In January of 2016 I boarded a plane from Amsterdam to Arusha, Tanzania en route to what was just supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime ~vacation~ that ended up changing my entire life. And, surprise - you thought you were reading a travel story when in fact you've stumbled on a recipe full of cheese.
Anyway, my friend Megan and I had been planning to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro for a year. The trip wasn't even my idea - it was hers; something she'd wanted to do for a long time. I was just along for the ride. And by "planning" I mean I had obsessively watched youtube videos about Africa for hours but did almost no physical training. At this point in my life I was still sedentary AF - working a desk job by day then eating a box of mac-and-cheese and sitting on the couch watching tv by night. I arrogantly thought, despite Kili being higher than any place I'd ever been by about 9,000ft, it would be an easy hike. Which, incidentally, I had almost no experience with either. Despite living in Montana during college for 5 years, I could probably count the number of times I'd been hiking on one hand. And ironically enough, was known amongst my friends for complaining about how thin the air was in town at 4,000ft. Proof that our Lord has a sense of humor!
Ok so we've established that I was young and naive and had no clue what I was getting myself in to. So we arrive in Tanzania well after dark and are immediately greeted by the hot African air and because it's me we're talking about - bug bites.
Oh, and did I mention - this was my first trip out of the country! At this point I'd been to nearly every state in the US but never outside of it. If you're familiar with the Enneagram personality theory, I'm a four. And this is a classic four move. Never one for subtlety or easing in to things, I'm all about the drama.
Ok so back to the story. Kilimanjaro. 19,340 ft. Six days up, one day down. Day one - Machame Gate. We started mid-morning. Driving to the trailhead we got our first glimpse of Kilimanjaro - it just rises out of the plains out of nowhere. I remember thinking "Oh shit, that's huge". It's unbelievably beautiful, you have to see it in person to understand. There aren't any other mountains around, just Kili and her twin peak Mawenzi. But faced with the thought of being all the way on the top in just 6 days I about fainted with terror. What was I doing here? I don't even hike... I have no business here. But fear has always been a strange friend of mine; given the right circumstances it can be energizing. And that's what I felt in that moment, energized by fear of the unknown.
The first leg of the climb was harder than I expected (of course) but do-able. Mostly I was just drenched in sweat. The second day was probably the most mentally challenging. It was like 7 non-stop hours of climbing stairs. Something I have since grown to love, but on that day all I could think about was how easy it would be to turn around and call it quits. Miraculously I kept at it. Then the next day brought some new fun - my first taste of altitude sickness. We climbed up to 15,000 ft and I felt like I might have left half of my brain behind at Shira camp. Mercifully, we descended to set up camp and I immediately felt better.
The next couple days would go by in a blur. I spent every moment in a foggy state of "why the fuck did I let Megan talk me into this I'm never even walking anywhere ever again" and being led ever upwards by our guides and a mysterious external spirit of knowing that I didn't want to quit.
Every night at dinner we checked our heart rates and oxygen saturation levels. Everyone's HR rose and oxygen levels dropped the higher we got; but to my horror the night before the summit, I watched my RESTING HR click steadily away at 120bpm. Ok, maybe I should have put in some more time training.
I don't remember a whole lot of the summit; just that we started at midnight and climbed slowly for what seemed like an eternity. It was agonizing. But the thought of quitting now hurt my pride too much, so we kept going. Finally by sunrise we crested the crater. From here the climb would get easier, the guides assured us.
I have never done drugs, but this is what I imagine it feels like. Life is passing on around you as normal but you're stuck in a foggy, ethereal state. Megan told me my lips were navy blue. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in my phone and imagined it to be true. They matched my jacket perfectly. What is it about life that really matters? Do I even care? No. I didn't care about anything at this point. I only lived for another agonizing step.
We made it to the summit. All I could think about was how much I was dreading the descent. I look so unhappy in our photos it's hilarious. After what felt like another eternity we made it back to camp. I took a nap and started to feel better. Naps have that kind of healing power sometimes.
Then we left. And it was only after we were driving away that I started to feel my heart change. I wish I could explain what happened. Somehow the mists of Kilimanjaro had washed away the parts of me that I had built up because I thought "that's who I was supposed to be", and had instead uncovered my true heart. A steady rain pounded the windows of our van, thoughts of a shower and pizza filled everyones imaginations, and I discovered a new flame burning in my heart. I could bore you with all manner of mountain metaphors about the journey being the destination and achieving your goals and what not, but I'll leave those up to you. Instead I'll end with a quote by G.K. Chesterton: "There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect."