In June of this year, a group of 11 individuals connected by Outdoor Afro, a national network that celebrates African American relationships and leadership in the outdoors, gathered in Tanzania to become the first all-black troop from the U.S. to ever climb 19,341 feet to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. The climb traverses five climate zones: rainforest (6,000-9,200 feet), heath (9,200-11,000 feet), moorland (11,000-13,200 feet), alpine desert (13,200-1600 feet), and arctic (16,000 plus feet).
Below, Leandra Taylor, a leader of Outdoor Afro’s Albuquerque, New Mexico, community, shares exactly what it’s like to hike above the clouds—in her own words.
Before the adventure, I spoke to Taylor on the phone about her inspiration and expectations for the trip…
I remember watching Steve Irwin and other explorers on TV when I was younger—that’s how I fell in love with the outdoors. But, while I was enthralled by their adventures, I could never picture myself emulating them; I never thought, “Oh, I can grow up and become a biologist.” And, I can see now as an adult, that’s because black naturalists just aren’t represented—and it’s so hard to dream what you can’t see.
When I’m outside, I feel like my whole self; my mind can wander, I can see the trees, I can listen to the birds. So when I’m made to feel uncomfortable as a black woman hiking outdoors—which happens frequently because people are surprised to see a black person outside in nature—I tend to feel in danger. I start thinking, “I don’t know if it’s safe for me to be out here, if I continue on this trail.” So I think Outdoor Afro is really creating a space for me to say, “I come outside. Everyone else comes outside. We all deserve to be in this space.”
When I’m outside, I feel like my whole self; my mind can wander, I can see the trees, I can listen to the birds.
Last year, when I was going through my Outdoor Afro leadership training and they were telling us about this expedition, I didn’t realize that this would be the first all-black group to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. I was just was blown away by the opportunity to go and experience Tanzania with a group of people who are also passionate and want to experience the climbing culture in Africa. As I understand it, the climbing culture in most countries in Africa is more about experiencing the land, the culture, the locals, and the people that you’re with; as opposed to in the U.S. where it’s often more about where we can get to the highest point and how fast we can get there.
Of the 11 of us making the trip, I’m the youngest member (I’m 25). I’ve never been on an expedition. I’ve never been backpacking. I’ve kind of been camping, but I’m confident that I’ll be learning what I need to know from a group of people who really love and care about me.
The night before we left, I read through my Facebook comments from my friends and family that wished me luck on my climb. I knew I would carry so much love with me on my adventure.
Climbing to the summit
When we were flying into Tanzania, I could see Kilimanjaro through the plane window, and I just felt like we were making eye contact.
Later, once all the participants had arrived, we spent some time with the park rangers learning about the ecology of Kilimanjaro. Then we were off, hiking through the forest. It was so beautiful. The sun was shining through the trees. The first day we were hiking to 9,000 feet, and we were all so excited to finally be be together.
Slowly, the sunlight started creeping away from us. We realized we were short on headlamps, so finding our way in the darkness was our first test as a team to work together. We were hiking pretty close and we were relying on each other’s abilities. We were all kind of in sync in this moment. It was really beautiful: 11 people who had only spoken over the phone became 11 people who had to have each other’s backs for safety. It was an exhausting first day, and by the end, we were already thinking, “Man, if this is how I feel on day one, this is going to be quite a climb.”
Slowly, the sunlight started creeping away from us.We realized we were short on headlamps, so finding our way in the darkness was our first test as a team to work together.
The next day started out just the same. We were leaving the heathers [at 9,000 feet] and making our way towards the moorland [at 13,000 feet]. And this time, we were hiking above the clouds. One of our teammates who had been experiencing altitude sickness ended up having to turn around that day, which was a heavy blow for the group early on in the trip. She was actually the person who inspired the hike in the first place, so there were definitely some tears that day. Before we began, I knew the climb would be a physical challenge, but it ended up being so much more about believing in yourself, having faith in your teammates, and just continuing on. Our first teammate turned around at the beginning of day two, and the second teammate turned around at the end of day two after Julius gave us the option at dinner. She was experiencing altitude sickness and decided to turn around, so she camped with us that night and left the next morning.
That night at dinner, one of the trip leaders, Julius, said that this would be the best place to turn around if anyone else wanted to. We could hike down the mountain and have a van pick us up. After this point, if we kept going, it would be hard to go back. I remember sitting there and really questioning whether this was the end of the road for me. There had been some serious heights that day, and I’m really afraid of heights. Our group was down to nine hikers after the second day.
