Beauty Entrepreneur Toni Ko on Summiting Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro — With a Full Face of Makeup

The group Toni Ko hiked Kilimanjaro with

Courtesy of Toni Ko

It's not every day someone summits Mount Kilimanjaro wearing a full face of makeup — false lashes included. But it made sense for Toni Ko, founder of NYX Cosmetics and Bespoke Beauty Brands, a beauty incubator for personalities and influencers looking to build their own cosmetics empires. 

"I'm proud of being a woman. I'm proud of being in the beauty industry," Ko, who reached the peak of Kilimanjaro on Sept. 12 after a grueling seven-day hike, told Travel + Leisure. "Someone like me may seem very unconventional, doing the kinds of things that I do, but it is a misconception that you can't be girly and rough and tumble at the same time."

Ko hasn't always been an outdoor adventure-seeker. It wasn't until the last few years that she began embracing the power of connecting with nature while pushing her mental and physical limits to the next level.

"It just gets me excited. I get energized, and I get happy," Ko explained of her newfound love of going all out while spending time in the great outdoors.  

Toni Ko hiking up Kilimanjaro

Courtesy of Toni Ko

Choosing Kilimanjaro

Ko, who described herself as more of a "mental athlete" than a physical one, took on the challenge of climbing to the top of the world's highest freestanding mountain as part of a larger "say yes" year. 

"One of the reasons I started planning Mount Kilimanjaro is because I turned 49 this year, and I decided that I was going to have one year of saying 'yes' to everything," Ko explained. 

After reading about the destination in books and hearing about it through conversations with friends, she knew it was her time to take the first of many steps. So, she booked a journey with the luxury travel company Scott Dunn, which also included a five-day safari before the trek. 

"I believe the universe was just waiting for me to be at the right mental and physical stage to tackle Kilimanjaro," Ko said.

Toni Ko applying lipstick at the Kilimanjaro summit

Courtesy of Toni Ko

Ko followed an informal training plan leading up to the trip, which included hot yoga, Pilates, meditation, and hiking on the weekends, plus monthly meetups with her friends to tackle more difficult treks up to 10,000 feet. Ko thought she would be fine in Tanzania, especially recalling how easily she navigated the high altitude in Peru — but it was nothing compared to Kilimanjaro, also known as the "Roof of Africa."

"It was literally the hardest thing I have ever done in my life," Ko said. "I underestimated the power of altitude, high mountains, and the power of Kilimanjaro." 

The tents you stay in when hiking Kilimanjaro

Courtesy of Toni Ko

Hiking the Lemosho Route

Every day, Ko and the other hikers on the trip woke up before dawn to dine on breakfast prepared by the crew's chef. Then, they'd start their daily six-hour hike, accompanied by more than 60 porters and guides, which came as part of the Scott Dunn trip.

Although there are shorter options for reaching the top of Kilimanjaro, Ko and her group embarked on the eight-day Lemosho Route. Not only is this trail less crowded, but the longer itinerary also gives the body more time to adjust to the altitude, increasing hikers chances of summiting to about 90%. Ko credits much of her summit success to the group's head guide, Charles Obed, from A-Team, a local Tanzanian operator.

"There's me before going up the mountain and myself coming down from the mountain," Ko said. "I will forever be a changed person, thanks to Charles."

Reaching the Top

As Ko struggled to hike through the cold and early morning darkness on summit day, all while battling altitude sickness, the crew kept singing and encouraging her until she reached the peak.

"So many times I felt like, 'Oh my god, I can't, it's impossible for me to take another step,'" Ko explained. "I almost tapped out, but every time I just kept reminding myself that I get to do this. I have two legs. Fortunately, I get to take another step. I can push forward. I can do it."

Ko was the last of her group to reach the top, but the victory felt just as sweet. After a few photos at the summit, Ko hiked down the mountain feeling transformed. Those changes and life lessons have stayed with her more than a month later, and Ko believes they're not going anywhere.

Toni Ko at the Kilimanjaro summit and her certificate

Courtesy of Toni Ko

"I've already applied these lessons [back home] because it's become engraved in my soul and my mind," she said.

With plenty of time left before her 50th birthday in April 2023, Ko said she will continue to look for new ways to challenge herself and say "yes" to new adventures that help her live life to its fullest.

"We have one life, and if you live only one version of life, that is so one-dimensional, right? I don't want to go to my grave having lived only one dimension of life," Ko said. "I want to experience multiple dimensions — the goodness, the juiciness of life, but I also want to experience the hardship and the tough parts."

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