Depart home late afternoon and fly Chicago > Amsterdam (sadly, not leaving the airport; I’ll be back to explore another time, I promise), +7 hour on US Central and +9 on US Pacific Time.
Day 1 – Saturday, 9/11
Fly from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro (JRO) Airport, landing around 9pm. I’ll have a rapid COVID test and get my Tanzanian visa; a Mountain Madness rep will meet us and drive to their private compound. I’ll be +8/+10 hours ahead of CT/PT, respectively.
Day 2 – Sunday, 9/12
This is a bonus day – most people fly in/land this night – but it was $2100 cheaper to fly in a day early! So fingers crossed we do something fun local like visit a coffee farm, shop in Arusha or walk around a bit.
Day 3 – Monday, 9/13 – Elevation: 6,500 ft / 1981 m
Transfer to a private camp in Arusha National Park. Here, at about 6,500 feet / 1981 meters, we’ll begin to acclimate; Chicago is about 597 feet above sea level. With only our climbing team (guides, porters, fellow climbers) here, we’ll ease into our adventure, enjoy some game viewing, try to relax from traveling, and prepare for the climb.
Today our guide(s) will host a trip briefing and review our equipment. There may be time for a walk or game drive, which will be taken out into the grasslands for views of African game and Mount Kilimanjaro, as giraffe, buffalo and antelope usually seen in the area.
Day 4 – Tuesday, 9/14 – Elevation: 9,000 ft / 2743 m
MONTANE FOREST — LOMOSHO APPROACH – Hiking Time: 3 – 6 hours (3.2 miles / 5.2 km)
After a short drive through the grasslands and scattered Maasai villages we’ll arrive at the forest edge of Kilimanjaro National Park. From here we’ll walk a few hours through the undisturbed lush jungle to our camp for the night. Our Tanzanian guides will share their knowledge of the local ecology as we walk through the fantastic plants and trees, hear birds, and see other exotic wildlife. Y’all know I’mma be asking tons of questions here. With luck we’ll be able to see Colobus monkeys and signs of elephants on the walk to camp. If I see an elephant I will attempt to hold in an excited squeal. ATTEMPT. Upon arriving at camp, we’ll find our tents set up as well as hot tea and snacks waiting for us in the dining tent.
Day 5 – Wednesday, 9/15 – Elevation: 11,400 ft / 3474 m
SHIRA PLATEAU — WEST SIDE – Hiking Time: 6 – 8 hours (4.8 miles / 7.7 km)
Our Tanzanian guides will greet us at our tents with tea and hot water to wash with before enjoying breakfast as I try to rouse my carcass and tame my inevitable hair tangles. We’ll take our time walking through the forest, which enables us to acclimatize comfortably and spot the plentiful game and bird life while enjoying the views down canyon through breaks in the jungle. Today’s hike will take us through the Montane Forest and the Hagenia Zone. We will point out the unique environmental differences that characterize these separate equatorial zones. Harlan Kredit would be proud (I think). I shall endeavor to ask as many kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species as possible and reward myself with a Jolly Rancher.
Day 6 – Thursday, 9/16 – Elevation: 13,500 ft / 4115 m
MOIR CAMP – Hiking Time: 3 – 6 hours (4 miles / 6.4 km)
It will take us roughly three hours to hike across the Shira Plateau and then one hour up the western slope of the Kibo Massif. Our Camp will be in the upper Heath Zone. We pass the Fischer Camp, which has a plaque dedicated to Scott Fischer, friend and founder of Mountain Madness. In the 1980’s, Wes Krause and Scott Fischer pioneered the Shira Plateau route on Kilimanjaro, which we travel. The views of the mountain at sunset and sunrise are truly spectacular – I’m attempting to make the instructors at Chicago Photography Classes proud (or at least not embarrassed!).
Day 7 – Friday, 9/17 – Elevation: 15,000 ft / 4572 m
LAVA TOWER – Hiking Time: 5 – 7 hours (3.6 miles / 5.8 km)
After breakfast, we’ll slowly hike to 14,850 feet / 4526 meters, just under the “Lava Tower.” This will be our first introduction to the Alpine Zone where the only plant life is the hardiest of grasses and lichens. We will have a spectacular view of the final route of ascent up the Western Breach. There is an exciting optional rock scramble (non-technical) to the top of this unusual lava tower – its gotta be easier than the Roman Headwall, right? The views from the lava tower summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Meru and the surrounding valleys are quite impressive – fingers crossed I capture them in their glory.
Day 8 – Saturday, 9/18 – Elevation: 16,000 ft / 4877 m
The Western Breach ascent route is now in full view. We spend a few hours climbing to the base of the route and make camp near the Arrow Glacier at 16,000 feet / 4877 meters. To further our acclimatization, we take an afternoon hike up a spectacular ridge further up the route before relaxing in camp. This camp is famous for the absolutely magnificent sunsets, which illuminate the African sky.
Day 9 – Sunday, 9/19 – Elevation: 18,700 ft / 5700 m
SUMMIT CRATER CAMP – Hiking Time: 7 – 10 hours (1.6 miles / 2.6 km)
A looooooong day but should make the next day easier. Today we climb up the Western Breach for about seven hours to the top of the crater rim. There will be time to explore the inner crater before moving to our high camp on the crater floor. It is common to find snow along this section of the route. Our high camp will be next to a spectacular glacier and the summit merely a short hike away! The rest of the day will be spent drinking lots of liquids and enjoying another fabulous sunset dinner (plz yes).
Around 8-9pmish for you Central folks and about 6-7pm for the Pacific ones – this is when I should be summiting (the next morning for me) – raise a glass at your dinner (or from your couch) and I betcha I feel it.
Day 10 – Monday, 9/20 – Elevation: 19,341 ft / 5895 m
This is one of the big reasons I chose MM; I loved the idea of camping in the crater, close enough to touch the stars at 18,700 feet, and making the very hard summit day/night a little easier. After breakfast, we’ll leave camp and hike to the top of the crater rim. From there it is just a ten-minute hike to Uhuru Summit, the highest point in Africa at 19,341 feet / 5895 meters! We arrive at the summit and are rewarded with clear views before the mid-morning clouds roll in. We will bask in the glory of our accomplishment, grab a bite to eat, enjoy the views and take lots of photographs. PLZ BATTERIES DO NOT FAIL ME NOW. I SURVIVED CHICAGO SNOWPOCALYPSE WITH AN iPHONE I GOT THIS.
Now we go down, down, down 9,000 feet and descend to Mweka Camp – Elevation: 10,500 ft / 3200 m
Hiking Time: 8 – 10 hours to camp (6.8 miles / 11 km)
After summit celebrations we will begin our descent past Barafu Hut and down to our camp near Mweka Hut, where our porters will have prepared a special celebratory feast! We will have descended almost 9,000 feet / 2743 meters today and will feel intoxicated by the oxygen rich air. AIR DRUNK AIR GUITAR, GO GO GO. Will sleep a deeeeep sleep.
Summit day is ~10-12 hours and that’s a ‘shorter’ one compared to other companies. Although Baker took 16 hours so honestly, bring it, Kili.
Day 11 – Tuesday, 9/21 – to 4500 feet / 1372m, then drive
Hiking Time: 4 – 7 hours (5.2 miles / 8.4 km)
Hiking time will vary depending on the trail conditions while traveling through the lush vegetation at this elevation. Rain can occur any time of year at this location and can make the trail muddy requiring a slower pace. Once we have descended the 4,500 feet / 1372 meters to the road head we will have our lunch and say goodbye to our mountain staff before heading off to safari with our same guide team. We’ll night at Ikitoni Private Camp (where we started) before transferring to safari the next day.
Day 12 – Wednesday, 9/22
LAKE MANYARA NATIONAL PARK AND NGORONGORO PRIVATE CAMP
Safaaaari szn, bbs! We continue on our journey with a visit to Lake Manyara National Park, a park Ernest Hemmingway described as “the loveliest I had ever seen.” Found amid the variety of animals is an abundance of bird life, including the pink flamingos that enjoy the water-based microcosm of the lake and its environs, all of which add to the ecological diversity of your safari. After our visit we drive to the highlands of Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area. We stay for two nights at MM’s deluxe private camp at Ngorongoro, near Olé Dorop’s, our Maasai friend and walking safari guide.
Days 13-16 – Thursday, 9/23 – Sunday, 9/26
Continue exploring Ngorongoro and Serengeti, seeing animals, visiting villages and taking all the photos my heart can stand! Return to Arusha for our final night.
Day 17 – Monday, 9/27
Another ‘bonus’ day that saved me another $2100 on the flight – shop, connect, savor – and fly out at 9pm from JRO > Amsterdam.
Day 18 – Tuesday, 9/28
Fly Amsterdam to Minneapolis (there were no directs to Chicago, so odd); then MSP to Chicago, landing around 3pm local time. Customs, bags, Lyft, home. Greet my plants, eat whatever dry goods I’ve squirreled away in the cupboards and likely crash/sleep because my body will still be +8, soul stuck in Tanzania time.
We’d all slept like trash. Every muffled squeak as someone rolled over on a sleeping pad. Every critter wandering in the dark, snuffling for snacks. A soft throat clearing. I doubt I slept 10 minutes between 9pm and my 2:00am alarm. It was a relief when someone else’s alarm when off at 1:45; the whole camp had been holding our collective breath, awake, waiting. 12 sleeping bags unzipped at once and the muted glow of headlamps made each tent a brightly-colored lantern in the moonlight.
I was glad I’d set out everything I’d needed the night before – the layers to wear, the gear already 95% packed, the snacks tucked away in side pockets, the water pre-purified – my eyes felt gritty, like college all nighters or red-eye flights. B and I didn’t really speak; we didn’t need to. I got up and grabbed hot water for oatmeal; shoving some bites in my mouth quickly before my nauseous brain caught up to my stomach’s signal of ‘hey, I’m not really in the mood right now.’ Double-knotting my rented boots and triple-checking my (and B’s) gear I ran and re ran through my mental lists.
Just before 3:30am, we set off up the narrow, protruding spine beside Easton Glacier, summit-bound on Mt. Baker. It was hushed other than the crackling groans of the glacier to our right, but we were in high spirits. The only light was a constellation of headlamps before and behind me, and the massive, round moon on our left. We walked on the dusty ridge, mostly in silence except to murmur a word of caution to another hiker about a thorny spot. The group broke off into two chunks, with B and I linking up with the ‘fast guys’ group and one of our guides, Peter. We pulled ahead and began sinking our feet into snow, duck-walking the way we’d been taught the day before at ‘Snow Camp.’
The sky softened to a salt lamp pink – the moon still holding court – but not for much longer. We reached our ‘snow from here on out’ point and sat to snack and put on our crampons, helmets, harnesses and roped up, each holding an ice axe. As the groups converged and the guides divvyed us up, we laid out our intentions for the day and pace plans.
We’re put in a group with Kush, our rope guide. He’s followed by B, myself, and a couple from Seattle behind me. A pack of 5 all ‘summit or bust,’ with all of us (sans Kush) on our first technical climb. We shuffle out, slowly figuring out the rhythm of having people before and behind and keeping the rope slack (but not too slack). ‘A smile,’ they say – not dragging – and not pulling on teammates. One hand clutches my trekking pole, the other wraps around the blade of my ice axe. They are decidedly not the same height, giving me a lurching gait up the mountain.
