This blog post comes one month after taking off from JRO airport in Tanzania and arriving back in the United States. The flight was an anticlimactic way of saying goodbye to Mt. Kilimanjaro, the mountain that I had dreamed of climbing for six months prior. Days earlier, I had taken photographs of my feet on its summit. Now, even though I couldn’t see the mass of the mountain in the dark night skies, I felt its presence.
From my window seat, I was gaining altitude again, except this time I was heading toward a less exciting destination on my itinerary: my connection in AMS. The experience of climbing Kilimanjaro seemed to be over as quickly as it began. But all in all, the journey highlighted the juxtaposition between the simplicity, tranquility, and calmness I want to encounter each day, versus the complexity of daily life.
Honestly, I’ve been putting off writing about the culmination of my whole trip. I feel that I could let my thoughts marinate for years inside of my head, and it would never all come out as eloquently or thoughtfully as I would want (and apparently that’s a pretty common theme amongst Tumblrs who’ve gotten back from Tanzania). Introspection is difficult, to say the least. Coincidentally, the Texas 4000 for Cancer riders, an organization I participated in back in 2009, crossed over the Alaskan border yesterday after riding their bicycles over 4,000 miles from Austin, Texas. It took me quite some time to truly process and value that experience, too.
But back to Kilimanjaro: I officially signed up with Survivor Summit back in January to participate in this journey, one that would require me to raise $10,000 for cancer programs and services at LIVESTRONG; gather all the appropriate gear, travel documents, immunizations, and medications; and train to climb the 19,341 foot peak, while holding down a full-time job and a part-time weekend position. It was complicated to balance it all, but if anyone can organize or multi-task, it’s me. I made it a point to dig deep and find my motivation for climbing on a daily basis. I often dedicated blog posts, runs, bike rides, and workouts to the people and stories that inspired me. I’d wear my LIVESTRONG band and my highlighter-yellow Go4TheGoal shoelaces while I would hike along the Greenbelt in Austin, and would daydream about being in Tanzania.
Suddenly, it was June 23, and time to board the plane and head toward east Africa. Hours of sitting aboard airbuses slowly shifted into hours of walking along rocks and trails that I had never seen before, with people that I had never met. My Survivor Summit teammates and I bonded with our Tanzanian guides and porters quickly, though, amidst the alien trees and landscape. The new world was no longer so foreign, thanks to our host’s kindness and generosity as they offered to cook for us, carry our things, and lead us closer to the summit day after day.
Each day was filled with beauty, as well as simplicity in the flow of daily activities: wake up. Then eat. Hike. Hike. And hike some more. Arrive at camp. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. All I had to do was put one foot in front of the other, appreciate where I was, and think about the stories that had brought me to the mountain in the first place. There were no bills to pay, no hours at work to log, no issues to worry about other than drinking plenty of water, climbing high, and sleeping low.
Perhaps the lack of complication was thanks in large part to our porters, mountain guides, and Earth Treks expedition guides, all of whom knew Kilimanjaro so well. Maybe part of it, too, was simply being in Africa, where regular American comforts are a luxury for many; seriously, I couldn’t even legitimately complain about the chilly sleeping accommodations knowing that many civilians thousands of feet below me had never had a mattress, or indoor heating. Or, it might also be that my journey to Uhuru was for a reason bigger than myself—it was hard to be bothered by any aches or pains when I would stop and look at my teammate, Mindy, a cancer survivor who was climbing Kilimanjaro with a prosthetic leg. I reminded myself that I was so fortunate to have my health, climb for those fighting cancer, and be involved with the Survivor Summit organization.
Things only began to get challenging and slightly complicated after several days of navigating over stones and slowly increasing our elevation. We made it to the Barranco camp for a rest day to continue our acclimatization process, and I looked upward and saw a jagged line of rocks along the face of the ridge: it was the storied Barranco Wall. After our rest day had passed, I was excited to get up the wall as quickly as possible, because it required me to scramble over eight hundred feet of boulders without being anchored to anything. Knowing that the long trail toward the summit was on the other side, I relied on my teammates and guides to give me the strength and confidence to make it. I guess, with the benefit of hindsight, it wasn’t as complicated as it had looked, though, and by that afternoon we were in the Karanga Valley, with Barafu camp not too far in the distance.
We arrived in Barafu the day after next, and it was time to make our summit attempt; one group left at 10:30 p.m. or so, the next at 11:30 p.m., and ours at 12:30 at night. Our headlights twinkled as we made our way along the serpentine incline. Black skies, shining stars, and a nearly full moon were our climbing companions.
We passed the first group quickly, and offered them motivating words as we kept creeping up the slope. The temperature and our spirits kept dropping, even after passing the second group of teammates. We were trailblazing out in front, and I ignored the urge to look at my watch or ask how close we were. Instead, I focused on putting one foot in front of the other. I watched the reflective accents of my guide’s pants move step-by-step, and kept in sync with his movements. Mittens, Gortex, and hot tea did little to combat the negative temperatures. The only thing that kept me going was the image of the summit sign, and holding our Honor Flag parallel to it.
