AFRICA, PT. 1 – Genesis

AFRICA, PT. 1 – Genesis

When I fall in love with an idea, I commit to it in the most earnest, wide-eyed, teenager-doodling-hearts-in-her-diary sort of way. That is to say – I completely romanticize it until I develop a full-blown crush, and even then, I dawdle around the edges of flirtation for eons until I take action.

As it was with Kilimanjaro.

In 2010, along with my friends Casey and Rebecca, I decided to hike Mt. Whitney and spent months on end buried deep inside a glorious pile of mountain mysticism. Summits were sexy, and though Whitney was our desired goal, Kilimanjaro began seducing me from afar.

The first external record of my Kili infatuation was on June 3rd that year. Casey emailed that he was organizing a charity hike up a local icon, Mt. Baldy, and I volleyed back that we should also consider a charity hike up Kilimanjaro the following year; “Dream Small” has never been in my vocabulary.

That same day, I emailed my friend Laura:

I’d like to put in an advance request to go on a trip together someday. Somewhere European. Or Buenos Airesian. I’m also thinking about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa next year. Weird, right? Yeah. I know. Listen, if Jessica Biel can do it, I can do it.

Once you invoke the competitive playground spirit of celebrity comparisons, it’s essentially Game On.

From there, the fever grew hotter and more all-encompassing. I pored over message boards, devoured articles, nudged Casey incessantly, and generally fantasized about standing on top of Africa belting out various numbers from The Lion King soundtrack at full volume. But as with all great crushes, I was too chicken to take action, so my mountain madness was relegated to local ranges while I quietly pined for something more.


Many peaks and valleys later, about a year after we summitted Mt. Whitney, my mind wandered back to the enticing flanks of Kilimanjaro, courtesy of a handsome gentleman my friends and I refer to as “Mountain Husband,” or “MH” for short.

Yes, that’s a nickname for a nickname.

Allow me to explain.

MH is a total Sierran stud. He runs a mountaineering company, guides mountaineering trips, and spends his free time…mountaineering. He’s been on top of Mt. Everest several times. Sev-er-al tiiiimes. I first caught wind of this prince of the peaks through his talks about Mt. Whitney at a local sporting goods store; he was tanned and taut, smart and smiling – how could I not bat my little SmartWool-clad eyelashes in his direction?

Alas, between the fact that this alpine Adonis lives 80,000 miles away and the fact that he was not aware of my existence, a romance was not to be. Instead, I admired him from afar and leapt at any chance to gaze upon his hunky face and learn stuff about mountains. Thus I forwarded Casey and Rebecca information about an upcoming MH appearance in the autumn of 2011, along with the following message:

Please scroll to the bottom and notice that my Mountain Husband is doing a presentation on Kilimanjaro on Friday, October 14th at the West LA Adventure 16 at 7pm. I will be in attendance, and I hope you will, too.

Ever the crush-enabler, Rebecca joined me that evening and successfully Svengali’d multiple opportunities for me to engage with this granite god. From my middle school diarist brain came this play-by-play email to Casey afterwards:

Rebecca picked some strategic seats for us during the presentation (aka right next to the projector, where he ended up sitting all night, and I ended up feeling like a schoolgirl with a crush all night). At one point, MoHu stood in front of us, kind of fidgeting with his nalgene, sort of chatting while applying a fresh A16 sticker. It seemed he was attempting to engage us, so we became engaged. I told him of Michael’s comment that morning at work that my nalgene made me look like I was drinking from a mason jar. He found that funny and said it was important to stay hydrated, especially during his presentation. It was then that I held aloft a plastic cup filled with delicious wine and said, “I am.” He then inquired about my wine and we talked briefly about wine and talked about Chile and Argentina and Patagonia and my desire to climb mountains and travel and I got really red and I could feel how shiny my face was and after it was over, I promptly got an A16 sticker and like a schoolgirl, affixed it to my nalgene when I got home.

Yes, I am a dork.

And yes, that was a nickname for a nickname for a nickname embedded in that missive.


I wrote MH a casual (read: NOT CASUAL AT ALL) email via Facebook mentioning our monumental discussion of South American wines and my desire to join him in a romantic climb of Kilimanjaro at some point. He responded by giving me his personal email (!!!) and offering to climb with me in Southern California, which provoked an internal meltdown and subsequent declaration to my friend Mo: “I’m a bunny slope, and he’s a double black diamond. OMG. I’m mildly freaking out.”

(This is quite embarrassing.)

