I often used to wonder, “What could be better than standing on the summit of Mount Everest?” After reaching the top of the world and falling in love with the man I would marry on that very mountain, who could fault me for worrying that whatever came after would only pale in comparison? When I considered what might top Everest, I thought only the moon would do. But, with no concrete plans to blast off into outer space, Africa’s Mount Mawenzi came to be my aspiration.
As I reflect on my past, I can see clearly that every mountain I climbed was leading me down a path and preparing me for the adventure of Mount Mawenzi. My very first expedition outside of the United States took me to Mount Kenya, where I discovered how unpredictable route finding and extreme weather could create a thrill and a challenge. What I did not anticipate was the tension that would ensue between me and my partner as a result of dealing with these uncertainties. Lesson one revealed itself to me: choose your climbing partner wisely. The person on the other end of that rope—the person who quite literally has your life in their hands—shapes the entire experience.
Another lesson came into focus nine years later, after my stepfather joined me on a climb up Kilimanjaro. By this time in my climbing career, there was nothing particularly hard about this mountain for me—though it was challenging to ascend 19,400 feet in just 7 days—but I will never forget the last few steps to the top, holding my stepfather’s arm. Then and there, I learned that memories are not made simply by getting to the top. Treasured moments become etched in one’s mind only after enduring the trials in getting there with someone you care about.
Our climb of Kilimanjaro took us on a route that allowed me to gaze at nearby Mawenzi for multiple days. Staring at three sides of this spectacular mountain, I could see numerous ways to scale it, and could not help but think how being its lone climber would enhance the experience. From then on, Mawenzi tugged at my heartstrings.
My husband Brad and I reached out to the regional government to inquire if it had ever been climbed. We were told that indeed it had—but had been closed for decades due to dangerous conditions, the sad reality of a warming planet. Early photos of Mawenzi show it snow-covered, but one is now hard-pressed to find any ice or snow on Mawenzi, leaving it subject to serious rockfall. With this knowledge in hand, I filed away the thought of climbing it and set about conquering other mountains.
The next year, a tragic accident on Mount Rainier resulted in the loss of a very good friend and shook my confidence to its core. As I grappled with my emotions, I couldn’t help but long for another mountain escape. It seemed only logical to return to a place where I’d discovered my love and joy for climbing—Africa. I decided to fly solo: I wanted to walk and think for days on end. I chose the highest point in Uganda, Mount Stanley, for this soul-searching climb. It was a bittersweet victory. It had everything I desired except for a partner to share in the joy. Another lesson was coming into view: a summit without a friend is not a joyous moment.
Just a few days after this trip, I realized I had reached four of the five highest points in Africa. Imagine my surprise when I learned the mountain I was missing was Mawenzi! Again, my husband and I wrote to the African government, thinking, How could they deprive me of bagging the five highest points in Africa? Their reply, as before, was a resounding “NO!”
Undeterred, we wrote in annually, and continued to receive notice that Mawenzi remained closed. It wasn’t until 2017 that our shameless begging resulted in a permit. It was a go, yet we had one small problem: Brad was guiding a group up Kilimanjaro and didn’t have time to do both. I finally had a permit but no partner.
The Chosen One needed to be someone that could handle getting cold, lost, tired, turned around and shot down, and keep going. I needed someone who, no matter how high the obstacles or how low the moods, I could trust we would return home the best of friends. It took me only 30 seconds to choose Tom Wilson.
Tom’s engineering mindset prompts him to ask many questions before agreeing to go anywhere. His agreement is always contingent on the plan passing his “sniff test.” My Mawenzi proposal was no different. Our exchange went roughly as follows:
Where is Mawenzi? Next to Kilimanjaro.
Has it been climbed before? Yes, but the records are vague.
Why do you want to do it? I want to become the Queen of Africa (haha) by being the first woman to climb the five highest peaks of Africa.
How high is it? 16,000 feet and change.
Is there a route description? …Not really.
Will we have a guide? No. We are on our own.
Within days, I received Tom’s deposit.
We decided we would join my husband’s expedition to climb Kilimanjaro and run up Mawenzi while the team took a rest day at the Mawenzi Tarn camp. I said, “Tom, if we do this mountain in style and feel good after the effort, we can simply join the team to climb Kilimanjaro and rack up a double header. We need only be on top by 10:00am and back to camp by 3:00pm, which gives us plenty of time to rest and ready ourselves to advance the next day to Kili’s high camp.”
