Brooke Baldwin climbs Kilimanjaro, comes back with 10 life lessons

Story highlights

CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin stepped out of her comfort zone to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's tallest peak

"Check your ego at the Machame route gate," she says. "The mountain is the boss"

About half of the 35,000 tourists who attempt the climb each year make it to the peak

CNN  — 

You normally see me on TV, holding down two hours on CNN every day. And while I absolutely love my job, I needed a break.

I’d moved to NYC last summer, threw myself into my life up here and have never been happier. But at the same time, the wheel started to spin faster than ever. And after a particularly tough news cycle, I needed a REAL break.

So I asked for two entire weeks off – something I’ve never done in my 15-year career – and decided it was time for me to stop talking about Africa and finally go to Africa.

It took me turning 35 to finally realize a dream I’ve had ever since I was 13 when a friend was whisked away to safari in Kenya with her father (I know, a safari at 13 – we should all be so lucky). Fast-forward 20-plus years, I can still recall the giddiness in her voice when she came home, the tales of the Maasai Tribe and the little giraffe figurine she brought me that I still have tucked away.

Since I’d waited this long to take such a momentous trip, I couldn’t just go to Africa. I’d need to climb a damn mountain – and not just any mountain, but the tallest mountain on the continent: Mount Kilimanjaro, which stands at 19,340 feet above sea level in Tanzania.

But could I actually pull it off?

I’m a journalist, so I sprang into information-gathering mode. I got advice. Read books. Went to REI. (Admission: I bought items I had to go home and Google. Would you know how to put batteries into your Black Diamond headlamp in the dark? Pick out the right sweat/water resistant undies? Mmmkay.) Finally and most importantly, I found a good girlfriend who was willing to attempt this adventure with me.

I also kicked up my work outs to six days a week. But would it be enough? Just before I left for Tanzania, I panicked. My nerves got the best of me the night before my flight. So what did this intrepid wanna-be Kili-climber do? I called my mother.

“Mom, remind me why I feel the need to climb the tallest freestanding mountain in the world again?!”

She gave me the assurance I needed. “Because at 9 months of age I can still see you pull yourself up and walk,” Mom said. “You were this squatty strong baby walking! Because you can and you will.”

What’s that saying? “Listen to your mother, she’s always right?” I was about to put that old adage to the test.

It turned out to be the experience of a lifetime.

Here are 10 lessons Mount Kilimanjaro taught me.

10. It takes a village

About 35,000 tourists attempt to climb Kilimanjaro every year – about half of them make it to its peak. On average, three to seven die annually on the trek.

Tourists like me could never do it without the guides, especially the porters – the local young men who quite literally break their backs for the sake of the summit. There were six of us in my group attempting to summit and 41 porters. Yes, 41!

On any given day, they strapped tents, tarps, toilets to their backs while balancing food sacks on their heads – often leaving us, heavy-breathing, sea-level dwellers, in their dust. They would shimmy and scramble just to beat us to set up the next camp. And every time they passed us, we marveled (and felt like schmucks).

We never would have made it up that mountain had it not been for these Tanzanians. On Kili or off, I know I’m only as strong as those who support me. I realized that on Night One, when our porters greeted us at camp, serenading us with traditional Kilimanjaro songs. I had to clench my fists to keep the tears in check – until I got to my tent and let it all go.

Taking on Kilimanjaro with camels

9. The mountain is the boss

Check your ego at the Machame route gate. Our group quickly realized all six of us were first-born children (Translation: go getters, goal oriented, sometimes quite stubborn in our pursuits). We were humbled rather quickly.

On Night Two, several of us got sick – myself included. Little did I know I’d become lactose intolerant at high altitude. Who knew that was even a thing?! I’m the biggest ice cream eater you’ve ever met!

Forget what you thought you could eat or how much water you needed to drink or how you thought you should be sleeping at 15,000 feet. Check yourself, respect Kili and listen to your guide. The mountain is the boss.

8. The guide is the guru

The climbers measure their heart rates and blood oxygen levels using oximeters on their fingers.

I met our guide Dismass Mariki through the travel agency Abercrombie & Kent, a few nights before the climb. He came to the hotel to say hello. What I realized later was that he was really coming to give us a once-over: Could these six Americans hack it on the mountain?

When I met Dismass, I was sitting at our hotel with Allison, my adventure travel partner-in-crime. We’d just cracked open our first Kilimanjaro Lager fresh off our 24-hour travel day. Exhausted, but exhilarated to finally be on African soil.

Dismass took one look at us and said: “Mmmmhmmmm. Beer, huh? After this, no more beer.”

It was the start of the 36-year-old father’s sage advice. He would soon be watching us as carefully as he would his two children back in Arusha. “No milk for you. No mango for you. Stop eating an apple so late at night.”

Without a doubt, he is the reason all six of us summited the mountain successfully (after all, he’s done it more than 200 times – and even speaks fondly of guiding an 82-year-old and her three septuagenarian girlfriends up there!).

On the final night – just an hour into our eight-hour freezing uphill battle toward the summit – I hit a sudden unexpected wall: dehydration. Dizzy, disoriented, slurred speech. I was frightened.

I’d come this far and would have to call it quits. I pictured the rest of my group summiting without me, only to return to tell me what I missed. Thanks to Dismass and his crew, that never happened. He leapt into action, feverishly yanking layers off me and forcing me to sit and hydrate and breathe. He saved me.

