12 min readJul 12


I climbed MT Kenya and the lessons I learned…

Anybody who knows me knows that I love being outside, the sun, waterfalls, rocks, plant wildlife and hiking. All I can is this experience included all of that and then some. It has taken me a minute to gather my thoughts to share what this experience was like for me. Let me start by saying this was the most physically challenging thing I have ever done. I have postponed ankle, shoulder surgery and knee replacement but apparently I thought this was ok to take on.

I strength train, walk for miles, practice some yoga and take spin classes. This was a combination of all them at one time. I did not know what to expect and that proved to be a missed opportunity for me to be aligned with this mission.

Day one I kept up with the others, remained in second position and accepted that this journey had just begun. It was chilly but I felt well prepared. As I began to hike I remember someone saying, “I will pray for you and your family”. It seemed a bit dramatic but I accepted it graciously. All and all this first hike was uneventful, with great views and a good workout.

As we got to camp I remembered a time when I camped out in my 20s. A group of white guys threatened to hurt us from the tent next door. That was a horrible experience but I was still open because of the last camping trip I did with a buddy, when I lived in California so landing here felt familiar. I was also thrilled to have a portable toilet at the campsite since I thought that was the biggest immediate challenge I was facing in day one, little did I know.

On Day two the terrain became more challenging and I noted the increased exhaustion but I still kept up, remaining in second position. I managed to laugh at myself if I tripped, and asked for water breaks because I didn’t have a camel back. I was conscious of being one of the oldest people so in retrospect I think I thought I had something to prove.

It felt like I was gaining weight by the minute and slowing down a bit already. To think, I really thought I was going to lose weight given all of the hiking. Just another example of how the mind can believe what it wants to survive. In fact, we were told to eat as much as possible because that was required to be successful. I was concerned about the weight gain but more concerned about being prepared.

I was still not fully aware of the scope of this endeavor because It had not truly set in yet. This is the day the 5 hour hike became “a thing” and more difficult. I have walked up to about 15–20 miles in a day and hiked even more but it was clear that this was going to be different. I became aware that this diet was tasty but also felt different in my system and I hoped I would adjust quickly.

Day Three was when I began to feel like my legs were 100lbs each. I felt so not athletic and vulnerable. I felt old, when I never really feel as old as I am, whatever that means. Here I am, with these Mountaineers and the mentee, who have climbed to greater heights with more endurance and enthusiasm than I was currently experiencing so it impacted me.

I kept hearing pole pole which meant slowly and hakuna matata, no troubles no worries but all I felt was how quickly my feelings changed to being troubled and worried about what was next. I was in the great wide open but felt the walls were closing in on me due to what was occurring.

The views along the way were amazing and literally kept me going but each night became more difficult to settle in and get enough rest from the extreme exhaustion.

Dressing and sleeping in the cold, in a two person tent, that was not zipping up correctly was negatively impacting my mood. Additionally, I became acutely aware that my stomach began to feel more questionable. Truth be told, conserving toilet paper and using outdoor wipes for a shower is not as pleasant as it may seem, either.

Day four is when shit got real, I woke up shivering in my sleeping bag which caught me off guard. I had an abrupt realization that we were not just going on long and increasingly challenging hikes but instead that we were mountain climbing. How did I just “get” that. I felt like I had been smacked upside my head by frying pan, like in one of those old cartoons.

This is the day that a guide told us that he had recently led a group as far as we had gotten and they quit. It seemed like a novel idea but was this an option for me. In a moment I wondered how would I get back if I did decided to quit because it was appealing with this current realization. After all, this was not how I thought it would be and nobody had let me in on this reality ahead of time.

When I heard the plan for the next day I had what seemed like an out of body experience. Anyone who has experienced trauma knows this feeling. I was watching me, hearing what he said and I could not feel the sense of dread that I know was there. I remember nodding in agreement that I received the plan but clearly I did not understand the assignment.

