Author’s Note: The accompanying video diaries are an opportunity to see a bit of what is being described, but are not essential to watch in order to understand the article. The videos are independent from the writing and vice versa. You are welcome to only watch, or only read or do it all.
I remember the exact moment I knew I wanted to climb Kilimanjaro. It was in the summer of 2012 that I took a flight that would route through three or four different airports and have us on the plane for almost an entire 24 hours. By the end of that flight, I couldn’t remember a time when I had not been on that plane. But one of the first airports we flew through was Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania. We picked up a long line of tired, but happy young trekkers who were chattering to each other about the amazing experience they were returning from. I didn’t know yet that these were my people.
As the plane took off, I glanced out my window at the mountain and I couldn’t look away. The peak was singular and stunning against the horizon and as we got higher I couldn’t tell what was cloud and what was snow. I needed to someday stand on that mountaintop. I needed to.
It was another two years before I met my adventurous, mountain man husband and incidentally, in the course of our international courtship, we found ourselves in Tanzania again. It wasn’t hard to convince him that someday we should take on this mountain together. We made plans to be married and then we made plans to climb the tallest mountain in Africa. We booked the trip to happen over our second wedding anniversary.
With so many years of build-up and preparation and research, you’d think there wouldn’t be anything left to surprise me when I finally arrived, but the lessons I learned on this adventure of adventures were unexpected and moving and universal enough to be worthy of sharing. With hours of hiking each day, I had time to meditate on the things I was seeing and feeling. Below is one thought or lesson from each day of our 7-day journey. The accompanying video diary for each will give you a sense of the things we were seeing as we felt these things:
Day 1—Develop Habits Now to Accomplish the Things You Want Later
The first day of our trek was full of a “hurry up and wait” mentality. The moment we’ve been waiting for all of this time arrived and we embarked only then we stopped and waited and then stopped again and waited and waited. When you’re a guest in another culture you can’t impose your culture’s values on the people you’re with. Being an American means doing things quickly and efficiently because time is money, but in Tanzania everything is a little more relaxed. Even once we finally arrived at the mountain, the walk to our first camp was more like a crawl. The lesson of the first day was patience. Patience with the process, and being happy to set habits in place (like walking pole, pole; slowly, slowly) that don’t seem to matter now when the air is thick with oxygen, but will matter greatly as we ascend the heights. In life there are lots of habits that don’t seem to matter when we don’t need them, but better be in place once we do.
Day 2—Learn to be Present, Even for the Hard Parts
There’s a (now perhaps clichéd) notion from Thornton Wilder’s brilliant play Our Town where a character is looking back on her life now that is already over and she says, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?” By only day two I already knew that it would take a deliberate effort to stay present and ready to discover every moment on this mountain that I have dreamed about.
At one point early in the day, we were staring up into the trees at two shadows we thought were monkeys and the harder we looked, the less sure we were until suddenly the shadows burst out of the trees in a blaze of shining green feathers. They were birds not monkeys and the surprise made me gasp out loud. It was beautiful, as was the stretching, endless band of stars across that night’s sky that was magnificent from our perch at 11,000 feet. The glow from inside the little tents scattering the hillside against such a brilliant, busy sky made me feel like a real adventurer.
I also inhaled about three meals worth of dust that day as the wind whipped up our afternoon. The trick in life is not letting the residual dust in your eyes block your view of the stars.
Day 3—Don’t Take the Clouds for Granted
The events of this day reminded me of why I love to travel and will never stop. The more places I’ve been, the more it feels like I’ve seen only the tiniest portion of what the world has to offer. We hiked to a place called Cathedral Point (elevation 12,703 feet) to work on getting our bodies used to higher and higher altitudes. We wended our way through rocky crevices and trails and when we finally reached the point, we were looking down on the clouds. A view like that is why I sit on the window seat of every flight I ever can and I never thought it would be a view I could earn for myself without a plane. I shed a few tears at the sight of it. I couldn’t look away. This wasn’t even a moment I knew enough to look forward to. It made me wonder what other sublime experiences are out there that I don’t even know to be wishing for.
From then on in the hike though, we were almost always above the clouds. That first-blush teary joy of discovery began to wear off during the afternoons until an obliging sunset would remind me of the billowing beauty of those clouds again. How easy it is to take the clouds for granted, how easy it is to forget that what we have now in abundance, we once wished for even a glimpse of. Meeting my beloved trekking partner for the first time was the view from above the clouds that I didn’t see coming. Day three of this hike was the second day of our third year of marriage and I hope to never take him for granted.