7. Breathe

When you’re climbing at altitudes of 13,000, 15,000, 19,000-feet, you have to learn how to breathe differently. It’s a kind of a deep-breathing technique that Dismass taught us early – and reminded us to use every hour of the day. For me, it became almost meditative.

Each time we popped that pulse oximeter on our fingers at mealtime – to measure our heart rate and the oxygen in our blood – we could see how this breathing would save us.

Now I don’t plan to take this high-altitude breathing home with me entirely, but if I find my world start to spin, I know exactly what to do.

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6. Keep your eyes on the prize – but not for long

As each day passed, we could see the glacier-capped summit of Kilimanjaro become clearer. And as it did so, it became increasingly daunting. Hours into our daily hikes, we would turn our heads, squint up at the peak and quietly wonder: “We are gonna summit THAT?”

So as we’d be trekking – always uphill, often dodging rocks large and small, sometimes scrambling along rock walls – it’d be very easy to be temporarily hypnotized by the peak’s beauty – thus losing your footing and falling.

My takeaway: Whether it’s summiting Kili or achieving my next work goal: Look forward for a moment but then keep your head down and trudge on.

5. Embrace the stink

Brooke and her adventure travel partner-in-crime, Allison Ratajczak, pause along the way.

Yes that’s right. The stink. Seven days, no shower.

As someone who is lucky enough to have two lovely ladies do my hair and makeup every day for work – and who has to pay a bit of attention to my appearance (don’t be fooled, you should see me on the weekends), this whole no make-up, no-showering thing was certainly stepping out of my comfort zone.

I didn’t bother bringing even a tube of lipstick. I bought dry shampoo; I think I used it once. And well, limited water meant no shaving which meant not a pretty picture under my hiking pants. Not to mention – before this trip, I had never spent more than a weekend in a tent.

And let me tell you – letting all of that go was surprisingly LIBERATING. I am already kicking around ideas for my next shower-free escape.

4. No cell service, no problem!

Seriously, how many places on this planet exist in which you get to say to your boss: “Sorry, but I’m leaving to climb a mountain and I won’t have Wi-Fi or cell service for a week”? I think the last time I tucked my phone away like that was 2006 – long before I started mindlessly checking Twitter/Instagram/Facebook whenever I had a down moment.

Without a phone, I wondered: Would I start to twitch? Break out in cold sweats?

None of the above.

Instead, the six of us and Dismass would sit over meals and discuss politics, movies, Africa – face to face, distraction free.

Once my friend and I left the mountain and had access to Internet, we didn’t speak for an hour as we were catching up on texts and emails. And then almost simultaneously, we decided to turn our phones back off. They were soul sucking.

Yes, I’m grateful for technology. But I’m also happy for the off switch.

3. Laugh, a LOT

An army of porters keeps the heavy-breathing, sea-level dwellers laughing -- and breathing -- as they conquer Kilimanjaro.

Between my tent-mate Allison and a 60-something-year-old Broadway actress on our trip, I laughed more than I ever thought possible at that altitude.

We were silly. We were borderline inappropriate. We even laughed uphill, post-upchuck. (We got very close on this trip!)

We learned that by playing song games or 20 Questions or telling jokes, we could keep our spirits high and our attention off the steep climb ahead. And you know what? It worked. I mean, how many people do you know who do the chicken dance after climbing Kili?

2. ‘Pole pole’

That’s Swahili for “go slow,” and it’s the mantra for climbing Kilimanjaro. If you try to climb too fast, you can’t control your breathing. You panic, and you’re toast. Instead, you must go slow. “Pole pole,” as they say.

This saying was especially useful on summit night. We got up at 10 p.m. to get our gear ready to go. We began the trek to Uhuru Peak at 11:30 p.m., and as the air grew increasingly thin and the temperature plummeted during the steep climb, we kept hearing the whispers from our guide and porters: “pole pole.”

I plan to take those two little words and apply them to my life back here at home in New York. When the pace and energy I thrive on starts to whirl out of control, “Pole pole, Brooke. Pole pole.”

1. Summit, what summit?

As the days inched closer to summit night and the anxiety grew more intense for some, we were all reminding ourselves why we’d come all this way.

For me, it was about Africa and attempting an out-of-my-comfort-zone challenge. For others, Kili was about bragging rights. We hiked hours and hours every day – but the goal of reaching the summit drove us. Mercilessly. We’d spent no small penny to arrive at this point. By Day Six, it was within our grasp.

Seeing the famed wooden Uhuru Peak sign. Snapping that photo. Soaking it all in. Well, would you believe once that moment arrived as the sun rose over Tanzania, our group lasted all of six minutes at that altitude before we all started racing down off that mountain!

But we had come all this way! And yes, we reached our goal.

But what’s most memorable to me won’t be tromping through the snows of Kilimanjaro and reaching the peak. No, when I close my eyes and think of my seven days on Kili: It’s singing. It’s Dismass. It’s the breathtaking views of stars overhead.

As tough as it is for this goal-driven CNN anchor to admit, it really is about the journey.

Back to my mom – telling me I would make it. Yeah, yeah. She was right. And I’ll admit: I’m already starting to think about what’s next.

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