Kara Richardson Whitely climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
Kara Richardson Whitely climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

(WOMENSENEWS)– The trail on the wobbly Jamaica Rocks section of the mountain was like petrified kitty litter mixed with jagged volcanic rock. But it felt like my feet were trapped in Jell-O or quicksand. One misstep and I could fall and smash my skull on a rock, my brains dripping off the sides of the narrow path. That was if cerebral edema from the high altitude or the subfreezing temperatures didn’t get me first.

We’d been hiking for six hours and the hardest part was ahead of us. We had another hour to Gilman’s Point. I was already shot. Each moment that I moved made me desperate to rest.

The trouble with facing your demons on the mountain is that you still have to get down safely without the aid of those excuses. It would be hard work living without this story I had blanketed myself with for so many years. How would I not get lost on the way down?

I started to shiver with this thought. Despite the cold, I started to undress. I handed my backpack to Kenedy. I stripped off layer after layer of clothing to feel lighter. Just as I had done on my weekly visits to Weight Watchers, hoping for a lower number on the scale.

I gave my parka and fleece to Michael. Each ounce made a difference and helped me feel stronger. I needed their help. I couldn’t do this alone.

An hour later, I could see Sally ahead in the distance approaching the outcropping of rocks, the cove that held the Gilman’s Point sign. Our endpoint.

I could hear another climber over the rocks, already there, encouraging her. "A few more steps and you’re golden."

"Asante sana. Thank you. Thank you," Sally called back. "I wanted to quit so many times but I kept saying that I wanted to do it for both of us." She grabbed for the Gilman’s Point sign and disappeared into the nest of rocks.

I wanted to be happy for her. But I couldn’t. At my speed, it could take me at least 30 minutes to get to where she was, although the end was in sight.

Shaking From Exhaustion

My body shook from exhaustion. I just didn’t know if I had it in me anymore. We’d been hiking all night; now the sun was well on its way into the sky. I needed to get on up the mountain before the altitude stopped me.

"I’m never doing this again," Stacey said. "I can’t wait to go home."

"Um-hm," was all I could reply.

A few steps more and I could see them–what so few people have set eyes upon–the disappearing glaciers of Kilimanjaro.

"I see glaciers. That’s pretty amazing. They’re beautiful. Kind of makes it worth the trip," I called up to Sally, partially to let her know that I was still breathing. Then added, "This is way harder than I remember. Way harder."

Stacey, seeing Sally’s accomplishment, seemed to double-time her way to the top, leaving me hunched over and wanting to hurl.

"I just need to catch my breath," Stacey said, up above near the ridge, where I could hear the rounds of congratulations brewing. "That was tough."

Kenedy directed me to keep walking, the same way I directed my daughter to put her shoes on.

"Just try to make it to the summit," he said.

"I feel like I’m going to throw up. I could really use some food. I feel like that would help quell my stomach. I’m exhausted. I am just so exhausted," I said. "I just want to get to Gilman’s and be done."

I waited and tried to summon the strength to continue.

Three Minutes

"Three minutes. Three minutes. I can do anything for three minutes," I said. I held my head for a second, looking down at the gray rock below. Thousands upon thousands of boulders and rocks at my feet. Each one on top of the next one formed an endless pile for me to stand on, reaching up to my feet, supporting me.

The first sight of the sun was just a glimmer, a ray above the clouds. Little by little, it revealed itself until the entire sky above the gray, wavy clouds was orange.

At this elevation, climbing Kilimanjaro became a moving meditation, and I revisited my mantra from my spin-class instructor: Strong. Steady. Smooth.

I let the words roll over me. I tried to say them out loud but I didn’t have the breath.

Strong. Steady. Smooth. Strong. Steady. Smooth. Strong. Steady. Smooth.

We were supposed to arrive at Gilman’s Point by sunrise. But as the horizon below me began to glow, I knew I was late. But I couldn’t rush. I’d take a few steps, then rest. I was moving, as my father used to say, "like molasses in January."

That I was. But I kept going. As much as I detested how my father use it for my own good. The people in our lives are gifts. My feet felt stuck in cement blocks. But I kept looking up, toward the summit, and thought, I’m a tough motherfucker, and proud of it.

Gilman’s Point seemed like an oasis, something that we’d been approaching but would never reach. For hours, other groups had passed us by. Now that the sun was on its way up, I could see everyone celebrating at the top.

Michael stayed with me. He paused when I needed to pause but told me to keep on.

"Pole, pole, Mama Kubwa," he said. "Slowly, slowly."

I looked down at my feet, willing them to move. Again and again, I went through this agonizing process: just one step.

Then I heard Kenedy’s voice. "Mama Kubwa made it."

Excerpted from "Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds" by . Available from Seal Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015.

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