Up for the Challenge: Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for a Cause

One family’s charity challenge takes them to the top of the world’s tallest freestanding mountain

Some 30,000 climbers attempt to summit Mount Kilimanjaro per year. © 2020 Getty Images

Some 30,000 climbers attempt to summit Mount Kilimanjaro per year. © 2020 Getty Images

At 18,885 feet of elevation, Mount Kilimanjaro’s barren, lunar-like landscape had transformed into a sea of blue-white glaciers. My father, my 19-year-old brother Dash and I — along with three porters and two guides — had just climbed over a ridge and arrived at Stella Point. It was nearly 1:30 p.m.; we had been walking since 5 a.m. My nose was sunburned, my legs felt like jelly, and my breathing was as ragged and laborious as if I was attempting to suck oxygen through a wet towel.

And yet we still had 45 minutes of climbing to go before we reached Uhuru Peak, the mountain’s summit, at 19,341 feet.

In Tanzania, the local Chaga people have a special name for this remarkable mountain. They call it “Kilima-Ngiaro,” which translates to “the journey that has no ending,” a fact I learned weeks earlier while obsessively poring over the 58-page predeparture manual offered by our tour operator, Tusker Trail.

And now, standing (and panting) in front of an irritatingly cheerful sign that read “Congratulations! You are Now at Stella Point,” and coming to terms with the idea that I needed to make my legs work for at least another hour, I thought I understood exactly what the locals meant.

Although we had only spent a week on the mountain’s scenic Lemosho route so far, our plan to summit Kilimanjaro (also known as “the roof of Africa”) had formed more than a year ago. My father and Travel Weekly’s Editor-in-Chief, Arnie Weissmann, has spent the better part of two decades crisscrossing the globe in his role at the magazine, and summiting “Kili” (as it’s fondly referred to by climbers) had always been a dream of his.

He invited Dash and me along, and our preparations began. Although simply making it to the top of the world’s highest freestanding mountain is a feat in its own right, my family had several discussions about how to add an additional layer of purpose to this adventure.

The writer (left) and her brother on day three of the eight-day climb. © 2020 Arnie Weissmann

The writer (left) and her brother on day three of the eight-day climb. © 2020 Arnie Weissmann

Because Arnie and I both work in the travel industry, it seemed fitting to give back to a community that has done so much for us.

Arnie sits on the board of Tourism Cares, a travel industry nonprofit, and he often praises the organization’s work in promoting responsible tourism and making long-lasting investments into the destinations it serves.

Thus, the #KiliCares pledge drive was born. Through outreach to our own personal networks — and additional marketing help from Northstar Travel Group (the parent company of TravelAge West and Travel Weekly) and Tourism Cares — Arnie and I hoped to encourage our industry peers to invest in us and, in turn, contribute to a great cause. (Note: 100% of the funds raised from our climb went to Tourism Cares. Climb Sponsor Kenya Airways provided roundtrip flights from New York to Kilimanjaro, and Tusker Trail provided a 50% discount. All other costs associated with the climb were absorbed by my family.)

My personal goal? To raise at least $10,000 by the time we made it down the mountain.


Tusker Trail porters pause to rest on summit day. © 2020 Emma Weissmann

Tusker Trail provides clients with walk-in tents. © 2020 Emma Weissmann

Tusker Trail porters pause to rest on summit day. © 2020 Emma Weissmann

Tusker Trail provides clients with walk-in tents. © 2020 Emma Weissmann

What Gives?

A good chunk of the approximately 30,000 people who attempt to summit Kilimanjaro each year do so for charity. And this type of peer-to-peer fundraising — when supporters of a nonprofit participate in an activity and reach out to their personal networks for donations — has been a strong revenue stream for philanthropic organizations across the world.

Take the impact of the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association’s Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised more than $115 million in donations over an eight-week period in 2014 to fund research for the neurodegenerative disease, or the long-lasting popularity of the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, which has been organizing walking events for 35 years.

And our Kilimanjaro tour operator, Tusker Trail, was a pioneer in this space. Since its first fundraising climb in 2001 — which raised funds for the Make-A-Wish Foundation — its climbers have raised more than $13 million across 77 charitable organizations.

Whether it’s climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, participating in a charity walk or dumping a bucket of ice over your friend’s head, what makes these activities so successful in sparking charitable giving?

Caliopy Glaros, founder and principal consultant of Philanthropy Without Borders, believes it comes down to simple human connection: “People give to people, and they want to give to those they know, like and trust.”