Don’t step on the rope don’t step on the rope shoot I stepped on the rope maybe I can get off the rope before B notices okay got away with it this time don’t step on the rope don’t step, step – step – step – step – okay I’m doing it okay this isn’t so bad aw man I stepped on the rope again good lord we have so far to go, don’t look just focus here HERE here brick by brick, bite by bite, step by step you’ll lead me and I’ll follow you all of my daaaays what is that song? Oh right, walk with your toes out, Alex said it saves your calves, and I’ll need them more, my butt is tougher, I have a very tough butt. All those stupid box step ups thank God Brian still never made me do box jumps what was the french word for the way we’re walking again? Oh plie – right – like ballet – I should sign up for a class at Old Town when I’m done with Kili –
This was it. The whole way. Welcome to my brain.
We took breaks ~every 35-50 minutes on the way up. Sinking my butt into the cold snow was such a relief, even if it was damp as I stood up. Steam was probably coming off me; I shed layers and unzipped as we walked but after 2 minutes on a break would start to shiver as the sweat (and snow) rapidly cooled me down. Snacking on gummies, goos and Sour Patch Kids, the sun peeked over the skyline and poured down the ice towards us. I looked over my shoulder and gasped at how far we’d come. I looked up, wondering when we’d see the infamous Roman Headwall. I’m wildly grateful that at no point in the first 6 hours did someone say how far we were from the top.
Gradually, one climber peeled off with a guide, headed back downhill. The groups shuffled, and our pack had to pick up the pace. I began to chatter at B – for her and for me – to just give my mind something to do as my body got whiny, got tired, got very over just keep swimming-ing along. Songs from our childhood (Pocahontas was a favorite), did she think Mandy Moore moved faster than us (she’d climbed Mt. Baker literally the week before), and on and on, stepping over small crevasses slashing the snowfields and further up, further in.
We stopped to lunch just below the headwall around 10:30am. I hadn’t googled it – the only thing I knew was a brief blog/writing on Mountain Madness’ website, written by a previous climber. I thought it was like a 100-150 ft. difficult bit. Over in 10-20 mins max.
Reader, that was not accurate.
First – Kush cautioned us that this was not a place we could stop and pause to catch our breath. There would be no butt-sitting, Sour-Patching, reflective moments; anything more than a one breath pause would be dangerous to someone else on our rope line, vulnerable to the rapidly warming (and melting) snow.
Second – Did we want to continue? We were the last summit-bound rope team of the morning – from our company and any others. Groups were coming down as we were sitting at the bottom of the headwall, making our decision. We needed to speed up if we wanted to summit – and speeding up through the hardest part – where we couldn’t pause/take a break.
As we ate, looking at each other, I thought about the summit. I’d always thought it would be such a big deal. Just that week I’d written a post here about how summiting really mattered to me. That I was a prideful little dragon who wanted to roar from the top. I can’t believe the same person is telling you this now but – at this moment sitting at the base of the headwall – butt damp, 7+ hours into this exhausting climb, still 2+ hours from the top and considering if we should continue…I did not care.
I felt wildly proud of how far we had come. This was the view:
All those halting, sliding, crampon-footed steps. I was tired. I was still ok to keep going but I was worried about being 2+ hours still from the top. I knew the snow was softening. I was nervous about the crevasses we’d stepped over on the way up being stealthier, cracking open further in the sun as each second ticked by. I say nervous – but afraid is more like it – these abominable snowman caves were scary and only getting scarier.
I thought about the night before, laying in the darkness next to B. The sun had just set and a soft haze helped us just make out our features as we faced each other, curled up in our sleeping bags like parentheses.
“I’m scared,” I whispered. A tear ran down my face as I admitted it to her, and to myself.
I was scared that if I couldn’t summit Baker, that I couldn’t summit Kili. That something in my body or spirit was too weak, too chickenshit, that despite over a year and a half of training that Brian and I hadn’t found my secret Achilles Heel, some secret streak of physical or mental cowardice, and it would somehow shamefully rear it’s head on the side of the mountain. Someone had been airlifted off Baker just the weekend before, barely misstepping, slipping and injuring their ankle so bad they couldn’t walk.
“Me too,” whispered B. We sat in that uncomfortable silence. There was nothing left to add. There was no changing the path. Several times following in that sleepless night I went through this mental cycle where my body tried to produce an excuse. “Am I sick?” I’d thought countless times. “No, you’re not. You’re just freaking out. Try to sleep,” the angel on the other shoulder whispered back. I felt panicky, checking my heart rate on my watch, but it was relatively normal.
I sat just below the headwall, looking at that view. All that boastful, puffed-chest pride just seemed like cotton candy now. I’d thought the idea of summitting was such a big deal; it certainly looked huge as it twirled up in my mind before the trip. Every whisk around building another layer of spun sugar, another layer of why it mattered to summit. The summit matters, the summit matters, the summit matters. Sitting there, though, it was like that cotton candy in a rainstorm. Just a sad, sodden little lump of sugar – it never mattered. Or it mattered so much less than what we’d already accomplished. We’d come so far. If we had chosen that moment to not summit, I wouldn’t have been mad.
I know that sounds so incongruous with that previous post. And it was. It didn’t line up with what I thought I would feel. I think I would have come back. Attacked Baker again. Felt challenged to strap crampons back on and take on Koma Kulshan. I was truly at peace with the effort we had done. 7 hours of pushing, clawing, sweating. We all took a few minutes to sit with that idea in our souls. That we had come far enough. That we had nothing to feel ashamed about.
Kush checked in with each of us.
I tried to catch B’s eye – to tell her I was at peace with us stopping here. I didn’t want her to feel like my cotton candy pride was influencing her decision for her safety, for our group’s safety. She was facing away, looking west; gazing over the ‘horns’ of Lincoln & Colfax Peaks towards Whatcom County, having her own moment with her soul.
“Yes,” she said. We made eye contact. I asked her again if she was sure.
She was. I was. We were.
I don’t know why it’s called a headwall. I googled it when I got back and didn’t feel like I got a clear answer. Something like ‘the final push before a summit,’ which I guess is accurate. In my head I’d thought it would be an icy stone-ish scramble; maybe we’d have to use our hands.
It was a single track slushy snow ledge, winding around crevasses I genuinely was too frightened to look into. I felt like the crevasse would notice me, like the Eye of Sauron, and I didn’t want their attention. Focusing my mental and physical energy to being present, aware of the rope, each step a precision placement as we inched alone, ice axe then trekking pole, ice axe then trekking pole, never stopping for more than a deep breath.
The top of the headwall was ‘messy,’ per Kush. Not wrong, and yet woefully light on details. It was like the devil’s gravel playground; every rocky step you thought would be solid was mush gravel and those you thought would be mush gravel were strangely firm as your crampons screamed, scraping over glacier-fed rivulets and streams of dirty water. All I could think was “1, get through this, 2, stay present, 3, if this is bad now what will it be like on the way down as we’re shaky in an hour or two?” Walking out of the headwall we let out a relieved ‘whoop’ to be back on our faithful pal, ole’ snow. We trekked across a pretty flat 30-minute stretch, the false summit, towards a little ‘dirt mound’ that is Grant’s Peak, the true summit of Mt. Baker.
The wind whipped at us – with nothing to block it at the top of the world – and our sweat cooled as we pulled on whatever layers were left. Dropping our packs and unroping, B and I leaned uphill, arm in arm up the dirt track at the end. A small box was at the top. I never looked inside; it made me think of geocaching and felt sacred. We looked around in wonder, grabbing a few pictures and marveling at the views of Rainier, Shuksan, Glacier and countless other Cascade peaks jutting into the horizon. B waved at Baker Laker, where a co-worked was camping this weekend. After a round of photos, we looked at each other and said ‘let’s go.’
Everyone has asked me “How long were you up at the summit?” and literally everyone is so disappointed when I say “10 minutes.” “Only 10 minutes?! Why?!” Because we’d seen what we needed to see – the summit! We felt accomplished, we got our photos, we ate some snacks, we were very tired and knew it was 5-6 hours down; including the increasingly treacherous crevasses, the rapidly softening headwall, and fighting our own mental exhaustion. At this point we also thought we were the last rope team heading down on the mountain; potentially risky/dangerous if anyone needed assistance or fell. B peed behind a hump of snow, we latched up our pack wait belts, roped back up and took one last glance at our accomplishment, beginning the descent.
As we marched back through the false summit snowfield, we crossed another team – relieved we were no longer the last ones on the mountain and someone was coming behind us – we murmured verbal encouragements as others had given us and trekked on. The gravelly top of the headwall was as treacherous as we’d thought it would be; two team members slipped slightly, soaking their boots/butts in the frigid, murky water. I fleetingly thought about how grateful I was for all those stupid core stabilizing moves Brian had made me do, each hip extension, PT stretch and superman back flexion alone at 11pm on my belly in mid-2020, afraid of our own groceries.
There was no time for other thoughts, though. Every step had to be perfect. All I wanted to do was disassociate and take my mind away – to Kili, to invent dumb songs because I missed RIFF, to thinking about the raspberry pie I was promised – but I couldn’t. I thought about that idea from “The Good Place,” the one about ‘what we owe to each other’ and I felt I owed my teammates my mental focus. Each of us protected each other by carefully placing each wide, cowboy-stanced, cramponed foot down with intention. We gave each other the gift of razor-sharp focus as we descended down, down, down, Kush in the back quarterbacking our route from above.
‘Go faster,’ he called – and I accidentally glanced at and quickly away from a crevasse – hoping it hadn’t noticed my gaze. We picked up the pace, heel-plunging down as the sun beat on us. It felt like walking in an exceedingly bright orange Slushy; our poles and ice axes catching us every 4-5 steps as a seemingly-firm step made our feet slide forward. It was only when I got back and looked at photos that I realized the orange/brown haze of the snow I’d been seeing all day (assuming it was dirty) was my glacier sunglasses filtering the glare. My photos looked a lot better than I thought; everything I saw looked like a toasted meringue on top of a pie but the photos were just high-exposure white on white.
We finally reached the bottom of the headwall and paused at our former lunch spot. There was a ‘dicey’ spot just below us; I remembered feeling like ‘whew that’s risky’ on the way up and thinking at the time ‘that’s gonna suck on the way down.’ And it did. It kept sucking. I remembered stepping over 4-5 cracks on the way up and about 3 truly spooky spots.
Well, the spooky spots had been fruitful and multiplied in our absence. The sun did her job (and us no favors) and we slid and slushed all down that mountain. For 6 hours we went down and down and down. Multiple times I thought (and said) ‘we cannot have come up this way. Nothing here is familiar.’ The artist formerly known as ‘strong butt and thigh game’ had the shakes and loudly let me know anytime we paused for more than 3 seconds. We were quiet as we descended, all alone with our thoughts, narrowing to ‘just this step’ and resetting each time. At one point, everyone but AJ (our anchor) and Kush had fallen multiple times in one minute. “You all are probably setting some kind of record for falls,” Kush deadpanned from the back. I didn’t have enough energy to laugh as my foot slipped again.
It was hot. We’d all stripped back down to sun shirts, stowing our fleece and jackets in our bags. B and I were very low on water; we’d brought 5 liters between us and it wasn’t enough. Our team shared; but I knew I was dehydrated. Enough punishing walks roaming around Chicago and I knew my signals. I hadn’t peed since we left camp, over 12 hours before, nor did I need to pee.
