Learning to Cope: What Kilimanjaro Taught Me

We spent six days working toward spending about six minutes at that peak, but those six minutes gave me something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life: confidence in my strength.
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The best travel is a leap in the dark. If the destination were familiar and friendly, what would be the point of going there? -- Paul Thoreaux

The ascent began at midnight. At 15,000 feet, the only thing that made me nervous was that the 10 layers of clothing I was stuffed inside were preventing me from bending my knees and elbows, causing me to hobble up the trail like Olaf the snowman. Besides that, I was only excited. I was excited for the adventure to come and for the success I knew would come with it. As we began to hike I turned my neck toward the sky. I didn't realize that way up there, the stars would actually feel closer to my face. It was like someone had spilled shimmering sprinkles across my eyes. Soon, the stars would be the only thing keeping me going.

Six days earlier, my dad and I began our ascent up Mt. Kilimanjaro. Until then, the journey had been surprisingly easy. The guides had a simple, yet flawless method to a successful journey up the mountain: pole pole. It means "slowly slowly" in Swahili, and it means that you walk up the slope at a pace equivalent to a one-year-old climbing a staircase for the first time. It works amazingly well. No matter how steep a slope we climbed, I never felt out of breath, tired, or altitude sick. I was grateful that my good feelings allowed me to appreciate the breathtaking views as the terrain gracefully rolled from rainforest to moorlands to desert. Arctic would be the final temperate zone, and I could not wait to reach the glaciers waiting for us near the peak.

The climb began with an airplane ride two years before, when I sat in a window seat after our Tanzanian safari and saw Kili's peak bursting through the clouds. Something about the way it stood alone in that flat landscape, massive and noble, told me I had to stand up there someday. Still, even as I made my way upward I didn't know why I wanted to reach the top so badly. I just knew that I had to.

We began the climb by zig zagging through what looked to me like the jungles of Apocalypse Now, with mossy, densely green trees dripping dew through a deep haze. By the end of the first day, we had already made it above the clouds. Each day was filled with radiant blue skies and views to infinity. Because Kilimanjaro is not part of a mountain range, there was nothing obstructing our panoramic view of Tanzania. The only other mountain in sight was Mt. Meru, Africa's second largest mountain and Kili's neighbor. Meru accompanied us throughout the climb, a beautiful companion cheering us on.

The higher we climbed, the more confident I felt that the altitude would not get to me. By the day before summit day I still had never once felt nausea, and I was still eating regularly -- tons, in fact. At altitude, we were burning about 4,000 calories a day, and the guides asked that we compensate by stuffing our faces with carbs. I did not object. As summit day came nearer, I felt only exhilaration, exhilaration to reach the peak, exhilaration to hike through the night, and exhilaration that maybe I would do it without feeling sick after all.

Well, at 16,000 feet, everything changed. It was 1 a.m., and it was a kind of nausea that tore at my soul. I felt like I was towing the moon behind me as I attempted to drag my body around the endless switchbacks. My steps were so small they barely counted as movement, and I had to stop and rest after every three.

No matter how much I protested, my guide, Hudson, insisted he carry my daypack for me. I wasn't raised to let other people carry my weight, but I'm not sure I would have been able to go on with even that small amount on my shoulders. By two am, the inside of my Nalgene was coated with ice, and I was shivering beneath my layers. I could not force myself to drink because I knew the frosty water would only make me shake harder. Besides, my fingers were too frozen to grasp the plastic bottle anyway. I knew that the churning in my stomach was in part due to intense dehydration -- we'd been hiking upward for two hours and I'd had one small sip of water. Hudson held my Nalgene to my mouth, and I took three tiny sips like a baby bird. My arms and fingers began to jerk in small spasms with the shock of the cold water running down my throat, and suddenly there was a vicious pounding in my head. Every time I pressed one foot to the ground, I felt like my body evaporated into a million specks of dust.

