Friday, September 9, 2011

Sept 11, 2001

A photo of Denali – North America’s highest mountain - sits on the shelf beside my bed. It is the first thing I see when I wake up and the last thing I see before I drift to dreams. This is not just a photo of a pretty mountain – it is a reminder of the day that changed our country.

Since turning 19, I have spent every birthday doing what brings me peace: backpacking in a wild place. The week of my 25th birthday in 2001 was no different. For 4 days, I was going solo buried deep in Denali National Park and this trip was turning out to be particularly spectacular. Already, I had seen a herd of sheep scamper gracefully up a rocky cliff to evade certain death at the teeth of a pack of hungry wolves. I had found a garden of sparkling geodes the size of my head and I had tasted the first really sweet rosehips of the season (they only get sweet after the first frost).

At 4 am Alaska time on my birthday, September 11, the call of nature pulled me from sleep. I stumbled out of my tent and sleepily emerged into the darkness. After shining a light to make sure there were no eyes lurking nearby, I assumed squat position. Eyes half shut, I looked up and my jaw unhinged, the way a snake’s does when swallowing a mouse. The sky blazed with streaks of green, red, purple and white dancing against the black like sparklers on the 4th of July.

I had seen the Aurora before, but this time I actually HEARD them. Native elders had told me that the Northern Lights sometimes speak and now I knew the soothing, and somewhat eerie whispers for myself. I enjoyed the show until my fingers began to freeze and then dove back into my warm sleeping bag to catch some more zzzzs. I was oblivious about the chaos that was, at that very moment, opening up on the East Coast.

When the sun made its way above the horizon, I roused. The mountain – the Great One – shone with greater clarity than I’d ever seen it in my years in Alaska. Most folks who visit the Park get an obscured view of Denali, but today she was out in full force; sun shining, yellow aspen leaves glowing, snow sparkling. It was the perfect day….here anyway.

I lingered a bit, reluctant to return to life that isn’t so simple. I soaked it all in and felt so grateful for having the luxury and health to be able to celebrate my special day in this way. I hiked to the road, stopping here and there to munch blueberries along the way, and caught the bus back toward Kantishna, a tiny spot at the end of the Park where I was working as a guide for another summer.

The bliss I felt from time in the backcountry shattered without question at our first stop, the Eielson Visitor Center. The sign that usually greeted tourists with an inspirational quote and a weather forecast said, “Two planes hit the Twin Towers. Another crashed into the Pentagon. Many dead, more missing.”

My heart stopped and I floated above the scene, the way people do in movies when they’re having near death experiences. Although I don’t play the part (no accent, no big hair and no nails), I am a Jersey girl. My brother, sister and dad sometimes go to the Trade Center for work and my other brother lives in Washington, DC. The park ranger had no more info. That stupid sign was it. The 3 hours that ensued were perhaps the longest and most frustrating of my life….

I curled up on the grass and looked at the mountain through a river of tears. I was so angry. How could the mountain shine so bright and look so brilliant when the world was so ugly? Why was I here, feeling the warmth of the sun and surrounded by such beauty when so many were suffering? Could I operate in a world where my dad didn’t exist? Somehow, amidst all of this, I snapped an incredible photo.

When the bus finally concluded its bouncy journey home, I jumped out, abandoned my pack and ran the length of the dirt driveway. Half way to the lodge, I fell into my boyfriend’s arms who – knowing my ties to my family said nothing but, “Dad called. Everyone’s alright.” My family survived, however, for months they attended funerals for fallen friends and colleagues. My sister never could bring herself to go back to work in the city.

My life has taken many twists and turns in the 10 years since this fateful day. I have lived in 6 different states, visited 10 countries, earned a master’s degree, loved and lost more times than I wish to admit and I have done so many things I didn’t think possible. I live hard and love harder because this day – once filled with candles and cake for me – was a call to action. Not a call to be fearful or angry or vengeful, but a call to live, to celebrate life, to soak it all in because we really never know. The only constant amidst all this change has been the mountains; my most faithful companions who always and without fail serve to soothe my soul and remind what is right with the world.

I still have not seen the footage of the planes hitting the Towers. I recognize this makes me somewhat odd- statistically speaking. At first, it was lack of opportunity. I stayed at the end of the road in Denali for another month with no TV, no radio, no computers. Once I returned to a place with creature comforts, I didn’t think I was ready to see it. I can barely watch movies with any violence so I didn’t think I was ready for the real thing. But eventually, it became a conscious choice. In a world so full of pain, I don’t need to see more destruction, more misery. I know what happened and I felt it (and continue to feel it) with all my being. The northern lights spoke of it before I even understood what they were telling me and I mourned the great loss – in my own way - crying and curled up on the tundra staring at a beautiful peak shine high above it all. So, instead of focusing on the ugly, the past, the bad, I keep a photo of this day on my desk to remind me that even when part of the world is falling apart and even when humans fail – nature stands strong –shining with beauty ….

So, this September 11 – a day which no longer warrants celebration with cake and candles – I will once again be in the mountains honoring the life that I am still fortunate enough to live. I will remember those who fell that day and those since who have sacrificed so much to protect our country. But, I will not sit in a dark room to memorialize them – I must climb, smell the flowers, touch the trees, shed sacred sweat and breathe it all in.... for them and because I still can.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

What It's All About

In the darkness, thoughts escape as quickly as they arrive. Very little oxygen actually completes the arduous journey from my lungs to my brain and I feel like a child chasing bubbles – each idea vanishes just as I get close to grasping it. I am able to catch one, however, and it sticks: “This is what it’s all about.” These six words play repeatedly in my head and are all I need to keep moving upward through the burning night air.

The fact that I am psyched on my situation and able to gain clarity here probably sounds odd to the normal person or even to those who have done this kind of thing. And, rightfully so – it is weird. It’s 3 am and I haven’t slept in over 24 hours. Occasionally, the wind howls with enough force to push my entire body off the trail. I am walking uphill at 17000 feet and I haven’t felt my toes in over 2 hours. How can this be what life is all about?

Our pre-dawn bid for the summit of Mt.Kilimanjaro means I have at least 10 hours of hiking during which to ponder this question. Ends up I only need a few seconds for the answer to rise up. Intense physical challenge coupled with the solace of open spaces brings me into the moment in a way that few other things can. I am unabashedly present here and I can feel each molecule of my heart, head, body, soul and breath. This is where my best thinking happens, but more importantly, where my best feeling occurs - unfettered and unfiltered by the trappings of conventional life. My intuition speaks clearly and inspiration waits around every corner - both beautiful consequences of moving through nature in a mindful manner.

During the climb from Barafu (base camp at 4600 meters) to Uhuru Peak (at 5950 meters), I experienced the full gamut of emotions and shed tears countless times. Some were tears of sadness as a strong member of our team turned back due to altitude sickness, an ailment that could have hit any of us at any time. Other tears fell in response to the genuine love and patience demonstrated by our tireless guides from Summits Africa. Their unfailing dedication each day and especially on summit night - from literally feeding us energy bars to zipping jackets when our hands were too cold to singing to us through the darkness - overwhelmed me. Then, of course, tears of joy as we rolled up to the highest point in Africa. This was an incredible culmination to a powerful month especially when I realized the magnitude of what we had all just accomplished. And I don’t mean just climbing a few of the continent’s highest peaks…I mean transforming ourselves while helping the people and lands of Africa with our thoughts, our actions, our words, our hearts and our feet.

Climbing Mt. Kenya, Meru and Kili in 21 days was an intense experience. The challenge now (and always upon returning to “the real world”) is making sure that what we have gained - perspective, strength, presence - and what we have overcome - pain, suffering, difficulty breathing, self-doubt - does not stay out on the mountains or among the trees.

The crucial task of bringing back what we have experienced in the wild and incorporating it into the day to day can be the most difficult part of any journey. The rewards of successfully doing exactly this are what keep me (and I imagine, many others) going back to the mountains for more. The idea, for me at least, is that each time I wander into the woods, I return with an elevated perspective and understanding that carries me through the challenges of everyday life and makes each moment more full, more real and more honest…I guess this is really what it’s all about.



Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Breakfast Wall

Climbing Kilimanjaro is different than I ever expected. The gate is a zoo – full of people speaking countless different languages, porters weighing gear, guides scrambling to deal with last minute details, men selling cheesy t-shirts and tourists taking photos. I stand with other hikers in a queue for the last real toilet we’ll see for a week and I take it all in. It reminds me more of the entrance to a gala event than the beginning of a wilderness experience.

Amidst the throngs of people, feelings of excitement, anticipation, fear and joy are palpable. For many, this is the start of making a life long dream come true and it will not be easy.

The forest is thick for the first day, eventually giving way to rocky alpine terrain where only plants who hug the earth can survive. The trail ahead looks like a piece of multi-colored string as hundreds of people hustle up the mountain. On our second day of walking, the trail funnels into a narrow shoot where we are actually being pushed and pushing to move upward. As someone who turns to nature for peace, solace and spirit, I am frustrated to be in the midst of what feels like “combat hiking.”

A few days into the trek, things change. I wake to the same camp noises I have been hearing for the last 17 days – Norbert (a wisp of a man who is the sweetest member of our camp crew) chipping the ice away from the hand washing station, white-necked ravens buzzing camp with their loud and powerful wing flaps, tents zipping and unzipping and the porters endlessly bantering in Swahili. Simba, the head of camp crew (and the reason we’ve been eating so well) growls at my tent door. His big eyes peek in followed by a hand holding a cup of hot Kenyan coffee. I look out and Kili looms large above us – still far, but enormous; a stone wall with a path carved into it awaits our ascent. During the scramble up the aptly named, “Breakfast Wall” (because many lose their eggs on the long vertical climb), I become enamored with the hike toward the Roof of Africa. This kind of hiking is exhilarating and there is enough space to feel the power of nature. I am once again alive and find what I came here for – a clarity and a peace of mind that I am exactly where I ought to be, doing exactly what I ought to be doing.

