A bucket list wasn’t for me. I was either going to do it or I wasn’t! “Yes, I’ll add that to my bucket list, and that, and oh yes, that too!”, they say! A list that will go into a draw, maybe next to their will and some poor soul will find it when they have transitioned.
In Ghana, I simply asked if I could join in the climb. It was being organized by one of my colleagues’ professors and it afforded me the opportunity to meet Ghanaian intellectuals and to climb a mountain. Both were of interest. Mount Afadjato is one of the highest mountains in Ghana’s Volta region and the guide Joey took us to the summit and back down in one day.
In the UK when I had first accepted that I would be moving to work abroad, mountains and hills had become symbolic for overcoming challenges. Up until that point, I had been a seasonal exerciser where the long spring and summer months would find me walking for hours, bike riding and jogging. The winters would come along and it was easy to revert to eating a certain brand of apple pie and custard in front of the TV huddled under the quilt with my children. My spirit knew that the energy I needed to relocate, was going to take a sustained effort of exercise and healthy eating. And so it began. I wrapped up warm and found hills to climb, parks to exercise in and streets to jog along. The move was hard but made possible by a stronger healthier mind, body, and spirit.
The party of four of us who completed the climb up Mount Afadjato were all fit and the professor was practicing for her climb of Mount Kilimanjaro later that year in her efforts to fundraise for a project that documented the stories of the elderly in Ghana. The climb itself was exciting as we navigated the forest terrain. The funniest part must have been meeting the locals at the top who were sitting and talking. They looked at us as we celebrated and congratulated one another on our achievements. It was more a sneer than just a look for, they probably walked this mountain every day to their farm, or to somebody else’s! They saw no need for celebration! As Ghanaians say, ‘I didn’t mind them!’. No one was taking away this victory from us and I changed there and then to take photographs of me holding yoga poses to honor the mountain and myself.
My second big climb up Mount Kinabalu was different. There was no one there to meet us for no life sat on or close to that hard rocky surface. The last four hours of the climb had taken place in the dark with nothing but head torches to guide us. The ropes had been strategically placed alongside the stairs and rock edges and it felt as if every ounce of energy, had been diverted to my arms to pull me up. At this point, my legs felt oh so heavy and were barely holding me up. I didn’t recognize my body and why would I? I had never climbed for two days. The altitude affected my breathing and I found myself stopping, at points wondering if I would even make it to the summit.
There were no friends here and the work colleagues had gone their own way as my need to stop, to gauge the risk versus the triumph of continuing, had bought out the survivor mode in them. It was definitely every wo/man (or couple) for themselves.
Whatever happened, we would meet back at the halfway house.
The first part of the hike had been fine. Each stop had made restarting difficult for a rhythm and a momentum had already built up. The rest stops, lunch stops and toilet stops allowed the muscles to cool down and the steeper the hill became, the tighter the calves and thighs were. We kept stretching but they were holding in that lactic acid.
I had worn my blue headscarf on the morning of the climb to the summit. This had come with me from Ghana and was a simple blue tie-dye print in satin and very similar to those found in Malaysia. In the last hour of the climb, the wind and cold became so intense, reminding me of the coldest harshest winter days in the UK. I placed my wool gloves over my mouth and cheeks to generate some heat. Tying my bandana over my mouth was fruitless for, no sooner had I tied it, that I would have to release it. That feeling of suffocation! It was a mad situation so placing my hands on my face, provided some temporary relief and then I could go on.
The intensity of the climb increased as we drew closer to the summit. I had packed cloth for every leg of this climb. A fellow climber had asked me where I was from! He had seen my ‘ethnic cloth! It had been a short conversation beginning with ‘Where are you from?’. As the cold increased, I wrapped the cotton headcloth over the satin one, grateful that I had packed it for at 2 am, having slept very little in a dormitory of 6 beds with my colleague on the bunk above, clearly unable to control his flatulence problem, meant that I wasn’t too sure what I was doing. There was a reason my spirit had wanted me to be on the top bunk! The smells wafted down and there was nowhere to turn so it was a very long night.
As I climbed towards the summit, the winds increased. I wrapped the cotton cloth over the satin scarf. The sunrise revealed the extent of the vast open space which I had just climbed. I met two of the couples descending as I approached the summit and although we were only five minutes apart, they were descending as I was going up. We stopped and shared how nausea had us feeling that we might just not make it. I climbed to the top where I stopped, watching others take their photographs with the sign and taking in the magnitude of what I had just achieved.
I had passed younger, fitter, taller people than myself who had stopped 10 minutes away, telling themselves they could not go any further. They looked healthier than me. I too had spun myself that lie and then I had flipped the script. I had come here to reach the top and I did! The sun had risen.
Back at the half-way house, we ate breakfast as it was only 10 am. It was 10 am and I had just climbed a mountain! It was an amazing if unbelievable feeling. We drank tea, ate breakfast and repacked for the final leg of the journey. The climb had taken so much out of me. I wasn’t sure that I had enough leg to navigate the descent.
As we left, I decided to leave the others behind and walked the four hours walk alone out of the forest. My knees were hurting and I realized I would need focus, concentration, and energy to leave the forest. All the qualities and skills that I had needed to successfully arrive at the summit. I had been told that Mount Kinabalu was a spiritual space. In between feeling the pain and soreness of my ankles, thighs, and shoulders, my knees began to hurt further. I saw monkeys, ladies in threes, crocodiles and old men watching me. As I looked back or came close, they were no longer there.
My flight was three hours delayed.
No one tells you about the spiritual, psychological and physiological impact of such a climb..but that’s for another story. The image of me standing on the mountain is my story. My headwrap is what people noticed and as I studied the image, which confirmed that women who look like me, do climb mountains.
The thoughts in this blog are mine. My opinions, uncensored. Please don’t take it personally.
For information on expeditions, you can contact
Ghana :Dziedzorm JayJay Segbefia