I felt like I was preparing for battle: layering one item of clothing on top of the other, triple-checking all my gear, considering the necessity of each item and then neatly packing everything into my daypack, carefully wrapping blister-prone parts of my feet in moleskin, then adding another fleece — just to make sure.
Fully clothed and ready to go at a moment’s notice, I forced myself to lie down and at least try to get a couple of hours of sleep.
It was 8 p.m. — far before my normal bedtime but then again, there hardly had been anything “normal” about these last four days. In just a few hours I was going to face one of the hardest physical challenges I have ever experienced.
I was part of Compassion’s Blood, Sweat and Compassion fundraiser and the goal was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, African’s tallest mountain (19,340 feet), to raise awareness and funds for our Leadership Development Program. Our team of 21 included eight Leadership Development Program students — the very ones for whom we were raising college tuition.
For four days we hiked up the mountain, experiencing breathtaking scenery and great camaraderie along the way. Up to this point, the ever-increasing altitude had not affected me much. But now, just a few hours before summit day, I felt a growing knot in my stomach.
I never fell asleep that evening. So when the wake-up call came at 11:30 p.m., I was more then ready to finally face the toughest part of our journey, the climb to the summit.
Without the light pollution of surrounding cities, the night sky displayed stars more vividly and abundantly than I have ever seen before. The only thing taking away from this majestic view was the biting cold that somehow managed to penetrate every carefully stacked layer of clothing.
After some quick instructions, we were on our way. Armed with headlamps and as little gear as possible, we lined up in a single row.
Having been identified as one of the stronger hikers, I was asked to take the first spot behind our guide to ensure that we kept an even pace. I appreciated the recognition and took my place with confidence as we started to snake up the narrow switchbacks to Uhuru, the tallest point of Mount Kilimanjaro.
We hiked for six hours in near silence. The path didn’t allow for side-by-side conversation and the ground was covered by loose gravel, so every step took effort and focus.
Surprised by my own determination, I stayed at the front of the line. Even as my heart pounded and my lungs strained for oxygen, I kept pushing myself to keep up the pace by placing one foot in front of the other — a seemingly endless task.
With nothing to distract me, my mind wandered and I locked onto the idea of being the first of our group to reach the summit. In the daze of the cold night, I could see it so clearly: There I was, reaching out and touching the famous sign, a good step ahead of everyone else.
Even scrambling over boulders and having my water supply freeze did not discourage my drive to press on.
Just as the day was breaking, we made it to Gilman’s Point, the first part of the peak’s ridge. This wasn’t the summit but it marked the end of our steep ascent. As I turned around and looked back for the first time, I was overwhelmed by what I saw. The rising sun had turned the sky a deep orange.
In contrast to the vibrant color, the dark outline of another peak loomed nearby. Beneath me were cloud ripples that looked like ocean waves and to my left was a glacier — the closest I have ever been to a solid mass of ice that glistened in the rising sunlight.
The beauty of the sunrise from Kilimanjaro was so unexpected that exhaustion and determination were pushed aside by awe and admiration of God’s creation.
The peaceful moment didn’t last long, as we were instructed by our guide to move on because the hardest part was still ahead. Even though the terrain flattened as we walked along the ridge of Kilimanjaro, the path now was covered with snow and ice and had reached an even higher altitude. With less than 1,000 feet to go, my exhaustion turned into altitude sickness.
My lungs burned, having never felt the insufficient pressure of 19,000 feet. My stomach turned until I felt dizzy and every step took more effort than the last.
I knew I’d get there, but I didn’t care about being first anymore. I had pushed myself for hours and all I wanted to do now was slow down. My struggle must have been obvious because Jacqui, one of my teammates, walked up and offered her arm to steady my gait.
I realized that over the course of six hours, my appreciation of being recognized as a strong hiker had grown into pride as I envisioned myself the first of our group to reach the summit.
But all of a sudden, it became apparent who should be first.
A couple of people who were now in front of me were Leadership Development Program students. And even though I considered myself resilient and strong, when I thought about them, a whole other kind of strength and determination crossed my mind.
These students had been born into extreme poverty, but by working toward finishing their higher education they were not “just” rising above poverty; in fact, the cycle of poverty (and with it every lie of being unworthy and insignificant) was being completely broken.
These students were discovering their potential, and with integrity. After all, they had experienced growing up in extreme poverty but they still welcomed change and challenges with such grace. I witnessed this firsthand when I sat next to them as they crossed their first international border from Kenya into Tanzania without hesitation.
And with little preparation, they faced this trip and with it all things unfamiliar. They were staying in unusual settings and eating food that they weren’t used to — without hesitancy or complaint. Even seeing snow for the first time was among the strange impressions they undertook with strength and perseverance.
Because of the daily hurdles and mountains they had overcome in their lives, they should be the first ones to reach the top of Kilimanjaro.
As we all inched our way closer to the summit, I was delighted to watch one of the Leadership Development Program students reach the Kilimanjaro summit sign. Another student was following, but just one step short of the sign she sat down on a rock. I recognized the bundled-up face as Merci, and without hesitation I reached out to her and offered my arm.
Together we took another step and touched the sign together. Our faces beamed with smiles. We had made it!
The rest of the team gathered around the sign and we took photos to commemorate our achievement.
As we were posing for pictures, I put one arm around my friend Jacqui and told her how much I appreciated her help when I was struggling. At that moment it became clear that I hadn’t reached the top by myself. And honestly, I would much rather arrive there with others anyway.
Looking back on summit day, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I am so grateful for Jacqui’s help and that I was able to reach the summit together with Merci.
Even getting altitude sickness was a positive experience, as it gave me the right perspective to finish this challenge well.
Sure, I can climb hurdles and mountains by myself, but how much better is it to finish a race well instead of selfishly pushing past everyone else?