This book is for anyone who feels over the hill and needs encouragement to make a life change in the face of difficult odds. It’s also for the casual climber or hiker who is interested in climbing one of the world’s tallest mountains. Filled with insights and advice for those who are contemplating their own Kilimanjaro climb, this book will put you on the mountain and inspire you to go over it.
Chapter 2 Facing My Mountains
I sat in the medical clinic desperate for a quick cure of my ailment. I was days away from departing for the climb of my life, and I felt miserable. I was in questionable condition to attempt to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain. My chest was tight, and I had trouble drawing deep breaths. My nose was stuffed up, and I was nauseated. I had no idea what I had. I fought my undiagnosed respiratory problem with a variety of inhalers, antibiotics and other medications, but nothing brought me back to health. Everything from a severe flu to tuberculosis crossed my mind, but the medics eliminated more possibilities with each visit to the clinic. As I sat in her office, the nurse suggested that I had severe allergies. She asked, “Are you sure you want to do the climb? You might have a difficult time breathing. Things may get worse the higher you go.”
I thought through my response. I could not make it to the top of Kilimanjaro if I couldn’t breathe. My mind told me to defer my climb until I felt better, but my heart refused. I pushed aside my misgivings and decided to go ahead with it. I felt better than I had the previous week, I reasoned, and would be recovered enough to climb before I traveled. After a brief pause, I told her, “Yes, I do. I’m feeling much better. Really.”
She looked skeptical but could see that I was determined to go ahead with my adventure. “Okay, then take a combination of the inhalers, and use this one if you feel tightness in your chest. If your condition gets any worse before you go, call me right away.”
“I will,” I said. I was relieved that I had the remedy I needed to get through my respiratory problem. I did not want to attempt Mount Kilimanjaro without some reassurance that I could handle the high altitude, low oxygen levels, and strenuous trek to 5,895 meters (19,341 feet) above sea level in my current condition. With one week left before the biggest challenge of my life, my mind was the only part of my body prepared for it. I left the clinic with inhalers and medications in hand, debating whether to climb. One by one, I dismissed my reservations with each footfall on the pavement.
I had never been seriously ill until I moved in 2009 to Zambia, a country in southern Africa with its fair share of pandemics, from malaria to cholera. Soon after I arrived at my new home in Lusaka, I developed severe allergies and high blood pressure, and put on a lot of weight. My health deteriorated precipitously, sapping my strength.
My wife, Jing, who was always my voice of reason, cautioned me not to attempt Kilimanjaro if I wasn’t ready for it. Several times she asked me with concern in her voice, “Are you sure you want to do it when you’re sick?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” I answered her every time. “I need to do it…for me.”
“Then why not postpone your trip?” she asked. Jing had reason to be worried. She summited Mount Kilimanjaro the year before and knew how difficult it was. Her suggestion was logical, but I had already invested too much in this climb. The trip had been months in planning, and I had gone to great lengths to get in shape for it in spite of my respiratory issues. After a brief pause, I said, “No, I can’t, hon. I need to get better and climb this mountain.”
She shook her head. “Okay, but think about it.”
The future weighed on my mind. Approaching middle age, I was overweight and out of shape, living a sedentary lifestyle, and stuck in a rut. A series of personal setbacks left me a bitter man. Every time I was convinced life would get better, another letdown hit me. A midlife crisis, something that just a few years ago I never thought possible, was brewing.
After Jing returned from Kilimanjaro, I decided that I needed to do it too. A physical challenge greater than any I had ever faced, climbing Africa’s highest peak was just what I needed to jumpstart my life at middle age. I was certain it would test my mettle and prepare me for whatever obstacles the future threw at me. Making it over this mountain would help me get over the hill.
Climbing Kilimanjaro was a prelude to leaving my job as an American diplomat. I had a career that many people admired and a comfortable lifestyle that allowed me to travel to exotic places and have amazing experiences, and yet, I was unhappy. I found the diplomatic life frustrating. The Foreign Service offered some glorious moments, but it also meant bending to the will of the U.S. Government, conforming to a byzantine bureaucracy, and fighting for survival in a stifling work environment, an atmosphere that left me cold as a climber freezing in a frosty bivouac. I had enough and decided to resign to follow my true passion, writing. I debated and second-guessed myself for months, wondering why I would leave a stable job for an untested career. I had not yet submitted my letter of resignation and decided to use my time on the climb to think about my decision.
I did not want to end up like Harry Street, the washed-up character in Ernest Hemingway’s 1936 short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro, who spent his final days dying from an infected wound in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. Harry lamented over his failed life and the ambitions he never fulfilled because he gave in to his own weaknesses. Shattered dreams tormented him until his untimely death. His soul floated away to the icy heights of Kilimanjaro, his body left behind in the visage of a frozen leopard carcass lying in the snow. I wasn’t about to suffer the same fate as Harry, a man who lived a life of unfulfilled aspirations. Walking away from the climb — a challenge that would help me get past my midlife crisis and into my later years — was not an option. I needed to find my passion again and to pursue what I wanted to do since I was young — be a writer. At middle age, my life was half over, and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my days regretting my past like Harry did.
Leaving the medical clinic, I wondered whether I had the resolve and fortitude to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro, quit my job, and get my life back. In the midst of a midlife crisis, I was about to find out, allergies or not. My quest to go over the mountain had begun.
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Copyright© M.G. Edwards. All rights reserved.