Shelley Shepard, a leading sales executive based in St. George Island, is no stranger to adventure. Whether it’s opening a brewery with her husband and friends (the widely popular Oyster City Brewing Company in Apalachicola) or biking around France, she’s always ready to dive in headfirst on a new challenge. When her younger brother John approached her with the idea of hiking Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, there was no question what her answer would be.
Shelley and John successfully completed their hike to the summit this past May. They had an 11-person support team; three guides, one cook and seven porters who carried their camp and gear.
“It was the trip of a lifetime and I’m grateful and proud to have succeeded, but more grateful to have spent six stellar days of awe-inspiring hiking, bonding with my adventurous little brother, getting to know people from a whole ‘nother walk of life, on a new-to-me-continent. Travel grows your mind, fills your heart and expands your horizons.”
– Shelley Shepard
The Trip at a Glance
• Tour company: Zara Tours, Moshi Tanzania
• Machame Route, 6 days of hiking to reach the summit
• Starting altitude: 5,900’ Machame Gate – 19,341’ Uhuru Peak
• Five zones of Kilimanjaro – Farmland (coffee and bananas), Rainforest, Heather and Moorland and Highland Desert
• No vaccines needed, anti-Malaria recommended by the season
• Travel time: 35 hours of planes and airports from Apalachicola (one way)
Read on for a recap of Shelley’s experience from beginning to end, in her own words.
DAY ONE :: We hiked a full 4000’ elevation gain through a mist-filled rainforest, with monkeys playing in the treetops. It was a surreal experience and more stunningly beautiful than we had expected! We’d read the books, read the blogs, could recite Zara Tours’ FAQs, the packing guidelines and tips by heart, but none of that had prepared us for how interesting the lower mountain was with its ever-changing zones. Our chief guide, Freddy, his brother Dustan (training as an assistant) and our in-crew-comic, Lucas, had educated us about the importance of “pole-pole”, Swahili for slowly-slowly.
When acclimating to the increasing altitude and preparing our bodies for the extreme altitude at a 19,341’ summit, it was crucial that we walk slowly and not increase our heart rate. As you climb in altitude, the pressure on your body decreases, decreasing the amount of oxygen being pushed through your bloodstream and into your organs (brain and lungs being key!). The human body is amazing and immediately begins producing extra red blood cells to help carry more oxygen to the key organs, but you have to give it a few days to meet the demand.
DAY TWO :: Our second night on Mt. Kilimanjaro was spent at Shira Camp, a staggering 12,355’ above sea level. It was the first evening the skies cleared, showing off a spectacular star-filled night sky and my first time seeing the Southern Cross constellation, a mental snapshot from this adventure that will never leave me. It was a frosty 30 degrees F but I was so excited to be in that moment, with the clouds below us and the snow-covered summit of Kili filling the eastern sky 7,000’ above us. It was awe-inspiring to see our goal and know the next three days of hiking would have us standing on the top.
“When you see the Southern Cross for the first time… you understand now why you came this way.”
– Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
DAY THREE :: As we continue to summit, I am humbled by the sweet people who are cheerfully working 10+ hour days in extreme altitude and weather conditions out of necessity (tourism is the number one job source in the area). My brother and I were very aware that we have been blessed in comparison, lucky by nothing we’d done other than the circumstances of our birth. We appreciated every effort they made in carrying heavy loads, setting up/breaking down camp, running fresh food from the lower camps, preparing yummy, warm, fortifying meals and diligently working toward the end goal of getting their two hikers – they nicknamed us Johnny & Sister – safely to the summit. These guys earned my accolades, appreciation and utmost respect, they are the heroes of the mountain and I am absolutely humbled by their kindnesses and efforts.
DAY FOUR :: The fourth day’s hike to base camp starts right off the bat with a clambering trail hidden along the infamous Barranco Wall, which towers above the camp. There were two sections of this ‘trail’ (I use the term very loosely as it was really just rock face) that had me praying for superglue grips or climbing ropes. A shot of adrenaline warmed me up and carried me the top where I shredded my ski gloves and two polar fleeces while soaking in views of neighboring Mt. Meru and far off towns below in the plains, soberly punctuated by a heli-pad on the opposite ridge. We’d befriended several other hikers from other groups and all shared a moment of success and fist bumps, “They *said* this wasn’t technical, HAH!”
