What Summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro Taught Me About Pressing On

In Op-Eds by Matthew Ruigu

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

—Philippians 3:12-14

In December 2015, four of us left Nairobi, Kenya to head for Arusha, Tanzania. This was the first leg in what was to be an equally adventurous, heart-breaking, unnerving, picturesque and ultimately, life-changing experience.

We were on our way to attempt Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa, standing at 5,895m/19,341ft. It is actually located in the town of Moshi, Tanzania. The bus ride from Arusha to Moshi is memorable. The bus chugs along and one can tell from the sound of the engine and the speed that the steep terrain is threatening to halt its progress. Luckily ours had a good engine. A lesser one would not have made it.

The area around the mountain is managed by the Tanzania Wildlife Authority, a stern organization that runs the park with an iron fist. Which is just as well as it is a remarkably clean mountain, with no litter – which would ordinarily be a problem in a place with the high traffic of Kilimanjaro.

Our excursion group had climbers, a chief guide, three assistants and several cooks and porters. As you can imagine it takes quite some help to do something like this, especially for those of us attempting a serious mountain for the first time.

En route to the summit.

It took us a total of six days, four ascending and two descending. By the way, no one really prepares for how difficult descending can be. One of our group got all the way to the summit -Uhuru peak – and then got injured on the way down. He eventually had to be evacuated.

Day five was the most dramatic of the whole excursion. It was also the day when I drew biblical lessons. Don’t get me wrong, I pray every day like a good Christian, but there is something about the mountain and how little control you have of the proceedings that makes you want to be “good with God.” Secondly, it did not help that the movie “Everest”* premiered in Nairobi earlier that year (2015). I didn’t watch it, but my mates did and I heard enough. I also read the print version of it, ‘Into Thin Air’ by journalist, mountain climber and Everest ’96 survivor, John Krakauer. Perhaps I should not have read it or I should not have gone up Kili with my memory of the book so fresh. That’s all moot now, isn’t it? The point is, I prayed.

Day four ended with us at the last camp called Kibo (4,730m/15,520ft), from where we would launch the summit attempt. It is a desolate place, with no greenery, cold as a freezer (I’m from temperate Nairobi and asthmatic – I do not do cold very well!). We went to sleep early as the summit launch began in the wee hours of the morning.

We actually woke up at midnight to prepare and have breakfast. Summit launch proper began for us at 2am. We walked in single file on a steep, scree-filled terrain, shooting for the lower peak called Gilman’s (5,681m/19,341ft).

Variously between 90 and 120 minutes, we the ‘faster’ group had passed our colleagues, and we made steady progress. For me the first signs that I may not make it to the top surfaced at about 5am. Dog tired, I’d shed my backpack and handed it to Omari, the guide who was closest to me. By this time, I was taking a few steps at a time and resting, sipping water (sometimes just so I could rest longer) and then taking a few steps. The cycle repeated itself over and over. I was the slowest of the faster group. At 6am, I heard my friends cheering and the guide told me they had hit Gilman’s. The cheers were very audible and so I was encouraged to, like Paul in the passage, press on. Mountain distances are unlike any other, however. The cheers that were so audible that I felt I could literally ‘touch’ them took me 30 excruciating minutes to get to. But I did get there.

I’d sworn that I would not go past Gilman’s. I’d also decided that when I descended, I would give away all my gear and never attempt another mountain. Ever! But getting to Gilman’s was such a psychological lift, I felt renewed and re-energized. So once again – like Paul – I forgot what I had just gone through, all the pain of the last couple of hours, and pressed on.

Matthew and his climbing companions at Gilman’s Point on Kilimanjaro.

From Gilman’s, it took me two hours to get to the roof of Africa. If I had known that at the time, I would surely have turned back. Ignorance is bliss, it is said.

From Gilman’s point, we were on ice. At that time in the morning, it is not dangerous to walk on. But it is, well, freezing. Through my boots and my woolen, very thick socks, my toes felt like I might be barefoot. I checked to see if my boots were cracked more than a few times!

I could see my friends up ahead, pressing on. Later, as we exchanged war stories, it occurred to me that everyone was battling very personal demons. At the time, I felt so alone, but I was determined. It had been a good year of preparations. We had done it mostly as a team and here we were. Part of this trudging on was for the team.

At 7.30am, I got to 5,895m, Uhuru Peak – the roof of Africa. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of exhilaration and achievement coupled by the realization that I could never have done it by myself. God in his infinite wisdom had set so many processes in motion on my behalf in the year 2015 for me to be able to be there. Tears of joy, of pain that was finally worth it and of God’s goodness rolled down from my eyes.

Looking down from the highest point in Africa.

It is picturesque up there, one could build a hut and live up there, but for the cold. I had scaled Mt. Kilimanjaro!

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro was not my goal in life. But it was my goal in 2015 and, in particular, for six days in December of that year. I obtained that goal, but I have not obtained the goal. I press on every day.

*“Everest” the movie is not based on John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air but on Beck Weathers’ memoir Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest. They are both about the famous 1996 disaster on Everest.

Matthew Ruigu

Translations And Communications Officer at Biblica Africa

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