Guest post from Tusker Alumni Whynde Kuehn, Kilimanjaro charity climber for non-profit Goods For Good.
What a Kilimanjaro Climb Taught Me About Life
Nine days on Mount Kilimanjaro filled me with joy and wonder, tested me, and grounded me. Throughout the journey, I was reminded of some very important perspectives on life.
1. Achieving A Really Big Goal Is Just A Series Of Small Goals
When I looked up at the top of the mountain (or even at the top of a really steep ascent), I thought, “I can’t do that. How am I going to do that?” But every day we hiked to the next camp, and the next camp, until we were standing at Uhuru Peak at 19,341 feet. And all I had to do to get to the next camp was to take a step, and another and another. Sure, some steps were harder than others, but all it takes is a step and the persistence to keep on taking them. Climbing a mountain is just a series of steps.
2. Sometimes You Have To Go Backwards To Go Forward
I think we often use forward progress as a gauge for success, but sometimes going “backwards” or “staying in place” is what is needed. It’s just how you look at it. I have started over – multiple times in my life. Some people thought I was crazy, but I was always happier for it in the end. On the climb we spent three days around 13,000 feet as we made our way to the base camp, from where we would summit. Could I have done the climb in fewer days? Maybe, but I wouldn’t have had the extra time on the mountain to enjoy it and acclimatize. Sometimes you can’t rush the process, no matter how good you feel or how much you want to.
3. Be In The Moment
One of the things I like about challenging treks is that these are the few times in my life when I am absolutely in the moment. I’m forced to be. I can’t think about what I have to do this week or whatever my “problems” I have to solve during my day. If I do, I’ll miss the next rock I was supposed to land on – and fall. I am completely in the moment with my brain turned off to the constant stream of thought. I think this is true in life too. The present is here and should be the point of power. What I do in this moment will impact all future events.
I also realize the important of just flowing, stepping wherever my natural inclination goes. I was particularly reminded of this during a rock scramble we did up the Barranco Wall. My brain tends to overthink, as I am an analytical person. It wants to find a solid place for each step. But that actually works against me. What works better is the more natural “touch and go” method, even if my logical brain disagrees. I remember the first time I went rock climbing and looked up at a sheer wall and thought, “where are the toe holds?” This requires a leap of faith, but somehow there is always a rock beneath you when you trust that there will be. I think that life gives us what we seek. So that idea that came to you? That thing you feel passionate about? That person you just met? Just act on it! Follow your bliss and maybe don’t think so much about it.
4. Love The Challenge – Love It All
As I trekked, I was reminded of how relatively little of the trail was “perfect,” effortless, and flat. I realized that my mindset can either focus on how steep the trail is, how rocky the trail is, how sandy the trail is, how hot, how cold, how high …oh if the path would just be perfect and flat then life would be great! Or, my mind can love every challenge and embrace whatever comes, and when it’s over I could think, “that was an experience!” It turns out that the hard stuff is more fun, and it’s the hard stuff that made me a better person than the perfect path anyway. As we know, life itself is a constant change. Those perfect path moments are beautiful, but sometimes transient. Maybe getting attached to them is what leads to disappointment. We can appreciate and live fully in those perfect moments, and also embrace the rest of the experience that life gives us as part of the journey.
5. You Are Who You Are
The experience of climbing a mountain really strips away the superficial layers. I had a limit of 30 pounds of gear I could take for 9 days. By Day 3, I had dirt everywhere (some of which I couldn’t even get off of myself); I had modified my idea of what “clean” clothes were, I didn’t care what I looked like, I didn’t care what business I had to take care of, and I didn’t care about what was happening at home that I couldn’t control at this moment. My primary focus was just making sure I was okay—warm enough, hydrated enough and acclimatizing well. I wasn’t Whynde the Consultant; Whynde Who Likes To Run, Whynde Who Lives in New York, or any of the other things that may define me. I was just Whynde. On my trek, it was just me and my climbing guide and his team, who spoke mostly Swahili. They were amazing. And they didn’t care about any of the things that I typically use to define myself; all that mattered was the person I am. I’ve made some incredible connections over the years, even with language barriers.
Love, kindness, smiles, and music do transcend. With all the superficial layers removed, I was reminded that we are not our job, we are not where we live, we are not our house, we are not our car, we are not where we went to school, we are not our hobbies, and we are not the clothes we wear. We are not the people we associate with. More importantly, we are our heart, our mind, our spirit, and how we treat people. We are also that unique person, and there will never be one like us.
6. It Really Is About The Journey
Not to sound trite, but climbing a mountain is really about the journey. You know what was on the mountain trail? Rocks. You know what was at the summit? More rocks. Oh, and two signs telling you where you were. It’s all just a pile of rocks. I spent 30 minutes at the summit and the other 8 days, 23 hours, and 30 minutes getting there and getting down. But oh…the journey! The stunning views…the stars that seemed to surround us…watching the landscape change from forest to moorland to alpine desert to icecap…getting to know the mountain, how it was formed, how it acts, the local stories around it…getting to know the people I climbed with…discovering my grit and my will to endure. Now I admit, I’m quite achievement-driven. It motivates me. I think what is important is to select the goal that gives me the journey I want to experience, and that makes me into the person I want to be, and then makes the most of each moment along the way.
7. The Greatest Achievements Are Worth The Effort
Sometimes my mind thinks things like, “I wish money would magically appear so that I don’t have to work and could just spend my time volunteering and traveling!” or, “I wish I was just done with this marathon right now and was at the finish line receiving my medal without having to finish running it because I’m tired!” In the end though, I know that I really don’t want any of this at all. It would cheat me out of the experience, the satisfaction of earning it, the character it built, the stories, the memories, and the learning. A good friend told me that when a butterfly breaks out of its chrysalis, the act of it struggling to get out is what creates its colors. So I guess sometimes what seems to break us down, actually renews and strengthens us in the end…and the struggle is what makes the reward worth it – and gives us our colors.
8. Anything Is Possible
The human spirit is unstoppable. We reach for things beyond our imagination, we endure, we achieve. I thought about how easy my climb was, compared to what those early explorers endured – without trails and camps, and without the technical gear we have today. People “Climb Mountains” every day, in every field, in every place. And we lift others up when they need help. I really believe Paulo Coelho’s words to be true: “When you really want something to happen, the whole world conspires to help you achieve it.” I really wanted to climb a mountain and I really wanted to raise a sizable gift for a great cause I believe in. And I did. We did. Because I couldn’t have done it without you, so my deepest thanks to every single person who played a part in getting me there. Dreams do come true. And it’s important to have them.
Goods For Good is an organization using social enterprise to empower communities in Malawi, Africa.