My Story of Kilimanjaro

This is my story of Kilimanjaro. It would be impossible to capture what really happened if I tried to write out my experience, so I have simply typed out what I journaled during my time on the mountain. It was nothing like I thought it would be, but yet, in such a good way something so much more than I could have ever imagined. Honestly, it has changed my life. Even last night on the bus ride home (8 hours) I just sat there silent, staring out the window, while other tourists my age sat around and talked. So unusual for me. But after 6 days alone on a mountain and countless hours of silence, this became the norm. However, although I felt stand-offish and shallow with nothing to say, inside I knew how much better it was, just taking everything in, while being silent.

I know that the blogs below are too big to read, but it would be unfair to just write a summary page of my experience. I think the experience can only be captured to see the changes that occurred in my thinking the more time I spent there. So I have posted them in order from Day 1 to Day 6. It was Day 5 that we made the summit. Although I rarely ever open my journal and share it, I am excited to share what I learned. I think that what I learned though has such strong spiritual implications. Over the years I pray that I learn what that practically looks like though.

Although it is good to be back “home” and enjoy showers, clean clothes, technology and all the things that we take for granted, I miss the mountain and would go back tomorrow if I could. There is no doubt in my mind though, I am coming back and will do this amazing experience again, at the next chance I get. From a Kansas childhood which primarily consisted of basketball courts, business plans and music – now I look and cant believe the way I have come to love, respect and indulge in the beauty of living and being in nature. Sure Canada has played a huge role in that transformation, but even that is safe and “perfect”. Africa is raw and ripe for adventure. Survival of the fittest never meant so much to me.

What Kilimanjaro Taught Me

I never realized how much we worry, how we live with inner pools of anxiety over everything – “when will the internet come back online” – “Is it going to rain tomorrow” – “My promotion at the company isn’t going to go through” – “Will they get me that proposal on time” – “Will they call me tonight”. I could list thousands of little things that nag on us, all the time. It is not that these little worries and anxieties exist, but rather how these little annoyances weigh on and destroy our freedom of living in our creation. Surprisingly I have found that discipline, courage and the inner strength of will – these are the things that actually give us freedom. I was amazed at how six days on the mountain subjected my body to such pain and brought it to a level of unimportance, therefore freeing my mind to limits I never knew existed. To live without a sense of time, shower, communication, social activity or anything for that matter – this exercise was simply amazing. It was an experience of freedom which I have never felt. The sense of past and future were infused together to mold a perfect encounter with the now. Something I am sure doesn’t exist, except here on the mountain, especially in Africa.

I have learned that we should climb mountains with as little effort as possible and strangely enough, without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed you move. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. It is important to climb in equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, once you have learned to no longer think and plan ahead, each footstep is no longer just a means to an end, but a unique motion in itself. “That flower glistens with water” – “That marsh is green without water” – “These rocks are thinner than below” – “Look at how the sun bursts through the overhanging forest.” But these are things we should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal, that is shallow. Rather, it is the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. It is there that things grow. We are not meant to live at the top, trust me, we simply can’t do it. Unfortunately the overpowering desire to be on the top will kill the freedom of experiencing the real mountain experience, which is the journey to the top.

While on the mountain, I noticed how some climbers only lived for that shallow, distant goal of reaching the top. Their talk was egocentric and their experience meaningless, regardless of the outcome. A 20 minute jubilee and a Cannon perfect image to capture the “Accomplished moment”, this was no reward at all. To get home and tell everyone, “I climbed Kili and survived” – what does that mean to anyone? No one will understand what we just went through, but they will understand the real mountain experience, which is the journey, not the task or goal.

