I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with nature. In fact, I think recently many of us have been prompted to think about the ways in which our humanity intertwines with our relationship to the Earth. Some friends I’ve talked to, for instance, concluded that they haven’t spent enough time in nature since the COVID-19 pandemic. Once they were forced to stay inside their house, they realized they weren’t appreciating being outside of their house. For others, the realization came with a deeper understanding of the climate crisis and what it might do to the natural landscapes they never even took time to see. One friend noted that the [Greek islands] might be underwater before she ever gets a chance to see them, and it prompted her to think about all the other natural habitats that might soon disappear before she can appreciate them.
For me, I’ve been craving a bit of adventure in my own life for a while. And I mean, not the “jump off of a boat during vacation” adventure, either (no shade lol, that does seem super fun). I was craving an experience with nature vastly different from the experiences I usually had on vacation, one wherein I could learn more about myself in relation to others, and where I could really deeply understand my relationship with nature and my connection to the Earth. And because it seems rare for Black women to have experiences such as these with nature, and because spaces that offer these experiences seem so inaccessible for BIPOC, I assumed that I likely wouldn’t be able to have an experience like this safely.
I was lucky enough to be proven wrong when I sat down with one of my fellow GROWN teammates, Laikyn, who was bold enough to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro. If you didn’t know this, Mt Kilimanjaro is Africa’s tallest mountain, standing at a whopping 19,341 feet! Laikyn mentioned her trip so casually in conversation, that I don’t think any of us expected her story to unfold the way it did! I asked her a short follow up question, and quickly became enthralled with her experience. I’d never met a Black woman who was brave enough to conquer the notorious Mount Kilimanjaro, so naturally I begged her to talk with me about her experiences in more detail so that I could live vicariously through her.
We started with outlining the trip. First, I asked Laikyn about how she was introduced to the trip, or even the idea of going to Mount Kilimanjaro, or, as she affectionately calls it, Kili.
So how did you hear about this trip to Kilimanjaro? Was there a program you decided to sign up for, or was it kind of word of mouth?
I was nominated for the trip through the place I was working for at the time. My job partnered with the Kilimanjaro Initiative, which is a program designed to help Americans and African children climb the mountain (https://www.kiusa.org). Some of my coworkers who had gone through the experience mentioned that they pick people to apply. They wanted to nominate me and my brother to do it, and I was like, ‘What? I would never!’ [Laughs]. But then they kept egging me on to do it, so finally I decided to try to do it.
What finally inspired you to take the journey? Or, when you heard about it, how did you tell yourself that the trip was for you?
Vanessa, I was so ‘scary’! I psyched myself out so much about it, even while I was applying. I never really challenged myself before, I was so in my shell. But people kept begging me to apply, they even called me on the phone and asked me if I had filled out my application, literally begging me to apply. At that point, I felt like it was almost God telling me like, ‘Laikyn, you need to experience this for yourself, and you’ll come out fine’. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, and I told myself like, ‘Regardless of if I made it to the top, this is going to be a unique experience’. [Laughs]. Like, how many people will be able to say they climbed Kili, right?
What was the application process and preparation process like?
The application process kind of happened in like, rounds. So first I had to write a paper about why I was right for the trip and why I think I would be able to climb the mountain. Also, even though I was 23 at the time I had to get parental consent for the trip. Then I had a few interviews. Even throughout that process they recommended that we train beforehand. So, like, I had to run three miles every day and eat healthy and drink tons of water.
Laikyn interrupted herself briefly with a quip about how difficult even the initial intake training process was.
And honestly Vanessa, I didn’t train as much as I should have! [Chuckles]. I literally was eating whatever any 23-year-old ate, which was all unhealthy foods. I don’t think there was really any way to truly prepare yourself for the trip, I really feel like the training was to psych you out. You would think like, if you’re running three miles a day then you would feel prepared but that’s not really what happens, when you get there, you realize none of the training would help.
Still, Laikyn continued to outline her preparation process, which occurred in the States before she flew to Kenya and Tanzania for the hike up Mount Kilimanjaro. Laikyn also briefly mentioned that everything in the trip, outside of passport photos and clothes, was covered by the organization.
Anyways, after the interviews and the three weeks of training, we went to upstate New York to climb Bear Mountain as a kind of initiation into the program, and if we successfully climbed Bear Mountain we’d get accepted into the program and get the run-down of what our experience was going to be. At this point I was still in disbelief, nothing hit me for a while! The training in general was so surreal to me, because like, it wasn’t in my mind that I was training to go on Kilimanjaro.
