On her 30th birthday, Sandra Soriano summits the mighty Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak

Summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro on the eve of my 30th birthday was a truly awe-inspiring and unforgettable adventure. When I first proposed the idea to family and friends they were confused. Would I want to spend a hallmark celebration dirty, sweaty and in pain? The truth is, I couldn’t have asked for anything more: a life-changing experience with nature, best friends, and deep personal growth, all while in pursuit of the world’s tallest freestanding mountain.


The adventure started months before—preparing equipment, trail mix, and training. Complete amateurs, none of us had ever gone camping or hiking at high altitudes. Yet it could have been this lack of experience and naïve confidence that got us up a mountain 5,896 metres tall. By the time we checked in at Nairobi, our waterproof North Face duffel bags were exploding with emergency medications and camping snacks to supply a small village. Yellow fever waivers in hand, our overnight in Kenya was brief but chaotic, and a riotously colourful introduction to East Africa.

Our next stop was Arusha, a small Tanzanian city overrun with general stores selling food, clothing, building supplies, and items that cater to life’s most basic needs such as SIM cards. Driving along the neighbouring slopes of Mt. Meru, we passed colourfully swathed women balancing water on their heads and quickly saw the hard life there. Yet this refreshingly simple way of living at Ngare Sero Lodge, a family-run colonial farmhouse, gave life to Earnest Hemmingway’s literary work, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Picturesquely situated amidst a lush forest full of Colobus and Sykes’ monkeys, one cannot help but stare up at Mt. Kilimanjaro’s magnificent snowcapped peak.


Our climb briefing with Ayubu, the head guide, started with his assertion of leadership. To make it to the summit safely, we have to fully trust his instructions and decisions—a somber warning that he was our only lifeline in the mountain. A mixture of nervous dread and eager anticipation bubbled when I called home as we passed through the Machame Gate, the start of our chosen route through the national park. Busy as I was taking in the dense Afro-montane forest, I was surprised by the size of our trek team: a crew of additional guides, camp support, cooks, and porters. The ratio of 30 sturdy African men to six amateur hikers did not seem warranted until we arrived at our first camp, where several sleeping, dining, and cooking tents had been pitched, and hot ginger tea awaited. The chef and his crew ran an efficient kitchen serving delicious and nutritional, high-energy meals, which I appreciated after realising my energy bars had not been taste-tested prior to packing. 

Several members of our group quickly suffered the effects of high altitude as we ascended the remnants of the Shira volcano, and “pole pole” became the echoing chant of the porters urging us forward, “slowly, slowly.” Circumnavigating the peak of Kibo, we crossed the Shira Plateau full of lobelia, senecio, and colourful alpine owers; while an acclimatisation trek up Lava Tower offered stunning views of Arusha and the clouds below.  I thoroughly enjoyed the challenging day spent scaling a narrow zig-zagging path up the Barranco Wall. While I struggled to avoid the vertical drop a few inches away, gripping the rock face, it was amazing to watch the support team fearlessly race ahead to Karanga Camp with loads effortlessly balanced on their heads. The southern glaciers only became visible to us on the last stretch to Barafu, and there we finally glimpsed the summit route up through a frozen valley. 

southern-glacier.jpgSince we would begin the ascent at midnight and hike through the night in sub-zero temperatures, our technical fabrics needed to be layered smartly— thoughtlessly piling on more clothing would only limit movement and add exhaustion. The darkness made our progress hard to track, so focusing on breathing was the most meditative way to keep calm, pushing away fears of frostbite in my numb hands and feet. The creeping panic only subsided when slivers of sunlight cut the horizon and we advanced between the Ratzel and Rebmann Glaciers.

By the time we reached Gilman’s Point at the rim of the crater, my morale ebbed as I watched several dozen people suffering from the altitude and exhaustion turn back. Once at Stella Point we stood higher than any point in Africa, save Uhuru Peak. Pushing on the last hundred metres with less than half the oxygen at sea level became a tough mental battle. But standing under the congratulatory signs at the summit was incredibly satisfying and an emotional high point; after catching my breath and taking a few photos, I was ready to head down. No one lingered to process our success as sharp winds urged us to keep moving. Five days of work for fifteen minutes of glory did not seem to make much sense but it was all worth it.

mt-kilimanjaro.jpgOverwhelmed with mixed emotions, I bolted down the same path with sand-ski strides. Focusing on the ascent, I had not given much thought to the descent. Ayubu relied on the summit’s adrenaline rush to numb the stress on our knees, and we descended an impressive 2,785 metres to Mweka Camp that same afternoon. Our last night was relatively quiet—from sheer emotional and physical exhaustion, and upon realising that we would terribly miss our bonded guides. 

It was not until we arrived in Stone Town, Zanzibar, after a long hot shower and a celebratory, ice cold Tusker, that we began to process the week’s adventure. The unesco World Heritage site was once the Omani capital of the famed Spice Island, and its beautiful white sand beaches, crumbling Middle Eastern opulence, and deliciously Indian-influenced cuisine was the perfect way to recover and celebrate the dawn of a new decade from the "Roof of Africa."

stella-point-mt-kilimanjaro.jpgAt the end you discover that climbing a mountain is a partnership, where the mountain must compromise for you just as much as you must compromise to reach the summit. Because it’s not a technical climb, Kilimanjaro is the most underestimated of the Seven Summits. The biting cold, low oxygen, steep fall lines, and rapidly changing weather can be a recipe for disaster. More people have died here than Everest, and it is with this understanding that I am truly grateful to all the people who taught us this respect.