I know, I know, mountain climbing isn’t on everyone’s agenda. Being a dedicated couch potato who can barely run two kilometres without dying, it was the furthest thing on my mind. Yet in 2014, I found myself talked into my first mountain climb ever—Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia at 4,095 metres.
…and I haven’t looked back since.
Less than a year later, I huffed and puffed up Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania at 5,895 metres. Less than a year after that, I was dragging myself up to 4,650metres while skirting the Salkantay Mountain in Peru.
Was it hard? Yes. Was it painful? Yes. I’m not the blubbering kind and my tear ducts are abnormally dry (my optometrist said as much), but even I burst into tears in all but one of my climbs so far.
And yet I will happily (if delusionally) go climb another, and so should you. Here’s why:
1. You don’t know if you can or cannot do something until you actually do it.
Underneath all the “Oh, that’s only for insanely fit people” or “I’m too lazy for that” lies the fear of failure, and the even scarier thought of that fear becoming true. For years, I had unconsciously convinced myself that I couldn’t cook, couldn’t play a musical instrument and couldn’t keep a cactus alive to save my soul, and so I simply didn’t. When I finally broke through that barrier, and went ahead and did those things, I realised that it was all just in my head. It wasn’t difficult, I did suck at first but I got better and better, and if I hadn’t spent so much time telling myself I couldn’t and instead used that time to practice, who knows where I’d be now?
2. It is motivation to put your life together.
After confirming my first mountain climbing trip, it dawned on me that I should probably prepare a bit for it. It was unlikely that I’d be the fittest person in the group, but I sure as hell was not going to let myself be the weakest! And so I started going to the gym for real for the first time in my 26 years of being alive.
You may have heard of “keystone habits”—habits that start a chain of other good habits. Starting with the gym, I soon found myself regularly taking the stairs to our apartment on the 10th floor, in order to simulate a “climb up a mountain”. I also started to eat healthier to build up strength. My stamina increased, I slept better, and felt stronger—a strange, new but pleasant feeling for someone who won’t stand if she can sit, and won’t sit if she can lie down.
3. You learn to pace yourself (on the trail and in life as well).
Most people assume that there is a particular standard of fitness to attain in order to climb a mountain. Though being at your fittest and healthiest definitely helps, what matters more is your pacing. You know you’ve hit the right pace when you’re not going so fast that your heart is hammering its way out of your chest, and not so slow that you’re starting to cool down.
It can be hard to stick to your pace, especially if you are climbing in a group where everyone’s paces vary. You may be the faster one and get annoyed at the other sloths, or you may be the slower one and feel pressured to catch up with the superhumans (this is me). You can try to avoid this by ensuring that you climb with a group of people who are of the same fitness level. But sometimes you don’t get to choose who you go with, in which case, you can break into pairs with similar pacing, and move separately in smaller groups. You can also be patient and match the slow pace in the spirit of teamwork and unity, or be open with your group about taking it slow and allow them to get ahead of you (but not before agreeing on certain meeting points along the trail in regular intervals for safety reasons).
4. They’ve got your back.
On Kilimanjaro, we had an entire support team with us, without whom we would never have survived even halfway up. What struck me most was how earnestly they wanted us to summit. Our guides weren’t just people who pointed the way, they were our psychologists cum coaches who refused to let us give up on ourselves (and believe me, we wanted to plenty of times). Our porters didn’t just carry our things, but quite literally carried us when we got too weak.
5. You earn the right to see beauty reserved for very few.
My late mother observed me limping around the house after I returned from my first climb, and in genuine puzzlement, asked: “Why do you torture yourself like this?”
I suppose different people will have different answers—to prove something, to test one’s limits, to conquer a fear, to impress girls, to add to one’s résumé, etc. For me, it’s because the mountain is beautiful, and it is the kind of beauty you do not see down here. It is the kind of beauty that requires struggle and sacrifice to witness, a type of beauty that is earned and therefore cannot be taken for granted.