What was the hike up Bear Mountain like?
That hike was so bad [Laughs]! It took me four hours, and I had my cycle during the hike—it was horrible. I was just like, ‘Why’? I was vomiting and everything, and the idea that I was going to Kilimanjaro still didn’t hit me even then. Honestly, I thought I wouldn’t be invited to the next round the way Bear Mountain went for me. But my brother and I still got invited back and I was just like, ‘Wow apparently God really wants me to do this!’. It was insane.
I was so captivated even by the description of the hike up Bear Mountain alone, but I wanted to push on because I just knew Laikyn’s story was going to get even better. After talking about the preparation and training periods, Laikyn shared her experience traveling to Kenya, where she trained even more for the hike on Kilimanjaro.
Describe a pre- Kilimanjaro day.
So, we landed in Kenya and were able to chill for a moment. We met the African students who would be joining our group, and we got to visit their neighborhood and we even went to a Zoo, which was so beautiful! After that, we went to our first training camp, and we stayed there for about 7 days.
What was the training camp like?
We literally trained from sunup to sundown, Vanessa! The training was much harder, too! You would think we didn’t have any training prior to our days at the camp—the altitude was so different; it was so much harder to run on the terrain too! I think me and the other two Americans on the trip [Laikyn’s brother included] were really struggling, and one of them was an athlete here. We woke up at 5am to go running every day, and we learned how to pitch a tent and set up camp for the actual hike on Kili. We had to learn how to navigate with just a compass and a map and our huuuuge camping backpacks on our back, and we cooked and cleaned our own food. After that campsite, we moved to another campsite that was in more of a desert terrain. The hike to the second campsite took from 8am to 4pm.
What was the second campsite like?
We were in the middle of nowhere, which was interesting. We were also set up next to an Elementary School, and the kids got a big kick out of seeing us camping next to their school! We did similar activities there, and the most notable thing was the bathroom—it was an outhouse, and it was like a few minutes away which was different. It was definitely eye opening for me, cause like, God forbid you really had to go then you had to run to make it! And at night it was a bit scary because there were wild dogs out, so we had to protect our food—they would just watch us! After that we had to literally run back to our first campsite, not because of the dogs or anything, it was a part of the training. The run took three hours[Laikyn seems out of breath even thinking about the run]! I was so starving and dirty and I had this hangnail that was giving me trouble [this hangnail comes into play later on in Laikyn’s story], but I was just so hungry and thirsty and eager to get clean and eat that I didn’t care. After the run they gave us food and they even gave us soda [I can see the relief on Laikyn’s face] and we were able to handwash our clothes and stuff. That was our last day at that campsite.
Naturally, I was so eager to hear more about Laikyn’s experiences with wildlife during her trip, as that was a factor of ‘communing with nature’ that I definitely tried to block out. Still, I was too eager to hear about the last bit of training Laikyn had to experience before her hike up Kilimanjaro, so I had to stow my eagerness, but it was only temporary!
So, the last bit of training right before the hike up Kilimanjaro—what was that like?
After that we were taken to a site in the woods where we would sleep alone for two nights and spend our time alone during the day as well. We were only given a tarp—they told us we had to figure out how to use that to make something to sleep in—and our personal supplies (food, water, etc.) so that we could learn to set up a camp for ourselves as well. Before we were separated, we each learned a call that we could use in case we were in danger. We were spread out, we were close enough to each other if needed but we couldn’t really find each other.
Oh my God, I bet that was really scary!
It was! We also weren’t allowed to have any books because they wanted us to stay with our own thoughts, and not the thoughts of others. We had our own books/journals that we could use to write our thoughts in, but otherwise it was really just us alone in the woods. We got to the woods the first day at like 4pm, and we had to set up camp before it got dark really fast. [Laikyn shakes her head]. I knew beforehand about this part of the training, and I knew even then that I wouldn’t like it, so I was freaking out! And I was so bad at pitching my tent [laughs], I literally set it up with sticks!
What was it like, those days and nights alone?
