Many of us began this challenge with the idea that Mt. Meru would be an easy, middle ground between Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro. However, our guides assured us that this “small” peak would be the steepest of them all.
We had an energizing start with the girls from St. Jude, who tagged along for the first part of day one. The day was long and steep and we arrived at camp dirty, sweaty and sunburned.
Day two consisted of four hours climbing stairs. It was hot and dusty, but we enjoyed seeing baboons en route and striking views of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We arrived at camp for lunch and had a short break to relax, read books, listen to music and toss a football around. As the clouds rolled in, we went for an afternoon acclimatization hike up Little Meru (3801m – 12533ft), a smaller peak on the side of the mountain. We climbed high above the clouds and as we reached the top, we felt as though we were in our own world engulfed in mystical fog. The clouds parted and we were struck with a reality check of the true peak we would face later that night. We descended to camp to prepare for the summit.
Midnight came early – our wake-up call to get prepped for five hours of climbing that would hopefully put us on the summit by sunrise. With a loud knock on the door of our huts, we were up and applying layers for the long morning ahead. After a cup of tea and some biscuits, we began our ascent at 1am. Luckily, clouds had vanished and a bright full moon took their place guiding us up the rocky terrain. As the morning rolled on, we could see Arusha’s city lights below coming to life.
All eleven of us pushed forward consistently, together, as a team, until we reached the summit (4562m -14967ft). It was still half an hour before the sun would rise. With the full moon beaming behind us, we watched in awe as the fiery sun made her grand entrance over a crystal clear view of Tanzania and our next destination…Mt. Kilimanjaro.
We were amazed on the descent to see the daunting ridges and cliffs that were hiding in the darkness when we passed them on the way up. After a much needed lunch and rest at the second camp, we continued down to the first camp for the evening. After a long, exhausting day, dinner was served early and many of us were asleep before dark.
Today’s hike down to the gate, in comparison, was quick and painless. The last bit of the trek led us through stands of lush forest with breathtaking waterfalls and provided views of Arusha National Park’s “Little Serengeti,” an open plain full of giraffe, warthog, buffalo and waterbuck. We were welcomed at the base with congratulatory champagne and heaps of fresh fruits, cheese and crackers. Only a short celebration, as the real treat was soon to come.
Filthy, sweaty, stinky and burnt to a crisp, we headed directly to the secondary school campus of the School of St. Jude. Upon arrival, we were met by a group of students who showed their enthusiasm by whisking us away individually to give us tours of their beautiful classrooms. Soon it was lunchtime and we enjoyed a delicious meal with all of the students in their huge dining hall. Shortly after lunch, a special assembly was held with all the students in honor of 3 Peaks 3 Weeks. The students had prepared presentations of music and dance that were extremely touching and left us with smiles and tears. Our team was brought on stage and presented with gifts of gratitude, which included a St. Jude’s kanga (wrap), a t-shirt and a live chicken…each! After photographs and many laughs with chicken droppings at our feet, we “donated” them back to the school.
The time spent on Mt. Meru and with the kids from St. Jude gave us a new perspective on our challenge. The intricacy of how each mountain relates to the respective cause is becoming more and more clear. Mt. Meru has been perceived as the “easy” peak, the no-brainer. Similarly, education is often considered the “no-brainer” cause. While environment and health stand tall as huge issues in both East Africa and the entire world, education is still an underdog, taken for granted in so many places. Yet, and perhaps more importantly, it is the foundation for the other causes. Conservation is based largely on educating the public about their impact on natural resources and ways to lead more sustainable lifestyles. Providing information on disease and hygiene gives people the power to make educated choices about their health and the health of their families. So while this challenge may seem to flicker in the glory of the taller peaks, it has proven to be a steep, uphill battle. We’ll never have a better view of Mt. Kilimanjaro than we had standing on the summit of Mt. Meru, and we’ll never truly see the paths to success with environment and health without standing tall on education.