I just kept repeating to myself, “I am strong. My body’s strong. My legs are strong.”
The next few days run together a bit, but on the third or fourth day, I know that we decided to all stay together as a group, to go the same pace throughout the day. We put some of the slower hikers in front and told them to take their time. We were headed to the Lava Tower [15,000 feet] that day, and the hike was finally catching up to me. This was one of our longer hikes and the distance that we were planning on going should have taken us 4-6 hours, but at the 7 hour mark, we were only about half way. I was on my period, so I felt cramp-y and emotional during our lunch break, but I was also just physically exhausted.
Eventually, we had to descend a rock wall, and it was a worst-case scenario for me because of my fear of heights. When I tried to get down, I could feel a panic attack brewing: I thought, “I could lose my footing and fall down.” All of my teammates were well aware of my anxiety by this point, and they were just behind me and supporting me. But as the light started to die down, I was getting more and more panicked. I just kept repeating to myself, “I am strong. My body’s strong. My legs are strong.” I ended up making it to camp, and setting up my tent with the help of my troop.
That night, my body started to feel the change in altitude and I ended up getting sick in my tent, but Julius told me I was okay to go on if I wanted to. And I thought to myself, “I trust him. If he thought that I needed to turn around, he would tell me.” And when I thought about the massive support system both on and offline that was cheering for me from New Mexico and beyond, I knew I had to trust their belief in me, too.
The next morning, I couldn’t believe that my body was able to bounce back the way it did after just one night’s rest. I felt like a completely different person, much stronger than just a few days ago, or anytime in the past. I can’t even describe the feeling. That day was my victory day. Even if I didn’t end up making it to the summit, I was sure that I’d conquered my fear of heights in a way that I’d never expected being able to overnight.
We hiked on, but after that, we stuck to a much slower pace. At the end of that day, we reached the final camp [about 16,000 feet], and the trip leaders told us that we would have to go to sleep now and wake up in 5 hours, at 10pm, to attempt to finish the hike to the summit. At that point, we were so nervous. It was the coldest night yet, and we were all bundled up. There was just this feeling on uncertainty, because we wouldn’t really know if we could make it to the top until we, well, did.
With four miles to go until the top and five of us left, we decided as a team that if one person wanted to turn around, we would all turn around.
When we woke up and started our final climb, the weather was almost unbearable. It was one of the most brutal hikes I’ve been on, and we were all just walking forward. A few more members of our team turned around, but I again kept telling myself, “My body is strong. My legs are strong. My mind is strong. I can do this.” I could barely see in front of myself, we were hiking at night, and it was dark. You can’t let yourself look over the edge of the mountain, but if you just keep hiking, you’re fine.
With four miles to go until the top and five of us left, we decided as a team that if one person wanted to turn around, we would all turn around. But we all sat together in a huddle—freezing!—and decided to go for it. Then we all started chanting: “When I say ‘Outdoor,’ you say ‘Afro!’ ‘Outdoor!’ ‘Afro!’ ‘Outdoor!’ ‘Afro!’”
We made it to the summit, and it was unbelievable. The wind had died down, and the sun was out. It was beautiful and quiet. One of the guides who was with us sat us down, and he said, “I don’t know if you all are religious, but if you are, this is the time to say your thanks to whoever it is that you pray to, because you couldn’t have made it here by yourself.” We all took a couple of seconds to ourselves, to take pictures, and then we headed down. (Even though the descent took a fraction of the time, it was even more grueling because we had to cover glaciers.)
When we returned to the camp where the rest of our teammates were waiting for us, we got the warmest greeting. So many hugs! I’ll never forget that moment. They had turned around, but they wanted us to keep going. They gave us mango juices boxes when we returned to camp. The porters had been carrying them for six days, so they weren’t the coldest, but they were so refreshing.
As we made our way back down Kilimanjaro, I realized that we’d made a new family on the hike. Making it to the bottom felt like a homecoming. We were singing, laughing, dancing. This was a celebration.
Conquering the mountain and experiencing the mountain turned out to be two different things. You get to know this community of Tanzanian people who rely on the water, the flowers, and the fauna. I realized that it was more about that than hiking the mountain. It was about spending seven days above the clouds, walking with people we’d just met, and sharing why we were hiking with each other in the first place. It was unbelievable.
As told to Kells McPhillips.
If Taylor’s story has inspired you to go on your own hiking adventure, here’s how to snag Cheryl Strayed’s iconic boots and the 11 essentials you’ll need before lacing them up.
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