I often used to wonder, “What could be better than standing on the summit of Mount Everest?” After reaching the top of the world in 2006 and falling in love with the man I would marry on that very same trip, who could fault me for worrying that whatever came after would only pale in comparison?
When I considered what might top Everest, I thought only the moon would do. But, as I have no concrete plans to blast off into outer space (yet), Africa’s Mount Mawenzi came to be a more realistic aspiration. Not only did I envision it being just as magical in every sense of the word, but I foresaw it being one of the most challenging climbs I might ever attempt. It was clear from reading the very old and dated guidebooks that it was nearly as remote as the moon; there wouldn’t be a trail or even a footpath to follow. The rock itself was also sure to be both foreign and fragile, making the chance of success very slim.
Of all the mountains in the world, why choose Mawenzi? How does one go from climbing Mount Everest to setting one’s sights on an obscure obstacle on the African continent? You know the saying—there are no coincidences. It just so happens that my very first mountain outside of the United States was not too far from Mount Mawenzi. When I first learned to rock climb, I had the simple goal of traveling to faraway mountains and testing my skills by climbing moderately-rated rock to the top. Mount Kenya was the first foreign peak I conquered, and let me tell you, she did not disappoint.
That entire trip felt like a major expedition. It took months of planning and preparation, and the climb itself was full of epic moments. Route-finding was extremely difficult, and the unpredictable weather and tension between me and my partner only added to the challenge. Despite this, it was there on Mount Kenya that my life was thrust onto a new path. I knew I would spend the rest of my life climbing tall mountains and that I would explore more of what Africa had to offer. I was hooked, though I’d also learned a valuable lesson: Choose your climbing partner wisely. The person on the other end of that rope—the person who quite literally has your life in their hands—shapes the entire experience.
In 2010, my stepfather learned that my husband, Brad, was taking a small group up Mount Kilimanjaro and asked if he could come along. In just a matter of days, the trip became a family affair with my mom tagging along to go on safari. By this time, there was nothing particularly hard about this mountain for me, though it was challenging to ascend 19,400 feet in just 7 days. And, like all mountains, the summit day was a big undertaking as it left us all in a state of complete physical and emotional exhaustion. I will never forget the last few steps to the top, holding my stepfather’s arm. Here, a second lesson came into focus. Memories are not made simply by getting to the top. Truly lasting and treasured moments become etched in one’s mind only after enduring the trials in getting there.
Our climb of Kilimanjaro took us on a route that allowed us to gaze at Mawenzi for multiple days. We must have seen three sides of this spectacular mountain during our trip, and while Mawenzi is majestic from the ground, nothing compared to the seeing it from the summit of Kilimanjaro. It is a rugged and jagged peak that looks like you could start hiking from any point along the base and find an exciting route to the top. I could already see more than 50 ways to scale it, and could not help but think how being its lone climber would add to the thrill. From then on, Mawenzi tugged at my heart strings like no other.
My husband and I immediately reached out to the African government to inquire if it had ever been climbed. We were told that indeed it had—but was permanently closed 30 years prior due to dangerous rock fall, the sad reality of a warming planet. Early photos of Mawenzi show it snow covered, but just like the slow demise of the glaciers on Kilimanjaro, one is now hard-pressed to find any ice or snow on Mawenzi most of the year. With this knowledge in hand, I filed away the thought of climbing it and set about conquering others. After all, every mountaineer knows there is always another mountain to climb.
In 2011, a tragic accident on Mount Rainier resulted in the loss of a very good friend and shook my confidence to its core. As I grappled with my emotions, I couldn’t help but long for another mountain escape. It seemed only logical to return to a place where I’d discovered my love and joy for the sport—Africa. Only here, in this uncrowded paradise, would I see what it felt like to climb again. I decided to fly solo on this journey. Not only did I fear something going wrong, but I didn’t want the responsibility of caring for anyone else. All I wanted was to walk and think for days on end.
The obvious choice for this soul-searching climb was the highest point of Uganda, Mount Stanley. There were no crowds or technical difficulty, but it did pose a challenging approach. It was like doing a Spartan race before such a thing existed—this was one tough mudder! Mount Stanley was wet, muddy, and cold, but it offered me everything I needed: complete peace and solitude for days. Reaching the summit, with the Congo over my right shoulder and Uganda over my left, was a bittersweet victory. It had everything I wanted except for a partner to share in the joy. Another lesson was coming into view: A summit without a friend is not a joyous moment.
It was just a few days after coming off Mount Stanley that I realized I had reached four of the five highest points in Africa. When I questioned which mountain I was missing, imagine my surprise when I learned it was Mount Mawenzi! Again, my husband and I wrote to the African government, attempting to build a solid case for them granting us an exception to climb it. After all, I thought, how could they deprive me of bagging the five highest points in Africa? Their reply, as before, was a resounding “NO!”
Undeterred, we wrote in annually for permission to climb, and, year after year, we were disappointed to receive notice that Mawenzi remained closed. It wasn’t until 2017 that our shameless begging resulted in a permit. It was a go, yet we had one small problem: Brad was guiding a group up Kilimanjaro and did not have the time to do both. I finally had a permit but no partner.
With the risk of losing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I could not help but ask, with whom would I be willing to go to the moon, if not my husband? Who else could I count on to hold it together as we ventured into the unknown? Who else would go to the other side of the world and not only pass on the majestic Kilimanjaro, but instead attempt a climb with little chance of success?
The answer—in Part Two.