In August 2011, I climbed Kilimanjaro. Whenever I say that I proudly add “the highest mountain in Africa”, just in case you didn’t know that little fact and, even if you did, because I like how it sounds.
After 10 hours of crawling up the side of the mountain during the night of our final ascent, I finally reached Uhuru Peak, the summit. And I didn’t know it then, but there, 5,895 meters above sea level, something inside of me changed.
To explain why, I need to back up a little – to the flight from Nairobi to Tanzania a week earlier. Our group consisted of my husband, Juan, and a couple of good friends, Marc and Dana – and throughout the flight we debated why we were doing this.
Dana and I were there for the experience, so we argued it didn’t matter if we reached the summit, we’d always have the memories of the journey – no matter how far we went. For the men, on the other hand, it was all about the destination. Even though the odds were not in their favor (only 40% of people make it to the summit), for them, anything less than the highest point would mean the whole thing was a waste of time. In their view, why start something you didn’t intend to finish?
Fast-forward five days to our arrival, after walking 8 hours in the dark, at Gillman’s Point. The edge of the crater, a respectable 5,681 meters above sea level. The point where you become entitled to a certificate saying: “I climbed Kilimanjaro”.
There was a sense of elation in our group that we’d made it to that point. And as I looked at the smiling faces around me, I burst into tears.
Now you may think it was the sense of achievement that got me all emotional. That’s what Juan thought as he hugged me. But that’s not why I was crying. I was crying because Gillman’s Point is not the finish line.
The finish line is a mere 210 meters higher up. It’s tantalizingly close. Squint and you can see it. But at that altitude it’s another two hours of walking. Another two hours in the freezing cold. Another two hours sucking in air that’s been stripped of oxygen. If I wanted to go all the way with this challenge, I knew that’s what lay ahead, and that prospect reduced me to tears.
I could’ve turned around at that point. Many people do. I could’ve turned around an hour later when we reached Stella Point at 5,685 meters. But I started thinking about our discussion on the plane. I began thinking about all the things I’d started in my life and never finished. I thought about the tango shoes that were gathering dust under my bed after six months of classes and the easel in the spare room, a relic from my misguided attempts at painting.
But the thing I thought most about was the novel in my Documents folder that I hadn’t looked at in months. I always knew I sucked at painting and dancing, but somewhere deep inside I believed in myself as a writer, and I hated myself for abandoning it. I hated myself for quitting.
So suddenly it was no longer just about the journey. Suddenly I became fixated with the destination. And so on I crawled, practically bent over my walking sticks, pausing every four steps, sick with exhaustion.
Finally, somehow, we all made it to Uhuru Peak, to the cracked wooden sign that meant so much to me. And it was there that I was transformed.
Of course I wasn’t thinking that at the time. I was thinking I should look around and take this in as I may never in my life return to this spectacular spot on the roof of Africa. In parallel, I was also thinking, I really need to go down as my head feels like it’s about to explode and I wish I had some Mars bars left.
So, after taking the victory photos, we started our descent. I practically ran down the mountain feeling the pain in my head lift with every step.
At camp, our celebratory breakfast awaited. At the table, Dana handed me a cup of coffee and said with a smile, “we did it!” And I promptly threw up into the cup.
I hadn’t slept in 24 hours, I hadn’t showered in five days, I’d just vomited in my coffee, and I couldn’t have been happier.
Things didn’t change straight away. When we got home I was still a lawyer working crazy hours, with little time for writing. But I stopped using that as an excuse for never finishing the book. It would be another eighteen months before Dancing with Statues was published. But unlike before Kilimanjaro, when completing and publishing the novel seemed like a pipe dream, afterwards I always knew I’d get there, one step and one word at a time.
So the moral of the story? When you climb Kilimanjaro, no matter how far you go, you start to see the world in a new way. And afterwards, what seemed impossible in your life beforehand, might just be achievable.
About the Author
Caroline Doherty de Novoa grew up in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. She now splits her time between Bogotá and London. She worked as a corporate lawyer for nearly ten years before leaving to focus on her two greatest passions – travel and writing. 2013 has been a big year for Caroline. In January, she launched her own business (Hotel Trail) and in February her first novel, Dancing with Statues, was published. It is available in selected stores in Ireland and on all Amazon sites. As one reviewer described it, "...with the Troubles in Northern Ireland providing a dramatic backdrop, Dancing with Statues provides a unique take on post-conflict Northern Ireland and what it takes to turn the page." You can learn more about Caroline at www.carolinedohertydenovoa.com