Moments of Truth

To the left, the backs of my team, headed up their final stretch to the summit (can see the part of the glacier there).

This is the first of a series of posts from my climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro, and some transformative perspective that came in those days above the cloudline. I’m eager to share these with you, as the lessons absolutely translate to an elevated life down here. These posts will be a bit more sharing and a bit less instructional than my typical posts, yet hopefully just as useful.

One year ago this week was one of those pivotal moments for me. While I’ve rewritten multiple versions of a post about it in the last year, I think it actually took this long to fully process what occurred there, and its lessons.

Physically, I was up 17,600 feet on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, on the last morning of an already-transformative 5-day + months-of-preparation climb up that mountain, and less than 2 hours away from the summit. I was climbing with K2 Adventures (named for the unparalleled duo of Kevin & Kristen, our masterful mountain leaders) my brother Blair (our team leader, expertly facilitating the whole thing as a leadership growth process), and a team of leaders from all over the world. While all-in, I had been getting increased altitude sickness, which just felt like dizzy spurts and needing to push myself harder, but meant that the level of oxygen in my blood wan’t saturating (pulse ox level) as it should, which can get dangerous. My wise and experienced leaders were monitoring me, and while they had warned us all of the potential danger, someone just the week before died on the mountain with similar symptoms to mine, so it got very real. At 4:00 that morning, before we set out on the trail, my oxygen level was pushing the envelope, but I felt strong and had no other symptoms. They placed me at the front of the line right behind Kristen as we set out in the dark that morning, with the stern directive to tap her on the shoulder if I got any dizziness, and the warning that if my levels dropped further, they’d turn me around. While I was feeling strong, powered by adrenaline, will, and focus on my state… 3.5 hours in at 17,600, I got another headrush, and tapped Kristen on the shoulder. They stopped the whole team for a break, checked my pulse ox, and while I knew it before they said it, all three of my leaders standing there with me, love and commitment to me and my ultimate safety in their faces… there were the words, piercing the flurry of thoughts and emotions coursing through me:

“Sarah. Your lips are purple, nose is turning purple, and your pulse ox is too low. Going on is not safe… We have to turn you around.

…these are the exact words every climber on any mountain fears hearing from their guides.

The mix of emotions in that instant was disorienting and vivid. I felt all of these at once:

Sadness: I can’t believe I’ve come this far and can’t finish this with my team. I have to leave them right here, right now?

Fear: I could die.

Gratitude: So glad they know what they’re doing, can see what I can’t about what’s happening to me, and are able to make the right decision for what will save my life.

Pride: I have conquered and gotten the lessons of this mountain, higher than I’ve ever been in my life.

Surprise: I don’t really care about the summit in this moment. I’ve been so fully blown away every single time I turned around along the way to see how far we’d come/ascended, that this last 1500 feet doesn’t matter so much.

At that point, I’d already gotten a myriad of a-ha life insight moments from that mountain, which the next few posts will illuminate. We’ll start with the most dramatic, last lesson, which is what’s taken this whole year to unpack for me…

In that moment of truth, realizing that my turnaround could interrupt the team’s momentum, I quickly focused on them. I assured them I was fine, declared that spot “my summit,” cheered, hugged and high 5-ed them before they continued up the trail to the real summit, then I turned away from them, back down the trail toward our last camp (taking the photo above in that moment was heartbreaking). With a kind, helpful porter carrying my pack and keeping me moving as quickly as possible (the cure to altitude sickness is to get to lower elevation as fast as possible), tears streamed down my face all the way back to camp.

I was struck by how that same path we had just ascented was completely different now, moments later. During the few hours of climbing 2,000 vertical feet that morning, completed inch by inch from pitch black to the sun rising over the clouds, that trail was filled and narrow with our team intensely focused on every step, breathing together, encouraging one another, letting out the occasional yell of adrenaline and “Rest steps and pressure breaths!” We were tightly packed inches from one another in the line, intentional, connected… THIS was Summit Day, IT, what we’d trained and prepared for over weeks and months. There was a rhythm of energy we could all feel, as we focused our headlamps on our teammates feet in front of us, placing each step in the spot their boots had just left, breathing in unison, connected. Throughout the whole ascent over 5 days, there were moments when we could each feel the energy of the person in front of you and behind you, pulling or pushing your steps through rough parts where you’d otherwise stop if left to your own determination. That morning we all felt it, even more intense than the 5 days prior.

Yet, as I began descent back down that same trail, the silence was deafening, the aloneness unsettling, although I couldn’t quite focus my thoughts to make sense of the contrast I was experiencing. I stopped, took a few breaths, and got my head together enough to take this photo, knowing it could bring me mentally back to that exact moment later to try to figure it out.

Tears and overwhelm continued, all the way back to camp and the rest of the day, part fear of what was happening inside my body, part shift in my psyche, which I’d spend this last year processing all the way through.

Physically, I didn’t realize that I was in the beginning stages of Cerebral Edema- my brain was starting to fill with fluid. During that quick descent, a splitting headache, disorientation and fever kicked in. I convinced myself and my porter that I’d be okay (so after getting me to my tent and some juice to drink, he left me alone to rest it off), and that I’d just find a place for a pitstop, then lay down in my tent to let my body reset, since they’d all be back down in a few hours. I soon realized (sortof- it was definitely foggy) that I was losing my balance, wasn’t walking straight, taking a long, long time to do simple things, and absolutely burning up. I was scared. I stripped down to almost nothing, sweating despite the 35–40 degree air temp, laid down outside my tent in the wind, iced my body down (water bottle still frozen from the night outside) to try to cool my fever, kept repeating meditations and visualizations to calm myself, and passed out. When I woke up, freezing, I knew my body was recovering, crisis averted.

