To Kilimanjaro and back
The Norwitt family tends toward fairly adventurous vacations—they ski the French Alps every year, for example. But when Ella, 15, suggested they all climb Mount Kilimanjaro, parents Glori and Adam were skeptical. Ella’s enthusiasm eventually won her parents over. “She researched and kept feeding us facts and ideas,” says Glori.
At 19,000 feet, Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain on the African continent and the highest free-standing mountain in the world. It’s one of the Seven Summits—the highest mountain peak on each continent.
To make the trek, they selected Thomson Safaris, a company with one of the highest safety ratings, to lead them up the mountain. Ella and Jonah, 18, are year-round athletes at school so they were already pretty fit. Glori and Adam, however, both suffer from back issues. While Adam worked out on his own, Glori trained with Sharon McSpedon at the Pilates Barre. “It’s essentially like physical therapy for me in a group setting,” says Glori.
The family also had to prepare mentally for the trip. Glori read several books about other Kilimanjaro hikers. “You have to be ready for anything to happen,” she says. Six months and many trips to REI in Norwalk, they were as ready as they were going to be.
Once they arrived in Tanzania, the family, joined by Adam’s brother Trevor, had a few days to acclimate to the altitude and rest up for their hike. Thomson provided three guides, several porters, and a chef. Their guides had more than 150 summits to their credit, and that experience was invaluable, says Glori. Porters carried the heavier items such as tents and sleeping bags. Daily meals such as stir fry, lasagna, and stew were cooked on a propane tank by the chef. The Norwitts each carried daypacks containing three to four liters of filtered water, medicine, and snacks. “We brought lots of granola bars and candy,” says Glori.
The first couple of days were relatively easy. Most of the routes were rolling in terrain. “The rule is to hike high and camp low,” says Glori. This method offers the best chance for success because it allows your body to acclimate. Guides are trained to look for the first signs of altitude illness, a real concern for hikers. A couple of days in, the Norwitts saw someone being rushed down the mountain. “It was very unnerving,” says Glori. The only cure for altitude sickness is to go down.
Memorable moments along the hike included crossing an Alpine desert, seeing an amazing display of stars, and, says Adam: “Just being truly disconnected from the world for ten days.” While the stargazing was impressive, sleeping at the higher camps proved challenging for Glori. Having no heat source meant not really being able to warm up. “I would sleep in pretty much everything I packed, and I was still cold,” she says. Porters gave her bottles of boiled water to help ease the chill.
The final day of hiking was definitely the hardest; 4,000 feet up and 4,500 feet down in 12 hours. They began at 5 am, hiking in darkness for the first hour, guided only by headlamps. Once the sun was up, they could see over the plains of Kenya and the peak emerging from the cloud layer. They met hikers coming down—lots of groups begin the final day at midnight so that they summit at sunrise. Some of these hikers were incoherent and stumbling—signs of altitude sickness. The Norwitts proceeded very slowly and stopped often to eat and drink. For the last few meters, they had to wear crampons; the mountain had the most snowfall it has seen in 30 years. They summited just after noon and celebrated by taking photos and sharing an enormous Hershey bar.
After reaching the top, they still had to hike down to the base camp. They had been blessed with dry, clear weather, but the last hike to the park gate took them through a rain forest. “It was cool to see the animals but hiking was really hard because of the rain and mud,” says Jonah. They spent three nights in a lodge relishing their success. “The joy and excitement when we made it all together is something I will never forget,” says Adam.
So what’s the next trip for the Norwitts? “I want to eventually climb all Seven Summits,” says Ella. For Glori and Adam, the jury is still out, but wherever they go it will definitely be an adventure.