Mawenzi Tarn camp positioned us close to the start of our climb. Despite being the baby sister to Kili, once this close, Mawenzi felt a lot larger. What she lacks in height she makes up for in ruggedness. Mawenzi was not inviting. Mawenzi offered no open arm, no pathway and no signal that we should go anywhere near her.
I must admit there were many moments when I wished I could abort this climb, take a rest day with everyone else, and take the familiar path to the top of Kili with the team under the safe guidance of my husband. The alternative was to walk towards this big, jagged mountain and start climbing it at the crack of dawn, with no idea where I was going or if I would ever get to the top.
Our local Kili guide, Evans, claimed he knew exactly where the start of the climb was located and promised he could get us there in the dark, in time for a sunrise start.
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At 4:00 we were on our way. It was extremely dark and cold and the weight of all of the climbing gear, combined with the rocky and unfamiliar trail, kept us at a slow pace. In the distance, we could see a full moon setting just behind Mount Kilimanjaro. It was the most impressive moonset that I had ever seen. I thought I was recording it on my GoPro—it was only when I got home that I realized my hands had been so cold and numb that I never really pressed the record button. Despite frozen fingers, the sight will forever be etched in my mind.
With the rise of the sun, there was a corresponding rise of enthusiasm. All mountains seem safer in daylight and temperatures always feel warmer when the sun is hitting your face. Evans had escorted us to the start of the climb and proclaimed, “This is it.” We dumped all of our gear on the ground and began racking up.
There was no sign of a trail or a path…nothing but a broad canvas. Given the low angle of the mountain, it was difficult to see much beyond 20 to 80 feet at any given time. Our senses told us we needed to go up and fade to the right. Moving up and right proved to be a very safe strategy, as doing so ensured rocks would not be dropped on the climber below. Our mantra was to always keep moving, to stay warm and to take the path of least resistance. Things were seemingly going well until the rocks below both of my feet gave way simultaneously and my feet flailed out from below me, leaving me clinging to my two hand holds. I was able to get my feet repositioned on solid steps, but the event was a reminder that this mountain had been closed for the past 30 years for a reason.
The winds were relentless all day. Wind is the one thing that is grating…it zaps energy, plays on your nerves and ensures you will never let your guard down and relax.
Tom and I rounded a buttress, bringing our basecamp into view far below in the distance. We were excited to report our progress and very pleased when Brad picked up our radio call. “Sorry we didn’t call sooner; it’s so cold and taking off our gloves would’ve slowed us down. We’re so close to the top—maybe three pitches to go! We should finish in an hour.”
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The silence on the other end was deafening. Little did we know they could see us. We were devastated to learn we were nowhere near the top; in fact, Brad reported, we were barely halfway to the summit.
Tom immediately began calculating the hours of remaining daylight. “Worst case, we reach the top at 3:00 pm and take two and a half to three hours to get down…and back to camp in time for dinner.”
We forged on; our conversation slowed. We each silently contemplated what a long day this was going to be. I worried whether Tom would want to continue. We both wondered what we were in for. “Worst case, we get up this thing and then it turns dark and we huddle in an alcove until we can descend at sunup.” Not a desired outcome, but a reality nonetheless. “Our alternative is to turn around now, admit defeat and head back to camp.” We chose to keep going despite the disappointment and fatigue.
There were so many false summits…so very many. It seemed like we would never get there until we were there. It came out of nowhere. I happened to be in the lead and I topped out on the crest of a pinnacle and the ground fell away below me. I couldn’t believe it. “I’m on top!” I doubted Tom could hear me above the howling wind. I immediately anchored myself to some rocks and begin pulling in the rope until I could feel that Tom was secure on the other end. Within ten minutes he was with me…and we were elated. It was close to 5:00 pm. We tried to let basecamp know, but we had no clear line of sight and therefore no signal.
Mawenzi has multiple summits. It seemed obvious that we were at the highest point but there was no marker confirming our arrival, no logbook to sign, no cross to signal we had reached our goal. We looked in every direction and called it success. I have never found reaching any summit to be a moment of great bliss and joy. It is always quite the opposite…there is an overwhelming sense of relief followed by the extreme fear of, How do I get off this thing? Many climbers will express that is harder to get down than to get up the mountain. I think this is due in part to the fact that a lot of the air has been let out of your tires….the adrenaline has subsided, the cold has set in and the thought of the long road ahead is in your mind. I did a 360 film of the view with the GoPro and we took our obligatory summit photos…thank goodness, as again I did not turn on the GoPro. Thank goodness the view is etched in my memory.
