Tag Archives: mountaineering

Are You Brave Enough? Summiting a Peak That Almost Killed You

I can see IT, touch IT, smell IT.  

“THIS”

The summit, that is.  In just a matter of days I will once again come face to face with a mountain or a volcano rather that has instilled this lingering fear in me.  Her name is Kilimanjaro.

A few years back, I made an ambitious attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu.  By shortest, I mean 2.5 days to go up the summit.  Sounds intense?  It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema.  By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself pasta.  To be frank, that was one of the scariest night of my life.  A German doctor who happened to be at the hut that night looked me over and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right?  You’d die if you continue on.  Well, that is if you can even walk at this stage.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore.  My lungs were starting to fill up with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited.  As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in.  The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings.  Unbeknownst to her, in silence, I cried that night while the hikers and I made our attempt to get some sleep before the midnight start time for the summit.  My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek.  After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak.  Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching.  I was that close to possessing the prize.  But I knew I had no choice except to quietly lay on that top bunk bed struggling to keep myself conscious and awake.  Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit.  Their day of hiking would take anywhere between 10 and 14 hours to complete whereas my activity for that day took a different shape, one in which I have to be transported down the mountain as soon as daylight arrived.

As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this –a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat.  I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I may never open them up again.  Never.  In other words, it dawned on me that quite possibly I might die tonight. 

I thought about my family and friends, how far away they were and without a clue of the predicament that I was in.  Fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I ever conjured in my mind until that night. My only goal at that moment was to survive.  I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they maybe just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point.  Perhaps I became too overly confident that I can conquer any peak I so desire in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up Thorung La Pass on Annapurna Circuit in Nepal just months prior.  Now, as fate intended, I was learning the hard way that being overly confident in Kilimanjaro worked against me.  The decision to hike up over the shortest amount of time worked against me. Now, I myself was against me for making such reckless decisions that led me to this unwanted fate.  I was angry at the situation and myself while placing most of the blame on me.  What was supposed to be an ordeal with summiting had turned into one dealing with survival.

As daylight came the next morning, I was notified of the porters’ arrival at the hut to lift and carry me back down the mountain as a means for me to survive.  The plan was to transport me back to the lower hut where I was expected to reunite with my hiking companions.  To add insult to injury, the transport down via a homemade stretcher was quite a bumpy ride as the porters, my saviors, hurried down the rocky trail as if I was as light as a feather.  Speeding down the mountain did mean a quicker recovery, however.   In fact, within minutes of arriving at the lower hut, I felt completely functional again without a hint of any of the symptoms I endured earlier at higher altitudes.  I survived physically.  But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

This all happened in 2009.  Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time which carved out the space I needed to detach from the horrific experience allowed me to grow as a person.  That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature view point.  Over time, I found a way to release my pent-up frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker.  I hated every second that I felt this way.  I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that I will be forced to bare the utmost sense of failure yet again.  Eventually, I learned to forgive myself which proceeded to restore my sense of self-worth.  This process then led me to realize that the power of fear to deter our ability to function to our fullest potential was in essence merely an illusion.

And so, years went by.  Life moved on.  I continued to hike and trek other parts of the world.  But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt?  I promised myself that if I ever decide to do so, it will be for the right reasons.  For 7 years, I hardly considered renewing any commitment to returning to Kilimanjaro and even decided at some point, “Hell no, I will never go back.”  

However, from out of nowhere, I found myself inspired to return.  An epiphany unexpectedly entered my psyche dictating that I should go and make a second attempt.  This time around it’s not so much about proving to myself that I can summit.  Instead, it’s more about proving to myself that I’m fearless and that no matter what the outcome maybe, my self-love is strong enough to resist the pull of the ego to define my inability to summit as “failure.”  Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience.  Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my constant subconscious effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.”

As you can see, it took 8 years to finally muster the courage to revisit this unfortunate circumstance.  Whatever reluctance I might have had in the beginning have all dissipated at this point.  Now, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with my new sense of self – scared but courageous enough to conquer that very same fear.

