Lessons from Mt. Kilimanjaro

kaitlin-gregg-goodman-mt-kilimanjaro

Earlier this summer, my husband and I successfully summited Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest point on Africa's continent, at 19,341 feet. This was something we'd both wanted to do for a long time - for the adventure, the physical test, for the challenge we could take on together.

For me, Mt. Kilimanjaro didn't prove to be a physical challenge, but rather a mental one. We chose to do an 8 day trek (so we'd have more days to get acclimated to the altitude). A longer climb meant that on most days we weren't trekking for too terribly long - at most 6 hours, and usually at a fairly leisurely, conversational pace. A friend had advised us to make sure we felt great every day leading up to the final ascent, and great I felt - with high mileage weeks of running under my belt, the hike wasn't strenuous. I was ready to roll on that final climb to the top!

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Or so I thought. Our summit ascent began at 11:30 pm, with us bedecked in layer upon layer of gear, headlamps shining on the steep mountain ahead. Right off the bat, things started to go wrong - I was overdressed, and quickly overheated once we started climbing. My base layer was soon sweaty, a big no-no on Kilimanjaro. I lost some layers, but the damage was done. Soon I got chilled from the sweat, and thus began a long night of freezing my a** off on the roof of Africa.

 The trail to the top, as seen on the way back down

The trail to the top, as seen on the way back down

Running in New England blizzards proved to be no comparison to Kilimanjaro's cold - I've never been so chilled as I was on summit night. I was freezing in all of my six layers, wool and fleece and wind-proof gear. I remember thinking about how cold the Donner Party must have been, and that I surely would have perished if I'd been a member of their ill-fated wagon train. I stuffed hand-warmers into every pocket, into my boots, in my hat, in my gloves, and was STILL shivering. If it wasn't for the big down puffer our guide finally put on me, I would have surely had to turn around.

But being cold wasn't my biggest problem on summit night. My greater foe was altitude sickness, which came on fast and strong when we surpassed 16,000 feet. I started feeling nauseous and tried taking a Diamox (altitude medication), but like an epidural, you need to take those meds early, otherwise you're s*** out of luck. Within 5 minutes, the Diamox I'd taken was spewed across the trail, along with my dinner. And so began a 6-hour ordeal of vomiting my way to the top. It felt like the worst hangover of my life - nauseous and my head throbbing - and as I continued to get sick, I grew increasingly weak. It took all I had to keep my eyes glued to the back of our guide's feet, watching his every step and willing my body to follow his path up the dark switchbacks. It was a death march, interrupted every 15 minutes or so by a break to get sick.

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The physical symptoms were pretty awful, and my mind, focused on self-preservation, zeroed in on thoughts of turning around. I just wanted to descend in altitude so I could feel better - because at this point, that was the only way to relieve my symptoms. Every step up to the top meant a continuation of this hangover-from-hell feeling, with hours to go before reaching the summit (and then finally descending to the lovely lower elevation). And so I was faced with a dilemma: give up when I was close (but still hours away) from the summit, my goal, or march on in misery.

 Sunrise, 7 hours into our summit climb

Sunrise, 7 hours into our summit climb

I'll admit, for a while there my mental game was not something I'm particularly proud of. "This is so effing stupid, climbing a damn mountain... Why am I doing this? Whose bright idea was this anyway?" Thoughts of giving up and turning around ran rampant through my oxygen-deprived brain, and I was pretty close to admitting defeat.

I was hurting, but I was also so MAD. I was pissed - I'd done everything right, coming into the climb physically fit, feeling great every day of the trek, fueled and hydrated and acclimated after 6 days on the mountain. How frustrating that I had prepared just as I'd been told to, followed all the directions, checked off all the boxes, and yet everything was going oh so WRONG!

And that's where I realized: THIS was my challenge, my "Everest," the trial I had to surmount before I could reach the top. It wasn't the physical contest I had sought - aerobically, I was doing great - but rather, it was a mental challenge in dealing with adversity. Kilimanjaro's test for me was internal - high up on the mountain, shivering in the darkness, I had to battle my own thoughts. If I wanted to reach the summit, I had to put to rest the devil on my shoulder telling me to turn back, give up, give in.

I can't recall at what point I decided to keep pressing on to the top, when I banished all thoughts of turning around. Maybe it was Avi rubbing my back while I got sick, whispering words of encouragement. Maybe it was the guides cheering me on, saying that I was doing great, even though I so obviously was not. Maybe it was my competitive side, getting frustrated as other climbers passed me and me not wanting to "lose" in the "race" to the top. But somewhere along the trail, in the darkness with nothing but stars and headlamps for light, I chose to continue on.

 The home stretch

The home stretch

And as the sun rose over the side of the mountain, I realized a powerful lesson -- that all the planning and preparation in the world can't guarantee an easy path to success. You can do everything right, and sometimes things still go to s*** -- in a summit attempt, in a marathon, in all aspects of life.

What determines whether or not you succeed in the face of adversity is how you approach the challenge - what matters is the attitude you choose to tackle the obstacle with.

I have to tip my hat to Kilimanjaro - making it to the top was far more difficult than any race (even the marathon!) that I've run. In your biggest challenges, often the most significant battle is internal - whether you're running or climbing a mountain, it's you vs. your head, telling you to slow down, DNF, give up, concede defeat. And this is my most meaningful takeaway from the mountain, the thing I'll forever remember from Kilimanjaro, the lesson that will have applicability across all aspects of my life:

Attitude is everything, which is something my dad always told me growing up. As Dory the fish says, you've got to "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming." The road ahead might seem daunting, but if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, one small slow step at a time, you'll get there, wherever you're going.