No one needs to trudge up a 19,341-foot mountain. But I wanted to both celebrate a big birthday and challenge myself physically and mentally, so I decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. In January 2009, I flew to Tanzania, where I linked up with my hiking group, which included a couple, a father-son duo—and six solo women.

What is it about Kili that calls to the single woman? Maybe it's because there are no ropes or pickaxes involved. Fitness-wise, it means walking four to eight hours a day for six days, largely uphill—not especially difficult. But this doesn't mean it's painless. The landscape and ecosystems change rapidly. One minute I was stripping down to a T-shirt; the next, we were battling snow and wind. And when you're up that high, the dizziness and nausea make you feel as if every breath might be your last.

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At midnight on the final night, I zipped up every piece of clothing I had. For the next eight hours, we plodded straight up. I stumbled every few feet, sometimes crawling on my knees, even throwing up. I didn't know if I could do it. But when I saw that famous sign, I was grateful I hadn't given up. I'd learned firsthand just how tough I really was. Best of all, I wasn't proving anything to anyone but myself.

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Or climb this: The highest peak in Peru's Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is a mere 13,800 feet.

Be prepared to: Train. For the year before my climb, I took staircases religiously and did the stair-climber wearing 15 pounds of weights.

Also check out: Henry Stedman's Kilimanjaro: A Trekking Guide to Africa's Highest Mountain.

My No. 1 piece of advice: Climb right after your period! Cramps (and zero showers) are no fun at high altitudes.

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