To the Summit and Beyond

We laid in the tent half sleeping, half scared to death. Outside it was thundering and inside my heart was beating nearly as loudly. It was summit night.

Our instructions were to eat dinner and try to get some rest- though at 4,600 meters we were promised little more than short fits of shallow slumber.  At 11pm they would wake us, we were to dress warmly, but not wear more than 6 layers on top and 5 layers on bottom. At midnight it was time to go. 

This was it. The moment we’d been waiting for and walking towards. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but it was now or never.

The ascent to the peak was magical. There were several inches of fresh snow on the ground from the evening storm, and we were truly walking in a winter wonderland. 

For nearly 6 hours we moved quietly by glow of our headlamps. The path pointed straight up towards the stars, and at our altitude the constellations seemed just a few meters beyond our grasp. It was still, cold and silent like a Christmas Eve should be.

Time passed faster than we anticipated and before we knew it the horizon had turned a deep red. After such a dark night the sunrise was magical and gave the snow a golden glow as we walked the last 45 minutes to the highest point of Uhuru Peak. 

We really made it. I laughed and cried with joy. The last week on the mountain and in the valleys had all been for this very moment. 

And then we turned around.

We had reached our goal. It was done. But only, it wasn’t. We were now nearly 6,000 meters in the sky and there wasn’t a helicopter coming to pick us up. We had to rely our incredibly tired legs to carry us all the way down the mountain.

For six days I’d been so worried about the journey up the mountain that I hadn’t taken much time to think about what happened after we reached the top. “Once we get up, the coming down will take care of itself,” I told myself.

As I drug myself 8 hours down the face of Kilimanjaro that day and another 4 hours the next,  I had an ephiphany, or mountainside moment of sorts. Living for the summit wasn’t just something I was doing on Kili- it was the way I often lived my life.

I like dreaming big and getting to the peaks. I don’t like the monotonous work that comes after the fireworks go out.

So often we’re so focused on getting to a goal that we completely forget that the work goes on beyond the peak, the launch, or the big break.  And the stuff that comes after the great success is often harder because it isn’t exciting or driven by the motivation of uncertainty and potential achievement.  There is no wonder or mystery. No fear of failure driving you towards your success.

I’m not sure this is what T.S. Eliot had in mind when he said,  “The end is where we start from.”  But this is how it felt.

Just because you’ve achieved your dream the work doesn’t automatically finish itself. The hard part is probably just beginning.

In the case of Kilimanjao, we authored a new goal to keep us motivated as we stumbled our way to the bottom – a hot shower and a bottle of wine for Christmas.

Reaching the bottom was the most amazing Christmas gift ever, but in all the excitement, we didn’t forget to write down the lesson:

It doesn’t end at the summit. That is just the start of the journey onward.



Thanks for sticking with me through so many Kilimanjaro stories. Next week, we’ll move onward from Africa with some more tales of travel, giving and living. If you like all the stories be sure to sign up here for our special updates for amazing people. (Don’t worry, it’s free and we don’t believe in junk email)



Valley Views

All my small stories this week have been about my quest to reach the top of Kilimanjaro, but today’s lesson comes from a much less exciting and more mysterious place: the valley.

Perhaps it is my churchy upbringing, but I’ve always associated valleys with down, difficult times and the foreboding shadow of death. Since I’m the kind of lady who dreams happy thoughts, I typically do anything I can to avoid valleys.

But on Kilimanjaro, valleys are important. The route we took up the mountain actually required us to walk through as many valleys as humanly possible.

Why would anyone choose the slowest, valley-filled way up a mountain if the goal is merely to reach the top, you ask.

Ancient mountaineering wisdom advises high altitude seekers to “climb high and sleep low”. If your climb is a lot of valleys and peaks rather than a straight ascent to the top, your body better acclimates to the altitude. 

In modern day non-mountaineering language this means: If you walk up and down a lot you have a better chance to reach the summit.

The problem with walking up and down, however, is that when you goal is going up, going down isn’t fun (and it hurts your knees and toes). Hitting a valley is frustrating. It takes you directly opposite of where you want to be.

Unfortunately once you’re on the mountain there aren’t any shortcuts. On our fourth day of walking up and down, we had our longest and coldest day of the climb. We walked up, up, up nearly 1,000 meters through 5 hours of wind, hail and rain. Once we reached the famous Lava Tower at 4,630 meters we started a two hour descent into the valley.

Walking up the mountain that day was like walking on the moon- cold, barren and downright difficult. But the valley was suprising. It was lush, warm, and filled with desert flowers and the most amazing trees that look like they were painted straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.

I loved the view in the valley, but I resented that it was undoing a full day of uphill walking for such little cumulative altitude gain.

That night as we ate popcorn and talked about our lessons from the day, it occurred to me that this valley was teaching me something different. The lesson wasn’t the obvious one- that it takes a lot of ups and downs to reach the top.

You see, though our valley was down, our valley view was not low and desolate. It was high in the sky. Our tent was resting above the clouds where only the stars and airplanes hang out.

My lesson this day was that valleys exist in high places.

