So many people have asked me what it was like to climb the largest free standing mountain in the world -Mt Kilimanjaro I thought I’d just write it out. I don’t know how I can do it justice, how do I tell something so profound. So many stories. So many layers of self realization -professional, personal, and spiritual. Well I’ll try, then you can ask me questions! ha. Hows that. The story goes a little something like this:
It was a very last minute decision. Within 24 hours I had booked my ticket, 7 days later I would leave, with 2 days home to buy the equipment, pack, and go. Booking the trip last minute made it so I had no expectations. I had no idea about Tanzania, Africa, Kilimanjaro. I had never heard much of it before that moment. I came home to hear my mom tell me that 40 people die a year climbing it, 40% of people that set out to summit never make it. All very encouraging statistics. -Thanks mom. But the rest of the trip I had no choice but to live it in the moment. No expectations, no way to contact the outside world, iphone OFF (Gasps. I know). All I had was what was there in front of me.
In all, our trek was 7 days long, 50 miles, 19,340 ft up. No cars, no electricity, no running water. Each day was about 3-7 hrs of walking “pole pole.” A catch phrase we used on the mountain meaning slowly slowly in Swahili. The day before we left we were given 7 strategies to keep going. If we were ever feeling tired/down or wanting to give up, we should -start repeating a mantra, change our physiology, change our focus, find something to be grateful for… These little tips made all the difference, when I didn’t feel like I could go on these turned me around.
Altitude sickness is something that can affect anyone. Doesn’t matter how physically fit you are. Actually smokers do the best with altitude because they’re used to less oxygen. Some symptoms of altitude sickness include headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, hard time breathing or catching your breath. All of us at one point experienced this to some degree. Majority of the group took a drug called Diamox to help with the altitude. I didn’t. Looking back I think I probably should have, but if I did I wouldn’t have had the EPIC experience I did trying to summit.
The “Epic” Part
After five days of trekking we arrived at camp Horombo. We settled in, ate, got a three hour nap and started hiking at midnight on the 6th day. No light but our headlamps and the gleaming sky of stars above us. We were lead by a group of African guides. At one point up the mountain the head guide, Jonas, started to sing. Beautiful African call and response chants filled the night air, like a drum keeping our feet in time. We headed out to hopefully summit by sunrise. In theory that would have meant we would get to the top by 6:30am.
By 6:30am I had fallen behind the pack. The sun was rising, you could see the horizon and the earth’s curve, we were above the clouds, the sky painted beautiful colors. -And I could care less-. Severe altitude sickness had my eyes rolling to the back of my head, I couldn’t hold up my own head, my whole body was falling over. I looked like I had drank a considerable amount of alcohol and needed to be held up by the people around me to walk. I had lost all control of my body. 3 men had to help me walk, one man ahead of me, one under my left arm so I wouldn’t fall down the mountain, and one behind me lifting me over the rocks. We’d move for 5 minutes then I would have to sit to catch my breath enough to get back up and keep going. This went on for 2 hours. The only thing keeping me going was my mantra, I had lost control of my body but my mind was ever persistent repeating “Every step I take I feel stronger and stronger.” I repeated this mantra like it was oxygen itself helping to keep me from passing out.
The loss of control over my body brought me back to the last 6 weeks of my father’s life. Watching him lose control over his own body as it shut down. Watching his eyes change to fear as he was bed ridden and couldn’t move from the hospital bed. His struggle with the nurses ran parallel in my head to the struggle with the men carrying me.
And yet, I repeated my mantra -every step I take I feel stronger and stronger.
At 7:30am we finally reached Gilman’s point. This is where the steep incline stops and the rest of the trek to the top is fairly flat. But I’ve been carried for two hours now, in all, 7 hrs of walking, I’ve been mentally beaten by visions of my father’s loss of mortality, at this point I’m so cold my hands feel like I have frost bite, my feet as well. I feel like vomiting but can’t. I look at the guide and ask him how much longer to summit, he says, “2 more hours.” I ask him whats the route to get back down, he says, “back the way we just came.”
And that’s when I gave up.
There was no energy left to hide the tears that burst from my eyes and streamed down my face. At that point I could care less about summitting, I was crying for the pain in my hands and feet, the pain in my stomach from all the nausea, the pain in my heart for my father’s death. The poor men were trying to calm me down, rubbing my hands, massaging them, trying to warm them up. Then my whole body started to shake in exhaustion and from the cold. The three of them circled in around me and tried to warm me up and stop me from crying.