At first I thought physical strength would be enough to get to the top, but it wasn’t. I thought intellectual planning and motivation would be enough, but that too wasn’t. Originally I saw myself as the fixed entity, using the mountain for my own purposes. But that view and its egotistical sense of accomplishment rings hollow with reality. I now understand climbing a mountain is not about getting to the top, but living with the mountain. I believe that every footstep should be an act of devotion and submission to something that radiates the holiness of God. HIS grandeur and power are so clearly evident in the enormity of this mountain and must not be overlooked. When the holiness of God, through this mountain gets branded into your insides, you can endure far more than your physical or intellectual strength could ever take. At first, before I learned what this journey was really about, I used to do all the things that showed my shallow sense of wanting to conquer Kilimanjaro. I would always look up the trail trying to see what was ahead and how far the next point was, when I had just looked a second before. When I talked, it would always be about something else, somewhere else. I was on Kilimanjaro, but not on Kilimanjaro. I was anxious about getting to the next camp and would constantly be questioning about the future days to come. I was worried about problems and situations back at home. The very thing I came here for was all around me, everywhere, but I didn’t know that; I thought it was still days ahead. Every step was an effort for me, both physically and spiritually, because my goal was external and distant. Once I realized this, Kilimanjaro became a journey and I became a pilgrim on a journey of exposure. It would expose myself to me and in that allow me to experience not physical heights, but rather spiritual boundaries of freedom – which in the end, compiled the breathtaking moments.

THE NIGHT BEFORE – A HOTEL IN MOSHI

Right there, soaring far above and piercing the clouds, Kilimanjaro, one of my childhood dreams, is closer than it has ever been. I don’t know where as a child I developed this passion, but it has never wandered far from my heart. Like an insidious passion that has nagged desire at every corner of challenge. I have hung onto it for so many years. The question as to what drives me to do this, the pain I will endure and the toll it will cost my body – there must be some underlying motive that is far greater than any reward of being on the top. To simply garner the attention and tell others of my accomplishment barely suffices. For no one, unless they have also been to the summit, will understand the hardship endured. I think there is something far greater at work here today. I believe every single person has an inner desire and passion to conquer their fears, their body and their environment. Some simply ignore these feelings and aspirations, while others hold nothing back. I long to summit the peak, breathe in that fresh air and examine Gods beauty from on top of the world. There is a courage that exists and a level of determination I must prove to myself. Regardless of success or failure, to know that I gave it everything I had, it will transform me. Six days consisting of just me and the mountain; it is a scary thought. Although I always dreamed of going with my wife, son or best friend – the silence and quietness will breed transformation. There is something so real about nature, beauty, mountains and getting closer to God through his creation. Tomorrow is a day which has been anticipated for 12 years. God your mercy and grace be with me. Keep me, guide me and draw me closer to you as I walk in your heavenly places.

DAY 2 – MACHAME CAMP

Nearly 6 years ago this journal was given to me by one of my best friends, Brian Bustos. With it came a waterproof sack in order to keep it dry and maintain its penmanship through the harsh realities it would see. This gift was in response to a prophecy I received from Terri Sullivant while in Master’s Commission, who saw me backpacking through the forests of Africa with rain gear and journaling avidly. She said that the things I would learn were far greater than that which could be taught or rendered through education and that I would capture the experiences and learning with pen and paper in my journal. Today I am that much closer to living out the very thing she saw 6 years ago.

Finally, the night has turned to day. With it my fear and hesitation has been accepted The time has come and there is nothing more I can do to plan or prepare. All I am – is all I have. With me I take my wits and my courage. It is like being in the eye of the storm. For some reason once you encounter and stair eye to eye with you fear, it goes away. There is nothing left to fear. People die every year doing this and to fall ill to the mountain when you are days away from medical attention is not ideal.

After climbing today I have realized something about mountain climbing. I remember reading old Catholic literature stories where travelers in the mountains and the events that happened to them we keys to spiritual lessons. The allegory of a physical mountain for the spiritual one that stands between each soul and its goal is an easy and natural one to make. Like the people in the valley behind me, Moshi, most stand in sight of the spiritual mountains all their lives and never enter them, being content to just listen to others who have been there and thus avoid the hardships. Some travel into the mountains with experienced guides who know the best and least dangerous route. Yet others who are inexperienced and untrusting, attempt to make their own route to the top. But all of us once we ascend and become aware of our journey, realize that we took only one of many routes. There are as many ways to ascend, but who is willing to ascend?

