Every blog post I had read, every YouTube video I had watched, by someone who had hiked Mount Kilimanjaro, said it was the most challenging thing they had ever done. In my life, going through breast cancer was the hardest. If climbing Kilimanjaro was going to be tougher than that, I wasn't confident I could make it. To add to the challenge, I weigh twice as much as the average hiker. It helped that I was going be attempting it with 19 other plus-sized women – we called ourselves the Curvy Kili Crew.
It all started when I commented on an Instagram post by blogger Christa Singleton (Travel Fearlessly) about her Kilimanjaro climb. Christa told me she was organizing another climb, and that she wanted to hike with women who understood the struggles of finding gear that fitted, and could support each other during training and on the mountain. Hiking Kili had never been on my “survivor’s list” of things I planned to do, but I did enjoy adventure and was up for the challenge. I knew what it was like to be stared at for being overweight, and feel like I didn’t belong.
After nine months of training, it was day one of our climb. We started hiking in the afternoon, walking single file through the forest, excited and eager to get to Simba, the first camp. We were told to go polepole, which meant “slowly” in Swahili. The dirt trail took us through tall trees, over bridges, and past wildflowers that only grow on this mountain. We kept our eyes open for Colobus monkeys lurking in the treetops. About halfway up, we broke into smaller groups. I was in the slower group, and eventually found myself alone with a guide and a porter. When I made it to Simba, everyone was singing and dancing, celebrating the end of day one. I was so tired, I just sat down by the sign, trying to summon the energy to find my tent.
I didn't sleep well that first night – my legs were cramping from the hike. The next morning, we lined up again and I automatically went to the back, because I knew my pace was going to be slower than everyone else. Today, the ground was rockier, and the temperatures warmer. By midday, I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life. I could feel tears filling my eyes, and then the negative voices started in my head:
“You’re too fat!”
“You’re not healthy enough!”
“You don’t belong here!”
The only way I was going to get off this mountain was in a helicopter. I was done. At that moment, I couldn’t remember why I wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in the first place. I had to ask myself, “Is this the hardest thing I have ever done?”
I closed my eyes and thought back to those six months in 2016 when I had cancer.
I could still smell the drugs seeping from my pores; I could feel the dull ache of my joints; swallowing with a dry mouth; struggling to keep down the little food I was able to eat; I could still see the burn marks on my neck from radiation.
The answer was no.
I kept walking. It felt like hours until I could see the tops of the dining tents, but I made it. I dragged myself to one of the chairs that were lined up around our tents. A few other women were already there, going over the day – the consensus was that today sucked. I felt relieved that I wasn't the only one who struggled. But, we were all prepared to wake up the next day and do it again.
And we did.
I felt stronger and more confident that night than I’d felt in a long time. I have no regrets.
The ground flattened out as we went higher, and there was no shade from the sun anymore. By the fifth day, I had mastered the pace of polepole, and arrived at camp more than an hour after everyone else. It was summit night, and everyone had to be up and ready by 11pm. I was sick with a cold, and had only gotten two hours of sleep. So, I decided not to attempt to summit Kilimanjaro – instead, I watched the sunrise from base camp. I thought I would be upset that I didn't make it to the top. But in fact, I felt stronger and more confident that night than I’d felt in a long time. I have no regrets.
Going down the mountain was just as challenging as going up. On the last day, when we still had 12 miles to go, I knew I probably couldn't make it all the way, but I wanted to have one final day with the mountain. I walked down with my sun- and wind-burned face, aching toes, and a week’s worth of dirt covering my clothes and hands. I made it to the halfway point and took jeep the rest of the way, both happy and sad that the hike was over.
We all achieved our own personal summits on this trip. Although I probably shouldn’t compare climbing a mountain to fighting cancer, I did learn a similar lesson from both experiences – that I can do hard things and survive.
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