We reached the summit in seven days, but day four almost ended my attempt.
How did I think the entire trip would be rain free? What caused me to optimistically think that there would be no rain and the climb would be all monkeys and giraffes in the wild? I had looked at long-range forecasts for Tanzania, and Africa before leaving America. The website even had forecasts based on the five climate zones we would experience while trekking to the summit.
I was able to read between the lines (fortune-telling) and make up a scenario in my mind that did not include rain.
We traveled to Africa by way of Germany. Having a 12 -hour layover, we left the airport and took a train into the city of Frankfurt. What an interesting city. Because it was New Year’s Eve, we witnessed a pageant in the square in front of a huge church. Later we spent an hour or so poking around a museum of the city’s history.
Once back at the airport, we prepped ourselves for the almost 10-hour flight to JRO, Kilimanjaro airport.
My depression was riding in the back seat, and I was unaware that it had packed a bag and was joining me on this trek to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. My focus was the anticipation of what was coming next. And I can say honestly that I was not expecting unhelpful thinking. But my depression had other ideas. Once on the ground in Africa, we were immediately immersed in African life.
Driving from the airport to our hotel in Moshi, pole, pole (slow, slow) quickly became our mantra.
Tanzanian time is a real thing. And it took me until almost the last day to begin to accept the premise that you can take it easy and still accomplish your objectives. My depression has thoughts about this, too. But depression took its time sharing with me its insights into pole, pole. More to the point, it was 4 days into the trek before depression tossed out all-or-nothing thinking. We were over 12,000 feet up the mountain and at least a day’s walk to civilization when depression tossed out a very believable (at least to me) unhelpful thinking style.
And I took up the charge and put myself into all-or-nothing thinking.
It wasn’t until the end of the day that depression made its move. That morning, the day began as the first three had. No rain, and a mixture of sun and clouds. We were high enough on the mountain by that point that we were in the clouds, not seeing them from below. The sun soon gave in to the clouds and the day turned moist.
At that point there was no heavy rain, in fact, it wasn’t rain, but just wetness as we began that day’s trek.
The trick to staying warm each day is to wear enough layers. Layers can be added, taken off, or just unzipped to help regulate body temperature. I had chosen a base layer, top and bottom, my heavier hiking pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and a fleece jacket, and the top layer was my raincoat. This served to protect me not only from moisture but from the wind as well.
Our porters carried our duffle bags from camp to camp, while we carried our day packs.
That morning, I had put my rain pants and my heavy down jacket (stuffed into a compression bag) into my day pack. In the pack’s pockets, I had sunscreen, lip balm, sanitizing liquid, snacks, and 3 liters of water in my bladder with a tube that came over my shoulder, so I could sip water as we climbed. My sunglass case hung off of one side, and my pack cover was in a pouch on the opposite side.
My final act before starting that day’s climb was to put the waterproof cover on my day pack.
Properly attached, this cover keeps rain out of the pack and keeps the contents dry. As the day went on, I learned that dry is a relative thing. The first two hours of that day’s climb saw misty wetness at times. Then, the sky would lighten and would pretend it was going to let the sunshine. This back-and-forth teasing from the sky then resumed its overall mistiness.
Thoughts of the sun faded, even as I began to wonder about my raincoat.
As the hours wore on, I began to think that my raincoat was not as waterproof as the reviews I had read on the REI website said it would be. In fact, around four hours into the climb, I had the uneasy feeling that the raincoat had given up. But there was no going back at this point, and the next camp was still hours away.
My depression was conspiring with Mother Nature to make the day as uncomfortable as it could.
Even as we arrived at our high point for the day, Lava tower, I had no idea that my depression had joined me in Africa. Our guides and porters had set up the cook tent and the tent where we ate our meals. We had chairs inside and, on this day, we had a dry place to eat lunch. By this point in the day, I was very much wet. The mist had given way to heavier rain showers, which lightened and intensified whenever it chose.
My companions noticed I was visibly shaking as we sat down to lunch.
As we discussed the morning and the rest of the day’s climb, I allowed that I was keeping my down jacket in a dry sack and that I was not considering putting it on. This turned out to be a thought from my depression playbook.
It was the classic “if-then” scenario that my depression uses to create all-or-nothing thinking.
