What the Mountain Taught Me

About a month after our return from Mount Kilimanjaro, I went to a sold-out talk by a guy who jogged along the entire length of India and makes a living giving speeches about his experiences, which are always daring and exhausting and a bit crazy. I was duly impressed by all his adventures until it occurred to me that some of my own adventures have been daring, exhausting, and a bit crazy as well.

That’s how the idea to write this book was born. I wanted to share my adventure with a larger audience. I wanted to tell everyone about it: The majesty of snowy Kibo looming over the steppes. The endless walking. The amazing sunrises. The physical strain. The companionship. The laughter. And yes, the toilets (or, rather, their absence).

But most of all I wanted to say that you – yes, you! – should climb Kilimanjaro at least once in your life, if you can somehow find a way, any way at all. It doesn’t matter if you’re an outdoors kind of person or not. Whether you’re terribly fit or not. Or whether you’ve ever taken a pee in the bushes or not.

If I can climb Mount Kilimanjaro, so can you.

As I’ve said before, there is nothing like a good list to make you feel as if you’ve accomplished something of magnitude. I started out with a packing list, and now I’ll end it with a neat and tidy list of the lessons Mount Kilimanjaro has taught me:

  1. Wherever you are in life, it’s always a good idea to plan a new adventure. (But get yourself some good boots and take a few extra packs of wet wipes.)
  2. Everyone needs a mountain to scale in their lives. When you’re younger, life supplies many a mountain – graduation from high school, going to college, landing a good job, getting married. But during the middle years of your life, things get awfully flat (though often rather bumpy). Climbing a real mountain almost certainly helps put things in perspective.
  3. You’re much tougher than you think. I’m sure there are more challenging mountain climbing adventures out there, like the ones where you hike all by yourself, carry the entire staggering load on your own back, run out of water, lose your way, and perhaps encounter a stray bear a la Bill Bryson on his Walk in the Woods. But still, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro gives you confidence that you can deal with anything else that is thrown in your path. Moving forward and overcoming an obstacle often turns out to be the simplest solution, and braving the more difficult path brings immense gratification.
  4. President Roosevelt was right. The fear of things is worse than the things themselves. I was indeed cold and miserable at five and a half thousand meters, but it wasn’t that bad. Or at least it was totally worth it, given the wonderful memories. It’s kind of like childbirth was for me: right afterwards I swore I’d never do it again, but then time passed, the pain receded while the fond memories remained, and I ended up with four children. Maybe certain experiences are only worthwhile when they are as painful as they are uplifting.
  5. I know it sounds corny, but it’s true that it isn’t about the destination and the summit, it’s about the journey. And who we share it with. Always who we share it with.
  6. Whatever it is you take pride in having accomplished, you didn’t accomplish it all by yourself. Not ever. There will always be people you couldn’t have done it without. And that’s okay. In fact, that’s the best part.
  7. The same is true for our children. And we, the parents, don’t have to always be the ones who help them accomplish stuff. They will be fine. They will find their own path in life, and they will find people who’ll carry them on their backs for a stretch of the way.
  8. A lot of what happens to you is pure chance. Great athletes and the best prepared climbers succumb to altitude sickness on Kili, while people who spend almost no time preparing for it reach the summit just fine. You can’t plan your life to the last detail trying to control the outcome, and in any case it won’t make you happy. Be open to what happens, don’t blame anyone for it, and don’t worry about what might have been.
  9. And yet, don’t leave everything to chance. Whoever remembers to pack enough toilet paper will have the last laugh.
  10. There are people who command our respect, no matter what their station in life. I learned more from our guide Godlisten Mkonyi in one week than from some teachers I had for years. Aside from the phrase Thank you my brother in Swahili, he taught me to believe in myself and not to worry about what others might think. We spend way too much time worrying about what others might think. A few weeks after our climb, our guide Goddy got to take a trip to South Africa. He stepped on an airplane for the very first time in his life. A surprise party was organized for him in Johannesburg to reunite with previous climbers he had guided, with an overwhelming turnout. And what did he do at the end of the night? He stood up in a restaurant full of strangers and started singing. First one song. Then another. And a third. It brought all our memories rushing back and tears to our eyes. At the end he had the entire waiting staff singing with him, teaching them the Swahili words as doggedly as he had led us up that mountain. Which leads me to the next point:
  11. Everyone needs a little singing in their lives.
  12. If you can’t sing, at least laugh. Everyone needs a lot of laughter in their lives, too. If you have to make do without a flushable toilet for an entire week to get you to laugh, it’s worth it.
  13. Dirt and bad smells aren’t nearly as terrible as we make them out to be in our sheltered lives. And not looking into a mirror for an entire week is totally liberating.
  14. Relax. Pause to look around you or you might miss the beauty. Life is more important than a to-do list (although I, for one, do love a good list!). Whatever it is you think you absolutely have to get done today, you can probably still do tomorrow. Especially if today you could rather have coffee with a friend.
  15. You are not responsible for someone else’s happiness. The only person you can try to make happy is you. The trick is to discover what brings you happiness. Climbing a mountain is a good start.
  16. Consequently, it’s okay to do what you want or must do, even if it sometimes means doing it alone, when others don’t want to come along for the ride.
  17. You can always take another small step. Pole pole. There is almost no limit to what you might accomplish in life if you just go about it pole pole, one step at a time. If you’re overwhelmed by the task (or mountain) ahead, concentrate on the feet in front of you. Or on the garden trowel, if you must.
  18. It’s always good to have a change in scenery. If your life seems drab at sea level, maybe you need to take it to high altitude. At least that’s how it worked for us. The higher we climbed, the thinner the air, the more we laughed.
  19. Having friends in your life that you can literally walk through shit with is the most valuable gift.
  20. Sometimes, it takes a detour over a mountain to find the right path and to know that you’re on it. I started out the week signing my name into the logbook at the end of each day with “housewife” as my profession. I ended the week with “writer.”


Based on the travel memoir Kilimanjaro Diaries: Or, How I Spent a Week Dreaming of Toilets, Drinking Crappy Water, and Making Bad Jokes While Having the Time of My Life.

milestone (2)About the Author: Eva Melusine Thieme is the author of Kilimanjaro Diaries as well as the blog Joburg Expat, where she has been chronicling her family’s adventures while living in South Africa. She currently resides in Brentwood, Tennessee, with her husband and four children, where she is working on her next book about a road trip through Namibia with six people in a five-person car.

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