Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro was a lifelong goal for Marine veteran and Las Vegas police officer Andy Williams – and what better way to celebrate his retirement than by reaching that lofty peak? After 26 years in his career, Andy took the first step towards Uhuru Peak in February 2021. For him, it was an emotional, spiritual journey.
“I wanted to do something bigger than me. I wanted to do something extraordinary,” Andy said. “It’s a nice restart to a new life of being retired.”
Andy climbed on a Thomson Safaris Machame trek, a 7-day route offering plenty of acclimatization time and a nighttime summit bid. Like all Kili routes, the Machame trek passes through five climate zones, ranging from tropical rainforest to frozen tundra. It’s one of the most accessible, budget-friendly, yet consistently challenging of the world’s Seven Summits.
Andy is no stranger to challenge; beyond his service in the force, he served in the Marines when he was younger. But he had never reached the astronomical elevations Kili offered.
“I’ve jumped out of planes before, but the furthest I’ve gone is 15,000 feet,” he said. “I’ve never climbed this high.”
While this may have been his toughest mission in decades, he was confident and well-prepared; he made regular hikes on Nevada’s Mt. Charleston, and regularly trained on his Peloton.
Almost from the start of his trek, Andy knew he needed to stay mentally focused. On the first day, he said he walked over 44,000 steps – about 20 miles.
“Day one kicked my butt,” Andy said. “That mountain is no joke. I learned that I needed to take my time.”
Andy, Billy and Frank gaining altitude at the start of their trek
In Tanzania, there’s a phrase to describe the need to take your time on the mountain: pole, pole, or “slowly, slowly.” Summitting Kili requires literally climbing slowly, and moving at a pace comfortable for you. Your guides will go a step farther (and a step slower) right alongside you, ensuring you are taking breaks, eating snacks and being methodical every day.
Thankfully, Andy didn’t have the challenges that others do with acclimatization. He said his biggest challenge was a mental one.
“This trip was more of a mental thing for me,” Andy said. “The guides have done this so many times that if you don’t listen to them, you’re not going to be successful. But by the end, we became like brothers.”
All Thomson head guides are internationally certified Wilderness First Responders, and have, at minimum, over 100 professional summits.
Andy with head guide Polite
The Barranco Wall
Andy and his trekking group at the start of the Barranco Wall
Hiking by ‘kissing rock’ on the Barranco Wall
On the fourth day of Andy’s trek, he ascended the Barranco Wall: a rocky slope rising 843 feet up Kili’s side. Hail, sleet, snow, wind, and chill came down on him. The conditions were rough, and Andy said he had to resort back to his days in the military, when he was in the best state of mind to take on such rigorous challenges. He regularly invoked the Navy Seal motto to get him through: “The only easy day was yesterday.”
“One foot in front of the other, take it day by day,” he said. “The end of the day is easy, because you’ve finished it.”
The Summit Bid
Trekking through the early morning hours to reach the summit
At 10 p.m. on his sixth day of trekking, Andy and his group woke up, ate a quick meal, had a team chant, and departed for Uhuru Peak. He donned a headlamp and snaked up the lava flows beyond Barafu at 15,000’ to Uhuru Peak, at 19,341’.
“It seemed like the never-ending mountain,” Andy said. “But when you see the sun’s coming up, and you start seeing the light, it’s motivating. It gives you that extra push to keep going.”
Sunrise over Mount Mawenzi
Trekkers Andy, Billy and Frank on summit morning
As morning settled over Kili, Andy and his group took frequent breaks for snacks and listened to the advice of their guides. Then, finally – Andy reached the summit. He said he was emotional once he looked down on Tanzania from so high, that the sight was “unbelievable.”
“I got a little choked up,” Andy said. “Up there, you think about family, coworkers, friends you’ve lost in the past. Everything kind of hits you, all at once. That, and being happy that you did it, you made it, because there’s some that haven’t.”
Andy exchanged the American flag with one of the assistant guides, and he gave his Marine Corp flag to the head guide – an important gesture for a veteran.
“To me, it’s like I’m giving part of myself to them,” Andy said. “I can’t give enough kudos to the guides. I couldn’t believe how tough and hardworking they are. I’m humbled.”
How do you celebrate when you’re on top of the world? You dance! So much joy on the Roof of Africa!