“Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it’s letting go.”– Herman Hesse
I licked my thumb to turn the page of my book, glancing up for the first time in a while to enjoy my surroundings. Mount Kilimanjaro sat proudly in the backdrop of my hotel, dragonflies hovered over the swimming pool and periodically nosedived for a drink. The sun was moving in the sky, stealthily stealing the shadow over my lounger and getting alarmingly close to my chilled beer.
I’d booked this trip in the same way I had all my previous excursions, a week or less before departure, without much of a plan and relying on instinct that it was a good idea. My inner compass told me that I needed a long walk, I couldn’t say why, just that it was necessary. I was seeking something intangible and unknown and I’d decided I would look for it on the mountain.
I was glad not to be alone, tilting my head to the right to look at Jana, my good friend of 12 years. We’d met in Germany when I was an intern, our first conversation was a simple dialog deciding that we should be friends and that would be that. Living in different countries we’d often make appointments to meet for adventures. ‘Meet Jana, Geneva 1pm Coffee’ and ‘Meet Jana, Hong Kong, 8pm the usual place’ were common calendar entries.
Today we’d met two women from Dublin who had said that the hike, particularly the summit, was very challenging. One of the women even confessed that she had cried on day three. I tried to empathise though found I couldn’t. I was unphased by the challenge, confident in the knowledge that it was unlikely to be the hardest thing I’d ever done. Still, I smiled kindly and nodded in acknowledgement; suggesting that I had understood.
Day One – Machame Gate (1830 m) – Machame Camp (3030 m)
Walking distance: 3.5 m
Walking time: 4 h
Altitude gain: 1200 m
What a doddle! The Dubliners had massively oversold the difficulty of the walk, my main challenge was keeping an appropriately steady pace: ‘poli poli!’ the guides would say, insisting I slow. I did of course, I’d chosen Mount Kilimanjaro because it was impossible to rush, acclimatising to the change in atmospheric pressure could only be done poli poli. I thought it would be good to ‘enjoy the journey’, ‘appreciate the now’, ‘be present’, ‘relish in the process’ and other such clichés. At camp our guides did the first of our daily health checks, heartbeat and oxygen levels. I found myself inquiring was my heart-rate especially efficient? My oxygen uptake impressively high?
By default, I approached everything in life with an outcome focused rigidity. There was nothing I couldn’t do, no challenge insurmountable, no problem for which there was not a fix, a solution, a simple reframing. If I was apprehensive about going for an interview or about having a difficult conversation, I would just ask myself ‘Is this the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do?’ Future Emma would tell me, ‘No! it’s not as hard as X, Y or Z, so bloody get the hell on with it. You’ve got this’. It was grounding for sure, though I’d realised in recent years that these ‘hardest things’ were largely unprocessed experiences and led to a low-level anxiety. I’d picked up counselling about six months ago to pull it apart and had completed my sessions shortly before my trip without the feelings of resolution and clarity that I’d hoped for. My counsellor always wanting me to ‘sit with my feelings’ which I thought was a waste of my £50-hour session, I’d decide to change the subject or humour her with a moment of silence before continuing ‘so…anyway’.
Our porters set up camp on a grassy platform that overlooked a wide and tree-rich valley below. Dinner of fried potatoes and vegetables was brought by our ‘server’ onto our table adorned with a woven cloth, condiments and coffee, this was nothing short of glamping. Although I have a major potato intolerance, I was undeterred and spooned on a massive pile of spuds, salting my dinner generously and sighing happily after I ate each one, I was on holiday after all.
As twilight set in, I pointed at a huge mountain in the distance framed by the setting sun ‘is that our destination?’ I’d asked the guide. ‘No’, he’d said, ‘that’s Mount Meru. You’ll be going much higher’.
Day Two – Machame Camp – New Shira Camp (3850 m)
Walking distance: 3.5 m
Walking time: 5 h
Altitude gain: 820 m
I woke at 6.30 am in a grumpy mood having slept very little due to potato related ‘digestive issues’, which my very unfortunate co-traveller can attest to; our tent environment was as toxic as Chernobyl.
My disposition (and digestion) improved when we got walking. Little alleyways trailed away from the main path like something from Alice in Wonderland. A mouse or vole scurried into a log, the trees rustled from other unknown life; existing just outside of view. I felt my heart race every time I saw a bird, shrub or insect that I’d never seen before, squatting with my hands on my knees, head tilted in close to inspect it with the inquiry of a child.
I had trekking poles but I didn’t use them, it was a point of pride for me. Recalling some years before seeing a couple with poles and sweatbands ‘trekking’ through Central Park, I thought they looked super stupid. Besides, I needed to be in touch with the earth when I walked, clamber over the warm rocks with my hands and feel the exchange of energy between us.
