Reaching the Summit—A Journey to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Bottom of One’s Heart
by Elizabeth Skenes Millen
Photography provided by Cindy Foster
It was March 2017 when 61-year-old Cindy Foster received the phone call. A friend of a friend was putting a girlfriends’ trip together. As soon as Cindy was asked to be included, she said yes without hesitation. After all, she had 11-months to process, prepare and pine.
The destination: Africa, but not just regular stay-in-a-hotel-and-go-on-safari Africa. And, not a mission trip either. This was a trip for a group of women, who are normally more the Ritz crowd, to climb to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the absolute highest point in Africa at 19,341 feet above sea level and the world’s highest, free-standing mountain.
“They just decided they wanted to do it. The woman who initiated the trip had never slept in a tent, and she’s afraid of heights. It was something that was kind of impetuous. I think they thought it would be a fun thing to do, and they started asking people to join,” said Cindy.
“I just wanted to do it, and doing it with friends is always fun. I wasn’t afraid; I just didn’t know what to expect.” She had 10 months to prepare. Cindy, who works out on a regular basis, had to up her gym game if she planned on making this climb. “Once I committed to going, I focused my workouts on training for the hike. I wore my hiking boots to the gym and would crank the treadmill up as steep as it would go,” she said. This hike is considered the most challenging expedition offered on the Mount, and if you’re over 60, you actually have to have a doctor’s note for clearance. It is an expedition filled with difficult inclines, terrain and danger.
The group flew into Tanzania, where they spent the night at base camp for orientation. Early the next morning they moved to the base of the mountain to start the ascension. At this point, the trip was still nuts and bolts—all about the climb and getting to the top. “We started in the rainforest, which was beautiful. Every day we went through different regions—rainforest, dessert-like terrain, above the treetops, then it just became rock and we were above the clouds,” Cindy described.
“We had a staff of porters who set up and broke down camp every morning and night, cooked for us and carried our equipment. In the beginning we were all extremely excited. As the days went on, and we started feeling the altitude, some struggled more than others. The guides did a great job in helping us acclimate as best we could,” Cindy said.
“Some days we hiked all day, starting at four in the morning. Some days we just hiked until one or two in the afternoon. While I was hiking (you have to look down and watch where you’re walking at all times) I would take the time to be present and not miss the moment. It was so beautiful just to look around. We had no cellular service from the time we got on the mountain, so we were eight days without service. I never missed it. Not having our phones, there were a lot of uninterrupted conversations. There was time to just enjoy the moment—the stars, the sky. It allowed me to take it all in,” she added.
There were unexpected aha moments from this trip, as the climb became transcended to focus more on the journey than the destination.
Aha Moment No. 1: “The day before we reached the summit was a very long, difficult climb, all over rocks, and I realized when we finished that day that I was so much stronger than I thought I was. And it wasn’t just physical. It was mental. You had to focus on everything you were doing. Where you put your foot in every step. This lesson will be applied to my life from now on when I have a challenge, or a decision to make. I will remember I am stronger than I think I am.
Aha Moment No. 2: “I learned sometimes what you think of yourself isn’t actually true.” Cindy recently went through a difficult divorce after 33 years of marriage. Its burdens have haunted her daily for the last several years and robbed her of joy. Climbing Kilimanjaro revealed her strength and restored her joy. “I was so able to enjoy every moment, even the difficult parts. I learned I can enjoy my life at every moment regardless of what I’m going through. I had gotten to the point in the marriage and divorce that I was so consumed; I wasn’t enjoying anything. I am stronger than I think. I can enjoy myself. It truly helped me to move on. Reaching the summit was such a milestone, a culmination of emotions and strength—a sense of accomplishment filled with a new level of confidence,” Cindy said.
The last two days of the climb, the group experienced zero-degree cold. They slept in all their clothes, hats, gloves, coats. The conditions were formidable. However, Cindy found joy enveloped her. “We didn’t shower for eight days. We were encouraged to leave stuff behind as we ascended. A few days before the summit, we were down to minimal necessities. Taking away all the extra stuff allowed more and more joy to emerge. In essence our stuff gets in the way of connections and moments. No matter what time we got up, the conditions or the difficulty of the daily trek, I looked forward to it all. I was happy. Some mornings the staff would sing. One morning they were singing Hakuna Matata, just like in Lion King. It’s a real word. It means no worries for the rest of your days. This trip awoken me to the real world of Hakuna Matata.”
Final Aha Moment: As Cindy somewhat downplayed her accomplishments with statements such as: “Technically, any one can do it with some training… I would encourage other women to be adventurous and not be afraid to try something like this, or get out of their comfort zone. Believe you can do it.” I asked her what the reward is for achieving such a monumental task. Her answer: “Accomplishing something very few people ever will.”
With that response, I knew I had not reached the summit of this interview. I asked Cindy to close her eyes, go deep inside and truly find the reward of this life-changing journey. I told her she would know it when she felt it. After a long moment of silence, Cindy opened her sky blue eyes, now filled with tears, and through quivering lips she said in a small but mighty voice: It’s like half the baggage (of life) I was dragging along I don’t even need. It’s not who I am. I got to know myself. Who I met up there was a joyful, strong me—two things that had been buried deep for years. The person I met up there was acceptable. This is who I really am, and I like me.