Words and photography by Tyler O’Casey
My photography story began shortly after embarking on a 12-hour trek through the Grand Canyon with a coworker in January 2019. He later asked if I wanted to embark on an even more difficult task: Climbing almost 20,000 feet up to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point in all of Africa. Luckily, I had enough saved to cover the cost of the highly expensive trip and was able to convince my job to let me take two weeks off in August to go. Little did I know, it would change my life forever.
After 25 hours of travel through four countries, a safari ride through Amboseli National Park in Kenya, and an interesting night in a mosquito net, I found myself at the base of this looming mountain that I’d stand atop of in five days.
I honestly didn’t do any research into how difficult this task would be but decided to bring my newly purchased DSLR camera along with me to document the trip. I was a novice photographer at this point, taking photos on the weekends when off from my 9-5 job as a web developer.
The first day of hiking was fairly easy and included about four hours of walking. I woke up before the sunrise on the first morning and stood alone as I watched the sun come up through the clouds. It was one of the most beautiful sites I had ever seen, even to this day.
We began the next day walking through a layer of clouds that thankfully kept us cool from the warm African summer. Our group ended up trekking for 10 hours and, suffice to say, I was happy to be at our second camp at the end of the day.
I tried out some night photography for the first time that night using rocks as a tripod. I went to bed soon after, but something woke me up in the middle of the night and I decided to leave my tent to walk around. I was really glad I did, as the moon had gone down allowing the night sky to fill with the most stars I had ever seen – and that’s coming from someone from rural Wisconsin.
Our third morning brought another insane view, as the clouds rolled in creating another amazing sunrise.
After a day of rest at Mawenzi Tarn, the moment finally came for us to make our push to the summit, beginning with five hours of walking across a barren desert to the final camp. This was the first time I truly felt the altitude affect me, and one of our guides jokingly named me the “Kibo Express” because of how fast I was walking. We were supposed to nap until dinner to rest for the difficult summit ahead of us, but I laid awake with anticipation.
With the only light source being the full moon, we began our final push at 11pm in about 20°F and 50 mile-per-hour winds. The ground was like walking on sand: Every step forward meant sliding a half step back. As I tried my hardest to keep myself conscious, I passed a couple of people lying on the ground moaning from altitude sickness which really messed with my head. Our guides kept telling us there was shelter ahead to rest but no shelter ever came, it was just a trick to keep us moving. Yet, the hardest moment laid ahead, as getting to the rim of the once roaring, now dormant volcano meant we still had two hours left to go.
Reaching the summit, just before 8am, was one of the most life-changing experiences I have ever had. Standing atop that mountain and looking down really made me think hard about my life and my current health and well-being. I made good money working as a web developer at the cost of my health, two ulcers, and it all seemed so minuscule in the end as I stood nearly 20,000’ above sea level.
Roughly a month after conquering one of the Seven Summits, I quit my job and decided to pursue photography full-time as a brand and lifestyle photographer. I have a steady flow of gigs coming and have an online print shop. Despite being only six months in, I am really proud of how far I have come in such a short period of time.
And to think I’d still be stuck at a desk if I didn’t agree to get my passport, fly out of the country for the first time to walk to the top of the tallest mountain in Africa.