performances and Rocweb has asked to post a version of it for everyone to read.

So, with great respect for the woman and the mountain, here’s a brief telling of Renee’s trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, the "Shining Mountain" of Africa.


Renee` and her mother, Sandra, had planned the vacation of a lifetime. Africa! After a visit to Egypt, they traveled to northeast Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in all of Africa – 19,340 feet. Even though it is only 3 degrees from the Equator, Kilimanjaro is so high that its snow-covered summit is often lost in the clouds.

Amazingly, it’s not necessary to be a technical climber to go up Kilimanjaro. Instead, hikers have to contend with a debilitating and potentially serious or even fatal condition known as acute mountain sickness (altitude sickness). Altitude sensitivity is a very individual thing and physical fitness and age are not the deciding factors. Although Renee` is strong and fit, she is also allergic to the medicine that many hikers take to alleviate the effects of altitude sickness.

Undaunted, Sandra and Renee` joined their group and began the trek up the mountain. From the trailhead at Marangu Gate, they followed the gentle paths of the lower levels of Kilimanjaro, slowly winding their way through lush tropical forest as they hiked the first few thousand feet. The beginning of the hike was easy, more a walk than a climb, and yet, "Pole’, pole’ (slowly, slowly)," the guides admonished even at this early stage. After a few short hours, they reached Mandara Hut at 9,000 feet for their first night on Kilimanjaro.

On the way to Horombo Hut for the second night, the hikers ascended to more than 12,000 feet. They left the canopy of the lower slopes as the trail broke free of the trees and led on through meadows and moorland. Above 10,000 feet, most people begin to react to the decreased oxygen. Once the headaches and fatigue began, Renee` and Sandra could no longer depend on physical strength alone. From that point on, will power and determination were also necessary to keep them moving up the mountain.

Far above the plains that surround Kilimanjaro, and then beyond the forests and meadows of the lower levels, the mountain turns to rock and sand. Growing weaker and slower, no longer able to eat, Sandra and Renee forged on through the biting wind and barren rock towards the great dome of Kibo and the summit at Uhuru (Freedom) Peak.

Shortly after midnight on the fourth day, they left Kibo Hut and began the final torturous ascent. It was important to reach the top of Kilimanjaro early in the day before the gale force winds that buffet the summit became too dangerous. Pole’, pole’, they struggled through the mountain darkness, zigzagging up the steep and treacherous gravel path, falling farther and farther behind the others in the group. Higher up the mountain, the lights of their fellow travelers showed them the way, marking the switchback trail for them to follow.

Just below Gillman’s Point on the rim of the ancient volcano, Sandra was seized by a severe attack of altitude sickness. She became confused and disoriented, violently ill and shook uncontrollably. It was clear she could go no farther and the only remedy was to descend as quickly as possible. Alarmed by her mother’s condition, Renee` wanted to take Sandra down. But Sandra was adamant, "This is as far as I go, Renee`, but you go on. Go all the way if you can."

Leaving her mother in the care of a guide, Renee trudged on. She found a simple rhythm to carry her – take a step and breathe, take another step and breathe again. Pole’, pole’ – one step, one breath. Stumbling and weak, each movement a monumental effort, – Renee` inched her way along the rocky trail. Behind her lay the thousands of steps she had taken to get to this point. Behind her, hopefully, her mother was waiting, recovering in the lower altitude. Ahead of her was the roof of Africa, if she could only make it. One step at a time through scree and snow; one step at a time along the rim of the crater; pole’, pole’. Each step nearly impossible; take a step and breathe. Each step one step closer to the top; take a step and breathe.

Finally, nauseous and exhausted, the last of the group to arrive, Renee` staggered the final few feet to the pinnacle of Kilimanjaro. She made it and stood, for a moment, at the top of Africa. Then, she collapsed. But there was little time to rest - the winds were rising, and it was dangerous to remain exposed on the summit. She mustered the strength to shakily write her name in the book that is kept at Uhuru Peak and then they began the journey down, heading back towards air and strength, family and home.

"I run and work out," Renee` reflected months later, "and I thought I was prepared, but it was the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done." With her characteristic honesty, she also admitted that besides the physical stress, she had occasionally found her pride to be a challenge. "…now…I realize how important it is to be humble."


On Reflection

After I heard Renee’s story about her experience, I did a bit of reading to learn more about Mt. Kilimanjaro. I learned that thousands of people climb Kilimanjaro every year and of those thousands, only a few hundred make it to Uhuru Peak. In fact, every year a small number of people actually die from reactions to the altitude. Even Sir Edmund Hillary of Mt. Everest fame had to be evacuated from his attempt!

What does it mean to climb a mountain like Kilimanjaro? Is it a test of courage? Of spirit and determination? Is it a real opportunity to see a bigger picture or merely a distraction from daily activities? How does one decide where to push on and where to surrender? When does pride help; when does it hurt? What is revealed in rising to meet the challenge of such extraordinary circumstances? What were the lessons learned? What is the worth of such hard-won wisdom?

I pondered Renee’s story for quite a while, moved by her thoughtfulness and the lingering sound of wonder in her voice when she spoke of it. Her story is not a romantic version of "conquering a mountain." It’s rough, gutsy and very human. In the images she described, I found myself considering life as the "mountain" – beautiful, torturous, surprising, challenging… The comparisons go on and on. Most of us will not climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, but we already climb our own rocky trails through struggle and pain, failure and success. We will follow the lights of the ones who have gone before us and we will walk on after our parents have stopped. Sometimes we’ll stride, other times we’ll stagger, and occasionally we’ll even collapse. And perhaps, like Renee`, we’ll find that humility is the truest response to our greatest victories. After all, life, like Mount Kilimanjaro, takes everything we’ve got.

Hanging over my desk these days is a gentle reminder: "Take a step and breathe."