Our journey to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro

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By Kelly Burneson, Contributing Photographer

(l to r) Kelly Burneson, Lee Burneson, Lisa Papenfuss, Eric Burneson, Heather Burneson and Emily Weiss

Westborough  –  In January, Kelly Burneson, along with five members of her family traveled to Africa, climbing to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. Burneson, who has her own business, Kelly Burneson Photography, as well as freelancing for the Community Advocate, documented the trip. Here she shares in her own words and photographs, the significance and reason the family took this remarkable journey.

On Oct. 16, 2015, my nephew Henry passed away at age 16 of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), only nine months after being diagnosed. The family decided to honor his memory and spirit by raising funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) by climbing to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  LLS works with a fantastic program called Embark Exploration, that has an office in Tanzania (www.embarkexplorationco.com).

The team was made up of Henry’s family – his father, Eric, and mother, Heather; cousin Emily;  aunt Lisa;  uncle Lee;  and myself. Our ages ranged from 29 to 61.

Our itinerary was the Lamosho Route which included eight days and seven nights camping on the mountain.  This route allowed us the greatest time and opportunity to acclimate to the altitude and the best chance for all six of us to reach the summit without getting altitude sickness.

We had three amazing guides from Embark that were with us every step of the way and 23 of the best porters in the business, carrying our food, supplies, tents and luggage to every camp.  Our camps would be completely assembled with tents up, and dinner being cooked by two fabulous chefs. The porters would come out and meet us as we got close to camp to take our day packs. When it was not raining “cats and dogs” we would sing and dance after a long day of hiking.

Mt. Kilimanjaro used to have 11 glaciers at the summit; it now has three. Scientists believe that all the glaciers will be gone in the next 10 to 20 years.  January is known to be the dry season on Kilimanjaro, yet it rained every day of our trek.  With the amount of rain that was coming down on our fourth day, we experienced Mother Nature’s fury, as a mudslide with boulders the size of cars washed out a river crossing that separated my husband and I, two of the guides and one porter from the rest of our party for almost 36 hours. With the best and most experienced knowledgeable guides leading our way, we were always kept safe and out of harm’s way and were able to reunite with our family the following evening.

The long grueling ascent to the summit was both a mental and physical challenge. LLS provides you with a training guide to prepare you physically for this journey, however, it is really hard to prepare for the mental portion. Learning to regulate and breathe correctly is key to success, as well as having a mantra or “happy” place to pull from;  in our case, Henry’s memory and fight with cancer was our motivation.  The ascent to the summit begins in the middle of the night, the final hike to the summit takes 7-8 hours, you reach Stella point for the most incredibly beautiful sunrise, then you have an hour more to reach the highest point on Mt. Kilimanjaro called Uhuru Peak at 19,341 feet.  Throughout our journey to the summit our guides would monitor us closely, paying attention to our breathing, checking our oxygen levels and pace. We heard the phrase “Pole Pole” a lot – it is a Swahili saying for “slowly, slowly”.

After reaching our final destination, the descent was quick and the oxygenated air welcoming.  We made to the exit of Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park; our journey was complete.  It was time to say good-bye to our fabulous crew and then we were off on a three-day safari through the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation area.

Facts about Mt. Kilimanjaro:

    • Tallest and highest free-standing mountain in Africa and the world. Standing at 5892 meters or 19,330 ft.
    • Kilimanjaro is made up of three dormant volcanic cones
    • Climbers experience almost every ecological system on the mountain; cultivated land, rain forest, heath, moorland, alpine and artic summit.
    • The glaciers of Kilimanjaro our disappearing, there use to be 11 glaciers and now there are only 3 left.
    • Approximately 25,000 people attempt to summit annually, two-thirds are successful. Climbers turn back due to altitude-related problems.Henry Burneson was the team’s inspiration.
      Henry Burneson was the team’s inspiration.
      The team reaches the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
      We reached Barafu Camp, this is the highest we will stay at before attempting summit.
      A spectacular sunrise
      We would celebrate after a long hike at camp with the guides and porters with singing and dancing.

      Morning break down of Karanga Camp with a fantastic view of Mt. Kilimanjaro.