February 28, 2015

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” –Sir Edmund Hillary

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. 
It matters that you don't just give up.” –Stephen Hawking

Growing up in Northwestern Ontario I would annually participate in a “speeches” competition. Tasked by my teacher to come up with a topic, write a proper speech, and present the masterpiece – all to win the opportunity to compete against students from surrounding schools. I don’t recall how the judging or marking system worked, but I loved the process. When I was around twelve years old or so, I wrote a speech on a phrase we commonly use in conversation, WHAT IF?

I think this theme has followed me through life.

Over the past seven weeks, I’ve been asking myself: So what if it’s Africa? What if I don’t fit in with the world-class athletes in Iten? What if it’s really hard? What if it involves great risk? What if I can’t do it? What if I succeed?

As my days training in Kenya came to an end, I felt tremendous gratitude for the people I met. I was sad to say goodbye to those who put so much energy into helping me develop as a runner. The answers to my questions became clearer and clearer as the weeks passed. I went in with an open heart and came out with strong legs, a sound mind, and so much respect for the athletes working tirelessly in Kenya. Goodbye, Iten. May we meet again…

My final workout on Tamariny Track in Iten, Kenya.
Picky-picky riding in Kenya.

Grab the best of your life.

During my travels over here, I knew I had a few days to play with. Tanzania was calling my name. What if I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro? A daunting and to be honest, terrifying endeavor for me. I connected with Serengeti Select (through an amazing family connection with the lovely Susan and Nathan Simonson) who quickly helped me plan a remarkable eight-day journey with very little notice.

In Africa, you need to practice extreme patience on your travel days. Let the winds and roads take you where need to be. You will eventually get there.

Hello Kili!

After a one-hour shuttle from Iten to Eldoret, 50-minute flight from Eldoret to Nairobi, one-night stay in Nairobi, six-hour shuttle from Nairobi to Arusha, and finally, a two-hour shuttle - adding up to about 24 hours of travel - I arrived at the doorstep of the Kilimanjaro National Park at the Marangu Hotel. A gem of a place, with peaceful spaces to relax under the watchful eye of the mountain.

I was briefed for a good sixty minutes by a hotel staffer and avid climber, Anthony, about my upcoming pursuit to reach the top. His lessons – drink water (remember: copious and clear), GO SLOW, protect your skin from the sun, and enjoy the mountain. I was also introduced to Dora (oh my gosh, she is so lovely!) who helped me get myself together and lent me A LOT of gear from the communal collection at the hotel. I had brought only running gear to Kenya not knowing that I was going to attempt the climb. This was my saving grace.

Dora. The legend. The lady.

After all of the preparations, packing, and discussions, I sat down at a table for one surrounded by large groups, pairs and couples. I begin to wonder what the heck I was getting myself into on my own. A lot of what if? questions were going through my head during that meal. I was really missing Michael. I was nervous, and a bit scared. When I went to bed thinking about the days ahead I focused on the positive. I was all in; there was no turning back. I believed I would make it.

Truth be told, I was never really on my own…I had an exceptional six-person support crew who helped me tackle the climb.

I’ve thought a lot about how to share my experience on the mountain and I don’t really think there is a way to do it justice. I believe that if you have the dream to summit the mountain, you need to go in without any particular expectations. My experience was uniquely mine. I will say one thing, no one tells you how hard it is going to be….no one. In fact, while eating my dinner on the evening of my summit attempt, my cook referred to the experience as an “African piece of cake” to keep morale high. Do not be fooled by this. It’s gnarly, things will get ugly, and you have to dig really really really deep.

“If you don't like my story, write your own” -Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

My crew.
Snack time on the mountain.
Borrowed boots to get me up the mountain.
Kilimanjaro National Park.

Here are a few of my big themes, notes, takeaways, thoughts, and observations from my Mount Kilimanjaro climb from February 20 to 25, 2015.

“Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.” -Barry Finlay, Kilimanjaro and Beyond

1. Kilimanjaro National Park is a spectacular place. The experience in this park should not just be about the summit but the whole damn walk. In my case, it was about 70km of amazing nature for five full days. Every day is epic. The park is pristine, full of animals, inspiring and interesting people, clean water, wild views, and it’s where people go to see what they’re made of. This park is what the world should look like in my opinion. Trash in, trash out. Pushing boundaries. Defying limits. Nature is at the top of the food chain in the park, no comprises or bending of this rule.