It was so hard for me, Vanessa! So, the first night, around 10pm I heard thumping around my tent around 10pm, and we also didn’t have flashlights. I tried to calm myself down, but I kept hearing so many things in addition to the thumping. But I just hear this thumping thumping, I’m hearing monkeys in the trees moving, I’m hearing bugs, just so much. So after about thirty minutes, I’m like hell no! Whatever it is, it’s not going to get me! [Laughs] So I do my call, and the facilitators come to me and are like, what’s going on? And I tell them I’m hearing this thumping and they tell me that it’s a hare, and that they tend to hang around larger creatures in case there’s a predator around. I never went back to sleep, I ended up getting a fever and chills, so the facilitators ended up having to take me into their own tent. I think I was really just freaking out.
Laikyn explained that the next day she went back to her own tent, and what it was like being completely alone for the entire day. While Laikyn chatted with me, I started thinking about how brave a person has to be to be able to be alone, in the woods, for an entire day starting at sun up.
I went back to my campsite the next morning, and we were supposed to eat but I just couldn’t—I didn’t have the appetite. And during the day there was a family of monkeys above my tent and I was worried that they were going to get to my food if I opened it, so I barely ate anything, I just survived on water. The day felt soooo long! I was by myself so I had a lot of time to think, and I really had a lot of self-realizations. I think that was the good part, I got to really think about my life and how I treated people. However, that’s not something I would do again in the woods. Isolation, yes! In the woods? Hell no. To be completely honest though, that part of the trip was really deep, I came back a different person. Everyone around me in my group noticed, even.
Laikyn proceeded to explain to me that while she was out alone in the woods, she journaled about wanting to be a better person and improve her communication skills with the people she loved. She mentioned that before the trip she didn’t communicate well. But during the trip she thought about how much she loved everyone in her life, and how she wanted to be better for them. She thought about how much she missed her grandparents, and she even wrote letters to the people she loved! She wrote things she felt she couldn’t say because of ego or pride, and she wrote about her goals and plenty of self-affirmations. Finally, Laikyn jokingly mentioned how she even wrote raps—but doesn’t even rap herself!
Were the raps good at least?
[Laughs] No, I don’t think they were!
Laikyn mentioned that she was so relieved that that part of the trip was over, but then proceeded to answer some questions about the main goal of the trip—Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro!
Now the part that we’ve all been waiting for! Describe the morning you started your journey up the mountain!
I felt sick to my stomach, Vanessa! I was sweating, my heart was racing, and we were rushing around getting our stuff together to pile into the truck we’d take to the bottom of the mountain. At the bottom of the mountain, we ate lunch and during that time some of our trainers left us, and I felt so scared and sad! Then in the morning we got hiking.
Can you describe the things you were feeling when you were hiking?
At first, I was like, “this isn’t so bad”. I made it to the first pinpoint and took a picture there. The altitude didn’t change much there, and we didn’t have to climb so much. Getting to the second pinpoint is when I started to feel nauseous. My brother was with me, so he was really looking out for me, but that’s when I started to feel not myself. I was singing “Reborn” by Kid Cudi to myself over and over again the whole trip. That song really helped me because there were so many obstacles to get to the next landmark—like for example, at one point it was raining and we had to jump over this huggggee water gap, and it was like, one slip and that’s it!
I asked Laikyn a few logistics questions. She explained that it took about a day to get to each pinpoint. Hikers would start at 9am, reach the next pinpoint by 5pm, and then they’d eat, relax, and prep for the next run and go to sleep.
In the mornings, we’d have this huge breakfast to keep our energy up. We would have tea, and we’d have like, pancakes, oatmeal, lots of beef dishes, Ugali, chicken, rice, eggs, just so much food! And it was sad because at one point, we just all didn’t have appetites and we had to force ourselves to eat. Once I got to like the third pinpoint, I really had to stuff the food down my throat. We had experts climbing with us so they’d carry heavy stuff and meet us at each pinpoint—they were so encouraging! Still, none of us wanted to eat that much. As we got further up the mountain it was so cold.
Laikyn proceeded to describe the more emotional parts of her journey up the mountain, and explained that while the trip was beautiful, there were some traumatic moments too!
At a certain point we started losing group members. My brother damaged his knee during the training, so they sent him back down along with another group member whose oxygen levels were too low. That was our first realization that things were getting hard and that we’d be losing teammates from there on. It was really, really hard to lose my brother because he was really my support system. I still get emotional sometimes because that was a really hard realization.
Laikyn noted that at this point things started to become a blur. She stopped recounting experiences based on which pinpoint she was at, and instead described what was happening to her physically and emotionally after her brother left.
