This is a guest blog by Mind & Mountain friend & team member Vanessa Chavarriaga. Vanessa is a Colombian, mountain athlete, environmental sociologist & outdoor advocate.
Read on for more of her story:
As a child, I'd gaze out of airplane windows and dream of slipping among the clouds, imagining them as perfect mattresses or trampolines. The wonder of those shifting clouds gradually faded as I grew older, but it wasn’t until I began going on outdoor adventures and backpacking trips in my 20s that I allowed myself to dream again.
This past summer, I spent on an extraordinary eight-day expedition living above a sea of clouds. Together with Phil Henderson, an industry leader with nearly three decades of outdoor experience, we organized a challenging climb up Mount Kilimanjaro, choosing the Lemosho Route. In May 2022, Henderson made history by guiding the first all-Black team to the summit of Mount Everest.
My connection with Phil began a year and a half ago at an outdoor leadership summit, and our bond has grown stronger ever since. We collaborated to create more outdoor opportunities and shared a weekly catch-up routine. Phil has become a mentor, reminding me of the importance of patience in this journey, while my enthusiasm and curiosity reaffirm his commitment to making a lasting impact.
Mount Kilimanjaro is a special place for many reasons. It's the tallest mountain in Africa and, as a dormant volcano, stands as the highest single freestanding peak above sea level worldwide, towering at 19,341 feet (5,895 meters). What sets Kilimanjaro apart is its remarkable hospitality.
The warm embrace of Tanzania welcomed us immediately. Our adventure began with a heartfelt reception at Mama Simba Homebase in Moshi, a place that felt more like a loving home than a hotel. Mama Simba and her family treated us like long-lost relatives returning from a long journey. The serene gardens and homemade cuisine provided solace, soothing our jet lag.
Our diverse team of eight came from Africa, the United States, Colombia, and Mexico. Our ages spanned from 25 to 60, representing a blend of generations and cultures. The assortment of backgrounds in our group created a captivating dynamic. Phil aptly remarked, "All trips should be like this. Diversity in cultures and generations enriches the experience. We can't truly learn from just one generation or one culture, as we are not a monolith. The richness lies in learning from a diverse group."
Our wonderful Moshi homestay set the tone for our entire expedition: warm, welcoming people, vibrant streets, good music, and delicious food. After a few days, we eagerly squeezed into our van, not knowing where this adventure would take us, but that we would come out different on the other side.
Reflecting on our time on the mountain, the warmth stands out. We received a warm welcome each afternoon, just half an hour before reaching camp, as our porters shouldered our packs to ease our journey. Warm water arrived at our tents, allowing us to wash away the day's grime. Hearty soup filled our bellies, and warm water bottles nestled in our sleeping bags kept us cozy through the night.
Our guide and porter team consisted of 32 remarkable individuals, each possessing unique skills, from guiding to setting up tents to preparing amazing meals. Among our porters were Boca, Kevin, Sebastian, Johan, Muhubiri, Atanazi, Polo, Justin, Paul, Labya, Jackson, Solomon, Ibar, Daniel, Emmanuel, Justin, Omari, Hilda, Isaac, Elias, Pascal, Davis, Samuel, Bruno, and Frank. Our guides were Hussein, Viviana, Julius, and Charles. Viviana was our lone female guide, while Hilda served as our female porter. It was inspiring to witness these strong women thriving in a traditionally male-dominated profession.
The views were as awe-inspiring as you would expect from such a special mountain. The Shira Plateau, a volcanic wonder, appeared to mark the edge of the world, offering breathtaking green vistas and cascading waterfalls that plummeted dramatically into an ocean of clouds. My inner child imagined getting a running start and diving gently into the white cushioned sea, floating forever.
At night, distant towns illuminated the undersides of the clouds, while a star-studded sky greeted us with the splendor of the Milky Way, positioned differently from what I was accustomed to at home. A few of us would gather after dinner to silently marvel at the stars until the allure of a snug sleeping bag became irresistible.
