Metaphor of the mountain: processing success
by Nancy B. Loughlin
Published in News Press on July 15, 2014. Posted with permission.

above the clouds

Of all the hopeful souls who attempt to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro, only 40% reach Uhuru Peak.

I was in the 60%.

I’m still trying to figure out if I’m a failure. It’s a process.

Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa, and Uhuru Peak looms at 19,340 feet. The most common route, the Marangu Route( a.k.a Coca-Cola Route) demands at least five days. Unlike

Everest, Mt. Kilimanjaro is friendlier in that it doesn’t require special equipment or skills beyond physical fitness.

The greatest risk is altitude sickness.

I knew I was in trouble by the second day. When I reached Horombo Huts at 12,000 feet, I felt unusually fatigued and breathless.

We sat in the dining hut, ate popcorn and measured our blood oxygen levels with a fingertip sensor. I was still at 86%, but my pulse raced at an unthinkable 90 beats per minute. A dull pain throbbed over my eyes. I popped Aleve.

That night, as I lay in my sleeping bag, I suffocated in a cycle alternating between hyperventilation and an inability to breathe at all.

High altitudes have nailed me before. When I climbed California’s Mt. Whitney, I made it through 70 switchbacks before I collapsed, gasping for oxygen. When I ran the Denver Marathon, a puny elevation of 5,280 feet, I couldn’t breathe around mile seven.

On Kilimanjaro, I kept my concerns to myself, and I continued the trek to Kibo Huts at 15,450 feet, the final base camp before the brutal push for the summit.

At Kibo, I couldn’t mask my exhaustion. I flopped on the top bunk and stared at nothing, puffing through my mouth. I placed my hand on my chest and begged my heart to slow down so I could get some rest. The porters were going to wake us at midnight to begin the ascent in the bitter cold.

The head guide, Rutta, never left my side as I baby-stepped the steep slope leading to Gilman’s Point at 18,640 feet, the point of no return. I kept my head down and watched Rutta’s heels. But every two steps, my upper body collapsed onto my legs, and I sucked for oxygen that wasn’t there. When I straightened to upright, I swayed in the night, incapable of maintaining a straight course, and I stumbled like a drunk. I tried to follow Rutta, but, inexplicably, I kept slicing off in other directions.


My guide Rutta.

“I think I need to stop.”

I sat on a rock, and I shredded myself. “You came all the way to Africa. You must summit. You can’t handle several hours of discomfort? Don’t be a baby!”

There’s a difference between quitting and choosing to stop. Quitting is a throwaway of a task and is done in anger or frustration. Choosing to stop is just that. It’s a measured decision that the greatest possible good has already occurred and continuing would cause harm.

My strength was, minute-by-minute, draining from my muscles. I looked at my legs, and I tried to raise them. They were motionless.

“Tell me how you feel,” Rutta said. If it was just pain or thirst or hunger, Rutta could have helped me.

“Let’s look at the stars for a while,” I suggested. We switched off our head lanterns, leaned against the rocks and watched the show.

Above the clouds, away from all artificial light, the constellations were spinning. I felt my face soften and my whole body deflate, and my head dropped onto Rutta’s shoulder. Then the stars really swirled. Clusters of light rotated, reminiscent of the Starry Night. Spirals swelled from the night canvas and pulsed toward my face. I hummed the theme to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and lifted a finger ET-style toward the stars. Van Gogh met Steven Spielberg at 17,000 feet.

“Whoa, man…”

Whoa was right. My head was a mess. I was done.

Rutta pulled me off my rock close to 3 a.m. He escorted me back to Horombo’s safer altitude.
By 3:30 that afternoon, my four friends arrived after hiking for fifteen-and-a-half hours.
I was expecting victorious, fist-pumping warriors, adrenaline-charged lightning rods. I cheered and hugged each of them.

“We’re half dead,” Peter said.

“It was awful. Awful,” Chad said.

Perplexed, I watched them stagger into the hut, four drained and scowling thunderclouds.

We talked over the next several hours, and, with considerable effort, I was able to pluck two successes from their efforts.

First, all four agreed that the sunrise at Uhuru Peak was beautiful. Second, all four agreed that they felt accomplished and glad that it was over.

I mentally scratched my head.

There wasn’t much celebration, and they preferred to talk about the hardship of stumbling, vomiting and pain. Frankly, the more I listened, the less disappointed I was that I turned back.

I, to the contrary, had a lovely day. I dragged a chair out of the hut and into the sun, propped my feet on a boulder, read, and scanned the tops of the clouds at 12,000 feet. I made some new friends. A man from Sacramento, cancer-free for 18 months, was going to summit with his ten-year-old son. A film crew was documenting the ascent of two men with prosthetic legs. Three others were recovering from altitude sickness. We compared experiences. Mine was the most psychedelic. We laughed.

But feelings of failure and inadequacy continue to plague me. Could I have pushed harder? Perhaps I could have crawled my way to the summit.

The Bhagavad Gita is clear on this point: There is no such thing as failure. There is also no such thing as success. Triumph and Disaster are imposters.

So why are we compelled to struggle and seek challenge? From a Western perspective, we struggle knowing that there will be a payout in the end. We are willing to endure hardship, even pain, if there’s a reward.

I’ve seen many sunrises, and I’d call them beautiful. But is a sunrise enough of a payout for extreme suffering?

It would have to be one hell of a sunrise.

And that wasn’t what my friends described. Their sunrise was just pretty.

After everything they endured, pretty would have to be enough. As Eddie Murphy said, “If you’re starving and someone throws you a cracker…”

When we identify with our accomplishments such as winning awards, climbing mountains, or finishing marathons we are identifying with uncertain fruits instead of with our fundamental spiritual connection to all that is.

Rising to challenges deceptively offers pleasure and satisfaction, yet that pleasure and satisfaction often fades. We are left hungry and dissatisfied, asking, “Is that all there is?”

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t accept challenges. They can be teachers, so we grasp them gently and know that their power to validate us as human beings is flimsy.

From a yogic perspective, the highest mind, the sattvic mind, is detached from the notion of rewards. It’s the integrity of the action that matters and not what we think we are going to get.

Okay, then. So, is there virtue in suffering in and of itself? Is there glory and satisfaction in enduring the unendurable?

You might be a martyr. Or masochistic. Or just hard core.

We spit and clawed and cried and lived to tell about it; we’re badass. But this is plagued with ego. There are always visible and invisible support networks. Instead deriving self-satisfaction from enduring, perhaps we could more accurately embrace gratitude.

For our group of five, 17 people supported us on the trails alone. There were three head guides, a chef, an assistant chef, a waiter and eleven porters. Each morning, a waiter knocked on our hut door carrying an enormous bucket of hot water for washing. The porters carried all of our gear up the mountain, balancing the bags on their heads. The chefs prepared fresh, delicious hot meals for us three times a day and boiled all of our drinking water.

The guides led the way, and we followed the leaders up the well-trodden trails. Some of us got farther than others, and we were never on our own.

So, did I fail? No. I just created my own Kilimanjaro experience with my own mix of struggle and sacrifice, rewards and beauty.

I did miss a unique sunrise and what was described as the best finish line in the world. I also missed the camaraderie that comes from sharing hardship on the Path of Unfortunate Outcomes.

Uhuru Peak isn’t the only place where all this is possible, but it was one place. I must have been busy doing something else.