Ladies Team! Climbing Kilimanjaro with WHOA Travel
Last spring, after a particularly brutal New England winter, I was going through a bout of depression. I booked a last minute trip to Boston to partake in the Women in Travel Summit and there I met Danielle and Allison, the owners of WHOA Travel. They were sponsors at the event and had a lovely little booth set up with information about their all-women adventures. It seemed interesting enough but the price tag was far out of my reach and besides, I wasn’t the kind of gal who flew off to exotic places with a group of strangers. I’m just way too introverted for that.
But as spring wore on and my depression got worse I felt the urge to get out and do something, something challenging and difficult. That’s when I decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
I debated heavily between booking my climb with WHOA Travel or as a private climb. There’s obvious pros and cons to each choice. WHOA Travel always does the 7-Day Machame Route, the most popular of all the climbing routes on Kilimanjaro, and only twice a year*. A private climb offers more options: different routes, longer (or shorter) hikes, and a more flexible schedule. In the end what convinced me to book with WHOA was the opportunity to hike with other women and the hope of creating lasting friendships.
And the dance videos.
From the beginning Allison helped answer my numerous questions about climbing Kilimanjaro as we spent hours on the phone leading up to the March climb. My biggest concerns were of the Barranco Wall, an 800-foot cliff that seemed impossibly steep, and the worries that I would be turned around on summit day if I was too slow. I was assured that neither would be a problem so I booked my deposit to secure my spot on the climb.
When booking a Kilimanjaro climb through WHOA you often don’t see the finer details that are handled for you, small tasks that you would otherwise have to do on your own if booking through a local Tanzanian company. Everything was organized for me, from my airport pickup to arranging lodging at the Stella Maris Lodge in Moshi. I was only responsible for booking my flight and getting my gear but Danielle and Allison can even help with that if you’re living in the NYC area and need a shopping partner to pick out the essentials.
A few months before our climb Danielle and Allison created a private Facebook group so all the ladies could get to know each other, share tips and ask questions. It was little details like this that made me grateful I had booked through them.
WHOA Travel uses a local outfitter and for this hike they used Gladys Adventures, a reputable trekking company that is KPAP certified. Gladys also happens to have a full storage facility for rental gear and they run safari tours, an optional add-on that many of the hikers (including myself) signed up for. I rented a few items from them like my duffle bag and sleeping bag while others rented almost all their gear for the trek.
On the eve of our climb Danielle and Allison organized a sumptuous buffet dinner at the hotel and a pre-climb briefing. We all received some incredible swag like a locally handmade bracelet, trail mix and a mini journal. The guides from Gladys Adventures were there to introduce themselves and discuss with us all of the things we could expect on the mountain. They inspected our gear to make sure we brought everything we would need; those who forgot an essential item could rent it from the storage facility (I ended up needing a pair of waterproof rain pants).
With such a large group of women (22 climbers in all) we had an enormous crew: 3 main guides, 7 assistant guides and roughly 70 porters and cooks. WHOA also hired 4 private toilets for us, a luxury that you do not want to skimp on when climbing Kilimanjaro. Each hiker had a designated porter to carry their duffle bag and at the end of the day we would walk into camp to find our tents already set up, our sleeping pad spread out inside and our bag waiting to be unpacked. At night the porters and guides would take turns watching over our tents to ensure the safety of us as well as our belongings.
Meals were taken inside a large mess tent. Beverages included instant coffee, hot chocolate, tea and hot and cold water. Sanitizing our water was done for us; there was no need to bring iodine tablets but I brought Mio to flavor my cold water. All meals started with a bowl of soup or porridge to keep us hydrated. Meats like chicken, fish and sausage were served along with plenty of starchy sides, fruits and veggies. Accommodations were made for those in our group that were vegetarian or gluten-free and nobody went hungry. Dishes like garlic cheese bread and yam cakes were my favorites.
Each day we were given a physical to ensure we weren’t experiencing altitude sickness (though all of us were taking Diamox). Our blood pressure, oxygen levels, pulse and temperatures were tested and we had to declare any ill effects we were feeling. Oxygen was brought along the trek for emergencies. Almost all the ladies experienced some mild forms of altitude sickness, whether it was nausea or diarrhea or dizziness but all 22 of us summited the mountain in high spirits!
The most unforgettable thing about hiking with WHOA Travel was the camaraderie I experienced while on the mountain. Even though I was dead freaking last every day, not just in our group but of all the groups on the mountain, I will never forget the support and encouragement I received from my fellow hikers. I’m thankful for those ladies who reminded me how proud my daughter would be, of the hugs I got when I finally caught up to the group at Lava Tower. I’m glad I was able to share a tent with Karen for a week as we compared our battle scars each day and stumbled our way to the bathrooms together in the middle of the night. I’m grateful for the meditation session led by Jessika before our summit attempt, of all the women chanting my name as they waited for me on the final day at Mweka Gate. Those memories are irreplaceable.
The support we gave one another was in stark contrast to another equally large group climbing the same route as us. These climbers, part of a co-ed hiking group from eastern Europe, were competitive, arrogant and incredibly impatient to get to the top. As a result some of them experienced injuries (including a near face-plant from a daredevil stunt) and more severe forms of altitude sickness. Not all of them made it to the top on summit day. To them climbing Kilimanjaro wasn’t an experience at all, it was just another mountain to tick off their list and I was relieved they weren’t my hiking partners.
*Due to popular demand WHOA Travel is now offering hikes 4 times a year but at the time I booked they were only offering it in March and June.
The Verdict: If you’re a female traveler who doesn’t want to go solo on your next adventure I would highly recommend checking out WHOA Travel. They don’t just do Kilimanjaro hikes either! You can choose to bike in India, hike to Machu Picchu in Peru, do yoga in Costa Rica or drink beer at Oktoberfest in Germany. They’ve also recently added expeditions to Mount Elbrus and Everest Base Camp plus a sailing adventure in the Caribbean. There are always new adventures popping up on their site so check back frequently!
Tips and Tricks: Kilimanjaro is WHOA’s most popular adventure but it’s also the most challenging, both physically and mentally. While the 7-Day Machame Route is totally doable you really need to be in good physical shape to climb it. If you’re overweight like me that can mean getting into a fitness routine up to 6 months in advance, though more fit hikers can choose to book at the last minute. In fact Karen, my tent mate, decided to join just 2 days before we hit the trail!
Good to Know: The fees that WHOA Travel charges to climb Kilimanjaro may seem much higher than other companies charge but a portion of those fees go to sponsor the climb of a local girl in the area. For our climb we sponsored Elizabeth and Siodi from Kenya, prior students at the Tembea Girl’s School who saw snow for the first time on this journey. Your fees also include the tips for your porters and guides, something that is usually excluded from the prices that other companies list.
Child Friendly? Children must be at least 12 years old to be permitted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro but I would recommend it only for older teenagers. I would love to do a mother/daughter climb with Stink…in about 15 years!
Read More: If you’re interested in hiking Mount Kilimanjaro you might want to check out my awesome Kili playlist for some inspiring songs, my extensive packing list that includes products for plus-size women or this post about getting in shape before your climb.