I’ve been talking and writing a lot about career breaks lately, which has coincidently got me thinking about my original career break I took in 2006. When I left my job and flew to Africa to climb Kilimanjaro I had high hopes of summiting and starting off my year of travels on a successful note. If you are a new reader of my blog, you may not know this story, but I share it because it’s a good example of things not always working out the way you planned – and how to cope with that as you travel.
I never thought failure was an option. I had just ran a half marathon before leaving New York City, and I was ready to take on anything physically the world had to dish out. I arrived in Moshi with my sister, Cyndi, and my friend, Heather – all of us runners, and all of us experiencing our first trip ever to Africa. The new culture and economic conditions were shocking – but not nearly as shocking as what we were getting ourselves into by hiking Kilimanjaro.
We sat at a desk and they told us about what to expect with this altitude hike – we would be tired, cold, experience shortness of breath, and have a loss of appetite. All of this was fine with me except the loss of appetite news – it was a bit disturbing, as I love to eat and couldn’t imagine how I wouldn’t be hungry after such physical days of trekking. But altitude has a funny way of disrupting your body.
We set out with a large crew. Our guide, Douglas, was the most patient, quietly confident personality I had met. After a day with him you trusted him with your life – which is what we were literally doing. We also had Edward the assistant guide, Gudluk our camp cook, Simon our ‘waiter’, and 8 porters carrying our camp.
The days were hard – up, up, up – and my stomach seemed to be on pins and needles all day wondering if I could make it at these altitudes. Most days I was more mentally exhausted than physical exhausted. Kilimanjaro, and the lack of oxygen, puts your mind and body on a roller coaster. You turn so fast you get whiplash – one minute your great and the next your stomach is in knots and your brain can’t form a complete sentence or thought.
During the trek, we all joked around about this whole experience being a ‘hard reboot’ of sorts. We came here to the Machame gate clean, in our technical gear and packs and then someone just turned off the power – there was no nice shutting down of active programs in our brains. It was like the blue screen of death – you were screwed and had to start all over. Your concept of what a toilet was had changed, clean clothes, good campsite – these definitions all had to be reset in our minds.
Douglas was always monitoring us. He even went to great lengths to determine what we might not be telling him by going through our lunch box garbage and leftover dinner to see if we were eating everything. After all, loss of appetite is one of the symptoms of altitude sickness. I kind of felt like a patient who was not really able to care of myself. Yet it was nice to know that someone was looking out for us.
On Day 3 I lost my desire to do anything but follow Douglas up the hill, eat, and sleep. We hiked as high as 15,100 ft to the base of the lava tower. Headaches and nausea would come and go within a few minutes like a wave. Cyndi and I decided to take Douglas’s advice and go to the top of the lava tower since it would help acclimate us to the altitude and followed the typical altitude acclimation advice to “hike high and sleep low”. It was another 230 ft. higher (and the highest point I would ever reach coincidentally).
We had to find handholds in the rock and scale across ledges no larger than 6 inches wide. Douglas would show us the handholds and where to put our feet. Using all fours and crawling at times we made it – panting for air. But as anticipated, when you work that hard for something, it’s worth it. The view was amazing – a stunning view of Kilimanjaro and the trail we had just hiked. It was a barren land of volcanic rock, dead glaciers, and dust. Sadly, many of these glaciers were around not more than 7 years ago. But they did their job; they carved their landscape and disappeared.
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The next morning I woke up in a trance like state – I didn’t feel right at all. I had some tea and sent to the tent to get packed up in slow motion and I sat inside the tent for a long time. All of a sudden I had a hot flash so I got up and went outside for fresh air. I was nauseous. I sat there for a while and Douglas came over. He asked me how I was doing and I told him I felt sick. In his African accent he said “Vomit, and you will feel better”. Since I basically did whatever Douglas told me to do – I ran behind the tent and threw up. On a positive note, this was definitely the most beautiful setting that I’ve ever puked in.
I felt a little better, so we continued trekking that day to high camp (15,241 ft.) – slowly. This was the night we were supposed to attempt summit – starting at midnight. Upon Douglas’s advice I laid down for a nap and tried to find my ‘happy place’. The nap was unsettling as I was shivering; yet I was warm. My mind raced into weird placed –but mainly it kept worrying about the possibility of coming this far and not making it.
Simon came into our tent with a large platter of spaghetti, fries, and soup. We all groaned as no one wanted to eat. It was one of the most excruciatingly painful meals I’ve had in my lifetime. Douglas stood there and made us eat. He was silently assessing each of us – mainly me as I was feeling terrible, shaking at times uncontrollably. He told me to go put more layers of clothes on. I now had 3 layers on– still shivering – I could barely hold the spoon in my hand. That’s when he made the inevitable decision – to not let me go any further.
We were all devastated. He asked Cyndi and Heather to pack up my things and we all 3 sat and cried. Douglas said – “No need to cry – the mountain isn’t going anywhere – you can try again.”
What seemed like 5 seconds, was probably 5 minutes – I was packed and whisked away from the camp – 5 hrs before I was supposed to start the final summit that night. I was banished from the mountain. I could practically hear it laughing at me. Gudluk – our cook and a porter was sent with me to get me down. Cyndi and Heather sat in the tent in complete disbelief – as if it were a game of Survivor and they were juts blindsided that someone from their alliance had to leave the island and they never saw it coming. Nor did I.
As Gudluk, the porter, and I left the high camp perched above the clouds at sunset I heard a tent full of porters singing “How Great Though Art” in Swahili. This is one of my favorite songs and every time I hear it I think of my Grandfather’s funeral. I was in tears stumbling down the rocks trying to follow Gudluk I went through so much hardship and to not make it.
We ‘walked’ for 5 hours down the mountain that night to try to get me to a safe altitude. I had never felt so sick and sad. I barely remember those 5 hours as my mind and body were a mess as Gudluk watched over me carefully. I wanted to stop and lay down, but he was under strict order from Douglas to not let that happen until I got to 10,000 feet.
The next day I sat at the low camp watching all of those who made it to the summit arrive to my low camp joyous. It was a strange kind of torture for me as they all took pictures with their guides and celebrated. The next day Douglas told me that if I hadn’t quickly descended that night before , I most likely would have come down on a stretcher as I wouldn’t have been able to walk down myself. And based on my blurry memories of that descent – I totally believe him! I owe him a great deal for constantly watching my health and making the decisions that I was incapable of making.
This was the beginning of my travels – and never did I think that I wouldn’t make it to the summit. I questioned the rest of my travels for a moment – should I really be doing this career break? What other failures would I have to face?
After a lot of soul searching, I decided that my accomplishment was the failure itself. Learning to fail and pick yourself up is an important lesson for all of us. Sure – I could have decided to quit my whole career break and go home – but maybe this was the universe’s way of preparing me for more failure and knowing that I could get through it. In the end I was happy for my accomplishment of failure.
For me – it wasn’t the summit – but the journey.
Note: This is a very condensed version of the story of this failed Kilimanjaro climb from 6 years ago. If you want the whole play by play of each day and what it’s really like to do this climb on your body and mind – check out my original post here.
And yes – after writing this and revisiting this story…I want to go back more than ever and finish what I started! I always knew I would go back one day and attempt it again, but it wasn’t until now that the thought seemed exciting again.
What have you learned from your failures? Please share in the comments.