Connected by Shared Experiences, Bound by Love

Author: Rachel Hunsell

We arrived at the Machame Gate, just shy of 6,000 feet  in elevation, situated in the rainforest nestling the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. A tidal wave of anticipation washed over me as we were welcomed by locals, our porters and guide staff preparing for the journey ahead. Before we crossed the threshold of the gate, we gathered, as families do, in a circle connected as one. 

Several weeks ago, before our journey to east Africa, I’d asked the team to begin focusing on a meditation or phrase that connected them to their intention for this climb. We each explored our hearts, weeks before our TAPS Expedition began, for the impetus of this journey.  

What was it that brought us here? Was it our grief and loss and the need to find meaning in it? Was it in the honoring of a loved one’s life well-lived? Was it a personal mountain we sought to overcome within ourselves? What was it that would drive our every step, every decision on the mountain ahead? 

As we drew together at the gate, we grounded ourselves in these silent meditations, and as we passed through to begin the journey, one by one, we spoke them into existence. No intention the same, and no journey to be the same. 

Survivors climbing Kilimanjaro

Every Journey Is Unique

This is the second time I would cross the threshold of these gates, and yet it was as if I was seeing the path before me with eyes anew. I knew, even in that first step, that this journey would be far different from the last. In the first few hours of our first day on the trail, my legs, lungs and feet were talking to me, rejecting and remembering the rhythm all at once. “Must we keep moving? Is this really seven whole days? We have to go all the way up there...and back down? Are you sure? I think I can .. I know I can ... This is different, but so am I….”

I found myself journaling about these thoughts, nestled in my sleeping bag around 10,000 feet and already in a different, more challenging environment than the lush forest that surrounded us at the gate. I would write about the gratitude in momentum, the familiarity in the rhythm. 

Connections to my fellow survivors had begun to unfold along the trail; another surviving sibling laughing at the jokes they knew their brother would’ve made at them, a surviving parent taking the steps their beloved son had dreamed of, a surviving spouse choosing to live adventurously for her own spirit, something her husband loved about her.

There is a weaving of intentions that only a collective challenge can bring together. Today we find ourselves looking at our fellow survivors, our fellow climbers on the mountain of life, and each experience is uniquely different, yet we feel bound together. 

Rachel at the summit of Kilimanjaro

Resilience to Get Through the Unknown

My second journey to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and back gave me perspective, one that I carry as an essential item in my life backpack. Standing on the rooftop of Africa, looking out at the curvature and vastness of our planet, I found myself more deeply rooted in connection than ever before. As I stood side by side with my fellow survivors and climbers, each of us carrying our own stories, meditations and intentions, I could feel the one thing that bound us all: love. 

It is what draws survivors to one another as we share in the memories of our loved ones; it is what’s bringing neighbors to their balconies to sing in harmony as we physically distance; it is what compels the frontline essential workers to show up every day and serve their communities; and it is what holds us together as we climb this mountain in our lives. It is the love that binds us, and it’s the love that will carry us on. 

As I stood on the rooftop of Africa, 19,341 feet above sea level at Uhuru Peak, I had no understanding of the chaotic world I would come back down to. Up there, above the clouds, I was reconnected with the unwavering knowing of my resilience. That day, that resilience meant I could climb mountains. Today, it is the ability to manage the anxiety of the unknown. It is the understanding that I’m capable of navigating the wilderness this pandemic has laid before our lives, because I am not alone. 

View from atop Kilimanjaro

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Rachel Hunsell, TAPS Expeditions Coordinator, leads and facilitates backcountry Expeditions, where she connects survivors with the healing power of the outdoors and encourages participants to reconnect with their inner strength by creating emotionally safe and understanding environments. As a survivor honoring the life and death of her brother, Marine Lance Cpl. J. Kyle Price, she understands the valleys and mountaintops we experience along the journey after loss.