Kilimanjaro breathes life from everything it is. This first day was full of rain forests. The whole day was accompanied with mist from clouds, gray scenery, lush plants everywhere and mud. There is so much life in all the surroundings. It is so refreshing to be here.

Along the way I had a very interesting talk with my guide Aribo. He discussed how it is important to free your mind on this mountain. If you worry about getting sick or falling ill, it will happen to you. It was then my failed approach dawned on me. I was asking him so many questions. I ask questions in order to figure things out and then forge my plan and strategize. I wanted to know what time it was, how long till we get there, what terrain we will encounter and when it will become most likely to fail and turn back. It is this consuming worried and anxiety filled behavior which will imprison my mind. For me, I believe that Kilimanjaro will teach me to be free. My watch will no longer be with me, the questions will cease and everyday will be taken for what it is.

Now looking back, I barely thought through this seven day trip to Tanzania. I have no cash left after I tip my porters and no debit card. If I get in a bind, I am in so much trouble with not much room to wiggle my way out. I do not even have enough for dinner the night I return. But today, those are not my worries, I am here on the most beautiful mountain and my mind is on a path to becoming free. I am setting out on what I will call my Kua Huru or in Swahili, “Be Free”.

By the end of the day the altitude of nearly 10,000 ft or 3,000 meters had turned the mud to dust and the jungle became more arid. Day 1 of my spiritual Kua Huru was over.

DAY 2 – SHIRA CAVES

As soon as the sun set last night the mountain instantly became extremely cold. As my hot tea was finished, I quickly retreated to my warm sleeping bag. As I prepared for bed, my breathe colored the beam of the flashlight, verifying the depths of the temperature outside. Of course I began to question if I would have warm enough clothes, after all it is only day 1. It was then I remembered the Kua Huru and my journey to free my mind.

On another worried note, the problem with last night was that my tent was on a 30 degree slant, which makes it hard for sleeping. I had to put my bag at the foot of the tent and wedge my feet against it to keep from sliding to the bottom. Once my knees were locked I was ready for sleep. I guess I am on a mountain or something.

I awoke this morning and could at last see Kili. The sky was clear and below a whole level of clouds gave the impression we were floating. The barren ground all around my tent was glittered with white frost. Soon the sun would rise and warmth would come again.

The day was short, but difficult. The scenery has shifted and we are clearly far in the sky. The sun is dangerous and the air is thin. But the scenery, the scenery is breathtaking. We are far above the cloud line and all below us is its limit. I constantly feel I am floating in the heavens. I slowly trekked forward step by step. I am not sure if I could go any slower. However my heart still beats fast and I have to work for where I am going. But I am continuously learning the most important lesson – to be free. I have left all my worries behind me – Friends, relationships, Swaziland, work, family and anything else that worries my mind. My mind is becoming free and I am starting to feel lighter. We are finally at camp and it is beginning to rain. I will eat dinner in my tent tonight and listen to God’s music, only up here in heaven.

DAY 3 – BARAKA CAMP

Waking up in the morning is always an excitement. The view is always so drastically different. This morning as I peered my head out of the tent it was like we were on another planet. 10,000 feet below us was some sort of mixture between clouds and heavy sky. But the colors they emanated from the sun, which had not yet fully risen were spectacular. After staring for nearly 2 minutes, I realized exactly how cold it was out. Today we will be in full mountain gear. Ah, I remember last night I was so cold, I took all my clothes off by my briefs and mummified my sleeping bag to enclose all my heat – it kept me warm.

