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Mount Kilimanjaro, One Working Mom’s 5-Star Vacay

It takes 3 guides and 20 porters who double as a chef, a waiter and a toilet man to get 5 women up 1 big mountain.

I have heard about the porters who work the world’s famed trekking routes. However, in all honesty, their stories never quite hit home until I met one—or in my case 20.

That is how it is on Mount Kilimanjaro.

For a self-supporting, self-rescuing mama who has introduced newbies and children to the backcountry for 20-something years, climbing Kili was going to require a bit of a perspective shift and a major power give-away.

A transition that, ultimately, took all of 5 minutes when Waiter Hasan delivered a bowl of warm washing water to my tent, and Chef Good Luck baked our group a cake at 12,000 feet. They all had me at “Jambo.”

Yes, I fought through altitude headaches and nausea as I pushed on to the 19,341 feet prize. But the real treat? For 7 whole days, this working mom was not responsible for the emotional needs of another single human being—except for myself. I didn’t have to cook. Shop. Clean a dish. Scrub a toilet. Or execute a single logistic. Heaven.

Waiter Hasan woke me up with coffee in bed—er, coffee in sleeping bag.

Lead Guide Big Emanuel told me what to wear, where I was going, and what to pack.

Chef Good Luck fed me a two-course breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Porter Nicola set up and took down my tent.

Assistant Guide Thadie taught me Swahili to pass the time.

The best part was that each trekking day ceremoniously started with these strong, fearless men gathering around for the foot-stomping, hand-clapping Kilimanjaro Song that wished us a safe journey to the top and praised our god-like beauty. (I’m not making this up.) The porters came alive when they sang, and our group gleefully accepted every Swahili note of praise.

As the food was served—apparently, no one told the outfitter that we were a group of middle-aged women who did not eat like 18-year-old boys—I tallied the bounty that had traveled on backs, necks and heads in 40 pound parcels up 1,000-foot cliff walls and above 15,000 feet. You can pick out the chefs along the way as they are the only ones entrusted with the delicate task of getting the 8 dozen eggs safely to the next camp. As Big Emmanuel explained, “On Kilimanjaro, when you see eggs on top of someone’s pack, he is a chef.”

By my best account, the chef’s packing list looked something like this: Lettuce, tomatoes, avocados, pineapple, watermelon, pumpkin, zucchini, cucumbers, carrots, peppers, green beans, mangos, oranges, chicken, beef, fish, beans, cauliflower, corn, potatoes, bananas, butter spread, flour, bread, noodles, sausages, rice, cabbage, millet, oats, chocolate bars, peanuts, popcorn, mushrooms, 5 gallons of cooking oil and mango juice boxes.

These weren’t canned items either. On multiple occasions, freshly baked banana and zucchini bread were served. I won’t even go into the drink mixes and condiments, but chili sauce accompanied every meal.

Now, I confess that occasionally I have packed in a rogue cucumber and twice summited with a few peaches, but never did I think of climbing with a watermelon.

Is this all this big, bulky, fresh food a bit excessive? What I will say is that a quick demographic profile my arrival plane says that guiding Kili treks is a competitive business. Logistically, the 3,000-calorie daily burn combined with the dehydrating, muscle-wasting effects of high altitude also makes you grateful for fibrous, high-water content food that actually fuels your body. Those who do make it to the top, make it because they have the endurance to do so. Despite the bounty, I still left Kili with pants that grew one size too big.

What we the clients did not eat, the porters did. In one of the world’s poorest countries? This might be more precious than Tanzanite.

As I neared the summit dressed to the Patagonia/Gortex nines complete with a smashing pair of ski goggles, I was surpassed by Porter Thinking-About-Training-To-Be-A-Guide Little Emanuel. Little Emanuel—who must be brother to Bruno Mars—was wearing an understated tee-shirt topped with an unzipped hoodie, a pair of running shoes and a kid-in-the-candy-store grin because he too was about to make his first summit.

On the way down, and I mean at 18,885 feet, our group was greeted by Porter Michael and Chef Good Luck who bore a plastic grocery bag slung over his shoulder full of more mango juice boxes.

Back at camp, it was a hero’s welcome. The porters were waiting outside the tents, celebrating with fist bumps and helping to brush off the fine volcanic silicate we had skied down.

The Women’s Group had become a bit of a mountain sensation. Word had spread among the porters and guides that a bunch of married mothers had left their husbands and kids to summit. We saw no such other group as we climbed. Big Emanuel (Sick Emanuel got sent home with an eye infection despite our eye drops) has guided over 100 groups on Kili. He’s guided a 13-year-old kid, an 80’some year-old man, and multi-generational families. We were his first All Women’s Group, and he appeared to delight in his insider view of un-guarded women’s chatter. 