Day 4—It’s Easy to Look Right Past Your Greatest Gifts
Our day hike up to Lava Tower at around 15,000 feet was our first real taste of breathing without air. We stayed at this towering reminder that we are sleeping on a volcano for a brief lunch before traveling back down to respiratory comfort. Some in our group truly struggled with the elevation. They couldn’t carry on a conversation or even catch their breath.
I sat there on a giant rock covered in discarded egg shells, feeling fine and realized how powerful and adaptable my body has always been. It has always healed quickly and had a high level of athletic ability even when I’m out of shape and I suddenly felt ashamed that so many of my body related thoughts are fixated on things like extra belly fat or my upper arms being vaguely flabby. Here is this incredible tool that is working miracles and striving on overtime to give me a wonderful physical experience in life and all I can think is why is my forehead so wrinkly?
It made me wonder what other miraculous blessings of my life I am reducing to petty disappointments.
Day 5—It’s Ok to Ask for Help
Getting fairly violently ill late on the night of day five actually only further confirmed my belief that my body can do some incredible things; expelling things it recognized as potentially dangerous even if it meant a night of serious discomfort for me. But the real lesson of the day was the idea of being ok to ask for and accept help. We were hiking with a group who had paid for a slightly cushier camp set up and the guys were quick to offer any of their amenities that I wanted.
I don’t like to take anything from anyone; don’t like stopping in a food line to serve myself because it means holding up the person behind me. I don’t like taking a sip of my husband’s water in case he needs it, even though he offers it freely and often. But that night under another blanket of vivid stars, Bryan gave me a healing priesthood blessing in our tent and told me that both he and my Heavenly Father were willing and waiting to help me. Earlier in that same day we climbed down a steep and sandy path lined with twisting trees bearing spots where the bark had been rubbed smooth by the many, many hikers who had reached out for needed support. There’s no shame in asking for help when you need it. Those trees were a visible reminder that everybody does at one time or another. The Lord is usually already poised to give that help if you would only reach out for Him.
Day 6—Remember Why You Do It
So often the things we dream of have a reality that it more difficult than we anticipated. We may even wonder why we wanted this so much. When you’re attempting to sleep on a pile of giant volcanic rocks looking down the barrel of a intimidating push for the summit on a recently sick stomach, it’s good to step back and remember that you chose this and why. We choose many of the things that bring us the greatest struggles in life, but we choose them because they also bring us the greatest joy. Without great risk and often sacrifice, you cannot have enjoy your grand and exhilarating rewards. Remember your motivation, whatever it may be and remember how long you waited for this.
Day 7—Thine Adversity Shall Be But a Small Moment
When we woke up to begin our ascent at midnight, I had no idea how hard this day would be. Usually when I hike, I get into some kind of rhythm and before long I don’t have to think about my steps anymore, I just keep putting one foot in front of the other. During this journey to the summit, I literally had to decide to keep going again and again. It never got easier. I had a watch on and knew roughly how long the trip to the summit would take us and when I’d think it had been at least an hour, I would check and only a few minutes would’ve passed. We had to step around people that were sick on the trail, it was pitch black out and we just kept following the tiny, blinking headlamps far ahead on the trail and the sound of the other group’s guide squealing, “Ma-RI-ahhh!” Those six or so hours to the top felt like an eternity, yet here I am months later and it’s already a distant memory.
Even our most difficult moments will pass and if we stick with it and keep trusting in the Lord and in ourselves, we’ll be stronger when we make it out the other side. Getting to the very top was a fantastic feeling. The air was so cold I could feel the blood in my hands slowing and I was afraid I would drop my camera, but I also felt so powerful and accomplished. I can do hard things and even the hardest of them will pass with time as all things do.
Bonus Lesson: “In We God Trust”
After our descent we spent a few days back in the towns at the base of the mountain. The vans and busses are often painted in vibrant colors and with personalized messages. One that I noticed said “In We God Trust”. Make sure you read that correctly. It was most likely a feature of broken English that left the words painted in that order, but I liked the message. With my calves still sore from the mountain, I felt like a sincerely capable person and I looked at the message and smiled. I think God really does trust us, more than we give Him credit for. Though He’s ready and waiting to step in, I think revelation comes in the form of our own ability and clarity and determination. We don’t have to wait on His signal, we can move forward with the knowledge that we have knowing He will direct us as we need Him.