When we stopped for breaks, I had to place my hands on the rocks and slowly lower myself down over about a fifteen second period. My balance had completely gone, and when I walked, my left leg kept crossing over my right no matter how hard I attempted to stretch it straight out in front of me. I thought back to my Wilderness First Responder course when I learned about ataxia. I definitely had it. I began stumbling around at seventeen thousand feet, and it was the first time I genuinely believed I wasn't going to make it. My dad dragged himself upward behind me. He is the man who believes that as long as you tell yourself it doesn't hurt it won't, the man who never ever admits to feeling pain or doubt. "Man, I'm really not feeling well, this is tough," he told me. If he is admitting this, I thought, there is no way I will get up there. Still, for some reason, no matter how many times I decided it was time to turn around, something kept pushing me forward, a little voice from nowhere whispering, you will keep going.

In addition to the fact that I was freezing, nauseous, and dehydrated while navigating through the darkness, about halfway through the hike my eyes began to close. We "woke up" to begin hiking at 11 p.m., but I never really fell asleep after our 7 p.m. bedtime. So there was the added challenge that it was the middle of the night, and I was simply sleepy. My eyelids began to feel as heavy as my head, and Hudson had to continuously wake me up after breaks.

Before we began, Hudson projected it would take us about seven hours to reach the peak. We are moving far too slow for that to be true anymore, I told myself. I assumed it would take us at least ten hours, if not more, and I continuously told myself that we had hours and hours left to go. Then, after five and a half hours, when Hudson told us we only had about an hour and a half to the summit, I truly did not believe him.

Suddenly, I felt invigorated. Knowing how far I had come and how little I had left allowed some of my nausea to disappear. My steps became a little larger, and the voice telling me to keep going got louder.

And then, just like that, there was no more forward to go. We were there. Beside silver glaciers and above a deep valley stood a large wooden sign congratulating us for reaching the Roof of Africa and the world's highest freestanding mountain -- 19,341 feet. It wasn't triumph I felt at that moment, but relief. I made it. I was there. Thank God. I looked out at the sun rising over a vast ocean of clouds far below me, and I thought that for this moment, there is nothing in all of Africa higher than the top of my head.

Mt. Meru wished us good morning in the distance, with Kilimanjaro's cosmic shadow draped over it like a mother protecting her child. It was incredible to stand up there with my Dad, to share this experience with him that we now get to share forever. The pictures and smiles lasted a few minutes, and then our guides insisted we begin heading down. It isn't good for the brain to be up there for too long, not to mention the shivering that my body had still not gotten under control. We trekked down with glee, and even though I still felt sick, it didn't bother me so much anymore. At least now I knew it was worth it.

We spent six days working toward spending about six minutes at that peak, but those six minutes gave me something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life: confidence in my strength. It seems almost too often that people use mountain climbing to create these metaphors about life, but there is a reason for it. Everything that happened up there is happening to me now. Now, as I return from another summer working at my overnight camp - -my favorite place in the world -- I am feeling that special kind of nausea again, the kind that tears at my soul. Because I find myself wishing I could go back to when the end of camp was simple, to when I was a kid and the most gut-wrenching pain I had to deal with was missing my friends and not the terrifying ordeal of how to begin navigating life as a grown-up.

And when I feel this nausea, when I am forced to learn those grown-up lessons -- like the fact that being qualified for a job doesn't mean I'm going to get it and the fact that loving someone doesn't mean I get to have them in my life -- I think about those seven hours it took me to reach the peak. I remember that even though I was navigating my way through complete darkness, as I feel like I am now, I kept moving forward because I knew the top was up there somewhere. I also remind myself that even hours after I reached the top, the sickness lingered on. Because I was dehydrated and I was exhausted and my legs were giving out on me and I still had to hike down for six more hours. I remind myself of the afterward so that I can remember that even when I do start to figure things out, it will take time for this fear and pain to go away. But it will go away.

Thinking about all of this during a time when my life is in such flux, I realize exactly why I had to reach that peak. I had to show myself that I could, that even when it feels like every odd is turned against me, I can push through, and I can succeed.

So here I am now, standing at about 17,000 feet, stumbling around this world and for the first time feeling like I'm not going to make it, that I am never going to have anything figured out. But somewhere beneath this insufferable feeling, I can still hear that tiny little voice reminding me that turning back is not an option. You will keep going. I hear that voice and I remember that someday, somehow, I am going to make it. Thanks to that mountain, I will always remember that even when I feel like I am crumbling into a million specks of dust, I will make it to my peak, and I will feel whole, happy, and proud.