“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Those were the words that were looping in my head as the kitchen porters greeted me back at Kosovo Camp (4,900m). After pouring me a glass of vitamin water, I was given a big, warm congratulatory smile that was common among the crew, and that promptly brought tears to my eyes.
The words continued to echo in my mind as I downed the glass of sweet water in seconds and collapsed into my tent. One of our guides, Casper, started untying my shoes for me because I was too exhausted to think of it myself. I felt those words with my entire being as they changed to, “Did I really just do that?” while I laid unmoving on my back, roughly nine hours after we began our midnight journey to summit Uhuru Peak, the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Back in March, I took a journey with an all women’s adventure company – WHOA Travel –whose founders I had known for a few years. They lead a trek to Kilimanjaro that coincides with International Women’s Day. My actual decision to join felt like a bit of serendipity and a lot of spontaneity. To say that it was life-changing is a huge understatement.
After I got back from Tanzania, it took nearly three weeks for me to be able to write about what I had experienced. Three weeks of wanting desperately to reflect before the memories faded. But I didn’t know where or how to begin. Below are my musings, that flowed in and through me in the span of 10 minutes one afternoon, as I was getting ready to head out the door. I decided to quickly write them down, worried that such strong reflection wouldn’t come again anytime soon:
How do you describe the feeling of your body physically shutting down and refusing to take another step while your brain forces you to take one more? Or the disconnect between your mind and the pain that your lungs are feeling? How do you describe seeing the summit 200 feet away and feeling like there are still miles to walk – that the more than five hours of steep ascent, surrounded by the darkest night, were nothing compared to those last few hundred feet. Or the joy and disorientation I felt being embraced by all the women I became friends with that week as we all celebrated the accomplishment of reaching the top? How to describe the bond that’s formed through suffering and achievement? How to express the immense gratitude towards the local men (and one kickass woman!), lead guides, assistant guides, cooks, kitchen team and porters (roughly 70 crew members in total), who took care of us and literally sang us all the way to the top.
It’s difficult to summarize the week-long trek that I went on with WHOA travel in Tanzania. The tallest free-standing mountain in the world towers at 5,853 meters or 19,341 feet. There were so many highs and lows, feelings of utter defeat and pure bliss. The landscape made me feel like I was on another planet with views that literally took my breath away. There was the breath itself – something I rarely think about on a day-to-day basis, and what turned into hours and days of meditation as I concentrated on the simple act of breathing. There were the guides and porters who were the most encouraging and selfless humans, carrying unfathomable weight on their heads, and scrambling around and ahead of us daily to have everything set up by the time we stumbled into camp.
The stars seemed closer and brighter the higher and higher we got. There were the 21 women, all coming to this mountain for different reasons, supporting and helping each other, making it that much easier to keep going. My mom, who at 52, and battling altitude sickness for the majority of the time, kicked the mountain’s ass and beat me to the top! There was Uhuru Peak, hovering above us for days, taunting us with its height, which now feels like a blurry memory. It was learning to understand what pure exhaustion actually meant. Getting a glimpse into why people push themselves to extremes, experiencing the addictive high you get when accomplishing something that feels like it nearly fell out of your grasp.
A few hours before we began our summit bid, I sat in our dining tent, trying hard to not let fear get the best of me. Everyone had a quote in front of them, and mine, by the great Maya Angelou read, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
The gratitude and respect I feel to this mountain is hard to describe, but I know I will be trying to find those words for the rest of my life.