If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. – Bruce Lee
What are the boundaries we make for our lives? I know for myself, I have certain boundaries I will not cross. I will not be dishonest, disrespectful, or full of hate. Instead, I will be as open-minded as I can, as loving, loyal and honest as possible. I have set my standards high at trying to be the best “me” I can humanly be. Do I make mistakes? Of course! We all do. Yet I strive to correct them, to push ahead and to always try to improve myself to make me a better person and human being.
While I may be an adventurous person who is driven to explore, wander and challenge myself physically there are other aspects of my life that are relatively structured and risk free. I have my boundaries on what kinds of risks I want to take and what kind of life I want to live. My family always comes first. Yet thankfully I have the most incredible, supportive husband possible who encourages me to follow my dreams and challenge my boundaries. Climbing to the top of Kilimanjaro is one such boundary I had dreamed to conquer, and thankfully with plenty of hurdles and obstacles along the way I fulfilled my dream at the end of July.
I have written a lot about each day of my Kilimanjaro climb. But I have not written yet about the hardest, most difficult day of all. The Summit. So here the story goes.
Location: Kosovo Camp. Altitude: 15,750 feet/4800 m
Our group of nine climbers were divided into three different pace groups the day before the summit push. Each group was to set off at a different time in hope that the nine of us would all reach the summit at Uhuru Peak around the same time. It was a lofty goal as no one knew how their body would acclimatize and feel during the final push to reach the top. If altitude crept in fast, it could mean the end of the hike and a rapid descent without ever seeing the top. What a disappointment that would be after all the months of training and after a grueling week on the mountain in pursuit of the top.
My group of four was to rise at 12:30 am, quickly dress and have some hot tea and biscuits before setting off at 1 am. We went to bed and tried our best to sleep right after dinner at 6 and I slept in most of my gear for the climb. It was freezing cold inside the tent and I tossed and turned until I eventually fell into a restless sleep.
I rose a little after midnight feeling jittery and excited. Despite my nervousness and fear of the unknown, I was ready to do my best to conquer the mountain and reach to the top. I packed my backpack carefully remembering to fill my Nalgene bottles with hot water for the top (so they wouldn’t freeze), to place my camera deep inside my jacket so the battery wouldn’t die from the cold, and to have plenty of energy gels readily available to fuel me for the climb up.
We left quietly at five past one, and joined the long train of headlights slowly going up the face of the mountain under the cold and starry night. Instantly I realized how lucky we were to have spent the night at Kosovo instead of the more popular camp below. We cut off an entire hour of difficult climbing up and also got an extra hour to sleep. I felt thankful as the first group of climbers lumbered up the steep incline above.
I don’t remember much about the climb as I think I was half awake. I do remember that my hands and feet were bone cold and almost to the point of becoming numb. I also remember it wasn’t as insanely hard as I thought it would be. It was challenging and strenuous but I could handle it. We climbed up a steep zigzag path, slowly in one straight line of hundreds of other climbers, all wearing their headlights to guide the way. I remember at one point looking up as far as my neck could bend back and seeing a beautiful pale white dotted sea of headlights. It was stunning. We also saw the Milky Way high above.
Perhaps because our pace was steady and slow I never once got altitude sickness. I had experienced severe altitude sickness before last November in Bolivia where our base camp was at 15,000 feet. I didn’t know exactly what it was at the time as I was sleeping in the tent the first night and my heart began to race and race. It scared me. But then it stopped.
But here on Kilimanjaro as I climbed up slowly passing 16,000, 17,000 and 18,000 feet I never once had a single symptom at all. No headache. No nausea. No difficulty breathing or rapid heartbeat. I was lucky.
Others in our group began feeling nauseous or they began to get a headache but they continued on up despite the pain. You could see other climbers who were not so lucky and were vomiting alongside the trail. At this point of the climb, most people could still go up to the top as long as the altitude sickness didn’t get to the point where it became too severe and life-threatening.If that was the case, it would be a rapid descent down with the help of a guide and porter (or worst case scenario, being carried down).
We took lots of breaks and helped the others in our group who were struggling. It felt amazing to be doing the climb as a team. Although we each had our own reasons for wanting to reach the top, we also had our beautiful connection of support, encouragement and compassion for one another. It added another wonderful layer of magic to the climb.
I’ve learned that fear limits you and your vision. It serves as blinders to what may be just a few steps down the road for you. The journey is valuable, but believing in your talents, your abilities, and your self-worth can empower you to walk down an even brighter path. Transforming fear into freedom – how great is that? – Soledad O’Brien
It was hours and hours of climbing up until we finally began to see the extraordinary line of deep red bordering the horizon. I knew what it was but had never seen it before from so high in the air. The sun. Soon the sun would be rising over Kilimanjaro and it meant two amazing things: First, we would finally be warmer! Second and more importantly, we were almost to the top!
Reaching the top of Kilimanjaro at sunrise is one of the main reasons why climbers set off in the middle of the night. It can take easily 6-10 hours from the camp below to summit and what goes up must come down, meaning after you summit and are completely exhausted, you have to climb back down the mountain to get to camp. It is the longest, most difficult day of the entire climb. You literally walk for over 14-16 hours with little time to sleep.
“The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible”. – Arthur C. Clarke
Finally as the sun began to light up the sky, I knew we were almost there. I desperately wanted to pull out my camera to capture the sun rising over Kilimanjaro but I was too darn cold and had to keep moving. The top was only about an hour away and I was still feeling great. The extra hope and encouragement of the sun rising gave me the extra strength I needed to reach the top.
As I climbed up, the sunrise put me in a deep, meditative trance. It was by far the most spectacular events of nature I have ever seen. Slowly the sky and the clouds began to turn colors of pinks, yellows, golds and sparkling white. It was as if I were looking down from Heaven up above. It was incredible.
We knew we were getting close when we saw what remains of the glaciers covering the top of Kilimanjaro. Over the past several decades, the snow has been rapidly melting and someday it will all be gone. What a tragedy that will be.
At this point I was in a euphoric trance. We had come so far and walked for so many miles to get to this point, and it was almost there. I felt like I was going to cry but I definitely didn’t want my tears to freeze across my face.
Then, around a corner we saw the sign for Stella’s Point, and we knew we were almost there. It would only be about another 20 minutes up and we’d be on top of the world at Uhuru Peak. 19,340 feet/5895 m. The highest point in Africa and the highest I’d ever been.
As we left Stella Point, I hilariously felt like running. I wanted to get there so bad. But of course I didn’t. I just continued on with my soul smiling knowing that I would almost accomplish a 15-year old dream.
And then I did.
One by one, our group of four reached the top. We hugged and congratulated each other. We took photos and we screamed. It was truly an amazing feeling to be there looking down at the world below. I was elated. I was on fire with joy and happiness. I really truly felt great and I was proud of myself.
“The only limits to the possibilities in your life tomorrow are the buts you use today”. – Les Brown
Our group on top of Mount Kilimanjaro for the Solar Sister Summit
We didn’t stay long because it was very cold and some of our team was sick. We also knew that we had a long six hours back down to Kosovo Camp where we would eat, rest for a few hours and continue on down again. It was going to be a long day.
“Never set limits, go after your dreams, don’t be afraid to push the boundaries. And laugh a lot – it’s good for you”! – Paula Radcliffe
But I was thrilled. I did it. I pushed my boundaries.