Nina Spencer on The Agenda in the Summer, Aug 16, 2016.

‘We feminized the mountain, thinking of Kilimanjaro as a gracious goddess’


The following is an excerpt from Nina Spencer’s book, A Time to Creep, A Time to Soar: Lessons Learned for Work and Life from Climbing Kilimanjaro. It describes the events that led to her mid-life decision to join a team of business women raising money for a Kenyan university, the determination and training it took, and the ultimate euphoria of conquering a goal.

Dianna Barrett, my dearest friend of 30 years, died months before of breast cancer, at age 52; shortly thereafter, my beloved 13-year-old Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier died of oral cancer; my husband went back to university shooting for his PhD; and my 23-year-old daughter was at the jumping-off place for launching her independent adult life. All of this left me with the classic “empty nest” feeling. Despite wonderful friends and family, a great job and a usually upbeat positive disposition, I felt tinges of loneliness, with a little “hole in my heart” at times. The theme of that past year had been loss. Plenty of loss. So many of the people I cared about were moving on in one way or another. But what about me? Where was I moving onto? I felt stationary. So many others were doing something new, something for the first time. So much so that I asked myself, When was the last time you did something for the first time, Nina? It troubled me that I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer. Then, on a day when I was feeling this “hole in the heart” most acutely, I received an email about Mt. Kilimanjaro. Who says the universe isn’t watching out for us?

I knew that having the easiest, most confident climb possible depended on participating in months of pre-work – of planting my “seeds” in a timely fashion to get my crop (of fitness and mental readiness) by the date of my departure for Africa. And oftentimes I trained in much less than perfect conditions, weather and otherwise. If you’re serious about achieving your end result, you can’t wait for the perfect conditions. Every day, regardless of the “weather,” you must be determined to make incremental progress toward your goal.

Despite the challenges of each day’s climb on Kilimanjaro, thanks to all my preparatory work – the urban walking, the long-distance country hiking, the core-strengthening and, of course, the shopping, oh the shopping… for four seasons of mountain-worthy clothing and gear – I harvested a good “crop.” By the end of all my cross-training activities, I truly was physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually fit enough to go the literal and figurative distance. All that was left to do was execute and realize the plan, the dream, the goal.

We advanced in humble confidence. From the first day to the last, we honoured and respected the mountain.

Arriving at the trailhead gave me a sudden bolt of realization about just how massive an undertaking this expedition was: a combined 59 porters and guides for 13 climbers, tons of equipment, supplies and food all being sorted out and ready to haul. It was organized chaos. All the while, each person from my climbing entourage found and arranged their personal haulage and got physically and emotionally ready to go. It was surreal yet familiar, all at once, to hoist my backpack onto my shoulders, lace my hands through my walking poles’ straps, assume a position in single-file style, and forward march.

“Pole, Pole,” (slowly, slowly) our guides reminded us. We obeyed, as a steep ascent through a florid rainforest presented from the very start. What would happen to me over the next nine days? Who could tell? Would I make it relatively unscathed? Would I get injured? Would I succumb to altitude sickness? Would I get “kicked-off” the mountain? Would I remember to stay positive and keep my fretting at bay? And, above all, would I stay mindful and focused?

I never liked the idea of “conquering” Kilimanjaro. Such a phrase painted the picture of a fight. “Conquering” presupposes antagonistic energy and thinking. Even during my seven months of training, such a mindset seemed counter-productive. Perhaps because we had nine days of dry, cobalt-blue sky, sunny, windless weather, or perhaps, regardless of weather, because I embraced the mountain positively, I was never mad at the mountain. I never felt at odds with the terrain, or felt the need to push back with a “grrr” – even when I felt particularly fearful of climbing the Barranco Wall. I suspect my fellow climbers felt the same. We advanced in humble confidence. From the first day to the last, we honoured and respected the mountain, just as the “Dos and Don’ts” sign at the park’s gate implored. Among other guidelines cited, that sign appealed: do not leave anything behind, along the way or at the summit; do not take anything from the mountain; do not litter. I felt custodial towards Kilimanjaro and honoured her with each step. We knew who was the “boss,” and if we were to get along with her, it was us who must bend and adapt, not her.

Somewhere early along the way we feminized the mountain, thinking of Kilimanjaro as a gracious goddess who, perhaps because we had been so respectful, let us pass with relative ease. And so this was our experience all the way to the seventh day summit and through the two days of descent. Like waters separating for us all along the way.

“It took my breath away” is so cliché at times, but in this case … that’s exactly what happened. My chest tightened as I gulped with emotion, saying, Oh my God! Oh My God! There it is! There it is! It’s the sign. All the while choking back incredulous tears. But it was real. I could see it… not in a picture, not in a brochure, not in my mind’s eye, not on YouTube, but right there in front of me… just steps beyond where I stood. That beacon was enough – enough to access my stores of energy I thought were long spent. I was anxious to quicken my pace. It was so close, but I also knew that now, more than ever, I must contain my excitement and stay the literal course and plan of “pole, pole.” A feeling of pride, ecstasy, humility, surrender, determination, gratefulness, astonishment and amazement (not to mention relief!), all wrapped into one, floated me like a feather the last fifteen minutes to my pinnacle plateau – the top of Africa, where like Hollywood director James Cameron with his now cliché shout (thanks to the movie Titanic), I would be able to holler, I’m the king of the world! Woo hoo! Okay, maybe I’d holler “queen.” Regardless, I was on the brink of finally creating a reality out of seven months of imagination and will.

Excerpt from A Time to Creep, A Time to Soar: Lesson Learned for Work and Life from Climbing Kilimanjaro is published with the author’s permission.

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