Kilimanjaro LEAP a “Once in a Lifetime Experience”

Photos from the second day of the LEAP Kilimanjaro NOC hike in January 2023. (Eric Adsit

This past January, the FISU Games were held in Lake Placid. Northwood was used as a venue to house the participating athletes, meaning students would have to be off campus for a month. During this time, LEAP programs, which would usually take place in May, were offered in January. These January LEAP courses were heavily subsidized by the revenue from FISU, making them more affordable than usual. One of these trips was the Kilimanjaro LEAP trip. On this trip, ten students traveled to Tanzania with three faculty, a former Navy medic, and a professional photographer, and successfully made it up to the highest summit in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro. This article will tell the story in depth, day-by-day, not only of the Kili expedition but also of the other experiences that made this a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

The preparation for this trip started over the summer. Around mid-July, the loose details of the trip were shared with six returning Northwood students who had experience in the Northwood Outing Club from the previous year. All six expressed interest in the trip, and the majority selected January as the preferred date for holding the expedition. Come September, when more of the details were ironed out, LEAP Director Ms. Marcy Fagan invited other students who wouldn’t have athletic obligations during the January break. Ten students signed up, including myself.

Then training began, consisting of an initial run up Cobble Hill, behind the school, and progressed to hikes up various High Peaks, and later in the season, ski tours in the surrounding glades and up the Whiteface Toll Road. The final logistical issues, including required vaccinations, were settled in December. After a final briefing on the gear required, the students went off to break. The actual trip began on the morning of January 14th. Two flights beginning at JFK, with a layover in Nairobi, Kenya, before arriving in Tanzania at Kilimanjaro, made for an almost 30-hour travel day. Upon landing, the group traveled to the hotel, where we got a much-needed good night’s sleep.

On our first full day in the country, we had our final briefings on how the trip would go, provided by our guides with Boma, the company organizing our stay in Tanzania. We explored the neighboring town of Arusha, ate lunch at a local restaurant, and went to the Masai Market, where we gained some experience bartering for souvenirs. Afterward, we returned to the hotel, where the Boma guides did final gear checks to determine what the group would need to rent.

This is a good time for me to introduce the guides. Prosper, the head guide, had grown up on the mountain, starting as a gear porter, and gradually worked his way up the ranks, going to school and becoming one of the most knowledgeable guides on the mountain. Joining him were guides Tim, Chris, Joyce, and my favorite, Safara, who carried around a speaker from which he would play music throughout the trip. After being introduced to the guides, we went to bed, preparing for an early departure to the trailhead gate.

The following day, we finished packing up our gear and had roughly a 3-hour bus ride to the Londorossi Gate, the trailhead of the Lemosho Route, which we would take up Kilimanjaro. On Kilimanjaro, there are a variety of routes to reach the summit. The easiest route, the Marangu route, known as the Coca-Cola route for its popularity, approaches from the east and takes eight days; it is the only camp where fixed shelters house clients. The second-most popular, the Machame Route, takes five days and approaches from the Southwest. The Rongai Route is the only one that approaches from the North and uses separate camps from the rest. The Umbwe and Mweka routes come from the South and have the steepest verticals of the trails on the mountain. Finally, our route, the Lemosho Route, takes seven days, approaches from the West, and is the longest and most gradual of the routes. Lemosho also allows for the best body acclimatization to the high altitude, which is why our group chose this way.

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After arriving at the gate, we ate lunch and then hiked a short 2 hours up to the “Tall Trees Camp,” gaining 2,000 feet of elevation in the process. This was the only one of our camps located underneath a tall canopy, and we saw groups of white monkeys jumping around in the trees above us as we arrived at camp. After eating dinner, we climbed into our tents and slept.

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After an early breakfast the following day, what would end up being the longest hike of the trip commenced. On that day, we hiked 10 miles, gained 4,000 feet of elevation, and went to Shira 2 camp at 12,750 feet. We ate lunch at 11,000 feet along the way and crossed part of the East African Rift. We reached camp around 5:00 p.m. and got our first view of the summit soon afterward. This was also the first time we could see below the mountain at night; the lights in Moshi shone up to the camp as it was a clear night.

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The next morning, we began the most challenging day up to that point. That day, we were to hike from Shira 2 camp to Barranco Camp, at roughly the same elevation. However, the route to get there would take us up to 15,000 feet, where we would eat lunch at the same elevation as the summit base camp, Barafu. This “climb high, sleep low” tactic helps the body acclimatize to the altitude. The route to the lunch spot, known as the Lava Tower, was almost straight uphill and took us about 5 hours to complete. On our final approach to Lava Tower, it began to rain, and by the time we reached our mess tent, it had changed to hail. The hail stopped as we finished lunch, and we were smoothly on our way down to Barranco by around 1:30 p.m. Our hike to Barranco took about 2 hours and involved a scramble down a waterfall and then a 2,200-foot descent to camp. We got in around 4:00 p.m. As we got to camp, we had a view down the valley and of the Barranco Wall, which would comprise a large part of the next day’s hike. We also got an even better view of the summit, including a vast avalanche crown (which also shows up on satellite maps).

At this point, one of our group members, Mrs. Carmichael’s husband, Chis, got sick, and our guides determined they could not continue. However, to leave the mountain, they would have to go up to the next camp, where they could access the descent trail.

