Is Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro Really a Romantic Honeymoon?
If spending five days without showering and sleeping in huts with strangers doesn’t sound like your idea of a romantic honeymoon, then this post might not be for you.
With very little knowledge of how to climb a mountain, my new husband Nick and I decided that scaling the largest peak on the African continent would be a swell thing to do during our first year of marriage.
Back in the olden days the honeymoon was a time for couples to get acquainted with one another’s bodies for the first time. We didn’t need to do that (sorry, Mom). But since we’d gotten married after only nine months of dating the idea of doing something challenging together, something that would push us to our limits and push our buttons was appealing.
At that time we booked our trip to Tanzania my vast knowledge of Mt. Kilimanjaro came from the lyrics of the 1982 classic rock song Africa by Toto: I know that I must do what’s right sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.
It sounded both inviting and foreboding.
At 19,341 feet, Kilimanjaro is a very, very tall mountain. And while the climb to the top isn’t technically difficult (you don’t need an ice axe or ropes or anything), it’s a strenuous four-day challenge that is incredibly taxing on the body. About 25,000 people climb the mountain every year and of those, only 40% make it to the summit. High altitude pulmonary edema, where your lungs begin to take on potentially fatal fluid is a real threat when humans try to venture that high. The altitude is unpredictable and it doesn’t matter what shape you’re in. In 2010 grand slam tennis champion Martina Navratilova was brought down the mountain by a crew of porters before reaching the summit after becoming deathly ill. The woman whoTennis magazine chose as the greatest female tennis player for the years 1965 through 2005 had to be evacuated from the mountain!
Almost everyone experiences some form of altitude sickness— intense pain in your muscles, nausea, an inability to breathe, dizziness, insomnia and a mind-altering headache.
By the time we reached the mountain I was less worried about altitude and more worried about the effect this climb would have on my marriage.
We were making the climb with the adventure travel company Intrepid Travel (they’re wonderful and I highly recommend them). Our main climbing guide was Justaz, pronounced like Justice ,who resembled a more fit and more approachable version of Jamie Foxx and had climbed Kili more than 250 times. Even though he was younger than both Nick and I, he was married with four kids.
Justaz warned me he’d seen more than 20 couples break up while trying to summit the mountain, most memorably, a pair on their honeymoon. The new wife felt crappy, with headaches and a chill when they set out for the mountain. By the end of the first day her husband strode to the front of their hiking group while she lagged behind. The tension between the two was so high that on the third day he threw her things out of their shared tent, telling her he was sick of her whining.
The woman sat on the ground and cried. Justaz tried to comfort her.
“Do you know how to sing?” she asked him. He nodded.
“Can you sing anything in English?” He nodded less confidently and began to hum a tune from the British pop band West Life.
When they reached base camp for the summit at just over 15,000 feet, the husband demanded that he be allowed to summit the mountain without his wife. He scurried to the top with a guide and came right back down. She went up later with the rest of the group.
“He just left her?” Nick asked in disbelief.
“I thought we’d see him when we got all the way down the mountain,” Justaz recalled as he held pace next to me. “But he changed his flight and left her there.”
I think he sensed the story getting me a little down.
“But I’ve also organized a wedding on the summit. We were at 5,895 meters with a priest, best-man, maid-of-honor, bridesmaids and twelve other guests!” he said to lighten the mood.
“Climbing the mountain is actually a good metaphor for succeeding in marriage,” he said to us. “What you have to remember is that both the mountain and a marriage can be completely different in the afternoon from what it was like in the morning. You can’t try to predict what any day will bring. Trying to predict it will only bring grief. You have to try to enjoy the parts that are wonderful.”
I began to appreciate the flat bits…the simple sections, relaxed and smooth. It was nice for things to be easy. These reminded me of the parts of a marriage you might call boring—the long stretches where you settle into a daily routine, grocery shop, do the laundry, binge watch The Wire, go to sleep at a reasonable hour every night and wake up and do it all over again the next day. For so long, I’d considered this kind of monotony to be boring. I wanted the hills, the roller coaster, the constant adrenaline rush of newness. For too many years I relished the things that were hard. I wanted to conquer the most difficult jobs, explore the furthest reaches of the world, tame the men who everyone else said couldn’t be tamed.
It was the mountain that made me appreciate the flat bits of my marriage.
Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro together was one of the hardest things Nick and I did during a first year of marriage filled with some pretty tough things, but at the end of the day it taught us a lot about conquering adversity and how to deal with one another.