Climbing the wrong mountain

25 10 2012


A few years ago I had the opportunity to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain. In preparation I bought a new pair of walking boots, a down sleeping bag and a lightweight inflatable mattress. I also made enquiries about borrowing a rucksack that had been on a trip to Everest base camp. Books on Kilimanjaro were stacked up on my bedside table.

Part of the training for the trip involved a weekend in the Brecon Beacons. We camped out for two nights in tents that we had to carry ourselves and put up and take down in the dark. I was not fast at this. Nor was I fast at trekking up the steep paths across the Welsh valleys. The new hi-tech boots rubbed a weeping blister on both heels and my energy was low due to being unable to sleep in the cold, damp tent. Added to this was the problem of a torn cartilage in my right knee. Each time I climbed a stile (and there are a lot of stiles in the Brecon Beacons) and put my weight on my right leg, it gave way. The rest of the team were nimbly scrambling up through the woods and bracken-covered slopes, but I was tentative and afraid that the weight of the rucksack would topple me.

On the second night, wide awake with the cold and a terrible dry fatigue, I overheard a team member say that I would slow down the expedition. I finished the weekend exercise knowing that I was climbing the wrong mountain.

It was hard to pull out. I had planned the trip and had been looking forward to the adventure. I’d told people I was going. I’d got excited about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and seeing something of the abundant wildlife of Tanzania. Even though I’d spent time in Africa, I’d never seen elephant in the wild or giraffe or lions. I had not been on a proper expedition before. All my previous travelling had been visits to family or friends with the exception of one trip to Australia.

I considered getting the knee fixed, but I didn’t want an operation, and there was no guarantee that it would heal strong enough to climb the mountain. It was, however, strong enough to climb a few Devon hills as long as was careful and I could still ride as long as I didn’t try to mount from the ground. On one long walk when I reflected on how I was not now going to climb Kilimanjaro, I felt neither disappointed nor defeated, but strangely euphoric.

The reason was that I’d been putting off trying something that I was afraid of. Kilimanjaro obscured a bigger mountain. That summer I began training a young Arabian colt. Had I been in Kilimanjaro, I would not have had enough time to do this well, and it turned out that training this young and highly spirited horse would start me on an adventure that has lasted ten years and is still taking me to new places.

Sometimes our failures are new expeditions.

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