In September 2012, writer Ann Abel’s life imploded. At the beginning of that year, she had a beautiful loft in New York’s East Village, a dream job as a travel editor for a luxury magazine, and a husband who her friends and family were sure was the best thing that ever happened to her. Flash-forward to September, and Abel was working as a freelance writer, living in a Brooklyn apartment with a distant friend, and in the midst of a messy divorce. Crying on the kitchen floor, she felt she had truly reached rock bottom. Shortly after, the new divorcee turned 39, and realizing she was staring a milestone birthday in the face, she decided she needed to do something big.
Abel gave herself the birthday gift of a trip to climb Kilimanjaro. Her plan was to turn 40 years old at the top of the mountain, to prove that she was still, “gutsy, fit, vital, strong, slightly crazy, and young.” She also wanted to prove to herself that despite losing her job, her home, and her husband, she was still standing and as strong as ever. The writer had some experience with hiking and climbing, including climbing a 14 foot mountain in Colorado and and exploring trails like the Appalachian Trail. The writer cites one of the most exhilarating experiences of her life as when she climbed a small peak in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. In fact, it was that feat that inspired her to climb Kilimanjaro to reclaim the adrenaline and sense of accomplishment she felt. Still, none of her experience came close that of climbing the 19,340-foot summit.
So, Abel booked a trip with Wilderness Travels, a luxury travel company who organizes an 8 day journey, as opposed to the standard 5 day trip. The longer hike follows a trail which allows the climbers to acclimatize easier to the thin air as the elevation increases. The trip also included an array of amenities like tables and chairs in the dining tent, chemical toilets, hot water for dishwashing, and a group of 80 porters who acted as guides, chefs, and even carried their gear up the mountain. Surprisingly, the writer found the most difficult part to be resting. While she had mentally and physically prepared herself for the climb, she didn’t know the hardest part would be sleeping on the cold, hard ground, alone with her thoughts. The writer admits to crying for most of the first night.
After the first night, the climb got a little easier. Many of the women on the trip confirmed the had similar feelings, and Abel even met a “kindred spirit” in a fellow woman who was 40 and had gone through a difficult year as well, Susan. Though she still cried most nights, she got lost in the breath-taking scenery. Each day, she found herself more motivated and inspired than ever. The last day was the most brutal. The climbers found themselves at 16,000 feet, where they climbed icy boulders until they reached 18,600 feet. Finally the campers found themselves as the summit at 8am on New Year’s Eve. Abel and her new friends basked in exhilaration and a sense of accomplishment, posing for photos under the Uhuru Peak sign.
On the climb down, Abel felt she was in a strange funk. While she was still proud of herself, she felt she didn’t have anything to look forward to. “I realized that I’d somehow thought I would figure everything out on the mountain,” she writes, “ I’d assumed some magical epiphanies would just happen to me, that I’d find purpose and direction for the second half of my life.” However, she found that she was so focused on physically climbing, she had no energy to use for “soul-searching.” Once she had time to reflect, she realized the point wasn’t to “Figure Everything Out,” rather, the journey reminded her that there is value in the process of healing, and she might even need help sometimes, just like how she needed a lot of help from her guides. “Poly-poly is what the guides constantly reminded us” Abel says, “Slowly, slowly. It pays to be patient, to let things take time, but to work for them instead of expecting them to just come to me without any dedicated thinking of effort.”