It didn’t help that I was reacting negatively to the increasing altitude. In response one guide said, how your feeling makes sense, it’s the altitude. You’re at 16, 000 feet. I didn’t really know what that meant but the explanation felt minimally comforting. He added that it is not unusual to feel excessively weighed down, uncoordinated and exhausted at this point in the journey. He normalized it for me so I like a sucker I took it in.

During the night I was awakened by the extreme cold and wind. I was trying not to get up during the night to pee but it became impossible to ignore. When I stumbled out of the tent I searched for the familiar tent that covered the portable toilet but it blew away.

There I was in the middle of the night, trying to navigate how to get out my crowded sleeping bag (because the clothes I would wear each day were also helping to keep me warmer at night), I was wrestling with the head lamp each night and now again. To make things worse, I managed to get out of the tent and had to pee with no enclosure two times in the freezing cold that night.

This was also the day where I felt sick and could no longer deny the headache, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath and the fact that my chest felt constricted. It is how I imagined a heart attack would feel because of the amount of pressure in my chest. I was coughing and wheezing but it was unproductive so I thought it was because I have asthma.

The list went on, I had an altered consciousness, imbalance and felt unsteady. when I walked (more so each day). I had a “disturbed balance”. I had no appetite and my behavior was becoming anti social. It wasn’t fun and I was angry. I felt uninformed and mislead by these guides. I was taking the excessive exhaustion personally so I complained frequently. My judgement was not good and I was having more difficulty participating. My nasal was so dry it bled.

At this point I had fallen 2 or 3 times and 2 of the falls were scary because I could have seriously been hurt. The guide did not check my pulse but I was so discombobulated I didn’t advocate for myself. At the end of this adventure I read and learned that I had moderate to severe altitude sickness and that I should have not gone any further but ignorance and a lack of guidance were the barriers.

Day five at 4:00 we rushed to get ready. I had so many clothes on that I walked like the tin man in the Wizard of Oz. I felt incompetent in the search for something I wasn’t sure I would find. This and the altitude sickness are why I almost fell during a part of the climb. George literally saved my life and despite my haze, that was not lost on me.

The climb to the Summit was dark, freezing, treacherous and I’m not being hyperbolic. The rocks were jagged, some were shaky and so was I. Moving forward with each step felt even more impossible as the wind picked up like she was warning me about what was ahead. The sandy areas were incremental but served as moments of pause to assure me that I was on somewhat stable ground. Everything in me wanted to stop and cry but I didn’t for some unknown reason. Instead I put one foot in front of the other.

I had to take frequent breaks and not just for water, it was because I wasn’t convinced I could make it. At various times George helped to stabilize me and occasionally, he had to pull me up because the strength I had left was quickly waining. Through out this adventure my mantra was, one step at a time, you can do this. My mantra that day was why are you doing this, step away, what is the point.

By the time we hugged the cliff’s edge to go around the corner and we climbed the ladder to the top of MT Kenya I was in a state of shock. I don’t remember feeling anything but incredibly cold. Looking back, it felt like I had a PTSD response.

Eric said something is coming out of your nose. I asked for a tissue and my nose bleeding again. Oddly, here I was at the top of the world feeling like I could touch the sky and instead I was acutely aware of the the sensation from the skin around my nails that had started cracking a day or two before. My fingertips and toes were numb and all I wanted to do was lay down but apparently that wasn’t allowed.

I also thought about this bump on my hand that seemed to spontaneously erupt on this journey while I was trying to focus on not getting frost bite, irrational or not, it seemed plausible. Meanwhile the (mis)guide kept telling me to smile but I couldn’t because I was becoming increasingly aware that we had to climb back down when this celebratory moment ended.

I regretted everything about this experience on the top of that mountain. I was frustrated by everyone’s excitement. They were too loud and festive. I didn’t feel the sense of accomplishment that everyone else seemed to be experiencing, in fact it was all just annoying to me.

After some pictures were taken it was time to climb down. In short, the decent was miserable but not as miserable as the ascent. The rocks were still as unsteady as they were on the climb. I was still freezing in the areas that weren’t covered and ongoing, in my finger tips. The main difference was the visibility in the daylight. Now I could see the hell I just went through and relive it while trying to escape the madness.

