Ain’t no mountain high enough: Couple honeymoons on Mt. Kilimanjaro

People Post is a space for opinion pieces, letters to the editor and guest submissions from members of the Long Beach community. The following is a story submitted by Megan Kachigan, a teacher at St. Anthony High School and her honeymoon adventure with her new husband Mark Loehr this summer.

We summited Mt. Kilimanjaro on our honeymoon. At 19,341 feet, we were way above the clouds, among incredible ice cliffs, at the highest point in Africa, atop one of the world’s largest volcanoes.

We took the seven-day, 40-mile, Machame route to get the top, known as “the roof of Africa.” Our trek took us through the mountain’s five distinct climate zones: We began in a magnificent, dense rain forest, passed through the heather zone where the trees became shorter and rocks became bigger, traversed through moorland, across alpine desert and up desolate scree slopes, to the arctic ice cap summit.

Pole, pole” is the motto of the mountain. “Slowly, slowly” is the secret to success and health in this extreme altitude. Initially the slow pace feels agonizing and seems unnecessarily cautious, but it is the only way up the mountain. Speed is not rewarded here. There is no room for ego on the mountain. The altitude humbles even the greatest of athletes. In my mind, the hike is a constant battle between the tortoise and the hare: slow and steady wins the race.

Pole, pole” is a natural extension of the African lifestyle. Life is slower, and I think they’re on to something. Fast is an adrenaline rush, a momentary bliss, but slow keeps us rooted in the essential and grounded in the present moment. Slow, it turns out, is something that really satisfies.

On the fifth day of hiking and camping, we arrived at base camp. We ate an early dinner, slept for a few hours, and then woke up at midnight to begin our final ascent. “Hakuna matata” our guides tell us. It’s not just a catchy tune from “The Lion King,” but a common phrase in Swahili. “No worries” is the vibe of Africa, and one that I hope stays with me long after the trip ends. It’s not that worry doesn’t exist there; it’s that they move forward with open hands.

We hike slowly through the cold, dark night. After the first 30 minutes of hiking, my water freezes. We press on. It is a long, slow process of putting one foot in front of the other.

My face is tingling, and it’s not because of the cold. Each breath is intentional because the percentage of effective oxygen is half of what we are accustomed to at sea level. As I intentionally slowed my breathing, I gained power over my anxiety with every inhale. My breath grounded me in my vision of success and made the doubts irrelevant. I created a mental movie of what it would take to reach the summit, and I played it on repeat in my mind. I kept positive phrases at the tip of my tongue to battle the voices of doubt and insecurity, but mental strength is more than being ever optimistic in the face of challenges. Mental strength is maintaining a clear vision of your success: what it looks like and what it feels like. You need to be able to taste it before you arrive there. That’s what keeps you going. And so we staggered on into the night.

We became immersed in the rhythm of our steps until the sun began to rise and the crater rim was in sight. We put crampons over our boots to get more traction on the icy footholds, which greatly increased my pace and my morale. Each step felt surer. The summit sign came into view. I felt like I was charging toward it, but in reality it was still a one-hour gradual walk away, one determined step at a time. We got to Uhuru Peak at 7:40a.m. and I embraced the sign. We made it.

I felt an inner tension the whole way down the mountain—between wanting to remain in its simplicity and wanting to relieve my aching knees and blistered toes. At the summit, I found that dreams become real, excess is left behind, and all that remains is what actually matters.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.