Kilimanjaro is a mental exercise in discipline, focus and as I have explained before the freedom of the mind. Much like I have come to love African culture, I am learning to love this mountain. There is an element of respect which must be given in order to see the truth of its nature. I have always seen Kilimanjaro as something to conquer. It is just another piece of nature under our submission. But once on the mountain I realize its power, its holiness, its very nature of God. God created this mountain and I am very certain there are many elements of HIS nature which shine from it. We can’t see God, nor be in his direct presence, but it is experiences with the power of nature like this that we cant miss, in order to just get a small human glimpse of HIM. I purposefully didn’t bring a Bible with me for this journey. I wanted my praises to be from my heart and the words HE spoke to me not to be limited to all I have known. I trust as God guides my Kua Huru of freedom HE will show me and draw me closer to HIM

This mountain is like God. Today we broke the tree line and cleared nearly 15,000 feet or 5, 000 meters, but only for an hour before we descended again. Up here nothing lives. The scenery is like nothing I have seen before. Like Morridor in Lord of the Rings, Lava Rock scatters what looks to be a nuclear site. The air is very thin and you can see some of the climbers beginning to fatigue. Once that high we dropped back down to only 12,000 feet – to prepare for tomorrow night – the summit.

Today I feel strong. A slight headache, more in my neck though. It is from the pressure up here. There are many things I have noticed on my Kua Huru that I might not have otherwise. I am always the first to leave camp and usually the last to arrive. I am trying to conserve my energy as much as possible in order to summit. But because of my patience, I notice the small things. The things I believe to be the real Kilimanjaro. For instance, the ravens here, because the air is so thin, when they fly by, it sounds like a helicopter, quite frightening actually when you don’t expect it. Also, in the morning our water has small pieces of ice in it, for it is from a glacier about an hour away.

This terrifying, threatening mountain must be respected. Like God, it seems so far and distant but as I press forward, the more I understand HIM. We are not meant to control or conquer the spiritual journey, for it is un-tamable. Rather to only understand as much as it will let us. I have realized my journey is not to summit Kilimanjaro, but to understand mountain life. No longer do I think in terms of fear, but more just what exists today, where there is no fear.

DAY 4 – BARAFU CAMP

The mountain is unforgiving. Last night, although I arrived at camp feeling strong and confident of my health, mountain sickness slowly began to tear down my body. I fell quite ill. I barely ate dinner and went straight to bed at 5:00. Aribo, my guide, told me I had to clear my head and get a fresh perspective on my thoughts. He brought the conversation back to the Kua Huru and that if I would not think about the sickness and rather just refresh the mind, I would feel better in the morning. I asked why only some get mountain sickness and where does it come from, he replied – “Only God knows.”

This morning I feel much better. I dreamt about winning tennis tournaments, going out on dates(he he he), walks with my mom to the lake and hockey games with dad.

Looking back at this experience, I am slowly discovering the ways of the mountain that you must simply accept. If you blow your nose, it will bleed. You do and will sleep 12 hours a day. Don’t worry about time. When you hear the birds, it is time to get up, you won’t oversleep. Lastly, everything will put you out of breathe, even putting your clothes on in the morning.

The time has come. In less than 24 hours, God willing, I will summit. Tonight we will sleep at heights higher than Mt. Everest base camp. We will wake up at 12 and then six hours to the top. I am no longer braced with fear. I now realize I did not come here to summit, but to spend one week with the mountain. I have already learned so much from my Kua Huru. Hero’s are made everyday and forgotten the next. It will not change my life if I make it or not. My life has already been changed. It is too cold to write anymore, must get warm before we leave for Barafu.

I cant believe that I am here. It was a long, hard and very technical ascent today. There were just so many massive rock cliffs. We went straight up thousands of feet in just a few hours. But this is it, literally 9 hours away from possibly the most grueling and challenging thing I will ever do. I am worn, dirty and simply in a state I have never been in. Literally for hours today I was able to put my mind to sleep. I would think of nothing and just enjoy the trans. Now here, I look at myself and I am a mess. My feet are sore and developing some type of fungus. My shirt has not been taken off in 3 days and my finger nails, they are horrendously black. My hair is on the brink of dreading and even my sunglasses get stuck in the knots. But what else would you expect after 4 days on the mountain, 50 kilometers later and now at nearly 16,000 feet. As barbaric as I feel, it really doesn’t hit home until I watch my self eat – digging my fingers into the food and carelessly dripping on my clothes, quickly shoveling it in. But I can think of nothing right now except this present moment. My Kua Huru has been amazing. On our final ascent today it began to snow, not like Christmas though, for it was not a wonderland, but a rock, volcanic moonscape. Now as I lie in my tent and wait for midnight, I can hear the tent reflecting the snow.