‘Just this snowfield, that has to be the last one’ I told myself, dismayed at each new snowfield we saw. ‘Pick up the pace,’ Kush called again to AJ, and the long-legged dude obediently ratched up the speed of descent, making us all groan. At one point I remember chastising myself and saying ‘listen you either walk off this mountain with your own two legs or get helicoptered, get it together, we’re not falling here, this close to Kili.’ I slipped again. It felt unending.
The snow eventually gave way to snow and rocks, and wet, dark gaps between stone and ‘berms’ that we were cautioned to avoid. We looped around an outcropping I felt looked like “The Martian” and I finally recognized where we’d initially sat to put on our crampons in the pre-dawn light with Peter. ‘Only a little further’ said Kush and I recognized the same tone that aerobic instructors use as they promise ‘just 15 more seconds’ and give you another 20 burpees. My feet felt bruised and soaked as snow had snuck in on our mushy descent; what had felt like cooling relief now felt like probably blisters and audibly squished as we pulled off our crampons. I finally needed to pee but didn’t trust my body to squat; I also didn’t think I had the energy to de-rope, walk off trail, take off my harness and come back without just saying ‘leave me here’ and likely meaning it.
We reached ‘high camp,’ about 20 minutes from our campsite at ‘low camp,’ and de-cramponed. It felt a bit like stepping off a treadmill as my gait re-adjusted to normal booted life. AJ and Amber scooted ahead, and B and I walked slowly like two female Frankensteins back onto the spine of the Easton Glacier ridge.
I remember thinking ‘don’t fall now; you’re probably not going to get back up.’ Kush slowly walked with us as we silently made our way into camp. It was just past 7pm. Someone snored happily in one of the tents. B and I slumped into our tent; beyond spent. I put on fresh layers and slipped into my camp shoes (Crocs!) and went to go have a very-delayed pee break; genuinely too scared to look at the dangerously dehydrated color after 16 hours.
I grabbed some stuffing and mashed potato dinner with shaky hands, weakly smiling at another hiker who was back and happily chattered away about their team’s experience. I nodded politely and walked off to refill and repurify 2 liters of water for B and I. Sitting on a small boulder next to the brook, circling my Steripen around and around the rim of my Nalgene bottle, I looked at the alpine meadow, towards the setting sun, and briefly felt my tired little dragon give a tiny wing flap. Like when your dog is tired or sleepy, laying on the ground and you call their name and they give a single tail wag, a soft ‘wap’ onto the floor. They’re tired but they acknowledge you – that was it. A brief ‘thank you’ to my mind and body for the focus. For the grit. For not giving up. I was too beat for any other reflection.
The following afternoon, I waited in my bathrobe for B to get done with the shower and I looked out at Baker from the window at my parent’s house. Bathed in pink and lavender as the sun set, I couldn’t reconcile this view with these legs with that experience the day before.
“I climbed that. These legs did that.” I kept whispering to my soul. I believed it (and my legs wouldn’t let me forget) but it seemed almost dream-like. Even though it had been less than 24 hours ago. A whole mountain. From the 4 hour hike in, the 16-hour summit ascent and descent day, the 2.5 hour hike out that next morning – I remembered all of it and fleeting pieces of it at the same time – the memories firming up like setting cement in my mind.
I woke up the next morning and padded out onto the deck, warming my palms with a mug of coffee, gazing at the sunrise coming up over the crest of the peak.
I spoke out loud to myself, hushed. “I did that. I did that with these legs, and this body, and that whole mountain.” I kept repeating it because I almost didn’t believe it. 10,781 feet. Of grit. Of fear. Of focus. Of exhaustion. Of Sour Patch Kids. Of hours of workouts during a pandemic where I was alone, sobbing in my apartment. Of Zoom calls and masks and virtual happy hours. Of disappointing trip cancellations and build-up of pride and the humility of shakily clinging to the side of a crater, 7 hours in. Of wonder, and joy and raw beauty out in the wild. This world isn’t tame.
My heart siren burbled a question and I shook my head. “Not yet. Let’s just enjoy this one for a bit.”
By the numbers, I shouldn’t be more nervous climbing Mt. Baker this weekend than Mt. Kilimanjaro in September. A hunky looming beaut visible from my parents’ backyard, you can’t miss Baker if you live in Whatcom County (or the lower mainland of BC).
Per Wikipedia “Mount Baker, also known as Koma Kulshan or simply Kulshan, is a 10,781 ft active glacier-covered andesitic stratovolcano in the Cascade Volcanic Arc and the North Cascades of Washington in the United States. Mount Baker has the second-most thermally active crater in the Cascade Range after Mount St. Helens.” YEAH I’M CLIMBING A VOLCANO, FAM.
Our main girl Kilimanjaro is 19,341ft. Almost double the height of Baker. But Kilimanjaro isn’t a technical climb – which is a weird phrase to say considering it’s one of the Seven Summits – but it’s really just a long, hard hike at high altitude. It doesn’t require any true technical mountain climbing gear like Baker: helmet, harness, ropes, crampons (aka them shoe spikes), ice axe, there are crevassesto fall into, you carry all your gear (Kili has porters), etc.
Which…is pretty obvious from the photos above ^^ that thing looks technical as all hayllll
Kili just has a lil snow at the top/last day of your hike and is managed in boots/with trekking poles. I understand Kili. I feel like I know Kili. As much as possible without actually going (yet). I’ve been devouring content about it for almost 2 years – blogs and videos, my computer (and phone) wallpaper is Kili, a tapestry of Kili on my wall, following the #kilimanjaro tag on Instagram, reading books and packing (and repacking) lists, my OBGYN telling me at my annual last year about her trip in 2012 (you have not lived until you’ve talked about the right and wrong type of leg gaiters as a speculum is inside you, trust).
Climbing Baker entered my brain last summer when I half-joking asked my sister Brianna, ‘did you still want to climb Baker before you turn 30? Because I’ll climb it with you.” AND THEN SHE SAID YES.
…it scares me. I feel like I’ve been watching the date grow closer and closer out of the side of my eye. Like when you don’t look right at a spider because then it KNOWS and it might JUMP at you because you shouldn’t look them in the eye(s) and INVITE them into your PERSONAL SPACE. It’s like 8-legged smol bears. It’s bears you shouldn’t look in the eye, right?
Baker is my hometown mountain. I see it every time I go home because you literally cannot miss it. Its straight out the kitchen window. It’s driving right at it east on Badger Rd. It’s the end of the eyeline on (no joke) Bakerview Rd. in Bellingham. I know several people who have climbed it; people I went to high school with, people’s spouses that I went to high school with, and I’m sure a myriad of people I don’t know about but do know have climbed it. I’ve skied on it. Hiked around it. Randomly someone I work with at Le ‘hub climbed it 3 weeks ago and summited.
I’ve been training for almost 2 years to climb a mountain and I’m terrified of what it will mean for me if I can’t do it. I know there are a load of reasons why we may not summit – legitimately – bad weather, a fellow climber’s injury, a guide making a safety call, etc. But I just am so scared it’s going to be me. That I will be the weak link. Mentally or physically that something will go wrong in me and I’ll have to look at that mountain every Christmas and Raspberry Festival and family milestone and hold a little shame nugget in my heart.
2 years of sweat and tears and gear lists and telling people and another mountain in 6 weeks and if I can’t climb Baker, can I climb Kili? Its not great mental game/sports psychology to think about not making it, but I think I need to. I wrote down this quote I read awhile back “The finish line is for the ego. The journey is for the soul” on my whiteboard and I hate it.
I need it but I hate it. Because I recognize my ego creeping up.
I think some wonderful things have happened in my soul over the last 19 months of mountain prep.
Organically met several people that have climbed Kili – my aforementioned OBGYN, a REI employee helping me with packs, a fellow guest at Jason & Reagan’s wedding – the absolute joy at talking Kili with people is amazing. They have been changed by this trip. And not once did I think to ask any of them “did you summit?”
Made a true friend in my randomly-assigned-by-LSAC personal trainer, Brian – I’m sure I will write a wildly emotional post about how his partnership in this process has been crucial – and how I was doubtful the head of triathlons was my ‘person.’ But through injuries and my emotions and a pandemic and no gear (we were literally having me do kettlebell swings with a grocery tote and 5/7 Harry Potter books for awhile) his creativity and care has helped shape this journey and kindly nudge me back on course.
Had a north star to mentally and physically focus on when the world went to…absolutely uncertainty this past year+. Even though the Kili date has changed twice I always knew it was going to happen. And telling myself that each workout, each dumb PT stretch (I look so, so foolish doing them), every emotional breakdown as I still CANNOT DO A NON MODIFIED PUSH UP I just tried to look at this wall tapestry and whisper ‘keep going.’
I’ve actually learned about my body; what it is capable of, what it really has opinions on (hello hip flexors, my nemeses), how feeding it right during a long, multi-hour workout makes ALL THE DIFFERENCE and its taken me far, far too long to get here. I grew up playing sports. Lots of sports. How did I not know some of this?! But you know, better today than tomorrow. I’m better at listening to what hurts, dissecting it, knowing what’s ‘mind over matter’ and what’s worth slowing down on. ALSO did you guys know that quad means FOUR like FOUR MUSCLES IN YOUR THIGH I’m 33 how did no one tell me this until TWENTY TWENTY ONE you should have seen Brian’s face I’ve never seen someone so disappointed and trying to hide it as I truly howled with laughter.
Had A Wild Adventure to Plan; it’s been a long time since I felt like I was on a true new adventure. I moved to Chicago 6 years ago from Korea and while there have been several mini-adventures, there hasn’t been a truly wild one since. One of my favorite Kili books has been “Kilimanjaro Diaries,” by Eva Melusine Thieme. I spent several long walks around Chicago listening to the audiobook and at the end (or jump to it in the link above) she writes a list of ‘What the Mountain Taught Me.’ I highly recommend checking out the post above because it’s also excellent life lessons but these ones ring especially true in me: “- Wherever you are in life, it’s always a good idea to plan a new adventure. (But get yourself some good boots and take a few extra packs of wet wipes.) – Everyone needs a mountain to scale in their lives. When you’re younger, life supplies many a mountain – graduation from high school, going to college, landing a good job, getting married. But during the middle years of your life, things get awfully flat (though often rather bumpy). Climbing a real mountain almost certainly helps put things in perspective. – Consequently, it’s okay to do what you want or must do, even if it sometimes means doing it alone, when others don’t want to come along for the ride. – You can always take another small step. Pole pole. There is almost no limit to what you might accomplish in life if you just go about it pole pole, one step at a time. If you’re overwhelmed by the task (or mountain) ahead, concentrate on the feet in front of you. Or on the garden trowel, if you must. – It’s always good to have a change in scenery. If your life seems drab at sea level, maybe you need to take it to high altitude. At least that’s how it worked for us. The higher we climbed, the thinner the air, the more we laughed.”
So I know there’s been a wonderful and good journey in my soul. But my lizard self; the dragon that guards my soft pink heart at the center of my hoard of gold coins, she wants a summit. I don’t know how she’s going to react if she doesn’t get it. She wants it bad, y’all. She wants to stand on the mountain and look down at those clouds and open her jaw and ROAR. That’s the heart siren at full volume. To scream that it was all worth it. And is it still worth it if she can’t roar? Logically I know the answer is yes. But she wouldn’t be satisfied.