Some groups of walkers listened to loud music on speakers, this I assumed was an important part of their experience, unfortunately it was completely at odds with my own. I could hear ‘Dancing Queen’ whenever I wanted, but the sounds of the wind racing past the mountain? The crack of rocks as the sun heated its surface? The crashing of distant waterfalls? There was no audio track for that. When these groups came near, I insisted we pause to let them pass.
We camped on wide-open rocky terrain where the clouds strolled by like fellow travelers, before colliding with the rockface and dispersing. I went to bed at 8pm feeling exhausted from the sleep deprivation of the night before; tomorrow was supposed to be a hard day. Even with ear plugs I could hear the excited rumble of chatter and movement in the campsite. Not even my increasing fatigue was sufficient in this unfamiliar and noisy environment to allow me to settle into sleep and I laid awake until it subsided around midnight.
Day Three – New Shira Camp – via Lava Tower (4640 m) – Barranco Camp (3985 m)
Walking distance: 6.2 m
Walking time: 8 h
Altitude gain: 135 m (790 m to Lava Tower)
I woke at 5.30 am as the sun rose to the sounds of the porters preparing breakfast and found my head spinning. It was a familiar feeling, the one where you wake up with the ‘I’m never drinking again’ hangover. Sick to your stomach, body aching, head fuzzy, dehydrated and needing desperately to use the loo. You need to get up but you are certain, in a rather dramatic fashion, that moving will kill you. You lie there both unable to stand or to sleep; seriously considering if it would be okay to just wet yourself and deal with the repercussions later.
I was then hit by a gut-wrenching realisation, it wasn’t just a case of bravely making a quick dash to the loo, just to slope back into bed for many more hours of rest and recovery. I would need to get up, pack my worldly belongings and walk for eight hours up a mountain face with the knowledge that with every step my altitude sickness would get worse. And it was then I knew, in a profound wave of empathy, tears beginning to run down my cheeks, how it could be possible for someone to cry on day three.
I rubbed my stomach, urging it not to dispose of the water I’d worked hard to consume during the night. I managed to moult out of my sleeping bag, completed the awkward game of tent-twister needed to step directly into my boots waiting in the porch. I’d also managed the walk over rocks and dips and tufts of grass and the other supposedly inanimate objects that seemed to have powers to trip me. But it was entering the 30-foot latrine that was the metaphorical final straw. I-threw-up-everything.
In the first hour of walking I slowed to try and reduce my sickness, I began to get overtaken by hordes of faster walkers and I didn’t like it, at all. I’d told myself that this hike wasn’t a race, that I would ‘enjoy the journey,’ but I knew that was bulls#it, I don’t even like people overtaking me in the street when I am out for a casual stroll. I wanted to win, whatever that was supposed to mean. I made peace with my disappointment and I told Jana I wanted her to walk ahead so she would keep warm. I would walk the rest of the day alone.
It was dry season, but no-one seemed to have told the sky as it rained: all day. My trousers were not waterproof, neither were my gloves, nor apparently was my waterproof jacket which required re-proofing. The air got thinner and each and every breath became deep, raspy and laboured.
As I continued the fatigue from two sleepless nights set in, I’d had little breakfast and was running on empty. My head was pounding at my temples and I stopped to open a fruit juice box, widening the straw hole large enough for a strong dispersible painkiller, I hoped it would work quickly.
The guide offered to hold my bag for a few minutes, I didn’t want him to. He was already holding a 20 kg pack and I generally did not like people to help me with things. I’d recently read a book called: The Five Love languages that had given me insight into why, it suggests that people feel love in one of five ways. I wasn’t bothered by receiving gifts from others or being given words of affirmation, it was when people did things for me, anticipated my needs, this is when I felt loved. To relinquish my ‘no thanks, I can do it myself’ control to someone else, to a complete stranger nonetheless, was the ultimate vulnerability for me. I said yes, it would be okay for a few minutes.
He held it for the next seven hours.
It wasn’t the only thing he helped me with, he held my hand as I cried, told me that I was doing a great job, put my jacket on, fed me water and brought me snacks from my bag. It was after the fourth time I threw up, on my hands and knees with my forehead resting on a rock that I first thought I wouldn’t be able to continue. I simply didn’t want to stand and walk again, I longed for nothing more than for my guide to let me lie down, hold me in the warmth of his arms and rock me gently to sleep.
We arrived at the camp around 4.00 pm after a long descent, every step I thought would be the one where my knees would finally give way. My walking poles no longer an unnecessary fad, they had become permanent extensions of my arms, I arrived soaked, exhausted and miserable. I could only hope that my condition would improve after a sleep.
