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Two generations ago a man placed a goat on his shoulders and climbed to the top of a 19,314 foot mountain. When he reached the summit he slit the goat’s throat, drank the blood, and sacrificed the goat to the God at the top of the mountain. He returned down the mountain and told the villagers, “Now it will rain,” and two days later the rains came. Two weeks ago this man’s grandson guided us to the summit of that same mountain, Mt. Kilimanjaro, where we placed prayer flags, and importuned God to heal those afflicted with cancer.*
Mountains have long been seen as holy places, where we imagine we can come close to God, by ascending to great heights. Those of us who would never dream of climbing the highest peak in Africa, or the highest peak anywhere, will often strive to become close to God in our holy temples, where we pray and importune God’s blessings just as we do in the tops of mountains.
That mountains would be analogous to temples has always made sense to me. However, after climbing to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, I realized the similarities between mountains and temples are far more encompassing than ever I imagined. Certainly temples and mountains both give us the opportunity to separate ourselves from the world, to remove ourselves from the hustle and bustle of commercialism and worldly pursuits and to ponder the heavenly.
Previously, when I thought of temples as mountains, I thought of being in the temple, or at the top of a mountain. However, in a myriad of ways, it is the ascent of the mountain that teaches us about the process of getting to the temple.
Those who climb Mt. Kilimanjaro are required to climb with a porter and a guide.
An arrogant climber might believe he can carry his own gear, or find his own way up the mountain, and that a porter and a guide are superfluous, an unnecessary expense. In fact, both the porters and the guides are indispensable. Each porter carries a 35-pound pack up the mountain that holds your sleeping bag, tents, mats, food, even port-a-potties. The thirty plus climbers in our group needed 117 porters to carry all our gear.
At the end of a long day of climbing, it was a huge relief to arrive in camp and to find our tents all set up, our duffle bags delivered to our tents, clean bathrooms, and dinner cooking. The porters knew where to find water, and carried five gallon buckets of water on their heads from the nearest stream to our camp. There is no way we could have climbed the mountain without their help.
The guides were as indispensable as the porters. Several times during the ascent the terrain was so treacherous that the guides had to indicate exactly where to place each foot so we didn’t slip and fall off a cliff. Because I am only five feet tall, there were spans I could not physically reach without a guide lending a hand. There were places where the path diverged and I had no idea which direction to go. Once I was so physically exhausted one of the guides took the Nalgene bottles out of my pack and carried them for me.
The guides stopped us every hour and reminded us to drink water and to snack. Even when we claimed we weren’t thirsty, or felt nauseated, the guides encouraged us to drink. We needed to stay hydrated to complete the climb and they knew if we waited until we felt thirsty, we were already getting dehydrated. The guides knew we would need energy for the steps ahead. I thought of those who encourage us to read the scriptures, to pray, to attend our meetings on a regular basis, even when we don’t feel like it. We may not even know if we are becoming spiritually dehydrated, but our guides know.
The guides on Kili set the pace for our climb. Some of us thought they were walking too slowly, and we would race ahead. The guides gently reminded us “pole, pole” which means, slowly, slowly in Swahili. They knew the intense exertion that awaited us at the top of the mountain, and if we expended all our energy in the first couple of days, we would never make it to day seven. Priesthood leaders also set a steady pace for our temple quest. Rushing headlong into commitment before we are ready, does not lead to sustained discipleship. In their wisdom, they prepare us to make it all the way to the summit.
My favorite contribution of all were the songs the porters sang to us each day as we dragged our weary bodies into camp. They had arrived hours before us, set up camp, and gathered in a group to clap their hands and sing songs of encouragement. They loved to dance, and they have wonderful rhythm and by the end of the climb we were joining right in with them, dancing and clapping, and singing in Swahili. In life when we grow weary on our quest to exaltation, a cheering committee makes all the difference. Perhaps our family members, perhaps our ward members, perhaps our faithful friends constitute that cheering committee. Whatever the source, having someone believe in us, and express that belief out loud, with enthusiasm, can keep us going when we are tempted to quit.
As much credit as the porters and the guides deserve for helping a climber summit a high mountain, in the end the climber himself must put one foot in front of the other, hoist himself up the rocks, and withstand the misery of the elements, fatigue, illness or injury. Ultimately, even with all the help available to help one summit, the individual himself is responsible for the victory.
The porters might lighten a load, but they cannot carry you up the mountain. They can’t do your workout, they can’t strengthen your muscles, they can’t increase your lung capacity, or lower your heart rate. Your own hard work is what makes summiting possible. That hard work can’t begin two weeks before the climb. Ideally, fitness will have been years in the making. The oldest man on our climb was 69 years old. But he spends all his days hiking in the mountains near his home, camping and bird hunting. A seven day climb to 19,000 feet was grueling, but not impossible for one so fit.
As much as you prepare physically for a climb like this, the mental preparation is paramount. You can control how hard you work out, and your fitness level, but you never know what your body will do when the air becomes thin.
You don’t know whether or not you will get altitude sickness. Altitude sickness causes intense headaches, debilitating nausea and vomiting, hallucinations. Even the most physically fit climber can be susceptible to altitude sickness. When AMS (acute mountain sickness) strikes the thing that keeps you going is all mental. The top of Kili is no place for a whiner. You will suffer. You need to be okay with that.
Before you begin a climb of this magnitude, you are filled with doubt. Will I be able to make it? Will it be worth all the effort? All your preparation is an act of faith. Every step comes with the hope that you will summit and it will be worth it.
As we walked in the dark toward the summit of Kilimanjaro the moon glistened on the freshly fallen snow and made a million sparkles, matching perfectly the stars sparkling in the night sky. Just as we reached the summit the sun peeked over the horizon. The streak of sunlight first shone a pale pink, then peach, and became coral as day dawned. Our ice-cold fingers began to thaw, and we were able to remove the balaclavas from our faces. For miles in every direction we watched the sunrise, and at that height we could actually see the curvature of the earth. Was it exhilarating? It was. Was it humbling, awe-inspiring, breathtaking? It was. And in the end it was totally worth it.
*For more information about Radiating Hope, the organization we climbed with and their efforts to cure cancer around the world, go to www.Radiatinghope.org