In re-reading that paragraph I feel it’s vital I tell you I could not be more sober. I haven’t even had a Diet Coke today.
I guess that’s the ego then, the dragon. My scaly self that wants to summit. That wants to cross the finish line. That isn’t sure if its worth it (time, money, effort, etc.) unless I stand at the top. I need to sit and reckon with the dragon and the logic of knowing this has all been worth it even if I don’t summit. That I’m a changed person from this journey regardless of where my boots land.
So as I make my packing spreadsheet sitting among a nest of REI Garage Sale finds and prioritizing the fancy performance laundry that needs to air dry for 2 days before flying ORD > SEA this week – I want to tell you (me) something.
I am scared and I’m doing it anyways.
I’m fully packed and I’m convinced I forgot something.
I’m taking my ego, yes, and I know my soul holds a certainty that I’ve done all I could.
I haven’t come this far to give up before the race even starts. Also I’m mildly convinced my body will activate some latent Pacific Northwest super power upon landing and it’ll boost me up Easton Glacier and if one of you says it’s weed I will ban you I swear it by the power vested in me by the state of…the internet.
So if you’re into sending vibes or prayers send some over:
That Brianna and I won’t murder each other in our tent for 2 nights we are not known for smooth camping skills
That the THREE different types of bug repellent I have will keep the biting flies and mozzies away from my sweet juicy body
That Tom Hiddleston will quote Shakespearean sonnets to lull me to sleep by earbud or by presence (I’m not picky)
That I take at least one good picture of Baker to justify buying a fancy polarized filter and lugging a DSLR up there
That some raspberries will still be in season because the one thing I’ve asked my Mom for post-climb is a raspberry pie and we are at end-of-season barrel levels
That I don’t revert to my improviser default of MAKE THE PERSON LAUGH when trying to distract our guide from some physical thing about myself (likely trying to put on a harness right (why must there be SO MANY LOOPS))
That my body doesn’t do what handsome PT calls a ‘textbook inflammation response’ where my knee got BIG MAD in Zion in April but had never happened to me before in 33 years of sports life #themgoodknees
That no matter what happens on the side (or top) of the mountain I have grown up orienting my life around, my dragon and my soft pink heart will be satisfied by my effort and still hungry for the next one.
UPDATED now post-trip! Originally posted early June 2021 and now refreshed 1 month post-trip in October 2021!
A couple people have asked about my Kilimanjaro gear list – whether for the trip trip or just what I take for these long, 5.5 hour walks (which are scaled back since the trip delay) – so I’ve built out what’s currently working for me and some tips to how I got it!
The benefit of having a year+ to prep for this Kili hike is having had time to buy items off-season, to test them, sometimes to return them or upgrade, or wait for a sale I know is on the way. I genuinely, personally own everything on the list below, and I’ll link them all out even though I sometimes didn’t buy them the places they’re linked, they just came up first when I googled for this post.
My tips to (almost) never paying full price:
List, List, Baby – You can’t shop for what you don’t know you need/want. What do you need vs. what’s nice to have? Once you have your list of needs (knock off the things you already have that can do double duty, ie camping items like a sleeping bag or wool layers you already own because you live in Chicago aka Polar Vortex’s Fyre Fest), prioritize. What do you need to start training with ASAP? For me, I needed boots right away. There were a lot of ‘kilimanjaro packing list’ ‘women packing kili’ Google searches in the early days. If you’ve chosen a guide company for a trip make sure you check their custom list too. Sometimes they provide items you don’t need to buy or offer rentals so you don’t need to buy your own (like gaiters, sleeping bags or trekking poles).
Sale Away – If you know a sale is coming, try to hold out. I narrowed down pack options to the REI Traverse 35L for women, and then sat in wait for the Memorial Day Sale. It had been 50% off in May 2019; it was not that deeply discounted in 2020 but it was 30% off so I bought it then. Usually when a big outfitter does a sale, others do too because FOMO; Moosejaw almost always does a big sale when REI does theirs, Backcountry, etc.
Get Around – You don’t need to buy all the things from REI! I’m a massive fan of REI and did get a lot of my items there. One of their employees took 40 minutes to share her experience on a trip to Kili and recommendations. However, you can be thrifty and still REI. Support the co-op – also, pals – just buy the REI membership. It’s $20, one-time, it’s good for life, you can return items even if you used them for up to a year. I’m SERIOUS. Go do it. It’ll literally pay dividends and you get access to so much. INCLUDING my favorite: the Garage Sales. I have cleaned UP at REI from their Garage Sales, Outlet and Used sites. If you get a coupon on top of GS/Outlet/Used? Your wallet and you do a secret high five. You’ll know it when you see it.
Other places I bought gear – Moosejaw, Eddie Bauer, Campsaver, Backcountry, MountainSteals (Moosejaw’s discount site), Sierra Trading Post (TJ Maxx/Marshalls/Homegoods gift cards work here!), Patagonia & North Face’s Renewed/Used & Repaired sites (most brands have some kind of outlet, used or renewed site, you just have to google it), Nordstrom Rack, Zappos, DSW, and yes, Amazon when needed, sigh. Check thrift stores – if you’re on the North Side of Chicago I stan my local ones like Play It Again Sports or Family Tree Resale on Lincoln – or digital thrift stores like GearTrade! Don’t overlook other sources like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace too. It’s summer and people been inside for 15 months – Summer Garage Sales are the SPOT in 2021!
Sell Yeah – Remember REI Used? Just did my first trade in with them – I have jackets I’ve grown/shrunk out of in the past year – and they sent me the mail in kit, etc. Just got an email that I have a $100+ gift card now to spend! YES! YOU DO NOT NEED ALL THOSE THINGS IN YA CLOSET, UNDER YA BED, STUFFED ABOVE THE HAMPER.
Don’t Marry an Idea – This is hard but – do you need the newest colors or features? Nah. It’s easier to find discounting on past-season colors and on clearance! Get something you can live with though; if you hate it it’s probably not worth it long term.
Let Yourself Be Blessed – This is a bit of a luck/hit and miss/no guarantee but I wanted to mention it. I messaged someone on FB Marketplace about a North Face Base Camp Duffel and when I showed up to buy it for $70 he asked where I was headed with it, when I said Kilimanjaro he gifted it to me. I almost cried. He said ‘have a wonderful trip and pay it forward someday.’ FOR REAL. A friend recently asked if there was anything I hadn’t bought myself and when I bashfully shared I had a ‘good enough’ fleece layer but there was one on my wish list they bought it for me. There are people who want to invest in your journey. Let them. That may be time, money, gear or emotional support. Allow them to be part of your story and success too.
The following is my ‘before trip’ list – and all has genuinely been tried out – but I’ll keep editing while I continue training and even after the trip (September 2021) so you know what was useful, what was overpacking, and what was just ridiculous.
UPDATE NOTE (Oct ’21): I found when actually packing/weighing my mountain duffel at home before the trip that I was over the weight that my company said was the limit – which was an uncomfortable level of panic the 2-3 days before leaving – everything I had was on their list, so why was it overweight?! Remember to check your guide/company’s weight limits (they can differ) – you don’t want to be the a*hole asking a porter to compromise their safety nor having to do a gear reshuffle on at the entry gate where rangers weigh your bag publicly! Pre-weigh at home and check if there’s any wiggle room; also remember you can put things in your day bag (snacks, etc) that could be a little more weight at the beginning (Days 1-3) when you’ve got energy/less likely to experience altitude issues and as you put more clothing layers on during Days 2-5 you can backfill those snacks into the duffel, making a close-to-even exchange of weight. Also tbh, eat ya snacks, you brought ’em for a reason, right?
✅ – I did end up taking this model/item
🚫 – I didn’t take this model/item
↔️ – Exchanged for a different model/item or took a different quantity!
📝 – Adding a note in bold about this item post-trip!
Testing a lot of the items on Baker helped a lot – mostly clothing but some gear – getting a good bead on what was ‘nice to have’ vs ‘need to have’
Pack & Gear:
✅ Hiking Backpack – REI Traverse 35 – The golden color almost got me but a cranberry, green and blue combo?! Bails 101!
✅ Dry Bag – Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil 13L – I plan on putting my camera gear in here and any other tech, battery pack, etc. It was on my wish list forever and I found it at an REI Garage Sale for $4 and change!
✅ Trekking Poles – Black Diamond Trail Backs plus these rubber tips since I train/walk on the sidewalk/street in Chicago. I’ll pull the rubber tips off before I leave; I’ve taken them off when walking on icy sidewalks and they’ve saved my cute, round bacon multiple times.
✅ Sleeping Pad – Klymit V Insulated Ultralight – make sure you check the R value for warmth if your trip needs it! Also – test it out and lay on it – make sure you can actually get comfortable on it, in your sleeping bag! Otherwise it’s a cold, miserable realization in ya tent.
🚫📝 Pillow – Outdoor Vitals Ultralight – not sure if I’ll take it or do the classic ‘clothes as pillow’ move but I got it for free so…? Classic clothes as pillow for the win! Not worth the weight even though it was super light.
✅📝 Sleeping Bag – North Face 0/-18 Furnace Down Bag – do your research on the temp rating – there’s lots of variance in the ranges, how warm/cold you sleep, gender, etc. Some Kili routes stay in huts vs tents and that can flex what you need re: Sleeping Pad/Bag/Liner. Adding here – practice how to zip up the top/wind baffles and the cinch cord before you are on a mountain. You’re welcome.
✅ Sleeping Bag Liner – Sea to Summit CoolMax – keeps your bag clean/less likely to need washing and another warm layer
✅ 📝 Duffel – North Face Base Camp Medium 71L – specifically for Kilimanjaro there are weight limits to your duffel to protect the porters, so the medium/71L was best for me as a chronic overpacker. This will carry everything I’m not wearing/carrying during the day, including my sleeping bag, add’l clothes, gear, med kit, etc. Also – petty – but I really loved the mountain color scheme on mine and knew it would help inspire me during training and be pretty unique from the other solid-color North Face Base Camp duffels on the side of the mountain. Whew. I was at max capacity with everything in this bag. And the weight was 2lbs over the weight when I was at home. We made it at weigh-in at the gate (10kg) but I was pretty anxious they were going to walk over and make me empty it. For some reason, no matter how many layers I was wearing…I still had to really lean to close this bag every morning. If you’re thinking about a Base Camp duffel size-wise I’d say do the L size (mine is a M, 71L) but I’m also a chronic overpacked so I definitely would have had an easier time zipping it shut but would have struggled to cut items when I had room to spare.
✅ Compression Stuff Sack – Kelty Compression Stuff Sack – I have the XL but could have gotten a L (it was out of stock) to smoosh my sleeping bag smaller in the duffel.
📝 Tent – if you’re like ‘wheres the tent Bails are you sleeping outdoors on a MOUNTAIN with CRITTERS’ – this item is provided by the guide company so while I personally own a tent (hi, 2-person Coleman Sundome I got for $25) I’m not taking it with me to Africa. They use the Mountain Hardware 3-person Trango model; they usually have 2 clients : tent but they gave me and the other climber our own. Great for privacy and hanging my sweaty ‘laundry’ to dry at night, but pretty cold! I would have loved another person’s body warmth in there, haha! Lots of door options,places to hang stuff, etc.
