This time last year, as Deborah Dalgo contemplated the approach of her 50th birthday, she decided to celebrate it in a big way. More precisely, in a tall way.
Now the Baton Rouge accountant, who had never climbed a mountain before, can scratch climbing Mount Kilimanjaro off her bucket list.
“I don’t know where the original thought came from, because I know no one who’s a mountain climber,” Dalgo said. “We live in flat Louisiana, for crying out loud.”
She still does. But the summit of Africa's tallest peak is now in her rearview mirror.
On June 30, a day before her life odometer rolled over to 50, Dalgo reached the snow-covered, 19,341-foot peak in Tanzania. That ended seven days of climbing and months of planning.
Unable to find someone to join her on the adventure, Dalgo decided to go it alone. She had to overcome her fears of going to Africa by herself as well as prepare for the physical challenge, which was hard to do locally.
She booked the trip with Climb Kili, a company that provides guides and porters, and joined a handful of strangers on an eight-day trek (seven up, one down), even though such short trips have lower success rates. Seven days isn't enough time to allow climbers to easily adjust to the altitude.
“I was told to expect headaches and nausea, and I also was told that almost everybody vomits,” Dalgo said. “To that, my dad said, ‘Yay, Deborah! Let’s go plan a vacation where everybody vomits!’ Touché.
“Two big things that it requires to summit is, one, hydrate, and the other is moving slowly. You can’t move fast at that altitude," she said. "It shocked me. I run five, six days a week. My heart’s in really good shape. What shocked me is how I kept getting out of breath. You’re sleeping in your tent and you sit up too fast, you get out of breath because of the altitude.”
One of the many challenges was Barranco Wall, a narrow trail along a sheer rock face about 280 yards from top to bottom. One stretch required climbers to hug the mountain so closely it’s called “kissing rock.”
Along the way were awe-inspiring sights, Dalgo said, including apes in the rain forest at the base of the mountain and a breathtaking full moon.
"That," she said of the moon, "is going to go down as one of my favorite life moments. It was so peaceful and so relaxing."
The higher the group climbed, the colder and thinner the air became, making it more difficult to sleep. And fatigue made climbing that much harder.
Their last night on the mountain, the group slept at 15,000 feet and awoke at 11 p.m. to begin the final push to the summit. It was by far the most difficult part of the climb. Without crampons — metal spikes clipped to her hiking boots — it would have been impossible, Dalgo said.
“There was more snow on the mountain than normal,” she said. “There were times on summit night when we were literally climbing on sheets of ice. I thought, ‘This is crazy. This is ridiculously crazy.’
“That was probably the most frightening moment. … It’s dark, and I decided I’m not looking up. I’m not looking down. It’s just one step at a time. When we’re climbing up these sheets of ice, I’m thinking, ‘What happens if we slip. Do we just slide all the way down? Does somebody catch us?’ … I don’t underestimate things, and I tend to be a little naive. It was that moment that I thought, ‘This is just really freaking dangerous. Now I know why my mom was scared. Now I know why she says she wishes I didn’t tell her (about the trip).’”
When they reached Stella Point, about 45 minutes from the summit, they saw the sunrise in front of them, with the full moon at their backs. Though she doesn’t consider herself emotional, Dalgo said she was greatly affected.
“I think this is about the moment I really started crying,” Dalgo said. “It was so unexpected. It just took me by surprise. I just never thought I’d cry when I reached summit, but I did. It was just such a moment.”
Finally, she reached the top and the celebration began.
Although they had passed others who were being taken down in various states of physical distress, all of Dalgo’s group made it safe and sound and without having lost their lunch.
“It seemed like such an outrageous goal for over 10 years, so to have actually done it is very fulfilling,” she said. “I literally climbed above the clouds and you could say this feat left me on cloud nine.”