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‘One of the Things That Carried Us Up the Mountain Was the Sisterhood’: Sistahs to the Summit Makes History By Conquering Africa’s Tallest Mountain

High up in the clouds, a group of African-American women celebrated a history-making feat this fall. With air temperatures near or below zero degrees, “Sistahs to the Summit,” as the group calls themselves, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain. The idea of 14 Black women from all walks of life traveling from the United States to Tanzania was the brainchild of Erika Liles who decided to share her yearly “fitness adventure” with her friends.

“I just said, let’s just book it, I sent an email out to about 20 friends, about 18 people responded, and we landed with ultimately 14,” explained Erica Liles.

One of the women who joined Liles on the adventure was J’nelle Agee of Brooklyn, New York. “When I first signed up, I guess I didn’t know of the extreme challenge it was going to be, ‘We’re climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, this will be great,’” she said.

Agee was not the only one who excitedly signed up to hike the 19,341-foot mountain without fully knowing what all goes into a multiday hike. The group of women spent a few months over the spring and summer preparing for their mountain hike anyway they could. “Some people would be walking on the treadmill; they’d take pictures of themselves on the treadmill. The group that was in Martha’s Vineyard would take pictures of themselves on their hikes, so it really was we’re doing this together, we’re going to start training together, wherever we are,” Agee said.

“I feel like ignorance is bliss because I don’t know when we embarked on this journey or even when we were in Africa at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, that we really knew what we were in store for. We had done the research, but it’s one of those things, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, you really don’t understand what it requires, the fortitude, the perseverance, the grit, the effect on your body, until you’re in the moment,” said Liles.

Agee says the moment they got off the airplane in Tanzania, the women quickly realized they were in for an experience. The East African nation sits roughly 3,800 feet above sea level at the point where Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano, begins rising from the plain.

On Oct. 7 the women began their hike at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro where temperatures range between 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but the impact of limited oxygen, rugged terrain and chilly temperatures began to take their toll as they climbed the mountain.

“Some people were getting nauseous, some people were having headaches, some people were having loss of appetite, so being on the mountain, you start feeling the effects on day one,” Agee said.

“On Day Two, I lost my appetite so I wasn’t able to eat for much of the trip there, so every time we had breakfast or lunch, I wasn’t really able to keep any food down and you can’t really climb a mountain without food to give you energy,” Agee continued.

Agee says despite losing her appetite, the bond shared with the women kept her and others motivated to keep climbing.

“It was just the camaraderie of the group taking care of each other, ‘What do you need?’ ‘Do you need a Claritin?’ ‘Do you need some extra altitude medicine to get you up the mountain?’” Agee said of the support the group gave each other throughout the hike.

It took the group eight days to make it all the way to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. They spent roughly seven hours a day climbing about 2,400 feet per day until they reach the summit more than three miles above the ground.

“We had a campsite every night that we would sleep at, we had tents, we had three showers, we had two toilets, but the toilets were basically moveable port-a-potty, and the showers were basically port-a-potty with a bucket of water in them,” Agee said.

“The weather was changing as we were moving up the mountain so it got colder, so once we finished our hikes, it was really too cold to go take a shower and put on fresh clothes outside so what a lot of the women decided to do was get a bucket of water delivered to their tent and they would wash up in their tent instead of using the showers,” she continued of the conditions the women experienced during the hike.

Not all of the women made it up the mountain, as two members of the group could not complete the climb because of altitude sickness, where the oxygen levels get thinner at higher elevations compared to the earth’s surface.

On Oct. 13 the group of women reached the summit.

“Once we got to Stella Point, that’s when all of the tears came in our group because we knew we had pretty much made it and we just have a little bit more to go,” Liles said of the joyous moment. “We were very excited, taking lots of pictures, we had lunch, we did a TikTok to Beyoncé’s ‘Cuff It,’” Liles continued.

“One of the things that really carried us up the mountain, was really the sisterhood and the momentum of support of the other Black women on the climb,” Agee said.

The ‘Sistahs to the Summit’ are proud of their history-making accomplishment and the impact it’s already having on Black communities across the U.S. “A lot of mothers on the trip, a lot of daughters on the trip who were doing it for their parents and the legacies in their respective families,” Liles said.

Despite their ability to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro, most of the women say they’re done with mountain climbing, but they are not done making names for themselves. The group is continuing to grow; Liles says they are already planning an adventure to either Antarctica or gorilla tracking in Rwanda.

Since the Kilimanjaro trek, Liles says the group has also been approached about a possible book and movie produced based on their experience.

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