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Alumna conquers Kilimanjaro

January 10, 2011

Alumna Jenna Keiper, in red, atop Mount Kilimanjaro with her brother Matt.

Mount Kilimanjaro is seeing more than its share of Chapman mountaineers this season. A crew of student filmmakers is en route there now. And Jenna Keiper ’10, who was featured in Happenings before the holiday break, summited the mountain last week as part of an expedition she undertook to raise money for Compassion International.

In a note sent this week, Keiper describes the last phase of her ascent, begun in pre-Dawn darkness, as breathtaking but grueling.

“The sunrise was incredible, my memory tells me, but in the moment I could hardly appreciate it for what it was.  At that point we were hiking the steepest terrain I’ve ever attempted.  The fact that it was powdery dust, rather than rock or packed dirt, didn’t help either – I was sliding back every few steps,” Keiper writes. Her entire report follows. I spent Dec. 28, 2010, to Jan. 4, 2011, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for Arusha Cottage – a children’s home for orphaned and vulnerable children.  It was the first mountain I’ve ever attempted to summit – and what an experience it was!  Here is a brief account of my journey:

Day 1:

My family and I started the day in a bus full of our guides and porters … singing!  One of the porters, Babuni, has appointed himself the official song guide.  He and the other men in the group regaled us with call and response songs in Swahili as we travelled from the town of Arusha to Machame gate.  What a fun introduction to the climb.

After registering with the park and paying for our park passes, we began the climb.  Mount Kilimanjaro has several different routes available to the summit.  Our route, Machame, begins just outside the town of Machame in the rainforest at the base of the mountain.  As we hiked, our guides, Victor and Abaz, pointed out flora and fauna – some species endemic to Kilimanjaro.

Weather was great today – the sun filtered through the trees and we only had a few drops of rain.

Day 2:

We’ve entered new biomes!  This is really fascinating, hiking up through the changing alpine ecosystems.  Yesterday we were in rainforest, and today we ended in alpine moorland.  Along the way we passed through heather fields, climbed lichen-covered boulders, and explored a cave behind a waterfall.

It’s been fun getting to know our guides a little better.  Victor, the lead guide, is from the Kilimanjaro region.  His father died when he was young, and he moved around a lot because of his family’s poverty.  I asked him how he got to where he is today, leading expeditions up Kilimanjaro.  He mentioned a few things: 1) He was mentored by a volunteer from the UK for two years during primary school – this gave him a leg up with his English language skills.  2) He received a sponsorship from a U.S .donor after finishing secondary school – this allowed him to attend guide school and receive his certificate to lead climbing expeditions and safari tours.

It’s really amazing how little gestures like these can so profoundly affect someone’s life.

Day 3:

Today was acclimatization day.  I’ve never hiked above 14,000 feet or had to deal with acclimatization, so this is all new to me.  Apparently the way to acclimatize is to hike up above your comfort zone, then come back down a few thousand feet to sleep.

I was a little nervous because many people struggle with altitude sickness when they’re up so high.  Just a few weeks before we started our climb a professional athlete was rushed down the mountain to the emergency room because of her body’s severe reaction to the altitude.  Most people deal with varying degrees of nausea, headaches and loss of appetite.

We hiked up to 15,000 feet … and my body did just fine!  We followed the mountain’s mantra “Pole, Pole,” which basically means go very slowly, lunched at high altitude above the clouds, and then hiked our way back down to 13,000 feet to sleep.

Day 4:

Today was a tough climb – we made our way for six hours up some very steep terrain.  We’re now at Barafu Camp, around 16,000 feet, all rock and shale.  For most of the climb we were enveloped in cloud and mist – an eerie place to be – but fun with my family and the guides along.

The very last bit before camp was exceptionally steep, we took it slow with a few breaks, but I was still feeling quite tired when we got to the tents.  I have five hours to eat, sleep a little and prepare for our summit attempt at midnight… I’m a little nervous…hopefully my next entry will be good news…

Day 5:

I DID IT! I made it to the top!  I am absolutely exhausted, but so content…

I went to sleep at 8pm last night and woke up at 11pm to take some tea and get into my summit gear.  My parents decided not to attempt the summit, but my brother, sister and I met with the guides for a briefing at 11:30, then set off at midnight.

The first hour of the climb – while I was still able to notice and appreciate the view – was breathtaking.  If I looked up the mountain I saw little strings of lights (headlamps on hikers) winding their way up the switchbacks.  If I looked down the mountain I saw an incredible nighttime view of the surrounding cities, both in Kenya and Tanzania.

After the first hour I was too intent on keeping my feet moving and breathing to notice any sort of view.  Altitude sickness hadn’t affected me too terribly before, but it struck with a vengeance last night.  For six hours I struggled to keep my stomach from upheaval and my brain to focus on the path in front of me (I was feeling extremely light headed.)  The sunrise was incredible, my memory tells me, but in the moment I could hardly appreciate it for what it was.  At that point we were hiking the steepest terrain I’ve ever attempted.  The fact that it was powdery dust, rather than rock or packed dirt, didn’t help either – I was sliding back every few steps.

Around 6:30 a.m. we made it to Stella Point, technically the top of the mountain, where my sister decided to take her leave.  My brother and I, however, had set Uhuru Peak as our goal, so we lumbered on.  One hour later we arrived at Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa: 19,685 feet.  Reaching that goal with the knowledge that I could report success back to Arusha Cottage and the kind donors who were sponsoring this fundraising venture was a huge relief.  We made it!

The rest of the day has been a bit of a blur: We hiked down to camp in a third of the time it took to go up, slept for a few hours, then hiked down another six hours.  I’m going to sleep well tonight.


What an experience!  It was difficult, but that’s how it is with the worthwhile things of life.  I knew it wouldn’t be easy, and neither are the lives of the kids I’m raising money for.  Thank you to everyone who has taken part in this venture so far, whether by kind words, climbing suggestions or generous donations to Arusha Cottage.  I will be visiting the cottage in the next couple of weeks and will continue to send news!

One Comment leave one →
  1. Elka permalink
    March 21, 2011 12:30 pm

    Awesome! What a trip! Thanks for sharing!

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