I am of course returning to Kilimanjaro equipped with lessons from the first attempt.  The lessons include devoting some serious mental preparation for it in addition to the physical training to ensure that my body is at its best shape to overcome the challenge that lies ahead.  From running a half marathon to walking 30 miles in one day with my usual intense hot yoga and cardio workout in between, I am facing this personal fear of Kilimanjaro with the best mindset and physical capabilities that I can possibly have.  I have been diligently preparing for this moment including my extensive research on the best route that will guarantee a higher level of success.  I also added at least 4 more days to the ascent to ensure proper acclimatization to the altitude.  I even wrote notes to myself about how best to prepare for the altitude from a mental standpoint.  Finally, my trekking gear has been upgraded and replenished to withstand cold and windy conditions, which should make the experience less excruciating.

Completing the Charleston half marathon to prepare mentally and physically.

In a few days I’ll be en route to the summit of Kilimanjaro.  As I do so, I intend to remind myself of a meaningful conversation with a random unnamed fellow hiker who shared with me some wonderful wisdom – “what makes one courageous is not the first time experience of successfully climbing a peak; rather, it’s failing at it the first time and yet making a second attempt at it despite the fear of failing yet again.”

If he’s right about that notion, then this only means one thing – that I was courageous then, but more courageous now for facing the same challenge the second time around after a failed attempt.  With that in mind, I forge ahead with my head up high. Trekking Kilimanjaro or any mountain peak for that matter has taught me first and foremost to face my fears. Second, success is defined not by what we do in a physical sense but rather what we tell ourselves regardless of the direction the journey takes us.  Hence, no matter the outcome  the second attempt of Kilimanjaro yields, one thing is for sure this time around – either way, there is no defeat but only life lessons and gratitude for the experience.

So, are you brave enough to go back and tackle that mountain that you didn’t summit?  You are.  You will.

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Peru’s Ausangate & Rainbow Mountains: A Hidden Gem for Trekkers

When I had the opportunity to do the Classic Inca Trail in Peru with a group of 30 people, I decided to add a more off the beaten path trail to the experience.  The Inca Trail is a classic for a reason and you can read about the reasons why you should go HERE.  However, I wanted to also experience more remoteness and a wilder trekking adventure that is opposite of the experience from the Inca Trail.

My nature of being such a curious hiker ultimately led me to discovering Ausangate.  BestHike.com, which is  a website that compiles the best treks in the world named Ausangate along with Pacchanta (also known as Rainbow Mountains) as one of the top 10 hikes in South America.  The great thing about it is that it only takes 5-7 days to do so combined with the Inca Trail, you can do a decent 9-11 days of hiking, which makes for a solid two-week trip in Peru.

To get to Ausangate, the starting point is Cusco.  There are many flights to Cusco via Lima.  You can also opt to spend a few days in Lima and book a local flight from there to Cusco.  Either way, the flight costs are quite reasonable.  Once in Cusco, it’s recommended that you have a day or two of acclimatizing to the altitude.  Cusco is at an elevation of 11,152 feet, which is high enough to experience the symptoms of altitude mountain sickness.  For tips on how to prepare for altitude mountain sickness (AMS), read THIS.  Spending time in Cusco is heavenly anyway so you should take a day or two to enjoy the cobbled stone streets and its historical sites.  Typically, people visit the Sacred Valley nearby to see the ruins as  an easy day trip.

To do the Ausangate trek, one must book a reliable tour operator who will provide a guide, an assistant guide, cook and horses to carry the gear.  The price includes tents, basic sleeping mats, all the meals while trekking, dining tents, toilet tents and transport to and from the trail.  The starting point is at  Tinki village, which is only a few hours of a bus ride from Cusco.  We did the 7 day itinerary.  You can do a 5 or 6 day variation of the trek.

