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 Tanzanian Ministry of Tourism 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?
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!
While we were about to find ourselves in total isolation, we were not alone. We were a part of a bigger and close knit team. Tom and I decided we would join my husband’s expedition to climb Kilimanjaro and simply run up Mawenzi while the team took a rest day at the Mawenzi Tarn camp which is located at the base of our mountain. Heck, we thought, if we do this mountain in style and feel good after the effort, we can simply join our team to climb Kilimanjaro and rack up a double header. By all estimates we would be on top by 10:00 or 11:00 am and back to camp by 3:00 pm with plenty of time to rest and ready ourselves to advance the next day to Kili’s high camp. Not….
Mawenzi Tarn is a great camp. It sits just below the mountain and positions us about 1 and half hours from the start of the climb. It was clear from a distance that Mawenzi was the baby sister to Kili but once this close, she felt a lot larger. One thing is for certain that what she lacked in height she made up for in ruggedness. Mawenzi was not inviting.
Normally when I look up at a mountain it implores me to climb it. Mawenzi offered no open arm, no pathway and no signal that we should go anywhere near her. She certainly offered no indication of where to start our climb or where to go once we were on her flanks. She simply looked like she was going to test us.
And so the story goes….it was time to put on my big girl pants and get this climb underway. There was no room for excuses but certainly a lot of time for doubt to creep in. I must admit there were many moments of me wishing I could abort this climb, take a rest day with everyone else, and take the familiar path to the top of Kili with the team under the safe guidance and wings of my husband. The alternative was to walk towards this big jagged mountain and start climbing it at the crack of dawn and have no idea where I am going or if I will ever get to the top. Tom and I of course chose the path less traveled.
Our local Kili guide, Evans, claimed he knew exactly where the start of the climb was located and promised he could get us there in the dark in time for a sunrise start. We would leave basecamp at 4:00 am and start our climb at 5:30 am.
As I look back I question why I trusted his guidance as it is certain there are many different places to start a climb of this mountain. Was our guide simply taking us to the last place he saw someone begin to climb the mountain? He certainly had never climbed it himself. I think I figured he was taking us to the right side of the mountain…and we simply had to give this a go. Just getting to the base of any mountain is often half the battle. There are many scree slopes, overhanging rock walls and seemingly dead ends to be encountered on the approach. You never want to waste time finding the start. It is common to search it out the day before and stash your gear so the day of the climb you can sprint to the start.
At 4:00 we were walking towards the mountain. It was extremely dark and cold and the weight of all of the climbing gear combined with the rocky and unfamiliar trail was keeping us at a slow pace. Evans seemed to know exactly what he was doing and where he was going. Off in the distance we could see a full moon setting just behind Mount Kilimanjaro. It was the most impressive moonset that I had ever seen. I thought I was recording it on my GoPro only to realize when I got home that my hands were so cold and numb that I never really pressed the start record button. Instead of staring through the viewer, I held the GoPro still and watched in real time. Despite frozen fingers, the sight will forever be etched in my mind.
With the rise of the sun there was a corresponding rise of my enthusiasm. All mountains seem safer in daylight and the temperatures always feel warmer when the sun is hitting your face. Our guide Evans had brought us to the start of the climb and happily proclaimed this is it, go that way. He pointed to where we were to take off and stood there thinking…that certainly does not look right nor does it mirror anything stated in the guidebook. I do not know what we were expecting to see….but I will say, we were both shocked by what we were not seeing…where to go! We dumped all of our gear on the ground and began racking up for the climb. Evans stated he would be in this very spot upon our return.
There was no sign of a trail or a path…there was nothing but a broad canvas. It appeared we could go in any direction. Given the low angle of the mountain, it was difficult to see much beyond 20-80 feet at any given time. Advancing into the unknown is a very eerie feeling that causes a lot of angst. Our senses told us we needed to go up and fade to the right. Moving up and right proved to be a very safe strategy as doing so ensured rocks would not be dropped on the climber below. Our mantra was always to keep moving to stay warm and to take the path of least resistance to avoid added danger. Things were going seemingly well until both of my feet flailed out from below me when the rocks I was standing on both gave way simultaneously. Fortunately both of the rocks that was holding in each hand held sturdy and strong. I was able to get my feet reposition on solid steps…..but the event was a solid reminder that this mountain had been closed for the past 30 years for a reason.
We started off wearing everything we brought and I do not think we ever shed a layer. The winds were relentless all day. Wind is the one thing that is grating…it zaps energy, plays on your nerves and insures you will never let your guard down and relax. We seemed to be keeping a good pace and it was agreed in advance that we would check in with base camp when we were nearing the summit. It was about that time that Tom and I rounded a corner and we could see our basecamp far below in the distance. This was our reminder to check in. We were hesitant to do so sooner as doing so required us to slow down, take off our gloves and reach into our packs. We were so excited to report our progress and very pleased when Brad picked up our radio call. We shouted we are about three pitches below the summit and should be on top in the next hour. The silence on the other end told us something was wrong. Little did they know they could see us, and they reported that we were no where near the top, in fact they felt we were barely half way to the summit.
At that point you do what any mountaineer would do and you start calculation the hours of remaining daylight. Worse case we would reach the top at 3:00 pm and take 2 ½ to 3 hours of to get down….and back to camp in time for dinner. Not…..
Tom and I forged on, our conversation slowed and we both contemplated what a long day this was going to be. I worried if my partner would want to continue. We both wondered what we were in for….and we certainly discussed the worse case scenario….we get up this thing and then it turns dark and we huddle in an alcove until the next day. Not a desired outcome but a reality none-the-less. The alternative would be to turn around now, admit defeat and head back to camp. We chose to keep going.
There were so many false summits…..so very many. It seemed like we would never get there until we were there. It came out of nowhere. I happened to be in lead and I topped out on the crest of a pinnacle and the ground fell away below me. I could not believe it. I shouted out to Tom that I was on top but I doubt he could hear me due to the howling winds. I immediately anchored myself to some rocks and begin pulling in the rope until I could feel that Tom was secure on the other end. Within ten minutes he was with me….and we were elated. We had very little time to celebrate as we were so cold and so afraid of the setting sun. It was close to 5:00 pm. We tried to let basecamp know but we had no clear line of sight and therefore no signal. We decided to take a couple photos and head down. We still figured we could hit the ground before dark and the trail to camp would be easy. Not….
Mawenzi has multiple summits. It seemed obvious that we were at the highest point but there was not marker confirming our arrival, no logbook to sign, no cross to signal we had reached our goal. We looked in every direction and called it success. It certainly seemed evident that we were on the far side of the gully which was a good confirmation we had reached the main summit. I have never found reaching any summit to be a moment of great bliss and joy. It is always quite the opposite…there is an overwhelming sense of relief followed by an extreme fear over how do get I off this thing. Many a climber will express that is harder to get down than to get up the mountain. I think this is due in part to the fact the a lot of the air has been let out of your tires….the adrenaline has subsided, the cold has set in and the thought of the long road ahead is in your face. I did a 360 film of the view with the GoPro and we took our obligatory summit photos….thank goodness as again I did not turn on the GoPro. Thank goodness the view is etched in my memory.
The elation of reaching your goals is often lost in your fear of how you will get safely off the mountain. There is little time to celebrate because you are overcome by the daunting task of finding a safe route off the mountain and back to camp where you know your friends and family are worried and waiting. Despite it being late in the afternoon, we remained hopeful we could reach the ground before dark. As long as that would happen, we knew we could find our way back to the camp.
When you begin your descent, it is rarely a retracing of the way you ascended the mountain. When ascending you tend to take the path of least resistance (lowest angle) that often zigs and zags and winds around from one side to other of the mountain. When you descend you often head straight down the mountain as you are no longer climbing and instead you rappelling quickly down your rope often on the steepest part of the mountain. Because you are not retracing your steps you often do not know what you might find……you basically look for a descent path that will be free of dangerous loose rock and present a landing that you can reach and build the next rappel station. This situation is further compounded because you lose your line of site and therefore all radio communication back to base camp.
While we did not count, if I were to guess, Tom and I maybe climbed 24 rope pitches of varying lengths to get to the top and we fathomed we could descend the mountain in approximately 8- 12 rappels.
Directionally we knew which way we wanted to head. We had a lot of extra tat (slings, cord and wrap rings to build safe anchors for lowering off. Essentially you can wrap a long cord of rope around a very solid rock, add what is known as a quick link (a steal oval ring strong enough to hold the weight of car, and securely tie the two ends of the rope together. You thread the rope through the quick link and each climber takes turns rappelling down the length of the rope. The person going first is responsible for stopping at the right spot for building the next anchor. Go too far and you will run out of rope, don’t go far enough and you add hours to your descent and you run the risk that you may not have enough tat to get you to the ground. Sometimes you throw the rope over a bulge and set off on rappel you cannot see what lies below.
I distinctly recall one moment where I was beginning my rappel in very windy conditions. The strong winds all but completely shut off the luxury of conversing with your partner. Not only was Tom out of sight but I had to strain to hear him. When I was about 20 feet below Tom he began yelling that I needed to stop. I could detect some fear and concern in his voice but I was in no position to stop as was dangling several feet from the wall with no way to build an anchor, tie myself to the anchor and remove myself from the rope.
