Climb Above the Crowd and Get to the Top

Julia Hubbel, Walkabout Saga, Horizon Huntress

Photo by Ian Stauffer on Unsplash

I climbed Africa's tallest mountain at sixty. You can, too.

There's not a whole lot that extreme focus and determination can't do for you. It just might change your entire life.

In 2013, I successfully summitted Africa's tallest mountain. It was the beginning of a whole new life in many ways. This is that story.

Eight years ago on my 60th birthday, I was spending a month in Costa Rica. The actual day of my birthday, I spent a few hours scuba diving. That afternoon I went for a private horseback ride for three hours, re-cementing my love of swift horses. I'd been sea kayaking, exploring, hiking.

I had no idea what was coming.

By May, energized by adventure travel, I planned to visit Tanzania for a month. A good friend, a retired NFL player, pushed me hard.

"You need to climb Kilimanjaro," he said.

"But I just had knee surgery," I whined.

He snapped back, "Nonsense. The snows are melting. If you don't go now, you'll slap yourself in the forehead at eighty for not doing it."

I love having friends like that. He knew me well enough.

The moment we hung up, I fired an email to my operator, eTrip Africa.

Add Kilimanjaro, I wrote.

And with those words, I changed the trajectory of my life forever.

My seven month program was simple:

  • Ramp up slowly
  • Increase speed and endurance
  • Increase demand
  • Cross train: run, hike, run stairs, bike, lift, swim

Sunrise at Gilman's point 18,885 feet Julia Hubbel

At the time, I was lifting an average of three to four days a week. Being a journalist, I leapt into my research. I took e-Trip Africa's planning advice and expanded on it. As I was living in Colorado at the time, I was already used to high altitudes, but now I had to add endurance work and a variety of training methods. A climb like this requires a lot more than a few day's running a week.

By the middle of that summer, I was cycling, swimming and running tens of thousands of stairs a week. I hiked a number of fourteen thousand foot mountains, which for some are plenty enough of a challenge. They should be. The air gets thin up there and the going gets far rougher the higher you go. Some folks can barely drive through Denver without a nosebleed. I was getting ready to climb nearly four times higher.

For me the fourteeners were training runs, as Kilimanjaro would add another six thousand feet to the challenge. For those unfamiliar with the challenges of climbing at alititude, please see this article about altitude sickness. The fact that I trained at 6200' was helpful for my lung capacity but it doesn't protect me from altitude sickness. Anyone can get it, from experienced Everest hikers to your hyperactive kid. It can just be your day. Training for Kili has far more to do with building endurance and heart.

By the end of summer I was putting in long bike rides over steep hills and long morning hikes with a weighted vest (which some wag called in the cops on me, as those vests are black, and they don't come in pink). Back before January 6th 2021 I found it funny that neighbors considered a sixty-year old woman in a black weighted vest a terrorist.

I don't now. What a difference eight years make. But I digress.

As my endurance grew, so did my fitness and overall strength. The more I pushed, the more I felt like pushing. While I'd always worked out, I had never worked this hard towards a specific goal other than to drop 85 lbs forever. I put in three, sometimes four hours a day training, expanding my lung capacity, pounding the steps while listening to the soundtrack from the movie Rudy.

Every business trip I took I made sure I was in a hotel with at least six floors so that I could run steps. Long before the breakfast buffet was placed, I was sweating in the stairwells, imagining celebrating at the top of that storied mountain.

I learned the critical importance of rest and sleep. If tired, I rested. If hungry, I ate for fuel. And if I needed to sleep longer, I slept longer. This isn't difficult: all it is means that I listen to the body. This training program really taught me how.

My climbing partner Aurelie and me heading up the mountain. Photo: Julia Hubbel

My safari operator, e-Trip, recommended that I take the Rongai Route. At the time it was far less traveled, being slightly less pretty in some ways, but a far better predictor of success. The route takes longer, which means more time for the body to adjust to the demands of altitude. There are three-day programs run by budget outfits. Sure there are.

That's a very good way to come down on a stretcher, or come down dead, which is as true for Kili as it is for Everest Base Camp or any mountain adventure. That can also result in porter and guide injury or death, albeit too many of us don't stop to think about that part of the trip.

Still, I trained even harder. I wore a heavy weighted vest and hiked eight miles several times a week in heavy early snow around Denver. Sometimes I wanted to quit.

I didn't. I wanted to summit that mountain. However if I had a Big Hike, I took the previous day off.

Julia and Ignas have a pushup contest, and the crew takes a break after a long day. Julia Hubbel

Of course I got overuse injuries. If you work out three to four hours a day, you will likely injure. I had Rocktape on my shoulders, knees, ankles. Learned to pace myself better. Perhaps the part I came to love the most was stair- running at altitude. I loved the feeling of strength, the surge of good strong muscles. I'd built strong legs from cycling years before and my quads responded joyfully.

Those legs got me up hours of hard hiking, as the air thinned out, as it got harder to breathe and even harder to find interest in eating.

