Throughout my life, I’ve had moments permanently etched into my memory—instances in time where I’ve taken a mental snapshot of my life and held it close to my heart, in the hopes that I’d never forget, and always be thankful for witnessing. Summit Day on Mount Kilimanjaro was one of them.
Around midnight on July 2, 2012, a group of my teammates and I embarked from high camp at Barafu to head toward the summit.
I will always remember the smell of camp stoves cooking a light breakfast; the wind-whipped chill of the cold mountain air; and the black-indigo of the night sky, with bright stars illuminated all around. I still reminisce about how absolutely cold it was to the bone, and yet my heart was still warm and aflutter with anticipation and excitement
But more than anything, I remember looking out toward Uhuru Peak and seeing traces of headlamps twinkling along a serpentine path on the way to the summit. They were like ants along a trail. Peering up at those small beacons of light made me so nervous while I was preparing my body with enough fuel and clothing for the final 4,000 foot climb.
Soon the time had come to start climbing, one foot in front of the other, slowly, “pole pole” as they say on the mountain—never truly gazing up to see where my group was along the trail, but rather to look out at those blips of light up ahead on the way to summit, and silently cheering them on. It took great effort to see faces, to remove a glove, or to talk with my teammates.
Onward we pressed, until the first vestiges of orange, fuschia, and aubergine made their way over the horizon. I couldn’t look up at the trail of headlamps any longer, only at the heels of the person in front of me. We kept climbing after a tasty treat of hot tea and sugar cookies, and finally made it to Stella Point. A large sign greeted us, but we weren’t done yet. There were still forty five minutes to go before summiting.
As we walked, the sky began to fade into cerulean. It matched the glacier on top of the peak. Finally, off in the distance, we saw the huge green summit sign, and I started to cry tears of joy. They danced down my face and froze on my eyelashes. I swear it actually got colder as we approached Uhuru, but I was warmly comforted with the thought of the people I was summitting for; my uncle, my grandmother, and countless others that I had carried with me from the base.
We posed for photos and reveled in our accomplishments. The glacial winds increased as the sun fully rose, and we wondered how we’d get down the steep incline we had just successfully completed. We traversed back to Stella Point and then planted our heels into the ground and pushed off the land with our trekking poles. We skiied on scree the remaining 4,000 feet below back to Barafu. Exhausted. Elated. Elevated. Happy.
I’ve been back in Austin now for a full year, dealing with the mundane, annoying details of my personal life, and wishing to somehow be transported back to that moment in time I remember so clearly. I can only hope I have more instances in my life like Summit Day, where sounds, sights, and smells remind me that I’m lucky to be alive—and to even be dealing with the nitty-gritty, silly, stupid problems that life throws my way. Some days, it’s harder than others to be thankful.
What I’ve learned, though, is how to summit a challenge, each and every day, whether it’s at 19, 341 feet, or just in my backyard.
Perspective, like memory, is a beautiful thing.