Valleys don’t only occur at rock bottom. They don’t have to be about a bad time or require starting over from the very beginning again.

Though the valley had felt like it had moved us backward, we were still 3,900 meters closer to our goal than when we started.

I’d never considered the fact that valleys could be high and hopeful. That they could lie above the cloud line and serve a practical purpose. My valley wasn’t making me start over, this valley was just asking me to pause and rest between the peaks.

Next time I’m in a valley I’m going to take a breath and check out the view.


“One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.” – G.K. Chesterton

The Invisible Journey

As our flight drew near to Kilimanjaro’s JRO airport for landing, I was glued to the window of 27A, camera in hand, waiting to get the first sight and first shot of the mountain we’d traveled so far to see. I imagined my first glimpse of Kilimanjaro would be like Ernest Hemingway penned:

“There, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.”

But it wasn’t. There was no mountain to be seen at all. I was confused and disappointed. How could a mountain big enough to take eight days to climb up not be visible from the sky.

If I couldn’t see it from the sky, I assumed it must be under the clouds. This secretly made me happy that maybe the mountain would look smaller than I imagined and I wouldn’t feel so scared about climbing it when I saw it.

Outside out of the airport we still couldn’t see it. And in the town of Moshi nestled at Kilimanjaro’s base, we still couldn’t sit it. We went to bed and woke up, still no mountain.

We spent two days in town acclimatizing to the time and altitude, renting the gear we needed for climbing, and waiting for the clouds to disappear so we could get our first glimpse. But the closest thing was a directional sign in the town circle pointing which direction the invisible mountain was supposed to be.

We followed the sign and set out, trusting our guide as we started up the invisible mountain.

I took small comfort in the Sunday school story I learned as a kid about God using a giant cloud to lead the people through the desert. (I also tried not to reflect on the fact that these were the same people who were lost for 40 years.)

Settled into camp on the Shira Ridge on the night of our second day it finally happened. The clouds broke. The sun shone. Kilimanjaro showed her beautiful (and very tall) mountain face. I smiled. And then the mountain disappeared again.

The next six days would be similar. We would walk all day in the clouds, not sure which direction – besides up- that the peak was. At night, the clouds would break, the mountain and the incredible stars would watch over us as we attempted to sleep, and as soon as the sun rose, she would hide her face again until the next night.

At first it was frustrating to be climbing a mountain that I never actually got to see. But then I realized that this little journey was very similar to life.

The big goals and dreams are always there, but you don’t have to have them in perfect focus in order to make progress toward reaching them one day and one step at a time.

When we finished the mountain, Kilimanjaro remained hidden. I was worried that we’d never see her again or get to see her whole. On our last night in town, she teased us for a moment, showing her peak above the cloud line. I was estatic.

And then in a beautiful farewell, as I drove out to the airport to leave Tanzania behind, she showed herself in all her glory as a parting gift of sorts.

I didn’t get to see where I was going, but I finally got to see where I had been.


The Moral of the Mountain

I promise I won’t tell a story about Kilimanjaro every day for the rest of this small month, but since it was such a big experience I hope you’ll indulge me at least a few more.

I fear I may have sounded a little too brave and simplistic in my last post. Truth be told I’m actually not nearly as brave as you may think. From the very first day that I agreed to make the climb up Kili I was freaked out.

It wasn’t just touch of nerves, I was full on scared. I knew I was unprepared and didn’t have the time or resources in Cambodia do much about it. I was scared of being cold, not having the right gear and spending seven frozen and claustrophobic nights in a tent on a mountain without being able to breathe. At night I’d Google incredibly helpful things like “How many people die each year on Kilimanjaro” and wake up from nightmares about altitude sickness.

I was less mighty mountaineer set out for the summit, and much more a trembling soul hoping to survive.

I should be old enough to know by now that the best thing about doing something in my desperate weakness rather than in my already proven strength- is that there is much more room for learning and growth through the experience. 

Perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt said it better:

“We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face… we must do that which we think we cannot.”

Each evening on the mountain when we’d drag into camp from the day’s climb, we’d be met by our smiling porter offering us “dishwash”. (This is what they called the water they brought us to wash our faces, I have no idea why.). After dishwash, we’d have popcorn and tea and talk about:

1.) Our ongoing concerns about being cold and freaked out about the summit and

2.) The lessons that the mountain seemed to be teaching us that day.

This was one of my favorite parts of the day- mostly because we weren’t walking and I love popcorn, but also because it was great to contemplate the things we were learning.

I learned a lot of practical things like how manage my greasy hair after 8 days with no shower, and how to pre-heat my socks with water bottles to prevent cold toes in the morning. But I also learned bigger things too that are important to remember now that I’m in a place where clean hair and warm extremities are’t an issue.

Three of my favorite Kilimanjaro lessons are these:

You don’t have to see the big picture to make progress.

There are valleys between the peaks

It doesn’t end at the summit.

Of course, each of these morals was learned though its own mountaintop story. And since I’ve got a few more days to tell them, you’ll have to come back tomorrow.