Pushing to 19,341 feet: Outdoor Afro Climbs Kilimanjaro
KEEN has partnered with Outdoor Afro, a non-profit organization dedicated to celebrating and inspiring Black connections and leadership in nature, since 2012. So we were stoked to support the group’s ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro from the ground up with hiking boots and comfortable camp shoes. How do you prepare to climb almost 20,000 feet? One Outdoor Afro leader shares his training log and a daily account of this epic physical and cultural experience. We hope it inspires you to climb higher or farther…or slower.
By Stephen Scott, Outdoor Afro
It all started as a brief information session at the 2017 Outdoor Afro Leadership Training informing leaders that a trip to climb Kilimanjaro was in the works.
I was immediately interested. Who doesn’t want to climb the highest mountain in Africa?
What followed was an application process detailing the risks and asking about previous experiences (internationally and mountaineering), waiting—and waiting—for the acceptance email, and then embarking on a full year of team building and training despite the fact that we all lived in different locales, with busy day jobs, at sea level (Kilimanjaro is 19,341 feet). We had monthly conference calls and our first true face-to-face team meeting at the 2018 Outdoor Afro Leadership Training in April, just a few months before the climb.
On June 15, our team of 11 Outdoor Afro leaders from across the country flew to Tanzania to be the first American all-Black expedition team to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
12 MONTHS OF WORK FOR AN 8-DAY CLIMB
It was a long road to get to that moment. After being notified of my selection for the Outdoor Afro Kilimanjaro team, I turned to Mark Twight’s renowned mountaineering book, Extreme Alpinism. Twight emphasizes climbing light and fast through building power via cardio and muscular exercise. I completed one 22-week cycle of training and was informed of another great mountaineering book by Steve House called Training for the New Alpinism. His book was very impressive with the amount of information provided around training plans, real-world examples, science behind the training, prep for altitude and more.
My second cycle, 31 weeks of training five to seven days a week, was broken down into five phases based on the New Alpinism book. Each part built upon the previous part to provide the optimal mental and physical needs for the climb.
Transition: This is about getting your body ready (8 weeks)
Base – Strength: This is about building strength so your body will be able to handle what’s coming (8 weeks)
Base – Endurance: This is about switching the focus so your body can do longer activities (8 weeks)
Taper: Allowing my body time to recover while maintaining the foundation built during training (2 weeks)
Showtime: Put all the hard work to the test
Stephen wore the men's KEEN Durand Mid hiking boot.
The biggest challenge for me in switching up methods was shifting from primarily using anaerobic system training to aerobic. These methods totally flipped my training due to my history of training for explosive movements with football and track. By switching to aerobic training, my training slowly converted my body to use fat for energy versus carbohydrates. This system was extremely helpful for the 8-day journey at a pole pole (Swahili for slowly slowly) pace. My trust in the training plan prepared me not only physically but mentally. Beyond the hiking and altitude challenges, one must be prepared for long days of hiking—up to 12 hours a day.
DAY 1 - MACHAME GATE TO MACHAME CAMP
The hike began in the rainforest zone of the mountains. We had plenty of tree cover to block the sun, and the temperatures weren't too terribly warm. We did our best to stay together during the hike. But nightfall was quickly approaching, so our group split up to beat the darkness.
DAY 2 - MACHAME CAMP TO SHIRA CAMP
This day’s hike was pole pole as I worked my best to take my time and not sweat as much. Today was also enjoyable as we got to do a little scrambling. I felt right in my element and did my best to spot my teammates in exposed areas. The landscape changed from rainforest to heather moorland. Some thoughts on my mind were: recalibration with our trail buddies for a check-in, understanding how the team can use a single daily goal to push through, and can we discuss pace management as a team and align with the guides.
DAY 3 - SHIRA CAMP TO LAVA TOWER TO BARANCO CAMP
It's Father's Day! All of the male team members are fathers, and the team wishes everyone a great day. It's a little consolation to help us missing the day with family. This trip was a bit bittersweet for me, as I left several days after my youngest daughter was born. I missed my family and wanted to use this trip as an inspiration for them in their lives.
