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On Mount Kilimanjaro, Colorado women embark on expedition with a powerful underlying purpose

The expedition, called Above the Clouds, brought together nine Black women to climb Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, while building community on the mountain.
Posted: 6:19 PM, Apr 09, 2024
Updated: 2024-05-28 14:17:18-04
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GOLDEN, Colo. — On a bleak day in January, heavy clouds engulfed the rocky summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, spitting a cold mix of rain and snow on anybody outside of a tent. It was quiet — except for the Rihanna song.

Huddled at the Lava Tower Camp, just above 15,000 feet on Africa's highest mountain, a group of women danced in a loose circle to stay warm, singing the mid-2000s hit in the frosty fog:

Said I'll always be your friend
Took an oath, I'ma stick it out to the end
Now that it's raining more than ever
Know that we'll still have each other
You can stand under my umbrella
You can stand under my umbrella

A few days later, in conditions that had barely improved, most of them — including three from Colorado — squeezed tightly together under a sign that read in bright yellow letters, "MOUNT KILIMANJARO. CONGRATULATIONS. YOU ARE NOW AT UHURU PEAK, TANZANIA."

They grinned at each other through the snowfall. And like every other step that had led them to that summit, the current conditions were overshadowed by the experience as a whole: A group of Black, or diaspora, women who had come together to build community on a mountain, and shatter a dishonest and antiquated but still prevalent narrative of who truly belongs in the outdoors.

"We were speaking about not being able to find spaces where we felt comfortable," Zivia Berkowitz of Colorado explained. "And then to come together and create that space for ourselves — (that) was really empowering."

On Mount Kilimanjaro, Colorado women embark on expedition with a powerful underlying purpose

In the planning stages, the expedition to Kilimanjaro, called Above the Clouds, snowballed to eventually draw in nine women, including Coloradans Berkowitz, Mma Ikwut-Ukwa and Lena Murray.

Mount Kilimanjaro rises 19,340 feet above sea level and sits nearly 200 miles from the ocean in far northeast Tanzania. A dormant volcanic mountain, Kilimanjaro is one of the seven summits, meaning it's the highest mountain on the continent of Africa.

Above the Clouds
The full Above the Clouds group poses for a photo.

The Above the Clouds group more or less connected through NOLS — a nonprofit global wilderness school that several members attended — but also casual conversations that led to commitment. Rosemary Saal, who had summited Mount Everest in 2022 as part of the Full Circle Everest expedition — the first all-Black climbing team to summit Mount Everest — had started to plan a new trip when she ran into Zivia in Alaska. While catching up, Saal mentioned the upcoming Kilimanjaro journey, which would follow the Lemosho Route over the course of seven days.

"And she's like, ‘Hey Zivia, I have this idea for this expedition. I don't know if you know anyone that would be interested. But I want to go to Kilimanjaro and I want to go with a group of women of color, women of the diaspora,'" Zivia recalled. "The ideas, I think, were still coming together. And so I immediately thought of Lena and Mma as people that have been my peers for a few years in the outdoor industry, in the space of outdoor education. And so I spread the word."

Shortly afterward, the trio signed on.

Above the Clouds partnered with Full Circle Everest, and the women began applying for grants and scholarships to help them cover the costs of travel and guides.

Lena Murray, Zivia Berkowitz and Mma Ikwut-Ukwa
Lena Murray, Zivia Berkowitz and Mma Ikwut-Ukwa are all from Colorado and were part of the Above the Clouds expedition.

"We've put a lot of intention into wanting to spend more time together, do expeditions together," Mma said. "So, I think that is maybe the underlying motivation for the climb — seeking out those expedition experiences with community that's important to us."

The expedition was publicly announced in the fall of 2023, when its members were already well into their preparation efforts, which included summiting a few of Colorado's 14,000-foot-plus peaks, dance classes, sweating on the stairmaster and other cardio workouts, plus the intricate planning required before the January trek.