The whole time took about 2–1/2hrs to complete but it felt like another 5 hrs. When I returned to camp I crawled in the tent to find a bit of relief in the fact that this day had ended but unfortunately I learned that it was just beginning. I could not believe the news that I received that we needed to hike back to a different camp site. I really thought I was in the twilight zone.

This exacerbated my antisocial behavior and the filter was gone. I was angry at everyone because we just climbed the third highest mountain in Africa, almost 17,000 ft and they decided we needed to hike back, for a total for 7 hours, over equally perilous terrain.

Who does that! Apparently I do and I tripped on a rock and almost went face down on a rocky mountain side. Richard did a matrix move to catch me before I went over the edge and while I was grateful the anger continued and so did the hike. We went through valleys, smaller upward landscapes, fields, and swamp like mud where I took yet another fall.

We finally arrived at camp and the reception from the crew was congratulatory but I couldn’t feel it. My stomach was settling down but I wasn’t. On the other hand this crew hiked to each campsite carrying all of the camping equipment and our duffel bags on their backs. They didn’t climb to the top of the mountain but it was still incredible and impressive to witness.

We stayed at a campsite that was government owned so the facility had a few cabins but we still slept outside in less cold than the night before which was a relief. People were so excited about this experience but I was stuck on how did I get myself into this hell, and I couldn’t wait to wake up from this nightmare.

I disassociated that last night and felt disconnected from everything except for the amount of physical pain I was feeling despite trying to fake being social and laughing along with them.

When we hiked a few hours on the last day it felt like it took twice as long as it did but we finally approached the gate after making it through the rainforest on pavement. I had hoped to see more animals along the way to distract me but there were few. It was an additional challenge to feel the most pain with each step because pavement is unforgiving. However, I was grateful to experience the second beautiful waterfall on the way out and most importantly, to see that exit.

Throughout this adventure the landscapes were unbelievable and the views were captivating so I was happy that we took the Lakes edition of this trek. We saw about 16 of the 22 lakes, a magnificent waterfall and unfamiliar creatures, along with all that nature had to offer which was a real gift. I am extremely proud of myself for testing my abilities beyond what I ever thought I could or would do, doing something that wasn’t on my bucket list and yet I can check it off.

In my reflection I thought about the lessons learned:

My reality is that while I understand that aging is always a factor I am truly happy that all of what I experienced was not due to this aging body of mine. Getting older is not pleasant but being able to grow older is to be valued and never taken for granted.

Richard said, when you can compartmentalize this trek and take it in sections it is “easy.” I beg to differ about the easy part but a piece of this resonated with me. Just like in life, as we travel through each stage, it does not get easier but it does feel possible.

I have learned that I cannot rush into things without truly researching what the potential barriers are that might present themselves for me, specifically. I can’t work until the last minute and pack in haste because of my distractibility issues. This trip cost me more than it had to because of items left behind, hiding things from myself and that were lost in the chaos. In short, I experienced additional and unnecessary stress because I did not pole pole leading up to this adventure.

I have learned that just because loved ones want me to partake in something that they love to do doesn’t mean that I will love doing it as well. I love to hike but hiking and mountain climbing are two different experiences and I am not a mountain climber. Being asked to come along because they think you can do it, is not necessarily the compliment I would have liked it to be.

I will not forget that just because people call themselves “Guides” does not mean they have your best interest at heart and they still get paid. I have learned that I don’t need to prove what I can still do, although it is always tempting.

I can color the grey hairs and not appear to be my age but I still am aging and that won’t change. I need to practice accepting where I am physically which is not always where I want to be because of how I feel mentally. I need to remember to practice what I tell my clients which is I am where I am supposed to be, for better or worse so focus on maintaining the peace within.

Life is filled with regrets and the best possible outcome is to learn the lesson so as not to repeat the mistakes. I’m not sure if I regret climbing MT Kenya but I definitely want to hold on to the lessons learned for sure. I also realize it was a once in a lifetime experience and for me, once is definitely enough.




J. Denise Fuller is an African American therapist who has over 25 years of experience as a mental health clinician, educator, writer, and consultant.