Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro…When We Let Fear Stop Us

Anyone who follows John and me, know we recently returned from a phenomenal adventure in Tanzania. We joined 15 other hikers on a vegan fueled climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro! Ever since we had traveled to Tanzania years ago and participated in a brief hike up this mountain, we had told ourselves we would go back and climb all the way to the summit. Well, here we were about to make that promise a reality.

After spending months training at home, hiking, running, and even sleeping under a specially designed acclimation tent, we both felt confident in our healthy lifestyle and our ability. We spent hours in R.E.I. picking out special socks, duffle bags, base layers, insulated water lines for our camel backs, and a multitude of other necessities the guide company had requested we purchase. Each time we returned home with another parcel of goodies, we would set about laying everything out on the bed, meticulously going over the list. Finally, we had everything needed. I’ve done my share of hiking in life and while I felt comfortable in this adventure, I also knew John and I would both be climbing to altitudes unfamiliar to us. While John and I have climbed over 14,000’ we knew, at over 19,000’ Mt Kilimanjaro was going to be a completely different experience.

Little did I know that this 6 day experience would be life changing. Little did I know that the very first step I made up this beast would alter how I see myself. I had spent all of this time preparing for the physical aspects of this climb, not realizing it would be the mental side of me that would be challenged in ways I had never expected.

Day 1: Our 6 day hike started out easy enough. Hiking through the jungle was visually entertaining. I marveled at all the flora and fauna, as I excitedly trudged up the trail. I had on my trusty hiking shoes and my familiar daypack. I had my hair in cute little braids and I was grinning from ear to ear. I was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro! How cool is that?! I eagerly talked to the others in our group. Though I already knew a few of the hikers, several people in our band of merry hikers were strangers. I was intent on changing this definition.

A few hours into the hike I do remember feeling frustrated though. Our guide seemed to be setting an excruciatingly slow pace. “What is this guy’s deal? Why are we going so slow?” An hour before making it to camp, I would have my answer. All of a sudden I hit a wall. My “cute” hair and eager smile, quickly replaced with pangs of nausea and an obsessive desire to lay down right on the trail. How was this possible? I haven’t even finished the first day and I’m already having issues. My first lesson glaring me in the face. Never doubt the knowledge of someone who has experience. Never be so sure of yourself that you forget to lean on other’s wisdom.

Day 2: Okay, so the nights sleep had me feeling human again. I had traded in the tears of exhaustion for smiles once again. I was encouraged by my quick recovery and determined to make today a successful climb. I was also intent on following the advice of our guides, “pole pole,” (slowly slowly) tagline.

Today I was conscious of how many times in my life I tried to rush through something. Whether an experience or a fear or an opportunity for honesty. I don’t want to go slow. To be deliberate. I want to hurry before my fear/ego catches on to what I’m doing. Yesterday’s fatigue taught me that while it is important to enjoy the new and exciting experiences, it is also vital to go slow. To not push yourself past your comfort zone too quickly. This rush can leave you feeling exhausted and wanting to quit.

Day 3: So today is all about hiking high and camping low. We would spend the day hiking from 12,500’ up to 15,190’ and then back down to 13,044’ to sleep. By today, all of us women had thrown our modesty out the window. The topography of the mountain had changed from Jungle to Moorland to Alpine Desert. This meant all those wonderful trees were now replaced with moss covered rocks and low clinging plants, not the most inviting place for a pit stop along the well worn path.

While there were 17 hikers in our group, we had 53 guides and porters along with us. We were definitely a group to be reckoned with, but this “herd” of people did not offer much in the way of privacy. I would soon learn my next lesson. When those taken for granted creature comforts are missing, you learn to reach out. This is probably TMI, but never one to shy away from a subject, I realized during one of these “pit stops” that my stomach didn’t like something I had fed it. Thankfully someone from our group had something I could take, helping to alleviate my issue, but it was this lack of ego and self that made this unflattering episode such a powerful lesson. Life is about striving to be you! All the honesty and vulnerability and trust in showing others all of who you are. It’s about being able to say, “you know what I have an issue, and I need help.” All of these amazing people stepped up to the plate to be there for me. They didn’t laugh or point fingers or shy away, no they got busy loving me.

Day 4: Taken directly from my diary…Today we will reach the summit base camp. This will be a ridiculously long hiking day. The first order of business is scaling a cliff wall. Not going to lie, not so sure I am completely comfortable with this task. We will literally be rock climbing in areas, all while lugging a 15+ pound daypack! As with most things I fear, I end up learning the feeling is really excitement! My usual fear of heights for instance is taking a backseat. Like mountain goats, we all heaved ourselves up the wall to the top. John even got video of us, the other climbing groups and dozens of guides and porters all vying for places to advance.

I would end up falling in love with this portion of the day’s hike. The challenge of pulling myself up the wall was invigorating. The top of the wall was aptly named, “Top of the World.” We were all so excited and proud of this ascent! We were far from done though. We still had to hike to Karanga Camp for lunch. After lunch it was time to tackle the second half of the day…an intense stretch of climbing in order to reach Barafu Camp…base camp of the summit. Everyone left lunch in good spirits and ready to make base camp (15,331’). The weather took an interesting turn. First rain, then sleet! Hiking, hiking, hiking. Hour, after hour, after hour. I was doing fine until about the last hour. I hit a wall. Every step becoming more and more difficult.

