It was mental strength, rather than physicality that Emma Harrison gained from scaling a mountain.
This is a wonderful story from Emma Harrison who was a team member on the inaugural 2013 Peak Potential Adventures Mt Kilimanjaro Charity Challenge in support of Make-A-Wish Australia. Feeling very unwell at 4,600m just as we were about to head off on summit night, Emma overcome the odds to successfully summit Mt Kilimanjaro using raw courage and determination and along the way, learnt some mega life lessons that she shares below.
Mega Life Lessons.
Spending seven days sleeping in a tent in sub-zero temperatures, without showers. Relentlessly climbing in the same dirty and dusty clothes every day. Using a bucket as a toilet or squatting behind a rock. When climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, I found a resilience I honestly didn’t know I had. With decreasing oxygen causing headaches, nausea, vomiting and delirium, I realised pretty quickly that this charity-climb isn’t for the faint-hearted. Or for the well-manicured (it wasn’t going to be pretty). But here’s what I learnt.
“I get by with a little help from my friends” John Lennon
I started the mountain with 16 strangers. We had no phones, laptops, TV’s or distractions of the western world so we talked, laughed, cried and shared our stories as we slowly made our way up the mountain. United in an experience that tested our endurance, strength, and will power, we formed a bond that I think has surprised us all.
As the days passed we became a true team, all looking out for each other. From sharing water when I ran out, lacing up my boots when I couldn’t, giving me those all-important words of encouragement when I faltered, these guys had my back and the value of this was priceless. It hits me as I climb this feeling of being so blessed in my life with friends and family. I vow never to underestimate their value again.
“Life is a journey, not a destination.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Climbing this mountain becomes a metaphor of how we live our life and on Kilimanjaro that manifested as a reminder: STOP HURRYING! Our guides constantly remind us to take things ‘pole, pole’ – slowly, slowly. On average, 40% of people who start the climb don’t make the summit of Kilimanjaro with altitude sickness being the biggest factor. A slow walk allows the blood more time to acclimatise to the increase in altitude and more chance of success, but it also allowed more time to look around, appreciate, and just to be present in the moment. Reaching the summit was the goal, but the challenge and the journey is what it’s all about. We all know this, but I never thought I’d be living it quite so literally.
“It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” Sir Edmund Hilary
Four hours before we were leaving base camp on our final climb to the summit, Kilimanjaro brought me to my knees. I was so sick I couldn’t keep water down. Failure loomed, and I did what I had to do. I talked to God. No, I am not bringing religion into my darkest hour: God was the rather apt name of our head guide. He’d seen all this before and told me with brutal honesty and much kindness that my chance of reaching the summit did not look good. As my team made their final preparations I sat in my tent and cried big fat silent tears, coming to terms with impending failure. And then I made a decision. I was not going to give up. I put my boots on. And then I shuffled into my jacket. And then I stepped outside. And under the light of the full moon, I put one foot in front of the other and I walked through the pain and beyond. I found an inner strength. Who knew? There was exhaustion and freezing cold (despite six layers of clothes). There was breathlessness because the air was so thin. There was the pain of trying to find energy just to swallow much-needed food and sips of water. And focus, so I wouldn’t fall asleep between steps. It was punishing on every level and exceeding every limit I had. And then, after eight gruelling hours the sun rose, and with frozen tears rolling down my face I took the final steps to the top of the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. Shaking with disbelief and pride and oxygen deprivation, I took in the jaw-dropping beauty all around me. I still feel emotional when I remember that life-changing moment.
I overcame – well, everything – to reach the summit that night. Including my self-doubts and fears, which if I’m honest, I think I have carried with me for the last 37 years. And somehow I have left them there on that mountain. Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro has opened my eyes to a whole new reality where anything is possible. I am a better, stronger version of myself and there is no going back.
“It doesn’t matter if the glass is half empty or half full, be thankful that you have a glass and grateful there is something in it.” – Unknown
While we complained about the cold in our new fleeces and fancy Gortex jackets, about the weight of our backpacks and our sore feet in reassuringly expensive boots, our Tanzanian porters and guides raced without complaint up the mountain ahead of us, carrying our water, food, tents and equipment, as well as their own minimal amount. Many wore shoes that were clearly not designed to climb a mountain (Ugg boots anyone?) and single layers of clothes. They pushed themselves to the limit daily, risking their own lives (for as little as $10 per day) so that we could have this experience. They also suffer from the altitude and the cold, and yet they line up to do it over and over again week after week. They have families to feed and this is their livelihood. Humbling does not begin to describe it. Whilst we were celebrating our summit success we heard the terrible news that two porters had died on Kilimanjaro that day. The mountain takes no prisoners and the reality of this is brutal.
And here I am – back in my comfortable life, with my comfortable bed, a wardrobe spilling with clothes, and shelves brimming with beauty products. Everything I thought I could want or need, I have at my fingertips. And yet somehow it’s lost some of its appeal and shine. I think daily about the porters who have probably climbed the mountain five times since I was there last month. And I am eternally grateful for everything I have in my life.