The Freedom Climb

March 28, 2013 by Julie Perry Nelson








I joined 47 other adventurous Christian women in the Freedom Climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, at 19,340 ft, the highest mountain in Africa.  The purpose of the climb was to raise awareness of human trafficking and to raise funds to support projects to combat human trafficking.  Each of us had a goal of raising $10,000.  And we came close; as a group we raised over $325,000!  Several months later, I met my goal.

The projects we supported are those funded through Operation Mobilization, the umbrella organization for the climb.  The projects are in 118 countries and include provision of basic shelter and necessities, long term rehabilitation, trauma counseling, life skills training, micro-loans for small business start-up, education, prenatal care, and basic support for the women and children affected. Why would we do this?  Climbers were from 10 states in the U.S., Canada, England, Ireland, Kosovo, Cambodia, South Africa, Russia, New Zealand, and Gambia.  Each of us had her own reasons, but I had thought about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro for several years.

When I learned of this group and the great cause for which they were climbing, it was a perfect match.  Others in the group had served as missionaries and had seen the effects of human trafficking or worked with victims.  The youngest of the group was 18; the oldest (me) was 73.  Most of the climbers were in their 40s and 50s; one was 62, two were 65, and one was 70. I spent several months in Colorado before the climb, living at an elevation of 5000 ft.  I trained by hiking Pikes Peak with about half of the women who participated in the climb.  I also hiked 6 to 10 miles three to four times a week in the hills and trails around where I was living in Colorado.  Others worked out in gyms with trainers and hiked wherever they lived.

We flew from our various starting points to Nairobi, Kenya, where we spent the night in a hotel.  The next morning, we had an orientation meeting, were divided into four teams of 12 each (I was on the Red Team), and met our guides.  We drove in vans to Kibo Slopes Lodge in Loitokitok, Tanzania, 143 miles southeast of Nairobi.  On the way, we saw many cows and goats, a few sheep, a herd of donkeys, a giraffe, some zebra, and marabou storks.  At the Lodge, we met the prayer group, 10 women who were going to pray for us during the climb.  We repacked our day packs and duffel bags (maximum weight 8 kgs [17.6 lbs]) and weighed them to make sure they did not exceed the weight limit.

On January 11, 2012, a National Day of Awareness of Human Trafficking in the U.S.,  we drove to the starting point and met our crew of about 130 guides, porters, and cooks, distributed our duffel bags among the porters, and started on the trek at 1:05 pm.  We each carried a day pack with at least 3 liters of water, snacks, rain gear, hand sanitizer, toilet tissue, sunscreen, and first aid supplies. Porters carried the tents, food, and other supplies.  One of the porters carried a medical kit of emergency supplies.  We were always to stay behind the guide who led the way reminding us to walk “pole, pole” (slowly, slowly).  We were to take 4 ½ days to reach the point of the start of the final ascent.  The slow pace was to help us acclimate to the change in altitude and decrease in oxygen in the air we were breathing. We started at 6890 ft. elevation and had a fairly smooth path through trees so it was cool and shady but became rocky later in the day.

The rocks were 4 to 8 inches in diameter with no spaces in between which made for difficult walking. I saw a couple of colobus monkeys. There were some beautiful bright colored flowers peeking through the bushes along the way.  We walked 1 ½ hours then stopped for lunch at a picnic table and had a lunch of salad, avocado, mango, banana, tea, coffee, and  hot chocolate set up by the porters.

A permanent toilet (similar to one in a campground in the U.S) was available. (The rest of the day, we went behind trees or bushes for our toilet.  We had to carry toilet tissue and a plastic bag to carry the tissue out.) The last part of the path was covered with good sized rocks.  When we reached our campsite after a 6.2 mile hike, the sleeping tents with our duffel bags inside, cook tents, dining tents, and portable toilets were set up.  At the end of the day’s trek, we were invited into the dining tent for tea.  This consisted of popcorn, cookies, tea, coffee, or hot chocolate.

We set up our sleeping bags, set out clothes for the next day, then had a typical dinner; soup followed by a high carbohydrate meal for energy (pasta or rice and bread) with a sauce of vegetables and chicken or tomato sauce and often fresh fruit, usually oranges and avocados.  We were to bed early to be prepared to get up and continue our trek in the morning. In the morning, Day 2, porters brought us basins of warm water and we had a quick wash of our face and hands.  We had a big breakfast of porridge, fried eggs, toast, fruit, and coffee, tea or hot chocolate.  We then started hiking. We walked through several ecosystems; the vegetation changed as we increased in elevation.  Trees gave way to bushes.  We stopped at some caves at 11,811 ft for a short rest then continued on a short way to the second set of caves at 10,827 ft. and had lunch.  The path today was rocky the whole way which made for a difficult hike.

