19 Lessons Learned from Climbing a Mountain

Not long after I returned from my Kilimanjaro climb, I went to a talk by a guy who jogged the entire length of India and who makes a living going on such daring and exhausting and a bit crazy adventures and then giving speeches about the lessons he learned from them.

I was greatly impressed until it occurred to me that I also can talk about the lessons I learned from one of my crazy (and while not really daring then certainly exhausting) adventures.

So here I give you some of the lessons Mount Kilimanjaro has taught me.

Kilimanjaro sunset

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. You’re much tougher than you think. I’m not trying to glorify anything we did on that mountain, nor do I have any doubts that overall it was still a very pampered experience, summit night notwithstanding, in comparison to other people’s trail adventures. Like the ones where you hike all by yourself, carry the entire staggering load on your own back, run out of water, lose your way, and perhaps encounter a stray bear a la Bill Bryson on his Walk in the Woods. But still, climbing gives you confidence that you can deal with anything else that is thrown in your path. Moving forward and overcoming an obstacle often turns out to be the simplest solution, and braving the more difficult path brings immense gratification.
  4. Roosevelt was right. The fear of things is worse than the things themselves. I was indeed cold and miserable at five and a half thousand meters, but it wasn’t that bad. Or at least it was totally worth it, given the wonderful memories. It’s kind of like childbirth: Right afterwards you swear you’ll never do it again, but somehow many women end up with more than one child. Maybe certain experiences are only worthwhile when they are as painful as they are uplifting.
  5. I know it sounds corny, but it really isn’t about the destination and the summit, it’s about the journey. And who we share it with. Always who we share it with.
  6. Whatever it is you take pride in having accomplished, you didn’t accomplish it all by yourself. Not ever. There will always be people you couldn’t have done it without. And that’s okay. In fact, that’s the best part.
  7. A lot of what happens to you is pure chance. Great athletes and the best prepared climbers succumb to altitude sickness on Kili, while people who spend almost no time preparing for it reach the summit just fine. You can’t plan your life to the last detail trying to control the outcome, and in any case it won’t make you happy. Be open to what happens, don’t blame anyone for it, and don’t worry about what might have been.
  8. And yet, don’t leave everything to chance. Whoever remembers to pack enough toilet paper will have the last laugh.
  9. There are people who command our respect, no matter what their station in life. I learned more from our guide, Goddy, in one week, than from some teachers I had for years. Aside from learning to say Thank you my brother in Swahili, I learned from him to believe in yourself and not to worry about what others might think. We spend way too much time worrying about what others might think. A few weeks after our climb, Goddy got to travel to South Africa for the very first time in his life. In fact, it was the first time ever for him to leave his country, Tanzania, and to fly on a plane. A surprise party was organized for him to reunite with previous climbers he had guided, and what did he do at the end of the night? He stood up in an entire restaurant full of strangers and started singing. First one song. Then another. And a third. It brought all our memories rushing back and tears to our eyes. At the end he had the entire waiting staff singing with him, teaching them the Swahili words as doggedly as he had led us up that mountain. Which leads me to the next point:
  10. Everyone needs a little singing in their lives.
  11. If you can’t sing, at least laugh. Everyone needs a lot of laughter in their lives. If you have to make do without a flushable toilet for an entire week to get you to laugh, it’s worth it.
  12. Dirt and bad smell aren’t nearly as bad as we make them out to be in our pampered lives. And not looking into a mirror for an entire week is totally liberating.
  13. Relax. And seize the moment. Life is more important than a to-do list. Whatever it is you think you absolutely have to get done today, you can probably still do tomorrow. Especially if today you could rather have coffee with a friend.
  14. You are not responsible for someone else’s happiness. The only person you can make happy is you. Because it is your own thoughts that control whether you’re happy or not. The trick is to discover what brings you happy thoughts. Climbing a mountain is a good start.
  15. Consequently, it’s okay to do what you want or must do, even if it means doing it alone. I felt guilty wanting to climb Kilimanjaro all for myself, but I’ve realized that I have a right to want things and do things and become things all on my own, just as much as I cannot begrudge others their right to do the same.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. Having friends in your life that you can literally walk through shit with is the most valuable gift.
  19. Sometimes, it takes a detour over a mountain to find the right path and to know that you’re on it. I started out the week signing my name into the logbook at the end of each day with “housewife” as my profession. I ended the week with “writer.”

Just a small selection of all the people Goddy has had an impact on, through his  job as a Kili guide but also simply through who he is


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