First Time Guide to Climbing Kilimanjaro

Have you ever had a dream for so long that it never stopped bugging you until you decided to just do it? For me, it has always been Kilimanjaro. I had wanted to climb this epic mountain ever since my father did it in October 1999. There really had not been any dream or travel goal that I have had for that long.

Like most dreams, there have been many obstacles and road blocks along the way. It wasn’t until a few years ago that my decades long dream became a reality.  I had wanted to make this climb special and have it be somewhat similar to my life-changing trip to Nepal. Serendipitously I was connected with the U.S.-based non-profit Solar Sister, an organization who provides solar electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa. For their fifth year anniversary, an international team was planning to climb Kilimanjaro in June of 2015.  Each climber was required to raise $4,000 to support the hiring and training for 8 new solar sister employees in Africa and to celebrate the success of Solar Sisters, we would climb Kilimanjaro together as a multigenerational, international team. It was a perfect opportunity and I seized it. Looking back today, it was even better than I ever dreamed it would be. It was truly epic. Figuring out what on earth to do next after such an incredible climb will be the challenge.

Why go?

Kilimanjaro, the fourth highest peak among the seven summits, soaring at 19,340 feet (5,895 m) and one of the world’s highest freestanding mountains, has long been one of the most popular climbs given its relative ease of climbing (no technical climbing ability is necessary) and beauty.  Located 200 miles (330 km) south of the equator in Northern Tanzania, the snow-capped volcanic dome of Kilimanjaro dominates the skyline like no other mountain on earth.

Kilimanjaro is actually not a single peak but a vast complex of cones and cores spreading over 38 miles (61 km) long by 25 miles (40 km) wide. There are three distinct volcanic cones: Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira. Uhuru Peak is the highest summit on Kibo’s crater rim and is the hopeful destination of thousands of climbers every year.

Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

For me personally, I had grown up hiking, and climbing Kilimanjaro had been a long-term goal of mine after seeing my dad’s photos of his own climb back in 1999. I also desperately wanted to get there soon before the snow that caps the top of this mighty beast and makes it so stunning, is gone forever. Some scientists predict that the glaciers atop Kilimanjaro will be gone as early as 2030. What a tragedy!

What Route to choose?

There are six main climbing routes on Kilimanjaro with the Marangu Route (also known as the “Coca-Cola Route”) being the easiest and most popular. Our group chose the longer, more scenic Machame route that can take anywhere from 6-7 days and is known as one of the most beautiful routes on the mountain, passing through five distinct ecological zones and affording dramatic views every single day of the climb. The Machame Route also has one of the highest success rates for reaching the summit since it allows proper acclimatization before the final summit push.

Total Length of Hike: 62 miles (100 km) up and 24 miles (38 km) down.

Image of Mount Kilimanjaro Climbing Routes (Wikipedia)

Image of Mount Kilimanjaro Climbing Routes (Wikipedia). Our route was the Machame colored in brown.

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Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

The Face of the Maasai

Last July, I spent two days with a Maasai community at The Mkuru Training Camp in Uwiro Village, about a three-hour drive away from Moshi. The Mkuru Training Camp is located at the foothills of Mount Meru, just outside Arusha National Park, within one of the most important biodiversity areas of Tanzania: the Maasai Steppe.

My visit still remains one of the most spectacular cultural experiences of my life. I was literally the only guest there and had the thrill of doing a four-hour tour on foot with one of the Maasai warriors and a taking a one-on-one beading class with his mother. Despite modernization and the threat to their way of life, the Maasai still continue to live the way they have for centuries. Their beautiful dress and faces are unforgettable.

Here are a few of my favorites.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Jacobo’s mother

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Kilimanjaro hike to Barranco Camp Machame Route

Why Using Local Guides Matters

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover”.  – Mark Twain

Over the past twenty years, the world has truly become a smaller place. Once hard to reach, remote parts of the planet that used to be only for the most adventurous of tourists, have become more accessible. Places like the Himalayas of Nepal, the tiny fishing villages of Southeast Asia and the bushland of the Maasai have opened their doors for travelers,   allowing us to see their beautiful unique cultures as never before.