“You always start with people you know,” said Glaros, who works as a consultant to nonprofits, travel advisors and tour operators who coordinate trips that include philanthropic or social-impact work. “The thing about a charity challenge is that your networks — your friends and family — are going to want to give to the organization, but they’re giving money because they want to support you in your endeavor.”

Using travel as a force for good is nothing new. The industry has long buzzed about sustainable travel, destination preservation and voluntourism. However, charity challenges are a relatively untapped niche.

U.K.-based B2C tour operator Choose a Challenge is one of the few companies that specializes in these types of trips. It caters mainly to student groups and offers a variety of itineraries, from hiking Peru’s Machu Picchu to running a marathon in Budapest, Hungary. Clients can either donate to one of the company’s charity partners or choose one of their own.

CEO Simon Varley says that although charity challenges are popular in the U.K., he hasn’t seen the same interest with consumers in the U.S. since opening a New York City office four years ago.

“There’s a lot of negativity around transactional fundraising in the U.S., and it’s somewhat hard to explain the benefits of taking on a charity challenge and raising money,” he said. “People immediately come in with a preconception that, because it’s for someone else’s holiday, it’s a type of fundraising they don’t want to be involved in.”

Despite this, it’s a trend that Varley thinks can catch on as people begin to search for new ways to contribute to charities.

“We had more average donors per Choose a Challenge fundraiser in 2019 than we saw in 2017, and I believe this is partially due to the legitimization of our events in our communities,” he wrote in a LinkedIn blog post titled “The Role of Charity Challenge Events in 2020.” “This acceptance of our programming is something I only expect to grow moving into 2020 as more people are willing to put themselves out of their comfort zones to engage in active philanthropy.”

There is a major opportunity for this type of specialization in the retail space, as well. Elevate Destinations, which began as a donor-based travel company in 2005, added a charity challenges department after receiving multiple requests from repeat clients who were looking to add an extra layer of meaning to their vacations.

“A lot of our clients were already going on deep dives into their issue areas, but they’ve also found that rallying around these really intensive endeavors helps build camaraderie,” said Katherine Redington, vice president of social impact journeys and business development for Elevate. “We all want portals and connections into the missions we are supporting. You are basically going through a physical transformation with an end in sight, and there are times you need to lean on other people, and times people need to lean on you. In many ways, it parallels whatever cause you’re likely fundraising for. When you feel like giving up, you realize that what you are doing is bigger than your weaknesses.”


“When you feel like giving up, you realize that what you are doing is bigger than your weaknesses.”

Katherine Redington

Kilimanjaro porters climb with up to 44 pounds of gear. © 2020 Emma Weissmann

Kilimanjaro porters climb with up to 44 pounds of gear. © 2020 Emma Weissmann

The writer (center) with her family at the mountain’s summit © 2020 Emma Weissmann

The writer (center) with her family at the mountain’s summit © 2020 Emma Weissmann

The Uphill Battle

Both my family and I had our fair share of trying moments on the mountain, where we often looked to the support of others — our Tusker Trail guides, Eliakim Mshanga and Pastori Minja, for example — to make it through an especially difficult portion of the trip.

My lowest moment was at Stella Point, where the battle against physical exhaustion and mental fatigue gave way to tears. Dash’s came the night before, when a stomach bug (and likely the effects of a mild case of acute mountain sickness) made him sick to his stomach and doubled over in pain. And Arnie’s moment was at the infamous Barranco Wall, a demanding and unavoidable portion of the trek that had us scaling 800 feet of rockface using narrow, sometimes inconveniently located handholds and footholds.

At each of these junctures, Mshanga and Minja stepped in. They provided me with words of encouragement (as the sole woman in a group of 21 men, I was dubbed the “queen of the mountain”); tended to Dash’s illness; and directed Arnie on where to put each hand (and each size-15 foot) at critical moments when scrambling up the wall.

And really, deciding to climb with Tusker Trail had been a no-brainer. The U.S.-based company has a stellar reputation both on and off the mountain. In addition to providing a more high-end experience for clients (think: walk-in tents, private toilet facilities and three hot meals per day prepared by Culinary Institute of America-trained chefs), founder Eddie Frank is laser-focused on client safety. All guides for Tusker Trail are required to complete a comprehensive high-altitude medical course designed specifically for the requirements of Kilimanjaro.