If I put my down jacket on, it will get wet. Yet, as my companions pointed out if I do not put my down jacket on, I will continue to shiver and suffer as the morning turns into the afternoon and the afternoon into the evening. My depression was not interested in hearing that. It only took a minute for me to realize that I could stop my shaking and shivering by getting out the down jacket and putting it on.
So, I opened the compression bag and removed the jacket.
I took off my very wet rain jacket and put on the, at that moment, very dry down jacket. Then I put the wet raincoat over the down jacket. Almost immediately, I began to warm up. That action, combined with hot soup for lunch, helped me see that I would make it to the next camp. Getting a different perspective on the situation helped me, at that moment, see through my depression’s all-or-nothing thinking.
However, now my down jacket was going to be wet when we got to camp in a few hours.
The weather turned even wetter as the afternoon wore on. Lave tower was the high point of the day. Now we were headed to a lower elevation to camp for the night. Climbing high, and sleeping low put us at 12,640 feet that night. The Tanzanian government has set up camps along each of the routes to the summit. All we had to do was to get to our camp. The porters had already arrived, picked spots for the tents, and had everything set up. Our duffle bags were in our tents, just waiting for our arrival.
It was still raining when we finally arrived at camp.
The day was planned as a 6-to-7-hour trek. The plan was to go from Shira Two camp to Barranco Valley Camp, via Lava Tower. It ended up being almost 12 hours and at the end, requiring us to pull out our headlamps to see. Our guide clearly knew the way through the mass of boulders. But in the dark, with it raining the going was slow. Even as we saw a distant light our guide said was the camp, it was still almost an hour before we actually arrived.
This is when it hit me that my main pieces of clothing designed to keep me dry, were now completely soaked.
All my mind could see were the waterlogged boots, the soaking wet down jacket, the rain jacket that had given up, and the other wet layers I had worn that day. In my tent, changing into dry clothes, I was sure that the trek was over for me. I became so fixated on everything that was wet, that I couldn’t see any dry future.
It never dawned on me to ask my fellow climbers, who were just as wet as I was, how they were going to proceed.
All I saw was a barrier to moving forward. I was ready to give up. Then, at dinner, everyone began to share their plans to dry out layers. This even included putting on dry socks. Then tomorrow, I would put on my water-soaked boots, with the idea that they would dry as the next day went on.
Later, I shared my concerns about how to move forward with my tent mate.
Pointing out that if things were dry, I was 100% committed to summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. I re-evaluated my all-or-nothing thinking. Depression had blocked out the other 3 climbing partners. It only let me see my own wet situation. It didn’t care that we were all wet and would all need to have the plan to dry out the next day.
Thanks to my tent mate, I began to see that there were other options besides throwing in the towel.
The next morning dawned crisp and clear, with not a cloud above us in the sky. And being over 12,000 feet above sea level, the sun’s rays carried a lot of drying abilities. Even before we left camp that morning, my down jacket was much, much dryer. I put on a new pair of dry socks and stuck my feet into my very wet boots. By the end of the day, the boots were dry.
And my entire focus had changed, from only seeing the impossible to challenging that thinking and allowing myself to see options.
Two days later, I would reach the summit at 19,341 feet. I am forever in debt to my tent mate and climbing partners for setting the example of can-do thinking. They focused on what could be done to dry everything out, instead of how wet things were, which blocked any other ideas. And their ideas worked. By the end of that next day, almost everything that had gotten wet was either dry or considerably dryer.
I am mad at myself that I wasn’t clearer in my thinking, and that I let depression call the shots.
Letting depression get into my head nearly cost me the summit. It created serious doubt in my mind and shaped my negative thinking. However, having three positive examples to look to gives me strength. I was able to challenge the all-or-nothing thinking my depression had shared with me in the wetness the day before.
I will never be able to say thank you enough to my tent mate and climbers who showed me success was possible.
There are few words to describe how grateful I am to have had people around me who were thinking clearly. Yet had I said that it was over after the rain-soaked day, I was still on a mountain, at 12,000 feet, and was 2 days hike from civilization. Stopping, in the end, was clearly not an option, but my depression was not eager to share that with me.
In the end, we summited Mount Kilimanjaro, in Africa, at 11:18 AM Friday, and received a certificate from the Tanzanian government documenting our achievement.
All-or-nothing thinking, an unhelpful thinking style of my depression, was challenged and the results presented a once-in-a-lifetime view from the summit, complete with glaciers. So, thank you, thank you, thank you.