A few years ago, I was speaking to my friends’ husband and he told me he recently returned from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. I will confess, at this point in my life I had never heard of Mount Kilimanjaro and didn’t even know where it was. But for whatever reason, when he told me he did this I thought to myself, “If he can climb that mountain, I can climb that mountain,” and a seed was planted.
Skip to a year and a half later when I embarked on my first outdoors vacation to Patagonia in Chile. We hiked every day for up to 15 miles and I asked my guide on the trip about Mount Kilimanjaro and he assured me if I could handle our trek in Chile, Africa’s highest mountain would be cake. He said the only issue would be altitude as the mountain is 19,000 feet in the air which us humans are not meant to survive in for long periods of time. His advice, however, was there is no way to know how your body will handle the altitude unless you try.
Luckily for me, he told my friend Blanca the same thing and we both convinced each other we could meet this challenge and blindly decided to sign up for a trip to climb Mount Kilimanjaro this February.
Before I go any further I should fill you in on a few details. Until I signed up for a trip where I lived on a mountain IN AFRICA for eight days, I had never even camped outside for one night. I do hike often and am physically active but I typically go on a hike, come home, shower and relax over a glass of wine and dinner. Even in Patagonia, we were outdoors and active daily but there was shelter, a shower, restaurant and bar waiting for us every evening.
So, net, net – I had no idea what I was in for.
And the thing is – I am so glad I didn’t as if I did I might have psyched myself out of doing it.Because of the altitude, we climbed the mountain slowly so the hiking wasn’t even that strenuous – it was up to six miles tops a day. And we didn’t even have to carry our belongings, tents, or food – our amazing team of porters carried all of our stuff for us and set up camp and cooked for us every night. Yet, even under these circumstances it was roughing it for me and a massive step out of my comfort zone.
Firstly, when you start on a trip like this everyone warns you – you burn more calories at altitude and have to eat more and at the same time lose your appetite the higher up you get; you have to hydrate like crazy; and you just never know what will happen. Blah blah blah I thought, I know my body and I need less food than most and already drink a lot of water. WRONG. As we started going up my body started doing ridiculous things. I ate more white bread on this trek than I have in the past 20 years and still lost weight. I also only WANTED to eat white bread, plain pasta and rice. And my stomach of steel failed me for the first time since I can remember and I got sick.
The clincher is this wasn’t even a result of altitude sickness itself which I got my first taste of the day we ascended to 15,000 feet. After breathing in the higher altitude, I had a headache like I have never had before and my legs felt like they were detached from my body. I made it to my next camp because the thing with these trips is you HAVE to – no other way to get there – but without the encouragement and support of my trek mates and guides I don’t know how I would have gotten there. It was a shame as it was a beautiful hike I couldn’t enjoy but I survived and passed out in my tent for the night and woke up the next day renewed.
Summit day (or night as the group left for the summit at midnight – again if I had known this first…) was when my stomach of steel failed me. As I couldn’t keep anything down it was clear I was too sick to do the full summit to 19,000 feet. And while I was obviously disappointed, I also had no doubt it was the right thing to do. I mean if I was home and that sick I wouldn’t get off my couch so it certainly wasn’t the right time to trek 4,000 feet into the ether and see how altitude could make it worse!
This was an important moment for my over-achieving Pitta self as it taught me an important lesson about control, goals and asking for help. First control. My entire experience on the mountain was 100% out of my control – and I like control. I had no idea how my body was going to react and learned the hard way that it was not going to react in the way I was accustomed. I also had no control over my surroundings; people I was with; what I was going to eat, etc – all of the comforts of home were far, far away.
Second, goals. Now obviously when I signed up for this trip my goal was to get to the very top of the mountain. But when I was sick at base camp making the trip from 15,000 feet to 19,000 feet during the 24-hour window I was there was no longer an option because of the reality of how my body was feeling that day. As my only wish was to feel better, I realized reaching 19,000 feet in the long run of my life did not matter. What mattered was I made it to MY summit of 15,000 feet – and that is no small accomplishment. This photo was taken the morning after I declined to do the full summit and was finally feeling better. It was also the first time I was alone in seven days. It was such a gratifying experience and made me realize that sometimes the most important lessons are not reaching our intended goals and instead reaching the ones we need – which for me was acceptance of my limits and the importance of relying on others.Which gets me to my final lesson of how this trip taught me how to accept help – something I have been terrible at my whole life. But habits be damned, when you are sick on a mountain in Africa you have no choice but to lean on those around you and accept their assistance. From our guide Tino who stayed back with me and checked on me throughout the night I was sick knocking on my tent and asking “You ok sista?”; to our lead guide Gerald who literally sang a lullaby the entire last stretch up to base camp to get me there in one piece when I all I wanted to do was lay down and cry; to my dear friend and tent mate Blanca who heard me out and accepted without hesitation that I couldn’t make it to the summit and rubbed my back and helped me tell the rest of my travel mates; to my guides Kevin and Lauren who both nursed me back to health by relentlessly tracking down bananas and electrolyte supplements and stayed back with me along the way; to my travel mate Jeri who loaned me her earphones to listen to Mumford and Sons when I need them most; to Sarah who patted me on the back when I broke down in tears on the side of the trail and understood my perspective throughout; to Emily who was my much needed companion back down to sea level; to Vish who beautifully documented every moment I missed; I learned to graciously accept all of these amazing gifts from each of them when I needed them and will be forever grateful.
So now that I am home and back in civilization am I glad I went on this trip? Beyond.
Was I glad when I was on it? Honestly, it is hard to say.
We deemed a trip like this to be “Type Three Fun”. Type One being doing something that is fun while doing it and also fun after. Type Two being something that is fun while doing it and NOT fun after (a fun night out followed by a hangover comes to mind) and Type Three being something not so fun WHILE doing but fun in retrospect.
And now that I am home, I can see clearly that this Pitta is a glutton for Type Three fun. Because Type Three fun makes you stronger, makes you tougher and expands your horizon of what fun is.
Now that I am back in the comfort of my own home, I am pondering what kind of Type Three fun is next – who is with me?