Because of Dash’s illness, Mshanga made the executive decision for the group to postpone the departure from camp on summit day. (Most climbers begin the final ascent at around midnight to arrive at Uhuru Peak by sunrise.) At 5 a.m., Dash felt well enough to begin walking, and by the time we arrived at the summit at 2:30 p.m., we had the place to ourselves.

We sang, laughed, danced and cried tears of joy at the snow-covered peak. We had made it.

But this “journey with no ending” wasn’t over yet.

The Weissmanns reached Karanga Camp on day five. © 2020 Getty Images

The Weissmanns reached Karanga Camp on day five. © 2020 Getty Images

A Higher Purpose

Completing the physical portion of a charity challenge is only half the experience. In fact, what made our climb even more special took place two days later, when we were safely off the mountain and in the town of Moshi, Tanzania.

A portion of the Tourism Cares proceeds we raised will go to Moshi-based Give a Heart to Africa, a school that teaches English, business and vocational classes to local Tanzanian women. The average age of the approximately 50 students enrolled in a one-year curriculum is 30 years old; about 60% are single mothers.

Tourism Cares chose to work with Give a Heart to Africa because the organization creates sustained income for the community, says Paula Vlamings, chief impact officer for Tourism Cares.

“The charity model is really good, but you’re relying on donations, and it’s very hard every year to rely on those funds coming in,” she said. “So, when you raise money to support organizations such as Give a Heart to Africa, you’re really supporting businesses that can be developed and that may tie into tourism, which helps make them more sustainable and more successful long-term.”


Students of Moshi, Tanzania-based Give a Heart to Africa take vocational classes, such as beading. © 2020 Arnie Weissmann

Students of Moshi, Tanzania-based Give a Heart to Africa take vocational classes, such as beading. © 2020 Arnie Weissmann

Our visit happened to coincide with the first week of school for the new year. We attended business, English and beadwork classes and spoke with instructors (a mix of graduates and volunteers). Then, Monika Fox, the organization’s founder and managing director, led us around to several local businesses started by her entrepreneurial graduates: the independently owned boutique craft shop Moshi Mamas, Lala Salama spa (which offers massage and spa treatments to climbers returning from Kilimanjaro), and Kili Kitchen, a catering service that supplies prepacked lunches and reusable lunch boxes to tour operators.

“There’s no substitute for actually being there and witnessing what you’re investing in,” said Elevate’s Redington.

The Tanzania portion of this “journey that has no ending” had come to a close, but the fundraising continues over at www.tourismcares.org/kilicares. By the time we were reconnected to Wi-Fi access after coming down the mountain, Tourism Cares had notified us that we had reached $30,000 in funds — thus tripling the original goal. (As of press time, the figure has surpassed $35,000.)

To end with a Swahili word we found ourselves saying often: Asante (thank you).


Three Steps to Ethical Fundraising

Do you want to incorporate charity challenges or donor travel experiences into your business? Here are some things to keep in mind, according to Caliopy Glaros, founder and principal consultant for Philanthropy Without Borders.

Begin with your own network.
“Start with the people you know, and ask those people to connect you with others. It’s much easier than trying to insert yourself in a group of strangers. The most common misconception I hear from individuals is, ‘I don’t know any rich people.’ But a 2015 Phocuswright study (commissioned by Tourism Cares) points out that 75% of philanthropic travelers have an annual household income below $150,000. The donations might be $20 or $50, but people you wouldn’t consider ‘rich’ are often very philanthropically minded.”

Ask for transparency with your operators and NGO partners.
“Don’t place the burden of vetting on-the-ground partners on the traveler. If working with a local nonprofit, advisors should ask to see their accountability practices and reporting guidelines. Not every grassroots organization has the means of obtaining 501(c)3 registration in the U.S., but if travelers are being asked to give a donation as part of their visit to a community, they should know where that money goes and who is spending it. Responsible tour operators are already asking tough questions and providing transparency.”

Engage with destinations and communities ethically.
“Travel agents do a really good job of polishing all the logistics and helping people get prepped in terms of visas and currency, but they also need to know how to navigate deeper cross-cultural issues in the destination. Advisors should familiarize themselves with the local dynamics around power and oppression to ensure their local partners and practices are not inadvertently marginalizing people in less dominant groups. The flow of commerce also mirrors these dynamics, so as much as possible, we want to encourage travelers to patronize locally, so that money spent in that community stays there.”