The profile for the hike was a “climb high, sleep low” day. We acclimated our bodies to the altitude by hiking up to Lava Tower at 15,000 feet and camping/sleeping at 13,000 feet. The landscape went from heather land to alpine desert to heather land. The weather was magnificent all day! Sunny skies with clouds beneath us and some forming midday above us at the summit of Kilimanjaro. The group made a concerted effort to hike as one group today with the pole pole pace keepers in the front.
Unfortunately our pace was pole pole sana (super slow), and at the midway point, Lava Tower, we had another group discussion. The guides and Phil let us know that we were going too slow and were running the risk of arriving at camp after dark again. Needless to say we picked up the pace. Overall the day was close to 11 hours of hiking.
DAY 4 - BARANCO CAMP TO KARANGA CAMP
The hike consists of a vertical climb of the Baranco Wall, a couple of ascents/descent of two valleys and the crossing of the Karanga River. Another “climb high, sleep low” day. The Baranco Camp area reminded me of my times camping in Wyoming. This was triggered by hearing the stream flowing near camp at night (Double Cabin Campground in Wyoming).
Photo by Alora Jones
The vertical climb of the Baranco Wall was spectacular! Granted it’s more scrambling than technical but still a blast! We arrived at Karanga Camp early afternoon. One of our goals of the expedition was to experience the culture. The big ask of our group was to eat local cuisine and not typical backpack/expedition food (pasta, pasta, pasta). The other benefit of our early arrival was being able to interact with kitchen crew for our dinner prep and the porters’ dinner prep. These guys are carrying all of the produce, meat, cooking utensils, and gas stoves/canisters.
DAY 5 - KARANGA CAMP TO BARAFU CAMP
This hike was similar to yesterday’s with the alpine landscape, hiking as a group, and more jovial conversations. We had another hot lunch with ugali, vegetables, veggies sambusa, piri piri sauce and watermelon. During lunch we were prepped on the plans for the afternoon and evening. Take a nap between 3-5 p.m. Wake up at 5 for dinner. Prep gear for summit attempt at 6 p.m. Get another nap from 7 to 10 p.m. Wake up at 10 p.m. Meet in the dining tent at 10:30 p.m. for tea and biscuits. Depart for summit 11 p.m.
Jambo, jambo Bwana (Hello, hello sir)
Habari gani (How are you?)
Mzuri sana (Very fine)
(Foreigners, you’re welcome)
Kilimanjaro, hakuna matata
(Kilimanjaro, there was no problem)
Tembea pole pole, hakuna matata
(Walk slowly, slowly, no problem)
Utafika salama, hakuna matata
(You’ll get there safe, no problem)
Kunywa maji mengi, hakuna matata
(Drink plenty of water, no problem)
- Swahili song
During dinner we reflected on the trip thus far and what we've done. Hiking higher than many had been before, bonding as a team despite several hurdles, learning the culture of our guides and porters, initial dubbing of trail names and casting for the #oaclimbskili movie.
DAY 6 - BARAFU CAMP TO UHURU PEAK TO MWEKA CAMP
Instructions were given at dinner about the summit schedule, gear, and last-minute tips (put fresh batteries in your headlamp, loosen the band on your head lamp, layer up with three to four tops and bottoms). The ETA for summiting was between 7-8 a.m. with an 11 p.m. departure. The descent to Barafu camp taking three to four hours, and another three to four hours to Mweka Camp.
10 p.m. rolls around. The wake-up call has been issued. Wake up, get your gear together and meet at the dining tent for tea & biscuits. It's dark, and we're met by an unfamiliar noise that has avoided us the entire trip. The wind was howling!!! This was going to be an interesting evening/morning.
I put on all my layers: base - synthetic short sleeve, synthetic long sleeve, wool long sleeve, fleece long sleeve, down long sleeve, wind jacket top, underwear, synthetic tights, wool tights, hiking pants, rain pants, sock liners, wool socks, boots, gaiters, baklava with face mask, wool hat, fleece glove, glove liners and outer gloves. Needless to say the day pack was lighter with just water, snacks and spare batteries. Almost forgot to mention: it's advised to keep your electronics warm (my camera was in my long sleeve fleece).
