Updated: Feb 15
An Excerpt from More Than a Mountain our Leap of Faith, Chapter by Martha Carlin "Finding My Way", a book of collected stories from the Leap of Faith expedition lead by Lori Schneider up Mount Kilimanjaro in July 2011.
In the darkness, we started off from our high camp situated at 15,500 feet, aided by the light o the waning full moon and our tiny little headlamps. Auguste, our Tanzanian guide, checked my pack and said it was too heavy. Every ounce of weight matters when attempting to climb at high altitude. He asked me for one of my bottles of water and put it in his pack. I secured my pack, stepped in line behind him, an we began our ascent.
Our starting pace seemed pretty brisk compared to some of our other days. We had been the last group to head out but we reached the first two groups in our first hour and cheered them on as we passed, picking up our photographer, Jeff, along the way. He managed to "leapfrog" between groups in order to capture everyone's progress.
Our group of four with our two guides continued up the mountain, and my stomach started to get really angry. I asked if we could stop to go to the bathroom. I wasn't sure if I could do it, but my stomach was telling me I had to try. I have major issues with going #2 if anybody is around, but at this seemingly critical stage I hoped I could let go of my inhibitions. We all headed over to the rocks. Everyone else finished and Jeff stood close by, looking up at the beautiful stars. With his close proximity, my body wouldn't cooperate. I resigned myself to the knowledge that I would simply have to tough it out all the way up the mountain and continue to wrestle with the tiger in my stomach. I hoped I could do it.
I kept my head down most of the time so that my headlamp could shine on the rocks and dirt in front of me. I matched my steps to the steady rhythm of Auguste's orange Viking boots. After a while, our measured pace had a meditative effect and I fell into a climber's trance. At this altitude, you have to put a considerable amount of focus in to your breathing in order to take in a sufficient amount of oxygen. This singular focus pushes out all other thoughts from the mind. This may be attuned to the state experiences by Buddhist monks when all but the rhythm of the breath falls away and the mind is completely clear. It was a state of mind I had never before experienced despite meditating for a number of years.
I started to doubt myself somewhere between 16,500 and 170,000 feet. I don't know if this was due to the physiology of high altitude climbing and reduced oxygen levels or just sheer fatigue because I hadn't slept the day before. The mind can start to play tricks on you when its confidence is crumbling. I began to question how I would make it another 2,500 feet. Could I make it for however many more hours that would entail? Every breath became a struggle for oxygen and required focused concentration. My stomach was rolling over and over, and I honestly didn't think I could wait a few minutes, much less a few hours, to go to the bathroom.
I am a very driven and independent person, and I have never like asking for help. It had never occurred to me until I started climbing that night that I might need help to get to the top of this looming peak. As we continued our ascent, I knew without a doubt that I needed some assistance to make it to the top. It was bitter cold and dark. There is something very isolating about climbing while shrouded in darkness. My trancelike state gave me the sense that I was walking alone on the surface of the moon. The hood on my jacket kept me warm but closed me in from the outside world like a cocoon. There was no reality in the moment other than the pain in my lungs and the howling wind. We were in a single-file line, so even if I had spoken and asked for some kind fo assistance, I knew the wind would have blown the words away without them being heard. I felt John's love and support behind me giving me strength, but I didn't want to stop and share my doubts with him or ask him for some type of additional encouragement. I knew losing any momentum might prevent us both from reaching the top and I didn't want to let him down. I sense that I needed a different kind of help.
As I struggled with each step, I began to think of my parents. They had always been so proud of everything I'd accomplished in my life. My mother passed away in 2006 and my father in 2007. Before the trip, I thought about how proud they would have been of me for supporting John on this climb. At this point, when I really needed guidance and support, my parents came to mind again, but my very next thought was that they couldn't help me.
As my reserves dwindled, my eyes filled with tears and I asked them to please come and help me make it up the mountain. This was an especially odd request since my moth had multiple sclerosis and hadn't been able to walk during the last 20 years of her life. As soon as I made my silent plea, I felt my parents, one on each side, reach under my arms and lift me up. My vision blurred with tears, but I felt light and lighter with each subsequent step. I knew that the power of their love, even beyond death, would carry me onward to the summit.
I also remembered a prayer my mother used to say all the time, "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." I began to recite that little prayer in my head over and over with each step. It took my mind off the difficulty ahead and amazingly made it much etcher to go on.
I regained some spring in my step as we made our way up the steep incline to Stella Point where we stopped for a break before our final hour push to the top. It was still quite dark as we reached Stella at 18,815 feet. John had been climbing right behind me all along but had no idea about the battle that had gone on in my heart on the way up. When we reached this point - so close to the top – we knew the summit would be ours. I burst in to tears and turned to him.
"Did you ever think nine years ago when you were diagnosed with Parkinson's that the two of us would e standing on this peak now?"
His eyes misted as he nodded his head. No, he couldn't have imagined it either. We both cried at the enormity of this accomplishment and the hope it represented.
We reached the peak at sunrise and watched as the tiny pin of light burst across the horizon. Once again, I was overwhelmed with emotion at our accomplishment. At first, I didn't recognize what I was feeling. Now, I understand that it was pure joy. I had never felt so alive despite my physical exhaustion. I was overwhelmed with love for being alive.
Summiting Kilimanjaro helped me truly understand the meaning of love – the love that lingers long after someone you love ceases to breathe, the depth of love that strength and encouragement between two partners brings, and most of all, the love and gratitude for the life that I have on this tiny little ball we call Earth.
Love is everywhere when we open our hearts to notice.
"In the silence of the heart, God speaks" ~ Mother Teresa