BY: LOGAN LY
ALL IMAGES BY: LOGAN LY
I hear myself panting. I’m short of breath as I try to shift focus to my feet from the growling wind and the loud, panging pulse that bangs through my eardrums. The wind howls and bites. The force of it slams my body against the mountain I attempt to climb. We had embarked on the last leg of the journey at midnight. After trekking six days back-to-back, pulling an all-nighter on the last day and racing to the top before the rest of the world awakens, it’s within reach now. I am summiting Mount Kilimanjaro.
At 3am the night’s coldness seeps into my bones even though I’m all bundled up—exposing nothing but a slot for my eyes. I trudge squinting, pegging one trekking pole forward at a time, and pacing myself through the snow. By 5am, the first light of the world touches the mountaintop I’m attempting to reach. Glaciers over 11,700 years old watch over me. I’m 19,000 feet high, on the roof of Africa. In a few more steps, a dream will come true.
I’m 19,000 feet high, on the roof of Africa. In a few more steps, a dream will come true.
The dream I had of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the biggest mountain in Africa, a world heritage site at 5,895m (19,341ft) and the world’s highest freestanding mountain, came from a celebration of my health.
Three years ago, as I was turning 20 years old, I was hospitalized with a blood clot in my lungs (pulmonary embolism) and my left leg (deep vein thrombosis). It was a potentially fatal scare. I was paralyzed after excruciating pain from every muscle that twitched on my leg. For a week, I kept coughing up blood that felt like shards of glass cutting my throat from what was happening in my lungs. I went through extensive treatment and rehab with the possibility of never walking again.
It was the scariest moment of my life.
Now at 23—still on medication for the blood clots, but fortunately healthy enough—I’ve been taking full advantage of my traveling passions. Since being hospitalized, I’ve travelled to over 40 countries and now set out to stand on top of the roof of Africa.
Making it to the summit at Uhuru Peak, standing at 5,895m on top of a mountain at sunrise, was my way of taking my body back and celebrating in gratitude for my health. Uhuru is the Swahili word for “freedom.” Breathing and being able to use my two legs is my freedom.
Now at 23—still on medication for the blood clots, but fortunately healthy enough—I’ve been taking full advantage of my traveling passions.
The climb itself was the most physical and intense trial I’d ever had. I was traveling in Tanzania when I had saw the mountain looming over the African plains. A curiosity struck me. I’ve always had an interest and fascination with mountains ever since I was living in the Alps, except I’ve never climbed a mountain before. I’ve hiked through the Alps. I’ve taken cable cars up and down mountain ranges. But the longest I’ve ever hiked was about six hours.
I’d only heard stories about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Some people who climb it have trained for months. Others have brought all the necessary equipment and clothing. Me? I stood in shorts with a single backpack and a pair of running shoes that I’ve never worn outside of a gym. A bit unprepared but fuelled with a stubborn naivety and a primitive hunger for the mysterious unknown, I decided then and there to sign up.
Luckily for me, my mountain guide provided me with the trekking shoes, sleeping bag, winter jacket, water bottle, tent and even mismatched trekking poles amongst the bundle of things I needed to successfully climb Mount Kilimanjaro. But it was left up to my mental and physical strength to make it to the summit.
Throughout the week, I hiked steeply uphill. Five hours of hiking would turn into 12 hours, all in a day. On certain days, the fog would roll in, and we would be so high up in the mountainside that you could see the clouds settling below us. The journey took me through five different ecological systems on the mountain. But that’s it—the rest is a mental mind game, my breathing would match every step of my feet, the only thing my mind could think of is “I will, I can”—an easy mantra that I repeated over and over so my thoughts would be controlled along with my body. Each day was a new challenge, an adventure that thrust me out of my comfort and pushed me further into what I feel like it is to be human.
I look to one side of the mountain, and the full moon is rising. I look to the other, and the golden sun is setting. Sometimes being on Mount Kilimanjaro feels like another dimension—stuck between two realities reaching for a common dream: the summit. With such breathtaking views and endless days of being in nature—who could need more?
Each day was a new challenge, an adventure that thrust me out of my comfort and pushed me further into what I feel like it is to be human.
A big theme for me going into this new year is simply, “own less, be more.” I’ve always been happier with experiences than having possessions—whether it be travelling, jetting around for a quarter of the year living out of a backpack or even climbing this mountain.
These experiences make up memories that become a part of me—making me who I am rather than defining myself with materialistic things that can be taken away or destroyed at any time.
I’m not denouncing owning things. I appreciate the aesthetics and usefulness in what I own. I just don’t want to keep accumulating for the sake of having and letting it be at the forefront of my life. Back when I was in a hospital bed, paralyzed and hooked up to different machines, in the darkness of my mind came pounding a question that I never had to ask before. What if… I have to lose my leg, if I remain like this for the rest of my life, if my body had fully given up on me or if the blood clot in my lungs had stopped me from fully breathing instead of the little puffs I manage to?
The doctors said that my clots were close to being fatal and that I’m lucky to be here now. In that moment, facing the news of having death knocking on my door, I didn’t care about my condo or what pieces I owned in my wardrobe. What I did care about was not having seen the world—not being able to travel, not being able to do photography or to leave my mark in the world. I remember lying there thinking that I wasn’t finished yet with this life. The last thing on my mind was anything materialistic I had accumulated.
Staring out at the world below me from this mountaintop, this is what I mean by “own less, be more.”
I look to one side of the mountain, and the full moon is rising. I look to the other, and the golden sun is setting.
Reaching the summit and standing at the Uhuru Peak sign, the Swahili word for “freedom” rang true. My spirit did a little leap of liberation. I’m walking on snow south of the equator in Africa! Who would have thought it?
Climbing this mountain was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for me. The days it took to get there was a mental and physical game. I fought hard with myself on each day as the mountain sickness at our camp had weeded people off one by one. You don’t have to continuously do grand gestures to live a fulfilling life or have an adventure. Now, as I leave the gates of Kilimanjaro, I take with me the satisfaction of feeding my curiosity, being able to add an experience to “own less and be more” as well as celebrating my health.
Adventures could be anything that puts a thrill into your life – no matter how big or small, as long as it throws you on a detour from the mundaneness of routines. Edmund Hillary once said, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” My adventure of summiting Mount Kilimanjaro was just that.