As fellow mountaineers will likely agree, one of the greatest joys of a major expedition is the anticipation and coordination that starts months before the actual climb. But before I could begin planning my Mawenzi expedition, I needed a climbing partner. The Chosen One needed to be someone that could handle getting cold, lost, tired, turned around, and who could get shot down and get up again. I knew I needed someone who, no matter how high the obstacles or how low the moods, I could rest assured that we would return home the best of friends.
While mountains have always provided me with a great way to escape and be in complete solitude, I have found that the real joy comes from sharing the experience. For me, that “Wish You Were Here” postcard is totally lacking. That pretty piece of cardboard, with just room enough to write three lines, has always paled in comparison to the actual experience. I’ll admit that it took me all of 20 years and at least ten major expeditions to learn that the right partner was the single most important element of a rewarding climb; however, it took me only 30 seconds to know who I needed by my side on Mawenzi.
Reflecting on my most defining and epic climbs, one person stood out from the rest. Who was it that greeted me at the top of every climb with a bar of chocolate? Or was there when I did my first rappel and got my ponytail caught in the belay device? Or who talked me down the mountain on my first alpine day, when I did not have enough rubber on my soles, clothes in my pack, or gas in my tank to get back to the trailhead on my own? Or was tied into the other end of my rope and calmly handled my needing to pee when we were hanging 150 feet off the ground? It was the same person that came over to my house every night for two months to help me find, pack, and repack my gear to go climb the highest mountain in the world. That person was Tom Wilson.
My only worry was, would he say yes?
What I love about Tom is that he rarely says no. Instead, he often responds with a resounding “Why not?” His engineering mindset prompts him to ask many important questions before agreeing to go anywhere, so his approval is always contingent on an expedition passing his “sniff test.” My Mawenzi proposal was no different, and my goal was to make sure he couldn’t find a reason not to go. Our exchange went roughly as follows:
Where is this mountain named Mawenzi? Next to Kilimanjaro.
Has it been climbed before? Yes, but the records are vague.
Why do you want to do it? It is beautiful and I believe I will be the first woman to do the top five highest peaks of Africa, which, naturally, will make me the Queen of Africa (haha).
How high is it? 16,000 feet and change.
What is the route you have in mind? I don’t have one, though it appears to be climbable from all sides.
How hard is it reported to be? 5.4 to 5.6—as long as we don’t go off route.
Is there a route description? … Not really.
How many days will it take us to climb it? I don’t know for sure, but I think we can do it in one long day.
When was it last climbed? Officially over 30 years ago.
Why was it closed? It has been deemed too dangerous due to rockfall caused by years of snowmelt.
Will we have a guide? No. We are on our own.
What will the temperatures be like? It’s Africa—temperatures can swing from very hot to very cold, and the summit could have a below-zero windchill.
How will we get there? We will be part of my husband’s Kilimanjaro expedition. That team will have a rest day at our base camp. While they rest, we climb, and if we feel good the next day, we can follow them up Kilimanjaro.
If we get to the top, how do we get back down? We rappel.
I awaited Tom’s decision anxiously. With my husband unable to do the climb with me, Tom was my one and only pick. If he decided not to go, I would be forced to pass on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
He must have liked my answers because within a few days, Tom had sent in his deposit. By golly, we had a mountain to climb!
The climb — in Part Three