Jun 8, 2015

The Mountain of Greatness

Installment # 1 

Recently during a visit to Austin, I had the opportunity to talk to my friend, Jenell, about her upcoming trip to Tanzania where she will climb Mt. Kilimanjaro as part of a Rainer Mountaineering Expeditions group, RMI.  Yes, you read this correctly, Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa.
 “Kili” as it’s known to many is a dominant volcanic mountain in Tanazania. It is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest freestanding mountain (not part of a mountain range) in the world at 19,342 feet above see level. The origin of the name Kilimanjaro is not precisely known, but a number of theories exist. My favorite from all that I read, the name translates in Sawhili language to The Mountain of Greatness.

Everything that Jenell is doing with regards to this adventure makes conceptual sense: the physical training, having all the appropriate hiking and climbing equipment, signing up with a proven, reputable expedition company, having the mental fortitude and vision for reaching the summit at 19,340 feet, all of this makes academic, book sense. 
The part I am curious about, the part I spoke to her at length about when I saw her in April, is the mental, emotional and rational aspect of considering all that is involved in getting to the top of this mountain.  

The idea of actually doing this scares me personally.  It is foreign in so many ways.  I worked with Jenell for several years at Cox and if anyone can accomplish this climb, I know she can.  I plan to post additional updates before she heads out for The Mountain of Greatness.  Her RMI expedition group will climb Mount Kilimanjaro in early September.

Why Mount Kilimanjaro and why now ?

Kilimanjaro was never on my bucket list. I had always planned to trek the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu for my 40th birthday, which I ended up accomplishing but on my 41st birthday.  I’ve always felt that I could achieve anything I set my mind to do but I didn’t know what I wanted to do next! 

I know several people that had trekked Kilimanjaro including my doctor, who is a world traveler and former marathoner. My coworker and another friend recently trekked Kili, one is an experienced mountaineer, the other is a professional tri-athlete who has completed the Kona Iron Man competition. It sounded like an extreme feat, I had never seriously considered it for myself.

But after trekking into Macchu Picchu I wanted to raise the bar. I felt I could do anything, why not Kilimanjaro? Going into this year I had no big trips planned so I thought the time was right to plan it out well in advance.

2) Have you done anything like this before ?

Going to Peru and trekking the Inca Trail for 4 days into Machu Picchu has been my biggest backpacking accomplishment. I’ve backpacked in Colorado, Texas and Montana but nothing more extreme than 14,000ft or more than 4 days in back country.

3) The RMI website states you have to “plan on being in the best shape of your life and ready for challenging adventure” -   What is your physical training program ?

I am not taking this lightly. I hired a personal trainer who called the expedition company for guidance to create a specific physical regimen to help me prepare. I am also working with a dietician, a yoga instructor, massage therapist and my general doctor. I’m also considering adding acupuncture.

My current program consists of:

    light hikes 5 days per week. (3-4 miles, 1-2 hours duration)
    stand-up-paddelboarding 1-2 hours, 2 days per week
    body and weight lifting, stair climbing, plyometrics and HIIT (high intensity interval training) 3 days per week
    Muay Thai kick boxing 1 day per week
    yoga 3 days per week
    foam roller massage 3 times per week
    endurance cardio (3-5 mile SUP or run, 30-40 min) 1 day per week
    massage every 2 weeks
    long hike with 25lb pack wearing boots (10-15 miles, 4-6 hours duration) 1 day per week
    sitting meditation, 1 hour  (needs to be more ; )

This is my current program. It will increase in intensity and long distance endurance training in July and then will increase again in August. The last week of July I’ll be doing a 3 day training hike at elevation in Colorado starting with acclimatization the first day, a 9,000-10,000ft hike the second day followed by a hike to 14,000ft the third day.

4) On summit day, when the group is making the final climb to the 19, 340 feet, how much of that day is physical vs. mental ?  

My doctor who summited Kilimanjaro told me his story: 

“I was a marathon runner, my wife didn’t work out at all. We both trained for Kilimanjaro as much as we could, stair climbing, running and hiking. I was in the best shape of my life. On our trek, a group of four 30 year old women quit at 15,000 ft. They had altitude sickness and couldn’t take another step, they went back down the mountain. At 17,000ft I sat down and gave up. My wife gave me a chocolate bar and told me I was going to follow her to the top of that damn mountain. I put one foot in front of the other following her until we made it to the top. After 17,000ft, I’m convinced it’s 100% mental to get to the summit. She’s tougher and more stubborn than me, I could not have done it without her.”

Then he said to me, “Jenell, I’ve seen your tattoo. You can do this!”

5) How much of this journey is YOU and each step you take as you climb the mountain, vs. having a “group experience” with other members of your expedition ?

100% of this journey is ME and each step I take to climb the mountain. I was going to do it alone if I didn’t have any friends interested (or crazy) enough to do it with me. One of my favorite quotes is from Sir Edmund Hillary who was the first to summit Mt. Everest, he said “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”

That said, it is also an incredible bonding experience with the people you trek with. Sharing a common goal, a unique journey brings you together even if you embark as strangers. 

6) How long does the group stay at the summit ?

I’ve read that staying at the summit is only possible for 15-20 minutes max (after an 8-10 hour hike that starts at midnight the night before!). Long enough to snap a few photos and hopefully see the sunrise, the air being so incredibly thin you must descend quickly to avoid hypoxia.

7) What is the role of the guide on an expedition like this ?

My experience trekking in Peru showed me that the guide is the chief information officer, chief safety officer, group leader, jester and coach. At this point, Dave Hahn is scheduled to be our guide. I learned recently after the earthquake hit Nepal, that he was on Mt. Everest leading a summit attempt for RMI, and was responsible for getting his climbing party down the mountain to safety. (His blog is on the RMI website, he posted daily updates during the climb and evacuation.)

I’ve been told he is the Michael Jordan of mountaineering guides, I feel privileged to get to follow him up the mountain. 

8) What are the most important items you have in your backpack when climbing the highest freestanding mountain in the world ?

I plan to carry a literal Pharmacy first aid kit with me. Having 4 herniated discs in my lower back, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and exercise induced asthma it’s important that I can treat minor injuries or illnesses myself. The other most important item I carry wherever I travel is a necklace of amulets as a talisman for safety and well being. It consists of a small Buddhist statue inside a silver case that is 250 years old, blessed and given to me by an Ajahn Monk in Thailand, a tiny Fatima given to me in Tunisia by a healer at an ancient souk, and a St. Christopher medal given to me by my Mother when I was a child.

9) Along with the photographs and GoPro video logs, will you document your days via a written record, a journal ?

Yep, RMI has provided me with a journal with the details of each day’s itinerary of the hike and space to write my thoughts. It will be an amazing keepsake. I also plan to take my Moleskin journal that I’ve had and written in on all my international trips, including the Machu Picchu trek.

10) What is your greatest fear ?

Not reaching the top. 

11) What are you most excited about ?

Reaching the top!

Jenell and Bhodi 

For all the details regarding this specific expedition to Mt Kilimanjaro, the route, the day to day climbing path, the FAQ on all things food, safety, wifi, toilets, etc. you can access the RMI website at https://www.rmiguides.com/kilimanjaro.