By the time the team returned from the summit, I was functioning somewhat normally, able to focus on them, so asked lots of questions about the rest of the experience, genuinely happy for them.

Yet tears kept leaking out of my eyes as I talked. I realize now that that my tears were from something I didn’t expect.

I was crying because in my moment of truth at 17,600 feet, something did shift, bigger than my expectation to summit. I had separated, and for the first time during the whole journey, I was now in a completely different experience than the rest of my team. I went from being connected so surely that we were breathing in unison, to feeling out of sync and alone. That separation was a giant rip in my reality of the experience thus far, and it counted far more to me than the summit.

While we celebrated that last night on the mountain, descended the rest of Kili together, then celebrated more after, I was different than I’d been. Every night of the trip we’d come together in our team tent after the day’s climb, Blair facilitating our sharing of the lessons and connections of the mountain that day, each of us having our own insights, collectively having many. While I was one of the most verbose sharers in those team sessions (shocker), after summit morning, I withdrew a bit. A little quieter, fixated inward trying to sort it all out, I was then on a weird sense-making journey in my head, hard to articulate to them. I turned my outward focus to all the other amazing parts of the Kili journey, connecting with my team in all that I’ll share in next posts, yet that rip was definitely still working in the background of my my mind.

I’ve reflected, processed, and dug into the layers of what happened to me on that mountain- physically (now on a first name basis with an altitude sickness specialist), mentally and emotionally. I took so many epiphanies and insights from Kili (stay tuned to next posts), distinct from those few hours on summit day which inspire me daily, yet still felt that loss of sync with my team, a lesson all its own. Yet today, that shifted too. My guides and some of my team are back in Tanzania right now, leading this year’s teams up Kili. In an email exchange with one of them this morning about something else completely (as the draft of this post was almost done), they said to me, “wish you were here.” Genuine, sweet, seemingly benign, yet… Bam! Somehow, with those simple four words sent across continents this morning, something simultaneously unstuck and healed in me, tears sprang, and the split I was rocked by a year ago dissolved. In an instant, I felt reconnected to them, and every person in our team in a way I couldn’t when I was standing right there next to them the next day. After all of that… one more significant moment, and l am complete one year later.

Kili Lesson #1: Trust your team’s expertise, and surround yourself with people who can call it when you can’t.

We all think we have more self-awareness than we do. When I’m pushing myself, I’m unstoppable, convinced that I can do whatever I set out to do. That usually proves true, yet in this moment, it didn’t help me at all. I was powering through, doggedly strong, yet I had no idea of what was happening in my body, its stakes, or what was best for me. My guides did. They had perspective on me which I didn’t, expertise I counted on them for, clarity from day 1 that safety drives every decision, and I trusted them implicitly. Because of that combination, their decision which possibly saved my life, and the immediate next steps were quick and efficient, not a debate. My gratitude for them far outweighed my disappointment, underscored by the shock that something so drastic could be happening inside my own body while I had no idea, and wouldn’t have ever known without them until it was a full-on emergency.

Down here: The more committed to a cause or direction we become, the bigger our blindspots can be, and we can miss something critical or off (especially about ourselves), which could make or break the whole thing as we power on with determination. Who do you surround yourself with who you can absolutely trust to keep perspective on you when you can’t, who’s got critical expertise you need and can count on, and who will be completely honest with you to “call it” even when it’s hard? Find them, empower them, and listen to them, especially in those key moments.

Kili Lesson #2: Moments of truth have layers, worth peeling back.

While the moment of being turned around on that mountain was hard, it was also somewhat obvious in many ways (because of lesson #1). What wasn’t so clear was the most formative part of the whole Kili experience for me, which didn’t consciously surface until much later; that the connection to that team was far bigger for me than summiting Kili. The truth underneath my turnaround that morning: I tend to fly solo in much of what I do, and being part of that team completed me in ways I didn’t even know I needed until it was gone in an instant. I know I’ll climb that mountain again, conquer its summit and other peaks too, but I won’t ever complete that physical experience with my team. While the layers of that moment had been working their way up through my consciousness over the last year, somehow, a simple 4 words in an email this morning, both exposed and completed it all for me in an instant. Those relationships, and that connection to that team? Clear, real, precious and irreplaceable.

Down here: What’s beneath your moments of truth? It’s always possible to find the most obvious, outer layers of “what is” or “what I’ll do differently next time.” Yet what truths are layered under that? Beneath, often is a somewhat-conscious truth- maybe a pattern you can spot of something like this happening elsewhere or repeatedly in your life? Beneath that, may be more layers of unconscious truth- the ones you don’t see, but work in the background of your mind to cause those patterns. Example: a recent client had trouble confronting others, and layers beneath we discovered a time in childhood she’d stepped out to confront, and was unjustifiably retaliated against and hurt in the process. Once we revealed the base of those layers, the pattern released, and changed. For her, for me, and for most, while the reflection and processing can seem long, the release that comes in unlocking it can actually happen in a single interaction, realization, expression or instant.

Reflect, process, and do the work of self-actualization to get to that clarity. Even when it takes a year, it’s liberating, energizing, ultimately instant… and completely worth it.

Originally published at on July 12, 2017.

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