For her 30th birthday Brittany Dobbs decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro – the highest peak in Africa. NBD…
I’m not going to say much because every word of this spotlight is intriguing and amazing, and you need to take the time to read it all and hear her story. I just have to say – Brittany – you are my hero…in so many ways. Your heart for serving and your will when you set your mind to whatever it is – is truly unbelievable. Thank you for chasing this dream down, doing it, and letting me be a part of your incredibly inspiring climb to the top.
Now here is the rest in Brittany’s words…
At 7am on Saturday, July 16th, as the sun was rising over the highest mountain in Africa, I reached Uhuru Peak on Mount Kilimanjaro, which stands at 19,341 ft. (13.3 Empire State Buildings high). It is almost impossible to try to explain the elation, exhaustion, and sense of accomplishment I felt after spending the last year planning and training for that exact moment.
Give me some background on your love of Africa.
If you’ve ever met me, you know that I’m not the most outdoorsy person. I hate being hot, and I love air conditioning. Based on those facts alone, my deep affection for Africa may seem surprising. It certainly was for me.
I first traveled to Africa to volunteer in October 2014. I was in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, where the temperature was at least 100 degrees EVERY day and night. At the time, I was living the dream in New York City; I loved my life, my friends, and my job. I had always wanted to work with children in Africa, so I decided it was time to gain some perspective and see what life was like on the other side of the world. I started my research, like most of us do, on Google.
Exactly one month later, I had received all my shots and planned my itinerary, and I was headed to the unknown in Zimbabwe to work with African Impact. I met the most amazing people from all over the world while working in The Rose of Charity Orphanage and Monde Primary School. As volunteers, we would split our time between the orphanage, the school, and a few other projects, but my favorites by far were teaching and playing with the children. It was such an eye opening experience. These kids had nothing, but they were still full of joy and life. They didn’t wear any shoes, and most of them were dressed in the same ripped and dirty outfits everyday. On the days we went to the orphanage, the kids would scurry down the street as we pulled up in the van. When we arrived, we would have a child grabbing each hand and others wanting to carry all the bags that contained the toys, crafts, and coloring books. At the school, we would have to bring all the paper, books, pencils, and anything we wanted to use for the lessons because they didn’t have any resources. We would bring candy or treats and would be swarmed when handing them out from excitement.
This experience rocked something deep in my soul. I fell in love with Africa and returned to the states with a completely different perspective on the world. When I landed in NYC, the first thing I witnessed was two women fighting over a taxi cab. I thought, “How insignificant.” I felt so moved to do something bigger, but what could I do?
I couldn’t get Africa and the children I worked with out of my mind. Months passed, and I moved back home to Nashville. With Africa still on my mind and heart, I returned the following summer – this time to Msaranga village right outside of Moshi, Tanzania (at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro). I spent my days with the most amazing 2-5 year olds at the First Chance Education Centre – singing, playing games and teaching English. Their eagerness and excitement inspired me, especially given their limited resources. These children had no toys to play with and only a concrete floor to nap on and yet, they were so happy and content. My heart and soul reached out to these kids from the moment I arrived, specifically a little girl named Amilen. She was 3 years old and had a magnetic personality. Even though we couldn’t communicate well because of the language barrier, we became the best of friends.
One of my favorite memories is from my last day at the school: I was holding Amilen, while the other kids were running around, sliding down the slide, and circling the see saw. She turned to me and started counting in Swahili…Moja, Mbili, Tatu…like she was trying to show me what she was learning at school. It brought tears to my eyes. From that moment, I knew I had to go back to Tanzania to see her again.
The people I’ve met from Africa and around the world along with the beauty of the countries I have visited are a few of the many reasons I have fallen in love with Africa.
How did you decide to climb Kili? Why did you choose this particular mountain?
On my first trip to Tanzania in the summer of 2015, I arrived at the Kilimanjaro airport in the middle of the night. I had no idea the magnitude of this mountain. I saw the mountain for the first time the next day from the volunteer house. It was so beautiful! Many of the other volunteers were going to climb Kilimanjaro on their trip, which I hadn’t considered on this trip. At that point, I was extremely out of shape and wouldn’t have been able to complete the climb, but I had a plan.
Summer 2016 would mark my 30th birthday, and I set a goal to climb Kilimanjaro to kick off the new decade. I decided I wanted to return to Tanzania, see the kids I had fallen in love with, and conquer this seemingly impossible physical and mental task. On July 25th, 2015, I texted my friends, Natalia and Ingeborg (whom I had met in Zimbabwe two years before) and I asked them if they would be interested in joining me on this crazy journey. To my surprise, they both said yes! Thankfully, I had started training with Megan a month or so before I went to Tanzania in 2015. When I returned, I let her know that I wanted to climb the tallest mountain in Africa the next summer – dream big, right? And with her help and a rigorous training program, I began my training to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro.
