Reflections of My Time on Kilimanjaro
It’s been almost 2 weeks since I left the mountain and there’s been a lot of thoughts and emotions I’ve had to unpack since then. The first time I climbed Kilimanjaro I felt like I left a lot of emotional baggage on the mountain but this time it sort of feels like the opposite. I’m still trying to process everything I experienced and hopefully writing it all down in this space will help. A word of warning, much of it is going to sound pessimistic. Things I should have done or said differently, ways I could have made this trip better. Getting all that out is just how I process things and eventually I’ll have to make peace with it all.
A lot of people have been asking me how my trip went and it’s hard to say, mostly because I don’t think I really had a trip at all. Of course there was my personal goal of getting to Uhuru Peak (which I failed at) but I also had my responsibilities as a GAL (Group Adventure Leader) for WHOA Travel along with my goals as a leader of the Curvy Kili Crew. And I was so emotionally invested in every one of these women that I feel like I didn’t save any mental space to have my own feelings about the climb. The stress and the worry about everyone else’s happiness kept me so distracted that when I got off the mountain I had a hard time recalling the moments that I enjoyed about my experience, rather than the moments I enjoyed watching others having theirs.
But in general I feel like the first days of the trek were amazing. The trail was easy and gentle compared to the Machame Route and I was acclimatizing well. I managed to keep my appetite the entire time and I think that made a huge difference in my energy level. But Summit Night was rough. The winds were howling at base camp and it was clear and cold. We got a late start, around 12:15 am, but I thought I was doing fairly well. My attempt to keep warm with layering backfired and it wasn’t long before I found myself sitting on a rock stripping off half of my layers because I couldn’t stop sweating. At one point I was down to my thin base layer shirt and a puffy jacket up top along with a pair of leggings and snow pants down below.
About an hour into the hike I was approached by one of the lead guides, Andrew, who expressed a little concern about me. I waved him off, saying I was just sleepy, not exhausted. I had only had a few hours of sleep that night and watching the boots in front of me was just a little too hypnotic. I kept wanting to close my eyes and sleepwalk. I continued on for some time before Andrew came to me again. He said my pace wasn’t a “summit pace” that I was going far too slow. He pointed to some headlamps far up the mountain and said that’s where I should be right now. I insisted that I’m just a slow hiker, that this was my pace the last time I climbed and that I had the energy to make it to the top. Again I pushed on.
Finally Andrew came to me a third time, more worried about my pace. I was only 1/4 of the way to Gilman’s Point so there was still a long way to go. That’s when I pulled out my phone to check the time. 3 AM?!?! How could it be 3 AM already?! Where did the last 3 hours go? I thought we had only been hiking about an hour and a half, two at the most. I couldn’t believe that I had lost all track of time. At my rate it would be another 9 hours to the summit, well after sunrise. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t practical to continue up. It took me almost 3 hours to hike a single kilometer, with three more to go till the summit. Not to mention the downhill hiking which would have amounted to 14km had I reached Gilman’s Point. It was time to turn around.
I’m not gonna lie, I was disappointed. It wasn’t altitude sickness or weather or even ill fitting boots that got me, it’s just that I was too damn slow. It’s still something I’m trying to make peace about but it’s a tough pill to swallow. So for the moment I’m just pushing that to the back of my mind and focusing on how I handled this trek as the leader of the Curvy Kili Crew and as a GAL.
Which leads me to my next ball of emotions. I’m going to be completely honest, I suck as a leader. I know that all the ladies were appreciative of the organizing and planning that I did leading up to the hike but on the mountain things were different. Nobody came to me when they were struggling or had questions or problems that needed addressing.
The person that really shined was Retha. She just radiates energy and positivity. She could make hiking in the crappiest weather sound like a blast and everyone naturally flocked to her. She just has that natural leadership ability and it’s one of the reasons why I was so drawn to her in Nepal. She got me through some of my worst days while trekking to Everest Base Camp and I’m so glad she was here for our trek, so the rest of the group could have her to lean on when they needed it.
But as for me, I just don’t have the personality to be a good leader. I wear my heart on my sleeve and in times of emergencies I can’t be relied on to keep calm. There were situations on the mountain that called for a cool head and instead I fell apart. I tried to keep my emotions to myself but there were times when my worries and frustrations showed and I felt really bad about it.
As the organizer of this trip I wanted everyone to have an unforgettable time, to connect with each other and to walk off the mountain with no regrets. And I can say pretty confidently that all those things happened…but not because of anything I did. I just don’t feel like I contributed much to the group, that there was anything I did or said that made someone’s good experience even better. Instead I witnessed the crew rallying around each other, forming deeper bonds and encouraging their fellow hikers and tentmates when the going got tough.
So does that make me a bad leader for not improving someone’s once-in-a-lifetime experience? I’m still trying to figure that out. And I still worry about whether I made anyone’s experience worse. I’m trying to let it go, to not feel so much responsibility for another person’s experience, but it’s hard. It’s just who I am, I can’t help but worry about these things. Hopefully over the next few months, as I continue to mull this over, I’ll get to a point where I look back on this trip with nothing but the good memories. And there’s plenty of those to focus on!