By guest blogger: Maryann Eikens

I recently took a trip to Tanzania, Africa in celebration of 25 years of marriage . Our goal was to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest free-standing peak in the world; then go on safari for a week in the Serengeti desert. Our itinerary from REI Adventures described the climb as: “Six days up and back from 5 to 15 miles a day, all meals provided, no technical climbing and you stay in huts along the way.” I would describe experience as “the most amazing, unforgetable adventure I could ever have imagined, but also a greater challenge than I realized.”

The first day of the climb seemed surreal, maybe due to jet lag, or maybe due to being in such a beautiful foreign land, ready to conquer a mountain previously only dreamed of. We arrived at the Marangu Gate at Kilimanjao National Park. Our local guide, Peter Mateo (who became our mother, father, and friend by the end) assembled our group of 15 climbers and 20 – porters, crew, and assistant guides, at the trail head where a lively welcoming ceremony took place. They sang to us and we danced forward one at a time to receive an artificial flower lei to wear at the top. Historically climbers picked a flower that grew high on the mountain, but this has since been forbidden in order to save the species.

Finally, we shouldered our backpacks and started up the trail through a thickly vegetated tropical forest. Looking up, we could see blue monkeys, and black and white colobus monkeys with long flowing tails. We headed toward our first camp which was 5.5 miles from the gate, hurrying because we got a late start. As we walked we got to know the other climbers, unaware of just how intimate we would be by summit day. If you snore, talk in your sleep, or make lots of trips to the choh (Swahili for toilet) in the night – everyone knows!

Being last group to arrive at Mandara Hut, we got the last choice of hut space. We all wound up in the attic space above the dining hall. To get there you had to climb up a wooden ladder in this A-framed hut, ending in a very narrow and cozy space. We were now at over 9,000’ so lots of body heat in the room was a good thing.

It was my birthday, so after dinner our group sang “Happy Birthday.” A bunch of beer-drinking German climbers joined in. We hung out listening to “smiling stories” told by our guide as our oxygen levels were taken and recorded. The stories were probably very funny, but due to cultural differences we never really got them. The lights in the hut went out suddenly (a frequent event in Tanzania) and after a few quiet seconds, the Germans began singing Happy Birthday again. We joined in! How could they be drinking at this altitude and not getting sick we wondered?

Later, as I lay in the bunk taking deep breaths to get enough air, I thought: “I am at almost 10,000 ft.!” I waited for  sleep as head lamps faded out and wooden doors slammed. People made multiple trips through the night down the ladder and out to the choh, due to a side effect of the altitude medicine. The last thoughts in my head as I drifted off were:

“I hope I don’t have to climb down that ladder in the dark…and what will being at almost 20,000’ on summit day be like?” (Part one)

     Maryann Eikens was born in Hartford, Michigan, and after graduating college from University of Minnesota- Duluth, majoring in graphic design, Maryann moved to the west and worked as a graphic designer / illustrator while raising 4 kids with her husband. In the winter of 2005, after breaking a wrist snowboarding, Maryann decided to try a sculpting class to help strengthen the recovering wrist. She discovered a passion and talent for the medium. She has resided in a canyon outside of Missoula for the past 11 years, and enjoys her studio there with views of the landscape and wildlife that inspire her.