"And I think that was something that maybe we underestimated in the early stages — just the logistics of getting nine people to another country at the same time with all the visas and payments and guiding and everything that we needed," Mma said.

But the ball was rolling. And excitement grew as January neared.

Their younger selves might not have believed the sight of them standing on one of the world's tallest mountains.

It was a picture that movies, books and media did not depict at the time, purporting a message that Black people did not belong in the outdoor space. That feeling is still echoed now — a 2021 study from the Outdoor Foundation reported that of a survey of people who reported participating in at least one outdoor activity in 2020, just 9% were Black.


From the rolling, grassy hills of suburban New Jersey, a young Zivia fantasized about big mountains and the adventures to be had there. Her family visited Colorado a time or two and respected nature, but didn't recreate often, she said.

"And I think those little moments when I was younger instilled in me this curiosity and idea for the outdoors," Zivia said. "And then I got into rock climbing, and then that just became like a mode for me to spend more time outside and get more curious about seeing more places."

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Zivia Berkowitz at the bottom of Mount Kilimanjaro.

She sometimes struggled to see herself in those spaces, especially without a community to lean on. But through the discomfort or awkwardness, she continued to show up.

"And I definitely had moments where I was like, 'I don't know if these spaces and communities are for me. I don't know if, socially, this is making sense, or if I'm fitting in in these spaces,'" she said. "I just continued to show up and search for people — people I've met like Lena and Mma to confirm and affirm that these spaces are spaces that I can show up and also bring like my whole self to."

Mma said she carved out a space for her love for the outdoors — as well as leadership — after volunteering for an outdoor pre-orientation backpacking program in college.

Mma_Courtesy Rachel Pike.jpg

"I think a lot of the barriers that I faced early on were cultural or barriers to knowledge," she explained. "My family didn't go hiking or skiing. And those also weren't really things that they wanted me to do. And I think there were things that I didn't really have a picture of. I couldn't picture what it meant to go backpacking or to go rock climbing."

Conversations about gear were even more puzzling, she remembered.

"I just had no idea what they were talking about," Mma said. "I think that took a lot of persistence of just not knowing what was going on and trying to ask questions and figure things out. It was hard even just to know how to pursue activities, how to try them out."

For Lena, growing up in Denver did not come with the guarantee of a plethora of outdoor time. She recalled thinking of it "like a fantasy."

"So, I think there was always sort of this yearning from a young age and wanting to spend more time outdoors," she said.

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Lena Murray does a handstand on day four of the trek to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in January 2024.

Lena pursued sports through Denver Parks and Recreation, which didn't come with the hefty price tag of other activities, like skiing.

When she was older, she started to dig deeper into the outdoor space. Still, when she signed up for an outdoor education course, she didn't see anybody else who looked like her in the room.

"A lot of the other students had already had previous backpacking experience. I did not," she said. "Everything was super foreign. And I definitely felt like a bit of an outsider trying to gain access to this sort of picture in my head of what being an outdoorsy person is."

Lena's career brought her to NOLS, where she still felt uneasy initially. But then she met Mma, Zivia and other trailblazing women.

"I think when I started meeting more people who looked like me, that's for sure when it was like, OK, I do belong here," she said.

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From left, Zivia Berkowitz, Mma Ikwut-Ukwa and Lena Murray — all of Colorado — reach the summit of Mount Yale in Colorado as part of their preparation for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in January 2024.

January typically marks the end of Tanzania's rainy season, but Mother Nature keeps no promises when it comes to weather.

After a 30-hour travel day, the women of the Above the Clouds expedition touched down late in the evening on Jan. 2.

And on day one of the journey — and each of the following days on the mountain — it rained. In sync, as the elevation climbed, the temperature dropped.

Expedition day 1_Lena at Lemosho Gate through rainforest zone to first camp 3.jpg
Lena Murray at Lemosho Gate on Mount Kilimanjaro.

