By Jane Treat
(C) Jane Treat, 1998
The following article has been edited by Renee O'Connor and Sandra
I stopped by the convention in Valley Forge while on my vacation last
fall and heard Renee’s story about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. She was
funny and thoughtful during all the questions, but when she started to
tell about the mountain, her posture and the focus of her eyes changed.
I sat right up to pay close attention; something important was about to
I’m a professional storyteller, so I couldn’t help but listen to this
"story" of a woman who met a mountain and with great courage found her
way to the top through struggle, weakness and pain. The world’s myths
and spiritual literature are full of such stories – of a young woman (or
man) who heads off for fun and adventure, and ends up on a true quest
for wisdom, power, vision, etc. Renee’s story is a classic and contains
images of some of life’s most profound themes. When I returned from
vacation, I found myself telling people about Renee’s experience and
watching their eyes widen in wonder as they heard the life lessons
embedded in it. I knew I had been deeply moved by it, and it became a
pleasure to share it with others. Renee` has generously given me
permission to use her story in my performances and Rocweb has asked to
post a version of it for everyone to read.
So, with great respect for the woman and the mountain, here’s a brief
telling of Renee’s trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, the "Shining Mountain" of
Renee` and her mother, Sandra, had planned the vacation of a
lifetime. Africa! After a visit to Egypt, they traveled to
northeast Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in all
of Africa – 19,340 feet. Even though it is only 3 degrees from the
Equator, Kilimanjaro is so high that its snow-covered summit is often
lost in the clouds.
Amazingly, it’s not necessary to be a technical climber to go up
Kilimanjaro. Instead, hikers have to contend with a debilitating and
potentially serious or even fatal condition known as acute mountain
sickness (altitude sickness). Altitude sensitivity is a very individual
thing and physical fitness and age are not the deciding factors.
Although Renee` is strong and fit, she is also allergic to the medicine
that many hikers take to alleviate the effects of altitude sickness.
Undaunted, Sandra and Renee` joined their group and began the trek up
the mountain. From the trailhead at Marangu Gate, they followed the
gentle paths of the lower levels of Kilimanjaro, slowly winding their
way through lush tropical forest as they hiked the first few thousand
feet. The beginning of the hike was easy, more a walk than a climb, and
yet, "Pole’, pole’ (slowly, slowly)," the guides admonished even at this
early stage. After a few short hours, they reached Mandara Hut at 9,000
feet for their first night on Kilimanjaro.
On the way to Horombo Hut for the second night, the hikers ascended
to more than 12,000 feet. They left the canopy of the lower slopes as
the trail broke free of the trees and led on through meadows and
moorland. Above 10,000 feet, most people begin to react to the decreased
oxygen. Once the headaches and fatigue began, Renee` and Sandra could no
longer depend on physical strength alone. From that point on, will power
and determination were also necessary to keep them moving up the
Far above the plains that surround Kilimanjaro, and then beyond the
forests and meadows of the lower levels, the mountain turns to rock and
sand. Growing weaker and slower, no longer able to eat, Sandra and Renee
forged on through the biting wind and barren rock towards the great dome
of Kibo and the summit at Uhuru (Freedom) Peak.
Shortly after midnight on the fourth day, they left Kibo Hut and
began the final torturous ascent. It was important to reach the top of
Kilimanjaro early in the day before the gale force winds that buffet the
summit became too dangerous. Pole’, pole’, they struggled through the
mountain darkness, zigzagging up the steep and treacherous gravel path,
falling farther and farther behind the others in the group. Higher up
the mountain, the lights of their fellow travelers showed them the way,
marking the switchback trail for them to follow.
Just below Gillman’s Point on the rim of the ancient volcano, Sandra
was seized by a severe attack of altitude sickness. She became confused
and disoriented, violently ill and shook uncontrollably. It was clear
she could go no farther and the only remedy was to descend as quickly as
possible. Alarmed by her mother’s condition, Renee` wanted to take
Sandra down. But Sandra was adamant, "This is as far as I go, Renee`,
but you go on. Go all the way if you can."
Leaving her mother in the care of a guide, Renee trudged on. She
found a simple rhythm to carry her – take a step and breathe, take
another step and breathe again. Pole’, pole’ – one step, one breath.
Stumbling and weak, each movement a monumental effort, – Renee` inched
her way along the rocky trail. Behind her lay the thousands of steps she
had taken to get to this point. Behind her, hopefully, her mother was
waiting, recovering in the lower altitude. Ahead of her was the roof of
Africa, if she could only make it. One step at a time through scree and
snow; one step at a time along the rim of the crater; pole’, pole’. Each
step nearly impossible; take a step and breathe. Each step one step
closer to the top; take a step and breathe.
Finally, nauseous and exhausted, the last of the group to arrive,
Renee` staggered the final few feet to the pinnacle of Kilimanjaro. She
made it and stood, for a moment, at the top of Africa. Then, she
collapsed. But there was little time to rest - the winds were rising,
and it was dangerous to remain exposed on the summit. She mustered the
strength to shakily write her name in the book that is kept at Uhuru
Peak and then they began the journey down, heading back towards air and
strength, family and home.
"I run and work out," Renee` reflected months later, "and I thought I
was prepared, but it was the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done."
With her characteristic honesty, she also admitted that besides the
physical stress, she had occasionally found her pride to be a challenge.
"…now…I realize how important it is to be humble."
After I heard Renee’s story about her experience, I did a bit of
reading to learn more about Mt. Kilimanjaro. I learned that thousands of
people climb Kilimanjaro every year and of those thousands, only a few
hundred make it to Uhuru Peak. In fact, every year a small number of
people actually die from reactions to the altitude. Even Sir Edmund
Hillary of Mt. Everest fame had to be evacuated from his attempt!
What does it mean to climb a mountain like Kilimanjaro? Is it a test
of courage? Of spirit and determination? Is it a real opportunity to see
a bigger picture or merely a distraction from daily activities? How does
one decide where to push on and where to surrender? When does pride
help; when does it hurt? What is revealed in rising to meet the
challenge of such extraordinary circumstances? What were the lessons
learned? What is the worth of such hard-won wisdom?
I pondered Renee’s story for quite a while, moved by her
thoughtfulness and the lingering sound of wonder in her voice when she
spoke of it. Her story is not a romantic version of "conquering a
mountain." It’s rough, gutsy and very human. In the images she
described, I found myself considering life as the "mountain" –
beautiful, torturous, surprising, challenging… The comparisons go on and
on. Most of us will not climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, but we already climb our
own rocky trails through struggle and pain, failure and success. We will
follow the lights of the ones who have gone before us and we will walk
on after our parents have stopped. Sometimes we’ll stride, other times
we’ll stagger, and occasionally we’ll even collapse. And perhaps, like
Renee`, we’ll find that humility is the truest response to our greatest
victories. After all, life, like Mount Kilimanjaro, takes everything
Hanging over my desk these days is a gentle reminder: "Take a step