Kilimanjaro. Africa’s highest mountain. Wishing to raise money for health care and education for the children of Kenya, the sister and brother team of Veronica and Richard Smiley, in partnership with the March to the Top Foundation, climbed Kilimanjaro this past August, raising $25,000 in the process.
Veronica Smiley – One thing I learned was that you should never be overly confident! On the climb, I almost felt guilty that the first 5 days were so easy for me! Then, the day of the last summit, I met my match. My steps were painstakingly slow, and reinforced by a sweet Tanzanian guide who stabilized my shoulders with every step so I didn’t fall back. It took everything I had to make it up.
What kept me going was the thought that quitting was not an option. I wasn’t throwing up due to altitude sickness, and I wasn’t injured, so I had to work through the discomfort and haul my body up that mountain. Sure it’s just a tiny bit of strife compared to the lives that these kids have led, but it was a wake up call that just seemed to fit with the theme of the trip. And wow, it felt amazing to reach the summit!
Richard Smiley – We took the Machame Route up the mountain, which is a 30 mile trek to the top. So it was a bit of an adjustment and all of the guides stressed “pole, pole”, which is Swahili for “slowly, slowly”. This was the best way to acclimatize for first time climbers. From the first day, we walked at a very measured snails pace. One foot in front of the other.
The crew however would speed past us to set up camp, carrying 45 lbs. of camping gear balanced on their heads. The crew was amazing, and they were doing this with not nearly the level of hiking equipment that we had. Some wore sandals, sneakers, even dress shoes! Each day started very early to beat the crowds, each evening we had simple but satisfying meals waiting for us at the camp. By nighttime, we were exhausted and slept early to prepare for the next day.
Along the way we experienced a very diverse landscape. We began in rain forests, but that quickly switched to a more mountainous terrain. One of the most challenging and interesting days was scaling the Barranco Wall, where you had to navigate around the “kissing rock”. The ledge around it was so small that you had to hug (or “kiss”) it was you carefully stepped around it.
I’ve been holding off until now to get to this, but I started to experience altitude sickness about three days into the climb. If you’ve never had this before, it’s not something I’d wish upon anyone. The worst moments were at night, when the headaches were so severe and the nausea was weakening. I would have to get up multiple times during the night to unzip the tent and throw up. Many times I’d have to ask Ronnie to unzip the tent before I sat up, so I could make it out in time.
After the first night of this, I thought I would not continue. Ronnie, on the other hand, did not get hit at all, at least not until the last day. Everyone in the camp would hear me, and every morning they were surprised that I was ready to keep going. The problem was that with all the nausea I found it difficult to eat or drink the recommended amount of water each day.
Finally, on summit day, I started off with the group, but realized I was too weak and dehydrated to continue to the peak. Ronnie and I had always had the agreement that if one of us could not continue, the other would still push ahead, so that’s what we did. So, I started to make my way down the mountain while Ronnie kept going to reach Uhuru Peak. I waited at the final camp until Ronnie returned with the great news that she had reached the top! I couldn’t be more proud of her. At least one of us made it to our goal. As for me, I have absolutely no regrets. I did what I could to prepare, but the mountain affects everyone differently. It took nothing away from the fact that it was an amazing experience.
VS – In all, I learned a lot about how you can be so passionate about a cause, but everyone has their own cause they care about so it isn’t so easy or straightforward to get others to care in the same way you do. I had a lot of friends who did support us, and it wasn’t about the amount of money but about the support.
I also had many friends who offered only emotional support which was what they had to give. You cant be judgmental with these things, you just think that others will have their moment and have their eyes opened like I did. Even if people just went on the website and learned a little that they didn’t know before, that’s a win.
Founded in 2006, the March to the Top Foundation was established by the March family in order to help the less fortunate in Africa, focusing on improving education and healthcare, specifically with regards to HIV/AIDs and Tuberculosis. Veronica Smiley is a member of the March Foundation Advisory Board.