After months of preparing, Erin Little finally reached her destination. Stepping out of the plane onto the soil in Tanzania on a warm January day, it hit her: she was in Africa about to embark on a life-changing adventure.
Once settled into her hotel, she looked around and thought to herself, “Oh my god, what have I done?”
The South Surrey resident was only hours away from climbing the world’s highest free-standing mountain – Kilimanjaro – and she was going to do it with a group of strangers.
“I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know where I was and I just kept thinking why wouldn’t I climb somewhere at home,” she said. “My whole world started to crumble. I was having a mini-meltdown.”
The avid hiker had to calm down and remember her goal to reach the peak in order to complete her challenge to raise $10,000 for the BC SPCA, an effort she began in early December through Charity Challenge – a travel company that sets up participants with challenges all over the world in order to fundraise for a cause of their choice.
Following a good night’s rest – and some encouraging messages from friends – Little set out to meet the rest of the group that would embark on the grueling 19,341-foot ascent.
The rag-tag collection of British travellers included a 21-year-old celebrating her birthday, two twins supporting a British charity and a woman who was encouraged by her husband to make the trip, Little said.
“They all had their own charities and reasons for coming,” she said.
Shortly after, the group met their porters and tour guides from The African Walking Company and set off to the camp where they would prepare for the six-day climb.
To Little’s surprise, the landscape of the African mountain reminded her of the trails she often hiked at home.
“It was unreal. The terrain was very similar to here. I was looking around thinking, ‘seriously, this is Africa?’” she laughed. “Because you look around and you see these rocky mountains, all this greenery and shrubs and birds.
“The only difference would be you could see a monkey every so often.”
As the group – which included 14 travellers and 55 porters – climbed higher and higher, however, altitude sickness began to take its toll, Little said.
“I guess your body starts to rebel at 3,900 metres. I got up to 4,600 metres without it starting to really effect me, and then we had to climb to 5,900 metres,” she said.
On the last day, the group awoke at 11 p.m. in order to do the midnight climb to see the sunrise at the top of the mountain – considered the roof of Africa.
After eating their nutrient-packed porridge to prepare for the final push, Little’s resolve began to give way.
“We reached Stella Point – which is at 5,700 metres – and it’s just before Uhuru, which is 5,900 metres, and I just felt like I couldn’t make it. I had been climbing for seven hours and complaining the whole way,” she recalled. “My tour guide took my hand and he held it all the way up while another porter took my backpack and said to me, ‘We’re going to get you all the way to the top, whatever it takes.’”
Despite being only a couple hundred metres away, reaching Uruhu took nearly an hour due to the rocky terrain. In order to lift spirits, the porters began to sing and joke to help with the final few steps, Little said.
“They really worked hard to do what they could do for us,” she said.
Despite the pain and altitude sickness, upon reaching the top, Little admitted her struggle had been worthwhile.
“I still get emotional thinking about it. The mountain was incredible, the people were incredible. If you want to get a sense of what reality is and what your spirit is… I can’t convey it. I just can’t explain,” she said. “But I felt it there.”
After taking a rest and photos at the peak, the group prepared for their 1½-day climb down the steep mountainside.
With the care and expertise of the porters, the group returned to base camp, where they rested while the staff prepared for yet another climb with another group.
“I just thought, we think this was so amazing and wonderful, but these people do it every day. And it may not be because they want to, but because they have to for a living. It’s hard work and they make it look easy,” she said. “It really puts it all into perspective, how lucky we are.”
In addition to tipping her porters, Little was so moved by her experience, she left behind gear for them, including a base layer, jacket and more.
While she is physically back to the grind in South Surrey – and the BC SPCA received more than $10,000 as a result of her efforts – she admits her heart remains in Africa.
“Even after, days after I had left, I kept thinking about how I wish I had done more. I feel like getting out and making a change in the world,” she said. “I would recommend anyone to go.
“When you’re there, and you’re on the mountain with all these people, you feel a sense of belonging that is hard to put into words. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”