✅ 📝 Boots – Lowa Renegade GTX Mid – seriously, do go at least a 1/2 size up. This was super worth it to buy from REI and test out; I did end up returning to go up 1/2 a size. Your feet will swell and you likely will need more room if you’re doing multiple sock layers such as liner/hiking sock (which I do). A helpful test was to put on my intended socks, lace them and walk down a set of stairs to see if my toes touched the front or not. Y’all – I looked at my boots post trip and they are worn through in the heels. I don’t think it was the mountain; I think it was probably Chicago sidewalks. Still, weird that I never noticed/looked!
✅ Socks – Darn Tough Vermont (Micro Crew, Boot, Mountaineering) – I was a Smartwool lifer until I tried Darn Tough and I’m just mad it took me this long to find the greatest sock(s) of all time. NO CONTEST. Thanks Johnny B for the realization!
🚫📝 Foot Stick to avoid blisters – this thing is GOLDEN for my feet; I finally found a good blend is a little of this BodyGlide stick on my common blister spots, a sock liner, then the wool hiking sock *chef’s kiss* I found that some preventative taping worked better the longer my walks get; using pre-wrap, second skin and cheap fabric tape from my med kit/local Dollar Tree.
✅ 📝 Camp Shoe – Crocs – sigh, yes. No one is stealing these ugly, insanely bright things. I waited until a triple-down on Zappos (sale, birthday coupon and points) so I at least could look myself in the eye for spending as little money as possible on these. Apparently they are the best shoe to put your swollen, end-of-day feet in and wear around camp; also v lightweight and easy to rinse off if muddy. Still true, but I will say they’re pretty cold on the frosty nights – I mean – there’s holesin them. Starting on the 5th night I just wore my boots all the time. It’s nice to let your boots dry out but also it was just so cold in the Crocs once the sun went down, even with double layered dry socks.
✅ ↔️ 📝 Underwear – Icebreaker, Smartwool and Woolx I realized on the long 6+ hour walks in the summer that sweaty booty chafing was a real one, so I got 3 pairs of Exofficios, which was a great choice in the hotter lower days and easy to wash/dry when we were in our overnight between mountain/safariSORRY THIS IS THE REAL REAL TALK, Y’ALL
✅ 📝 Bra – Icebreaker Longline and Smartwool – if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year that I’d tell you it’s the value in wool items for heat and cold, breathability and how rarely they smell/stink. Plus, nothing I own is as itchy as you think it might be since they’re blended w synthetics. Sooooo…wool takes awhile to dry…especially when it’s frosty overnight in a tent. I still think this was the right smell choice but wish I’d taken out the liner cups, which took longer to dry slash sometimes may not have been dry. But even when damp, the wool did what it’s supposed to and kept me warm!
✅ ↔️ 📝 Base Layers – Odlo, Icebreaker, Patagonia – The Odlos are amazing; wide, soft waistband but don’t fall down after several wears. If you can snag them on sale they’re so worth it. I’ve been wearing them all winter in the house too! The Icebreakers are also great for warmth but that thin waistband does migrate/dig in. I only ended up taking 1 pair of Odlos and the Patagonias; it was for weight. Really there were only 2x when I wore both at the same time (Mornings of Day 6 & 7); the Icebreakers went out due to weight and that waistband.
✅ 📝 Hiking Pants – Eddie Bauer (Guide Pro Pants ) – If you can snag these on a 50% off sale they’re awesome – also sign up for the EB Adventure Rewards because every other month they’re like ‘here’s $10 use however you want no minimum’ so hitting a 50% off sale + $10 off really is a sweet spot! I will say – I like the pants much better than the leggings, they may get voted off the (duffel) island. The leggings are the weakest link, goodbye, they did not come
✅ Fleece Pants – Columbia Exploration Pants – I’ve layered these with base layer and hiking pant this past week in the 0-10F degree range while walking and they’re perfect; also love me a zip pocket to keep all my secretsss.
🚫 📝 Shorts – Eddie Bauer’s Guide Pro Shorts – the pockets, the length, all perfect for long walks/hikes I ended up taking them on safari but not the mountain; I am too lazy to put sunscreen on my legs and after having a sun rash in August I was like, ‘I’ll just wear pants, even on the lower elevation days.’
↔️ 📝 Sun Shirt – 🚫 Mountain Hardwear Crater Lake Hoodie – I love these so, so much that I own three of them. As a pale goblin I need to hide myself from the Sun’s vengeance and these rock, hands down. SPF/UPF 50, a hood, thumb holes to cover hands, lil zip pocket for keys – plus – super thin so you stay cool! Note that these can smell t-e-r-r-i-b-l-e after one sweaty, sunny wear since they’re 100% synthetic. Wash ’em or learn to live with it. I do love this model, but coming back from Baker I was lured into the Exofficio store with a huge sale sign and found 2 sun shirts with their built-in bugspray tech – and the idea of a UPF sun shirt and bug resistance was awesome. I brought like 4 sun shirts to TZ but only one on Kili (the other 3 on safari). They were going to smell no matter what, might as well take just the one. I wore it every day but one, I think. Just learn to live with it!
✅ 📝 Base Layers – 🚫 Odlo, Helly Hansen, 🚫 Smartwool, Patagonia – I never got the hype about Helly Hansen before but she’s currently my fave with the 1/4 zip. I ended up just taking the HH and Patagonia; one light, one mid/heavyweight. The Odlo one stayed home even though it’s a comfort fave; it’s the same weight as the HH and I liked the convertible-ness of the HH quarter zip!
✅ 📝 Fleece Layer – Women’s Monkey Fleece Hooded – I’m linking the Men’s one here because I can’t find the women’s (discontinued?) but this thing was my wish list item I was gifted and it’s phenomenal. Four functional pockets in a WOMENS CLOTHING ITEM?! RING A BELL! This was everything and more. I loved this; probably the MVP item.
🚫 📝 Soft Shell Jacket – Stormtech Performance – not sure I’m going to take this one, jury is still out (aka I’ll weigh the duffel and decide). My current layer system without it is good/solid. Officially soft shells are on a lot of lists but I am leaning towards ‘no’ for this item in my system since I run hot. I might sneak an extra thin fleece layer instead to sleep in – an Arcteryx Delta LT Women’s JacketI was so warm in my layer system; just necessary weight. I did take my Arcteryx fleece for non-mountain nights though!
✅ Hard Shell GORE-TEX Jacket – REI GTX at first because I was a size 16/18 and needed to fit all the above layers underneath; it came in a 2x. I found a screaming deal at Nordstrom Rack with a +25% off ‘Clear the Rack’ discount on this XL Mountain Hardwear Rain Shell I (and m’layers) now fit into. The big reason to upgrade? Pit zips. Do not discount these. Pit zips are so worth the upgrade to stay dry but not overheat.
✅ 📝 Gloves – Mountain Hardwear Firefall GTX Mitten – What?! A MITTEN?! Yup. I tried out a GORE-TEX outer glove and it was too cold for me plus didn’t have good grip. I kind of figure if you’re not going to get good grip in a glove you might as well get warmth with a mitten. Another sell for me? Having a ‘leash’ to slip them off and use my camera with just the glove liners and not drop the mitten while doing it. OK honestly? Only wore them once and they were so cumbersome. I wish I’d done gloves or just powered through. I wore the liners below for 3 days solid; they’re a ride-or-die item. The mittens were meh; mostly I slept in them on the coldest nights.
✅ Glove Liner – Icebreaker Quantum – good for a single layer when cool or warming up or to layer under the mittens. Plus since it’s a glove (not mitten) I get that finger dexterity back.
✅ Sun Hat – Adidas Superlite UPF OR 🚫Sunday Afternoons Ultra Adventure Hat (did take this on safari though)– SO nerdy in the Sunday Afternoons hat but it does have an all around brim, which is good for Bails vs. Sun. But the Adidas has been my go-to in Chicago with my sun hoodie pulled up in the back. I need to choose…
✅ Sunglasses – 🚫 Eddie Bauer Preston Polarized have been my all around but I had to buy some Julbos (I got the Chameleon for Spectron 2-4 UV) for Mt. Baker (end of July) so I’ll probably take those unless they have some super rage-y issue
✅ 📝 Gaiters – Outdoor Research Rocky Mountain – got to try these for the first time in a verrrry deep snow in Chicago in Feb and they were poifect! We wore these EVERY DAY – it was so dusty on Kili. I thought we’d wear these just to really descend but we wore them all day every day on the climb up and down and I was happy we did. Make sure you’re comfortable in yours and you can put them on/off easily!
🚫📝 SheWee– OK, this was like, low on my list. They’re on most company lists but not many personal Kili lists. I didn’t think I’d get a FUD (female urination device). But then I had a glorious conversation with my OBGYN at my annual and found out – clad only in a paper gown – that she had climbed Kili in 2012! We chattered away happily while checking me for lumps, bumps and good health and she was like ‘you have to get one.’ I said, ‘really?’ and she says ‘it’s not just for privacy but honestly? Your legs are going to be so tired and shaky that you will struggle to keep your balance when you squat. And there’s not always somewhere out of the way/off the path that’s safe.’ Which hadn’t occurred to me – from both a muscle exertion and safety angle – and I trust her, so I got one. I’ve only used it once outdoors, with questionable success. I didn’t pee on myself but I like, couldn’t pee? Lifetime of don’t-pee-don’t-pee while standing up is hard to turn off. Apparently I need to practice in the shower, per the company – and I just ended up squatting in the trees on that aforementioned questionable success attempt! I tried, y’all. I couldn’t figure it out without peeing on myself in the shower. And you know what you don’t want to be on the side of a mountain in enclosed mess tents, etc. with other people, rewearing the same clothes every day for 8 days straight? The girl who pissed on herself. So I left it here *shrug*
There’s other small gear things to list out like items in my med kit, etc. that I don’t have links to but I’m taking – it’s a long list of ‘you might need so you should probably bring’ from ✅ Pepto Bismol to ✅ Diamox to 🚫 WonderWoman bandaids. There’s also more of the typical items you’d think of taking – ✅ TP, ✅ bug spray, ✅ sunscreen, ✅ luggage tags, ✅ RFID passport wallet, etc. But this is 95% of my gear list and what I plan on using! Let me know if you have add’l ideas or tips or questions and I’ll update. Happy hunting! I might flesh out this section a bit more; there were a lot of nice-to-haves that I ended up leaving here or leaving in my suitcase at HQ after gear check with our lead guide/I had a hard ‘do I really want to carry this myself’ conversation. Feel free to comment/ask any questions!
Things that are not news to other people but was news to me: It is a fascinating perspective, watching someone go from newborn to adult. I can feel all the parents, grandparents, aunts, etc. side-eyeing me with a soft, ‘duh, Bails.’
But I’m not a parent (or grandparent), and while I am an aunt, I’m not talking about my nieces or nephew.
Less than 2 weeks ago, my youngest sister, Emmalee, graduated from Grand Canyon University’s Nursing School and I cried, y’all.
With my trip cancelled in January, I didn’t have another other adventuring on the books until Baker (sub-90 days now! It’s real! I had to pay the grown-ass invoice!). My parents invited me to come to AZ for Em’s graduation and some post-grad National Park work – and at this stage in the game anywhere with hikes/elevation is helpful to the game. Flat Chicago is my boo but also, she flat and the mountains I’m gonna climb are decidedly not.
