In September 2011, I was part of a group of 13 dynamic women who traveled to Tanzania, Africa, to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. The inspiration for the climb was Becky Pope, a two-time survivor of ovarian cancer. Since September is ovarian cancer month, Becky hoped that the climb would bring awareness to ovarian cancer and inspire others to continue climbing the mountains in their own lives. Before joining Project Kilimanjaro, I could not spell "Kilimanjaro". I had no idea where Kilimanjaro was located or what I had gotten myself into. And I definitely did not know how much Project Kilimanjaro would change my life.
As I was about to learn, at 19,336 feet, Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest peak on the African continent and a Tanzania national park.
I was one of the Super Seven core group of women selected by Shana Ross to participate in the climb. Shana Ross is a fitness trainer in Houston, Texas, and owner of the Shana Ross Fitness studio. Shana knew about some of our personal struggles with health issues because we had all trained with her at the fitness studio. Our small group of women had survived cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, menopause, substance abuse, HIV, and obesity. Our common bond was that we had all used health and fitness to transform our lives. For almost six months, we trained together and prepared for the climb. To find out about more about these incredible women, visit the official official Project Kilimangaro website.
Following our arrival in Tanzania, we spent six days hiking, camping out with tents and sleeping bags, trying to breathe in high altitudes, and getting along without a bath or bathroom facilities. I was totally out of my element. I think my daughter said it best when she said, “mother, you are not the outdoorsy type.” However, I am sort of a fitness nut and yogi. I agreed to climb to challenge myself physically and to inspire others to never give up. I wanted to show others how I had used health and fitness to reclaim the power in my life after finding out in 2003 that I had HIV.
Since the climb, I have blogged about a number of insights and lessons I gained from the climb on my website, Venita's Kilimanjaro Project. Here is an excerpt from my blog of some of my experiences on Kilimanjaro.
We all felt pretty charged up on the first day of the climb at about 6,400 feet. I started off hiking with the ladies who gravitated to the front of our 17-member group. It should have been a pretty easy climb through the rain forest. But by the time we made it to camp about four hours later, I was feeling a little short of breath. Before setting out on day 2, I knew that I would need to hike at a slower pace.
Day 2 started at 9,020 feet and was the most difficult day of the climb for me. The climb was steeper and very rocky. I began to experience nausea from the altitude, had difficulty breathing, and hurt my chest and knee. Before climbing Kilimanjaro I considered myself physically fit. I loved the training and looked forward to the challenge of the climb. I could not believe I was having a hard time, and it was only the second day. And to make matters worse, everyone could see that I was having a hard time. By the time I went to my tent for the night, I could not put any weight on my right knee. I was afraid that I would not be able to continue. I rubbed my knee down with Arnica rub and wrapped it with an ace bandage. I went to sleep praying that it would be better in the morning. The next morning I was able to continue in spite of the pain.
For the rest of the climb, I had to let go of the image of myself as this fit person and just focus on taking a step and taking a breath. I was determined not to quit. The damage to my ego was worse that the pain to my body. I was nauseous all the time and could not take a deep breath because of the pain in my chest. I would later learn that I had a torn pectoral muscle and a sciatica injury. I did not talk much on the climb, and I did not take many pictures. I did not have the energy. I refused to share how I was feeling with the rest of the group. I tried to be gentle with myself and just accept that I was having a hard time.
By the time we reached Kibo, the final camp before summit on day 4, I knew I was out of gas. Kibo is situated 15,500 feet above sea level. I wanted to tell everyone that I was unable to go on, but I could not say the words. The same stubbornness and determination that kept me going would not let me give up now. I went to my tent and prayed. I finally decided that I was going to try to summit. I was still feeling nauseous, unable to eat and in pain. I put on my summit clothes and laid there until it was time to go. When it was time to go, I joined the most "poley poley" (Swahili for slowly slowly) group and started climbing. My right leg and glutes burned every time I took a step. And I was freezing. I climbed until my legs refused to go any further. I finally had to admit I could not continue and had to be taken down.
I insisted on walking down on my own but kept falling. Finally Freddie, my guide, took control and half carried me down. I cried for some time after reaching my tent, angry at my body for failing me. For months, I had visualized myself at the summit, arm-in-arm with the other ladies. I felt that the entire climb had been a failure.
It would be several days before I would realize that I had in fact reached the summit. I had reached MY summit. It was just not Kili's summit. I had given 150%. I had endured three and a half days of pain and altitude sickness, and had not given up. Even though I still hurt physically, I realized that the greatest bruise had been to my ego. I needed to be proud of myself and recognize that the whole trip and process to Kilimanjaro had not been a failure. My summit was still my summit. I was very happy for all of my Kili Dadas (Swahili for "sisters") for reaching their summits. My lesson was to let go of my ego and focus on what I had accomplished. I had come a long way. I learned later that I climbed to about 16,500 feet. Today, I am damn proud of that!
|Venita on the mountain.|
The process and actual climb to Kilimanjaro represented so many "firsts" for me. Public disclosure of being HIV+, first time in a tent, first time in a sleeping bag, first time hiking up any mountain, first time in Africa, and first time my passport has been stamped for international travel! All of these firsts occurred for me at age 53. It just goes to show it's never too late for new experiences and to truly live life! All in all, Project Kilimanjaro was one of the greatest experiences of my life.