DAY FIVE :: The energy as we arrived into 15,100’ Barafu Camp – aka base camp – was palpable. All the support crews were buzzing around, setting up cook tents quickly to get hikers fed and to bed as soon as possible to get the most rest before 11pm wake up calls. We hikers were nervously grinning at each other, soaking up the bluebird skies, epic views of the summit (tomorrow, Lord willing, we’ll be there!) and taking deep, deep breaths to get all the oxygen we could force into our lungs. Our chief guide, Freddy, had already proven himself a primo strategic planner and sat us down for a pre-summit-pep-talk. Fortune does favor the well-prepared. We’d go to sleep at 6pm, in the clothes we’d be wearing for our summit hike – for warmth in these sub-freezing temps as well as to save time – Lucas would wake us at 11:00pm, we’d have hot tea (no coffee, it’s counterproductive at these heights) and would fill our water bottles with hot water to slow it from freezing. We would carry the bare minimum in our packs; water, granola bar, and in my case, a camera. All three guides would accompany so if one of us began showing symptoms of altitude sickness, two guides would help that person down, the other continuing on to summit. The distressed hiker would be taken straight down to Mweka Camp at 9000’, in hopes the significant decrease in altitude would assuage the symptoms of altitude sickness. If we were both healthy and able to summit, we’d return to base camp, take measure of our health, rest for an hour before eating lunch and descending the 6000’ to Mweka Camp. So when you do the math, we’d be leaving camp at midnight, hiking 4000’ in 6.5 hours to the summit, immediately turning around after photos ops to descend 4000’ back to base camp (only 2.5 hrs to get down!) then hiking another 4 hours and 6000’ down to Mweka Camp. A fourteen-hour day with 4000’ elevation gain then 10,000’ descent.
If there was ever a time for Aleve and arnica, this was IT! But my primary thought was that I had just spent four spectacular days of hiking through three different ecosystems. At this point, any single one of those days were on my bucket list of best days ever and a successful summit would be great, but it was nothing I’d be willing to risk life and limb to achieve. From the rainforest, to the heathered moorlands, to the alpine desert, this mountain had shown us one-of-a-kind beauty every step of the way. After a huge dinner we prepped our clothes and packs and settled down to sleep. Thankfully, I slept like a log, however, John was way too excited and just managed to doze off and on. We were both awake when Lucas called us up at 11pm and we hopped up into the cold and readied ourselves for the next six+ hours. The full moon was stunningly bright over our left shoulders as we began the ascent on a rocky face in a broken-up line of our fellow hikers and guides.
DAY SIX :: This began the six hours of mind over matter, and the pinnacle of living-in-the-moment. The ascent was astoundingly steep, more so than any other stretch of this distance that we’d hiked thus far, and it was covered in hard, sometimes icy snow from 15,800’ on. Temps were bitterly cold, and I was thankful for my five layers of highly technical cold weather clothes. At about 18,000’ I was sincerely questioning what good reason I’d had for subjecting myself to this special torture. It was tedious, it was beyond cold, my primary focus was taking as deep a breath as possible and taking the tiniest steps. But with a short pause to enjoy the stars and see two shoot across the sky, a clear view of the moonlit peak of Mawenzi to our right, the brilliant snowy outline of the ever-nearing ridge that held the summit, and I knew this is a moment that will NEVER be recreated. No photo would capture this. It was a testament to training, preparation and appreciation of the amazing natural beauty. The sky was lightening with the beginning of dawn and there was no doubt we were both doing great, feeling strong and going to make it to the summit. We reached Stella Point, a whopping 18,800’, as the sun was breaking through the clouds. Another 45 minutes along the highest ridge in Africa where I was giddy and trying to photograph the views of glaciers, the snow-covered ash pit, the patterns of clouds below us and the changing colors of the sunrise. We were fist bumping passing hikers who had made it to the famous sign and were cheering us on, then, we were there! The blessed sign of achievement marking 19,341’ Uhuru Peak, the Roof of Africa. Quick as a minute I’d thrown off my gloves, swapped hats (fuzzy warm for my Oyster City Brewing Company ball cap!), handed my camera to another crew’s guide, and the five of us posed for a picture; Freddy, John, Shelley, Dustan and Lucas, WE DID IT! Then I pulled the hidden coup out of my pack, a 32oz crowler of Oyster City Brewing Company Kumquat Saison, my best and most favorite beer I’d ever made, and carried up a mountain. It was frozen rock solid in the 0-degree temps but a picture is worth a thousand words. And the looks on our guides’ faces when they realized I’d just pulled a beer out of my pack was pretty priceless too!
From here on out it was absolute fun, we were singing, laughing and reveling in success. The trip down to base camp was easy for us, though we saw several other hikers having issues with altitude. Our porters met us 15 minutes from camp and we ALL celebrated together, so proud of what *they’d* done to get us here! It’s a status symbol for a crew to have their hikers summit, and probably a little extra when their hikers are happy, smiling and brought beer. A quick hour nap, hot lunch, and we packed up and started the four hours down to 9000’ and our final camp on the mountain. We followed a dry, rocky river bed straight down the side of the mountain – a far different route than we’d taken up and rode the wave of euphoria through sore knees and tired bodies. Chef Godfrey fed us a HUGE plate of rice, ratatouille, fruit and crepes, and it didn’t take a minute to fall asleep in our bags that night!
Day Seven :: Our last morning, we packed and dragged time as slow as we could, enjoying our last day on Kili. Even stopping for every photo opp I could find (or that Lucas could stage for me), we made quick time through the misty layer of rainforest. Past pencil wood trees, protea flowers, tree ferns, and national park workers doing trail repair to prepare for their upcoming busy tourist season. At Mweka Gate, we signed out of the park’s record book and loaded in the van for the trip to the hotel, after a quick stop for the obligatory Kilimanjaro Lager.