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Kilimanjaro: Make it Look Easy

Three clients. Two guides. One cook. Nine Porters. There were fifteen of us, and I was the only woman.


Group picture of guided clients on Mount Kilimanjaro

That didn’t surprise me, nor was it an unusual statistic. I was used to being the only woman on a mountain expedition, especially in the presence of international guides and porters, a predominantly male industry. 


I was surprised by the vast loneliness I felt on the third night of our expedition to Kilimanjaro while I lay in my damp Mountain Hardware tent and listened to yet another rain storm. I’d never felt so homesick to talk to another woman.


I know the rain did not help my mental state. I’d gone to Kilimanjaro, one of the seven summits and the highest mountain on the African continent measuring it at 19,341 feet, prepared for sun, not rain. Hoping to meander around camp in the afternoon and meet people instead of huddling under tents to stay warm and dry. I wanted to see and explore the wonders of the mountain. But at this point, it all seemed shrouded in a foreboding fog, and I pushed my sunscreen and sun hats to the bottom of my pack, which was completely unused. I rolled over on my side and tried to sleep.


The following day, I caught a glimpse of the snow-capped peak before clouds rolled in and covered the steep massif. After breakfast, I pulled on my rain layers and began the climb from Barranco to Karanga Camp with my teammates and guides from Ax Ventures. My mood boosted slightly as we maneuvered the rocky bottleneck, only to dip once more as the fine mist we climbed through became fat raindrops. Then the pity party spiral began and continued across the glacial valleys until I saw her.


A female porter. Tanzanian. Head bent. No rain gear. Beads of sweat under her brow line and a worn pack shouldered on her broad chest. Under my rain hood, our dark eyes met. We nodded.


I was not the loneliest girl out here.


According to Denic Godston, a local from Moshi, Tanzania, and lead guide for Ax Ventures, “There are around 9,000 male porters on Kilimanjaro and less than 100 are women.” 


That’s roughly 1%. 


Godston has been guiding the slopes of Kilimanjaro since 2009 and has made the summit over three hundred times. More than 50% of his clients are women. So even though there are more women on Kilimanjaro than ever before, Godston knows how hard it is for women to become porters and guides. And the harassment that comes with it.


So does Nelson Dellis, the founder of Ax Ventures who has climbed the highest peak in Africa five times. An American based out of Saratoga Springs, New York, Dellis tried to hire a female porter for one of his expeditions, but it did not go well.


“There was a ton of friction and even when she was hired, the porters complained and made her life miserable. The mentality isn’t all that open to women taking a role that is and has been predominantly male-driven.”


It’s not an easy equation to navigate even when companies and guides like Dellis and Godston support the idea. 


One less versed in the concepts of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging could feel the workforce of Kilimanjaro is diversifying because there are female guides and porters. But at the end of the day, do they feel accepted? Are they treated fairly? Do they feel like they belong?


In my world of being an American client, I was treated like I belonged there, even though in passing I did hear a joke referencing that one woman on an expedition was enough. But throughout every day, I was smiled at, acknowledged, and treated kindly.



On our last day, the rain relented, and I rolled up my shelves for a kiss of sunlight. It rained daily, and we were ready to shed our swampy clothes and gear. We quickly descended through the mountain forest to the Mweka Gate, passing many groups and porters. And then, we were passed by someone even faster than us.


She was slender with long braids and well-outfitted gear. Two European clients with rounded bellies breathed loudly to keep up with her.


“Yeah,” I cheered, and she flashed me a confident and competitive smile. 


Immediately, I understood and immensely respected her. She made it look easy to not only climb Kilimanjaro but also guide it. Every part of it. From what she wore to how she moved on the trail. She knew how closely she was watched and critiqued. Therefore, she made it look easy so others would follow.

Author bio

Bethany Adams is a writer, mountain athlete, guide, outdoor instructor, and community ambassador for SheJumps. More of her writing can be found in the upcoming book Blood Sweat Tears, a short story collection by 26 women+ hikers and runners about the experience of being in a female body on a trail edited by Christine Reed. https://www.ruggedoutdoorswoman.com/online-store


Adams can also be found on Instagram @bethany.climbs


Ax Ventures is a small, grassroots guiding company that connects clients with local guides. They support DEI &B initiatives in and around mountain communities. You can find them at https://www.axventuresinc.com/

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