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The next day, we hiked from Barranco to Karanga camp, the last leg before Summit Base Camp. The hike began up the infamous “Barranco Wall,” the most technical part of the climb. “I thought it was very fun and tested our strengths since it was a couple of days in. It was one of my favorite parts of the entire hike. It was interesting how the porters and our group had to work around each other, but it was impressive how they could climb the wall with all the stuff on their back,” said Avery Novia ’24, one of the students who summited. The wall took about an hour to scramble up and over. The porters made it look easy; some did it without holding onto anything. It was a nerve-wracking part of the climb but also surreal to experience.

Once we made it to the top, it was a series of ups and downs in the pouring rain, culminating in a 600-foot scramble up to camp. We got in around 1:00 p.m. when the sun finally came out. We spent the afternoon lounging outside, taking photos in front of the sign at the camp, and playing cards. We even built a rudimentary bench (which consisted of two piles of rocks and a 2×4) at the camp.

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On the final day before the summit push, we completed a short hike from Karanga to Barafu, the summit base camp. We gained 2,000 feet of elevation, which put us at 15,100 feet to start the final ascent. We lounged around that afternoon, and the sun came out again. Many people brought their sleeping pads out of their tents, lying on the flat areas near the campsite. That night, we ate an early dinner and had our final summit briefing from our guides. We went to sleep around 6 p.m. and got some rest.

Later that night, we were woken up around 11:00 p.m. and proceeded to the Mess Tent for tea and biscuits before our final push. We organized our gear and then began our push close to midnight. We started the slow climb up 5,000 vertical feet to the summit. Hour after hour, switchback after switchback, the wind picked up, and the dust swirled, illuminating in our headlamps. We reached Stella Point, outside the crater and on the same ridge as the summit, as the sun rose around 6:15. After a quick stop at the point, we continued to the summit.

The elevation gain from Stella Point to the summit is only about 200 feet, but it was the most mentally challenging part of the trip for me. Any uphill, even if it was a slight incline, felt horrible. Moving barely faster than a crawl, we reached the peak. Immediately, packs came off, and cameras came out. We took pictures on our own, then with the guides, and finally, a whole group picture with help from another group.

The mood at the top was not one of jubilation but of exhausted relief. Most of us were just happy that it was all over. As we began our descent, it still didn’t dawn on us what we had just accomplished. We got back to Barafu around 10:30, where we slept. We were awakened at 11:15 a.m. and got moving toward the descent trail. Like most other itineraries on the mountain, our descent trail was via the Mweka route. We would pass by Millenium Camp, at 12,000 feet, en route to the sprawling Mweka Hut Camp, where we would eat our next three meals, along with our last night on the mountain. When we arrived at Mweka Hut, everyone was beaten to a pulp. Some of the group’s older members, including NOC director Bobby O’Connor’s uncle, had their knees take a beating on the descent. We hung out at the camp until dusk and then slept at 10,000 feet.

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The following day, we awoke, had a quick breakfast, and immediately got on the trail. Once again, we descended back into the canopy. After walking steadily downhill for around 3 hours, we reached the Mweka Gate, and our hike was finally over. We collected our certificates, proceeded to a souvenir shop, where we got lunch, and then moved to the hotel. We arrived there around 5:30 and chilled out for the rest of the night.

After a relaxing rest day at the hotel, it was back on the move two days later. This time, it was west, to the town of Mto Wa Mbu, where we would camp for the final night before leaving the country. When we got there, we did a day-long safari in the Ngorongoro Crater, where we saw 4 of the “big five” (Lions, leopards, water buffalo, rhinos, and elephants). We also saw other animals like Gazelles, Wildebeest, Hippos, Zebras, and Warthogs. Afterward, we went to our camp and set up for the night. The camp was a hotel in all but name and accommodation; we slept in tents, but all equipment, including food, was provided. There was running water and electricity in all the common areas, which included a bar, restaurant, and an infinity pool.

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The following morning we left for the airport after lounging till around 11:00 a.m. Before leaving, though, we made one last stop at a souvenir shop and then made the 3½ hour drive to Kilimanjaro International Airport, back in Arusha. We flew out around 8:30, made a tight connection in Nairobi, had a 15-hour flight, and were stateside around 6 in the morning. After clearing customs, Mr. Weaver was waiting with a bus, and we were at school, moving into our rooms around 2 p.m.

All in all, it was an incredible trip. It was historic in terms of the magnitude attempted. All 10 students and 15 of the 17 in our group made it to the summit.

Those who summited in our group were, by seniority:

  • Captain Bill O’Connor, U.S. Navy veteran
  • Marcy Fagan, director of LEAP at Northwood and biology teacher
  • Tait Wardlaw, former Alaskan mountain guide and current Northwood parent
  • Bobby O’Connor, director of the Northwood Outing Club (NOC)
  • Eric Adsit, professional photographer and owner of Adsit Media Works
  • Finley Donahue ’23
  • Avery Novia ’24
  • Wyatt Wardlaw ’24
  • Ashley Guevara ’24
  • Brian Brady ’24
  • Gus Garvey ’25
  • Colton Cushman ‘25
  • Alex Randall ’25
  • Sophia Sherman ’25
  • Uma Laguna-Curtis ’26


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