Conquering Kilimanjaro: A Tribute to the Strength of Women Everywhere

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by Jo Wood
Published: Thursday, 2 May, 2024

This International Women's Day, I embarked on an extraordinary journey to summit Mount Kilimanjaro with an exceptional all-woman team.

Through moments of exhilaration and challenge, this experience is something I will never forget. Today, I share this journey with you, driven by a single goal: to inspire you to pursue your dreams, challenge expectations, and champion gender equality.

The Challenge of Kilimanjaro

As someone who enjoys a challenge, I've taken on some big physical feats before, but nothing quite compares to this one! Mount Kilimanjaro, standing at an impressive nearly 6,000 meters/19,000 ft above sea level, is Africa's tallest peak and the world's largest freestanding mountain. The physical and mental endurance required, along with the extreme altitude, make it a formidable challenge…and I was certainly feeling the nerves beforehand!

Promoting Gender Equality

The challenge was not only to conquer Kilimanjaro but also to promote gender equality. Out of 17,000 porters on Kilimanjaro, only 200 are women, and from 8,000 guides, only 58 are women—highlighting a concerning trend of gender inequality. With 35,000 people tackling the peak each year this underrepresentation deprives women of opportunities for financial stability and for many of these local women, financial independence is a pathway to gain greater autonomy in their lives. The Tanzania Women Guides Foundation, led by our fantastic guide Glory, is making steady progress to tackle this issue - just 10 years ago, there were only 3 female guides. Climbs that include female guides, like this one, support the much-needed change in culture and attitudes towards women’s inclusion in the industry.

Challenges and Triumphs

Our journey spanned seven days and nights, with each demanding five to ten hours of hiking. So, how did I begin such a monumental journey? I had no idea how I'd reach the summit—it felt so far away! It may sound cliché, but it really does simply begin with the first step, this holds true on the mountain and in everyday life. I focused on taking one step at a time, remaining present in each moment. It was a good reminder that progress isn't always about leaping forward but can also be consistent, deliberate small steps.

I knew this journey would present challenges, from battling altitude sickness, which hit me unexpectedly hard and fast, to enduring physical and mental exhaustion. The absence of home comforts, like a bed, shower, and mobile phone connection, added to the trials! But amidst the challenges, there were unforgettable highs—like the awe-inspiring experience of hiking above the clouds, even altitude sickness couldn't diminish the beauty of that view! Moments of exhilaration and nerve-wracking encounters, like the famous "kissing rock," and the joy of climbing with a group of amazing women.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, we faced our biggest challenge: summit day. Beginning at midnight, we descended after minimal rest from the previous day's climb, bodies fatigued, and sleep deprived. The pronounced oxygen deprivation, coupled with the struggle to regulate body temperature in minus 10 degrees, made the seven-hour climb to the summit by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done! Moments of exhaustion and uncertainty threatened to overwhelm me, but whenever I felt like giving up (which occurred about every 20 steps!), I remembered: I couldn't let these women down. It wasn't just about me anymore; it was about every woman who dared to defy expectations. I somehow found the strength to press on, driven mostly by perseverance, and with each step forward, belief in my ability to achieve the seemingly impossible grew.

And we did it! Reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro on International Women’s Day with a fully female team was an incredible triumph. Every step taken was a testament to the strength of women everywhere – to the countless women who face challenges every day and approach them with courage and resilience.

The things I learnt at 19,000 feet…

Don’t let fear hold you back

Before even setting foot on Kilimanjaro, I grappled with a common obstacle – the fear of failure. As women, we often internalise limitations and doubts, fearing the possibility of failure and this can stop us from setting ambitious goals in the first place. But when we face our fears head-on, we can achieve remarkable feats. Fear is a natural response to the unknown, and I certainly felt fear with this challenge - but it's how we confront and still move forward that truly defines our courage.

Progress comes through consistent effort and determination

Throughout the journey, I discovered the importance of resilience and perseverance in overcoming obstacles. Motivation will wane and when it does if you remain committed to your goal and take one step at a time, you’ll likely be surprised at how much progress is made through consistent effort and determination.

Embrace vulnerability

During our climb, I encountered moments where I felt overwhelmed and emotional. As women we can be afraid to show vulnerability but there should be no apologies for tears or emotion. True strength isn't about suppressing emotions or not feeling anything, it’s about having the courage to show up and be seen regardless.

When women support each other, incredible things happen

The support received from the women on the climb was unparalleled – I genuinely couldn’t have reached the summit without them! We laughed (a lot!), we shed tears (mostly mine!) and we leaned on each other for physical, mental, and emotional support. There was so much kindness - and some gentle challenge when it was needed, all given in a non-judgmental and supportive way. When we uplift other women and create a community of support and solidarity, together we can achieve the seemingly impossible.

Supporting Women Across the world

My journey might be over, but the journey towards gender equality for women in Tanzania continues. If you feel inspired to climb a mountain, please ensure your trekking company hires women - as despite facing strong scepticism they have proved themselves to be capable porters and guides. But if climbing Kilimanjaro is not for you (and I realise it's not for everyone!) then you can still support female-led businesses both locally and across the world - it really does make a huge difference to local women.

Keep Climbing mountains

As women, we climb mountains every day—literal mountains and mountains in life. Our journey to conquer Kilimanjaro was a testament to the resilience of women everywhere. So, embrace your strength, embrace your resilience, and never underestimate the power within you. Keep climbing, keep striving, and remember that you are capable of reaching new heights too.

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