By Vanessa Chavarriaga Posada
When I was a kid, I would stare out airplane windows and imagine myself slipping amongst the clouds, finding the perfect one to use as a mattress or a trampoline. My eyes would be glued to their changing sizes, textures, and colors. As I grew older, I started to forget about the magic of the clouds. It wasn’t until I began going on outdoor adventures and backpacking trips in my 20s that I allowed myself to dream again.
This past month, I spent eight days living above a sea of clouds. Through Full Circle Expeditions, Phil Henderson and I organized a Mount Kilimanjaro climb via the Lemosho Route. Phil has worked as a leader in the outdoor industry for almost three decades. His passion, wisdom, and experience have enabled him to create access for himself and others. In May of 2022, Henderson made history by leading the first
all-Black team up Mount Everest.
Phil and Vanessa on the mountain
Phil and I first connected at an outdoor leadership summit a year and a half ago and have kept in touch ever since, catching up weekly and working together to create more opportunities for all of us in the outdoors. I am incredibly grateful to call Henderson a mentor of mine. His decades of experience remind me of the patience I must have, and my curiosity and excitement remind him that the work he is doing is making a difference for generations to come.
Mount Kilimanjaro is a special place for many reasons. It is the highest mountain in Africa and as a dormant volcano, the highest single freestanding mountain above sea level in the world, towering at 19,341 feet (5,895 m). Through my career as a mountaineer, I have climbed many mountains in many countries. The unique difference I noticed about Kilimanjaro is how welcoming it is.
The hospitality of Tanzania immediately embraced me. Our adventure started with a warm welcome at the Mama Simba Homebase in the town of Moshi—a place that feels more like home than a hotel. Mama Simba and family took us in as if we were relatives coming home after a long journey. The quiet, peaceful gardens and homemade food eased my jet lag.
As we walked together, we began to feel something much larger: the power of walking amongst our elders.
Our team of eight consisted of a concoction of generations and cultures. We came from Africa, the U.S., Colombia, and Mexico. We had varying levels of experience, and our ages ranged from 25 to 60. There was Linda, the instigator; Carol and Jacob, mother and son; Naledi and Richard, Linda’s niece and her partner; Phil, expedition leader; and Diana, my second mom.
From left to right: Julius, Phil, Vanessa, Hussein, Charles, and Viviana.
The generational differences in our group created an exciting change of pace for all of us. In mountaineering we often search for mountain partners who are faster, stronger, and even younger than us. The eight of us formed an unlikely group. “I think all trips should be this way,” Phil says. “Having folks from different cultures and generations just increases the experience. We can’t truly learn from one generation and one culture because we are not a monolith. Learning from a diverse group of people in where the richness lies.”
Our wonderful homestay in Moshi set the tone for the rest of the trip: warm welcoming people, colorful streets, music, and delicious food. After a few days, the eight of us anxiously squeezed into our van, not knowing where this adventure would take us, but that we would come out different on the other side.
When I think about our time on the mountain, what I remember most is warmth: a warm welcome each afternoon 30 minutes before reaching camp, where our porters would carry our packs the rest of the way. Warm water delivered to our tents so we could wash the dirt off our faces. Warm soup nourishing our bellies. Warm water bottles in our sleeping bags to keep us toasty through the night.
... it is never too late for us to experience this type of connection with nature and with our inner child.
Our guide and porter team consisted of 32 individuals, each with their own unique skill, from guiding to pitching tents to cooking amazing meals. Our porter team consisted of Boca, Kevin, Sebastian, Johan, Muhubiri, Atanazi, Polo, Justin, Paul, Labya, Jackson, Solomon, Ibar, Daniel, Emmanuel, Justin, Omari, Hilda, Isaac, Elias, Pascal, Davis, Samuel, Bruno, and Frank. Our guides were Hussein, Viviana, Julius, and Charles. We had one female guide, Viviana, and one female porter, Hilda. It was inspiring to watch these strong women carve out space for themselves in a traditionally male profession.
The views were as dramatic as you would expect from a mountain this special. The volcanic Shira Plateau seemed like the edge of the world, extending green vistas and waterfalls until it dropped off drastically. This edge of the world was met by an ocean of clouds. My inner child imagined getting a running start and diving gently into the white cushioned sea, floating forever.
At night, the distant towns gently lit up the underbellies of the clouds and greeted a sky full of brilliant stars. The Milky Way is located in a different position than it is at home, so this sky felt entirely new to me. A few of us would congregate outside after dinner to silently watch the stars until the invitation of a warm sleeping bag became too hard to resist.
We spent most of our days walking. The beautiful part of the Lemosho Route is that the journey is just as rich as the destination. We walked slowly, savoring every step, wildflower, and trail riddle. Because our objective was simply to exist on this mountain and in community, we were not in a rush to reach the summit safely. With half of our group over the age of 55, we set a slower pace. This allowed us to walk together as one team, supporting each other with our strengths and allowing others to support us through the difficult moments.
As we walked together, we began to feel something much larger: the power of walking amongst our elders. This is something BIPOC communities have been doing for a long time. There is also power in letting the mountain teach you lessons and letting go of expectations. Regardless of the months of preparation, we showed up to Mount Kilimanjaro as students, not knowing how far we would progress, how difficult it would be, or what we would learn. The mountain is an equalizer in this way—no matter our age, experience, or culture, we were all walking the same trails in the same weather conditions.
It wasn’t until I began going on outdoor adventures and backpacking trips in my 20s that I allowed myself to dream again.
We talk a lot about a right to access nature, often stressing the importance of passing this right onto future generations. A lot of my work is focused on creating access and paving the way for future generations, but this leaves behind a large demographic: our elders.
Protecting access to nature for older generations is just as important, creating just as much healing and social change. The lived experience that our elders have is an incredible tool we can use to avoid making mistakes made before. We don’t have to wait until they are gone to learn these lessons—we can ask questions, be curious, and have conversations that help us grow.
In addition to the countless lessons we can learn from them, we can also teach our elders. This type of learning goes both ways. The gift of outdoor access gives elders an opportunity to tap back into their childhood, experience true joy, and continue learning. Throughout this trek, it became apparent to me that it is never too late for us to experience this type of connection with nature and with our inner child. It gave each and every one of us life.
Our seventh day on the mountain was summit day. At this point, all of us had gotten accustomed to living the mountain life and were well prepared for this next challenge. After an afternoon of rest, we began our preparations.
The 11pm wake-up call was disorienting, but we quickly gathered our gear and began the long trek uphill. You truly don’t know how long a night is until you hike through the entire thing. The blackness seemed darker than normal, with no moon or signs of the sun ever rising again.
Without sunshine warming our bodies, the cold of the night quickly set into our bones. The higher we climbed, the colder it got, and before I knew it, I was hiking in four lower-body layers and five upper-body layers, three of which were puffy jackets. Finally, we began to see a crimson stripe creep up on the horizon. We watched the brilliant rays of the sun rise at Stella Point, which sits at 18,885 feet.
Emotions rose as we realized we were going to make it together. Between the efforts of the team, our guides, and our porters, we had all carried each other up. We all felt the power of being a collective. In that moment, we realized just how necessary we were to each other.
"Learning from a diverse group of people in where the richness lies." —Phil Henderson
On the verge of summiting, Aunt Linda’s words echoed in her niece Naledi’s mind: “Speak up." Those two powerful words became a constant reminder to assert her voice and challenge the silence that holds us back.
“Being a minority on the mountain, my aunt's journey as an African American woman in the corporate world added another layer of significance,” Naledi reflects. “She shattered glass ceilings and defied expectations in a predominantly white, male-dominated industry, highlighting the importance of diversity and inclusion everywhere but especially in outdoor spaces.”
Over these eight days, we shared meals, laughter, dancing, and language. On any given day, we exchanged conversation in a mix of English, Swahili, and Spanish. It didn’t really matter if we were fluent in just one language or all three—we spoke and listened and laughed all the same. Although we had flown halfway across the world, we were able to find comfort and familiarity in one another, extending invitation and friendship across diverse cultures and generations. The joy, dancing, and connections to nature that we experienced were truly universal.
The magic of this expedition was truly centered on our ability to co-create an environment that set all of us up for success. All 40 of us. All of us had different needs, but also different skills we were able to extend to reach our common goal, even through generational and cultural differences. Just because we come from different backgrounds doesn’t automatically create a barrier. We just have to try.
... we had all carried each other up. We all felt the power of being a collective. In that moment, we realized just how necessary we were to each other.
Living above the clouds is better than I ever could have imagined as a kid. Above the clouds, there is music. There is dancing. There are fresh tropical fruits like pineapple, papaya, and mango. Even on the coldest of nights, you are able to stay warm both physically and emotionally. But the best kind of magic I found above the clouds was our ability to create shared experiences across generations, cultures to build families. These are bridges that connect us together and carry us to the summits.
Vanessa is a mountain athlete and environmental sociologist who focuses on the intersection of people and nature. As a Colombian immigrant and woman of color, Vanessa recognizes the systemic barriers that purposefully keep BIPOC out of outdoor spaces. Taking up space in the outdoor community feels revolutionary. Learn more by following @vanessa_chav