Getting clients to the top is a matter of personal pride as well as a path to financial sustainability for those who work the mountain. These men—although I did see one female porter whom we raucously cheered and heard that there are now a handful of female guides— believe in their mountain and see current clients as ambassadors to more clients. Getting the Women’s Group to the top was something a little more, well—special (and maybe brought a few bragging rights). We loved them for loving us.

I had come to Kilimanjaro to surround myself with women and found myself outnumbered by men 4.6 to 1. Sweet, caring, daring men who leave their wives and babies to work the mountain cooking, cleaning, serving and carrying for foreign clients. For 7 days, I was protected, guided and nurtured with every need well-anticipated and carefully planned and executed.

What more could a woman ask for? To top it off, I get to say that I’ve climbed the world’s tallest freestanding mountain and have an official certificate to prove it. How cool is that? That’s pretty “powa.”

Photo Credit by Lisa Boden

#PiqueTravel #LeopardTours #AdventureMama #WorkingMom #Kilimanjaro

An Essential Tool for the Adventure Mom

One of the Brilliant! Traveling Moms that is trekking with me to top of Kilimanjaro (a women's trip sans kids or significant others) created and shared this Adventure Parent Organizer.PPT at one of our planning meetings.

There is a slide for each day of the trip. The top of the slide highlights where and what Mom is doing (and can include key details like flight and emergency contact information) with the bottom listing out the family's daily schedule back home. For example: On Tuesday Day 9, Mom will be climbing to the summit, while Johnny has baseball practice and Susie has tennis.

It's a great tool that keeps the family connected and organized and is a perfect visual resource for the added caregivers who are brought on to help pick up the parental slack. Download and customize for your next adventure. What will Moms think of next?

Why I said yes to taking $6k out of savings and 9 days off of work to leave my family and climb up a big, tall mountain

There was no way that I could spend six thousand dollars on myself, abandon my family and jet off to Africa to trek up Mount Kilimanjaro. Who does that? Absolutely not. I mean, my husband Kelly and I work very hard and have some disposable cash, but everything extra goes into two college savings accounts that we pretend will somehow prevent our sons from amassing unfathomable debt even before they have any bankable degrees in hand. Plus, I just started my own business. And, if we were going to free up that kind of time and money, shouldn’t we take a trip as a family? Those go mostly well, right?

Well, ‘absolutely not’ is more of a temporary state for me. As just about anybody from teachers to co-works can attest, the question “Why Not?” has a much higher usage rate in my lexicon than the declarative statement “Absolutely Not.”

I love calculated risks, and have always fought against knee-jerk, fear-based decisions. My philosophy is that even watching a bad movie allows for the good experience of finding joy in absurdity. Except for Disney princess movies, which have absolutely no experiential value. Especially, Frozen. But in general, I believe that all experiences have value, and if you work from good intensions and gather good people around you, life will work out in the end.

Even that one time, when I intended to gracefully hop my bike over a small lip that led into a driveway. The problem was that I was also turning, over wet pavement, traveling at 27 miles per hour, on skinny tires. A gross miscalculation and assumption of risk. Online, Garmin had visually graphed exactly when I hit pavement with a vertex dot marking the intersection of when my speed dropped to zero and my heart rate jumped to 180. My husband’s soothing words were, “That’s the thing about biking, you learn quickly from your mistakes.”

Suddenly, when life stopped being full of possibilities worth calculated risks, I was devastated. Looking back, I had struggled for a while, but when the crash came, it was hard and quick. I had no more time for fun, there was work to be done! Before I opened my eyes in the morning a list of chores, emails, errands, work and workout demands flooded my brain. I had color-coded checklists everywhere for everything: work, kids, groceries. Crossing things off had once been empowering, but now I was putting things that I had already done on the lists just to cross them off. Huh? The sheer number of daily decisions that had to be made was overwhelming, and I felt a door crack open to fear.

The need for more runs, ski days, and bike rides grew, but their post-bliss, brain-quieting benefits began to dim and didn’t last as long. Yoga, with its demands of a singular presence, was unbearable. Another glass of wine sounded better. My kids started calling me a funwrecker, and deep down, I knew I was driving my husband nuts as my confidence eroded. I’d make decisions, and then undo them, sure that I had miscalculated. The family was on a non-stop roller coaster, and I had become demanding. Anger had been seeded. What on earth was wrong with me? Everyone else seems to find joy inside The Working Mommy Wife Life, right?

On a friend’s urging, I agreed to drive 40-minutes across town to an East St. Paul suburban strip mall with a Run-Of-the-Mill Chain Massage Day Spa. I had booked an hour and a half massage/energy session using a $20 Refer-A-Friend coupon with, oh let’s just call him Kevin, “Who is A-mazing!”

Why not? I wanted to let go, but was in no mood to “talk it out” at nausea for six months with any kind of psychologist. Where or when exactly was I to start? If Kevin could just unblock a chakra or two, maybe I’d make it back home smiling while I finished off those work emails, cleaned up the kitchen, paid a few bills and worked out before the kids got home from school. Wouldn’t it be great if the dog had learned how to walk himself by the time I got back?

Back in “Aruba,” one of the 10 dimly lit massage rooms, Kevin and I introduced ourselves. He left. I undressed and slid under the top sheet of the warmed massage table waiting to be amazed. After a polite, warning knock, Kevin entered the room snapping his fingers around his head and breathing fiercely out of his mouth, “Just relax and notice what you feel. I’ll ask you about it later.” Keven’s hands began to hover over my body. He touched my right leg. Then the left. I feel you touching my legs, I thought. “Such darkness,” he said. That’s probably because it is dark in here.

I still felt nothing, but was thinking of a falafel (the kind with pickled beets), when I ran smack into my dead mother. Kevin sat back and pulled his hands into his lap, “What happened to your mother?”

“Um, she died,” I said.

“Yes. During your time of marriage and children, you lost your female mentor, your connection, and you never replaced her. You are lost, doubt yourself and have little female support. You think you can do this alone, but you cannot. So, you think life is unfair.” And just like that, I my mind focused and cleared: I wasn’t broken, and Kevin is amazing.

Remember the bike crash? Well, my physician referred me to, let’s call him “Paul,” a physical therapist/Reiki practitioner to recover from a separated shoulder, a concussion and a little bit of PTSD.

“Would you like me to do some energy work on you?” Paul said.
“Why not?” I said.
After two minutes of hand hovering, Paul asks, “Who is LIE-zza?”
“Liza?” I said. “Um, my mother. She died. Liza is short for Elizabeth.”
“Yes,” he said. “I can see that her death is still hard for you.”

Whoa, I mean, I never think of my mother. Ok, rarely do I think of her. And the only two times, with 6 years in between, that I’ve gone to any kind of energy/Reiki person, my mother comes up? She died, like what? Two decades of marriage, two kids, a cross-country move, a Master’s Degree, five jobs, and a dog ago?

This time, Kevin was not as polite as Paul who gently left me with his acknowledged sympathy. Kevin broke me open and released the full realization of my mother’s absence and my compartmentalized grief. A haze cleared, and I began to feel the void of every encouraging word that she never spoke, every slightly contradictory piece of wisdom that she never said, and every memory of how she raised a smart, mouthy daughter that was never passed down. Life could be hard and unfair, and it was even harder without a mother to help guide the way.

I drove home and cried for two days, speaking to no one as I bobbed in the lost sea of my mother while my husband tried to hug me back to life. The knowledge that I was grieving, not broken, had cracked open the door once again. This time fear slowly made an exit taking frustration and anger along with it.

I was 24 when my mother got sick and had not yet taken full ownership of my adulthood. Liza was still considered young, and she was definitely loved. The “real” adults around me were in such shock and outwardly suffering that I ran toward gratitude to save myself. I vowed to never taint her memory by suffering from her loss of life. Instead, I would honor her love by holding the precious gift that she was sacred in my heart. I would focus on what she was, not on what she wasn’t. I didn’t want to be sad when I thought of her, or even worse, for people to be sad when they thought of me.

I was numb to her loss and the effect her absence played out in my daily life as I matured into a woman who was trying to pave out a career, a marriage and raise two big-hearted, sensitive sons. “Women need women,” Kevin had said. “You can’t do this alone.”

Wait a minute: Didn’t a savvy travel agent recently invite me on a women’s trek up to the top of Africa? She was putting this trip together because her mind was starting to spin from nurturing three business and a family. She too needed a break from the multitasking, and Africa was her quiet place.

“At the core of Africa’s richness is a simplicity that strips your senses raw and forces your mind to quiet. I want to dig deep and challenge me for myself, up to the top of Kilimanjaro.” She had said. “That is why I’m putting this trip together for women. Do you want to come?”

I had made the decision to trek up Kilimanjaro while I was still lying on Kevin’s table, but I needed to check in with Kelly. I gave us a few days to regroup, and then in true Working Mom fashion, I offered up a matrix of financials, a list of pros and cons, and a plan to pay the money back into savings.

“What do you think?” I asked wrapping up my presentation. “Should I go? Or am I crazy?” Kelly looked at me and said, “Babe, this one is on you.” Now, he had listened and talked through the pros and cons with me. We prioritized the biggest risks and how to minimize them. We came up with a plan to save more for the kids’ colleges, but Kelly never said, “Yes, you should go,” or “Absolutely not, we can’t afford it.” Nor did he say, “Yes, you can go, but then I get to go heli-skiing with the guys next year.”

Kelly’s a smart guy, and ultimately, he gave me what I needed most: A chance to own and execute a decision that I made for me. Now, I just need to tell my Dad.

A Thankful Break From The Working Mommy/Wife Life


Thanksgiving was coming, and I was burnt out. The last year of The Working Mommy/Wife Life had included a few extra challenges—a move, starting my own business, some medical issues. We were on the uptick, but my emotional reserves were depleted, leaving me in overdrive. I knew I was in trouble when during a 30-minute workout, I had checked email twice and sent four texts: Uh oh. I was scattered, and the impending holiday stewed inside my chest.

My adventuresome self did not want to drive for 4 hours. The maker in me had no desire to plan, shop, cook or clean up a turkey dinner for 14. My usually outgoing and social self was too full to navigate any more opinions or needs. Thanksgiving was making me claustrophobic. Then it hit me: This Working Mom was going to tap out. The internal simmering subsided. A wave of warm calm settled through me, and I breathed deeper. Brilliant!

For my husband’s family, saying 'no, thank you' was fairly painless. Thanksgiving for them is mostly about hunting. Everyone gathers for the big feast, and then the men depart post-tryptophan nap to the family's hunting camp. This year, both my sons were old enough to go, which meant that I didn’t really need to be there. What I needed was to be there for me. To stretch my thoughts and recoup. So I could be there for my family when they returned.

As I helped pack everyone up at 6:30 the morning of Thanksgiving, my kids were a little concerned. My 12-year old saw through me, he always does, but he half understood and his excitement for hunting camp carried him the rest of the way. My 10-year old wanted his Mom. I hugged him and told him to have a great time with his dad, uncles and grandpa. I’d be right here waiting for him when he got back. My husband was a little sad, but let’s face it, I do most of the emotional caregiving in our family, and this created a wonderful space for him to role model this skill for our growing boys. Plus, it was only three days.

I admit that watching them walk out the front door and hearing the car pull away made me doubt my decision to stay behind. Maybe I could have bucked up and gone? I turned from the door and called the dog back to bed.

When people asked me about my Thanksgiving plans, I got mixed reviews. Most women I told, from grocery store strangers to best friends, were half jealous and part amazed. They wanted to know how I pulled this off. They immediately got that women are most often the family’s emotional pillars. As Moms and Wives, we are there for our families every day. Even when I travel for work, I move things along back at home with long-distance texts. I check in with phone calls. I make sure things are well-supplied and coordinated before I leave. It’s near impossible not to lose yourself in the endless demands of The Working Mommy/Wife Life. A half-empty glass can easily come into view, along with the idea that the only way to fill it—is to do more.

Other people I told, even a few that I’m not that close with, warmly and lovingly extended invitations for me to join their families for Thanksgiving dinner. They didn’t want me to be orphaned and alone. I was grateful and thanked them, but I wasn’t going to be alone. I'd have me, and I wasn’t going to exchange my family for another.

One friend asked if she could fly in to come see me: We could have a Girl’s Stay-cation? Saying ‘no’ was easier than I thought. Another time, this weekend's for me.

There were also a few blank stares. I watched faces squint in forced comprehension. You would choose to be away from your family over a holiday? What will you tell your kids? I know I sometimes don’t fit into the traditional mold of how or what a woman/mother should be, but I’m pretty sure this image wasn’t created by a woman in the first place. It is hard to pay it no mind.

My husband occasionally asked if I was still planning on staying home. I’m a lucky girl: He wants to be with me.

When the dog and I awoke from our morning nap, we sat down to a no-bake breakfast of plain yoghurt. Next, I got to creating my Year-End Checklist. (Yes, a Checklist. This wasn't about some Take-Back-Your-20s Vegas Vacation.) Kid stuff, work stuff, house stuff, holiday stuff. Blah, blah, blah. Mundane. Long. A list that reached deep into all the parts that together made me.

The point wasn’t to get it all done, but to get organized, to declutter, be thoughtful. I also like a clean bathroom, so I checked this one off first. But this wasn’t the cleaning of a Simmering, Working Mom who is half upset that she's the only one who realizes that the bathroom is dirty and whose hyper-intent on getting SOMETHING done. It was the cleaning of a self-absorbed, college student. With the music turned on. Taking my time. Humming along the way. I liked this person. She was patient. Smart. Forgiving. Strong. Funny. As I cleaned, I thought about all the love I had given to this world and was happy to give a little bit to myself.

The rest of Thanksgiving Day oscillated between intentionally picking through the list and walking with the dog. I also did some naked, sauna yoga which is really only appropriate when you are absolutely positive that you have uninterrupted alone time. There was no time crunch. No pressure to get things done. When I finally seated myself in front of the fireplace at 9pm for my dinner of raw nuts and dark chocolate, I gave thanks, not just for what I have, but especially for who I am.