On Top of the World in Every Sense

06/24/2015 11:49 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016


"Socks?" Corny asked, holding up a plastic bag stuffed with wool and polyester.

"Yup! Check." I mirrored her actions and tossed my stash into a suitcase.

"Baby wipes?" She flung a 75-pack into her duffel bag.

"Roger that."

"Hiking pants?"

I opened my mouth to confirm, and then shut it wordlessly, my hands nervously twitching over the heap of gear we were packing away. Pants. Where were my pants?

The ten minutes that followed were laced with bitter panic. Neatly folded piles of clothing and clean stacks of supplies were upended and tossed onto the floor of the hotel room.

Unbelievable. I was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in less than twelve hours, and had forgotten my pants in Los Angeles.

As silly as it sounds, learning to cope with the Pants Incident set the tone for the rest of my climb, signifying a strange, abrupt departure from my comfort zone. Before this moment, I completely underestimated the sheer volume of factors that would be out of my control. Despite months of preparation, Kilimanjaro was a complete 180 from the sterilized, meticulously planned university life that I was accustomed to. My color-coded daily calendar was rendered useless here, and suddenly I was forced to find other ways to measure my accomplishments and deal with unexpected issues.

One way that I quantified my long days on the mountain was through the number of steps I took -- 158,661, to be exact. Each tiny forward motion represented merely a fragment of the most challenging mental feat I have ever accomplished: being alone with myself.


Every day's hike started in a similar fashion: early, uphill, and with my legs bleating pitifully: What? Walking again? Why? Maika. Maika please. But as my straining muscles found a rhythm, their complaining would quickly be replaced by other voices- ones discussing my deepest hopes, fears, and insecurities. What do you want to do with your life? Are you doing the right things to get there? Why aren't you working harder? I have never had more time to think than I did while climbing Kilimanjaro. And as the landscape grew increasingly barren, it's as if my thoughts dialed up their volume to compensate for my moon-like surroundings. With so little distraction from what was inside my head, I chased my thoughts in circles until they finally sat still, satisfied with the answers I provided.

That's not to say the journey up wasn't enjoyable. I saw sunrises and sunsets that nearly brought me to tears, starry skies that left me paralyzed, and vistas that put CGI to shame. By day three we were above the clouds, a thick, impenetrable layer of white that isolated us from the real world thousands of meters below. The entire experience was more dream than reality, something I would be convinced only happened inside my skull if not for the photographs that came home with me.


I could have done without the cold, however. Having spent most of my life in Southern California, I'd never known cold the way I came to understand it on Kilimanjaro. This wasn't the "t-shirt and sweater" chilly that graced a standard evening on the USC campus. This was a debilitating, jaw-clenching, "I can't even remember how many layers I'm wearing, but I know that it doesn't matter because there is no warmth left in my body to insulate anyways" cold. And there was no time I was more aware of the frigid temperature than during day seven, a day that Kilimanjaro guides ominously dub "the summit assault."

I will never forget my alarm going off, a sound as loving as a papercut to the eyeball. I had barely slept, but still woke up disoriented. My gaze lingered glumly on the time displayed on my phone: 11:00PM. In just one hour, my team would leave to begin our final ascent to Uhuru Peak.

I got dressed (not difficult, since I wore most of my clothing to sleep) and stepped outside. It was dark and miserable, but I was still dazzled by the spectacular diamond convention being hosted in the sky above me. The weather was merciful - below freezing, but with no windchill to bite through my clothing.

After a 6.5-hour uphill slog that seemed equally endless and instantaneous, we arrived. I reached the top just as the sun started to creep over the horizon, bloody red and proud. Glaciers surrounded me on all sides, and the lights of tiny towns in Kenya hundreds of miles away were starting to fade as they outsourced their job to the sky. I glanced up in time to see the last of the stars wink out, sending a rush through my body. Adrenaline replaced exhaustion as I realized exactly where I was.

We were given twenty minutes on top of the world - breathless, loopy, and covered in six days of grime. After a blur of obligatory picture taking, our guide motioned for us to begin our descent. But I lingered. Beneath my superficial giddiness and satisfaction, I felt more whole and grounded than I had ever been. In under a week, I pushed my mind and body to unexpected limits, and came out of the challenge with a level of self-respect and clarity that I never thought could be possible. Even as I returned to sea level, a piece of me remained sky-high.

Sir Edmund Hillary said it best: "It is not the mountains we conquer, but ourselves." Now I am back home, a stronger version of myself, and hungry for my next climb.


This is the final post in my series about my trip to Tanzania. All my love to Carolyn, Chris, Heather, and Wolfgang - I couldn't dream up a better motley crew of climbers if I tried. Shoutout to Team Kilimanjaro - your hard work and endless encouragement made this endeavor possible. Finally, thank you to my soul sister, Corny Koehl. You are more than I deserve.