After completing the transformation into the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man, I head over to the dining tent for tea and biscuits. I wouldn't say that I had much of an appetite though. I was not interested in drinking tea or eating biscuits.
Off we go single file in the dark with only headlamps lighting the person in front of you. As we work our way through Barafu camp, the landscape was rocky and dusty (and the wind was blowing). Everyone seems to be in good spirits even though we're hiking in silence. Maybe everyone was tired, nervous, still asleep or just too cold to speak. I'm feeling tired but this was the gravy part of the expedition. This expedition was about the journey, camaraderie, and culture. We have been able to experience this despite some of the minor setbacks. It was mentioned that we need to keep this in perspective and that the summit was gravy on top of this great experience. Gradually we start to reach a point on the trail where the landscape has changed from dusty rocks to snow and ice. We continue to zig zag up the ice when we take a brief break. People are huddled and encouraging others to keep moving their extremities to keep the blood flowing. Ice was beginning to form in my Camelback.
We continue up the mountain, and the pole pole pace was monotonous. We are hiking together as a group, which was great. But it's hard to keep a rhythm due to hiking into the unknown with the elements. This evening/morning has been challenging. The mental challenge has forced me to find my happy place, giving my twins an evening bath.
We stopped for a break at 4:30 a.m., and my body told my mind something I didn't want to hear: “Turn around.”
I had to turn around at 17,716 feet.
I slowly begin my descent with one of the guides down the icy path. The descent was a lot faster than the ascent but still treacherous with ice. During the descent, we get to observe the sunrise. You would think I was solar powered by the way the warmth brightened my spirits. I will say that one of my wishes came true during the descent, scree skiing! The loose rock was better to ski than attempt to hike. I got back to camp around 8:30 a.m. for a nap before my descent to Mweka Camp.
DAY 7 - MWEKA CAMP TO MWEKA GATE
Last day on the mountain. We'll be hiking back through the rainforest to the gate. The hike down was fun as everyone was still in high spirits after surviving a week with each other. Our KEEN boots are actually getting muddy as opposed to dusty. A pretty cool thing happened as we were making our way to the gate. We saw a troop of monkeys foraging in the trees. Everyone was standing still in amazement and awe. It truly was amazing to see animals in their natural habitat as opposed to captivity.
As we arrived at the gate, everyone was relieved and excited. We took pictures at the gate sign and then signed out at the ranger station. Several people also took up a local merchants’ offers for boot cleaning (muddy boots to new shazam). As I've mentioned before, our porters are amazing humans. They have carried all the gear to the gate and are now in fresh clothes. Did they shower? All of us are a bit envious of the fresh clothes as we still have on the clothes we've been wearing from seven days ago. It was common for the guides and porters to celebrate the end with singing and dancing. I thought I was done sweating. But the singing and dancing went on for a good 20 minutes (active participation was advised).
Here’s a little sample of the lyrics:
Jambo, jambo Bwana (Hello, hello sir)
Habari gani (How are you?)
Mzuri sana (Very fine)
Wageni, mwakaribishwa (Foreigners, you’re welcome)
Kilimanjaro, hakuna matata (Kilimanjaro, there was no problem)
Tembea pole pole, hakuna matata (Walk slowly, slowly, no problem)
Utafika salama, hakuna matata (You’ll get there safe, no problem)
Kunywa maji mengi, hakuna matata (Drink plenty of water, no problem)
If I could add my own lyrics to the song, they would be: Be sure to push yourself towards climbing a real or fictitious mountain! Don’t let any obstacles get in your way whether it be a busy life, parental duties, partner responsibilities, work, other expectations, race, religion, or sexuality.
Why did I ascend to the highest point in Africa? This was an opportunity of a lifetime to ascend one of the Seven Summits with individuals who look like me. To reflect on the relationships with those closest to me. To inspire my children, my family, and my community. To encourage the next generations to breathe thin air. To immerse myself in the local culture of Tanzania.
And to take it pole pole.
Photo by Alora Jones