The fear in me caused me to shout back (scream at the top of my lungs) that I had to keep going until I could reach a ledge or get close enough to the wall to build an anchor to secure myself. Of course Tom could not hear a word I was saying. We bantered back and fourth while I contemplated my options. Tom continued yelling that I must stop and I continued shouting back that stopping was not an option. This went on for what seemed like eternity. As I kept descending, Tom kept yelling. Finally after about six exchanges each, I lost it and yelled, “Tom I can’t fucking stop, there is no fucking place to stop, if I fucking stop, I am going to fucking die, as I am going fall off this fucking mountain and you will fucking die too. Tom’s only response was “okay.”
That was exactly the right response and exactly what I needed to hear from my partner. To this day, that moment is etched in my mind. That is when we were completely in sync. At that moment, I knew he understood that I was in a really awkward and tough position and he knew that I needed his full support and trust to do the right thing. It is a very powerful synergy that exists when the only thing connecting you to your partner and holding you on the mountain is a very skinny 8.1 mm rope that is hanging from an even skinnier rope that is looped around a rock that you pray is not going to fragment and break away and send you both plummeting to the valley below.
From Toms vantage point, he thought I was traveling in a direction that would ultimately get the rope stuck when we went to pull it. From my vantage point, I was dangling in the air several feet from the wall with 4,000 feet of free fall below me. I was finally able to get low enough that I could sway myself to the wall. While one hand held my rope, my free hand grabbed at a protruding horn to pull myself close to the wall where I could place gear to build the next rappel station. Think about this…my hands were both occupied. I had to loop the rope around one leg so as to prevent me from sliding off the end of the rope and to free a hand to build the anchor. If I let go of the horn, I found myself swinging away from the wall. During these moments, it is easy to expend and waste precious energy fighting your circumstance. The fear of the unknown looms.
Tom joins shortly and sees the magnitude of our situation…no words are needed or exchanged. He calmly explains that he is fearful the rope will not pull but we get very lucky…..it comes flying down and neither of us complain when it lands hard and whips us both. This is mountaineering. We take turns going first and sharing the burden of the decision making. We sense we are more than half way down when we lose that last bit of the sun. Our rappels are now that much more dangerous and frightening as we cannot see where we are headed. It is neither better to be the first down the rope or the one left alone up high. In both situations it is very eerie. To head off into the deep dark void is just as scary as being left high above in complete solitude not knowing if your partner is reaching a place of security and safety. Your mind plays tricks…what if my partner just descends off the end of the rope…..or what if the rope breaks and I free fall to the ground. It seems as the sun leaves, so does the wind and it gets very quiet.
By now we are both so very tired, thirsty, and hungry. Decision making becomes a bit for difficult. We take less time to make decisions as we have the pressure of nightfall. Just when my spirit is about to break and I am within seconds of crying, I see a glow light….it seems to be flickering in the sky….but NO, it is approximately a football field away from us but only 100 feet below us….it was one of our porters, no wait, there is another light…it is another porter….and another….Evans and two of his staff had come to meet us. Later we find out they did not come to meet us….but instead they never left us….they waited all day for us…..We were elated. We knew we were much closer than we thought. We needed only descend one more rope length and then traverse a ledge….over to their side of the mountain.
We were met with food, drink, and most importantly the open arms and care and concern of our porter staff. We could now breath a sigh of relief that we would not get lost finding our way back to camp, yet we still had a good one and a half hours to go to get back to camp. They took the weight off our backs by grabbing our packs and they led us safely down the mountain. It was nice not to have to think about where we were going. Tom and I only needed to focus on placing one foot in front of the other and not falling over from the tremendous fatigue. It feels a bit like a death march as your entire body aches, you almost always have a mild headache from dehydration, and your feet hurt from being in climbing shoes all day and your neck is tired from looking up and down.
We slowly make our way into camp very close to midnight and we see lots of little faces of our friends peeking out from their tents to tell us how happy they are we are safe. Of course they were all supposed to be sound asleep as tomorrow was their day to climb their mountain. While Tom and I felt a bit guilty for being a reason our friends did not get to bed as early as planned, we do have some belief that our success gave them a little bit of “can do, never give up” attitude to get up their mountain. I am proud to report that our team had 100% success rate on Kili and Tom and I were there to greet them when they stumbled down the mountain with the same feelings of complete elation combined with total exhaustion. Together we all slowly made our way off both mountains and back to town where warm showers and cold beers greeted us. It was only days later that we all basked in the glory and felt the since of accomplishment that comes with pushing beyond your comfort zone.