Mt Kenya, Mt Meru, and Mt Kilimanjaro Summit in 5 Days – The Metamorphosis of Margie Gathungu

The sun shines brightest from the peaks of mountains. (All photos captured by Ness Pixels)

As humans, we have a tendency to acknowledge significant achievements. We forgot that to make those achievements, small achievements were ensued. Before a marathon runner became an Olympian, they celebrated the first 5km, 10km, 21km, and eventually 42km. They celebrated the improvement of their pace and stamina. It doesn’t happen overnight; it happens gradually. It takes mastery.

When Margie accomplished Batian, it was an ultimate high.. she had prepared for it with many rock climbing sessions, hiking, running, and CrossFit. She set her mind to it, and the achievement boiled down to those around her when she achieved it. It meant something to us – that if she could do it, we could do it too. So when I learned that she was planning to do Mt Kenya, Mt Meru, and Mt Kilimanjaro Summit in a week, I thought to myself, “These People Are Nuts!”

We’re constantly shown the “real world” on our screens but we come face to face with the real world out on the trail.

I remember this plan was coming to fruition when my mental, emotional, and physical state had hit rock bottom. I just couldn’t comprehend what these guys meant to achieve. Before they set out to do it, I had taken a media break and logged out of all platforms, including WhatsApp. In as much as I would have wanted to see this unfold, I was empty. No energy to give. No energy to do anything. But..they sure enough went and did it.

Munyaka Njiru and his team had brought this Ultimate Hiking Challenge to the attention of the masses by attaching it to a noble cause. They were to build three toilets on Mt. Kenya. People would help bring that to action if they hit the 3-summit target. Here’s the thing about Munyaka and his team; when they set out to do something. You better believe they’ll make it happen. He had his team of 7, but when the time came to commence on what seemed impossible, they were a team of 6. Five men (Munyaka, James, Ness Mutiga, Benson, and his son Robert), and one strong woman – Margie Gathungu! But this is the story of how the triple challenge was for Margie.

The mountains are the last place where man can feel truly wild.

Margie knew the task at hand and prepared for it religiously. Everyone in the team was doing individual prep. For her, that included her usual CrossFit and three hikes in the Aberdares for the three weekends leading to the challenge. She did Kinangop twice from different routes and Elephant Hill from another route. At first, the logistics didn’t quite make sense to her. It was still COVID season, and she had a feeling crossing into Tanzania would be a bit tricky.

Travel Day – Saturday

The dates had to be moved from when they initially planned to start to later to settle travel logistics. But with the blessings of the KWS for the toilets project and the logistics being settled, the day came, and they left Nairobi Saturday evening.

I love that moment in a hike when you snap to and suddenly realise for the last 10 minutes you’ve not been observing nature but have instead become a part of it.

Day 1 – Sunday

They slept at camp and did a one-day summit on Sunday. Part of the team ran to the summit, but she didn’t want to do it in a rush because Mt Meru was very steep from what she had heard from people. She was in the company of the guide and another teammate who was experiencing altitude difficulty as he had just come from a Nairobi-Mombasa cycle. From 0 altitude to 4985 m elevation, his body had it rough. At McKinders viewpoint, the guide was also beaten down, and he gave them the blessing to keep going without him. By the time they got to Shipton, it had started snowing, but not cold. They went back to Nairobi the same day.

Vanity dies on nature trails.

Her suggestion was that rather than going from Nanyuki to Nairobi to Namanga, they head back to Nairobi, then meet at 4am and head to Namanga. The men weren’t having that. They had come from their homes prepared not to go back till it was time to go back, so she had no choice but to fit in the schedule. She hadn’t slept for about 3 nights, and sleeping at lodging at the border wasn’t making sense to her. To make it worse, when they got to the border, they couldn’t cross over to Tanzania. They had to wait till morning, so guess what? They had to sleep in the car. Oh, the frustration that was boiling up inside her! She kept thinking to herself, “I could be sleeping in my bed right now, but no! I have to sleep in the car at the Namanga border.” She still did it, though. You see, this is the kind of challenge that requires commitment. You can’t afford to turn back.

Some mountains only require a good pair of shoes. Others require an entire team to conquer. Knowing which is which, is the key to success.

Day 2 – Monday

At 6am Monday morning, they were stamped out of Kenya and into Tanzania. Mt. Meru’s summit was next, so they headed to Arusha, ready to start the second mountain. Mt Meru stands at 4566 m above sea level. The porters here were pre-informed of their arrival, so they found them ready to go. They ate lunch and started the ascent soon after. Unfortunately for Maggie, the female system can be shameless and untimely. But that’s never been a reason to quit.

