Story and Photo by Tova Lenchner, Personal Travel
Every morning, 80-some odd people summit Mt. Kilimanjaro; on the morning of July 19, 2017 at about 7:08 A.M., I was one of them. When I tell people this, they are impressed, but to be honest, this was one of the easiest accomplishments of my life.
Six months earlier, when I told my father that we should climb Mount Kilimanjaro, he didn’t quite realize I was joking. With most travel plans, I don’t fully grasp the ensuing change until I actually arrive, but when my father signed us up for the climb it felt all too real. Although his decision seemed alarmingly abrupt, it was actually the culmination of nearly a year of change.
By May 2016, my father had already approached us about our thoughts on moving to Kenya. My upcoming first year of college included some traveling plans, so I felt that I was in no place to deny him of this opportunity. He spent some time visiting and establishing a new lifestyle, anxiously waiting for us to join him during the following summer. But my mom had other news: breast cancer. Treatment needed to start immediately and these treatments were only readily available in the United States. My dad was locked into a contract and had no choice but to put his faith in his three daughters for the next year. Suddenly, the roles were flipped: it was our time to pay mom back for all that she had done for us as children, and take care of her.
Luckily, I had the perfect coping strategy – although it is not always 100% effective: I ran. I’m no marathoner, but I found that an hour on the road reminds me to “look where my feet are.” My mother always presented me with this metaphor when I felt that some challenge was too great for me to face. This expression reminds me that worrying has no benefit, and that in the current moment, everything is alright. My father had always been a thrill seeker, but he would choose rock climbing or running a race over skydiving, and justified this by explaining that he finds more thrill and accomplishment in doing something by the power of his own strength. I experienced this same thing every time I ran. Unbeknownst to me, this running would also become the perfect training strategy for Kilimanjaro.
Although I say this accomplishment was easy, that doesn’t mean it came without its dose of mental breakdowns. After 10 hours cramped in a van venturing to a town placed in the foothills of Kilimanjaro, we checked into our hotel – one that distinctly smelt of humidity and played host to some questionable half-dead bugs in the hallway. Suddenly, the immensity of everything I was about to do seemed to hit me all at once, uncontrollably, leaving me to cry in my mother’s arms. I clung to her as she tried to leave and say goodbye like a child on her first day of kindergarten. She said, “do it afraid: just take it one step at a time.” And that’s just what I did.
It was easy in the beginning. We strolled through the forest taking pictures with the lush flora and trying to capture video clips of the animals we saw, or at least heard. We would stop for snacks and tea and to play yard games taught to us by our Kenyan friends. But halfway through, the trek started to become much more difficult. The ecosystem drastically switched to look like some movie set on Mars, with intermittent patches of Dr. Seuss-esque mystery plants and formations. It was cold, we couldn’t shower, the food was gross, and then people started getting sick; but we had to keep going, one step at a time. Then came the night of the summit: we woke up at 11:30 P.M. to begin our journey. The guides and porters say they do this because that is when the snow is the most compact, but I believe it’s actually because we were under the cover of dark, and in the darkness you can’t see what you’re in for – you can’t see how steep it is, you can’t see how much longer you have to go, you can’t see what you’re getting yourself into. But we kept going, and then came my second breakdown; I think this one was prompted – at least in part – by the lack of oxygen.
In a very emotionally delusional state, we made it to the crest of the summit ridge. I cried just watching the pure beauty of the sunrise come over the uninterrupted horizon. But, we had to keep going, one step at a time. We watched as people skipped down the mountain, relishing in the oxygen-filled air closer to the mountain’s base, and I remember being slightly annoyed as I continued to trek upwards. But on our way back down we did the exact same thing, nearly running down the mountain as the oxygen returned to the air, running almost as if to say “get me off this mountain as fast as you can!” My third and final emotional breakdown came in the back of a van two days later on our way back home. This one was by far the strangest to me, because this time the challenge was over, but it felt as though I was leaving something behind – almost as if I were leaving an old friend who had tried to duel me in a wrestling match, but would have to do better next time.
I say that this is the easiest accomplishment of my life, not because it came without its unique hardships, but because in this state you can only think of one thing. You can’t think of that drama with your friends, of the homework you have to do, or even about trying to look presentable to impress anyone. On the mountain, there was no one and no ego; just the one goal of surviving.