Although it is wonderful that more of the remote corners of the world are now accessible, it  comes with a price. The negative impact of tourism on the environment, culture and people of a place, threatens it’s very own authenticity and landscape. This is why choosing sustainable travel is critical if we want to preserve and protect these destinations for the future.

My father and I have been trekking in remote places for decades and every place we go we use local trekking guides and companies. I honestly admit that the initial reasons behind our choice were purely convenience and economical.  However, the more we began using local guides, it became clear how incredibly rewarding and important it is to hire locally. Not only do you get a more intimate cultural experience by getting to see a country through their eyes, your investment also greatly supports the local community in which you are visiting. By hiring local, all money you spend on your trip is directly reinvested back in that very place that is so special instead of profiting an international corporation who only has financial interests to gain.
Furthermore, the cross-cultural friendships and understanding that are made and shared by hiring local are priceless. Not only does it create goodwill, it brings a new perspective and understanding on both sides of the relationship. As a client, you get to learn as much as possible about a culture, history, society, life, flora and fauna and environment. As a guide, you gain a better understanding of people who are so different from those portrayed in the media. Together, you can create life-long friendships that promote cultural understanding and peace.

Kilimanjaro hike to Barranco Camp Machame Route

Our group heading down the trail on Kilimanjaro.

Here are three examples of why supporting local guides matters.

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Solar Sister: Providing Light and Hope in Sub-Saharan Africa

Deciding to climb Africa’s highest mountain is no minor decision and it was a goal of mine for over 15 years. I had wanted to climb Kilimanjaro ever since my father scaled it in 2000, months before my wedding. Every time I thought of planning a climb, the timing just didn’t seem to work out and I kept pushing my dream further back on my “to do” list. Deep down inside, I was also a bit concerned about the altitude. I had been to almost 19,000 feet in Nepal and it was grueling. How would I feel even higher? 

All my doubts disappeared when I climbed two peaks in a row in Bolivia without any issues and realized my body was ready. Kilimanjaro was back on the list yet I needed to find someone willing to go.

A few months later, I received a call from a good friend of mine in Rhode Island who shared the exciting news. A small non-profit organization called Solar Sister was putting together a multi-generational, international team to climb Kilimanjaro in honor of bringing light to Africa. It felt like fate.

Without knowing a soul at Solar Sister, I joined their team of climbers and signed up to raise $4,000 to train 8 new Solar Sister Entrepreneurs and to celebrate Solar Sister’s five-year anniversary since its founding. It was one of the best decisions I had ever made, and I had an incredible trip. Perhaps what was even more inspiring than climbing Kilimanjaro itself was the group of people who have dedicated their lives to bringing solar electricity to Africa. The team at Solar Sister.

During our climb, I had the pleasure of learning about the inspiration behind Solar Sister and why their model of social entrepreneurship is thriving. I found their story so inspiring that I wanted to share it and introduce you to Solar Sister. Here is their story.

Karanga Camp Machame Route Kilimanjaro

Group shot of the Solar Sister climbers.

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Kilimanjaro

Transition through the eyes of a climber

There are few mountains in the world that have such an amazing ecosystem and transition of landscape as Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Rising up to 19,341 feet above sea level, the transition from cultivated crops, to lush forest, to heather, moorland, and alpine desert is astounding. I have hiked many mountains but have never experienced any with such a fascinating landscape as Kilimanjaro.

Machame Gate Kilimanjaro Tanzania

Welcome to the long journey up!