It was more than just a physical goal, or even a bucket list item to check off. I did it for the children – for Amilen and the rest of the kids at the school. I used the climb as an opportunity to raise money to support First Chance Education Centre. Through my “Climbing for the Kids” campaign, I raised $4,080 from 70 donors. This money provided a safety wall around the school, sent 5 new students to school for the next year, and repaired the children’s toilets.
How did you prep and train?
Determination. Dedication. Motivation. Megan. All were necessary for this training. Also, #allthepeople. I had so much support from family, friends, co-workers, and people I met along the way. The main thing was that I held myself accountable. I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from getting to the top of that mountain, not even the emergency stomach surgery I had to have in March 2016.
My training program was built from a few 12-week online training programs. But basically I did anything and everything I had time to do. Megan was a huge support and motivated me through all the training. We did strength training for 45 minutes, 2-3 times a week, which consisted largely of step ups. I cursed through most of the hundreds of step ups she made me do, but I did text her from the mountain to thank her. I used the training as an opportunity to try a bunch of different studios in Nashville and New York. My favorites are SoulCycle, GetFit615, Title Boxing, Body By Simone, Barry’s Bootcamp, and 305 Fitness. Do yourself a favor and try them all. Once a week, I climbed stairs in an eleven-story building for 2-3 hours usually joined by my sister, Hayley. #bestsisterever! Friends would hike with me for hours on the weekends at Percy Warner and Radnor Lake, while I wore a weighted vest and a full backpack (around 40 pounds total). A few weeks before the climb, I hiked Gray’s Peak (14,270 ft.) in Colorado for elevation training with Melissa, one of my co-workers. Also, I started Weight Watchers for the nutritional aspect. This was a key part of my training because the better the food I put in my body, the stronger my motivation to do my workouts each day.
Tell me about the climb itself – how many days, who was with you, your guide – give me as much as you want here!
As I sit here and try to write about what the climb was like, words won’t do it justice. But just know, this is a mere dent in how it felt to climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro.
When I landed in Tanzania, Mount Kilimanjaro was completely visible, and all of a sudden it became very real. I was terrified. There was this incredibly beautiful but massive mountain in front of me, which I was going to climb to the very top.
Natalia, Ingeborg, Heather, and I met our two guides, Jackson and Kevin, the day before we began. They came to brief us on the next seven days that we would all spend together trekking the Machame Route. And, they needed to check all of our gear to make sure we were prepared. Approved. Ready to climb. Ready to climb? Ah, this was actually happening.
We drove an hour the next morning to get to the Machame Gate (5,905 ft.), where we would begin the route. Our 12 porters were waiting for us at the gate, where they would pick up our large bags, food, water, cooking supplies – everything we would need for the next week on the mountain. There were 12 porters on our team plus our 2 guides. It took 14 people to get the 4 of us up the mountain! Too bad they couldn’t carry me.
The first four days were exciting, exhausting, but totally manageable. We would wake up early, have our breakfast of porridge, eggs, sausage (hot dogs), and toast, and then hike for the next 6-8 hours per day. Each day was spent trekking through a different climate zone: rainforest, heath, moorland, alpine desert, and arctic. The porters would run(!) past us with their 50lb sacks on their heads as we slowly headed to the next camp. When we arrived at the camp in the evening, the porters would have our tents set up, have warm “water for washing,” and a snack of popcorn, ginger cookies, and hot chocolate ready for us. We were so tired that we would wait for dinner, eat, and go straight to bed, hoping we didn’t have to wake up and make the trek to the “toilets” in the middle of the night. Well, there actually weren’t any toilets, but there were buildings or shacks with a hole in the ground. I’ve never appreciated a toilet as much as I did after this experience.
Summit night deserves its own paragraph, maybe its own spotlight. We started the ascent to the summit at midnight on the 16th from Barafu Camp, which is at 15,092 feet. Only 4,249 feet more to the top, the most elevation gained in one day. We were equipped with our water bladders and water bottles (for when the bladders froze), and wearing every piece of clothing we had in our bags, plus our backpacks, snacks, and last but not least, our headlamps. It was so incredibly cold that I couldn’t imagine how it would get colder as we slowly climbed up the last bit of the mountain. But it did. We were walking over rocks, and it was so steep that sometimes I thought I was going to fall right off the mountain. But I didn’t. Slow and steady wins the race. It was hard to breathe and only going to get harder. It was so cold I wanted to cover my nose and mouth, but then I had an even harder time breathing. Not to mention, all of our noses were running incessantly the whole way to the summit. However, the night was so beautiful. It was almost a full moon, and we were literally at the height of it. I looked to my left and was taken aback at how close we were to the moon. And the stars! We were under a blanket of stars. I’ve always loved the African sky at night.