How come no one else seemed effected? Gawd, I wanted to stop! One of the porters finally took my pack. I kept repeating, “You can do this! You have to do this!” John stayed with me, as some of the others in our group passed by us. What was wrong with me? A mix of nausea, exhaustion, and well, more exhaustion consuming me. How was it possible that just moments ago, I was okay? Each step might as well have been a mile. How was I going to make it? Five steps, stop. Three steps, stop. Then the tears took over. “I don’t think I can do this?!” But, I had to. I had to get to camp. It was getting close to sundown AND it was snowing! I still had to eat dinner and then sleep a few hours. The climb to the summit beginning at midnight. Base camp finally came into view. John went ahead to help prepare the tent. The guide took my hand, pulling me forward. Was I going to be sick? Part of me wanted to throw up. To get it out of the way. But, I didn’t even have the energy to vomit. So I kept inching forward.

The next thing I knew my personal porter took over, grabbing my arm and leading me through camp and to my tent. I couldn’t even let go of my poles or take off my own gloves. By now I was a heaping mass of tears. The realization that reaching the summit would not happen for me. Those feelings of failure would have to wait though. I was too exhausted to feel the pangs of regret. The disappointment in not pushing myself in my aim for the summit. No, all I wanted was to lay down. No, I didn’t want to eat. Yes, I was exhausted. Yes, I felt nauseous. No, I didn’t want to get up in 3 hours and hike. My body made the decision for me…I let it. If there is one thing I learned, it’s that I’m a, “shoulda, coulda, woulda” kind of person. I constantly second guess my choices, my decisions, my stance. The further away from the pain, the more I beat myself up for deciding not to continue. As I laid in the tent, John ate with the others, and the group confirmed the plans for summit.

Day 5: Summit Day! Well, I say day, but really the hike to the summit began at 2:00am. With headlamps in place, 14 of the 17 hikers began the ascent to Stella and Uhuru Peaks, both 4,000’+ above base camp. This ascent would take them hours to complete. The climb would test each and every member past their comfort zone…way past! Some would suffer vision loss, others would pass out, while still others were overcome by vomiting. All of them feeling like crap at one point or another. What?! You mean they all felt like I did yesterday? Here comes the shoulda, coulda, woulda again. Just accept your decision Jackie. Own the choice.

I would learn later that John really struggled with leaving me behind at camp.  According to Sarah (one of the 17 brave hikers), John had almost all the women in tears out of his love and concern for me. “I’m tearing up now, telling you about it,” said Sarah. The other women agreed. My husband had become so concerned, he even talked the guide into letting him radio down to me. “You keep climbing! I am okay.” The next time I would see John would be around 11:00 am. My husband had spent 10 hours the day before hiking with only a short reprieve (3-4 hours sleep) only to hike another 9 excruciating hours to the summit and back.

“You don’t know how many times I wanted to stop!” For John, the rapid ascension left him with swollen wrists and “cankles.” I can hardly believe my husband was able to lug himself all the way to the top! He wasn’t afraid to push himself, his life experiences reaffirming he would make it. He would confirm though, that climbing this mountain was the hardest thing he has ever done! Me?! I’m getting there. I’m learning. Each journey showing me, I can push myself beyond what I think I can be pushed, that I would survive. To not fear the pain.

I liken this journey to each time I gave birth. The pain of labor was intense, but I also knew the source of and reason behind the pain. I knew that if I simply relaxed and used the pain as a tool instead of working against it, the outcome would be this beautiful, amazing child. I forgot to see the beauty in my journey up the mountain. I used my pain as an opponent, instead of an ally. I was in such fear of my pain, I fought against it.

Day 6: Another diary excerpt…The final hike down the mountain took about 6 hours. Even though the trek down was a shock to the joints, the welcome intake of oxygen made for a conversation filled decent. The women had an interesting and positive conversation on empowerment, becoming so enthralled, the guide had to remind us to keep walking…lol! You could tell the 17 of us had come through this experience tighter and forever bonded. We all talked about the family like environment from spending such an incredible journey together. We had seen each other at our best and worst. Our vulnerabilities exposed and our struggles revealed. We encouraged each other and shared what we had. We ate together and pee’d together. We laughed and hugged and cried. We had imprinted on each other for life. A mutual experience forever connecting us. We might not have all made it to the summit, but we finished arm in arm. The mountain had left it’s impression deep within me…within all of us.

While I had joined this adventure to test my physical self, it would be who I am emotionally that came away with the greatest lesson. I saw so many parallels between climbing this mountain and how I “climb” in my day-to-day existence. Just like with opening up my eyes and heart to other relationship options, I see how pushing myself can end up showing me something beautiful. Sure, I might experience some pain initially, but if I can tap into the source of the pain, I can harness the message in my journey through the discomfort. I learned that sometimes I let the fear of approaching my pain, become much bigger than the actual pain. After all, pain/fear is a directive. A response to what is happening. While sometimes the message lets us know we need to halt, other times the discomfort can let us know we are on the right track. This is one reason why I have already told John, that I have to go back. I have to go back to the mountain. I have to show myself that I am not afraid. That I can push myself past this comfort zone I have allowed myself to nestle. To embrace taking only 5 steps before stopping. To use the pain as a path for growth. To reach the summit.

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