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, 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 that night.

Fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I ever conjured in my mind until that night.  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.  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 never 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.  With that in mind, I forge ahead with my head up high.  No matter the outcome  this journey yields, one thing is for sure this time around – either way, there is no defeat but only life lessons and gratitude for the experience.

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Brown Gal Trekker is a nomad at heart who survives the mountains to inspire others to trek them.