Hiking is a bit like life: The journey only requires you to put one foot in front of the other…again and again and again. And if you allow yourself the opportunity to be present throughout the entirety of the trek, you will witness beauty every step of the way, not just at the summit.

At 2514 m above sea level, they got to Miriakamba Camp. She attests that this is one of the most beautiful camps she’s been to on all her summits. The Montane forest vegetation was breathtaking, and it was well-maintained. However, their plan was to get to the next camp and spend the night there for the next summit. Since it was 6pm, their porters were opposed to moving forward. Everyone told them it was impossible to keep going, but they had a plan to stick to. They decided to keep going without the porters and their chef. What seemed impossible to the porters became possible for them, and after 2 hours of trekking in the dark, they got to the next camp. They found other teams there who gave them tea, and they had a restful night. She excitedly laments that after 3 nights of insomnia, her hormones finally decided to abide, and she slept well through the night. To Maggy, sleep is the most important aspect of rest for a challenge that taps into all your energy reservoirs.

Not all who wander are lost.

Day 3 – Tuesday

Most people hiking Mt. Meru camp here wake up early to catch the summit sunrise. Since this was their first time here, they decided to sleep till 6am and continue the hike when the sun was out and descend the same day. Of all the mountains Margie has hiked, and they’re many, she says Mt. Meru is the most beautiful mountain in East Africa. The trees, volcano crater, small ranges (referred to as little merus by the locals), and how the trek to the summit required trekking round the crater was breathtaking. The rumors were true; it was very steep and rocky in some sections.

Mt. Meru Really is breathtaking

It was a 100% summit tally. But at this point, one of their teammates, James, who’d just come from Coast, was heavily affected by the altitude. In one stretch, they descended. As they neared the base, an ambulance picked James. She attests that the ambulance guys were very proactive. He was suffering from breathing difficulties and fatigue. They left Mt. Meru and headed to Moshi for a proper rest before hitting their final stop.

I’ve never understood treadmills when there’s so many trails to hike.

The initial plan was to rest up in Moshi for two nights before going to Mt. Kilimanjaro. Still, because of their teammate’s situation, they decided to rest a night, cover 17km, summit on Thursday, and head down the same day. The doctor advised that James shouldn’t proceed, and so he had to remain at the hotel and rest.

Don’t confuse the hike with the destination. The hike is about the sounds, the smells, the sights. It’s a complete sensory experience… But yes, that waterfall is also pretty freaking awesome.

Day 4- Wednesday

At 12pm, they started hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro. Kili stands at 5895m above sea level. It was a good day to hike. Or so they thought. The idea was to hike up and sleep at camp. But oh, the rains that graced their trek. From the first kilometer, the rain was nasty. No poncho could help the misery the rain caused them, and no amount of clothes could guard them against the rain that came with the cold.

The water got into their shoes and slightly made them heavy, causing some groin pain. At this point, the team of 5 went down to a team of 4. One of the team members couldn’t handle the heaviness of his shoes and the groin pain. The Kilimanjaro Summit didn’t seem feasible for him, and he had to trek back. She had never seen rain like that. Ever. After 10 km, they had to stop. This was 2pm. Their clothes were so wet, and they were so cold she was afraid she’d catch hypothermia. They continued walking for 7km until they got to camp and decided to sleep in one tent. After the rain and cold they had endured, this was necessary. They had dinner and looked for anything dry to sleep on. Luckily their bags, including the guy who had to trek down, we’re waiting for them. They slept on all the dry clothes.

There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.

Day 5 – Thursday

Summit day, they woke up at 3am, and they were going up a route that was just 6km but very steep with an elevation of more than 2000m . It was more like walking up a steep staircase without the possibility of turning back. Her body had already been tested, and this, she wasn’t quite ready for. It was so cold that morning that her fingers had become numb inside her gloves.

They kept themselves motivated by singing. She laughs as she recalls how they finished each other’s songs. Things were hard, and they were hard for everyone. Singing helped them slow down and take a breath . But the more they walked, the more she despaired. She was so exhausted she needed to tap into her mind over matter from here. At just 300m to the summit, she’d reached her end. She was crying, lamenting, feeling despair, and utterly frustrated. It seemed like it was never ending, and she was feeling empty inside. But she knew she had to do it somehow.

Hiking is the answer.  Who cares what the question is.

Here she was, the only woman doing the triple summit challenge, yet she felt like tapping out. What would other women say? She knew that ‘tired’ wasn’t an excellent reason to give up. Tired just wouldn’t make sense to her or other women looking for inspiration. So, she kept going till she saw the edge of the crater. Miserably, she kept going. The summit wasn’t making sense to her at this point. She was hungry and tired, and she didn’t understand why she was even doing this in the first place. After a small climb up the crater, she saw her teammates and some hope spruced inside her.

