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