Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania
A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”
She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.
I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.
As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”
Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.
I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?
Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.
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