After the first couple of hours, Ingeborg and I had to break off from Natalia and Heather so that we could walk at a slightly faster pace up the mountain. Then, it was me, Ingeborg, and Jackson, our guide. He would let us stop about once an hour for a short break, a snack, and a long drink of water, but if we stopped for too long, our bodies would get too cold and our chance of making it to the top would diminish. There was one point, 18,045 ft., that Jackson said he would let us know when we got there, and this was the point where our bodies would really start to be tested. Well we got to that point, and I was like- WHAT? WE ARE JUST NOW AT 18,045FT?! My body had already been dying for the last hour. Jackson wouldn’t ever tell us the time or how long we had been walking, but I think we had been walking for about 5 hours. Only 1,296 feet more to go. This is when shit got real.
I had made it this far, and I didn’t have any of the major signs of altitude sickness (diarrhea, uncontrollable vomiting) that would make me turn around for good. If I didn’t make it, it would be on me and me alone. I was thinking of anything and everything under the sun to motivate me to get to the top of the mountain. All the people that trained with me, all the people I told I was summiting Kili, the remarkable little kids I raised money for, my dad and how he used to cheer me on at my sports games, and I even pictured my guardian angel, Stan (hello altitude, meet hallucination). I cried like 5 times. I could barely move my legs. I was using my walking poles to literally push my legs forward. It was the most bizarre, out of body experience that was mentally, physically, and emotionally draining. We stopped to rest, and Jackson told us we had less than 10 minutes before we reached Stella Point, the point of no return, at 18,652 ft. He said if we could get there, then we were guaranteed to make it to the summit.
So we did. The three of us reached Stella Point around 6am as the sun was beginning to rise. OMG! The sight of the sun breaking the horizon and making its way above the sheet of clouds. How was this real life?!
Ingeborg and I took a bathroom break at Stella Point, took a couple pictures with the sign, and then, as we were about to start the hour long walk to Uhuru Peak, we heard Gerald, our summit porter, call out to Jackson. Natalia, accompanied by Gerald, had made it to Stella Point. I’m pretty sure we all cried at that point. Heather had gotten too sick to carry on, but Natalia was determined to make it to the top with us. The five of us – me, Ingeborg, Natalia, Jackson, and Gerald – reached Uhuru Peak, the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa, at 7am on July 16th.
After all that build up, I had completely forgotten that we had to get down. We were at the summit for no more than 15 minutes. Then, we began our descent. We took a different route down because people were still coming up the summit. The path was so steep and made of volcanic dust, and I basically fell down the mountain for those 3.5 hours on no sleep and legs like jello. When we got back to Barafu camp, we were able to rest for about an hour and eat lunch. Then, we had to walk another 4.5 hours to our final camp on the mountain. It’s never felt so good to sleep!
On day 7, our final day on the mountain, we had about a 3 hour walk out in the rainforest. It was so muddy and slippery, and I started out walking pretty slowly. My legs were so sore, and it felt like we were walking forever. I asked Jackson if we had made it halfway, and he said we had about another 30 mins before we were halfway. That means we had only been walking for an hour. I saw all the porters with the 50lb sacks on their heads running past us, and I don’t know what came over me. It could have been all the extra oxygen, the adrenaline from the day before, or pure excitement to have a shower. But, I started running after the porters, right in line with them, until I caught up with Kevin, Ingeborg, and Natalia. I had planned on joining them for the rest of the way. Instead, I kept running, and I ran straight off that mountain!
When you got to the summit how did you feel?
Can you imagine being on top of the world? That is how I felt as I reached the summit of Kilimanjaro. Every time I look up now, I can’t believe I climbed so high that we were above the clouds and what felt like being aligned with the moon. I was completely exhausted and my body was barely moving. But the last hour from Stella Point to the summit, I had a renewed energy as the sun had risen and I was SO close. People that were coming down from the top were congratulating us as we passed them, which made me even more excited to get to the summit.
What did you learn from the climb?
When I got back from climbing Kilimanjaro, one of the main questions people would ask me was, “Did you have fun?” Fun? No, “fun” is not the word I would use to describe the climb. However, it was beautiful, unbelievable, and rewarding. This experience made me realize that I can do anything I put my mind to. After being so emotionally, physically, and mentally stretched beyond what I thought my limits were, I got comfortable with the uncomfortable. I had never hiked any mountains before I started my training, and I may or may not hike any after Kili. But whatever I do next, I will do it at 200%.
What is your next goal?
I have so many things I want to do! First, I am creating a 501c3 nonprofit organization to help fund First Chance Education Centre in Tanzania (more info to come!). As far as travelling, I want to see the northern lights in Norway and the pyramids in Egypt. My next big fitness goal is the Tour de Tuli, a four-day bike ride through the wilderness in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. #hurryupandlive!
What advice would you give to anyone looking to accomplish hiking Kili or something similar?
Just do it! But don’t half ass it. You have to want it. If you fully commit to your goal, you will achieve it. I feel so empowered after this experience, like I could do anything in the world.