My relationship with the 4th born gap bb as a 2nd-born-but-headstrong-1st-girl-vibes has always been strong one. I was a middle kid for a long time. 2.5 years after Z, and 3.5 years before B. Senior : Freshman to Senior : Freshman for the 3 of us in school.
I was in Mr. DeBoer’s 5th grade class, a month shy of 11 when Em was born in November of ’98. I remember laying next to B in the back room of Nana & Papa’s old house; we knew Mom was in labor, but you know, bedtime rules at Nana’s house wait for no baby. We were almost asleep when Nana came in and told us – Mom had had a girl.
What a girl. What a baby. Happy cheeks. Happy laugh. Happy smiles. We used to sneak in to wake her up from her naps because she was so cute (and also you were her favorite if you took her out of the crib). Good gawd, she was popular with my friends. Everyone loved her – she made my teen season easier with her easy smile – and so many of my friends’ siblings were past their baby years.
My college season in Oklahoma was punctuated with visits home – seeing the leaps in her experience, her height, her basketball skills – and the gut-wrenching difficult goodbyes, every time. She’d weep, clutching my neck and sob out, “Can’t you just go to Whatcom (Community College)? You make such good sandwiches; can’t you just work at Subway?”
1 – 1000% true. A direct quote. And also 2 – yeah – I do rock a great sandwich. Subway could never.
But the HEARTSTRINGS whew. I’ve spent my adult life leaving and re-leaving and those were some of the first leavings and they still make my emotions well up.
After college I still came home about twice a year; she was in her teen phase and sports, school, all of it. I did 2 years in Korea, moved to Chicago – she finished high school and started at GCU in Phoenix. Being with her were always some of the best moments – driving to get sandwiches, watch her games, her practices, belting out Ke$ha.
And yet. Despite me not living with her for over half her life…what a kid. What a woman. What a nurse.
I don’t need to live close to know to see the kind of woman she’s become. I see her influence in the community she’s knit around her. The Instagram comments, the adventures, the brilliant sound of her laugh among friends.
I don’t need to see her in a hospital to know how she touches every life she meets – body, mind and spirit. There’s a reason her fellow nursing students in her cohort gave her the Florence Nightingale Award.
I don’t need to live with her to know she’s the kind of person who asks if you want anything when she runs to town. She’ll tell you when there’s food in your teeth, too. I KNOW. Put that on your resume under ‘special skills,’ Em.
A coffee junkie, someone who doesn’t have a piece of clothing that looks bad on her (I’m serious, I’ve seen her wear a huge random Old Navy t-shirt of our Dad’s and it WORKS?! SOMEHOW?! It should be a crime), can double-french braid her own hair, can appreciate the hits of Cascada (truly great), a study NUT (you should see her notebooks), and now – a nurse. Still-to-take-the-NCLEX-but-still!
As B pinned Em, now the third nurse in the family (B and our sister-in-law Laura being 1 & 2), I stood there, hot as hell, in my thrifted jumpsuit, hiding my shiny tears behind my fancy camera and clicked away. Documenting this grown-ass adult shining. Proud. Happy.
I changed this person’s diapers (Sorry, not sorry, Em).
And now she’s holding a diploma with a her grad cap.
Spending the next few days eating her dust as we hiked (I plod, she billy goats), spending ~15 hours in a car, shouting ALAN ALAN down the Narrows with her and B – a gift. A gift to be friends with this fellow adult. To take our first spin class together. To belt One Direction. To tetris her belongings into a storage unit before she moves into her first apartment.
She’s got her human side, yeah, I promise. But today’s post is for celebrating her – she can have a pass – and maybe I’ll make her a sandwich. If she’s good.
As I begin writing this post, its currently 3:36am in Tanzania. Around this time we’d be starting our final push from Crater Camp and aiming for summit of Kilimanjaro at sunrise, roughly 3 hours from now.
In the past 40 days since I got the call that the trip was cancelled, I’ve been struggling. I don’t (and didn’t) know where to put this energy crescendo that had been building and building and building for 13+ months. You know how your body can get the shakes after an intense moment has passed but the adrenaline valve is still wide open? That’s been my mind – trying to understand how something I’d been training for so long has to (understandably) pass me by but no one reminded me to turn off my other valves and there’ve been ‘shakes.’
I’m eating like I’m still walking 5-6 hours every Sunday or impulsively ordering frivolous items on Go Puff (you guys, the Lady Gaga Oreos were so overhyped (I mean, they’re cookies, who can be mad, but not even good cookies)) and skipping several workouts, intentionally losing myself in video binges or Youtube spirals and it’s suddenly 11pm on a school night. But not all the time; I’m 70% fine, functional socially and at work and doing well cleaning the bathroom or dishes and 30% shakes. I don’t know what the ideal ratio is, but I’d say that’s where I’m at right now. And this week has at least been an upswing from last week.
It’s a song you’re listening to that just abandons the listener – each lyric had been perfectly aligned, every instrument coming together in harmony, and just as the singer took a deep breath to belt, to take us to the emotional climax – just
How can you not feel unsatisfied? It makes me want to grab the conductor and shake them, begging them to resolve the chord. It can’t just stop, songs don’t end like this, it can’t be. The whole orchestra feels it – the unease, giving each other side eye – the strings, my stomach, my foot blisters, the gear I’m hiding from myself, trying to keep out of my eye line so I don’t remember it’s not being used. It feels like the conductor is patting me on the shoulder, saying ‘see you in 7 months and we’ll resolve the song then’ and I am left alone, standing on the stage alone as the tech shuts off the spotlight. The cello hides behind my laundry hamper in the closet and the timpani squeezes under my bed behind the suitcases. Hiding and squishing down the song so it doesn’t have to be seen, because seeing is remembering and remembering the song as it should be is painful. The words and names – Jambo!, Diamox, Malarone, HAPE, Barranco, Uhuru, Kibo, Ngorongoro – tucking themselves into hyper sleep pods for 7 months. And now I’m just here, on this square with no path for now:
It’s fitting that I started my period today. While my mind has struggled with how to dump excess energy/information I clearly see my body’s way of dealing with a production line that has nowhere to go – it’s painstakingly prepared a warm little cocoon, lovingly lined with healthy goops and soft blankets probably made of biological micro modal fabrics – and throws the cocoon off the cliff into the ocean roughly every 42 days. And begins the same process again.
But the body is built to do that rise and fall, to build cocoons and throw them out. It isn’t an abrupt aberration of the song – at least in my perspective. Maybe a better description is it’s built to rise and either continue rising or fall. A/B. Built to usually fall (A) but sometimes actually continue rising (B). Prepared for either option, even if one is much (MUCH) more common. If anything, a bigger shock to the system would be a B, if there was an occupant to the cozy nest. I imagine my body’s shift foreman, “Hey everyone, Day 41, we’re calling it,” the worker bees sighing and doing the usual monthly rituals – boxing up the nutritious goops and embroidered blankets – and suddenly running into each other on the way out the door as a little egg knocks, whispering, ‘Hey y’all, is this the AirBNB I reserved for the next 9 months?’
That song seems designed to crescendo and diminuendo; I know it could be A or B. That makes sense to me. As someone who has devoured stories all her life – I get rises and falls – the hero’s journey, the mentor’s passing the torch, the darkest night. I know all the generally different paths (A-Z) it could take. All stories are a song that begins and ends, rises and falls and swoops and laterally changes keys and resolves the chord. Maybe all songs are also stories? Possibly just Taylor Swift’s discography. They don’t just stop . Usually. Unless that author got a 3-book deal and this is the end of book 2. Do the characters know they’re in only book 2 of 3 or do they just despair?
I guess what I’m saying is. I understand stories. And songs. And my period. I know there are rises and falls and resolutions and beginning again-s. There’s rarely a surprise, and never one like this. I hadn’t prepared myself that there would be a sudden book 2 cliffhanger and no ETA on when book 3 would come out, if it would come out. I didn’t realize living in the deep breath at the end of the bridge before the key change into the powerfully belted chorus would be a 7-month breath. It was an emotional blind spot and now I’m in a holding pattern for 7 months and not sure what to do with my emotional passengers as we do 4-leaf clovers above ORD.
Of course, it doesn’t help that this came in the coldest season in Chicago, with record-tying massive snow dumps, below 0F temps and in the middle of the still-happening pandemic amid a lost year we’re grieving. That I live alone and the only other life in here are the chlorophyll gang of plants I’m trying to keep alive (and whatever mold was growing on the inside of my shower window until yesterday’s bleach-a-thon). I had nothing on the calendar post-Kili until climbing Mt. Baker with my sister in July. And suddenly, from January 12 until late July/Baker – nothing. A calendar void. A desolate 6-month stretch of another March, April, May and June in isolation. Waiting for a song, any song, to play. I thought Baker would be Mountain #2 and here it is, suddenly the batter up to the plate and still wearing warm up sweats. The team manager jamming the batting helmet on the her head, handing her the bat and saying ‘yer up! Go do us proud.’ Poor kid barely out of t-ball and doesn’t even have her cleats on yet.
It’s snowing yet again right now in Chicago. We’re another hour closer to summit. Probably above 5,500m/19,000ft. Moving pretty ‘pole, pole,’ at that altitude. A porter softly singing somewhere ahead or behind me.
I took last Friday (2/12) off work as a personal day. It’s when I would have flown out. I thought it would be a tough day so I filled it full of warm ‘me’ items to recharge. And it was truly a great day. A great weekend.
Croissants and Cafe Au Lait from La Boulangerie – tastes like this little place in New Orleans off Royal St.
Dash through Ravenswood Used Books – a place I once described as a place I’d want my brain to live to a therapist 5 years ago
Haircut – nothing fancy, keeping it cute and healthy
Nails in a fun, silly design – I said “I want to look happy when I see them” – and I do
Slept in – woke up only 15 mins after the usual alarm
Made a hearty, delicious breakfast – aka pancakes
Hung up my hammock as a type of…swing? Something different in this small lil place – it was fun
And yet somehow, I didn’t really think about how hard today might be. Or rather, tonight. Which would have been summit morning (Tanzania is +9 on Chicago) of the trip. I hadn’t prepared myself to feel emotional today or put words to the last 40 days of lethargy, of the grief of the trip not happening. It feels a little like how I was very mentally intentional about taking care of myself on Election Day but then hadn’t realized we’d kind of need to ration out that serenity for a week until the election was decided/fully over and that Wednesday-Saturday would feel absolutely trash until then.
As someone who likes stories (and songs) I’m kind of realizing this post doesn’t have a true ending either. I’m looking for an out, a button, but I haven’t done improv in so long that I’m out of practice. Maybe a fade out? Just a slow pull until you realize you’re the one humming but the track has ended.
I don’t think there is a button on grief. For this lost year, for the lost moments. The hugs that haven’t happened, the Kilis that haven’t been climbed. The delayed weddings, the skipped holidays, the milestones set to the side (or missed entirely). Kili will come – the mountain has stood a long, long time without me – and she’ll be there after September too.
So many of you have celebrated wins with me – cheered me on, said you feel inspired by me attacking this health and mental and physical challenge – and many of you have held space for my disappointment in the last month. I’m grateful for that. Me continuing to struggle does not and should not diminish your words of support, which are still so valued. They feel like a crackling cold Diet Coke to my aspartame-starved brain on a Monday at 2:47pm.
But also, I want to be honest about the struggle too. If you’re struggling, whatever it is, and you think you’re alone – you are not. It doesn’t have to be BIG Trauma (whatever that means to you) to be considered worthy of pain. You don’t have to excuse or explain it away. We know as grown ups that more than one thing can be true.
I remember talking to a therapist about 5 years ago and we were discussing something emotionally painful from my college years and she said, “that sounds like trauma.”
“Oh, no…” I sputtered, “it’s like, people have gone through so, so much worse, so…”
“Yes, but,” she calmly said. “this is also trauma. You can view it as ‘small t’ trauma rather than ‘Big T’ trauma if that helps, but it was traumatic. It is a wound you’ve been carrying that hasn’t healed.”
Trauma is not apples to apples, or apples to oranges. It is apples to plywood pallets to size 6 sandals to mummified teeth to glass jars of pickles. There isn’t a common measurement and there’s not clean 3×4 inch box to dealing with it. It defies boxing. Pain is pain is pain, my friends. This one feels like a dull ache over the past 40 days. Maybe yours is a sharp twist. But we’re almost all hurting in some way and we don’t need to rush out of it or hide it under the bed with the timpani.
It’s 6:33am in Tanzania. The sun officially rises in 8 minutes.
I spent the better part of today watching Kilimanjaro YouTube videos – soaring drone shots of Lava Tower and happy, chattering, brightly-puffer-clad influencers chirp about their experiences – I don’t know if that was more mourning or emotionally pornographic to watch as my heart siren wheezed like a sad old bike horn, watching the dream clouds roll in over the lower valley from Arrow Glacier Camp. I’m not a parent (see: cocoon throwing off cliffs every 42 days, above), but I’ve heard that a vital part of raising tiny humans is letting them cry themselves out and self soothe. As a 33-year old full grown adult – I might need to do both tonight.
It’s 6:41am in Tanzania. The sun is breaking over Uhuru Peak.
I’m staring at this tapestry of Kili on my wall that I bought to inspire me and I’m angry and sad and frustrated and alone and mostly so, so mad there is no one to blame. No one to rage at. Nothing to point my finger at but a virus. There are no plates to break (I like all of mine, they’re thrifted) or place to run (the sidewalks are icy) and there is no conductor to shake at the song that has just stopped. I understand why the trip was cancelled and I know my guide company made the right call in protecting me, the porters, the support staff and the people we could have come in contact with.
It is 210 days until September 19th, 2021.
209 sunrises to go.
209 beats of rest in whatever time signature this song is in.
I’m grown enough to know that bourbon and tacos aren’t a healthy coping strategy. But also, living alone during a pandemic and facing a large pile of disappointment? Yeah. It could be worse than bourbon and tacos.
Yesterday I texted my therapist, asking for a session to talk about the fact that in 30 days, I planned on leaving the US for my Kilimanjaro trip. I was struggling to reconcile being a good global citizen with pursuing this dream. We talked through the issues being 1) do I feel safe and more importantly 2) am I afraid of others’ perception of me traveling right now? And yes. Yes I was afraid of #2.
Today, I got a call that due to new US restrictions on international travelers entering the country, that my trip was cancelled, with the next dates available in June, 5 months away.
My guide company, who are phenomenal, awesome people – do not have access to guaranteed resources to get me COVID tested in Tanzania, 48 hour turn-around-time for results, take off to Amsterdam, layover 6 hours, then fly to the US within the 72-hour time frame. That’s 63+ hours if everything goes perfectly. And if you’ve ever traveled, you know that’s a big if. So they’ve made the difficult (and in my opinion, right) decision to cancel the trip rather than risk leaving me and my trip mates abandoned in airports flung across the globe.
It sucks, it sucks, it sucks it sucks it sucks. And yet I know there are a thousand things more important. The country is in the grips of civil unrest, there’s a damn pandemic still GAINING GROUND on us and here I am, sad no one will let me climb a big ole’ mountain. There are people without jobs, legitimately fearful of eviction, first responders beyond burned out and I’m soft drunk on my thrifted big red chair, crying that my trip is delayed (for the second time).
But if everyone’s Tad Hamilton to someone then by God, we all have got Kilimanjaro’s worth of disappointments from this past year. My Kilimanjaro is Kilimanjaro, but someone else has to cancel their wedding. Someone else’s new baby hasn’t met friends, coworkers or grandparents. People have lost their family members to COVID. Kids without classmates, triathlons delayed, reunions by the wayside, dream jobs abandoned, graduations deferred, one-in-a-lifetime experiences – gone.
I know I’m one of many. But it still hurts. And I feel, more than ever, so aware that I am alone in this apartment. That the only person who can soothe me is me. That the only way through it is through it.
Tomorrow can be for rallying. Tonight is for tacos, bourbon and sorrow.
411 days ago I was sitting on my couch, eating mashed potatoes out of the Kitchenaid mixing bowl on Thanksgiving 2019 with a spoon, alone. After almost 7 months training sales new hires non-stop solo, my body got 3 rest days without training (Monday-Wednesday) and promptly, rudely, retaliated with sniffles and a cold. I was supposed to bring mashed potatoes to a Friendsgiving, but figured I shouldn’t bring sickness over to someone else’s house. Plus I already had the potatoes and a new recipe. So I made them – did y’all know – if you add cream cheese to mashed potatoes it. is. TRANSCENDENT?! Finally found the best potatoes ever (Pioneer Woman’s recipe) and no one to share with.
As I lounged on my couch, scooping up lazy spoonfuls of starchy joy, I dallied through the internet and came upon an article about plus size women climbing Kilimanjaro with WHOA Travel. I scanned it, moved on. Then I went back and actually read it. Then I clicked through to WHOA’s website. And found myself 2 hours later 6 layers deep into a rabbit hole of reading yet another blog from someone on that trip.
I want to try and find the right words here – there is something…what’s the opposite of insidious? Like, it grabs ahold of you and won’t let go…but a good way? It was like a taking a cold drink of water when your body is super hot – you can just feel something bright and alive oozing through every single cell of your body – infusing the dry crevices and cracks. I felt, for probably the first time, that I could do this insane thing. That it was possible. That I was capable. And it was sneaking into my dry corners. Nooks that hadn’t seen something wild in a minute.
Not ‘someone.’ Me.
I could do something hard and physical and a little wild and SUCCEED. The power in realizing ‘people can climb Kilimanjaro’ vs. “I can climb Kilimanjaro.” Intoxicating. A little nuts.
It became an excited little whisper in my ear, saying ‘Bodies who look like you are doing this. You could do this.’ In my mind, the whisper looked a bit like Joy from Inside Out:
That whisper was relentless. It had me thinking about boots and backpacks and whenever I tried to sit on the idea it would squirm out and say ‘I mean, you could also use a GORE-TEX rain coat for like, normal life too.’ Relentless, sensible things! My little hope siren was on a manic pixie dream high, ahhhoooooogahhhing loudly.
WHOA had another trip specifically for their plus-size adventurers going again in February 2020. I sent an info request even though it would have been less than 3 months away. I ordered boots the same day. On Monday, one of the WHOA consultants called me and told me it was doable in less than 3 months, but I’d have to commit and be serious about training. I took a beat.
“Do I really want to do this? If yes, do I want to give myself the best shot atsucceeding?” I did. So while WHOA+ had been such a formative and inspirational part of me taking a step toward climbing Kilimanjaro, I knew I needed more. Time to get fit, time to research routes and gear, to find a guide company, to work up to hiking 6-8 hours a day. I went home for the holidays, and at my birthday dinner told my family: “I am going to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in October of 2020.” And this thing really began.
Wait, so what’s the point of this one? Why is this part of why you’re climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro?
Because someone said I could. I don’t know how else to say it. It was like someone sat next to me, kindly took my hand, with direct eye contact and said, ‘I believe in you. You could do this, if you want to. You don’t need to wildly change to do it. You’re capable.’ And that was enough for me. A paradigm shift in how I viewed what my body was capable of.
That bodies like mine aren’t for hiding. That they’re powerful and strong. This body is made for a mountain. The outdoors doesn’t belong exclusively to ‘straight sizes’ or society norms of mountain bodies. While I’ve definitely gotten stronger in training over the last 13 months I haven’t dropped an insane amount of weight. My bones are still the same. I’m still a size 12/14, having started this at 16/18. I’m still over 200lbs.
And I’m going to climb a mountain with that body. A big body for a big mountain. My body is my ally in this, not something I need to shove into a certain size.
It’s wildly freeing to realize that. It feels silly to type it – knowing – of course outdoors is made for all of us. Of course I could climb a mountain. But when I think back to that moment; reading the article and why I actually clicked through for the information request – what made me do it?
Someone said I could do it. And this time, I believed them. I looked my dream in the eye and whispered back, “OK.” Here we are.
So if you’re sitting there, reading this, thinking about doing something a little wild, a little crazy, an idea squirming to be free, a dream image you’ve carried for years, whispering in your ear that you’re nervous about, scoot over. Just a little skoootch. I’m going to take a seat next to you. Give me your hand. You choose which one. I know eye contact is sometimes uncomfortable, but we’re going to do it. Hi. You know that thing? The one you haven’t told anyone about? Or you told someone but then said ‘it’s a joke’ and laughed off? Yeah. That one. You could do it, if you want to. You don’t need to wildly change to do it. You’re capable. And if you need support, I can help a bit and give pointers. But you’re not alone. And you can do the thing.
And it’s ok if now isn’t the season for it. But when you’re ready, I’ll have your back.
Today I got the unbelievable wonderful magical news that my Kilimanjaro trip is a go. It’s truly happening and it’s happening in February 2021, folks! 75 DAYS. With that glorious Monday info – here’s Part 2 (of 3) on why I’m doing this dang adventure. Check out Part 1 here!
There have been a few movies I’ve seen as an adult that so wholly resonate with me that they make me break down. Not the 3 Scariest Kids Movies Ever, which is a different list, but the emotions. The FEELS.
As the credits for “Ladybird” started to roll I stood, tight-voiced said ‘Ijustneedtopeesobad,” power walked like someone with food poisoning into the beautifully tiled bathrooms at The Davis Theater, put my whole pre-COVID unclean jacket sleeve in my mouth and flushed the toilet to cover a hard, 10-second sob that wracked my body. I peed zero times and flushed the toilet 8 times.
On a hot, lethargic July weekend day in 2019, I sat in front of my wheezy window AC unit, scrolling aimlessly through several video apps and saw ‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’ on Amazon Prime Video. I rolled the idea around in my mind: ‘ugh a feel good movie isn’t there a die hard sequel somewhere instead’ countering ‘ Well, I do love Jillian Bell,’ and after watching the trailer, decided ‘I’ll start it and of course, run back to Season 3 of Orphan Black if I don’t like it.’
But I did like it. And I kept watching.
‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’ is based on a true story – there is a Brittany who did indeed run a marathon – and that true story does indeed range from her first faltering steps outside to triumphantly completing the New York City Marathon. But a story without life breathed into it is just a grocery list of facts, so here’s why the movie made me lose a full pint of tears.
