I love the mountains – especially when they’re coloured white and far away from any town or person - I feel more myself when I am immersed in their majesty than at any other time. I used to visit them often, either to walk their paths or board their slopes.
But that was in my previous life - you know - the one when I was married and enjoyed shared resources. I had to shelve my love for adventure after my mini human made her grand entrance (ah the noble self-sacrifice of the single mother). One can only live the saintly life for so long though before the halo becomes a choker, and so it was with extreme joy that I finally committed to fulfilling one of my long-standing dreams; climbing Kilimanjaro.
Doing things alone has never deterred me, in fact a lot of the time I prefer it – who better to laugh at my jokes than the voices who share my mind (we have a good relationship the ten of us). It was with this semi self-confidence that I joined a group of complete strangers to climb the mountain.
I confess to indulging in some self-pity when I stood alone at the deserted train station late Friday night, and had to ask the security guard to take a picture of me after failing to fit in all my gear by way of selfie. Nevertheless I kept my optimism and energy drink high and off I went.
The long wait till 1 am was shortened by getting to know some of my team members. The remainder I met on the plane which I celebrated by promptly falling asleep, drooling on my travelling companion’s shoulder and hogging the armrest. In true British politeness he accommodated me by balancing his head on the fold out tray before him and occasionally giving his arm a shake.
Our hike began the next morning after we were dropped off at the foot of the mountain to meet our guides and porters. We set off with laughter and excitement and anticipation to lead us.
The higher we climbed the more we left behind; mundane concerns, mobile signal, fresh smelling bodies and any sense of time. Each day as we walked conversation and laughter flowed, personalities were revealed and dreams hinted at. Childlike fun prevailed and sleep was strangely peaceful, despite the squawking sound of a tent zipper opening at frequent intervals during the night.
Apollo 13 shadow puppets, human pyramids, mess-tent card games and naked penalties. It was a return to simplicity, carefree fun that excluded technology or western entertainment. A way of life that healed sore bodies and hearts.
After discussions with people who had climbed before, I was eagerly awaiting the ‘life change’ that was supposed to settle on me like a heavenly benediction from perfectly robed angels. So far all I felt was happiness that for this moment in my life I was far away from everything that required me to operate at Mach 3.
Before we knew it summit day was upon us. I gave it no more thought than the rest of the journey, my only true concern was whether I would be able to sleep the 5hrs available before we began – apparently I could not. I dressed with a pounding headache and slight nausea; it was the first time I doubted my strength and perhaps the onset of the proverbial epiphany to come.
Within 2 hours of our climb I was struggling to direct my feet where they were supposed to go and my headache had become debilitating. My frequent checks of the mountaintop revealed swirling stars that I was sure existed only in my own mind. It was with great relief when someone else pointed out the meteor shower - luckily I was able to dismiss hallucination from my list of ailments.
On the rim of the crater and during the final walk to the highest point I had to lean on our guide in order to walk straight, for the first time in my life I was unashamed at accepting help, and more than that actually enjoyed it. My mind had long ago turned its back on me in disgust for failing to command my body to obey.
My focus had become singular – accomplish my goal and then get the hell back down to a place where my body was familiar. In a discussion one day later it was pointed out to me that I could not live a solitary life and avoid any form of dependency. It seemed my grand lesson was one of surrender, something I had been too over-confident to prepare for.
In the hours that followed our individual challenges slowly made themselves known. I was humbled to know that each of us had faced our own adversities; and I was blessed to be reminded that despite our separate lives our humanity would always connect us. Too often in life we judge before knowing, isolate ourselves from emotions we all share, and presume to suffer alone.
As our guide kept reminding us – to summit is only half the journey, the descent must still be tackled. I am reminded of that at home as I try to fulfil the routine tasks ahead of me; driving to school, grocery shopping, emails, business meetings and deadlines that seem to have no purpose other than to mark off another week of my life.
The descent to reality has been surprisingly difficult considering my short time away from it. So I ask myself how I can have both – the obvious answer is to explore more, but that has proven a difficult scale to balance when paired with responsibility.
As I sit here on a deliciously warm spring afternoon, the wind sighing in the garden and the quietness of a Saturday afternoon humming peace, I am beginning to feel more myself again, starting to return to the knowledge that life encompasses all.
We can mourn that which we had and now lost, that which we desire and cannot have, the things we must do but would prefer not to.
We can be grateful for all the myriad of adventures and tragedies that have either brushed past our lives or burned a searing scar into it. We can rest easy knowing that there will be more adventures, and yes more sadness as well. They are each a blessing and sometimes only with time can we tell the difference.
My next challenge, and I suspect those of my travelling companions as well, is to find the same joy, peace and serenity that enveloped us on the mountain while sitting in traffic or attending children. That I think, is far harder than climbing.
Thank you Sean, Jason, Gabriel, Sandy, Grant, Tom, Ben, Lizelle, Simon, Carey, Lani, Richard, Mehran and Jon for including me in the adventures of your life – it was awesome.
We climbed towards a sea of stars, some guiding sparkling tails that echoed the hope of those below. Up, and up again towards a silhouette that promised victory.
Our bodies shared the trials whilst our minds wandered in privacy.
The dark and the cold kept us close, but each of us had to walk alone.
We planned to climb a mountain only, but in our ascent gained so much more; friendships and memories forever imprinted in our hearts.