by Doug Ulman
We all cried as we stood on “the rooftop of Africa.” Some cried because they didn’t think it was possible to reach the summit. Others wept for those family and friends who would never have the chance to stand in this idyllic spot staring out across Tanzania and into Kenya. Some cried because they were filled with the emotion of having only finishing chemotherapy months earlier. For all of us on this trip there was a very real significance in reaching the highest summit on the African continent, but the journey to Uhuru peak at 19,341 feet was more emotional than I ever imagined…
As tears trailed down my wind burned, sunscreen covered face I thought about all the people who had been taken from us recently and all those currently fighting cancer who were close friends. At the time of our summit I had no idea that Jimmy Fowkes had left us just a few hours earlier. Maybe my tears were a result of my friend Jimmy’s experience. Maybe they were tears for Laurey Masterton. Maybe they were just tears that had been kept inside for many, many years as I’ve witnessed such loss and sadness as a result of this insidious disease.
Prior to departing for Tanzania I remember hearing from so many people that Kilimanjaro was just a hike. Others said, “Oh don’t worry, it isn’t technical,” and still others commented, “Anyone can do that!” I bought into that mindset even though our partners from Earth Treks (@earthtreks) had instructed us otherwise. The reality of Kilimanjaro is that it is a journey. An adventure. An experience like no other.
The day before we started the 7-day journey to the Kili, our incredible guide Chris Warner told us that there were three things critical to achieving our goal of reaching the top: tools, techniques, and behavior. Chris and his guiding partner Nelson Laur then described that they would provide the tools, they would teach us the techniques, and each of us would have to control our own behavior. They couldn’t have been more accurate, and to me these same three ingredients can be the recipe for success in any endeavor.
The trip itself exceeded all of my expectations. It was hard. Very hard. And it is difficult. Very difficult. The altitude: there is nothing easy about 19,000+ feet. The conditions: the rain, snow, and terrain. The various climate zones: warm and humid rainforest, cold and dry levels, and then chilly, windy, snowy, and finally the sunny summit! There was nothing easy about this journey, especially given the emotional mission that we were all on to highlight those we love who have been impacted by cancer. Summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro with our entire team together was a powerful statement about what is possible.
We have all heard statements like these before, over and over again:
- That experience was life changing.
- Life is all about people.
- That was epic.
- That trip was transformational.
And yet I am not sure how else to describe our recent Survivor Summit journey to Mt. Kilimanjaro. It has been less than 1 month since we summited the highest peak in Africa and I have struggled with how to compose a short summary of a journey that was in fact transformational in so many ways. I started to write and then I stopped. I started again. And then I stopped yet again.
Every time I felt uncomfortable, or out of my comfort zone (which was most of the time), I found myself emotional again and again as I reminded myself of the incredible survivors whom I have had the privilege to meet through the LIVESTRONG Foundation.
It was epic, and I loved every minute of it. Even the cold, damp nights laying in my sleeping bag staring at the top of the tent as I couldn’t sleep. It was an honor to be a part of the team. It was an honor to hoist the flag with so many friends, family and loved ones names emblazoned on it when we reached the summit.
Have you ever been out of your comfort zone for an entire week? Think about it. When is the last time you were totally in a different place, an uncomfortable place, without any of the typical luxuries of our normal lives. This journey was so far out of my comfort zone for many reasons.
- During the eight days that we were climbing we slept in tents that were often wet and cold and situated on inclined ground that caused you to slide down to one side during the night.
- We traversed various climate zones and ended up at 19,341 feet!
- We were dirty. Very dirty. And there was no showering for 8 days.
- And for much of the trip we were completely disconnected from the outside world. No calls. No emails. No tweets. (And it turned out to be one of the biggest benefits of the trip!)
Simply put, we were forced to operate outside of our comfort zones and that was so healthy for me personally.
I am greatly indebted to my climbing partners for their inspiration, support and love. Without each member of the team I am not sure we would have reached the summit together. And we surely would not have made it down from the summit fully intact. We arrived in Tanzania as acquaintances, friends and strangers and we left as a team. 10 days. One team.
Some of the most powerful, vivid memories from the trip were the days when my climbing partners shared their very, very personal stories. On day 1 I spent several hours listening to Bree and Stephen recount her journey with breast cancer and all that they encountered clinically, emotionally, and beyond. A few days later Jeremy and his wife Claire detailed his journey with colon cancer at such a young age and just one year after they were married. Imagine being basically newlyweds and receiving a call that you have been diagnosed with cancer before the age of 40 years old.
On days when I was not feeling 100% my dear friend Wendy served as a constant reminder of what is possible having just finished her latest regimen of treatment a few weeks earlier. She was solid as a rock the entire trip and taught me lessons I will not soon forget. These individuals inspired all of us every step of the way. They truly epitomize LIVESTRONG and it was an honor to tackle this adventure with each of them.
In closing, THANK YOU to the amazing team at Survivor Summit for one of the most amazing experiences of my life! Here is a short video I made for all of you, but unfortunately we couldn’t send it from the mountain…
*** We’re proud to once again partner with Earth Treks in 2015! You can apply to be a part of this expedition, and get all the information, here at SurvivorSummit.org.