Conquering Kilimanjaro

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Sara Sampaio is best known for her modeling — you might recognize her as one of the newer additions to the Victoria’s Secret Angel Squad — but for the moment, her impressive resume is secondary to an accomplishment of a totally different kind: her trek up Kilimanjaro.
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Why Kilimanjaro?

To kick off 2016, Sampaio, along with seven friends, journeyed to Tanzania for what would soon prove to be one of the hardest, but most amazing, experiences of her life. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” she says thinking back to the climb. “I only started watching videos like two days before, and I was like, ‘What am I doing? This is a proper mountain!’ It sounded like a great idea a few months before when we were in Miami sitting by a pool.” She makes a joke that if she knew how hard the climb was beforehand, she probably would have just stayed at the coffee lodge at the bottom of the mountain and waited for everyone.

 

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The trek

The seven-day trek up Kilimanjaro, which is Africa’s highest peak at 19,341 feet, pushed Sampaio and her companions to face unbearable cold and altitudes, while also placing physical demands on their bodies that no amount of pre-climb training could have adequately conditioned them for. “There’s really nothing that you can do to prepare,” she says about the not-so-pleasant surprise that was the sheer gruel of the hike. “You can be the fittest person in the world and still not make it.”

Sampaio certainly knows what it means to work for her body, which is unsurprising given her line of work. From Pilates classes at Grasshopper and personal training sessions at ModelFit, to pre-show paleo diets that force her to cut back on her beloved carbs (she’s an avid pizza fan), the model is no stranger to staying healthy. But even sweating endlessly on a stairclimber — her L.A. trainer makes her climb 80+ stories as a warmup before her workout — didn’t make the climb up Kilimanjaro any less excruciating for Sampaio.

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The mental aspect of the climb

Physical elements aside, Sampaio recalls that simply the mental challenge of making it to the summit posed a struggle all its own; one that only grew as her group progressed along the 6-day ascent to the top; an ascent which was segmented only by short stops at camps along the way, where Sampaio and her fellow climbers could rest and refuel with basic meals of rice, meat, eggs, bread, and soup. Yet the brevity of the breaks paired with the extreme conditions that only escalated as Sampaio and her team neared the summit, made it hard to fully recover from one bout of hiking before embarking on the next.

“We got to the last camp on the fifth day around 1 or 2 p.m. and then had to leave at midnight, so we only had that time to eat and rest, and you don’t really sleep because you’re excited that you’re going to the summit. So the last day is like 48 hours. Then [when we started hiking again] we had to go up for another eight hours. I almost feel like I had an out of body experience because I don’t know how I did those last hours.”

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But even as her friends, who had become well aware of her exhaustion and were experiencing some of their own, began asking Sampaio if she wanted to go back, she insisted on powering through. Though she admits now that it was less of a statement of perseverance than it was a question of choosing the lesser of two evils. “[Going back] just meant climbing down for six hours,” she says, exuding the desperation that she felt at the time in her voice. “At least it wouldn’t be more than that going up.”

By the time the group finally made it to the summit around 8 a.m., Sampaio says that the remarkable views and the undeniable sense of achievement that kicked in suddenly made the taxing journey worthwhile.  “It just makes you feel so accomplished, and the view is breathtaking,” she says. “We were only up there for 30 or 40 minutes — you can’t really stay longer because the altitude starts hitting you. Plus there’s the cold — you can’t risk getting hypothermia.” But 30 minutes was all the team needed to snap a few photos to commemorate their accomplishment (Sampaio brought a Portuguese flag with her to pose with atop the mountain) before beginning their journey downward, which was arguably just as hard as, if not harder than, the trip up.

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“It’s a lot faster,” Sampaio says about the descent, which took the team only about 18 hours compared to the multiple-day journey to the summit. “But it’s hard because you can set a pace going up and you can go very slowly; going down, you can’t. You just never really stop and you have to go with your balance.” That’s not even considering that a large portion of the journey down the mountain occurs in the dark, slippery, bug-filled rainforest.

When the group finally made it to their hotel and officially finished their hike, relief came in the form of one of the best sleeps that Sampaio has ever had in her life. “I don’t even remember falling asleep,” she says, “I remember getting into bed, but nothing else.”

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For Sampaio, the experience of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro is hardly one that she looks at with a hyperbolized sense of transformation; as a trek that she has returned from a new woman. What she does see it as, though, is an amazing way for her to have started her year. It’s also a reassurance of her personal strength. “When you get put in situations that you’re very uncomfortable with, it kind of reminds you that you can do anything you want if you set your mind to it,” she says.

Despite the inspirational, if not totally revelatory, takeaway, Sampaio is adamant that she will be in charge of planning the next adventure for herself and her friends; one that takes place far from the cold, and very, very far from any mountains.

“Kilimanjaro was my first and last mountain,” she says, noting that she very much gravitates towards water activities more than anything else. “I would much rather go dive somewhere than do a climb. I’ve been snorkeling — I love snorkeling in Bora Bora — but when I go places that have amazing diving, I can’t really do it because I’m traveling a few days after and you can’t fly for 48 or 72 hours after diving.” She goes a bit into the logistics of diving, information that she has acquired from her father who is a diver himself, before sharing that her ideal locations to dive, without a doubt, would be the Maldives and Australia.

For now, though, even diving is going to have to wait, as there’s another adventure taking all of Sampaio’s attention.

Future Plans

“Acting is my goal this year,” she says ambitiously, adding that she’s just started taking classes and going to auditions. “That’s actually what I’ve always wanted to do. In Portugal, modeling agencies represent actors and actresses as well, so when I originally went in for a modeling contest, I wanted to become an actress. But then modeling started and went well, and that was an opportunity to create connections that could help me get to where I wanted to go next.”

Needless to say, Sampaio’s back-up plan has proven more than successful, and if her acting trajectory is anything like her modeling, she’ll be killing it on the big screen in no time.

 

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