The first draft of my remembrance of events in my life usually comes after a bit of time. I tend to be too emotional and too volatile after a special adventure to catalogue it appropriately in my head; a few weeks later, time and reflection grant me a richer, fuller retrospective and perspective. It’s as if my subconscious needs to wrestle with my conscious to negotiate some consensus on what really happened.
One way to facilitate the process is to talk about it with friends, to try out my stories and find out which ones resonate, with them and with me. It’s a storyteller’s privilege to adapt stories to make them more vivid, to select stories for audience appeal and to ensure that my tale is told heroically yet modestly and with some regard for accuracy.
Here’s my first draft of my Kilimanjaro adventure.
Honour the challenge, delay gratification. Training for Kilimanjaro involved the gloriously mundane; walking and climbing with progressively longer routes and with extra weight. For months, I walked alone day after day; my trainer showed me how to strengthen my legs. No one applauds after such work-outs and no one tells us we have done enough and can relax. These are exercises in delayed gratification. They also demand critical self evaluation and clear-eyed self-awareness. Each adventure is a delicious mixture of fear and excitement that lifts our life above the mundane ritual of the rat race. If I’m going to be the hero in the movie of my life, I should face a few heroic challenges. In all this, I honour the adventure by preparing for it, there is no avoiding the tough months of training. The prize has always been worth the hard work and delayed gratification.
Pick your team, frame the challenge; there’s no use being stupid about it. I knew in an instant that Outward Bound was my best chance of successfully summiting Kilimanjaro safely. Don’t go to sea in a leaky boat, don’t run a marathon in tennis shoes and don’t join a team of crazies who don’t know the rules, the risks or the playing field. Outward Bound offered a higher level of professionalism, more safety and a higher possibility of success. They chose the local team, Chagga Tours, because they were the best. Stick with the winners, it always pays off.
It’s not the summit stupid. I have a tendency to focus laser-like on the goal. Partly it’s a guy thing, get the puck in the net, cross the finish line; partly it is insecurity, unsure of achieving the goal, I’m unwilling to expend any psychic or physical energy on distractions. Knowing myself, I try to apply this self knowledge to real life. I spoke to myself, at least hourly, about fear of failure and self-doubt. I stopped dragging them around with me like a piano tied to my ass; I now enjoy the hike through tropical rainforest, I revel in six days of roughing it, I marvel at the food served me. I engage with my new friends and enjoy every aspect of this adventure. I enjoy the view, get out of my head and enjoy the moment, every moment. It doesn’t work all the time but my Kilimanjaro experience is richer, more meaningful and more memorable for trying.
It’s always about the people. In every adventure, my fellow adventurers are pivotal in it’s success, they populate the memories I hold dear. My adventure friends are curious, open, passionate, engaged and engaging, human and humane. I’m not sure why, I think we self select; being Kilimanjaro, ordinary mortals do not, need not, apply.
What are my vivid memories;
- Sharing Starbucks instant coffee as the sunrise warms our dining tent and we chatter excitedly about our new day’s challenges.
- Getting up in the middle of the night for the usual reason and being stunned, stunned speechless, by the view of Kilimanjaro in the night, lit by the stars and a full moon so bright that rendered my head lamp redundant. Stunning, so much so that I started looking forward to my nightly sojourn.
- Wandering into the mist, roiling up from thousands of meters below; eerie, mysterious, suitably moody for this chapter in the movie of my life.
- Laughing, laughing and more laughing with my new friends. Cynicism, boredom and ennui have left the building; we are enveloped in the adrenaline rush of living on the edge and sharing our excitement with each other.
- Accepting the struggle of summit day, embracing it rather than fearing it; I do what any sane man would do, I find a spot behind a strong, determined woman ( I had 10 to choose from) and follow her up, step by step.
- Experiencing my surroundings, relearning how little control over my life; the weather, the route, my own body. I don’t know what to expect of the day ahead; I learn to be comfortable with what little control I have over my life.
- Respecting my guides and porters and learning to trust them; this is their world, I am the stranger. Without them, I cannot summit; trust them, I’ll touch the sky.
- Finding a moment to reflect on Kilimanjaro, the mountain; to admire its beauty, cherish its singularity and find joy in watching, for one dawn and one dawn only, a sunrise on its summit.
There was a moment of absolute joyful, exuberant insanity that will remain with me forever. To the guides, I was Babu, close enough to Bob and, in Swahili, well it reflected my age and my greying beard. As we were closing on the rim of Kilimanjaro, a guide called out, to me I thought, “Bab Kubwa”, (roughly – this is great – in Swahili). I didn’t have much energy left but somehow his shout energized me. I turned and shouted back, “Bab Kubwa!”. He shouted “Bab Kubwa” back. I replied as loud as I could shout, “Bab Kubwa”. We shouted back and forth for minutes with a joy so pure it defied sensibility.
I was alive! Thanks to that guide, his 45 fellow guides and porters, my hiking companions and Sarah and Martha at Outward Bound, I could shout to the world that I was alive – I was alive at the top of Africa.