They had their snack break by the glaciers and took pictures. They rested here for about 30-40 minutes. Seeing the summit was also seemingly encouraging. A final push, and they were at the summit. They hiked Kilimanjaro at a time when the summit had been moved. She just couldn’t get why the summit had been moved. And even though the guide explained that after remeasuring, they’d realized the summit wasn’t accurate, she still couldn’t comprehend. Then again, that was just the exhaustion speaking. It was her most challenging day yet, it was the best weather, and they trekked down by 8pm. She recalls that it was a long trek down, but they were eager to get to Moshi, reunite with their two teammates, and just rest.

You need special shoes for hiking – and a bit of a special soul as well.

Day 6 – Friday and Travel Day

They stayed at the hotel in Moshi, enjoyed themselves, rested, and on Saturday morning, they left for Nairobi. And that’s how they finalized their 7 days of travel and 5 days of climbing.

Would She Do It Again?

Yes, but not anytime soon. It was a painful experience, but she still can’t believe that she achieved that when she thinks about it. She’s proud that she achieved that irrespective of the challenges. It was an experience worth having. Amazingly, she notes that she didn’t suffer from muscle pains. She attributes that to her strength training and running uphill weeks before the hike. She insists that running up gives your body immense endurance, which you need to walk up high altitudes on mountains. She also says using walking poles for support minimizes the amount of pressure you put on your feet. For her, her mind suffered more than her body.

It feels good to be lost in the right direction.

It’s also essential to ensure that you’re constantly eating nutritious meals for energy reserves for such tasking hikes. She says her legumes, fat, veggies, and protein are constant. You also need to do your altitude test and make sure altitude is not a problem. Strength training needs to be part of your training because there’ll come a time when your legs need to keep moving when your heart is no longer in it.

However, after resting for a week after getting back, the frustrating bit for her was the follow-up for their cause. Even though they had the blessing from the KWS main office, when they got to the park, one warden was stubborn about the fact that he wasn’t consulted before they went to the head office. He complicated everything, and they ended up spending so much money they’d gotten from the people for the cause on logistics that they only managed to set up one toilet. Their intention was to have one toilet at Ellis, Michaelson, and Minton’s. They only managed to set up one at Ellis. She was frustrated by the warden because he knew that KWS doesn’t have such a budget for such projects, and here he was making their mission impossible. She notes that Tanzania makes so much tourism money from mt. Kilimanjaro because if a foreign hiker is coming from overseas to hike in Africa, they’ll want to hike the highest summit, giving them a higher advantage. But here was this self-centered man making everything impossible for them. In fact, she got to a point where she lamented that Mt. Kenya was not her home, and this wasn’t her toilet, but it needed to be done. This was proof that they had achieved what people expected of them. 

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.

This was no small feat. They all achieved something incredible. As a woman, I look up to her. I felt proud when she told me that she kept thinking of how she wasn’t going to let all the girls out there down when she felt like giving up. And she didn’t. She made us proud. So if you’re a hiker looking to achieve more on the trails or you’re looking to get into hiking, let Margie and other hikers motivate you. They are proof that you, too, can do it. If she did it, so can you. You just commit, prepare, train, and of course, save. The team spent roughly $950 each, so hypothetically speaking, challenge yourself to this and secure no less than $1000 to achieve this. Keep in mind that for Mt.Meru and Mt.Kilimanjaro, whether you go for a day or two days, you have to pay for 6 days. So they only cut costs at Mt. Kenya, meals, and from the fact that they had two of their own vehicles. But the point is – IT CAN BE DONE.

Why look for acclaimed heroes while you have real heroes right in your backyard? In my heroes, these guys have a couple of pages.

In terms of hiking, this was the best achievement yet. Three summits in Five days was Major. Sometimes, she can’t even comprehend that that actually happened. It was unreal to us, just as it was to them. But it gives us pride that we can say, “Hey, I have friends who hiked 3 major East-African Summits in FIVE days.” I bet you imma be telling this story at all my campfires. Margie Gathungu, Munyaka Njiru, Ness Mutiga, James, Benson, and Robert – you guys are my heroes.

I hope you’ve lived vicariously through Margie’s story like I did. And I hope you’ve been inspired to achieve important things this year like I have. Hopefully I can get Munyaka to tell us all about the dynamic involved in making all this happen for the team. Happy New Week, guys. I wish you a splendid February.

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