Two years ago I climbed mount Kilimanjaro with my dear friend Nellie. We wanted to do something adventurous and were inspired by stories of people who described it as a life-changing experience. I was excited. It was a time in my life when everything was feeling quite blah. I was two years post a devastating heartbreak and still mending the pieces. Work was inching towards total career crisis. Nothing felt quite right and I feared looming apathy. I needed something to reenergize me and inspire change. What better than hiking a 5895m mountain? I could picture myself at the top, head high, fists in the air, and the sudden clarity I so desperately needed. I wanted that AHA moment, some sort of sign from the universe that would illuminate my path. I thought I would find it there, at the top of that mountain, ‘cause down in the streets of New York I was getting nothing. Just my brain, my convoluted thoughts, and paralyzing confusion. No enlightenment and no awakening, no matter how many meditative yoga sessions I reluctantly dragged myself to.
Reaching the summit took 6 days. The final climb from base camp began at midnight. It was the coldest cold I’d ever experienced. I wondered at what point my numbing toes would get frostbite, and at what point the frostbite would be so severe to require amputation. It was pitch black. We were a group of 10, walking in a single file line, so all I could see were the feet of the person ahead of me, illuminated by my headlamp. At the first break I looked up and in the total darkness I saw what looked like a string of decorative lights. It was the group ahead of us. I wished I had more energy to appreciate the nothingness all around and the immensity of the starry sky. At about 6am the sun started rising and we regained our sense of sight. We were surprised to notice the Mars-like terrain we had been walking on, the other mountain peaks around us, and the distance still separating us from the top. I believe that’s when my exhaustion started manifesting itself as anger. My legs seemed reluctant to continue holding me up. I conceded them a break as Nellie encouraged me to pause and admire the scenery. “You need to look around and take it all in” she said, “or you’ll regret it.” Her inexplicable positivity angered me even more. Words would have required too much effort so I just grunted in response as I dropped to the ground. I took a look around and no words or pictures can convey what I witnessed. I acknowledged it in awe and gratitude, trying my best to take a mental snapshot, but quickly returned my attention to the bitter cold and distant finish line. I wanted it to be over.
Ironically, the top of the mountain was not the finish line – possibly some sort of life metaphor for never emptying out your tank in case you’ve gotta go an extra mile. Yet another cruel realization was that having made it to the top didn’t offer any relief from the cold. In fact, the wind was even more ruthless up there. Through the pain, tears, and mix of incoherent emotions, we inched our way to another side of the mountain where the elevation reached its highest point, as marked by the celebratory can’t-leave-without-taking-a-picture-in-front-of-it sign. I could barely muster a smile. There were certainly no fists in the air. And no magical revelations. It was the experience of a lifetime. But my existential questions remained unanswered, even up there above the clouds.
After Kilimanjaro I decided that if I wanted a true life-changing experience I needed to change my life, so I quit my job and moved abroad. The anticlimactic truth is that I continued to struggle with not having answers and on some days, I still hope for someone or something to just tell me what to do. Free will is a great responsibility and when you’re a people-pleasing perfectionist, it’s a paralyzing risk of failing and disappointing – yourself and others. As I continue to navigate through uncertainty, I have found bravery and empowerment through the stories of others on similar journeys, learning that there is no shame in not having it all figured out. None of us do. Instead of being overwhelmed by the big existential questions, I now celebrate my many daily choices and small accomplishments, confident that they’re all leading me in the right direction and excited about the mystery of what lies ahead.