Despite it being late in the afternoon, we remained hopeful we could reach the ground before dark. As long as that happened, we knew we could find our way back to the camp.
While we did not count, if I were to guess, Tom and I maybe climbed 24 rope pitches of varying lengths to get to the top and we imagined we could descend the mountain in approximately 8-12 rappels.
I distinctly recall an intense moment when I was beginning my rappel in very windy conditions. The strong winds all but completely shut off the luxury of conversing with Tom. Not only was he out of sight, but I had to strain to hear him when he shouted, “Tonya stop! Stop now!”
I screamed back at the top of my lungs, “I can’t stop. I’m dangling in air. There’s no safe place to build an anchor!”
“Tonya STOP! You must STOP!”
Finally, after about six exchanges each, I lost it and yelled, “Tom, I can’t fucking stop, there is no fucking place to stop, if I fucking stop, I am going to fucking die, I am going fall off this fucking mountain and you will fucking die too.”
Tom’s only response: “Okay.”
That was exactly the right response and exactly what I needed to hear from my partner. At that moment, I knew he understood that I was in a really awkward and tough position and he knew that I needed his full support and trust to do the right thing. It is a very powerful synergy that exists when the only thing connecting you to your partner and holding you on the mountain is a very skinny 8.1mm rope that is hanging from an even skinnier rope that is looped around a rock that you pray is not going to fragment and break away and send you both plummeting to the valley below.
From Tom’s vantage point, he thought I was traveling in a direction that would ultimately get the rope stuck when we went to pull it. From my vantage point, I was dangling in the air several feet from the wall with 4,000 feet of freefall below me. I was finally able to get low enough that I could sway myself to the wall. While one hand held my rope, my free hand grabbed at a protruding horn to pull myself close to the wall where I could place gear to build the next rappel station. Think about this…my hands were both occupied. I had to loop the rope around one leg so as to prevent myself from sliding off the end of the rope and to free a hand to build the anchor. If I let go of the horn, I found myself swinging away from the wall.
When Tom rappelled to my station and saw the situation, no words were exchanged or needed. He calmly explained, “I was worried the rope wasn’t going to pull.” Fortunately, with one tug it was free and neither of us complained when it landed hard and whipped us both.
We took turns going first. We sensed we were more than halfway down when we lost that last bit of sun. Now our rappels became much more dangerous and frightening as we lost all visibility. It was neither better to be the first down the rope or the one left alone up high. To head off into the deep dark void is just as scary as being left high above in complete solitude, not knowing if your partner is reaching a place of security and safety. My mind played tricks…what if Tom descended off the end of the rope…or what if the rope broke and I free-fell to the ground? As the sun left, so did the wind, and it became very quiet.
“Tom, I am so very tired, thirsty, and hungry.” Our decisions became rushed with the pressure of nightfall. Just when my spirit was about to break, Tom shouted, “I see a light flickering about a hundred yards just below and away from us. Look, there’s another one, and another…our porters have come to meet us!” We later found out they did not come to meet us…they never left, but waited all day for us.
We were elated. We needed only descend one more rope length and then traverse a ledge over to their side of the mountain.
We were met with food, drink, and most importantly, the open, caring arms of our porter staff. Despite being a few hours from camp, we could now breathe a sigh of relief that we would not get lost. They took our packs off our backs and led us safely down the mountain. It was nice not to have to think about where we were going. Tom and I only needed to focus on placing one foot in front of the other and not falling over from the tremendous fatigue.
As we made our way into camp very close to midnight, we saw the faces of our friends peeking out from their tents to tell us how happy they were we were safe. Guilt set in, as we knew they were all supposed to be sound asleep: tomorrow was their day to climb their mountain. Tom and I rationalized that perhaps our success gave them a little bit of “can do, never give up” attitude to get up Kilimanjaro. I am proud to report that our team had 100% success rate on Kili, and Tom and I were there to greet them when they stumbled down the mountain with the same feelings of complete elation combined with total exhaustion. Together, we all slowly made our way off both mountains and back to town, where warm showers and cold beers greeted us. It was only days later that we all basked in the glory and felt the sense of accomplishment that comes with pushing beyond your comfort zone.