We made it to Stella Point as the sun peaked its orange and amber glow over the horizon, and we trekked onward toward the summit. The navy skies turned indigo, then purple, fuschia, red, and pink as morning came. I pulled my balaclava down from my around my face when I finally saw the unmistakable green summit sign announcing our almost-arrival.
Six months of hard work was revealed for this moment. I started to breath deeply to combat against the quick panting from my mouth. It was only from the tears that froze to my eyelashes that I realized I wasn’t really gasping for air, but crying! This was the point where I had the sweet epiphany that I was actually going to make it to the summit. I thought of my grandmother, my uncle, my college mentor, my Texas 4000 teammates, my family, my loved ones, my old friends, my supporters, my Survivor Summit teammates, and all the new friends I had made as a result of deciding to climb Kilimanjaro to fight cancer. We reached the summit as the brightness and clarity of daylight officially broke to my right, and a blocky, chiseled, impossibly huge, white-and-teal glacier revealed itself to my left.
My experience on the crew team in college made me hyperaware of how cold it truly gets at sunrise. Kilimanjaro didn’t spare us from this cruel fact. It was negative 35 degrees Fahrenheit. We had worked so hard to get to the peak, and it was so cold that all I could think about was taking a few photos with our flag and getting down to a comfortable temperature as quickly as possible. I would uncover my hand from the shelter of my layers of mittens and gloves, and immediately regret it. I took one shot of my neon shoelaces on the peak, and a few other mediocre images, too. We then snapped more photos that violated all the rules of/professional attempts at photography. Two members of our group, Missy and Caroline, noted that they were ready to get back down to Barafu camp below us and they took off in the bright sunlight. Another member of our group, Mike, voluntarily stayed behind to watch the next group summit. That left Mona, Chasse, and I ready to drop 4,000 feet in elevation. I planted my heels in the dirt and pushed off with my trekking poles to skid along the trail, leaving a path behind me like an alpine snake.
As we skied along the scree on the descent, my stomach awoke and wanted to wolf down every type of food imaginable. I took quick breaks to lay down in the dust, eat, and revel in the accomplishment my teammates and I just had. When we arrived at camp, our porters flashed us their signature smiles, brought us treats, and congratulated us.
I then proceeded to have the greatest nap of my life, and wait for the rest of our teammates to make a safe descent. The news came over the radio several hours later that we had a true 100% summit rate: we had all made it. Our next sights were set on Millennium camp. Our group made it before the tents were set up, and we eagerly awaited the rest of our teammates so we could congratulate them. It was such an awesome, inspiring day.
Finally, there was one last day on the mountain to enjoy—and this one would prove to be challenging and complex, too. We constantly headed downhill, and my toes would dig into my boots on the descent. The brightness above the cloudline slowly faded when we reached the mist of the rainforest. My quads screamed with each step and hop, and I slid on mud and wobbled on rocks, too, as I relied on my trekking poles to carry my weight down the mountain. My neon shoelaces were absolutely covered in brown muck. It was finally hot again, but I dare not stop and slow my pace—I just wanted to get to the base without any scars or twisted ankles. This whole portion of the descent required strength and determination to get down in one piece. When we reached the trailhead, more food and smiles were awaiting us. It was comforting to get back to moments that framed the concepts of simplicity and genuine appreciation. I carried those values with me into safari, and onto the planes that carried me home.
But I had to come back to “real” life. And while I’m incredibly lucky that my life is a lot less complicated than most, it was still difficult to return to stress. To bills. To work. To cleaning my house, washing my car, and debating the type of food I wanted to purchase in the grocery store. I immediately donated a good quarter of my clothing to Goodwill, because after watching our porters use a lottery system to get access to clothes and other items, I realized I didn’t really need half of the things in my apartment to survive. Online, the hashtag #firstworldproblems tries to cutely sum up some of these cultural complexities. It doesn’t actually capture how alarming it is for those who have just embarked upon and returned from a transformative experience in a developing world. For me, confronting these trivial, mundane realities of privileged life were huge, unsettling, and reminded me that I wanted to be back on the mountain and in the amazing country that had kindly hosted my teammates and I.
It’s funny to think about the impact that the two-week adventure had on me. Life was so simple on that mountain. I wanted it to be like that always, even though I knew, deep down, that it couldn’t stay that way forever.
But maybe that’s the point: life isn’t meant to be neatly summarized in experiences or blog posts, nor is it meant to be simple day-in and day-out, either. These fleeting moments of uncomplicated, gentle, happy times need to be paired with harsher realities. Life is tangled, complicated, and messy at times—beautifully so—just like the shoelaces on my hiking boots. Simplicity and complexity give life its unique character, and make us thankful for what we have from one transition to the next.
For now, I am humbled, honored, and grateful to have climbed an easy-yet-challenging Kilimanjaro, as a means of truly helping others. Yes, it’s a near impossible feat to neatly encapsulate the experience I just had. And who knows? I may never climb a mountain again, or encounter a similar journey like the one I just had. Will I use the experience I had summitting a 19,341 foot peak and apply them to my life?
That question, in all its simplicity and complexity, remains to be answered. As I continue to reflect, grow, and transform, I aim to focus not so much on the uncertainty of my entire future, but rather the clarity of each day to come after reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro.