The King of Kilimanjaro
By the time I finished talking with Justaz Molel, a well-seasoned guide for Intrepid Travel, I was convinced I must climb Mount Kilimanjaro, specifically with him. Having conquered the mountain more than 250 times, Molel knows his native land like the back of his hand. The summit of Kilimanjaro is 19,341 feet high, and stands as the highest mountain on the African continent – and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world – but to Molel, one of the hardest climbs in the world is just an average day on the job.
To Molel, one of the hardest climbs in the world is just an average day on the job.
Having grown up in a village near the mountain, Molel has lived a lifetime of sunrises and sunsets over Kilimanjaro, inspiring him time and time again to make the daunting, monumental climb up the mountain a triumphant, first-time victory for the visitors he guides. With 253 Kilimanjaro summits under his belt, I caught Molel before he embarked on his next journey up Africa’s most well-known peak.
Pro tip: Planning on making your own trip to summit Kilimanjaro? Avoid the rainy season and go from July through August or December through March – the most popular times of year to climb the mountain.
What inspired you to start guiding?
I grew up in the shadow of the mountain, and I’ve been in love with nature ever since I was a little child. My family and I lived near Mount Meru, a mountain close to Mount Kilimanjaro, in a village in the Arusha region, the third largest town in Tanzania. I was inspired to start guiding because I wanted to show people what life was like in my town and take them up Mount Kilimanjaro, the heart of Tanzania’s tourism.
I was not well-prepared physically, but mentally I was very strong.
Have you always had a connection with nature?
I was born in a village named Kijenge, where there was no human settlement and only nature around. When we were young kids, we used to play in the surrounding mountains every morning.
What was it like to climb Kilimanjaro for the first time?
I felt two different ways about climbing Kilimanjaro for the first time. On one hand, I was afraid to climb the highest point in Africa because my parents used to tell us stories about people dying on the mountain. There were many myths and legends surrounding the sounds of the devil and witchcraft taking place on the peak. Rituals used to be very popular here. And on the other hand, I saw this as a great achievement. I used to be a porter for another guide, and he took me to the top of the mountain for the first time. I was not well-prepared physically, but mentally I was very strong. I climbed all the way to the top and came back safe. This was in 1998.
Each time I climb, I become more involved with the natural landscape of the mountain than ever before; each time it gets easier and I get stronger.
What was it like to climb Kilimanjaro for the 250th time?
I didn’t intend to count my climbs up the mountain, but after the tenth time, people began to ask me that question more and more. When I reached my 250th climb, I thought about a career change. I could not believe I had climbed Kilimanjaro that many times! But each time I climb, I become more involved with the natural landscape of the mountain than ever before; each time it gets easier and I get stronger.
What motivates you to conquer the mountain, time and time again?
The only people that used to visit Tanzania were British, Australian, American, and German. Now, there is a huge mixture of visitors coming from countries I never knew beforehand. I love when I get to meet them and exchange ideas about their countries. That’s when I realized there are people all over the world that live the same as me, whether they be in the eastern or western world. It gives me motivation to keep climbing so I can keep meeting more people. I want to put the entire world in my hand; I want to meet everyone face to face.
The little girl, however, kept climbing until she reached the summit. She is my inspiration now.
Who is your favorite person you’ve met climbing?
I can’t say I have a favorite, but there is one family I’ll always remember. It was a father, mother, and two children group that came to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with me. The boy was eleven years old and the little girl was only nine years old. The parents ended up getting sick around 4,720 meters into the climb, but the two children wanted to keep going to the top. The eleven-year-old boy made it to about 5,756 meters before he had to stop. The little girl, however, kept climbing until she reached the summit. Later I found out she is the number one taekwondo champion in the under fourteen age group in America. I am motivated because I climbed with her. She is my inspiration now.
What’s been your greatest accomplishment on the mountain?
I once planned a wedding at the peak in 2007. I organized everything. I even found a young priest that could make the climb to the top.
What’s been your biggest challenge on the mountain?
It can be challenging when there are experienced climbers and inexperienced climbers in one group. Some of the experienced climbers try to show off and act like they know more than the rest of the group, even the guide. They ask many questions and have their own books and iPads to fact check you. Sometimes they even try to change the group dynamic. If that happens, I stay with the inexperienced climbers. I match their pace, as the walking time is the only true difference. We all camp at the same location. When I get to the camp center, I try to keep everyone busy and tell the group a story. I want them to concentrate on the story and not how intimidating it can be to climb the mountain itself.
Do you have any pre-climb rituals?
It’s not so much a ritual, but I always feel safe when I say an extra prayer. I also give my family a call, including my mother. If I find all of them are happy for me, then I am happy and energized. The majority of my energy I get on treks comes from my family's happiness.
You must also learn how to respect the mountain. Every mountain deserves respect.
How do you see people change once they’ve conquered Kilimanjaro?
Most climbers become very happy, extremely happy. Most of them don’t even believe that they’ve done what they’ve done. They are very overwhelmed with the achievement, because at the beginning, you don’t see how big Kilimanjaro is. When you get to the summit you realize what you just accomplished. And the result is extreme happiness.
What is your number-one piece of advice for someone who wants to climb Kilimanjaro?
My number one piece of advice is you must learn how to prepare yourself for the climb. And when I say prepare, I mean both mentally with your mind and physically with your body and equipment. You must also learn how to respect the mountain. Every mountain deserves respect.
I leave for a briefing soon to meet a group of VIPs that are studying global warming and climate change. They will take their findings to a convention in Paris (COP21). This makes my 254th climb. You need to come here before I reach the 500th climb, because I think that will be my last one. [H]