One Step at a Time

Author: Jennifer Freitas

"Pole, Pole." "Slowly, slowly." It wasn't a race to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, but rather an exercise in continually putting one foot in front of the other on the six-day ascent. Our guides, who had walked this same path hundreds of times, knew the best way for us to arrive at the summit, and reach our goal, was to go slowly, deliberately.

Mount Kilimanjaro

Along with nine other intrepid explorers, I set out on the TAPS Expedition to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. What I found was reclamation and a bond like no other.

Looming above us during our ascent was Uhuru (Freedom) Peak, the highest point on Mount Kilimanjaro. At 19,341 feet, it is also the highest point on the continent of Africa. At the onset of our journey, the peak seemed nearly unreachable. We could see it in the distance, but could hardly imagine we would soon be standing on top of it. As the days progressed, the summit seemed steadily closer, more attainable.

Most days we hiked and climbed from six to nine hours, going up and down and allowing our bodies to acclimate to the elevation. More often than not, it seemed as if little progress was being made. The journey was long, but we filled the time, taking in the changing landscape as we traveled through rainforests and alpine deserts. The trees changed and eventually disappeared as we ascended above timberline. We talked of our loved ones; we carried their pictures on our packs and their love in our hearts. While they were with us this entire journey, this trek was about more than honoring the love and lives of those we lost. It was about reclaiming life for ourselves.

We ranged from one and a half years out from the loss to more than eight years. For some, this was their first time doing something on their own since their loved ones died. They had shared their previous experiences with this special person; now they were setting out on their own. It was both terrifying and empowering. Knowing that a chapter had closed, yet another was opening in a powerful way.

There were others in our group who had never slept in a tent before setting out on our expedition. Yet, there was something drawing them on this journey, and their very first camping trip was one of epic proportions. For most, this was the first mountain they had summited. We took our existing limits, fears, and doubts and pushed beyond our comfort zone. 

Most of us had never met each other until we arrived in Arusha, Tanzania, a world away. When we first met, there was an instant bond, the kind that only exists between people who understand. When we came back down that mountain, that bond had transformed; it had deepened. We spent seven days sleeping in tents, climbing for hours on end together, and not showering. We endured cold, rain, heat, exhaustion, illness, and the effects of altitude. We pushed ourselves not only physically, but mentally and spiritually. The hours of climbing provided plenty of time to talk and when the altitude was no longer conducive to conversations, we had hours of quiet reflection.  The pressures and expectations of our daily lives lifted away. 

The determination I saw in my teammates to reach the summit continues to motivate me. One teammate was unable to make the summit on account of illness. Knowing the toll sickness had taken on her body, she wisely chose to not continue. But, make no mistake; she has Kili firmly in her sights. I know one day, she will stand on that summit. On the anniversary of her loss, the team made it to the summit and shouted her loved one's name. After all, we were in this together.

There was the lone male, brave enough to join a group of nine women on this climb. I can only assume he did so with some trepidation, but that was soon replaced with comradery. He provided us with laughs and was an amazingly good sport about the variety of "women's topics" that arose during our time on the mountain. He walked away with nine sisters, although I'm sure he often felt we were more motherly than sisterly.

Two women struggled as we neared the summit. The altitude and days of climbing began to take their toll. Yet, even when our experienced guide expected them to turn back, they did not. They pressed onward. They reached the summit. One slow step at a time. They persevered, their bodies fighting with each and every step.  They showed a strength that was truly inspiring. We stood together on the summit, and we were victorious. I think we all reclaimed a bit of ourselves that day. A bit of our lives that was stolen when that person so dear to us was taken away.   

Our primary guides, Verne and Carole Tejas, were incredible, not only providing us with the skills for a successful journey, but also with emotional support, laughter, and even a bit of harmonica playing. Our Tanzanian guides looked out for us continuously, helping carry our packs when the weight became too much. They sang songs on the cold, dark trek to the summit. They laughed with us; they danced with us; and they shouted encouragements to us along our journey.

The cooks provided far better meals with a propane stove at 13,000 feet than what I eat at home. The soups were absolutely amazing and nourished both the body and the soul with their warmth. The porters and support staff carried their gear, plus much of ours, the tents and food, and passed us. They would take down the camp after we left and set it up before we arrived at the next location and greet us enthusiastically with song and dance as we came into camp. It was humbling. Along the journey, we were met with so much support and encouragement.

For those times when the going got tough, we were taught the "rest step" and "pressure breathing." Rest steps allowed us to keep moving while helping our muscles to relax, allowing us to go farther without needing to stop as frequently. Pressure breathing is a technique that allowed us to make the most use of the oxygen available at higher altitudes. These helped us overcome the terrain and altitude during the ascent.

Focusing on the rest step and pressure breathing techniques, we were able to keep moving forward and take our minds off the difficulty of the journey itself. When the trek became difficult, I focused on these techniques and made each next step count. 

This brave, new post-loss world is not a place any of us wanted to be; yet we wouldn't have been standing on that mountaintop if we hadn't been united by tragedy. We honored our heroes, but we also honored ourselves. We took this life of grief and grabbed it by the horns, determined to live again. We embraced life and all that it has to offer.

We will carry those who we loved and lost forward with us. We will not be defined by our grief and loss. Accepting grief as part of our story, we began writing a new chapter. We did this together. 

Each of us had our own struggles, our own demons to face down on the journey. While there is a significant physical component to endurance activities, the battle is won and lost in the mind. We each made the decision to keep taking one more step. We proceeded pole, pole, taking one step at a time.

Much like our grief journeys, some of those steps are harder and more draining than others. And when that happens, use the rest step and pressure breathe. One step at a time, you will reach the summit.

By Jennifer Freitas, Surviving spouse of Maj. Cesar Freitas