The author and Aurelie at Gilman's point at dawn Nov 18 2013 Julia Hubbel

But it paid off. My operator sent his wife Aurelie up with me, and our two guides, August and Ignas, bookended us as we hiked. Aurelie had done the hike before, so I was in excellent company.

It was hard going up, but not as hard as I expected. The last two hours as we rose towards twenty thousand feet it got brutal. My water line froze, and we had to knock the ice out to get me hydrated. I was nauseous, which is a common side effect of altitude sickness, but not serious enough to quit. A few fun dry heaves, I got my feet back under me and up we went.

victory shot, Julia Hubbel

Finally, after moving at what felt like-and was- a shuffling snail's pace to reach the sign, we celebrated, grinned, ate granola bars, and took in the views.

For one brief, transcendant moment, I stood quietly by myself, picked up a rock. Hefted it.

"If I can do this," I thought, "What else can I do?"

The partial answer: within just a few more months, I had completed Macchu Picchu and the Everest Base Camp hike. I was just getting started, and haven't slowed down since then. But that's another story.

The reasons we made it were many among them, a very well-trained and happy porter crew. To wit:

Hot water delivery morning and night, always a cheerful face. Julia Hubbel

The summit, in effect, was the easiest part. Exhausted by the long night, limited water and food, we began down. Kili is a slippery scree field all the way back to base came, almost four thousand feet of slippery slope. Nobody warns you about that part. I'm warning you right now. Unless you ski, and I don't, this is where folks injure, and I did. I cranked my knee about one third of the way down. I stood quietly, waiting for it to stop throbbing. Seconds later both Ignas and August appeared on either side of me. I wrapped my arms around their necks and we skidded back to base camp in minutes, met at the bottom by porters handing us ice-cold mango juice.

Nothing has ever tasted so good before or since.

We had a few hours' rest. Then we headed down the opposite side along the more scenic path down the mountain. After a long, solid night's sleep punctuated by a hard rain which turned to snow, it was Tip Day. Tip Day means dance, while the porters and guides joyfully celebrate your climb. And, of course, getting paid.

August and Ignas join the porters in our dance. I did too, but I had to take this picture first. Julia Hubbel

The way back down was through some of the prettiest scenery you could imagine. Thick moss on the trees, lots of variation in direct contrast to the more stark Rongai route up. Step by faster step, bodies sore and aching, our bodies regaining oxygen and strength because of increased appetite, we made our way back to the park entrance, and happy to receive our certificates of completion for our climb.

The author and a green cathedral on the way down Kili. Julia Hubbel

In no time flat we were back at Stella Maris Lodge, where I fell gratefully into a comfortable bed. I would wake up with that sense of unreality that I had just done a momentous thing, especially when I gazed out the window at that magnificent peak.

I did that, I thought. Holy cow. I did it.

But not before I did this:

August, our ubert-competent lead guide, gets a well-deserved hug...


Bright, gentle Ignas gets one, too. Both, Julia Hubbel

Since that trip, I've gotten far more involved with Kilimanjaro, especially after learning about the Kilimanjaro Porter's Assistance Project or KPAP, of which e-Trip was not only a member but also a leader. I write extensively about what KPAP does now to support the men and women who help other climbers like Aurelie and me make it safely up and down the mountain.

Taking on Kilimanjaro at sixty really wasn't that big a deal, not in retrospect. Since that pivotal climb, I've read hundreds of stories about others who have completed feat not only disabled, or blind, but without feet or hands, or morbidly obese. Kilimanjaro, the easiest of the world's seven great climbs, represents a rite of passage for many, if nothing else than to dispell the great doubts you and I may harbor about ourselves and we can accomplish if we would but commit ourselves.

While on one hand, to my mind it was indeed a big deal to be able to make this climb successfully, having done so has made me a fan of inviting more people to train for and take this adventure on as a way of making a huge life statement.

Truly, if you can do this, what else can you do?

Perhaps more importantly, I've become an adventure traveler as a career. Part of that work is to help recognize and support those remarkable men and women who, all year long, go up and down Kili, just as they do with tourists all over the world, while we struggle to do it just once.

One of our porters passes us on the way up to set camp. Julia Hubbel

KPAP is an organization that was formed to protect porter's rights and ensure that they are fairly paid, what they carry is fairly weighed, and that they are properly fed. Those considerations aren't guaranteed but by those Partner companies who agree to be monitored. That way you and can indeed, if you will pardon me, be happy campers.

For a list of those companies please see this.

The many porters and climbing companies who help get your head above the clouds are hoping that there will be a return to the climbing seasons this year. If you hope to go, and I hope you do, I hope you will choose a KPAP Parter Company. If so you may well get a crew that was as solid as ours.

Perhaps then you too, will stand under the iconic sign, your tired arms raised in victory, for a memory that will last a lifetime.

If you enjoyed this story, here’s my hopefully gentle way of ushering you to click the box below to follow my stuff. When you do that, I’ll know you’re comfortable with hearing from me once in a while.

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