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When writing is a mountain

A few years ago, some work colleagues and I signed up to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest freestanding mountain in the world, for charity. I’d climbed Ben Nevis, Snowdown and a few other British mountains in the past and was sure there would be a way to conquer Kilimanjaro too. Somehow. 

However, after months of working long hours, too many double espressos, chocolate from the vending machine and skimping on exercise, I wasn’t exactly in peak fitness. I thought I’d need an intense training regime in order to get ready but, instead, I was advised by the mountain experts to instead start early and follow a simple, sustainable approach.

So, later that week, I identified some times in the day when I could be more efficient and found a way to fit the exercise in. The first few sessions were tough but, every time I pictured myself on top of the mountain, it would give me the energy I needed to keep going. Eventually, I got into the regime and it became a natural part of every day. 

A few members of our group left the training to the weeks before the trip. I remember them coming into the office stiff and sore from the extra-intense workouts they were now required to do. I was glad that my steady approach meant I wouldn’t need to do the same, that I wouldn’t need to take time off work to fit it all in. For a moment, though, I doubted whether I was training hard enough. But, when I looked back at my plan, I remembered experienced mountaineers had recommended it and decided to have faith.

Still, when I arrived at the foot of the mountain, I felt nervous. I remember looking up at the jungle ahead, my boots clean, my poles unused, notebook packed into my pristine backpack, wondering whether I’d make it all the way to the top. We’d picked one of the steadiest routes to minimise the risk of altitude sickness and increase our chances of success but there was a long way to go.

The first section, however, looked easy. There was barely an incline. As we stepped onto the path, we started to race away but our guide stopped us, said we needed to go ‘pole pole’ (pronounced ‘polay polay’), Swahili for ‘slowly slowly’. We felt ridiculous going so slow at first. It was hot and humid and we just wanted to reach the cool of the camp ahead. But, by the time we reached it, we appreciated the ‘pole pole’ wisdom. 

By pacing ourselves, we were not only ensuring we reached camp but that we preserved our energy for the harder days ahead. Not only had a slow and steady approach to training been the best way, it was how we’d ensure we got to the summit. 

Later that evening, I sat under a blanket of stars, capturing memories of the day by torchlight. The new foods we’d tried, the sounds of birds calling from the trees, the heat. I often go back through it, feeling pages plastered with dust and grit, as I relive the highlights. Nothing captures memories better than words. 

I’ll never never forget reaching Uhuru Peak on summit night, delighted that our chosen charity would now be receiving the £30,000 we’d raised. The air was thin, it was challenging to breathe, my fingers were frozen, my legs were like jelly but none of that bothered me. I’d made it.

Resting for a moment on a rock, positioned at one of the highest points in the world, I watched the sun begin to rise, mesmerised by shades of orange, mauve and candy floss. No photograph could capture the beauty but I took one anyway (see below). The sight was even better than I’d envisaged during all those training sessions.

It’s wonderful to dream big. It can lead to some of life’s best achievements, memories and experiences to be treasured forever. But, getting there doesn’t have to be a race. Don’t be afraid to take it steady, to go ‘pole pole’. You’ll still get to where you want to go, in fact you’re more likely to get there because you’ll be able to sustain the journey. 

Why not try writing just 100 words today and see where it takes you?

Dream big, write at your pace. The sunrise will be just as good!

The sunrise atop Mount Kilimanjaro – Loretta Milan
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About Loretta Milan

Founder and Commissioning Editor of Lightbox Originals. On a mission to get the world writing and finding wellbeing through words. Loves books, tea, travel and art.

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