6. That feeling when you reach the top…
That being said, I don’t climb mountains just for its good looks. I also climb to build myself up, and perhaps even defy my own expectations.
If you are feeling a little down, a little less sure of yourself, or in need of a change, I really believe mountain climbing can help. When I climbed my first mountain, I had just exited a low point in my life and was struggling with the echoes of an emotional upheaval. The mountain I was physically climbing was, in a way, a representation of the uphill journey I was trying to make privately in my own head.
So when I reached the summit at the dawn of a beautiful day, I naturally had a lot of feelings running through me, but the most intense feeling was this: INVINCIBILITY. I hadn’t just conquered the mountain, I had also conquered myself.
7. What goes up must come down (that also means you).
Unfortunately, I found out very quickly that I quite literally could not come down the mountain. My legs had stopped functioning and the never-ending trail seemed to descend straight down to hell. Your chances of injury are in fact higher when going down, and having to pay the utmost attention to where you are stepping drains out your already-dwindling energy.
But hey, that’s life – it’s pretty dandy to be up top, but boy does it hurt when it’s time to come down a peg or two. And just when you’ve experienced the euphoria of your invincibility too.
It does serve as a reminder that, though you may not be able to control or avoid your downfall, you can prepare and make the journey down hurt less. In mountain climbing, you do it with support gear (knee braces, fitted shoes), proper pacing and adequate rest. In life, you do it with humility and generosity. After all, they say you meet the same people on the way down, so the kinder you were on your way up, the gentler your way down will be.
8. It’s life in High Definition.
On my Kilimanjaro trek, I took a swig of my lukewarm coke infused with a limp piece of lime that came with breakfast. It was the BEST COKE of my life. When we completed the climb, returned to civilisation and showered for the first time in six days, it was the BEST SHOWER of my life. These are things I normally would have found mundane and not worth mentioning, but boy, could I have waxed poetry over that bottle of coke and that shower.
If you ever find yourself feeling blasé about your current life, then go climb a mountain. You will find the air you breathe fresher; the water you drink sweeter; the smiles you give and receive more sincere; and the sky you look up at night brighter with more stars than your eyes can handle. It’s a different life, and you will feel like a different person with a different set of dreams and concerns.
Now, admittedly it’s not a life you can sustain forever (I certainly would not be able to go longer than a week or two in the wild, pooping in bushes and hoping nothing will come out to bite me in the ass), but for that short amount of time that you are on the mountain, it is, to quote Disney, “a whole new world”.
9. The person who came down is not the same one who went up.
Aside from discovering a whole new world, you may also discover a whole new you. Being away from your usual luxuries (your phone, your couch, your bed, the internet) and thrown into a new and strange set of circumstances awakens different parts of you that you probably never even knew existed: the adventurer, who otherwise would remain stifled, confined between a swiveling office chair and the computer screen; the survivor, who in most cases slumbered on, not required in a world of comforts that you live in.
Even as I returned to my normal pre-climb life and typical daily routines, something within my little world had shifted. In the context of a game, it would be as though I had “leveled up”, with replenished points and brand new tools/weapons, ready to take on whatever was next with renewed vigor.
10. I told myself I would never do it again…
The first few days after my first climb was pure torture. I was dizzy with exhaustion, puking out the non-existent contents of my empty stomach and unable to even look at a flight of stairs without wanting to cry. I promised: never again.
But in less than a few months later, I was happily booking my hike up Kilimanjaro.
The first few days after my Kilimanjaro climb, I could barely walk, having shredded the bottoms of my feet into a raw, painful mess (this is what you get when you don’t tie your shoes properly tight). I thought: okay, that’s enough now.
Naturally, it only took me a few more months to cheerfully book my next climb.
The lesson here is not that I am a masochist, but that some things are totally worth the pain. Some experiences build you up, make you that much better, and take you that much closer to the manifestation of all that you are capable of—and isn’t that what we all want?
So, who wants to try Everest with me?