I am by no means an experienced hiker. While I enjoy the outdoors, I am not one to always be seeking out my next summit or trek. In fact, when I go hiking, it’s usually to enjoy the company of the people accompanying me. However, I have a strong affinity toward nature: sunsets, mountains, water, and flowers. Nature grounds me and slows me down. Over time, I have come to recognize that I am a slow hiker, partly because I am not as physically fit as most avid trekkers, but also because I prefer not to rush to the destination. I like to slow down and enjoy each minute of the journey at my own pace.
This could not describe my experience on Mount Kilimanjaro more perfectly. During my seven-day climb in February 2018, I was always the one behind the pack in my group. A different guide usually stayed with me as I climbed slowly, which let me get to know the guides well.
The five days leading up to summit night were a slow and steep build-up, a constant reminder that trekking up Kilimanjaro is more challenging than many people anticipate. I experienced rocky, steep, and almost never-ending uphill sections, followed by gravelly, dizzying downhill stretches. I went from amateur climber in a gym to bouldering up the dangerous Barranco Wall. I battled diarrhea, nausea, acid reflux, muscle pain, exhaustion, and altitude-induced labored breathing. On several occasions, I questioned my own judgment and wondered if I could really do it. Under all this pressure, I put the idea of summiting on a pedestal.
But then there were the moments where I was so intentionally present because all that mattered was the miracle around me; I felt I had to honor it by taking it one slow step at a time. With each stride, I repeated the words, “I am a warrior.” I heard nothing but my own thoughts and the familiar chant of “pole, pole” (slow, slow) from the porters climbing alongside me. With the vastness and variety of the trek, Mother Nature’s unbelievable artistry was on display like a canvas. Whenever I felt tired or sick, I got back up and continued walking because that was all there was to do.
Thanks to the panoramic scenery, my strength always had a way of creeping back. I remember sitting at the edge of my tent in Karanga camp (the second-to-last camp before the summit), where I had a view that made me think time had stopped. I was above the clouds with the twinkling lights of Moshi town below me and a hazy mix of warm-colored sky above. I felt like nature had taken me on the most romantic date of my life. That feeling empowered me and made me recognize the potential I had to reach higher and to keep going.
When summit night arrived, an intense storm was raging. We woke at 10 p.m. and left to climb the final leg an hour later, knowing there were still seven-to-eight hours of hard work ahead. With snow and ice blasting my face, I took the slowest, smallest steps forward. Pole, pole. Every so often, I slipped because of the sheer ice on the slope. The weather and the increased altitude made breathing even more difficult. Before long, I couldn’t feel my fingers wrapped around my trekking poles, even though I was wearing gloves, mittens, and hand warmers. Suddenly, my chest felt like it was closing up as fast as a soda bottle in the freezer.
Around 4 a.m., I checked in with my guide, who was barely visible through the ice pellets flying past, and asked him how much longer to the summit. He estimated that we were still four hours away.
In the face of altitude sickness and potential frostbite, I had a decision to make. I couldn’t bear to make the call. My ego told me to keep pushing, and I imagined myself throwing my hands over my head in front of the famous sign at Uhuru Peak. But I knew I couldn’t go on. I feared that if I continued, I would be putting myself in danger — and while I am a cheerleader for risk-taking, it isn’t worth it when you fear that your body might not be able to recover.
In that instant, I realized that I was not invincible, that going forward could seriously hurt me. So with that, I turned around with a guide and headed back down the mountain. At its maximum height, Kilimanjaro is 19,341 feet (5,895 meters) tall, and I made it up to 17,717 feet (5,400 meters) — sky-high, but not the summit. All I could see was the blurriness of my original desire, all I could taste was the melted snow on my lips, and all I could feel was immediate disappointment. Its burden was heavier than the weight of my sore muscles.
Unfortunately, society celebrates summits. Only when you complete something through and through do you feel like you can give yourself a checkmark, and only then will you feel approval from others. The problem is, this mentality is harmful. It is harmful to the ones who try, the ones who dream and do and and see something through until it interferes with their best interests. We end up pushing through experiences because we want to say we “did” it. We then forget to recognize that going on the journey itself is the real act of doing it.
For me, climbing Kilimanjaro was not about reaching the top. It was about being the only foreigner who could speak Swahili with the porters and guides from all the trekking groups. It was about that sense of pride in realizing that I had learned to speak another language well.
My journey was about the fact that, as a beginning trekker, I had no gear of my own. Better-equipped friends lent me their sweaters, pants, mittens, hats, and headlamps without hesitation. Then, to my surprise, strangers I met in Moshi were quick to offer me medication, energy gel, hand and toe warmers, and more. It didn’t hit me until I repacked everything together that about 90 percent of my gear came from 10 different individuals. And that gear took me through the climb. I can’t think of a more beautiful journey than one where generosity and kindness fill your backpack.
But, most importantly, I believe that I learned much more about myself by not fully summiting than I would have by making it to the top. It took courage to prioritize my safety over my ego. It took rummaging through feelings of shame and pressure and changing them to feelings of personal growth and increased self-confidence. At first, I felt vulnerable, raw, and down-hearted from not reaching the top. Moreover, I felt shameful, like I had let myself and others down. But I reached my personal mountain peak. I climbed out of my comfort zone, and I am so proud of my body and mind for what they endured. I hiked more than I ever have in my life, and I felt like I was on top of the world throughout the whole journey. I conquered my mountain and came out feeling mentally and physically stronger than I ever have.
Summiting is the shiny cherry on top of the experience, but climbing the mountain is the rest of the banana split. We hardly celebrate or feel joy for the distance traveled along the journey, when the finale is really just one aspect of the trek.
I am the only one who gets to decide how powerful and capable I am. I can proudly say I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and experienced the most extraordinary journey of my life. So, the next time somebody tells you that they climbed a mountain but didn’t necessarily reach the top, tell them how proud you are. Let’s be people who lift each other higher.
We are not invincible, but we are powerful.