Finally I was too exhausted to cry any longer so I eventually stopped that too. Once I gained some composure I told the head guide, Donut, that I BARELY had enough energy to get back down the way we just came. There’s NO WAY I could get allllll the way to the summit, and then manage to get all the way back down after that. Donut and I bickered about it for a little while. Then he asked, “Do you have enough energy JUST to get to the summit?” I said yes… He said, “alright lets go then”. And there we were, walking again. At that point I guess I was too tired to fight. haha. I relied on my poles to hold up my upper body, so I was bent over weaving around the path. Angry at Donut for making me go on, frustrated that my body had been so worthless.
That day, a man had died at the last peak before the summit. They weren’t allowed to move his body, so there it lay to the side of the path. But I didn’t see him. I was too sick to notice.
As we reached the next point, an hour left to summit, I started to think about my team and the looks on their faces when they saw that I had made it past my altitude sickness and still summitted. Then I started to feel better. Getting more used to the altitude I started to stand taller. Twenty minutes from the summit I finally see my team heading back my way. I was so excited to see them I ran up and hugged them. I cried! They cried! Later that night when we reflected on the day and said our top 3 highlights from climbing, a couple people listed seeing me summit was more exciting than them actually summiting! haha.
Finally, as if the pain never happened, the exhaustion went away, I climbed the last twenty minutes with a smile shinning alll over my face. I reached the top. I could see the curvature of the earth. I had WALKED above the clouds. The glaciers. The skyline. And as I do, I took a picture at the infamous sign in a handstand. haha. Of course.
I think seeing my team was the true summit for me. Walking to the ending point was just a formality. However, the glaciers were magnificent. I’ve never seen anything like them. And to think we were at the ceiling of AFRICA looking at glaciers just didn’t seem right. But it was. And it was good.
It took me four hours to get down to base camp, just in time for lunch at 12:30. A full twelve hours of hiking, two of which I was carried. I got an hour lunch and then had to walk another 5 hours that day before night to reach our camp. It was brutal. It was difficult. But in all, so worth it.
I wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for the men that carried me. Physically carried me. I wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for Donut tricking me into walking more. I wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for my group that I loved so dearly and the thought of their faces keeping me going. I wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for that first day orientation of the 7 strategies to keep going. My mantra. My determination. But most of all, the help.
How the Mountain’s metaphor relates to my Life
Where I am in my life right now, all I want is to be able to do it on my own. I hate the feeling of being helpless, or needy. I strongly dislike feeling weak or a burden on anyone else. So I’ve had a lot of new challenges over the last 6 months with my father gone. Taking the responsibility of President and Chairman of his company, feeling the obligation to take care of my family. And when I could use help the most, I have had the tendency to try and preserve my pride and do as much as I can on my own. It’s all a figment of my ego’s imagination. Just like how I had believed crying was a sign of weakness, when really, I’ve learned that showing true tears is a sign of real strength.
Climbing the mountain forced me to take help. It was uncomfortable. I felt worthless. And yet this amazing family we had become showed me that it meant something to THEM to help ME. It meant something to them to help me. I never would have summitted if I hadn’t had help. It didn’t mean that I was any weaker. Weakness would have been denying help for fear of looking weak. In being honest with myself I found the truth, -even the strongest people need to be carried sometimes.
One step at a time I climbed that mountain. One step at a time I will move forward. What a great lesson in living in the moment. Accept the help you recieve, and take it one step at a time.
Praising the People that Helped Me
If you would like to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, my program has a 90% success rate of summitting. All 11 of us sumitted that day. The group is called SYATT -See You At The Top. Eric Edmeades does a superb job of helping everyone not only summit and conquer their demons, but he also helps you relate the metaphor back to your life so you can go home and apply what you’ve learned on the mountain to your every day. We used Team Kilimanjaro as our guides on the mountain and I must say they were absolute angels. The compassion they showed to us was above the line of duty. At one point my hands were too freezing to take them out of my gloves to eat a jelly energy shot, so Jonas stood there with the pack and hand fed it into my mouth like I was a child. Three men CARRIED ME up the mountain. Patient while I cried, patient while I caught my breath, patience stepping up onto every rock. Like I said, above and beyond the call of duty.
Some people tell me I live a crazy life. To think, this time last year I was studying alternative medicine with monks in Japan, and Guruji in her ashram in Singapore… I guess I live it a bit differently than most. But I hope I can influence other people to do things spontaneously, think outside their boxes. To know that they have the ability to do great things. I was blessed to have parents who always supported me in my wild adventures, and I can recognize that not all parents are that supportive. But I’m here to tell you that you can. And its easier than you think. Set your mind to something and anything can happen.
Go do it. Then come back and tell me about it alright?!!
Love and light,