It has now been several weeks since I returned from a trip to summit the world's highest freestanding mountain, Kilimanjaro. Standing 19,341 feet above the surrounding Tanzanian plains, Kili is a towering beacon, daring adventurous travelers to climb it's snow covered flanks.
I've had several weeks to think and rethink about the trip, why did I go and what did I get from it? For seven days my eight companions and I slept in the pouring rain, endured thin high altitude air, sizzling hot jungle and bitterly cold alpine tundra for a chance to stand on the highest point in Africa. Many of my friends thought I was crazy for going. "Why would you want to go to Africa and catch Malaria and shit in a bucket?" they asked. We spent thousands of dollars on a goal that we weren't 100% sure was achievable but we knew would be extremely painful both mentally and physically. Now that we're back we can't wait for the next self flagellating adventure... emails flying back and forth between us, should we ski down Mount Elbrus, the highest point in Europe? Maybe we should climb Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the western and southern hemispheres.
So why do I do this, time and time again? To be honest I have no idea. Photography is always a reason. I'm constantly looking to add new work to my adventure photography portfolio. But art aside, all I know is that despite all of the physical and mental pain and empty bank accounts and unknowns, I thoroughly enjoyed the journey.
The idea of traveling to East Africa to climb a mountain and take adventure photographs originated a couple of years before we actually went. A huge part of travel is the anticipation. And then the stunning realization that the reality of travel is never actually what we anticipate. Nothing is what we had imagined it to be. I love this about travel. I love when all my preconceptions of a place are split apart and ripped asunder by reality. The weather is always good in our dreams. There are never cock roaches in the hotel bathroom nor is a cell phone lost forever in a snowbank at 18,000 feet. When I was thinking about the trip a year ago I was envisioning giraffes and elephants and singing African porters. I did enjoy the hike, but there were low times when all I could think about were the incessant rains, the long flight home, jet lag and all the emails waiting for me when I get back home and open up my laptop. The reality of this trip is that sometimes I inadvertently brought too much of myself on it.
For most of us, our lives are dominated by the search for happiness, or at least a search for purpose. In some way I think travel has a way of compressing our entire life into a single trip, a mini life that each time we leave home is like a hit off of some existential drug, forcing us to reason and question and think. Every time we travel we live a little short life. We squeeze birth, life and death into a 10 day climb up a mountain. Arriving in a new and foreign country is like birth, we stumble around at first, learning how things work, looking at new things wide-eyed with wonder and getting acclimated to our surroundings. This can certainly be said of arriving in Tanzania. We walked down the steps of the airplane at night into a hot caldron of African smells, raised voices, mayhem at the immigration line. We were bounced around the bowels of the terminal... where were my bags? Where were my companions? Finally the terminal spit us out the other side, luckily with all of our luggage, where we were thrust into the hands of our head guide, Jerald, a stranger we had never met. I felt completely helpless, yet I must admit there is a certain adrenaline rush every single time I put myself through this madness.
Adolescence. We had been in the country for a couple of days now. We met the locals, took a few pictures, even had an up close encounter with a giraffe. We got dirty and sweaty and survived. We knew everything. The sun was out. We thought this was going to be awesome, just like we envisioned. And then we got slapped down. Day one of the climb was hard. I've spent my whole life on trails and climbing mountains. My parents let me overnight hike on the Appalachian Trail when I was 12 years old without supervision. But climbing 4000 vertical feet in 90 degree heat is hard, no matter how slow you go. I was also working, so I had two camera bodies and three lenses in my pack in addition to three liters of water and a day's worth of snacks. My pack must have weighed 30 lbs. We weren't even at altitude yet.
Day three on the mountain would be the equivalent of a middle age crisis. The question "why?" had reared it's ugly head several times at this point. My girlfriend, Amy, was in tears because of the altitude. She lost her appetite. Bad headache. Nauseous. When we reached 15,000ft she felt better, but I felt like my head was in a vice grip. I almost puked behind some rocks. I nibbled on some bread. The rainy season seemed to have started and it poured hard every night. At that point, I started taking Diomox to help with the altitude but one of the side effects was frequent urination. I had to piss so much I couldn't sleep. Six times a night I would get on my knees in the tent and piss into a bottle. It was absurd. I could be on the couch back home watching TV and sleeping in a bed. I woke up the next morning to Matt puking outside of his tent and Amanda said she's feeling sick. My sleeping bag was wet. I thought to myself, "I'm paying for this?"
Somehow the mountain always reminded us why we're doing it. The clouds have an uncanny way of clearing up just before sunset and revealing the beauty of the world. The laughter and friendship around the dinner table in the mess tent overpowered the high altitude headaches. Our guide, Jerald always had a way of making a 3000ft climb sound like an hour long massage. The porters and guide's kindness knew no bounds.
But life isn't easy and neither is climbing Kilimanjaro. On summit night we woke up at 11pm. Jerald said he had only seen this much snow on the mountain once before in the 250 times he's been on the summit. We were moving very slow because of the snow and altitude. Amanda was very sick and Adam, her boyfriend was getting worried. Matt was in a lot of pain but carried on. Amanda decided to turn around, her eyes had glassed over and she could barely walk. Altitude sickness. You could clearly see the concern and pain on Adam's face. This mountain is just like life.
A couple of hours later we were at the top. Matt had climbed through considerable pain and burst into tears when we reached the summit. Everyone else followed. None of us expected those emotions. This trip wouldn't have been the same if it had been a walk in the park.
The descent from the summit is old age. A knee jarring day and a half where we dropped 15,000 vertical feet. There would be plenty of time for reflection. There wasn't as much chatter within the group as there had been a few days before. I remember thinking: What must Amanda be feeling being the only person not to summit? How will this experience affect my relationship with Amy? I rarely see Matt and Andrea when I'm in the states, have I spent enough quality time with them? Have I made compelling pictures? Will my agency accept any images so I can write this trip off? Should I ask James how he's doing after having an allergic reaction to his sunscreen on the summit? Does he just want to be left with his own thoughts? I'm sure each member of the team was cycling through similar thoughts and questions.
I still haven't answered the question, why? Why live these mini lives every time I leave the country. Why do this high stress adventure travel stuff instead of flying to Mexico and staying at an all-inclusive resort?
Perhaps that question will never be answered. Maybe it doesn't need to be. Maybe these trips shouldn't be looked at as a journey, but more of an experience. The philosopher Alan Watts famously states life should be compared to a piece of music rather than a journey. On a journey we're trying to get to the destination, the end. In life that would mean just rushing to get to death. "We thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage which had a serious purpose at the end. The thing was to get to that end... success or whatever it is or maybe heaven after you’re there. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing or dance while the music was being played."
Maybe thats the way to approach travel itself. Not to gather meaning from each trip or have the goal of each trip be the destination, but to treat each trip as a dance... just enjoy as much as you can while it's happening and not worry about getting to the end. The positive and negative experiences you gather on the trip are what make it, not the trip itself.