Becoming bigger, braver by climbing mountains
In one of our mother-son chat sessions, my son asked me (throwing his hands up) why I had “suddenly” decided to take to climbing mountains. “Why can’t you just go on normal holidays? Why do you put yourself through such things?”
When I returned from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in August 2016, I contemplated his questions and I wrote this piece.
I am not naturally adventurous. Neither has my life been particularly adventuresome thus far. I think I am inclined to having adventures though, given the right opportunity and company and some encouragement.
After climbing Siguniang mountain last August, quite a few members were eager to go climb Kilimanjaro together. Kilimanjaro was, to me, just some mountain in Africa. I had never even dreamt of going anywhere near it, much less climb up the mountain. When I found out a bit more about it, I could understand why it is one of the most sought-after destinations for trekkers.
First of all, it is in an exotic location, in far-flung Africa! Secondly, it is the highest peak in the continent of Africa and one of the seven summits. Thirdly, it is the highest freestanding mountain in the world. On its summit are glaciers, thought to be some 10,000 years old, which may disappear by 2030 because of global warming. Kilimanjaro is also one of the world’s largest volcanoes.
These are not my personal reasons though. Edmund Hillary said it well: “Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it.”
Truth is, I was ready for another adventure. Truth is, I wanted to have another Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG), just like Siguniang was my BHAG the year before. Truth is, I wanted another uncomfortable experience so that I can learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Edmund Hillary also said: “It is not the mountain we conquer; it is ourselves”. Truth is, I think I was hungry for life and conquest of self!
Kili fitted the bill. It was a bigger, longer, steeper, scarier trek than the last mountain. It would require a fair bit of fitness training and preparation. It would also require team support. I could experience in a very real way what the Success Mantra “Intention + Action + Grace” could do!
I chose to seize a golden opportunity. How often does a climb come with a dream team? The team is led by Khoo Swee Chiow. It is made up of beloved friends and partners, many of whom were with me on the climb the year before. These people are not just determined climbers but also fun and easy to be with, kind and caring. When I go on a long trek, I really want to have people I love hanging out with! To me, this was the best chance ever to go to Kili and experience what it is like to journey to 5895m, and stand on the roof of Africa!
Going to Kilimanjaro is certainly not a blind act of following the crowd though. It was too big a price to pay just to follow others.
It is very much about overcoming personal fear about being out in the great outdoors. Kili is about going into the unknown and uncomfortable and being ok with it. Kili is about living life, having a life, even as I am putting a son through university, looking after ageing parents, growing a business and getting back on my writing career.
Perhaps it is also about developing an area in my life which has thus far been not so developed – the physical – and also about feeling a sense of accomplishment and achievement. It is about going on an adventure while I still have the time and energy and great company.
When I look back on the climb, I can honestly say I am glad I went on it. I had such a good time, honestly. Yes, it was dusty and dirty; it was uncomfortably cold at nights. Being deprived of the comforts of ‘civilisation’ made me appreciate the simple things I so take for granted in daily life.
I became so grateful for the little comforts – a tiny basin of warm water for washing up felt heavenly, a hot drink brought to my tent each morning by the porters seemed like high luxury, the light in my tent was fondly called a chandelier.
Every single meal was a highlight. Not just because of the hot soup and delicious food – and yes, the food was a delight – but also because of the camaraderie and conversation around the table.
And here’s the deal. When I am stripped of all modern means of communications, I go back to the good old ways. I actually have conversations with people. We chit-chat!! Jokes are exchanged; stories are told and listened to with much relish. We learn about each other’s hobbies and families, holidays and even goals and dreams and fears. It is really precious. It is surprising how joyful these conversations can be, how fun and funny!
Did I say something about wonder of gazing at the twinkling stars in the night skies before going to sleep each night? And waking up to clouds swirling beneath me and seeing the sun rising gently and then dramatically lighting the peaks, the trees and our amazed faces? Unforgettable. My soul was nourished not just by the good company and vibes but also by Nature’s spectacular show.
There is something else. Our leader Swee Chiow shared something which resonates with me. He shared that whenever he faces challenges in life, he goes back to the mountains, to how he solves the challenges faced on the mountains. He draws strengths and he uses the lessons learnt while climbing to help him solve problems in life. In the days and months to come, when I look back on this climb, I too will draw strength from how I overcame the physical difficulties and discomforts and the mental blocks to stand on the highest point of Africa, aptly named the Uhuru Peak. In Swahili, it means Freedom Peak.
I feel greatly rewarded, thankful and proud that I went despite big fears. I do feel a sense of huge accomplishment. My big revelation is that in my life, it’s okay to have fears. However, I do not want to let the fears cripple me and stop me from doing the things which will bring me forward to live the life I want… and discover more surprises in life.