Mma, now a field instructor for NOLS, explained simply: "Sometimes you're cold and wet and uncomfortable, and you have to still do your job." While the rain added an extra level of discomfort to an already challenging endeavor, all of the women jumped at the opportunity to make the best of it.

"And I think a lot of that is... like mental training and also showing up for each other and keeping the morale high," Zivia said. "I think it makes a really big difference in those moments where you're uncomfortable and cold and tired."

Their attention turned elsewhere — to each other and to the mountain and ecosystems they were moving through. Their guides led them through lush rainforests filled with monkeys that gave way to the alpine desert, where there seemed to be hardly any life.

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The women in the Above the Clouds expedition walk from Barranco Camp to Karanga Camp on Mount Kilimanjaro.

"It was a very, I'd say, masculine space," Zivia said. "I didn't see any other groups that were exclusively women. I didn't see any groups that were exclusively people of color... And so, we definitely stuck out as a group. And I think there were moments where we felt celebrated and then moments where we felt really, like, looked at and uncomfortable. And so I think we — at those moments — centered ourselves as a group, and were like, we're here for each other and we're here for ourselves."

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The Above the Clouds expedition pauses for a photo at the Mti Mkubwa campsite on Mount Kilimanjaro.

As the elevation ticked up, they began to feel the effects, which came in the form of altitude sickness, slow steps, poor sleep, brain fog, headaches and little to no appetite. They leaned heavily on each other.

Between 17,000 and 18,000 feet, some members struggling with altitude sickness made the difficult decision to turn around. The others pushed on.

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The group stopped at Barafu Camp as their last place to sleep before reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. The camp sits at about 15,300 feet.

And then, early on the morning of Jan. 10, a few days after the Rihanna sing-along dance party in the rain, they reached the summit.

"Something I reflected on that expedition is that the summit was just one moment," Zivia said. "And it was such a slog and a push to get up there. "The last couple 100 feet that we were gaining, I was like, 'Oh my God, is this still happening?' And it was definitely because you're so high up — my brain was pretty foggy up there... And it was this moment of — I traveled across the world. I've been walking for five days, all for this moment."

They snapped a few photos before the snow, wind and cold drove them back down to retrace their steps back to the trail's start.

Above the Clouds women reach summit of Mount Kilimanjaro
The Above the Clouds expedition reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro early in the morning on Jan. 10, 2024.

The women covered the entire descent in two days.

"And that was just super hard for my body," Lena remembered. "I remember finally getting to the gate and just being very relieved."

The women of the Above the Clouds expedition spent a few days off the mountain before flying back home, their bags packed with gear and hearts full of new memories.

More than three months have passed since the climb. In many regards, the accomplishment is still soaking in, but the trio said they all feel proud and a renewed sense of belonging.

Even while still on the mountain, even with utterly tired legs, they were craning their necks to see what's down the line for the next adventure.

Reaching 15K feet_Above the Clouds Kilimanjaro trek

"Besides our personal or climbing goals of our group, something that we've been dreaming about is the legacy of this trip of Above the Clouds, and continuing having some kind of yearly, maybe Full Circle expedition for women of the diaspora," Mma said. "I think maybe that's our biggest dream right now."

Kilimanjaro's summit, in many ways, was just the start.

"I just also feel really energized for future expeditions, and really inspired to do more things like this, with more women of color," Lena said, adding she feels more confident in her ability to do difficult things. "It was just like a very beautiful experience all around."

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Lena Murray, Zivia Berkowitz and Mma Ikwut-Ukwa take shelter while hiking Mount Kilimanjaro.

There is a mounting sense of momentum, Mma explained.

"I think knowing that we could set such a big goal and then feeling that we did it — it's just like the dreams are growing," she said.

"We have this shared dream and vision," Zivia added. "And then we really came together and made it happen. I'm just excited. Now I'm like, OK, so many things are possible. What's next?"

On Mount Kilimanjaro, Colorado women embark on expedition with a powerful underlying purpose

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