Although I’ve already written at length about my trip and am about to put it all to rest, I thought it would be fun to go through the pictures as if you are climbing the mountain for yourself so you can see exactly what I mean. These are brief descriptions of each day, however, if you want to read more detailed posts on my trip, click here. Pay attention to how dramatically the landscape and vegetation change. It truly is spectacular.

Day 1: Climb to Machame Camp

The hike to Machame Camp meanders up about 7.5 miles (12 km) from a starting altitude of 4,890 feet (1490 m) to 9,780 feet (2980 m) and almost the entire hike is through thick rainforest common at the lower altitudes of Kilimanjaro. It is the only part of the hike that is shaded yet the temperature can be quite hot.

Machame Route Kilimanjaro Tanzania

Day 2: Climb to Shira Camp

The second day climb transitions from 9,780 feet (2,980 m) to Shira Camp at 12,600 feet (3,840 m) passing through rainforest glades, the vast open moorlands and up to the Shira Plateau where the treeline ends and the vegetation becomes sparse. In total, the climb is roughly 4 miles (7 km) taking anywhere between four to six hours depending upon speed.

Shira Camp, Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Kilimanjaro Tanzania

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Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

My last day with the Maasai

“Call it a clan, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you all it, whoever you are, you need one”. – Jane Howard

Sleeping all alone in the bush is not for the faint at heart. I was exhausted by the end of the day at the Mkuru Maasai Training Camp after all the travel to get there yet as soon as I said goodnight to Camilla, the camp volunteer, and unzipped the canvas door of my tent I felt utterly alone. It was pitch black in the bush and eerily quiet. As I crawled into my bed and pulled up the covers, all I could hear was the whispering of the wind.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

View outside my tent that night

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Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

My Walk with the Maasai

“In the Book of Life, the answers aren’t in the back.” – Charles M. Schultz

Setting off on foot through the heart and soul of Maasai culture has always been a dream of mine. I had first heard of the Maasai people when I was volunteering for a week in Morocco. I was speaking with a fellow volunteer – a young American woman- who confessed her favorite travel stories in her life occurred when she visited the Maasai. Her embellished images of warrior men in black and women dressed in brightly colored clothing while drinking cow’s blood under the moonlight sky in the bush were what first intrigued me. Was it true that a people like this still lived on earth and still practiced their long-held traditions and cultures?

Years later, when I began my work as a social good blogger, I began to learn more about the Maasai people and the threat against their way of life. Some of the things I had believed to be true long ago were more or less myths yet other traditions both good and bad continued until this day. It wasn’t until I set out on foot with my english-speaking Maasai guide, Jacobo, in the Mkuru Training Camp near Arusha, Tanzania that I would discover for myself what the Maasai people were truly like and what challenges remained.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Jacobo leads the way and I follow along for the next four hours on foot, touring a small part of the Maasai community.

“Education is when you read the fine print. Experience is what you get if you don’t”. -Pete Seeger

I was thankful that I had Jacobo, the Camp Manager, who was born and raised in the community, to lead the way. He was exactly as I envisioned a Maasai warrior to be: Tall, elegantly thin, muscular and generously kind. He has faced some criticism from the community by integrating too much with Western culture yet overall his work and passion for his tribe outshines a few negative viewpoints. Although he is also the camp driver, speaks English, and is the face of the camp with all foreigners, he has retained his culture even down to what he eats.

We set off shortly after lunch in windy, dry weather. I had hoped the weather would be better but at least it wasn’t raining or boiling hot. I followed behind Jacobo, pen and paper in hand and asked him as many questions as I could about his way of life.

Mkuru Training Camp Arusha Tanzania

Welcome to the bush

Mkuru Training Camp Arusha Tanzania

The Maasai are among the best known ethnic groups in Africa due to their distinctive customs and dress. As nomadic pastoralists, they traditionally herded their cattle on seasonal rotations across the open savanna of Kenya and Tanzania yet new laws instituted by the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments ended their traditions and forced many into camps where they have suffered poverty, malnutrition, lack of education and economic opportunities to survive. It is an all too common story with native cultures across the world and today many governments and NGOs are doing their best to preserve and protect these tribes from disappearing off the face of the earth.

