Andrea DiMaio landed in Tanzania with high hopes — literally. She was about to make history by scaling the infamous Mt. Kilimanjaro with more than 20 other plus-size women. The group would hike as an organized team thanks to WHOA Travel (which would lead to the founding of Whoa Plus) and fellow hiker Christa Singleton.
Andrea’s body felt exhausted after the 26 hours it took to reach her destination, yet she was invigorated. Then again, how could she not be flooded with enthusiasm? It’s not every day that you get to hike a 19,341-foot extinct volcano.
She walked out of the small airport and hopped into an already-waiting car where she met up with Whoa Travel Co-Founder Allison Fleece. The warmth of tropical fall in the Southern Hemisphere was a welcomed adjustment coming from the brisk, early-spring weather of the northeast coast of the United States. And with that, the car sped off.
Conversation quickly turned to the reason for DiMaio’s adventure.“She’s hiding. She’s being shy,” Fleece said as she pointed in the direction of Mt. Kilimanjaro, also known as the “Roof of Africa.” From any on-looker’s standpoint, it would be hard to believe that one of the seven summits of the world, an inactive volcano that is the tallest freestanding mountain on the globe, was within the travelers’ reach. After all, the land around them was relatively flat grassland covered with scattered trees of different heights — not the mountainous terrain many of us would imagine.
Though the hike up the mountain would not begin for three days, the adventure was already beginning. The car pulled up in front of the Stella Maris Lodge, a hotel popular with Kilimanjaro hikers, and a beautiful, plus-size woman in her 30s came out and greeted DiMaio with a hug. “Welcome home,” said the hotel’s own Mama Teddy, a woman so beloved by travelers that many of the hotel’s reviewers mention her by name. Mama Teddy’s greeting and welcome stirred deep emotion in Andrea’s heart.
The Curvy Kili Crew was already assembling. The women who had arrived the day before were eager to greet the newest traveler of the bunch. To Andrea, it already felt like a sisterhood, as the hikers had been communicating on Facebook for months. Some had even met up to train together in various states.
Over the next 24 hours, more enthusiastic women would arrive. The trip even included a woman from Kenya. “When she came in and saw all of us, and that we were truly plus-size, she was like ‘you’re my sisters … I’ve never had this feeling with anything else,’” Andrea shared.
The Curvy Kili Crew consisted of women of all ages, shapes and sizes. However, they all shared one common goal: They wanted to scale Mt. Kilimanjaro as a team. And they would do just that.
The hike would take seven days total: five days up and two days down. The group of more than 20 women would camp in tents each night and enjoy dinners together. In addition, 10 local guides would accompany the group and 80 porters would carry their gear. Each woman, however, would carry her own daypack along with three liters of water, snacks, rain gear and headlamps.
Safety mechanisms were already in place. Because of the increasing altitude, oxygen levels and mini medical checks would be performed every night, a safety precaution that most hikers take. For example, medical examiners would look for the severity of headaches. A mild headache is normal, but a severe headache could be a sign of serious altitude sickness.
Andrea welcomed the ability to pace in a group. “Maybe you’ll be the slowest. Maybe you won’t. We take turns. It’s all fine. Nobody’s judging you. You just kind of keep going every day,” she told us. The women cheered each other on as the journey unfolded. It was, in fact, a sisterhood. For many of them, it would be the first time they came together with plus-size sisters to reach a common goal.
There was absolutely no competition in the group, making it even more special. Each woman hiked her own personal summit. “The actual summit is over 19,000 feet, but your own personal summit could be anywhere between there and the bottom. However far you got was your own personal summit,” DiMaio shared.
The landscape changed as they ascended, with the hikers encountering five unique ecological zones. DiMaio noted that wildlife diminished the closer they got to the top. The only thing she could hear was the wind.
Some of the women made it to the top; others didn’t. DiMaio made the choice not to push her body beyond what felt comfortable. But they all succeeded in doing something most of us will never do. They hiked one of the seven summits of the world.
The Three Lessons Andrea Learned
We asked Andrea about the three greatest lessons she learned from her adventure. Her first lesson was one we can all learn from: You can do anything you set your mind to. In other words, you can do hard things. It’s a matter of determination, and in cases like this, teamwork.
In addition, she learned that it’s important to listen when the body speaks. “When I was at base camp and I was feeling so so sick, I was just fighting that I need to try to make it to the top. I finally made the choice of not going any farther because I listened to my body,” she shared. “Even though my ego was saying ‘you need to leave with everyone else and try to go to the top … that’s what you were here to do,’ going to the top would have been too risky for me.”
Her third lesson would appear on her final day of the hike when she was coming down the mountain. It was to take space when you need to. “I purposely tried to hike alone. I was ready for a little alone time. Going through something that intense with people, you’ve gotta think about what will recharge me, what do I need right now,” she told us.
And with that, she shared the famous Erin Hanson quote with us:
“What if I fall?”
Oh, but my darling,
What if you fly?
Many of us are terrified to do what these women have done. But, as DiMaio said, “look at the other side. What if everything goes right and you experience amazing things?” Talk about inspiring!
The Company Behind the Climb
So just how did this amazing group of like-minded and like-bodied women come together? This very first hike was sponsored by WHOA Plus Travel. However, it led to the founding of an entirely new part of the agency: Whoa Plus.
The adventure travel agency founded its plus-size division after traveler and Curvy Kili Krew hiker Christa Singleton suggested the idea. Singleton had traveled with WHOA on its standard tours, and though she loved every moment of her experiences, she always felt alone. “She was the last one at camp because no one was hiking at her pace, which happened to be slower than the pace of the rest of the group,” Fleece told us. “She was like ‘I loved it and loved the ladies but I felt like a lot of it was just me and my guide because I was behind the group.’” According to Fleece, this sparked an idea: “If I can do this, I know there are other plus-size women out there who want to do this, too.”
Fleece and co-founder Danielle Thornton loved Singleton’s vision. “She pitched the idea because she made it to one of the summits but not the final summit and wanted to finish those 300 metres with other plus-size ladies,” Fleece said. “We said yes 100 percent, of course, and then we put it out to the universe.”
The response was massive. “We had over 20 people sign up with a very long wait list,” Fleece noted. “The ladies got together for training hikes all over the states and were always sharing when they found good items to buy (on the Facebook group).”
WHOA Plus has continued to grow, and now accounts for 10 percent of the parent company’s offerings. The more interest that arises, the more locations the company adds. It now offers the original Mt. Kilimanjaro hike along with adventure tours in Peru and Iceland.
Though all WHOA adventures are full of bonding, there’s something very special about WHOA Plus. “It’s 100 percent a sisterhood. When you are … like-bodied and you understand some of the challenges of moving around in a larger body, it connects you on an even deeper level,” Fleece noted.
And don’t worry, the ladies at WHOA are all about planning a trip that every woman can enjoy. WHOA welcomes women of all shapes and sizes. They curate adventures that are encouraging, attainable and accessible. You can even join that closed Facebook group we mentioned and train with your future WHOA sisters in advance. In other words, you’ve got this, girl!
For more information on WHOA Plus, you can visit their website or email them at: email@example.com. You can also call them at (347)873-0404. Upcoming adventures include a February 2020 Mt. Kilimanjaro hike and a July 2020 Peru and Machu Picchu excursion.