We walked pole, pole for 8.7 miles which took us 10 ½ hours.  (The longest I had ever walked prior to this trek was a 10 mile hike that took 4 ½ hours!). At our camp that night we had a good view of Mawenzi peak, a rugged peak a distance from Mt. Kilimanjaro.  After our tea, filling of our water containers with boiled water (and adding iodine tablets), and dinner, we went to bed.  We overnighted at the edge of the forest belt.  We slept in our clothes, the same ones for the last couple of days.  It was cold at night so uncomfortable to change.

Day 3 we hiked 5 hours to Tarn Hut (a tarn is a small lake formed by glaciers).  We reached the foot of Mawenzi Peak at 14,206 ft.  Some parts of the hike were hard up and down and some real rock climbing going hand over hand.  I had to be helped over some of the rocks (I have short legs). We had radio contact with the prayer group and I was able to speak with them. They were anxious to hear of our progress and to let us know that prayers for us continue. We also always prayed before meals and if one of us had an ache or pain or was discouraged, others laid hands on us and prayed.  It was a spiritual journey as well as a physical one.  Sheila was my prayer buddy and prayed for me during the climb.

Day 4 we hiked across Kibo Saddle a barren, fairly level stretch of sand with occasional very large rocks.  We had long views across the sand.  I felt like we were in a desert as we were above all vegetation.  It was hot sometimes and cold and windy at other times.  We descended to about 13,123 ft then up to 15,583 ft. at the School Hut.  This was a long hard day but I was able to keep up although I was very tired at the end of the day.

At 4 pm, we lined up like sausages in our sleeping bags to try to nap, two to a mattress, on five twin-sized mattresses that were lined up side by side.  We were roused for dinner at 6. I wasn’t hungry and didn’t eat very much.  We went back to bed to try to sleep till 11 with plans to start the ascent at 12 midnight. Then it was time for the final attempt to summit!  When they called us at 11, I just couldn’t do it.  I had not slept, was tired, and looking at another 12 hours or so of hiking.  Of course, I wish now someone had urged me to get up and go for it!!  Another hiker, Sue, also didn’t do the ascent she had not slept for 4 days and was exhausted.  I did have a headache but an acetaminophen took care of it.  The Red Team left about 12:30 am and I tried to go to sleep.  We learned later that 7 of the 12 of the Red Team summitted at Uhuru Peak, the highest point, a remarkable accomplishment. I didn’t sleep well and we had no breakfast because we were supposed to be climbing the mountain!  A porter took Sue and me directly to our camp for that night.

The climbers descended to an intermediate camp for a meal and a rest before hiking the rest of the way to our campsite.  Sue and I walked from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm to our camp at 12,205 ft.  Climbers started coming down; Cynthia was last and arrived at 9:30 pm after a hike of 21 hours!  Two of the climbers had to be carried down the mountain from the campsite; one was exhausted and one was hypothermic.  Incredibly, 43 of the 48 climbers summitted.  We set a record for the largest all-women group to attempt the climb and for the largest percentage (90%) of people who summitted.

Afterward the climbers told stories of the difficulty of the climb to the summit with many manifesting altitude sickness by vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, and hallucinations.  Near the top, they had to cross a glacier and walk on ice and snow. The courage of  the women continuing to climb in spite of the difficulties is incredible. The last day, we had a 6+ hour walk to Marangu Gate through forest.  I saw some blue monkeys.  My feet were really sore after the downhill.  They were fine till about the last hour.  When we reached base, we gathered by teams and gave out the tips and gifts we’d brought: shirts, pens, and souvenirs of home.  Many of the climbers gave some of their socks, shirts, and climbing gear to the porters.  We then drove to Loitokitok cottages where we had stayed before the climb.

We arrived about 9 pm; I was too tired to eat dinner so took a shower and went to bed. Would I do it again?  Yes, in a heart beat!! But this time I would hire a porter to carry my day pack and would try to summit.  Before we left, we were advised that “No matter how much it hurts, keep going.  If you don’t continue, it will hurt worse to come home and say you didn’t make it.”  That was to be my mantra, but I forgot it!  And yes, it does hurt to say, I didn’t reach the top.  But I did climb further, longer, and higher than I have ever done before and I am proud of that effort! Check out www.thefreedomclimb.net for more information about the projects and a video of an interview on Fox TV (the footage shows me climbing, hat, white shirt in front of some climbers.)

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