I started to lose oxygen at a certain point, and I started hallucinating. Like, I started seeing trees even though there were no trees [laughs]. Our guides had to hold me up at one point. As we got closer to the top, I knew I was reaching my limit. My breathing was different, I had no appetite and I kept getting sick because I didn’t want to eat. I reached the pinpoint right before the top of the mountain, but I was feeling so horrible! I was grumpy—actually, I was getting pissed which was super unlike me. I started isolating myself and I was pissed that I was getting forced to eat. They told us that mood changes could occur, and I guess that happened to me! And at this point, my finger with the hangnail on it was infected and huge and turning blue! Finally, they checked my oxygen levels because things seemed strange, and my levels were too low so they sent me back down. Everyone left in the group and I bawled—I mean crying for like ten minutes. It was so heartbreaking to have to stop right before the peak. It took us a whole day to make it to the bottom. At the bottom they gave us fish heads and rice, and I got my finger taken care of. I was happy to see my brother, but I still felt shitty. The altitude sickness symptoms I was feeling didn’t go away immediately so I felt like I was walking on the moon for a while.
Laikyn proceeds to describe a few more traumatic experiences after the hike—including witnessing her brother’s seizures and having to leave him in Tanzania for treatment when she was sent back home. After recounting her experiences, we talked more about what she saw on the mountain.
What was the imagery on the mountain like?
The clouds were so white, it was like 3D because everything was in your face. It was beautiful, I got to keep some of the Kili rocks. It was breathtaking—the air felt so clean, it was a different type of fresh air. Like people say they know fresh air but this was like, fresh air. It felt so good to breathe it in.
To conclude our conversation, I asked Laikyn about how things changed for her after her adventure on the mountain. Ultimately I asked Laikyn if all of the negative experiences she had on the mountain discouraged her from spending time in nature—and selfishly, I was so relieved when she said no.
Do you feel your journey changed you? In what ways?
I was definitely different after the solo trip. I felt more wise, more open-minded, and aware of what I was doing. I felt braver and stronger too. And I really tried to stick to all the things I wanted to do when I came home. I communicate way way more. At 23, I was at a rough point in my life—I just graduated college and didn’t have a job. So I was ready to experience Kili because I felt like I didn’t have anything going for me at home anyways. But after, I started reaching out to people about getting a job— I became a journalism fellow writing about the gentrification in my neighborhood. And I was more hopeful. I guess after the trip I was forced to ask myself, “What now?”
Would you consider yourself an adventurer?
Yeah, because I still love hiking and I still love nature. Ironically, I’m afraid of heights but after my experience on Kili, I feel prepared to conquer everything! I would go camping because it was such a beautiful experience. I just wouldn’t climb Mount Everest [Laughs]. It’s hard to find friends to do this stuff with though, not too many people of color are down with that. I wish our people were more open to it; I realize there are so many factors, but I wish we could experience nature more, especially those of us who live in cities.
After having been inspired by Laikyn’s journey on Mount Kilimanjaro and hearing her advocate for more time in nature despite even the roughest parts of her experience, I decided to seek out opportunities of my own to spend time in nature. I was lucky enough to find a hiking group that serves BIPOC within the Tri-State area called the Hood Hikers (based in NY) and took to the trails with the group where I met the group’s fearless leader and creator, Jasmine. While the experience certainly wasn’t as harrowing as Laikyn’s experience with Mount Kilimanjaro, I definitely appreciated the comradery in the group, as well as the introspection that nature can inspire in us. During our conversation, Laikyn commented that she was the only Black woman (from the U.S) who interviewed for the trip to Mount Kilimanjaro, and that prompted me to think about all of the times I heard that Black women aren’t “outdoorsy” types during my hike with the Hood Hikers—and it made me grateful to see so many Black women who were willing to and deepen their relationship with nature despite the stereotype.
Laikyn’s story also inspired me to challenge my perceptions about Black women’s capabilities and the kinds of hobbies we engage in. Even more, Laikyn’s inspirational story and bubbly personality reminded me that Black women are not a monolith, and that we can be so many things all at once. We can be outdoorsy, adventuring people who, for example, are bold enough to take on Mount Kilimanjaro, and come out different women on the other side of that challenge.
Vanessa is a third-year graduate student studying Psychology at Rutgers University, with a passion for all thing’s wellness, research, creativity and empathy. In her spare time, Vanessa enjoys learning guitar, reading and writing fiction stories as forms of expression and vulnerability. Vanessa can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.