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 ….