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'I climbed an almighty mountain. I wasn't ready for the way it changed me forever.'

When someone asks you about your holiday, and that holiday involves walking up Mt Kilimanjaro, it’s really hard to answer with a massive smile and a breathy, ‘ohmygoditwasamazing!’

Of course, it was amazing. But it was also terrible. And incredible. And spanned the gamut of exciting, exhausting, exhilarating, dull and just plain tough. But how to say all this – and explain it – in the five-second conversation people are willing to give you when you return from being away?

How does someone gush with enthusiasm and dismiss something that has challenged their core in just a few words? I might be overthinking it, but I feel a frivolous answer does a discourtesy not only to the journey itself, but to the person who could be swayed by my words. If I unwittingly convinced someone to climb Kilimanjaro with a ‘Yeah, it was amazing! You must do it!’, I know curses would reign down upon me from afar.

Jacqueline Donaldson, Mt Kilimanjaro. Image: Supplied

Because undertaking a challenge like Intrepid Travel’s Kilimanjaro Climb – or trekking to Base Camp, swimming in the ocean for the first time or whatever makes your heart race and your brain scream ‘agggh!’ – ultimately becomes something that alters you. It may be subtle, but you simply aren’t the same person that you were before. And not everyone is ready for that. To challenge yourself is to learn a little more of what you’re made of, and it may not always be something you like.

I spent months training my body to be fit enough to walk for days at a time and an equal amount of time worrying about the cold and the altitude. What didn’t even register a blip on my Kilimanjaro radar were the conflicting emotions that would come bubbling up from inside me – or from my fellow walkers for that matter. The further we walked the rawer we became. And the ability to keep in place the polished personas we show the world slowly slipped away.

Mt Kilimanjaro. Image: Supplied
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Like the mouthy guy with a body like a brick shithouse (and an attitude to match) who was helped down the mountain by a wafer-thin guide and his petite girlfriend, barely able to keep his head from lolling back he was so out of it. And the wise-cracking Irishman who gradually became silent as he struggled with damaged feet, but who then took the time to stop, remove his pack and offer his last bar of chocolate, an encouraging word and a wide smile to a girl sprawled defeated on the ground.

And in my case? My breaking point came when I was heading down the mountain. I had been struggling on the way up, but grim determination and an angel of a guide kept me going. But then, five hours later, a tantrum of tears and grumpiness threatened because I was pissed off at how precarious it was to descend the mountain and I wanted it to be over. For a few hours I battled pointless, poisonous thoughts, angry at myself and unable to let them go, which made a hard physical experience worse.

But when I arrived at the small ridge where the people I had been walking with were resting, their greetings were so heartfelt (despite looking how I felt) that my moodiness fizzled. It was so sudden – this awful mood that was making me so unhappy was over in a split second. I was still tired and sore and really over it, but I was fine and meant to feel that way. Why was I beating myself up about it?

Jacqueline Donaldson, Mt Kilimanjaro. Image: Supplied

And it may sound like nothing, but it showed me – in surround sound – my reactions to stress and tiredness. To see it play out in its extreme also showed me that it doesn’t need to be that way – I can choose it or not.

And that made me feel good. And it’s made me feel different. I’m not sure brick-shithouse guy walked away feeling so good, but I bet he’s humbler and a slightly nicer person to be around. And ultimately, any challenge you’ve tackled can show you how strong you can be and that scary things in life often reap the biggest rewards.

This post originally appeared on Intrepid Travel and was republished here with full permission.

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