The Climb

On September 12, 2011, Deborah Schwartz reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

It is 1pm Tanzanian time and we’re standing on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa and tallest free-standing mountain in the world.

The clouds are below us and the moon like surface of the summit is surrounded by huge glaciers. These are the Snows of Kilimanjaro that Hemingway wrote of.

Staring at the universe around me and at my fellow climbers, this native New Yorker is giddy, laughing at whatever inspiration might have brought me here. We’re all euphoric with our accomplishment in the short time we’re allowed to remain on the oxygen depleted summit.

It was the last place I expected to be standing, even six months before. But once it was in my sights, there was no stopping me.

Not the guys at the gym who chuckled when I confessed why I was training so hard. Or that guy who repeatedly scolded me about never making it unless he witnessed more sweat pouring down my body. Couldn’t let him in my head.

Sleeping in a tent in the dark had been the most terrifying part to imagine of the whole climb. Growing up in New York with all the city sounds – sirens, honking and people’s loud voices – I dreaded the dark and the quiet.

But hearing endless stories from other climbers of how weak and disoriented they became as they climbed until they finally quit only inspired me. Climbing Kili would be nothing compared to other
challenges I’d endured.

So what compelled me to do it? Because people expect something amazing to happen to them when they’re standing on top of a mountain like Kili. And it does, believe me. It does.

Our group had all come for different reasons. People from all over the world bonding together for a similar goal. There was a commonality to the climbers yet each with an individual twist on what they were trying to achieve.

Why did any of us climb? What did we learn about ourselves and how we relate to others? The training, the climb, the summit.

Somehow, one piece of the process or all of it would either make us break or breakthrough.

Having survived the arduous trek up, standing on top of the mountain gave us that moment of triumph and a feeling of power that seemed to have now become imbedded into our DNA.

After seven days of climbing up to the summit and three days of the descent, we parted ways. We each knew which of us had become friends and would stay in contact and those climbers whom we would never hear from again.

The intimacy and the trust we had shared as total strangers was risky, yet necessary on a trek like this. Maybe opening our hearts to strangers and to our adventure could leave the door ajar as we returned to our work and our families.

It was just a perfect moment to be on top.