Eddie Bauer First Ascent guide Melissa Arnot has stood on top of the world more times than any Western woman. She has also battled severe weather, bronchial infection, and thin air on Himalayan peaks that turned her around within sight of the summit. But beyond her successes on Everest and her struggles on Makalu, the Sun Valley resident draws on the knowledge she has gained to devote her time and her expertise to philanthropic efforts such as Summit on the Summit. On an expedition that brought together artists, activists, and actors for the clean water cause, Arnot guided 26 people—including Justin Chatwin, Beau Garrett, Mark Foster, Chase Jarvis and Kenna— on a journey up Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. But, as Arnot describes in her first dispatch for the new Live Your Adventure blog, guiding new climbers to the summit is only one step toward sharing a deeper sense of perspective.
Words by Melissa Arnot, Images courtesy of Summit on the Summit
Sometimes the most important part of an adventure isn’t the preparation or the destination, but the space between.
In an instant, the sky clouded over and turned dark. A reminder that everything is connected and this mountain requires respect. The new climber, standing at 16,000 feet for the first time, had a moment of optimistic arrogance and suggested that he would crush the mountain the following day on his summit attempt. As the sun was blocked out and the summit was obscured from view, he was reminded that the mountain can hear him, and he is on her turf.
I always tell the mountains I am attempting to climb that I plan to take nothing but knowledge, and I respect them. The climber immediately repented and assured me that he respected the mountain too. I believed him, and more importantly, Mount Kilimanjaro believed him. Under a starry sky and in warm temperatures, we climbed our way up to 19,341 feet. Emotions ran high in our group on the summit. Multiple people wiped tears from their eyes as they crested into a space they never imagined seeing, or perhaps one for which they spent their whole life looking.
The journey to the summit of a mountain is an intensely personal one. The simplicity of it becomes complicated for most people who spend their lives with multiple distractions and tasks filling every second. It is a challenge in many ways, but mostly an internal one. There is discomfort, whether it comes from sleeping on the ground or struggling to absorb the oxygen at high altitude. But there is beauty.
There is a sunrise burning the sky in a way you never knew it could. There is the intensity you feel when closer to the sun while surrounded by ice deeper than you imagined. There is the feeling of knowing who you really are, even for just a moment. And that is the moment that makes all of the discomfort worth it. You can pause and see yourself, as you are, stripped of the charade of the day to day. I call this the space between. It is the critical pause between words that makes a sentence understandable. It is the silence between the notes that creates the tune of a song. It is the background of an image that properly distracts your eye. It is the important stuff.
At the start of 2013, I joined a group of 26 people on a journey of learning. We visited a Maasai school in Tanzania. The school has been using a P&G-provided system to purify their water for three years. The attendance rates are higher, the illness rates lower. But the women who gather water still urged us to help them find a solution to getting water in the dry season, when purifying a puddle isn’t even an option.
The visit was a combination of hope and a perplexing sense that this problem is not solvable. Soon after the village visit, we set off on the adventure to get to the summit of Kilimanjaro. Starting at 7,000 feet, in seven days we would climb up to 19,341 feet and all the way back down. As we began hiking through the jungle, the summit of the mountain peeked out, looking impossibly far away. After just three days of walking, she peeked out again, and suddenly seemed a whole lot closer. In another two days, every single member of our team – people who ranged from prior summiters ones who had never been away from electricity for 24 hours – stood on the summit.
This journey to the summit of Kilimanjaro was a unique one. Typically in my job as a mountain guide, people come to me because they want to climb a mountain. This was not the case for the Summit on the Summit group. This group of artists, actors, musicians and water experts came to learn about the global clean water crisis. They came together—high on the side of a mountain—to see if a solution could be found in the silence. It is easy to talk about philanthropy and global issues in the safety of an office or over a good meal and cocktails, but it gets very real when you are struggling to breathe at 19,000 feet, realizing you are thirsty, but that getting water is a struggle (and at the same time you realize that you made the choice to make it a struggle, while so many people do not). There are valuable metaphors available in mountain climbing. But I believe the real value isn’t obvious. It lies in the space between.
The moment everyone stood on the summit was special. It was important. It was the metaphor we were looking for. Though the truth is that the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro didn’t look any closer when we got there. Our sense of perspective was askew. We couldn’t see what we had accomplished. It wasn’t until we reached the bottom, two days and a long walk back into the jungle, that we had a sense of what was possible.
I thought of the village and the schoolchildren and the women’s request. Sometimes it takes getting to the summit and all the way back down before you can understand the perspective of what you have accomplished. Summit on the Summit has been striving to create a conversation for three years. When I think about the global clean water crisis, right in front of me I see people in need of drinking water, children dead from dysentery, women who die trying to get clean water for their families. It feels that the summit of solving this problem is so far away. But when I look behind me, I see the conversation that has been started. I see solutions from innovative and passionate people, like Cynthia Koenig and her wellowater.org or Bryn Mooser and his inquisitive mind, trying to find ways to get more water catchment in drought-prone areas.
After this journey, I can really see how it is all connected. The conversation started by Summit on the Summit, the way that the mountain can hear you. The conversation of what is possible or that getting to the summit isn’t the end of the journey. They are both just steps along the way, and the important things live in the space between.
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