Kilimanjaro: But First, Soccer
Backpacker|July - August 2021
Our writer sought meditation on Africa’s tallest peak. What she found was something even more meaningful: fun.
STEPHANIE VERMILLION

It’s a circus up here at Third Cave, our campsite for night three on Mt. Kilimanjaro’s Rongai route. This frenzy wasn’t what I’d imagined; my group had dreamed up this makeshift soccer tournament here at 12,400 feet, the beginning of Kilimanjaro’s alpine desert zone, to ease nerves and foster relaxation ahead of our summit push. But relaxing is hardly an option when there’s a title on the line.

Breathing hard, I sprint across our improvised field, carefully skirting the sticks marking the sidelines. Cheers, whistles, and the piercing “goaaaal” call from our porter and impromptu sportscaster Kelvin Chambulila distract me from Uhuru Peak’s broad summit pyramid, looming 7,000 feet above in my periphery. I know I should feel intimidated—by the mountain, and by the shocked climbers spectating from neighboring campsites. But I’m keeping my eye on the prize: a miniature red-and-white soccer ball. I may be the only woman on the pitch, but I have two seasons of high school junior varsity soccer up my sleeve—and slide tackling was my specialty.

Phweeeet. Our referee (and, off the pitch, porter) blows his backpack’s emergency whistle as Kilimanjaro guide Paulo Joshua Martin and I tumble to the ground, him defending the open goal, me dead-set on scoring our team’s first point.

“Oh, come on!” I protest, to no avail.

“Foul!” The ref says with a grin as I wipe a sweaty sprinkle of dust from my brow. “Shemeji, it’s your penalty kick.”

Shemeji, Swahili for sister-inlaw, is my mountain nickname. My husband Frank and his brother Nate are similarly referred to as kaka, Swahili for brother, by the rest of our party.

If this trek had panned out as I’d originally envisioned, I would be doing some serious soul-searching right now, processing a metaphorical mountain of grief while summiting a literal one. But compared to our high-altitude soccer game, that now sounds incredibly dreary.

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