Even though I have discussed the concept of self talk with my dad for over a year now and we have written and written about it, I have learned so much more about it, as I have experienced it on such a raw level. If we worry and wrap our mind around the negative and pessimistic, it is much like a self full-filling prophecy. I think of the many times in life when we use self-talk – transitions, moments of being “stuck”, dilemmas, times of decision – in those times it is imperative to regulate our self talk through the experience, not just towards the end target. In doing so we will become more agile, adaptable and flexible. Worry cant be any part of our self talk. Worry is a focus on the future and what bad might befall you. Reality based self talk is a focus on the here and the now and only that will free your mind in ways that make the journey and experience a moment of learning, not a block to potential.

DAY 5 – The SUMMIT

I don’t even know the extent of what I have just been through. Unfortunately, this journal will never capture the fullness of the experience that just took place. Clearly though, it was the most difficult, challenging thing I have ever been through. I have never had to dig so deep, nor felt so used. I had nothing left to give. In the end it was worth every effort though.

I woke at 11:30 after barely getting any sleep. I was so nervous for midnight, it prevented me from relaxing. However, I must have slept a little, because I remember being a soldier in the “D-Day” invasion, just waiting for the transport door to come down and the onslaught to begin. They say if you are acclimatizing, you will have anxiety dreams – go figure. As I awoke I poked my head out of the tent and there were already climbers leaving, and I could see their head lamps dotting the line streaming upwards. To my surprise even the first hour was difficult. It was simply the lack of oxygen that caused every muscle in my body to be sore, every breath to feel like my last and every nerve in my head to feel like it was going to explode.

In order to null the pain, I would lull myself to sleep as I climbed. I would turn off my mind and just go on autopilot; it was amazing how this could be done. It was then I felt I was that soldier in the transport. I just sat there, so tired from no rest, thinking when this will be over – for I felt as near to death as I have ever been. Just as a wave came smashing against the boat, shaking it violently, I literally fell over into the snow, back into reality. I had no idea how much time had passed, but I was back here on Kilimanjaro and the pain suddenly became real again, surviving for my life. I picked myself back up and tired to keep going. I was scared my guide would send me back down for fear of me going delirious because of the lack of oxygen. Instead, he simply gave me his head lamp and on we went. For hours in the dark, through the snow this went on. I can hardly recall anything that went through my mind. At one point I tried saying the ABC’s and kept getting lost – that is when I knew my mind was starting to fail me. I had to be careful though. There were some steep cliffs and ledges that if I didn’t focus on them, it could mean a disastrous situation. But that moment of focusing could last no longer than 30 seconds before I slipped back to a dull and incoherent state. At many points I thought I was going to pass out, there was just nothing I could do to get air. It is amazing though for the first time in my life, inside of my soul, I could feel the basic instinct of survival, which ignited energy and adrenaline I didn’t know existed. It just kept me going, step by step, no thought, just a lulled mind, unaware of anything, even the pain. At one point I was panting and groaning so hard, my guide Aribo stopped me, grabbed me by the shoulders and told me it was “not about just getting to the top to take pictures, rather it is about right here, right now, and what you are becoming. Don’t forget what you are becoming”. I was too tired to think about what any of that meant, but now I know.

After about 5 hours of this treacherous journey we hit a steep point where almost every step my boot slipped. Because of the snow, the footing was unstable. It was more taxing on my already low energy level than anything. It went on forever, but I knew once at the top we would be to Stella point, which was only a short 40 minute walk to Uruha point, the place where we would find peace.

