(Climbing A Mountain is All in Your Head: A Story in 3 Parts)
Jambo, hello again from Africa! Christine is still busy exploring and climbing every part of Cape Town she possibly can. In fact, she just dove off of Bloukran’s Bridge Jump, the world’s tallest bungee jumping bridge. After climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain, what else would we expect?
But let’s get back to the story… Armed with her small backpack and a lunch of mango juice and chicken nuggets, Christine began the climb. The group consisted of three guides, 21 porters who carry personal bags and equipment and six other climbers. Her group was not the only one making the climb. Since January was peak climbing season the group would see many others along the trail.
Christine began to calm down as she met the other climbers and they exchanged stories; the loneliness monster went back into hiding. One of the climbers shared the same name as her mother, Lisa, and another the name of her best friend, Alexis (that would be me). This had to be a sign that everything was going to be just fine! How could it not be, with your mom and best friend hiking alongside you?
Day 1: The Rain forest. Unlike the name suggests, no rain poured as the group climbed through this portion of the mountain. Monkeys leaped from tree to tree as the group climbed stair after stair of mud and roots.
The climbing wasn’t fast, and in fact the mantra of the trip would come to be known as “pole, pole,” which is Swahili for “slowly, slowly.” The slower the climbers moved, the easier it would be for their bodies to acclimate to the changing conditions.
“I heard the people up at camp and grew excited because I knew we were getting closer. After we had registered at the site, we received our tenting partners; I had to tent by myself because there were no other single girls there. I was nervous about being in a tent by myself because then I would have no one to talk to. I realized I was still alone and I didn’t even really know the other people in my group.”
Day 2: More rain forest. Waking up the next morning, it finally sank in that Christine was climbing this mountain. There was no turning back now. At breakfast all of the other group members were taking their altitude medicine for the day. Christine went up to one of the guides, Serifin, to ask if it was necessary that she take the medicine after having had such a violent reaction to it the other night. Serifin suggested she only take one pill instead of the recommended two.
Christine was hesitant to take even the one. How would she climb if she became violently ill again? Regardless, she took the medicine and after ten minutes of being nausea-free she started to calm down. One hour later, still no reaction. As each hour passed she began to feel more at ease; “pole, pole.”
“As we hiked through the rain forest, I kept singing Taylor Swift to myself: ‘Are we out of the woods yet, are we out of the woods?”’
“I was distracted by hiking, I didn’t want to stop. I wanted my mind occupied. My group kept telling me to relax. Serifin asked me, “Are you thinking? Don’t think. It’s a piece of cake! Keep drinking water, you will be okay.” I was trying to, but I was still so nervous. By the time we reached camp, I felt fine physically, but when it came time to sleep at night, I couldn’t for very long. I don’t know what I was nervous about. It was always just there in the back of my mind, making me feel uneasy.”
Christine woke up hours before the group did, playing solitaire and listening to Oh Wonder’s “Technicolour Beat,” a hypnotic song to calm her racing mind. “Pole, pole.”
Days 3–6: Heath, moorlands and alpine desert. As they climbed through the clouds, rain beating down, the trek grew increasingly difficult. Christine became even more nervous as the group climbed to higher and higher altitudes. If anything were to happen to her, it would take a long time for paramedics to reach the group.
During the climb Christine carried a working compass, which she wore in her hip pocket (a gift from me). Around her neck, she donned a star necklace reminding her to “follow her dreams,” a gift from her mother. These personal items may not have helped with the actual climbing, but they did help keep her motivated and was a reminder that her friends and family from back home were cheering her on toward success.
The Barranco Wall proved to be the most exciting part of the mountain. Ridding themselves of their trekking poles for just a few hours, the group climbed the rocky barrier in order to reach camp that night. As an avid rock climber, Christine loved the challenge the rock wall provided her. She was able to climb without the use of ropes, a technique known as bouldering.
“Some days were really hard. I would get impatient at how slow we were going. I really started focusing on doing small tasks and staying calm. Just wake-up and get ready. Just eat breakfast. Wait calmly until climbing. Put one foot in front of the other. Calm down after hiking. Eat dinner. I just thought about accomplishing my goals, not about the future. I focused on right now,“pole, pole.”’
“I had to keep my mind busy as we climbed. I even sang, ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ at one point because my backpack was making my head, neck and shoulders ache so much. If I decided to stop walking, it would be a long way back down. The only way to go was up.”
Six long days of hiking in high altitudes passed. Members of the group started complaining of minor health problems but Christine was still feeling fine. Serifin would come into the tent every morning with an oxygen/heart rate monitor and track each climber’s oxygen levels. Christine hovered around 97 percent during the climb, the highest of the group. Her body was adjusting just fine.
Sometimes being brave is simply surviving, moving from one task to the next and not giving up. At the time, it may not feel like bravery, but in a place where nothing is familiar, what more can you expect from yourself? Learning to exist miles outside your comfort zone can take lots of reassurance. Usually we look to our support team of friends and family to help us in tough times like this, but what about when we are walking among strangers? Sometimes all the reassurance you need is knowing that you are putting one foot in front of the other; that you are moving. “Pole, pole.”