I read an article yesterday about three disabled U.S. military veterans, with only one real leg between them, who climbed to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak. (Link to the article here.) This feat is hard enough with two good legs, as I learned six years ago today, when I stood on the roof of Africa alongside four of my friends.
Kilimanjaro, or Kili, as everyone calls it, is one of the world’s tallest volcanoes, rising “like Olympus above the Serengeti” to a height of 19,340 feet. It is one of the world’s most beautiful mountains since it is a free-standing monolith, and not part of a mountain chain. The rapidly-melting snows of Kilimanjaro hover above East Africa like an ever-present apparition.
Kili is one of the world’s highest non-technical climbs. For most of its 30-mile path along the Marangu Route – the mountain’s most heavily traveled – the path is simply a long hike. The final assault is grueling – physically the hardest thing I have ever done – but nowhere along the route do you ever use ropes or crampons. Along the way climbers pass through most of the world’s climates, ranging from rain forest at the park’s entrance to Arctic at the summit. It takes six days to reach the top along the Marangu Route, and during the early part of the climb you often praise the mountain’s majestic beauty, while nearing the summit you are more likely to be heard cursing its steep switchbacks, biting cold, and thin air.
A climb up Kili is an exercise in patience. To rise too quickly to the summit can produce altitude sickness which can sometimes kill. All along the trail the Tanzanian guides repeat the mantra “pole, pole” (pronounced “po-lay, po-lay”), which means “slowly, slowly.”
Each individual who tries to summit Kili does so for a personal reason. Some climb for the adventure, others for the challenge, and still others to simply accomplish “something hard.” For the disabled veterans who made it to the top, it was a way of proving to the world that even after having legs blown off in wars they may not have understood, they were not done living.
It’s important to be reminded by stories that inspire us (or perhaps, shame us), that we are members of a resilient species; that it’s not always the fastest among us who reach our goals, but those who slowly, steadily persevere.