Finally we got there and Aribo gave me a huge hug, told me I was a hero and then both of us simultaneously gave glory to God we made it. I was surprised where this sudden outburst of energy came from, but I wouldn’t turn it away. It didn’t last for long though and once again I was back to this dream state, so close to just shutting the body off. I honestly took each step, not covering more than 8 inches, not knowing if that would be my last step. How could I be so far from hope and optimism when the goal was now in sight? I can easily say this was the most challenging, grueling and hardest thing I have ever done.

Finally we made it there, there was no sprint or change of pace, but once there it was like I was a new person. I had the biggest smile and almost started crying. To think of all that was forgone and what this costs me, just made the smile that much bigger. It was gorgeous, too amazing for words. It was a paradise in heaven. Some thing that can only be seen at 20,000 feet above. Although I was one of the first ones up, I stayed longer than anyone, as my joy was unmatched.

All of a sudden there was something inside of me that released so much hidden energy, my excitement and pure joy came as a refreshing rescue to lift up this frail and dying body. I went to the edge of the peak, found the roundest stone and plumped my incoherent absent body on it. I will never forget that moment, the view, the sense of achievement and more importantly the greatest journey I have ever been on. To think, 6 hours of dredgery and pain, with nothing left inside, but yet there I sat, my mind free totally inundated by the power of the moment, to which nothing else could enter my thoughts. As the sun continued to rise and bring light to this expansive kingdom, above the clouds, my mind could no longer bare taking it in. It was too much.

Although at first I thought I would have no energy to descend 3,000 meters with the blistering sun scorching every inch of uncovered skin, somewhere energy was found. There on the snow covered mountain top of Kilimanjaro you would have found one of the most joyful travelers and his guide, skipping as a free pioneer through un-chartered snows. Now there was nothing that would take this away from me.

DAY 6 – MOIRA HUT

Day 6
September 21st – Moira Hut

Something has changed, something is different. Last night I actually dreamt about things back home, real things like family and friends, but it was not in a refreshing way, rather a reality of what is – hard to explain but just different. The air is so much more satisfying it feels good to be able to put my clothes on without panting for breath. But that is not all that is different. I have proven to myself something very important – the strength of will, power and belief. No inspiration, intellectual motivation or shear strength alone would have been enough to live 6 days on Kilimanjaro. You must have the will power. There was a point yesterday where inside I drew on enough courage to tell myself I will not turn back even if I do pass out or fall over. I surprised myself at just how far past the limit I could take my body if I wanted to. And this I wanted. It was a dream since childhood and now it is a reality of will, testifying as a reminder for the rest of my life.

Last day for Courage

Well this it, less than 24 left and I begin the journey of attempting to complete an obsession I have had ever since I was a child.

Last night as I went to bed, I was so tired, I thought I would quickly fall to sleep. However, within a few hours I was laying prostrate on the bathroom floor, spewing out my guts in the toilet and experiencing some of the worst “runs” I have ever had. In two years of intense traveling, this is the first time I have gotten sick like this. It reminded me of Nepal, where this went on for 12 hours and I was so cold and weak, I literally thought I was going to die. In this particular instance, I was sweating everything, but filled with chills. I laid there for 5 hours, going to bed when safe, only to come back within under an hour. The stomach pains were so intense, I even woke up Brad with my groaning. This morning I slept till 12 and am feeling better, but still have gut rot and fear eating. I am weak and need to replenish my system before tomorrow. But the worst part of it all, is that I simply cant fart anymore – that would be way too dangerous and I only have 4 pair of underwear with me anyways.

I question whether I am ready for this and if I should still continue with the climb tomorrow. What is the balance between rational thought and inner courage? I think I will error on the side of too much courage. The chance of death is minimal, but the chance of failure is high. I don’t think there is any consequence of failure here. That is only in my head. Does it make me less of a man? Less perseverance than others? Less determination? No, I don’t think so. You have to go out and give it your best and walk away knowing that inside you did all you could. If you don’t try you will never know, fear has simply been the very thing blocking you from trying. You are better off to have given it your best and tried, failing, rather than withholding yourself and never knowing.

Well by the end of this week – I will know. Gut rot, weakness or not – I am going to give it my best and never think twice about it.