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What I Learned on the Mountains

I recently attempted to climb three mountains on three continents in three months to raise awareness and money for obstetric fistula patients in Ethiopia.

This is what I learned on the mountains:

Lesson 1: The woman I was roped to got an anxiety attack just as we were about to traverse a ledge, right before the summit of Gran Paradiso. Gran Paradiso is the highest peak fully within Italy (Mont Blanc is shared with Switzerland and France and 300 m higher).

I have an intense fear of heights and estimated the drop to be 200 to 300 meters, but I have since learned that it is much higher than that. She was unable to carry on as she was shaking and crying, repeating over and over to herself: “I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t do this”, just before I was about to rope myself into the bolted section and dangle over the edge. Her reaction forced me to focus on her, and not on my own intense stress reaction to what I thought was my impending death. Helping her across the ledge, she made it to the top, as did I. Truth be told, if she hadn’t freaked out, then I most likely would have been the one freaking out. Focusing on getting her across helped me get across.

Lesson: when things are tough, force yourself to help others less fortunate than you, and you will regain what you thought you had lost.

Lesson 2: On Kilimanjaro, the guides forced us to walk really slowly. “Polé, polé” (slowly, slowly) was the refrain. I took this to the extreme, forcing myself to slow down to a crawl to conserve energy. It felt as if I was going nowhere. Many groups sped past us (except on day 2 when our guide went berserk!), but we caught up with and passed many of them, often arriving in camp first after having set out late. They exhausted themselves and had to stop frequently.

Lesson: fast isn’t always fastest, although we’re taught otherwise these days.

The tortoise won the hare, and I experienced this first hand. Keep doing the right thing, however slow it feels, and you’ll get there faster than you thought possible.

Lesson 3: On summit night on Kili, you set off at midnight, ostensibly to arrive at the top at sunrise. Rumour has it that the real reason is that you won’t see how far you still have to go up the mountain and lose any hope of making it to the top. For 6 hours, you’re just looking at the spot in front of you illuminated by your headlamp, continually going up, trudging slowly, completely exhausted. I nearly gave up many times, but pushed myself to continue way past what I thought was possible. After many, many hours of drudgery, I was about to finally give up and turn around. I was asleep on my feet, and was tired of this endless plodding to the top. I could see my partner talking to the guide. He turned to me and said, incredulously: “He says it’s only another 3 minutes to the top”. I couldn’t believe it, because I simply couldn’t see the top in the darkness. Three minutes later we reached the top, turned around, and were rewarded with the most awesome sunrise imaginable.

Lesson: Don’t give up, you’re closer to the top than you think.

OK, enough schmaltz for one day, people!

Get back to work – slowly!

- Carel

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