What I Learned From Dancing On Top Of Africa's Highest Peak

Photo: Nicola Bailey
Having completed the arduous summit climb, en route back down the mountain, Kathleen (center) and her hiking group celebrate the achievement with dancing and singing at the campsite.
It’s just before midnight and we are setting out on our final six to seven hours of climbing to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Before this final stretch on our seven-day hike to Africa’s highest peak, we fuel up with a light breakfast at our base camp, and pull on all of our warmest layers that we still can manage to move in — a mix of thermal, down, fleece, and Gore-Tex. The temperature at the summit’s Uhuru Peak can drop as low as negative 15 degrees Fahrenheit. With additional wind chill factors, it can feel as low as minus 40.

We hike single file up the rocky and steep peak. The only light comes from the glow of our headlamps and the full moon hovering over the summit.

Most of the more than two dozen women making the trek didn’t know each other before this climb. We’re a diverse group, and not just because we hail from 11 different countries, including the United States, Russia, Australia, Mexico, Denmark, Estonia, and Kenya. We are mothers, sisters, students, therapists, marathon runners, restaurateurs, photographers, engineers, and we’re as young as 19 and as old as 55. Some of us have climbed to Everest Base Camp; some of us just bought our first pairs of hiking boots.

But we all have one mission, one reason for being here on this date — to summit the tallest freestanding mountain in the world on International Women’s Day. The trip, run by WHOA Travel, an adventure travel company for women, is now entering its third year.

“It shows that women can come together and accomplish amazing things — and have a lot of fun in the process,” WHOA cofounder Danielle Thornton said of the climb. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your background is, at the core we all share the desire to challenge and better ourselves physically and mentally.”
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Photo: Nicola Bailey
After a long day of hiking, Kathleen takes a moment to relax and enjoy the spectacular sunset back at camp.
Despite our exhaustion and aching muscles, we have talked and laughed our way up the monstrous mountain up until now. But tonight we finally stop talking. We can’t waste energy nor oxygen. The only sound is our shallow breaths as we feel the air getting tighter on the ascent.

We keep on trudging up the peak on summit night, battling the frigid conditions and staying close in the darkness. Around 4 a.m., when we still have a couple hours left, our trance-like rhythm starts to fade with the effects of hiking at such high altitude. We are too tired to even see if our water has frozen; some of us start to sway and stumble with dizziness, a few fall with exhaustion.

Then, during our darkest moments, our Tanzanian guides, led by King William, our dreadlocked captain who has climbed Kilimanjaro more than 150 times (he earned his title by leading a blind man up), start to sing us for us, "Don't worry 'bout a thing/'Cause every little thing gonna be alright."
Photo: Nicola Bailey
One of the local guides helps a hiker up a particularly difficult segment of the hike, while the rest of the group continues on up ahead.
Just when we think we can’t move a step more, the collective energy that we fed off in the days prior starts to pick back up. I don’t know what the guides’ Swahili chants that followed “Three Little Birds” mean, but at that moment we again start to move in unison, our pace following the same rhythm.

The night before we set out, filled with nervous excitement, we all shared why we were climbing Kilimanjaro. Synnöve, a 54-year-old Swede, was on her second try at Kilimanjaro, but not because she didn’t make the climb on her first try. Two years prior, she found out on her first day in Tanzania that her mother was dying. Her father died just weeks later. For Erin, a 49-year-old American and opera-singing mother of three living in Russia for her husband’s job, climbing Kilimanjaro was a chance for her to do something alone, something that wasn't associated with being a wife and mother. Our youngest climber, Jessica, an American on her gap year who we affectionately called Baby Bird, was just 19 years old and wanted to do something meaningful before she started college.

My reason for climbing Kilimanjaro? I left my “travel job” of nearly seven years just days before I arrived at the base of Kilimanjaro. For years, as a travel editor, I sat behind a desk and assigned writers to go out and travel, while I always wanted to be on the other side. I dreamt of going out on my own as a freelance travel writer, but there was always a reason to not do it — more money I needed to make or more assurances I needed to hear that I wasn’t crazy for leaving a salary, benefits, my job title, and comfort behind.

What could be a bigger achievement for International Women's Day, than together climbing one of the world’s toughest summits, a mountain 19,341 feet tall?

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Six months prior, a friend passed along an email about this International Women’s Day Kilimanjaro climb. I saw the subject line “Kilimanjaro” while I was in line at the movies (aptly enough, for Gone Girl). Deep within my layers of fear and hesitation, emerged a resounding YES even before I read the entire message. YES, this was something significant, something BIG to give me a kickstart. I climbed Kilimanjaro because I wanted to quit my job, and I quit my job to climb Kilimanjaro.

Thornton and cofounder Allison Fleece met while climbing the Tanzanian peak in 2013. The experience was so life-altering that they decided to dedicate themselves to empowering more women to make the same accomplishment.

Hovering around 30, they quit their New York jobs and started WHOA, a travel company that leads adventure trips for women across the globe. When trying to pick a date for their first WHOA Kilimanjaro climb, they settled on an itinerary that would end on International Women’s Day — the perfect occasion for a company by women and for women to summit the peak. Fleece said they were inspired by the day’s aim of shining “a much-needed light on the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women.”

What could be a bigger achievement than together climbing one of the world’s toughest summits, a mountain 19,341 feet tall?
Photo: Nicola Bailey
Arriving at the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro just as the sun is coming over the mountain proves to be one of the most breathtaking scenes after having hiked all through the night to arrive there.
Their mission isn’t just about giving the experience of a lifetime to female travelers. Supporting local women is at the heart of everything WHOA does. Sarah, 24, one of the two local Kenyan women WHOA sponsored to climb with us, studies tourism and was preparing to have her traditional Kikuyu wedding just a few weeks after our climb.
“Sharing the experience with these bright, inspiring ladies and seeing the mountain through their eyes adds another layer of depth to our climbs,” Thornton said. “They've grown up in the shadow of this mountain, but never dreamed they’d get the opportunity to reach the top — it’s just not something that girls do there. It’s an experience that they can go home and tell their families, sisters, and daughters about.”

For us, these impromptu dance sessions on Kilimanjaro became a reminder to stop and enjoy the climb instead of just trying to plow our way to the finish.

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When Fleece and Thornton first summited Kilimanjaro, there was a point on the trek when the duo, perhaps a bit loopy from the altitude, broke out into a wild dance and a friend captured it all on film. From that moment on, dancing on mountains became their hallmark.

For us, these impromptu dance sessions on Kilimanjaro became a reminder to stop and enjoy the climb instead of just trying to plow our way to the finish.

I made it up to the top of Kilimanjaro moments before sunrise, when the full moon was still sharing the sky. When someone asks how I made it to the summit, I don’t reply with a litany of gear, or training regimens. I reached the top because of the collective energy and support of the women that I climbed with. They lifted me up when the mountain had beaten me down.

One year later, I’m still friends with my fellow female climbers. I survived my first year as a freelancer — the highs of traveling around the world and the lows of having absolutely no security and all the uncertainty that comes with this wild life of being my own boss.

Whenever it gets all too heavy, I just put my laptop down and start a dance party of one in my living room. And if I need some company, I just play our Kilimanjaro dance video.
Follow the women as they climb Mt. Kilimanjaro together this International Women’s Day via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (@whoatravel) with the hashtags #likeWHOA and #kili2016.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of WHOA cofounder Danielle Thornton. Refinery29 regrets the error.
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