Written by Grant Billings
Hello all! My name is Grant Billings, and I’ve been a member at Skyline since January of 2018. For those who don’t know me, I frequent the afternoon classes and can usually be found pestering Isabel about the next time we will be able to warm up by playing dodgeball. My goal in fitness is two-fold: functionality and pushing myself 100% to see what I am capable of. CrossFit has been a huge value add since it varies basic bodyweight movements, combined with high-intensity. Which is a big deal to me, because I can feel the results carrying through to all aspects of daily life. I’m always looking for new ways to challenge myself, and I decided that I wanted to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Mt.Kilimanjaro is located in Tanzania in Eastern Africa, is 19,341 feet tall, and can be summited 100% by hiking – no actual rock climbing required. Since all it is just walking (for a very long time and very high altitude), I saw it as a perfect fitness challenge. Leading up to the trip, there were a lot of things that needed to be done before I was able to go: getting all of the equipment, suggestions from friends, travel vaccinations & medications, visas, etc, etc… At every step along the way, I heard a lot of the same questions. “What are you doing to prepare?”, “How are you training in Houston for elevation?”, “Are you going to the mountains to train before you go?”, all to which I responded, that I wasn’t doing anything different than I normally do. I got a lot of concerned looks and raised eyebrows about my lack of preparation. Some of my close friends who had previously been on similar trips even said that this trip would be the, “hardest thing you have ever done”. These people were by no means out of shape, but all had similar comments about the challenge of climbing this mountain. As the trip got closer, I got more and more nervous about whether or not I was going to be able to make it.
Getting to the actual trek, there are 6 different routes, of varying difficulty and time, that can be taken to hike to the top of Kilimanjaro. My friend and I chose a route that would take us 40 miles and 6 days to get up and down. There were 4 different climate zones along the route, that had different weather, temperature, and vegetation. The bottom started with rainforest and a humid 60-80 degrees, but at the top was the arctic zone that was down in the teens. Each day started at 7 am with breakfast, then went straight into the hike for the day. We would go until lunch to take a quick break, then continue on until the sun was going down. At the end of each day, our guides would sit down with us for a debrief on the day. We would talk about any struggles we had that day, go over the details for the next day, and take a measurement of our oxygen concentration to make sure that we were fit to keep going. At each debrief, I was told the same thing, “You may have felt good today, but be careful tomorrow. It will hit you tomorrow!”
We kept up our pace all the way to Barafu Base Camp. Along this portion of route, other groups were noticeably struggling. It was common to hear guides saying “polé, polé”, which is Swahili for “slow down”. It was very common for hikers to try to take the hike to quickly, only to find themselves out of breath and fighting altitude sickness. Fortunately, we made it to the base camp without any issues. It was here that the guide pulled me to the side and asked, “What do you do back in the United States? You are doing much better than most people.” I told him that I just stayed active back home, but I felt proud to hear that after all of the caution I got before the trip.
The day of the summit, we got up at midnight in order to reach the top for sunrise. Groups from every other route were also leaving at the same time, so we were trying to keep our pace up to beat the crowd. This ascent was where we started to feel the effects of the altitude. Breathing became much harder. Every little task became much more difficult, and you could feel the consequences of unnecessary movements. I remember fumbling with a buckle on my backpack and while walking, and before I knew it, I was out of breath from that simple effort. Eventually when we got to around 18,500 feet, I had to focus on every breath and every step in order to keep from losing composure. A slight break in concentration would take a lot more effort to get my breathing under control and keep the pace. At this point, my lungs were burning and my legs were aching, but the peak was in our sight. We were able to push ourselves and make it to the top as the second team of the day. Because of the altitude, groups are restricted to only 10 minutes at the summit before having to start the descent - any longer risks oxygen deprivation and needing to be evacuated off the mountain via helicopter. We got to enjoy all of our 10 minutes by ourselves enjoying the sunrise. Looking back on the trip, I feel a huge sense of accomplishment. Years ago, I could have never seen myself being able (or wanting) to do something like this.
Going back to the original guidance that this would be the “hardest thing” that I would do, was it? The short answer is, no it wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, the climb was very challenging and I was sore for days after getting back to the bottom. My friend and I promptly slept 14 hours when we finally got to a shower and a bed, but it was not the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. There was never a moment where I looked at the mountain and thought, “I may not be able to do this.” Not trying to be dramatic, but there have been a number of hour long workouts where I have questioned my ability to complete it. That being said, I saw a number of similarities that I have tried to learn from for every day workouts. All the climb (and any workout) was, continuing to put one foot in front of the other; continuing one rep after another. That mentality has helped me to keep going when I want to put down the bar or pull up on a run and catch my breath. Another takeaway for me was the effectiveness of high intensity training. I did not do any specific training for this trip, other than the regular class and accessory work, but was still able to perform at a level that I was able to complete the climb and that others noticed.
So, moral(s) of the story: I’ve seen the CrossFit training carry through to more parts of my life than just the gym, keep putting one foot in front of the other even when its hard, and Skyline workouts are harder than climbing a mountain.