How difficult is summiting Mount Kilimanjaro? Depends who you ask.

Peter's Kilimanjaro misery

Like a procession of overdressed zombies holding walking poles, we’ve been staggering uphill on this loose volcanic rock since midnight. My watch reads 4:14am.

Although our pace rivals that of a snail, my chest heaves laboriously as my lungs struggle to extract oxygen from the stingy air. The five layers of clothing are strangling me like a Gore-Tex, down-filled anaconda.

I can no longer feel my toes.

A full moon hangs overhead, but does little to illuminate the barren landscape before us. The headlamp I’ve been carrying for days has finally become more than just a fashion accessory, helping me to avoid lurching off a cliff.

Our Tanzanian guides – James, Julius, Alpha, and Cerafin – sing in hushed Swahili harmony as we plod along, delirious and exhausted.

“Wageni, mwakaribishwa! (Welcome guests!)

Kilimanjaro? Hakuna matata! (Kilimanjaro? No worries!)”

The blistering wind blows fine dust into my face but I keep my eyes squinted, focusing only on the turquoise backpack ahead of me.

That backpack belongs to my partner, Marina.

She seems completely unfazed by the altitude. Over the past seven days I’ve trudged behind her, I’ve become intimately acquainted with that damned backpack – so smug in its cleanliness, so taunting in its cheerful colouring.

It was Marina’s idea to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro – the highest peak in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world.

I was less than thrilled to head higher than I’ve ever been –5,895 metres – especially given the throbbing migranes and severe nausea I’ve experienced at lower altitudes. As a compromise, we took the long way up, which promises a higher chance of summit success, and a lower chance of vomiting.

Looking up in the distance, I notice dozens of headlamps bobbing up and down across the never ending series of switchbacks up the mountain.

There appears to be no end in sight to this torture.

With increasing frequency, we pass fellow climbers. Some are hunched over on the side of the trail forcefully emptying the contents of their stomach, others are stumbling around and babbling incoherently, while a few particularly unlucky souls are carried down the mountain, barely conscious.

To prevent my mind from entertaining ideas of sickness and failure, I ignore the fallen and regain myopic focus on Marina’s backpack.

As the sun starts to rise, nearly six hours since leaving our base camp, we finally step onto some even ground. Reaching Stella Point, on the rim of Mt. Kilimanjaro’s volcano, we’ve completed the first section of the summit.

“Here, we rest,” declares our lead guide.

I sit on a rock, barely lucid, and try to catch my breath. For the first time since we started hiking over a week ago, I believe that I may actually make it to the top. All that remains between me and Uhuru Peak is a gentle walk around the crater rim that ascends the final 210 metres.

After a brief respite to gnaw on a hardened granola bar and to try unsuccessfully to drink water from my frozen hydration pack, I’m again shuffling my numb feet forward.

Not only is Marina once again in the lead, she’s actually jogging ahead to snap photos of me in my misery. Fortunately, I’m much too detached and numb to feel humiliated.Peter's Kilimanjaro misery

Before long, the two of us are standing on the roof of Africa, posing for pictures. As I summon all my strength to look more excited than exhausted, I confess to Marina; “This was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

“Oh, really? I actually didn’t find it that difficult,” she says, beaming.

And with those words, the greatest physical feat of my life became just another leisurely hike.

At the top



Note: an edited version of this article was posted in The Globe and Mail on March 10, 2015

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Living an examined life


With Thailand on my right, and Laos on my left, I type these words while seated on-board a slow boat drifting gently down the Mekong River.

We are nearly an hour into our approximately 14 hour journey from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, Laos.

Despite my usual fears, our vessel is actually very comfortable. All nine of us on board have our own table as well as a double seat which looks to have been removed from a van or small bus. The gentle breeze, the rumbling engine, the subtle side-to-side  rocking of the boat, and the spectacular views of riverside villages have completely silenced all passengers. Some (including Marina seated in front of me) are absorbed in their book, others listen to music, while some write in their journals.

No one dares to break the silence.

There’s something quite amazing about traveling slowly, knowing that you have no hurry to get to your destination. There are few distractions. You quickly forget the urgency of life back home and settle into a more meditative state. Your mind – usually flexed with tension of looming deadlines, responsibilities, expectations, incoming emails, etc. – finally stretches out.

Thoughts of weekend plans, that erroneous cell-phone bill you need to call about, or the repairs needed on your car fizzle away to obscurity as you ponder your path in life, reassess your values, carefully recount the errors you’ve made, and focus on what you really require to be happy and content in your life.

An unexamined life is not worth living.

– Socrates

This is the gift of prolonged travel – whether by bus, boat, train, or plane. Many people embark on longer journeys with the purpose of “finding themselves”; the notion being that somewhere on the treadmill of modern life they’ve managed to become lost.

But all most of us require is some time and solitude, and the opportunity to examine our life from an aerial rather than the usual street view.

I can’t pretend that travel is the panacea for all of one’s problems; the problems you leave behind when you strap on your backpack are waiting to greet you upon return. However, if you’re feeling lost, lacking purpose, or uninspired, a sabbatical of some sort might be just the cure. You needn’t go far – maybe a staycation is all that is necessary. Just some time to break away from the monotony of everyday life.

Beware the bareness of a busy life.

– Socrates


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