At 16, Tim Ballard had a crazy idea. The youngest of seven children, he wanted to do something big with his family. Really big.
“I thought, ‘How cool would it be to climb Kilimanjaro?’” recalled Ballard, who is now a college student in Utah.
Big was the right word. The massive Mount Kilimanjaro rises 19,341 feet above sea level, straddling the border of Tanzania and Kenya. Each year it attracts thousands of adventurers hoping to stand on Africa’s highest point.
“As far as the world’s large mountains go, it’s not the most difficult to climb,” Ballard remembers reasoning with his parents at their home in River Falls, Wis. (elevation 1,024 feet).
Ballard’s parents laughed off the idea, and that was that. Though they were fitness enthusiasts, none of the Ballards had any serious mountaineering experience.
It is an ambitious undertaking to climb “Kili,” one that weekend hikers might dismiss as an unreachable goal. However, despite its height, Kilimanjaro can be conquered by those without formal training in mountain climbing if they are physically fit, have a positive mindset and allow their bodies time to acclimatize for the highest altitudes.
Undeterred, Ballard pressed his parents again a few years later. By this time his dad, Evan, was 73 and retired, but he had warmed to the idea. So had his 56-year-old mom, Pam, who saw it as a way to get together with some of their adult children. “It was totally because my family wanted to do it,” she said of her decision to go.
The Ballards booked a trip for June 2022, and three additional family members signed up to go.
Room for two more
My husband, Jon, and I first heard about Tim Ballard’s proposal in 2021 through the family gossip chain. Tim is our nephew, and we were intrigued. Avid climbers, we had recently achieved our goal of reaching the highest point in every U.S. state (well, except Alaska’s Denali — we have our limits). Our resume of peaks included Mount Rainier in Washington and several 14’ers in Colorado. A “14’er” is a mountain that is 14,000 feet or higher.
So when we asked if we could join Tim’s group of fledgling alpinists, we thought we could show them the ropes (literally) and help lead them to a successful climb.
Experienced climbers? Yes. Hubristic? Maybe a little.
It turns out that when climbing Kilimanjaro, such technical skills as “roping up” and walking with crampons (those spiky metal shoes made for cross-glacier treks) aren’t necessary. Because Kili sits near the equator, in the summer there usually is no snow to traverse, eliminating the need for specialized gear and expertise.
A climb to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro is basically a very long, steep hike into very cold and thin air.
So the Ballard family really didn’t need Jon and me. They let us join them anyway.
Our group of eight opted for the Lemosho Route to the top, one of the longest and most scenic. It would take seven days to reach the summit, during which time our bodies would adjust to the thinning air gradually. This offered the best chance for success.
Until you experience an extreme altitude, you won’t know how your body reacts to it. Altitude sickness in some form afflicts most people by about 10,000 feet. Symptoms can be as light as a headache and nausea, or as serious as dizziness, vomiting and even life-threatening conditions that affect the brain or lungs.
Kilimanjaro treks are led by certified guides who carry oxygen and are trained to watch for signs of illness. For our group, this monitoring included periodic checks with a fingertip oximeter that measured how well our red blood cells were carrying oxygen.
We hit the trail with enthusiasm and high hopes. For the first few days, our hikes ranged from three to six hours through several different ecosystems including a rainforest, moorlands and an alpine desert. The hired porters carried our food and gear and set up each camp before we arrived. The cooks served us fresh fruits, chicken, crepes, soups and omelets that kept us asking for seconds.
Each of us had prepared physically in the months before our trip, but in different ways. A blend of aerobic exercise and strength training is the best way to get in shape for climbing a mountain like Kilimanjaro. Pam Ballard chose in-line skating and hiking. Jon spent hours biking and weightlifting. I worked out at the gym several times a week. Stamina is your friend.
No matter how hard one trains, however, there will be risks on any hike. Our group was reminded of that on Day 5, when Evan Ballard tumbled off the trail and rolled a few feet down the side of a hill. Amazingly, he climbed back up with just a few scratches, but we would all step more carefully going forward. Another reminder of the dangers of outdoor adventuring came later in our trek, when porters raced by us rolling a gurney carrying a sick or injured man. We wondered what had happened but never found out.
Aside from Evan’s fall and a few foot blisters, all eight of us were feeling strong, breathing well and trying to stay optimistic.
Mind over matter
With mountain climbing, mental toughness is a huge part of the game. The days can get monotonous. At first, stunning vistas and foliage distracted us from the hypnotic rhythm of our footsteps, but as we got higher, the desert landscape became less interesting. It took great effort to hold back from asking our guides, “How much longer?”
Our mental strength went into high gear on the most difficult portion of the journey: the final push to the top. “Summit night” started around midnight before day 7, after a short, fitful rest that was supposed to count as sleep. We got up, forced a meal down, layered up for the cold temps, and soon we were on our way.
Minute after minute, hour after hour in darkness we trekked upward, stopping for quick breaks only every 30 minutes. With the moon in the “new” phase giving us zero illumination, we had to rely on our headlamps to see the person in front of us. Every ounce of our physical and emotional endurance was called upon. We craved sleep, but in the freezing temperatures resting would have been dangerous. We tried to eat energy bars, though no one felt like it. Around 17,000 feet, the nausea became too much for Jon, and he threw up. He felt amazingly better after that and was cleared to climb on.
Even Tim Ballard, whose enthusiasm had inspired the group to keep moving many times, was beginning to doubt he’d make it to the top. “I remember gasping for air at times while my body panicked for oxygen,” he said. “I actually had momentary fears of death for myself and members of my family.”
Then he would push out those thoughts. “I had to just put one foot in front of the other,” he said.
Almost as if on cue, the sunrise put on a beautiful show to our right. The orange and yellow hues energized us to stay the course, and at 9 a.m. we reached the summit. High-fives, whoops, hugs and picture-taking commenced. It was a glorious 20 minutes. That’s all the guides allowed; it was a long way down to camp, and we couldn’t use up our time and energy jumping for joy too much.
A rewarding venture
Tim Ballard and his family said climbing Kilimanjaro was among the hardest things they had ever done. Was it worth the preparation and effort?
“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s the greatest feeling to be up above the clouds, to take in the views, and be able to see everything around me,” Ballard said, reflecting on what it’s like to stand at nearly 20,000 feet. “I did it, and I didn’t give in.”
His mom agreed, but being at the top was more than that for her. “It was moving, because I was there with my family,” Pam Ballard said. “We were somewhere really special that I never thought I’d be, and that’s what was great.”
And all of us concluded that any adventure-seeker who is healthy and physically fit, and can maintain a can-do attitude in difficult situations, just may be a candidate for a successful climb to the rooftop of Africa.