2. Take the climb very seriously. People die on the mountain every year. There are statistics that say only half of the people who attempt the climb will make it to the summit. Personally, I was fearful of getting altitude sickness. When I did the Everest Basecamp Trek in 2009, I got very ill. I still think it was one of the hairiest experiences of my life. Going into this climb I was nervous because we were setting out to summit in a third of the time that I did on my Nepal trek. You really have no idea how your body will respond to the altitude until you get up there. It’s scary stuff. Even the subtle symptoms aren’t fun – nausea, loss of appetite, inability to sleep, and changes in mood. Given my acclimation training at high altitude in Kenya, I didn’t experience many symptoms thankfully this time around.

3. The guides, cooks, and porters make the experience what it becomes. Full stop. I learned so much about life from these people in the five days we spent together. We were a team. My guide, Philip, was a calm and nature loving Tanzanian. He taught me about flowers, trees, clouds, history, culture, customs, and animals. And when the going got tough, he helped me keep the flame alive. I have so much gratitude for my guide and what he did for me up there.

4. Like in life, things will go sideways. Live with it. On the day I summited, I was woken up at 11 p.m. for tea and biscuits after a few short hours of sleep. As my guide and I prepared to set out, I couldn’t find my headlamp but we had to leave the camp to walk through the night. It was pretty brutal to have to walk lockstep with him for six straight hours until the sun came up. Beyond the sheer exhaustion, I experienced mild nausea but this was nothing compared to the full-blown diarrhea and vomit that you see along the path to the summit and the stories I’ve heard from other climbers.

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” –Sir Edmund Hillary

5. The mind is a weapon during the summit attempt. If you don’t experience severe altitude sickness, your mind will get you to the top. On my route, there were only a few groups going up to summit at the same time. I passed one larger group struggling together to make it, pushing onward with the support of the calm voices from their fellow climbers. I was especially inspired by a honeymooning Australian couple, who took thirteen hours round-trip to summit (meaning they were up for nearly 36 hours). They started with me but we separated early on, I was ecstatic to see them on my descent still plugging away. I knew they would make it. Seeing them fight together is a moment I won’t soon forget. I really believe they made it because they had each other. In my darkest moments, I was reaching far away and deep within to find my own motivation to keep moving my feet forward. While some reasons are far too personal to share I was motivated by my mom’s battle with cancer in 2013 and by Brian Clemmens, a dear friend who left us too soon. I built an inuksuk in his memory beneath Everest and now a small but mighty set of rocks commemorates his love for the great outdoors in the shade of Mount Kilimanjaro.

6. Every experience to reach Uhuru Peak on Kibo is unique. There are six routes up the mountain, each route varies in length, difficulty, accommodations, views, and of course the biggest factor for any experience, weather, because it can make or break a climb. A lot of rain plus cold temperatures are the worst possible obstacles, putting humans at risk for hypothermia, a killer of many of porters and climbers every year. I have to say that I was very lucky during my climb (minus some intense winds), the conditions in general were ideal.

Let's do this.
Summit. The roof of Africa.
Hours away from summit attempt.
Fear is nothing.
The team. We did it.

My final days in Africa were storybook quality. I met up with my mom’s old friend from university who has spent her adult life living in Africa. We drove down to Tanguire National Park to sleep in thatched tents, watch wild elephants, and observe so many incredible animals in the wild. It was a magical way to mark the end of this journey.

A dream come true.
Wild elephants in the African sunset.
Africa is full of surprises.
Those roads.
Thank you to Susan and Brenden for the amazing game drive.

"I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up and was not happy." -Ernest Hemingway

Africa is a place I had only briefly explored in 2009. A few years ago I’m not sure that I could have imagined I would go on a trip like this. There is still so much to let sink in and digest. What I do know, I've been changed by my travel in Africa. In a small, self-affirming way.

To travel is to live. To be loved. To be brave. To put one foot in front of the other. To keep moving forward. To explore the moments that define us as humans.

Until we meet again, Africa.