Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Archive for May 2013

It’s All Relative

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The Ladies Trekking Club starts their journey at the Morum Barrier Gate, 12,362 feet.

The Ladies Trekking Club starts their journey at the Morum Barrier Gate, 12,362 feet.

Several weeks ago, when I was climbing laboriously up the trails of Mt Kilimanjaro, each step bringing intense pain and dizziness, I told my fellow trekking companion that if we were at sea level in Virginia, it would just be a hike through the park.

Last week, on a cool and sunny spring day, I took that hike through the park. My husband and I took on the two-mile-long Billy Goat Trail, which winds along the Potomac River, in Great Falls National Park.

The trail led over rough and rocky terrain, including a steep climb up a cliff face. We scrambled over and around huge boulders, finishing in 75 minutes. While the trail was technically more challenging than the path on Kilimanjaro, I wasn’t a bit tired at the end.

The difference was 14,000 feet.

It’s all relative. I find that the older I become the more I let the relative happen. I can’t judge myself against my younger self or even my peers. It took me a while to come to that conclusion. As photographers we always compare ourselves to each other. Who won what award?  How did they get that job? Why was their work selected for that exhibition?

It’s exhausting and with social media the need to brag about our lives and accomplishments seems to have intensified.

Mt. Kilimanjaro bathed in moonlight at 2:30 am.

Mt. Kilimanjaro bathed in moonlight at 2:30 am.

Being on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro took me away from all that. There is something wonderful about being able to say “I won’t have email for a few weeks.”

I decided to join the climb because the organizers, The Ladies Trekking Virtual Club, had an admirable mission. They were raising money for books to be distributed in schools near the base of the mountain and to pay education fees for ten Maasai high school girls. The project was called Dreamers and Doers. My assignment was to create photographs of the climb and the schoolbook distribution.

School children at the Maroroni Elementary school look over the text books donated to them by the trekking group.

School children at the Maroroni Elementary school look over the text books donated to them by the trekking group.

The climbers were a diverse group and each had their own reason to participate. For some it was something to cross off their bucket list. For others it climbing this mountain was fulfilling a dream. A few wanted to change their lives and this climb was their first step in that direction.   For Janika Vaikjarv, who organized the climb, it was a way to give back to the community. She invited a Maasai woman named Theresia to join us. Her daughters’ secondary school fees were being paid for by this trek. Theresia may have been the first Maasai woman to climb Kilimanjaro. When Theresia later visited her daughters’ school and the principal announced her accomplishment to the students, she was greeted like a rock star.

Theresia in a pensive mood as the school books were distributed to the students at the Maroroni Elementary.

Theresia in a pensive mood as the school books were distributed to the students at the Maroroni Elementary.

For me the climb was a job—but one of the better ones I’ve had in a long time. I made it to 14,000 feet and stayed there for two days before realizing that for an inexperienced climber like myself, trying to work and trek at the same time was not possible. The lack of oxygen was making me sick.

I had a decision to make. Should I try to continue working? I might be able to, but I was also risking getting sick enough that I would have to be hauled down the mountain. Reaching the summit wasn’t an important goal for me—I was there to take pictures. But sick as I was, photographing was no longer possible. I decided to descend on my own power.

Once off the mountain, I spoke with an experienced climber who told me that working like a photographer—using short intense bursts of energy—was absolutely the wrong thing to do, especially when mountain sickness began to set in. No wonder I was getting sicker the harder I tried to work!

Each time I maneuvered to take a picture, I would feel dizzy and nauseated. Normally I can ignore physical discomfort by focusing on taking pictures. In the past I have photographed while seasick and vomiting.  But this seemed different.

At this point I’m experienced enough to know that sticking through something like this is not always wise. I rarely come back with a memorable picture when I try to work through a painful situation.

Hoof print of a water buffalo that wandered up to 13,000 feet on the mountain looking for salt.

Hoof print of a water buffalo that wandered up to 13,000 feet on the mountain looking for salt.

To my delight, the journey down Kilimanjaro was wonderful. The weather was clear and since we were not holding to a schedule I could travel at a relaxed pace. Deogratus, my guide, took his time explaining the geology, flora and fauna found on the mountain.

A friend of mine who lives in Hawaii and believes in the spirit of the land said the mountain had given me a gift. Often in my life I get so focused on reaching a goal that I overlook the beauty along the way. Our slow descent brought Kilimanjaro’s stark scenery into sharp focus. I was happy to be there. With the fog of my painful ascent clearing away, I realized how fortunate I was to be standing in the middle of this high altitude moonscape. Deogratus took great pleasure in sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of the mountain. I was amazed at the everlasting flowers that grew under all conditions. I photographed the hoof print of a water buffalo looking for salt. We stopped to absorb the view of   “Ol Doinyo Lengai, ” or “Mountain of God” in the Maasai language. It last erupted in 2008 and is one of those rare volcanoes producing nitrocarbonatite lava. This downward trek became the highlight of my four days on the mountain. The closer I got to the bottom, the better I felt.

Did I make it to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro? No. But again, it’s all relative. I didn’t need to reach the summit. Over time, I’ve learned that knowing when to change direction can often open doors to new and better experiences and opportunities.

A trekker looks off Kilimanjaro at sunrise.

A trekker looks off Kilimanjaro at sunrise.