At the top, Kili shines and rewards us with a brilliant view of its remaining glaciers. We stop to take advantage of the calm day, sunning ourselves on the warm rocks and shooting a ridiculous amount of silly photos. Each of us is well aware that this is a far cry from where we will be or how we will feel in a few days when we make our bid for the summit of the highest mountain in Africa ….

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Climbing for Education

Africa’s highest peak looms large to my left; a full moon dangles amidst the stars to my right. I am breathless, but not because I am hiking at altitude.

Below me, the earth changes constantly. I can’t see exactly what lies under my feet, but the light of the moon reveals the jagged outline of the surrounding terrain. We crawl slowly along a spiny crater rim laden with sharp drop offs and steep cliffs. The heart of Mt. Meru - an eerie volcanic ash cone - lies just below the rim’s edge.



Despite being surrounded by such majesty, the vision of Pascal’s home - a tiny, peaceful hut made of mud - does not leave my mind for the entire climb. Pascal is a 13 year old student at the School of St. Jude’s in Arusha, Tanzania. I had the privilege of visiting his home the day before beginning to ascend Meru, the second peak in our three week challenge. His mother, who is raising eight children on her own, greeted me with open arms and a smile. With the help of a translator, I sat with this Maasai woman and chatted as if we were long time friends.


We learned about each other while drinking a cup of the best tea I have ever tasted. Even though she doesn’t have food to spare, she placed a stack of buttered bread large enough to feed fifteen people in front of me and urged me to eat. The generosity, dedication and kindness of this little boy and his family make most challenges, including walking up a mountain, seem pretty easy.


Spurred by the spirit of this family and the others at St. Jude’s, our entire team pushed past doubt and pain to make the steep and scenic climb. We reached Meru’s summit just in time for Earth’s daily light show. The views were so spectacular that it was difficult to focus in just one direction. Mount Kilimanjaro (our next peak of the challenge) stood strong in front of us, glowing from the fiery sunrise. Behind us, the moon dropped to the other side of the world and Mt. Meru cast its shadow over the lush lands below.



We descended the mountain in exactly the same way we climbed it, however, the light of day revealed a completely new and wild landscape. I couldn’t help looking over my shoulder a time or two (or a thousand) at Kili to take in its overwhelming beauty and to ask this incredible peak to be kind to us this week. We’re heading there tomorrow and will climb for health and those living with HIV so stay tuned....

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Bid for the Summit - Mt. Kenya

It’s an absolutely freezing clear morning. The sky is full of so many stars that I can barely keep my eyes on the ground. However, looking up isn’t really an option. We move as a unit; a line of lights creeping through the dark the way a snake winds through the desert. It’s 3:30 am and we have just begun our bid for the top of Mt. Kenya.

“Slowly, slowly” (or “Pole, pole” as our guides say in Swahili), we climb higher and higher. One breathless step at a time, we seek to reach the rocky summit by sunrise.
Our fingers are frozen, we can’t see, some members of the team haven’t slept in days and others are suffering from altitude sickness…Yet, we climb on - for the environment, for our families and friends, for each other and for ourselves.

It’s tough going, but spirits rise with the sun. When we are just a few minutes shy of Point Lenana, a glowing red orb inches it’s way above the eastern horizon. We push on - scurrying over the last few bits of trail and helping each other up a short, steep rock wall. Tears, laughter, hoots and hollers abound. In front of my eyes, I see self-doubt and uncertainty transform into confidence and clarity.

I am overwhelmed by the determination, perseverance, heart and support present in each of these women. And this is only our first climb. Two more mountains left and I can’t wait to see what arises in the next couple weeks.



Sunday, January 9, 2011

In the Shadow of Mt. Kenya

Two days ago, 11 women converged in Nairobi, Kenya united by one mission – to begin the 3 Peaks 3 Weeks 2011 Challenge.

Already, this team of incredible individuals, ranging in age from 20 to 63 and hailing from various corners of the world, feel like old friends to me. We will likely become family as we spend the next 21 days climbing Mt. Kenya, Mt. Meru and Mt. Kilimanjaro. Although we come from different places, backgrounds and experiences, we are joined by a sense of adventure and a desire to make a difference.

Early this morning, we left Nairobi and headed to the Laikipia Wildlife Forum (www.laikipia.org) – one of the 3 organizations supported by the funds we raise. The mountain deities blessed us with a clear day and we caught our first glimpse of Mt. Kenya – Africa’s 2nd highest peak. We have each been anticipating this for over a year, making the moment even sweeter and somewhat surreal.

Just when we thought things couldn’t get any better, we received another gift: a flight over the Laikipia Plateau, 10,000 square kilometers where LWF works to conserve the integrity of the ecosystem.

We piled into the tiny plane and soared over a vast landscape punctuated by dense forest and rocky crags. In just minutes, we were flying in the shadow of Mt. Kenya. We watched golden light dance on the foothills; 11 faces glued to the glass imagining what it will be like to be on this mountain, instead of above it…

We'll start to find out tomorrow...