I stepped into the tent and discovered that Jana had laid out my sleeping bag, mat and belongings at the foot of my bed, tucking my book and torch next to my pillow for me. I felt a lump form in my throat. ‘’I laid your things out for you’’, she said arriving behind me. ‘’I know’’ I responded, my lower lip beginning to quiver, ‘‘thank you’’ I followed, before crying into her shoulder.
Day Four – Barranco Camp via Karanga Camp (4040 m) Karanga Camp – Barafu Camp (4680 m)
Walking distance: 3.5 m + 2.2 m
Walking time: 4.5 h + 4.5 h
Altitude gain: 55 m + 640 m
I stepped out of my tent at 4.30 am to answer the call of nature and was disoriented by the unfamiliar terrain. I was accustomed to opening my tent in the UK to the back-end of another tent, with the sounds of snoring drunk people, the buzz of festival music and the familiar pong of cow pats. This morning I looked out on a near pitch black rocky expanse which smelt sweet of trees and ferns. The outlines of other tents in the distance visible only through the starlight.
I glanced up at the sky and gasped, raising my hand to my mouth to muffle the noise, I was astounded by the beauty of the night sky. I could see the Andromeda galaxy, something I’d only ever seen in pictures and had desperately hoped I would see in person in my lifetime. I stayed for some time in the silence until my neck began to ache and the cold began to penetrate through my clothes.
After a nine hour sleep I met the hike with a renewed sense of excitement and well-being. We stopped for lunch at Karanga Camp for some chips and potato soup – both of which I avoided. When we reached base camp around 5.00 pm we had a quick bite to eat before bed: we would leave for the summit in less than six hours.
Day Five – Barafu Camp to summit Uhuru Peak (5895 m) and descent to Mweka Camp (3080 m)
Walking distance: 3 m ascent + 6.2 m descent
Walking time: 6.5 h + 6 h
Altitude gain: 1215 m
Descent: 2075 m
I woke at quarter to midnight and pulled on my soiled, four-day worn walking trousers, thermal layers, tops, down jackets and a bobble hat. I managed to keep down my breakfast that consisted of two bites of a peanut butter sandwich, which I’d discovered was a truly disgusting combination of foods.
We hadn’t been walking for too long before I found myself as unwell as I had been at the worst points of day three. ‘’So where are you from?’’ A kindly stranger invited, I responded ‘’I’m sorry I cannot speak’’ in the gentlest voice that I could muster, offering no further explanation.
Each time I dared to look back or ahead at the trail I felt queasy, so I stopped, I simply looked at my feet and kept on walking. My heart rate was 115 bpm when I’d left the camp, I paid close attention to my raspy, laboured breaths, breathing in fully and out slowly so that I didn’t begin to hyperventilate from the panic I felt. I had no appetite and my water bladder had frozen. On occasion I found myself sobbing in the way a toddler might, runny nose, screwed up face, wiping away at my cracked lips with the back of my sleeve. My head pounded fiercely and I felt dizzy, at times falling back or losing my footing.
I was held hostage by my environment, with nothing but my own thoughts and feelings and found myself thinking about my sessions with my counsellor. I couldn’t avoid my discomfort through exercising any of my usual coping mechanisms; like setting random achievement goals; or even better, streaming repeats of 90’s sci-fi on my phone (secret single behaviour). Yet I didn’t turn back, with every step I was choosing to continue my suffering.
I laughed a spontaneous and insane sounding laugh, attracting the glances of my guide and a few others. Had I really subconsciously chosen to trap myself here on a 5895-meter-tall mountain, 4433 miles from home so I would be unable to do anything but spend time with my feelings, just as my counsellor had so frequently requested? I guess I now knew why I was drawn here. I relented, and let myself lean into my feelings and experience whatever thoughts passed through my mind.
I thought back to the moment a long-term ex-partner told me that he didn’t love me. That he never had. That he wasn’t sure if he ever would. How foolish I’d felt to have given so much of myself, choosing all the while to be blind to the truth that I’d known all along.
I carried on walking, my head thumping, I could feel blood rushing through vessels in my skull.
I thought of a recent job interview, the application was name-blind, leaving me confident that I’d been considered fairly upon my merits. In the opening introductions my hosts confessed with a jovial disappointment that they were expecting a man, and I’d realised the interview was over. How in hindsight I wished I’d stopped the interview there, reporting regretfully that this wasn’t the type of organisation I’d wish to work for.
One step in front of another. The air smelt of nothing, I noticed, it was like it didn’t exist. My tears had formed small icicles on my eye lashes.
