What are you made of?

When the temperature drops, what do you let loose?
Gentle rain?
Snow wrapped hail?
Lightening and thunder?
A swirling vortex that pitches cows and cars into trees?

When the rain falls,
do you squish like mud?
Soak it up like the grass?
Disappear it like sand?
Let it roll off your granite back?

When the fires inch closer,
do you loose yourself in a cloud of steam?
Crumble to a pile of ash?
Splinter and crack into a thousand brittle pieces?
Melt like metal refined?

Challenges and change, pain and suffering – these things reveal who we are.  It is a truth uncontested to the point of being a multicultural cliche.  Whether or not it is possible to change that nature – to learn a different way of being – is a separate question altogether.  Philosophers have weighed in on the question for eons.  While I for one do believe that leopards might make stripes of spots, that is not the point of this post.  If change is possible, it is unlikely without understanding, and understanding comes by revelation.  SO, I want to stick to the “revealing” part.  What are we made of?  And how do we discover that?

This last week, I went up and down Mt. Kenya (16,350 ft) for the third time.  [If you missed the stories from the first two experiences, you can read about them here and here.]  As usual, I had a passel of kids to herd up the peak.  I agreed at the beginning of this year to co-lead the 9th-grade trip which meant that we had eighty-four 14-year-olds to think about.  Have no fear though — we split them in half (not down the middle, thankfully, otherwise parents might get upset.)  Jon and I each got thirty-seven.  His group would start on one side and mine on the other.  We would meet at the top, cross, and go down opposite sides.  At least, that was the plan in it’s purest and simplest form.  And we were not alone with the kids.  We had extra teacher chaperons as well as a handful of professional guides along with each group.

How did it go?  In short … it was an excellent trip.  Here’s the 30-second recap:

Monday: Short hike to the first camp — only about four hours of walking.  Overcast skies but no real weather.  It cleared just before we arrived.

Tuesday: Long hike to base camp.  Loooong hike.  One kid gave up an hour into it.  We sent him home.  (Apparently another kid on the other side had done the same, though I didn’t find out about it for another day.)  The skies were clear for the first half of the hike.  The other half, they threatened rain — all thunder and spit, thankfully.  The front of the group made it to camp in just under ten hours.  The back of the group pulled in after eleven and a half hours on the trail.  I was with the back group.

Wednesday: Summit day.  We left four kids at base camp (14,000 ft) who were dealing with various degrees of altitude sickness.  We sent another three back down when their symptoms got too severe.  They would join the group that was coming over the peak later that day, and we would pick up any sick ones the other group had left on the other side.  At the top, the clouds rolled in and the thunder rumbled in the distance.  It hailed and snowed on us on our way off the peak.  We made it to the opposite base camp about eight hours after leaving the bunkhouse.

Thursday: Short descent.  It’s always so nice to be able to breathe easily again.  We hiked about five hours down to a meteorological station in the foothills.  It would be our final night on the mountain.

Friday: Final descent and bus ride home.  We walked about two hours down to the park gate, boarded the bus, stopped off for lunch, and arrived back at school right at 3:30pm on Friday — slightly sore, slightly sunburned, but otherwise all in one piece.

This story though is not about the doing.  It’s about the revealing.

The one kid who I had to let go home made me sad.  He wasn’t sick.  He gave up.  His body may have been able, but his mind was not willing.  On that second morning he took a look at the distant peaks, he heard “nine hours walking if you’re relatively quick, twelve if you’re not,” and he decided he would never make it.  And in all truth, the decision to quit had likely been made many months before.  Does he know what he’s made of?  Does he see yet that quitting in the face of a challenge is as much a habit as perseverance?  That we learn both when we’re young?

Every kid in the group responded differently to the challenge.  Some complained for much of the way, and then, when given the option to stay behind, refused just as loudly.  Others gritted their teeth and trudged their way up the mountain.  Still others laughed and joked as they walked, creatively coming up with ways to pass the time and ease the pain.

My favorite one to watch was Nora.   She’s the heaviest student in the group and not in great physical shape.  She cried going up a particularly steep hill on the second day, threw up in the middle of the night at base camp, and was the last one to arrive at the end of every hike.  Yet, through the tears and the throw-up and interminable days of walking, she discovered in herself a will of steel, a gentle patience, and a persistent kindness towards the other members of the group.

These kids are the reason I return to the mountain.



Both of my previous Mt. Kenya posts have some great pictures along with the stories.  The mountain hasn’t changed that much in four years, (if anything, there was less snow this time) so I won’t repeat some of the previous views.  However, here are a few pics from angles not previously posted.

Slow march to the summit.

A beautiful glacial lake — a “tarn” in more technical terms.

Both groups meet a the top.  The cold clouds have just started to roll over the top and there is a bit of thunder in the distance.  I’m in the front row of three, on the right in all black.

Looking at the glacier below us as the clouds continue to roll in and the hail begins.

It’s just beginning to snow as we break for lunch.  If you look closely you can see the flakes on the table.

Heading down the mountain on Thursday.

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