“Something’s missing,” he said, and with that our romance ended.
While I know he was speaking about our relationship, I couldn’t help but wonder if that statement said something about me. I began thinking about the times in my life when I’ve felt like the strongest, best version of myself. What came to mind was my trek to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I had left for that journey feeling uncertain, and had returned feeling empowered, strong, full of joy. Even my friends noticed a change in me.
With that thought, I realized that I have a desire to reconnect with that part of myself. Here, at this time in my life, I begin my journey to rekindle that part of myself that I found on that mountain. And with that, I share the words I wrote shortly after my return from that trek a year and a half ago.
Kilimanjaro: Defining Moments
“What is your goal?”
Bruce, my Tanzanian guide, was looking at me intently, waiting for my response. When I agreed to attempt a climb on Mt. Kilimanjaro, I did not anticipate it leading me here. Here, of course, was sitting in the dark green dining tent, on the fifth night of my climb, with this man questioning me about my intentions.
The day before had been a rough one for me. We had climbed to our highest point yet, and my body had felt it. It was not my legs that were rebelling, but my stomach and my head. Up until that point, I had kept pace with the group, something I was proud to acknowledge. On that day, I had moments of nausea, in which I needed to stop, causing me to fall behind. By the time I reached Lava Tower, our elevation goal for the day, tears had started to fall down my face. Bruce pulled me aside and asked me why I was crying. My simple answer was, “I don’t feel good.” Stepping with me into the lunch tent, he pulled my bandanna from my pocket to wipe away the tears, and hugged me. He encouraged me to rest, and eat lunch when I was ready. The following evening, I found myself with him once again; this time he was asking me the seemingly easy question about my goal.
I sat there, staring at him. I somehow felt that this moment was about more than reaching the summit. I know he was asking me about my goal in regards to this particular undertaking- reaching the highest point on the roof of Africa which stands at over 19,300 feet in the air- but I somehow felt that his question meant more.
“To go as far as I can,” was my simple response.
“That’s not good enough,” was his reply.
I was flustered to have him respond in such a way. I had met this man a mere five days ago, and here he was telling me that my goal was not good enough. When I asked him what he thought my goal should be, he told me simply, “to reach the summit.”
As we sat there, me wrapped up in my four layers of coats to combat the cold I had felt every night since we started this trek, I found myself questioning how I approach life. I suppose it is only natural to begin questioning when you take on an adventure such as this. Ever since I had agreed to climb this mountain, I had been second guessing if it was a wise decision. I have never defined myself as athletic. When I hike with friends, I often find myself out of breath at the back of the pack. The words I had used to describe myself in my kinder moments included artistic, compassionate, musical. In my less kind moments, they usually included mediocre, out of shape, overweight, prone to headaches. They never included climber, achiever, someone who reaches beyond expectations.
I couldn’t help but notice the worry that lived within me ever since I had clicked the button on my laptop, officially purchasing airline tickets to Africa. While friends and family continued to encourage me, telling me that I had every chance of reaching the summit, I found that I couldn’t release that niggling doubt in my head. The script in my head seemed to be simply that I shouldn’t expect greatness. I shouldn’t let my hopes rise too high. Don’t expect something of yourself that you can’t guarantee.
I told Bruce that I anticipated that I would most likely get a headache. I also expected to feel nauseated on the night of the summit, as I had already started feeling moments of nausea and had lost my appetite on the mountain. Bruce told me, “you can’t think that way.”
Somehow I couldn’t imagine it would be that simple. Perhaps that is simply a symptom of living in my head. I know I am a perpetual thinker, always finding all of the possible barriers that could get in my way. I chewed on the words that Bruce had just spoken. With his advice, I once again began burrowing into my head to evaluate how I defined myself. Which led me to wonder how often I had let these definitions determine the course of my life. How often was I letting these supposed absolutes of who I am stand in the way of achieving something greater?
Somehow, this man who had met me only a few days earlier seemed to have more faith in me than I had in myself. What did he see that I couldn’t see? What did he know that I didn’t know? Part of me wanted to write off his words, convincing myself that I must know myself better than he did. At the same time, why shouldn’t I believe his words? Sometimes it takes seeing yourself through the eyes of others to grow, change, realize something new about yourself. Perhaps Bruce was my African sage, a present to me on this mountain, meant to show me something more.
Late at night, on day 6 of the climb, we were woken up to begin the final ascent to the top of Kilimanjaro. We had been told that it would probably take 6 to 7 hours to reach the top. This was supposed to be what the trip was about. I had been climbing subway stairs for months in preparation of this moment. What amazes me though, is that while the summit is supposed to be the climax of this journey, I couldn’t give it any more value than any other moment of the trip. I can’t separate that night from any other moment on the mountain. By the time I began that final push, doubt didn’t live in my body and soul. I had spent 6 days, looking at seemingly endless peaks, successfully moving over each one. Every day, I had woken up, put on my hiking clothes, strapped my pack to my back, and moved slowly and surely towards my goal. Every day, I had met it. And every step along the way was crucial to my success. Including Bruce pushing me to challenge my views. Bruce had asked me about my goals, but he had also asked me to reach, question, let go of doubt. He had asked me to empty my mind of the obstacles I had imagined, and to look at the possibility that existed on that mountain. I reached the summit at 8:15 in the morning of day seven.
While that was no small feat, I have to acknowledge that giving me a gorgeous view of glaciers, at a peak that is higher than any point on the continental United States, was only one gift the mountain gave me. The mountain also gave me the gift of new definitions. I am no longer the mediocre, the weak, the uninspired. I am the woman who sings on mountains. I am the woman whose legs are steady and sure. I am the woman who offers laughter and love. I am the woman who climbs above the clouds.