Mkuru Training Camp Maasai Tanzania

The grounds of the Mkuru Training Camp Maasai in Tanzania

As we walked, Jacobo pointed out the dried up river beds and the sparse vegetation. Most of the crops (maize and potatoes are the of the primary crops grown in the area) had already been harvested and the long barren months of the dry season had begun. One of the main problems for the Maasai community is malnutrition especially in children. The diet is basically meat, goat’s milk and grains with little or no fruit or vegetables. Although the camp has tried to alleviate malnutrition by providing meals at school, many Maasai hesitate to send their children because they are needed to herd the livestock (boys began herding as young as five years old), tend the house, fetch water and cook (the main responsibility of the girls). Despite the building of new schools in the community, attendance is very low and frequently dropping especially for girls.

The Maasai have a very unique social structure that is central to their culture. The head of society is the warrior class made up of boys and men, and status relates to age. A young boy starts out as a herder at the age of five and once he reaches puberty, he is set aside with the boys who will be soon circumcised and become junior warriors called “morani”. The morani range from 13-18 years of age and after circumcision remain in isolation and are dressed in black until they are healed. Once they reach maturity and have sufficient strength they become a full fledge warrior, dress in colorful clothing, and are in charge of protecting the community. They no longer kill a lion with a spear since that tradition has become illegal (by the government) but they are trained to fight.

Mkuru Training Camp Arusha Tanzania

Jacobo on left with his four brothers who have just been circumcised and wear black until they are ready to become moranis.

Maasai women and girls are traditionally in charge of the home and all work associated with family life such as fetching water, cooking and cleaning, making clothing and watching the very young children. Maasai women are known for their amazing beadwork and brilliant clothing. (I had written a great post about Maasai beading here)

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Jacobo’s mother

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Maasai beadwork has been integrated into the Mkuru community to empower women and give them economic opportunities to sell their work.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

A gorgeous Maasai beaded ankle bracelet.

Jacobo gave me a tour of his family boma, traditional mud huts made out of mud, dried cow dung and branches. Since the Maasai can have more than one wife, the entire family of husband, wives and children typically live together in a compound of 3-5 bomas depending on wealth. Each compound is surrounded by an open circle and fence made of thorny branches, where the livestock sleep safely at night, away from predators. The bomas are extremely basic with no electricity, no running water and oftentimes unsafe charcoal cookstoves are used inside the hut. The smoke from cooking turns the ceiling black with soot and you can imagine how bad it is for the family to inhale the fumes.

http://thirdeyemom.com/2015/10/25/learning-the-art-of-making-maasai-jewelry-in-tanzania/

Entering the Jacobo’s family home (the fence for livestock is on the left hand side of the photo).

http://thirdeyemom.com/2015/10/25/learning-the-art-of-making-maasai-jewelry-in-tanzania/

Jacobo’s extended family.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

One of the bomas.

 Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

A child peeks out and smiles. His face is covered in ash from the cookstove.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Since there is no electricity inside, the bomas are very dark. I tried my best to capture what they are like inside. You can see the cookstove on the far back righthand side of the photo.

Non-profit organizations such as Solar Sister (who I climbed Kilimanjaro with) are working hard to provide clean, safe cookstoves throughout the world. The benefits are immense and life-saving but sadly they have not reached the millions of people like in this community who need them. Not only are clean cookstoves healthier and safer, they also save ridiculous amounts of money which can be used on other essential things like education, farming, and crops.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

The ceiling of the boma is black from the charcoal cookstove inside.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

An up close look at the thorny fence and corral for the livestock.

To my relief, I was well received by my Maasai friends who gladly gave me a tour of their bomas for a very small fee. I also purchased some beautiful handmade jewelry from Jacobo’s mother, a couple of bracelets and a necklace that I love to this day.

As we headed out to see more of the vast area, we ran into Jacobo’s dad, a retired warrior. I found that many of the men have a pretty luxurious life compared to the women. No longer truly in need of a warrior class to protect them against invaders, the men usually have plenty of leisure time to sit around and talk while the women did all the work.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Jacobo’s dad

Jacobo brought me to a special place that once a year the morani and warriors go for a few months to eat meat. Tradition holds that morani and warriors must remain strong and be the best fed of all. Therefore, every year they head up to the forest where they eat goat meat for two-three months. The women stay at home.

As we neared the camp, I could see women walking their donkeys with yellow plastic jugs. I asked Jacobo where they were going and he told me about the well. A few years ago,the camp dug a well which is open from 5-7 pm every day. Before the well, women and girls would spend hours each day fetching water so the new well has made a significant impact on their lives.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

The women at the well

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

I thought about how such simple things as water are so easily taken for granted in the developed world. All I have to do is turn on the facet and out it comes, in plentiful supply. Seeing the well in person was a reminder how millions and millions of people around the world live. With little or no access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair”. – Kahlil Gibran

Once we returned to camp, I was exhausted. It was quite an eye-opening day. I had a quiet dinner with Camila and the other European camp volunteer and they told me some of the more difficult stories about the camp. That female genital mutilation (FGM) is rampant in Tanzania despite it being banned and illegal by the government. That the process is horrifying and the young girl is cut with unsanitary knives and left to lay and bleed alone for months inside the boma. That Jacobo lost his first wife in childbirth because she was unable to deliver her baby safely after her the trauma caused by FGM. And the list goes on.

It was hard for me to reconcile my beliefs on how as a world we should intervene. Despite the belief that we should respect certain cultures and traditions that have been held since the beginning of mankind, it does not make them right or justifiable. Sadly change is difficult but not impossible.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

View outside my tent that night

Want to learn more? Here are some excellent articles:

“In Tanzania, Maasai women who reject FGM are refused as Brides” via Reuters

“Maasai in Tanzania: World Fame but Empty Stomachs” via the Guardian

Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves

WaterAid – Tanzania (Fact: 14 million people in Tanzania have no choice but to drink dirty water from unsafe sources).

 

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Mkuru Maasai Training Camp

My Day with the Maasai

“Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit”. – Jawaharlal Nehru

When I arrived at the Mkuru Training Center, I was introduced to the lovely staff and lead into a beautiful open-air dining and living room for a cup of hot tea and lunch. I needed it after the long, rainy drive.  I was thankful that the weather had cleared up for my afternoon adventure. Jacobo, the Camp Manager, would be taking me on a four-hour walking tour to see the Maasai community that live around the camp. It was going to certainly be a fascinating, eye-opening experience.

Mkuru Maasai Training Camp, Tanzania

Open-air dining hall and living room at the Mkuru Training Center

The Mkuru Training Camp was built in 2003 around 50 acres of property by the Isituto Oikos, an Italian NGO that works to promote environmental conservation as a tool of socio-economic development. For the past 12 years, they have been working with the Maasai people at the Mkuru Training Camp to assist in conserving their culture and their land, providing education, resources and economic empowerment. The camp is used as both a research center and a tourist facility where people can come and integrate with the Maasai in a unique way without imposing on their lives. It is really a fantastic concept.

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My drive to the Bush: Meeting the Maasai at the Mkuru Training Center

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths”. – Walt Disney

Two days after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, I had one of the most stunning travel experiences of my life. I visited a Maasai village and stayed overnight. It was not the typical tourist trap where you pay a ton of money to see the Maasai but instead a true Maasai village where the Maasai continue to practice their traditional culture that has remained relatively unchanged for centuries.

I had done a fair amount of research to find the right Maasai village to visit because I didn’t want to go to a place that was culturally insensitive and filled with tourists. Instead, I wanted a real, authentic experience and cultural immersion. Thankfully I found the perfect place for my visit, The Mkuru Training Camp in Uwiro Village, about a three-hour drive away from Moshi. The Mkuru Training Camp is located at the foothills of Mount Meru, just outside Arusha National Park, within one of the most important biodiversity areas of Tanzania: the Maasai Steppe.

The camp is run by Isituto Oikos, an Italian NGO (non-governmental organization) founded in 1996 that works in Europe and in developing countries to promote environmental conservation as a tool of socio-economic development. They have been working with the Maasai people at the Mkuru Training Camp to assist in conserving their culture and way of life. For a small fee, they offer select tourists and journalists the ability to spend a night or two at the camp and immerse themselves in the local Maasai culture. I would be the only guest for the night.

I was picked up early Sunday morning at my hotel in Moshi by Camilla, an Italian volunteer staying at the camp and Jacobo, the camp manager who is Maasai and was born and raised in the community. I limped over to get in the car, happy that I was finished hiking and could finally just sit for a few hours. Both Camilla and Jacobo were exceptionally warm and friendly, and we had a wonderful time chatting during our three-hour bumpy ride to the camp.

Jacobo gives me a beaming smile as he greets me at the hotel.

Jacobo gives me a beaming smile as he greets me at the hotel.

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Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro: The End of the Road

“A great accomplishment shouldn’t be the end of the road, just the starting point for the next leap forward”. – Harvey Mackay

I woke up on the last day on Mount Kilimanjaro feeling tired, sore and irritable. My left knee had finally just given out and I still blame it all on my fall in the rice fields the day before the climb which injured my left leg. I never mentioned it before but I also have been battling a two-year annoying injury somewhere within the confines of my right hip. Right in the midst of the pain and physical therapy last April I decided on a whim that I wasn’t going to let anything including pain deter me from fulfilling my dreams. I was going to climb Kilimanjaro one way or another.

View descending Kilimanjaro

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Descending Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro: The Long Walk Down Continues

“I prefer physical exhaustion over mental fatigue any day”. – Clotilde Hesme

After a three-hour sleep, it was time to get up, eat and continue down to the final base camp of the trip. The last thing I felt like doing was walking more yet I wanted to get down to a warmer place and closer to the end. My left leg were quite swollen which would eventually make my left knee throb the entire four hours down and for days after the hike.  But I was determined to go. The thought of getting back to our hotel with a hot shower, a normal bed and alas a glass or two of wine kept me moving.

Descending Kilimanjaro

We had been incredibly fortunate to have had amazing weather the entire seven days on the hike. We never faced rain, the sky was clear affording us spectacular views of the peak and the valley below, and most important of all, it wasn’t too cold on our ascent to the summit. The only cloudy weather we had occurred during our descent down. It was gray and overcast but really it wasn’t bad at all compared to what it could be.

Descending Kilimanjaro

Descending Kilimanjaro

Descending Kilimanjaro

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Descending Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro: The Long Walk Down

There is one fact that is sometimes forgotten when climbing a mountain: What goes up, must come down. After the euphoric elation of reaching the summit at a little past seven o’clock, the reminder of the long, difficult hike back down hit me like truck. I was exhausted, famished and at an emotional high that would soon dwindle as I began my descent down to our base camp for some much-needed rest.

Our group of nine had split up into different pace groups, and I was alone with another climber from our group named David. Despite being as fit as can be (David just completed a marathon in Africa a few days before setting out on our climb), being in shape does not always guarantee your body will acclimatize properly. There are a number of reasons why you can get altitude sickness but it is never certain what exactly sets it off. Poor David reached the top of Kilimanjaro and promptly vomited behind the trail. He needed to get back down and fast.

Descending Kilimanjaro

Once the sun fully rose and I was able to take a quick breather, I took this shot of the rugged, steep trail back down.

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