What Climbing A Mountain Taught Me

Mountain climbing is fun. I mean, mountain climbing sounds fun. It looks fun, too. Right?

Actually, it is. Mostly. I had the pleasure of experiencing my very first mountain a few summers ago in the midst of the blistering Tanzanian summer. Kilimanjaro isn’t what regular mountaineers consider much of a challenge but it’s the perfect height and slope to whet a beginner’s climbing boots. An inactive strato-volcano situated near the border of Kenya, Kili rises a pleasant 19,340 feet (5,895 m) above sea level, earning its name as the “Roof of Africa” and the title of the world’s highest freestanding mountain (aka: you’ll definitely still be wanting your altitude medication).

So, aside from very sore legs and some pretty pictures, what did losing my mountaineering-virginity teach me?

  1. Persevere.

I know. Cliché mountain word. But hear me out. Sometimes succeeding is just about the ability to pull together the effort to sustain movement.

The route our group took was a 5 day climb — which means we didn’t have a day for acclimatization. I had also just spent 3 months doing volunteer work in rural Tanzania without much of an opportunity to train for an extensive trek …so my body complained. A lot. The first few days weren’t too bad in retrospect — you got tired, you got insanely thirsty and occasionally felt like you were melting, but a good night’s sleep and a solid breakfast kept you feeling plucky. On Day 4, however, we were told a midnight hike from Kibo Hut to Uhuru Peak was in order. The idea was to leave our bunks at 11PM and get up there in time to see the sunrise on top of the world. Well.

Firstly, 4,700m in the air gets cold. Really cold. Underarmor, leggings, sweaters, ski-jackets and pants, gloves, scarves, toques — all of it… and a headlamp wrapped around your head. Secondly, that altitude medication you’re taking is a diuretic. Yeah, you can imagine all the problems that comes with. Thirdly, unlike the rest of the climb, the ascent to the peak was steep. Steep, rocky, and at times, exceedingly narrow; the climbing poles were our saving grace.

It was an 8-hour struggle to the top. A few hours in: it’s pitch black except for the dimly lit headlamps around you, you can no longer feel your fingers gripping the poles, the frozen Cliff bar you’re gnawing on isn’t giving you any energy, and your mind is screaming at you for trying to drag yourself up a mountain at 3 in the morning.

These are the moments that have ingrained themselves in my memory. Forcing myself to put one boot in front of the other, forcing myself to ignore the desire to stop and “warm up”, forcing myself to clear my head of any thoughts other than simply moving. It wasn’t even about the peak anymore.

“ One more step. One more. Just one more.”

All I knew was that I couldn’t lose momentum. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t think. Forward. That was all.

2. Appreciate the Simple Things.

And when I say simple, I mean really simple. Kili is divided into 5 different climatic zones that vary quite perceptibly. You start in a tropical forest and end surrounded by snowy drifts and glaciers. At around 4,000m up, the landscape becomes a mountain desert — picture: “lunar”.

It’s arid. Dusty. Shrubby. It doesn’t even feel like you’re on a mountain. The sun is bearing down on you in your several layers of clothing as you follow your guide, hour after hour. It’s been hours since breakfast (you think) but the hunger pangs are long gone. You reach back for your bottle and take a small gulp of the terribly unsatisfying, stale-tasting warm liquid that remains. All you desire ….is a glass of fresh water. You can practically taste it in your mouth.

An overflowing glass of cold, clean water.

Delicious.

3. Look Past the Peak.

We’ve been socialized to define mountains both metaphorically and literally by their peaks. It’s all about getting to the top, right? The struggle to reach the highest point. To win.

But I learned a very practical, down-to-earth (pun unintended) lesson on Kili. Getting to the top is all well and good…but you still gotta get back down. And you know what? It isn’t as easy as we’re told it is. No one talks about going back down a mountain. It’s definitely faster, yes. But after an 8 hour hike to the peak, you have to find a way to slide down the steep areas you just crawled up…without slipping and tumbling down to your death. You still have to trek the 6 hours back to your camp. Your body is exhausted, you haven’t slept, you haven’t had a meal and your driving motivation of “getting to the top” is gone.

As I was sleepily grumbling about this to myself on my way down, I realized a lot of life achievements tend to have a similar feeling. We set goals for ourselves and bend ourselves backwards to achieve them. But after we get that scholarship, after we get into that program, after we land that dream job — is that it?

Very often, it isn’t. Success is sweet, but a singular achievement gives us only momentary satisfaction. You slide down slowly from the high, exhausted from the effort, and realize that you need to rally yourself yet again. It’s why they say the journey means more than the destination. You don’t grow at the peak. You grow while you’re crawling up and while you’re sliding back down. You grow while you’re searching for your next mountain.

Look past the peaks of your mountains.