How difficult is Ausangate?  It’s a REAL trek.  When I say that, despite the fact that you only need to carry a day pack, it is a much harder trek than the Inca Trail.  Here are the things to keep in mind about Ausangate:

It’s freezing cold!

It’s often below freezing at night from the first day until the end.  While the Inca Trail trek is a pleasantly mild experience when it comes to weather, think “extreme” for Ausangate.  Every night, we all struggled to keep our water bottles from freezing, to no avail.  We huddled in the warmest part of our campsite – the dining tent or our respective sleeping bags.  Campfires are not allowed for good reasons, of course.  Due to the cold, we didn’t manage to stay up too long which meant long nights in the tent.  You wait eagerly for the sunrise each day as that’s the only source of heat you can rely on.

It’s very high right from the start

You start at a high elevation of about 12, 500 feet and it doesn’t go below that until the end.  The highest point is the pass at over 17,000 feet.   Plus, the challenge is to go over a few passes, four in our case, that ranged from 15,000 to 17,000 feet  in altitude.  This is the exact reason why I combined this trek with the Inca Trail.  Doing the Inca Trail first allowed for some way to acclimatize.  Even though my group still dealt with some symptoms of AMS, I’m certain that the symptoms would have been far more severe had we not trekked the Inca Trail beforehand which went up to almost 14, 000 feet in elevation at its highest point.

It’s remote

It’s remote, as in when my group of 15 people did it, we did not see a single hiker on the trail.  It’s beautiful indeed to be in the middle of nowhere.  That’s what attracted me to do Ausangate in the first place.  But as hikers, we all know that the more remote a trekking destination gets, the more safety issues you’ll potentially deal with.

It’s easy to get lost

The trail is unmarked and there is no clear path.  Hence, you really should have a guide.  Some hardcore hikers have done this without a guide but you better be an expert on navigation as there is nothing up in those mountains that will give you a hint of where to go.   To do this alone is risky as there’s hardly any locals in the area.  Although you will see villages at the start and end of the trek, there are no locals to be seen in-between except for one or two shepherds and their herds of llamas; therefore, help will be difficult to get if you do it without a guide.

It’s roughing it

There are no facilities during the trek.   No showers for sure or warm streams to bathe in.  You set up camp in the wild like a true wilderness backpacking experience.  You rely on the natural water sources for drinking water.  Everything must be carried in and out, which is done by the use of horses. Going to the toilet means searching for a spot in the wild or there’s the infamous toilet tent.  The toilet tent will be your source of privacy but it can be an unpleasant experience if you have 15 people sharing it.  It sounds petty but it can get mentally  challenging to deal with this aspect when you’re actually there.  The problem is compounded by the fact that most of the time there are no bushes or trees given you’re up at a high altitude so you’ll need to resort to the use of the toilet tent.  The best approach is to do your business as much as possible without having to use the toilet tent. It’s not that sanitary as you can imagine.

Having said all this, I don’t want to discourage you.  Avid mountaineers know this universal truth:

Mountains make you work hard so you can enjoy their magnificent beauty to its utmost level.

Frankly, I still blush and glow with a smile when I think about Ausangate and Pacchanta.  This part of the Andes is rather spectacular and less visited compared to the nearby treks that take you to Machu Picchu due to reasons noted above.  However, the toughness of the trek undoubtedly adds more value to the experience.

Now, enters the best part – You immerse yourself in a spectacular and unique mountain scenery that only a few souls can ever see in person.   See below for yourself, and always remember:

Mountain trekking is not meant to be easy.  Facing challenges is what we do because while we’re in it, nature always has a way to remind us that we can conquer just about anything with persistence and determination.

Photo credit: Flavio H.



Photo credit: Flavio H.
Photo credit: Flavio H.
Photo Credit: Flavio H.
Photo credit: Flavio H.

Brown Gal Trekker’s social enterprise, Peak Explorations, has a join-in group set to go in May, 2017 for the Ausangate & Pacchanta Trek.  To join, see THIS LINK.

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