By all appearances, Laura Lee, senior social work major, is a normal college student. Blonde and blue-eyed, she can often be found nestled in a chair at Barefoots Joe, cradling a mug of piping hot coffee and tapping her Chaco-clad foot against the floor as she furiously types on her laptop.
Like any other student, she returned ready for a new semester, full of stories to share with friends. Unlike most students, however, her summer stories include tales of a three-week trip to Kenya and Tanzania that climaxed in summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro.
“I’m single, I’m graduating college soon,” Lee said. “…If I want to experience the world, now is the time. I want to seize the moment while I’m young.”
She left for Nairobi, Kenya, on July 7. From there, she traveled four hours by bus to Moshi National Park in Tanzania and embarked on a seven day, 37- mile trek to the tallest peak in Africa. Five other American hikers and 24 members of a Tanzanian expedition company, Hidden Valley Safaris, were included in the group.
Because she prepared for the physical strain of the hike by running both a half marathon and a full marathon, Lee was “caught off guard by how easy most of the trail was.”
Lee also said she did not anticipate the beauty and the variety of the terrain. The trek began in a rainforest, wound through rocky and barren miles that “looked like Mars” and ended on an icy, frozen summit that was home to “a huge, gorgeous, snow-capped glacier.”
The team spent six days hiking to base camp and departed at midnight on the seventh day for the summit. Though the summit is beautiful, it is a strenuous 5.6 mile final hike due to the altitude and cold. According to Lee, many teams hike at night because more people successfully summit when they can’t see how difficult and long the trail is.
The elevation at the top is 5,895 meters and the temperature can be as cold as -8 degrees Fahrenheit. Most of the team was wheezing for the final hour, and the wind chill was so frigid that Lee did not even want to take her hands out of her pockets for pictures, Lee said. Her guide took pictures for her. But despite the below freezing weather and lack of oxygen, Lee said she has positive memories of the summit hike.
“You just see this trail of headlamps bobbing up the mountain and it’s beautiful,” Lee said. “… I was nervous that I wouldn’t summit, but I got to a point where I was also full of hope.”
After six hours of hiking, Lee’s hopes were realized as she and her team reached the top and watched the sun rise over the snow-capped peak.
“It’s glorious to stand at the summit and enjoy the moment you worked so hard for,” Lee said. “… It made me want to explore even more. One thing I learned from this trip is just to see the people God puts in front of you. I learned to see him through the inconveniences and not to be self-consumed. I truly experienced him through his creation.”
After descending the mountain, Lee spent days relaxing on the beaches of Zanzibar before returning home to Texas.
This was not her first experience abroad. Lee, a self-confessed travel addict, has explored nine countries so far in her 20 years. She spent last summer in Peru hiking to Machu Picchu and has also been to India, France, Cambodia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, England and Taiwan.
“I love getting to meet people different from myself and learn from them, and in doing so see myself more clearly,” Lee said. “I don’t buy a lot of clothes or have a lot of things, but I’ve experienced a lot of the world and, to me, that’s valuable.”