After the Community Project I climbed the Kilimanjaro with the Mighty Rovers and the Outward Bound School of Kenya. Kilimanjaro is the highest
mountain in Africa , so named because the top of the mountain is permanently covered with snow.
Despite our best efforts we only managed to reach the Gillman's Point at 5685 meters , 200 meters short of the Uhuru Summit .
On the way down my left eye suddenly swelled up and the pain was excruciating . My self diagnoses was corneal abrasion - so continues my unbroken record of weird injuries during all my trips .
As I was stumbling along, blind in one eye , I ran into Hester .
" At least you got to the top ! " she said to me wistfully, being one of the few in our group who had to turn back early because of high altitude reactions.
" Big deal ! " I said , " So did 40,000 other people in one year alone ! "
This sets me thinking : people just put way too much stock on " Summiting ".
Before the climb we were told by the teachers at the Outward Bound School that if we had enough determination and the right mental attitude , all of
us should reach the summit. To achieve summit is somehow regarded as a proof not just of physical prowess, but of strength of character and even moral superiority .
I beg to differ from this macho dictum.
High altitude sickness is real and is physiological , to make it seem like the symptoms are all psychological and if one succumbs to it then one's not trying hard enough is unfair to the sufferers ; it's as absurd as blaming someone for having the cancer gene ! We're all put together differently, just because my body reacts better in high altitude does not necessarily mean I'm physically or mentally stronger.
As a doctor I would caution all climbers to take high altitude sickness seriously, there're too many reports of people dying of it unnecessarity because they denied the symptoms .
I fully appreciate the disappointment and anguish one must endure of not being able to achieve the goal one has set out to do , and this is why I think it actually reflects a lot of courage and maturity to make the decision to turn back . There's no shame in admitting one's physical limitations and accepting defeat .
I would argue that it's every climber's personal responsibility to assess his/her own ability and energy reserve ( bar unforeseen accidents ) not just to ascend but also to descend safely . We were very lucky to have had the perfect weather condition for the summit , but at such high altitude the weather could change very quickly and drastically. To stretch oneself to exhaustion, to recklessly summit at any cost for personal glory because one wilfully counts on the goodness of one's fellow climbers or the porters to bail oneself out in case of trouble is selfish and irresponsible.
It is unreasonable to expect the porters on one US dollar a day to risk their life to save yours .
Not withstanding the support and camaraderie of the guides and teammates, I've always thought of mountain climbing as a solitary endeavour. It's a private battle between the individual self and the mountain . We essentially all travel alone because we need to put one foot in front of the other and walk each step ourselves, nobody can walk the steps for us .
Life is very much like that .
The day before we left for Africa I visited an ex-colleaque at the hospital who was recently diagnosed to have stage 4 brain tumour .
Surrounded by loving family and friends, he still has to face the ordeal of treatment by himself. However much we care about our loved ones , we can cheer them on but we cannot suffer their pain for them, and vice versa ; ultimately, no matter how many friends we have, we all walk the valley of the shadow alone.
Personally I enjoy the experience of the journey more than the actual reaching of the summit, which incidentally is usually just a small pile of rocks and somewhat of a letdown . What my soul loves is the beauty of the ever changing mountain, and the pleasure of the good company of teammates .
Everyday there's something new to learn about the world and about oneself , and I'm addicted to learning .
It's good to go outside one's comfort zone from time to time and re-assess the priorities in one's life , and to connect up with the spirit of one's inner being.
There's no better place to do this than in the mountains.