“Brittany Forgler is a 28-year-old living in New York City with her roommate Gretchen, a teacher’s assistant dreaming of social media fame. Visiting a new doctor to score a prescription, she receives unwelcome news; she must get healthy and lose weight. Every doctor’s visit. My entire life. Even when I was a Krav Maga instructor at my lowest weight.Even dentist visits in Korea. I have always been told I was overweight.That losing weight would help the issue du jour – be it mental or physical or emotional.
She visits a nearby gym only to find even the cheapest fee is out of her reach. I cannot tell you how many gyms, how many personal trainers, how many smoothies and supplements and diets. How many times I’ve tried to learn ‘fit lingo,’ bought the clothes, the gear – and how many times I felt like a failure at this goal of fitness. A fraud, waiting to be found out, throwing dollars at my belly.
Despite her fear, she tries running for the first time, successfully running one block. She is invited to run in a group with her neighbor Catherine, whom Brittany detests for her seemingly perfect life. OK well running is the devil’s exercise and no one can convince me otherwise. And real talk: I fully admit struggling with other women based on my idea of their ‘perfect’ bodies, with must of course = perfect life, right? That’s social math (I have a comm arts major so the math is LITERALLY wrong on that).
Brittany gets within five pounds of her goal of losing 45 pounds. Brittany’s pride, and continued reluctance to let Catherine into her life, force her to turn down an offer of support, and she withdraws. She regains weight, forcing her to run even harder, until one of her shins becomes too painful to walk on. Five weeks from the marathon, her doctor informs her she has a stress fracture and will be unable to run for six to eight weeks. In May 2019 I got a new job, I started trying Crossfit, I quit teaching at the Krav gym. In September, I quit the CrossFit due to wallet bleed (WOW that sparse box is pricey), rejoined the LSAC gym, got a trainer, started training. In October I tried Keto for 30 days, in November I added weightlifting classes and by Thanksgiving last year I was in so much pain I didn’t even want to workout. Getting (and staying) fit has a monetary, physical, emotional and mental cost. Not everyone will have your back (or know how to support you) past the ‘YEW GO GURL’ vibes.
She ignores calls and texts from Catherine, Seth, and Jern, saddened to see Seth and Catherine with their marathon medals. That same day, she disrupts her brother-in-law’s birthday party by making cruel comments about an overweight female guest. It’s hard to celebrate with (and for) your friends when jealous little sandworms burrow inside your heart. Your soft heart tightens into glass and you know it’s breakable, so you swing your spiky sandworm tail at anyone close to disrupting your glass heart and seeing through it to your shameoffailure(Yes, I recently watched Beetlejuice for the first time and I love sandworms now).
One year later, Brittany runs in the marathon. At this point I’m openly weeping wedged into some half-baked moldy croissant body shape on a red chair that I bought used for $50 when I moved to Arkansas. The iPad is bouncing on my knees as I drag and push air hand-over-hand in and out of my compressed diaphragm. Somewhere inside of me I know it’s a movie, I know it’s a story, but they cut the audio/music bed so you only hear her breathing and I’m right there. I’m with her. The cottony rasp of her tying her shoe laces. Pulling on her good sports bra, you know, the one for bounce. Not the WFH $5 Gap bralette. Clothing herself in the armor she knows is dependable on the battlefield – to challenge the chafing, the high school knee injury, the sturdy Scunci hair tie that will hold 26.2 miles of ponytail bounce. The quality headphones you spent too much on but that hold your sanity playlist, pumping energy through the right and left tracks.
At the 22-mile mark, she develops a cramp and has to pause. She rejects medical assistance, but accepts an assistant’s offer to help her up. While considering quitting, she finds Seth, his husband and sons, and Catherine in the crowd cheering her on. She also encounters Jern, who says he loves her. She then keeps going, finishing the marathon.I’ve paused the movie, scraping my hand over my eyes to hide the shame of whole body sobs from who? the iPad? Jillian Bell? One of the other technological masterpieces in my single-person apartment that probably has an always-on microphone translating my sobs into therapy $s? I regain control of my body and press the space bar to finish the last few happy, joyous moments of the film. I squeeze my shaky, dopamine smile muscles up as the credits roll, showing the real Brittany and photos from her real marathon run.
And I immediately wanted to find…something. Something bonkers – not running – that would be *shudder* horrifying. But an outlandish goal. Something I really wasn’t sure I could do but maybe, maybe I could.
And I’m not sure what led me to this. But it’s the same date. I messaged the only person I personally knew who had climbed Kili (and had also very recently summited the Everest). I don’t know where my brass lil stones came from – but I sent it – and the dream siren did a double take, whispering “soon?” and I whispered back “…maybe.”
It began with a massive crush on Justin Gingham, which is not his name, but I’m not here to somehow accidentally link a 10-year-old crush to someone’s professional life on LinkedIn via the technological witchcraft known as Google SEO. I am always down to clown on my life and tomfoolery but when it starts to involve others I AM A SOFT BOILED EGG. Also doesn’t Justin Gingham sound like a kind soul in a folksy parable? It fits.
Let’s talk about one of the factors that has contributed to me committing to climbing the truly bonkers number of 19,341 feet (5,985 meters for the rest of the sane, measuring world) in (probably) February 2021.
It begins with a crush–which birthed a mental image I’ve carried for over 10 years–which was naturally followed by a massive lie but we don’t have time to go into the lie and it’s unrelated. Y’all, I said we do not have time to go into the lie this is not the point of the story. OK sidebar for the lie since I can feel some of you salivating and I know you will not move onto the actual reason for this post; here’s the short(?) context for the lie: October 2009ish, senior year at ORU there is NO SHORT CONTEXT FOR THIS STORY I feel like this:
(Inhales deep breath) Justin Gingham was the…whatever the like, regional coordinator (that cannot be the right title) was for ORU Missions Trips, overseeing the trip I was going on to Morocco as an Assistant Team Leader. Oh, and he was my church small group leader and I had a massive crush on him. Those 3 things could not continue all being true. He asked me once directly about it? did he? someone important did. Maybe it was my team leader at the time? WHOEVER IT WAS someone with sway directly asked if I had a crush on him.*
I knew in my bones that:
1. The shame of telling the truth would be Great-Wave-off-Kanagawa levels of destruction in so many influential areas of my life: this mission trip, this church that was getting me through a very tough life season, my close-knit friend group and even my intramural job since we had a mutual boss. Our lives had so many similar/overlapping threads and it would truly be devastating to lose any of them.
2. ORU Missions had (has?) a no-fraternizing in the leadership hierarchy (Assistant Team Leader, Team Leader, Assistant to the Regional Manager, Houston Mission Control, This Mission Should You Choose To Accept It etc) policy. They would reassign me or him or both. Something public and difficult and it would be VERY AWKWARD because everyone would be like ‘oh why is Bailey and/or Justin Gingham reassigned’ and it would be irresistible ORU gossip catnip for @twapel
3. YOOHOO, HELLO, SHAME, AGAIN, THIS TIME JUST PERSONAL CRUSHING SHAME OF ‘WHAT IF HE DOESN’T LIKE ME BACK,’ DON’T FORGET!
And SO I lied and said, “NO, I DO NOT HAVE A CRUSH ON JUSTIN GINGHAM *scoffs*”
I remember immediately going to the always abandoned stairwell on the 7th floor of Claudius dorm (no one went there, we were all elevator folk THE SEVENTH FLOOR AND THE BASKETBALL TEAM WERE NOT STAIR PEASANTS) and wept. Genuinely wept. Heaving sobs. Sticky, wet shuddering heaves for a very-long-feeling but what probably amounted to 4ish minutes. Because I knew I’d have to sit in that lie for a long, uncomfortable time. And it sucked.
*Editor’s Note: We ran this blog draft past DB, who stated that actually, Justin Gingham asked him, to his face, ‘Does Bailey have a crush on me?’ and this absolutely platonic prince of my heart is the one who stone cold Steve Austin lied to JG’s face, saying “No, she does not.” DB and I are two sides to one coin (I’m heads and he’s CLEARLY tails, regardless of which currency we’re talking about) and so I somehow have internalized this story in my head canon to be me lying. As soon as DB told me this story though I remembered – he had called me on the phone as soon as it happened. I ran into the stairwell, panicked, my heart thumping some 5/4 trap rhythm. The most visceral memory of the story is that I cannot forget how searingly cold the stairwell landing was on the side of my face, which was hot and swollen from sobbing. Memories can be weird, pals.
Also, I don’t feel bad/weird/strange saying 1. I had a crush and 2. Lied about it because it’s 10+ years later. I’ve cycled through many a crush since then and since he’s been happily married for 7 years per some light Facebook creepage IT ALL WORKED OUT FINE FOR BOTH OF US *cackles, sips gin alone in Chicago apartment in a pandemic*
Flashback to Fall 2009 and JG the Crush (honestly, put that on a shirt) went to Clemson, SC to see a friend (Fun Fact for long-time listeners: that friend ended up being my actual replacement team leader on the Morocco trip in June 2010, an even longer story that has even less to do with Kilimanjaro) and they climbed some kind of mountain at sunrise.
Sidebar 2.0? 6.5?: I know the Appalachian Mountains exist because I watched “Last of the Mohicans” BUT I’m not going to expend the energy to google what mountain it was near Clemson because as we said, there is a pandemic, time is precious and democracy is at risk. Move on.
2009. Such a simple time when we used to upload whole albums of photos to Facebook. And if your crush is uploading an album – be honest – you’re going to look at all.the.photos. So here’s a few I went and screenshot (YES I DID GO BACK 11 YEARS AND FOUND THEM THEY ARE NECESSARY TO THIS MOMENT):
Breathe those in. Take a minute, pause here in on the internet. Scroll back up a scooch. You can taste that clean, crisp air. It makes the insides of your lungs feel like a Listerine strip. Sit and lazily watch the clouds roll past, forming puffy shapes and disintegrating into ethereal wisps. You’re in no rush. Watch the sun rise, showing off colors that are flamingo and fawn and plum. You probably hear a song faintly in the back of your mind; I hear Enya’s “May it Be” and I don’t feel bad about it.
And so, sitting in Tulsa, Oklahoma clicking deeper and deeper into a crush on my 2006 Dell Inspiron laptop, this little worm of an idea crawled its way between my ribs and took up shop in a nook of my heart: I want to stand on a mountain and look down at the clouds.
This wee dream started living rent-free in prime heart real estate, twiddling it’s thumbs, waiting for the moment. A brief look at Sagada in 2015 has the mental tornado sirens go off as I research day trips in the Philippines, but alas, it’s rainy season and no safe guide will go.
So I tuck the dream back into the garden apartment of my heart, mollifying it with ‘soons’ and ‘somedays’ as it grumbles and shakes its tiny wispy fist.
And there it hibernated for 4 more years.
And I started to dream about the clouds.
The dream began to rub the sharp lil sleep crusts out of its eyes and the siren let out a few shaky coughs. My browser search history started seeing ‘tanzania’ and ‘Kilimanjaro’ and ‘fitness level climb kili’ with regularity.
This image I fell in love with from a crush that I lied about, wept about, carried to North Africa and back and and tucked safely into the pockets of my soul started to align with something I was scared to even say out loud to another person: I was going to climb Kilimanjaro. I’m going to look down at the clouds. I can. I’m capable. It’s happening.