Lessons from Mt Kilimanjaro

For a while now, I’ve strongly suspected that going through a tough time is a lot like climbing a mountain. My suspicions were confirmed a few months ago when I tackled Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa.


As human beings, occasionally we have to go through some really tough times.  We lose our jobs, people we love die, we get sick or we try to give up smoking.  For a while now, I’ve strongly suspected that going through a tough time is a lot like climbing a mountain.  Such endless hard work, pushing further with tiny steps every day.  My suspicions were confirmed a few months ago when I climbed Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa.

At about 6000 metres high, Mt Kilimanjaro (Kili for short) is the highest free-standing mountain in the world.  It’s just a bit higher than Everest Base Camp.  I trekked up and down Kili for six days with eight family members and friends.  Almost immediately, I could see all my tough times right there on that mountain track.

The first signal was having to pace myself so the journey didn’t become even more painful.  As you get higher on Kili, altitude sickness can make the trek very uncomfortable.  That can mean anything from feeling nauseous to vomiting every now and then to dying.  The best way to avoid these nasty side-effects is to walk slowly.  Very, very slowly.  The locals call it ‘poly-poly’.  I call it the slowest funeral march of all time.  For an energetic young-ish woman used to being busy all day, this is excruciating.  All I cared about was getting to ‘the end’.

Then there’s all the stuff that’s going on in your head.  When you’re walking slower than your grandmother you have way too much time to think.  In the blank spaces, my top ten list of tough times all came back into my memory for a re-run.  One by one, I dragged my mind back out of the dark and scary places I thought I’d forgotten about.

But I wasn’t on the mountain alone.  I was with my family, friends and a skilled guide.  They cheered me up, kept me out of my own thoughts and made me keep moving, even when I thought I couldn’t.  We walked together, through the rain, snow and pain.  They stopped me from slipping and showed me the plants and animals I would have missed if I’d been rushing like I usually do.  And I did all that for them too. 

When you’re going through a tough time, you need all those things.  You need to go slow, so you can plan your next step.  And so you can appreciate what you have.  You also need to take time to process your thoughts, even if it’s a bit painful.  Strength comes from knowing yourself well and being able to manage your own mind. And you need people to look out for you, let you know when you’re getting off track and allow you to do the same for them.

It might sound like my trek up Kili was endless mental and physical torture!  There were moments like that, but they’re forgotten when you reach the summit.  You need every ounce of your energy to drive you through the last few hours of pain, cold and tiredness.  Then suddenly you’re at the top.  The sweetness of that moment can only be felt after you’re endured every slow step, suffered every ache and let every crazy thought go.  You realise that if you can climb this mountain, you can get through any tough patches.  You just need to take your time, choose thoughts that serve you well and share the track with people you care about.

Just do it ‘poly-poly’.