I thought about visiting my grandad at hospital during his palliative care and watching cat videos together. He’d wanted to tell me something as I was leaving to catch the bus, I reassured him he could tell me next time, ‘thanks for coming love’ he’d said, like always. It was the last time I’d see him, he passed away two days later.
I kept my eyes on my feet as I walked. My guide took custody of my bag. I held his gloved hand and he pulled me on.
I thought about my late father, fond memories of being a child on holiday clambering over him in our caravan, that his face had felt prickly and tickly when we’d hugged.
‘It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.’ I repeated out loud to myself on each out breath. My eyes had been mostly closed for nearly an hour, led only by the trusting hand of the guide. Stopping, on occasion, to throw up.
I thought of a former job where I had been subjected to bullying; for two years. How I’d cried every day cycling home from work, always hoping for rain so I could hide my tears and my shame. How I’d wished for nothing but for it to stop.
I was bitterly cold. My fingertips had lost their feeling, I clapped them together to encourage blood flow, the wind chill dropped the temperature to -20 degrees Celsius. Worried about frostbite, I drew my scarf over my nose to protect it from the wind.
I thought about all of the times that men had trespassed upon my person. How I’d cried when my counsellor assured me, on every account, that what they had done to me wasn’t my fault. How it was common for survivors of sexual assault to blame themselves.
About an hour to the summit, I stopped in my tracks, took an in-breath and weakly mustered: ‘’I can’t do this, it’s just too hard’’ I confirmed. It was a challenge I could not overcome, I had been defeated and I could suffer no longer. My guide squeezed my hand and told me he was proud of me, that he believed that I could finish. After some minutes, I lifted my foot experimentally and took just a single step forward.
I thought of the moment my consultant told me I had cancer. How the ticking of the clock became so suddenly loud. What it felt like to sit my parents down when I got home and tell them the news. That before being anaesthetised for my surgeries I’d needed to hold myself down to my hospital bed, to stop myself from acting on an overwhelming fight or flight response.
As I neared the peak the sun began to rise behind me and I was able to gather enough energy to glance back just once for a fraction of a second. The rouge sun rested on a bed of cotton clouds that started and ended at the edges of the earth, the sun danced off of a gigantic glistening glacier. It was the first time I’d looked back for seven hours; the first time I’d bared witness to how far I’d come and I felt nothing at that moment but calm and a sense of clarity; I had reached the end of my suffering. My entire journey sat beneath me, captured forever by my eyes in intricate detail in nothing more than a fraction of a second. ‘Wow’ I whispered on my next out breath. It was outstandingly beautiful.
Day Six – Mweka Camp (3080 m) to Mweka Gate (1640 m)
Walking distance: 5.5 m
Walking time: 3 h
Descent: 1440 m
As we walked the final stretch to the departure lodge, I saw the terrain thicken with a dense array of colourful trees, shrubs and birds. Blue Diademed monkeys played atop the trees; curious about the passers-by. The air was thick and sweet with oxygen and the fragrance of the endemic flowers; the Impatiens Kilimanjarii, that lined the woodland. I touched the warm rocks, clambering down the mountain with my hands and felt the exchange of energy between us.
I believe it’s the hardest things we face in life that mould us into the people we are. When faced with a difficult challenge or crippled by fear or indecision, we can ask ourselves: ‘is this the hardest thing I’ve ever done?’ If the answer is no, great, get the bloody hell on with it! If it is the hardest thing, what better opportunity to bear witness to the extent of our strength and courage?
I no longer suffer from cancer. Last year: February 2018, marked five years clear and I celebrated this day with my family. I have scars and they are my favourite part of my physical appearance, a daily reminder that I am still here, it gives me an insatiable lust for life.
I also learned something from Herman Hesse (opening quote) about how I use these experiences. They can be useful tools to hold onto, to remind us of our great strength, they can also hold us back and press us down under their great weight if we don’t spend time to understand them. Taking time to process and let go of psychological debts and trauma may sometimes, be a greater source of strength.
I went up the mountain to find something; but I left something there instead. On my walk the anxiety I’d felt in previous months dissipated with every step, my self-doubt, my worry and my feelings of regret at past decisions. I spent the time I needed with my hardest things, until I was done and I let them go. It’s left space for a greater sense of self knowledge and increased confidence in my capability and in asserting my wants and needs. I’ve had the courage to apply for challenging jobs and I have asked people I like out on dates, I don’t feel discouraged by the fear of rejection or failure. Because, after all it’s not the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Photo credits to: Jana Valkovicova
How did I get here? Read my previous blogs in this series ‘Getting in the Driving Seat’ for insight into Entropy Emma and my personal development journey: