Anxiety, Fellowship and the Summit of Mount Kilimanjaro

I just returned from a six-day trek up the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa.  At 19,341 feet, Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa, highest free-standing mountain in the world, and among the fabled “seven summits” —  The tallest mountains on each of the seven continents:  Kilimanjaro (Africa); Everest (Asia); Denali (North America); Eibrus (Europe); Carstensz (Australia); Vinson (Antartica); and Aconcagua (South America).

That’s me in the middle wearing the dark blue coat.

I decided to attempt to summit Kilimanjaro for a very specific reason:  To celebrate 3 ½ years cigarette and nicotine free  (and also almost six years since I quit alcohol and drugs.)  I smoked for 23 years and at one point could not walk a city block without wheezing.   In early recovery, I actually smoked more than I had in active addiction, about two packs a day.   Within six months of quitting, I noticed a dramatic improvement in my breathing and overall lung function.   Now at 3 ½ years, I decided to put my lungs to the test by attempting to summit Mount Kilimanjaro.

 

Anxiety

 I suffer from serious anxiety and have most of my life.  My Dad often complained of stress and/or anxiety so I believe I am genetically predisposed.   I had a lot of anxiety over the climb.   Mostly revolving around whether my lungs would be able to handle the demands I was about to place on them.

On the first night of the trek, I took medication for altitude sickness along with everyone else.   This is highly recommended and the medication helps the body acclimate to higher altitudes.   All the others in our group experienced no negative side effects.   The same was not true for me.   The medication prompted a severe anxiety attack that lasted all night.  I didn’t sleep, my heart was racing and all my underlying fears about the trek came to the surface:

  • Was I too old to reach the summit?
  • Were my lungs healthy enough?
  • Would I be able to handle the cold at night while sleeping in a tent?
  • Would I be able to keep up with the group, hiking anywhere from six to twelve hours a day?
  • Would everyone think I was a loser if I did not make it?

Clearly, I was not in the present.  My anxiety took me out of the present and into the future.  A future ruled by fear.   That first night I was alone and isolated in my cold tent, wide-awake with fear dominating my thinking.  It was awful and the next morning I was completely exhausted.

As I laid in the tent that night, I kept repeating the serenity prayer to myself and trying to bring myself back to the present.  I kept telling myself just get through that night rather than focusing on the future. I had Just for Today, an NA publication with me, and read the entry for January 21.  The reading concluded by stating:

“By confirming the principles we’ve learned in recovery, life’s challenges give us increased strength.  Without such challenges we would forget what we learned and begin to stagnate.   These are the opportunities that prod us to new spiritual awakenings.”

I am so glad I brought that book with me on the trip.  Reading Just for Today, breathing deeply and forcing myself to stay in the present, gave me great comfort that night.

However, it was an exhausting experience and the worst possible way to begin a grueling six-night trek to the summit of the highest free-standing mountain in the world.

The next morning, I explained to our Guide and my fellow trekkers what had happened and that I was contemplating heading down the mountain.   I was exhausted and very concerned about continuing to take the medication given the awful side effects.

 

Fellowship

 Everyone encouraged me to keep going and not to head back down the mountain.  One shared with me how he also suffered from anxiety and knew how scary an anxiety attack can be.   As I had a private tent, two members of the group offered to let me sleep with them in their tent if that would help.  Each and every one of the seven trekkers in the group (none of whom are in “the program”) went out of their way to offer support and encouragement.  They shared their own personal concerns and/or anxiety about the trek.  Our Guide talked to me about modifying the dosage of the medication and time of day I took it to avoid another late-night anxiety attack.

I agreed to stay another night and if I could sleep, continue with the trek.   If not, I would head back down the mountain.
I slept like a baby that second night, woke up energized and ready to go.  For the rest of the trip, I took the medication early in the day and slept well most of the remaining nights.  It was awesome!  I wasn’t going to head down the mountain.  Rather, I would continue up with the group toward the summit.

When I thought about all the kindness my fellow trekkers had shown me, I was overwhelmed.   I reflected on how isolated I was that night all alone in the tent and how awful it was.  I then contrasted that experience with all the encouragement I had received from my fellow trekkers and just how important fellowship truly is.    Whether in life generally, in recovery, or during an attempt to summit a mountain, it is quite clear that we cannot succeed in isolation.  It takes the support of others, which in recovery we term fellowship, to succeed.

Over the next five days, the anxiety did not return.  I reciprocated to my fellow trekkers, showed kindness and offered support to others who were having a tough time for their own reasons: blisters; back pain; problems breathing due to altitude; and for almost all of us, difficulty sleeping in the frigid cold.   None of us were superhuman and each of us had good days and bad days.   We supported each other and continued up the mountain intact as a group.

On the sixth day, we began the “final assault” on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.   This entailed a final overnight six-hour hike beginning at midnight in freezing blizzard-like conditions.  Our goal was to arrive at the summit around 6 a.m., in time for the sunrise.

 

The Summit of Mount Kilimanjaro

By the time of our “final assault” on the summit, I had gotten to know my seven fellow trekkers very well.    Each had their own reason for deciding to come on this grueling adventure.  Among those reasons:

  • One had lost a substantial amount of weight and now enjoyed the physical challenge of hiking;
  • One who recently turned 48 had always wanted to summit Kilimanjaro and wanted to do it “while he was still able”;
  • One had been raised in poverty and worked hard to became a very successful real estate professional. Growing up he never thought he would be able to travel and see the world but he was now doing just that;
  • One who at a very young age took over his family business and had worked for many years without taking time off and/or travelling and who was committed to balancing his work and personal life;
  • One aspires to complete all of the “seven summits” and marked Kilimanjaro off of his bucket list; and,
  • Me, to celebrate 3 ½ years since quitting smoking (Again, I was the only member of the group who is in “the program”.)

Everyone came for their own personal reasons but we all shared the same goal: to step out of our comfort zone and reach the summit.  As we headed up a very steep incline in the darkness and frigid cold, we all supported one another.  When we stopped in a cave about three-quarters of the way up to hydrate and eat, we were all inquiring of one another how we were doing and offering support for the final kilometer or so that remained.   Some of us, myself included, were hunched over with difficulty breathing and others offered support.  Some were having tremendous difficulty dealing with the cold, and others were supporting and encouraging them.

As the cold and altitude took its toll, almost all of us had difficulty even lifting our feet to move forward, but continued to do so collectively as a group and head closer to our goal.

All eight of us reached the summit around sunrise on January 26, 2017.   Some cried, some high fived, some shouted with joy and others were quiet and contemplative.   I was thrilled to have made it for myself but even happier that I had shared this amazing life experience with my fellow trekkers.

As we posed for a group picture on the summit, I looked around and realized that It was the success of the collective group, not me individually, that at the end of the day mattered most.

My trek to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro reinforced many of the tools I have learned in recovery to cope with my anxiety and what life throws at me, reinforced the import of fellowship over isolation, and as the reading in Just for Today had suggested, recognized that the trek had prodded me “to [a] new spiritual awakening.”