MoHu also sent me a gigantic packet of Kilimanjaro information and informed me that his company offered trips in February and June…and after diligently and excitedly reading every single word of every single thing he sent to me, I came to the sudden realization:

Climbing Kilimanjaro costs a bajillion dollars.

Well, damn.


I shelved my dream of African adventure for well over a year until this past March. Inspired by a patch of deep, deep thinking about what really, really makes me happy, I once more started swishing around the possibility and came to the conclusion that in addition to friends and family, I also need:

Travel. Nature. Adventure. Curiosity. The inspiration of The Great Unknown.

Mix those things up with a bit of hard-earned savings and an understanding boss and you have a recipe for Well, What Are You Waiting For, Woman?

And so I knew. It wasn’t just that my bank account was ready for the smackdown or that the guy who writes my paychecks was perpetually understanding of my flights of fancy – it was that my heart and soul (and hindquarters) were ready for this mountain.

Thus I devoured the internet’s cumulative Kilimanjaro content in an impressive flurry, chewing through blogs, route descriptions, packing lists, Flickr albums, and outfitter reviews at a feral pace. In my obscenely manic state, I created a digital empire of spreadsheets, tables, and lists. I ordered a multitude of Kilimanjaro and Tanzania-related books from Amazon. I priced out an assortment of air travel options. I started peppering “Kili” into most conversations, probably if anything to convince myself that I was actually going to do this thing.

During this adrenaline-stoked phase, I slowed down only to have a good think about a travel buddy. I batted the idea around with a few people, none of whom were ready to commit to my particular brand of mountain insanity, and in the process acknowledged that despite all the silliness about Jessica Biel and MoHu, this trip was really about something tucked deep inside of me…and I was going to go it alone.

There are a lot of fears that buck up when you make decisions like this: fears that I wasn’t physically ready, that I wouldn’t be able to afford the trip, that I would feel lonely, that I would find answers to questions I’d been asking myself for a long time and then not be able to deal with those implications.

So yeah – this was about more than just a mountain.

I spent the better part of two months with my head down, chewing through research and engaging with companies near and far until I finally chose an outfitter. When I did, it felt like the completely, absolutely right decision, ordained by the cosmos or something equally fantastical, as if delivered by a unicorn blazing across the sky with a rainbow shooting out of its butt, shouting “YES, SHAWNTÉ, THIS IS MEANT TO BE!”

As I paid the deposit for my trip, I almost physically felt the fear slip from within me, and the seemingly impossible dream became reality:

I was going to Africa to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

In three months.

By myself.


The summer blew by in a flurry of sweat and commerce. I spent my time divided between work, mountains, and the overpriced aisles of REI, and watched as my bank account went from healthy to ohdearlordwhathaveyoudone. Typical entries on my calendar included “hike,” “climbing gym,” “squats,” “abs,” “stairs,” and “Yoga Booty Ballet” (don’t judge), and I’m surprised that none of my friends punched me after my constant declarations of “Sorry, I can’t do _______, I gotta get some elevation in this weekend.”

In mid-July, my buddy Anna hosted an awesome birthday slumber party in my honor. During a particularly heated round of Mall Madness, she interrupted our game with a blunt announcement: “This is your birthday gift.” With that proclamation, she flicked on the television and I spent two and a half minutes flooding my face with tears:

My incredible, loving friend MaryEllen organized and created the whole thing in secret; in addition to producing that amazing video, she encouraged friends near and far to chip in a few bucks to help with the cost of my trip – and their insanely generous contributions paid for my (very expensive) plane fare halfway across the world.

That was one of the most beautiful and humbling things I’ve ever experienced; I still reach for a tissue (or twelve) watching that video today.

The next few weeks passed in a blur. In the dwindling days of my pre-Africa life, I took stock of my situation – over the course of several months, my ab (sort of) developed a partner, I could go for a short run without completely blowing out my soccer-damaged knees, and I was able to motor up to my favorite high-altitude alpine lake without panting like a dog in the desert. I also now owned a metric ton of fresh gear – gigantic ski gloves, glacier glasses, a pee funnel…

Oh, don’t worry – you’ll hear all about that one soon enough.

My workload was covered, my cat would be watched, and I had a wad of crisp, post-2006 cash in hand (turns out Tanzania is a bit anal-retentive about these things); there wasn’t much else to do, so I spent my last weekend swaying in a hammock in the Sierras, watching the clouds pass and reflecting on what Africa had in store for me.

Then on August 14, 2013, I bid adieu to life as I knew it and stepped on a plane bound for The Great Unknown.


>> Continue reading: “AFRICA, PT. 2 – Takeoff”