Most of our days were spent walking, a feature that makes the Lemosho Route truly exceptional. The journey was as enriching as the destination itself. We progressed deliberately, savoring every step, wildflower, and trail riddle. Our objective was not solely reaching the summit; it was to coexist with this majestic mountain and foster a sense of community. With over half of our group aged 55 or older, we maintained a steady pace that allowed us to journey as one, supporting each other's strengths and offering solace in challenging moments.
As we ventured together, we uncovered something profound: the power of walking in the company of our elders. This is a practice deeply rooted in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities. The mountain also taught us the value of letting go of expectations. Regardless of our age, experience, or culture, we traversed the same trails under the same weather conditions. The mountain equalized us, reaffirming that shared experiences transcend age, experience, or culture.
We talked a lot about a right to access nature, emphasizing its importance for future generations. Much of my work centers on creating access and paving the way for the generations to come, but we must not forget our elders. Safeguarding their access to nature is equally vital, offering healing and social change. The lived experiences of our elders are invaluable tools to prevent repeating past mistakes. We don't have to wait for them to be gone to learn these lessons; we can engage them, ask questions, be curious, and have conversations that promote our growth.
In addition to the countless lessons we can learn from them, we can also teach our elders. This mutual learning benefits both sides. Granting elders access to the outdoors allows them to reconnect with their inner child, experience pure joy, and continue their lifelong learning journey. Throughout this trek, it became evident that it's never too late to establish such a connection with nature and our inner child. It breathed life into each one of us.
The seventh day marked our summit attempt. By this point, we had acclimated to the mountain life and were well-prepared for the next challenge. After a restful afternoon, we began our preparations.
The 11 PM wake-up call was disorienting, but we quickly gathered our gear and began the tough uphill trek. You truly don't comprehend the length of a night until you hike through the entire darkness. The blackness felt more profound than usual, with no moon or signs of the sun ever rising again.
Without the sun's warmth to penetrate our bodies, the cold of the night swiftly settled into our bones. As we climbed, it grew colder still, and before we knew it, we were hiking in four layers on our lower bodies and five layers on our upper bodies, three of which were puffy jackets. Finally, we glimpsed a crimson streak on the horizon. At Stella Point, standing at 18,885 feet, we watched the brilliant sun rays piercing through the darkness.
Emotions surged as we realized our collective achievement. Through the combined efforts of our team, guides, and porters, we had supported each other every step of the way. We felt the profound power of unity. In that moment, we realized just how necessary we were to each other.
As we neared the summit, Aunt Linda's words reverberated in her niece Naledi's mind: "Speak up." These two words became a constant reminder for Naledi to assert her voice and challenge the silence that constrains us.
"Being a minority on the mountain, my aunt's journey as an African American woman in the corporate world added another layer of significance," Naledi reflected. "She shattered glass ceilings and defied expectations in a predominantly white, male-dominated industry, highlighting the importance of diversity and inclusion everywhere, especially in outdoor spaces."
Over these eight days, we shared meals, laughter, dance, and languages. On any given day, conversations flowed in a mix of English, Swahili, and Spanish. Fluency in just one language didn't matter; we spoke, listened, and laughed just the same. Despite traveling halfway across the world, we discovered comfort and kinship in one another, extending warmth and friendship across diverse cultures and generations. The joy, dancing, and connection to nature were truly universal.
The magic of this expedition centered on our ability to co-create an environment conducive to everyone's success—all 40 of us. Though we had different needs, we possessed diverse skills that we willingly shared to achieve our common goal. Generational and cultural differences did not automatically create barriers; we just had to try.
Living above the clouds exceeded my childhood fantasies. Above the clouds, there is music, there is dance, and there are fresh tropical fruits like pineapple, papaya, and mango. Even on the chilliest of nights, we found warmth, both physically and emotionally. Yet, the best kind of magic I found was in our ability to create shared experiences across generations and cultures, building bridges that united us and propelled us to summits we never thought possible.
Vanessa is a mountain athlete and environmental sociologist who focuses on the intersection of people and nature. As an immigrant and woman of color herself, Vanessa recognizes the systemic barriers that purposefully keep BIPOC out of outdoor spaces. Taking up space in the outdoor community feels revolutionary. Follow Vanessa on her journey diversify the outdoors on Instagram @vanessa_chav.
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