3 Things I Learned Climbing Kilimanjaro

“If you want to go fast, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together.”

I thought a lot about this African proverb recently when I was lucky enough to climb Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa, with three other MFF Ninjas.

Over the past two years, I have been continually humbled by the power of community I have experienced at Mark Fisher Fitness. The Ninja Army has taught me that in order to go far, you must go together.

With this in mind, I convinced Greg Kamp, Joanna Lee, and Jonathan Hooper to go on a great adventure together and to investigate the point of travel – to take a plunge, to go inwardly as well as outwardly, and experience places together we would never otherwise.

As you can imagine, the metaphorical implications of climbing a mountain are definitively translatable. And so, I thought I would share a few stories I learned from the “complicated mountain” Kilimanjaro.

1. “Pole Pole”

We walk slowly, the sunlight on us and a dusting of of rocks in front of me.

“Pole, Pole,” the man greets me as he walks by with 40 pounds of gear balanced on his head. His strength in comparison to mine is humbling.

“Slowly, slowly,” I tell myself, as I translate the Kiswalhili phrase in my head.

Each step has me thinking in so many ways how powerful it is to slow down in one’s life. The mountain quickly becomes a metaphor of the journey toward any goal, how to embrace the process and not the end result.

As I have traveled throughout the world, I have discovered that each culture has its own relationship to time. So much of the current belief system in the west is tailored to instant gratification. This is, of course, amplified if you live in New York City.

In fact, sociologists have found that in recent years individuals in cities like New York are working fewer hours than 50 years ago, but feel as if they are working more. I share this sentiment. It seems we have more and more time-saving devices but sometimes, it seems, less and less time.

Climbing a mountain, in contrast, calls one into contemplation. With every step, I kept thinking of my own relationship with time and the desire to slow down.

The mountain called me to create more time in my life.

I learned that in an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slowly.

2. “We Are Together.”

The summit for Kilimanjaro begins at midnight. In -10 degree weather, you climb the final 4,000 feet to the top and return to base camp. By the time I returned to our starting point, it had been 10 hours and I was exhausted.

Immediately, I was met by one of our porters, who offered to take my bag.

At first, I refused.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got it,” I told him.

He turned to me and, I’ll never forget this, he said, “We are together.”

I nodded, let him take my bag and immediately felt better.

To tell you the truth, it took more strength to accept help in that moment than it did to climb the mountain.

It dawned on me: true strength comes from the people around you. So many people both physically and mentally climbed that mountain with us.

“If you want to go far, go together.”

3. Infinite Heart

When we first met Abuu, the man who would guide us up the mountain, he turned to us and said, “If you want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, it is about your heart and mind.”

He was right.

Strength can never be measured in how much you deadlift, the muscles you possess, or how fast you can run a mile.

Strength is infinite heart.

On our fourth day, we were sitting in a large purple tent having just finished our meal, most of us exhausted from altitude sickness and the hours of climbing that had just ensued. I took a moment, paused, and looked around at my dear friends surrounding me.

I saw Greg Kamp’s inspiring attitude, Joanna Lee’s supportive heart, and Jonathan Hooper’s joy and laughter.

I saw the infinite heart and strength in my fellow Ninjas.

In a world where people wish to be settled, I was grateful that these three humans chose to explore what it means to be unsettled.

When I think back on my life, I realize that the moments that are the hardest are filled with wonder, mystery, and possibility.

It’s the things I don’t know that have lifted me up, pushed me forward, rather than the things I do know.

The writer Victoria Erickson shares a similar notion:

When you’re a mountain person, you understand the brilliance and beauty of contradiction. The way land can be your greatest teacher. How something can be both grounding yet elevating, intoxicating yet soothing, wild yet serene, intensely primal yet patient, and cycling yet predictable within the shifts, and rhythms. Mountains keep us on edge, wrapping us in the sensation of safety all at once.

“I don’t know anything sweeter, or more magic inducing than that.

The Return Home

So, how does one maintain the lessons we learn from travel?

This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of any journey, but the exact reason you set out in the first place. We all want to return home.

Home is another word for our true self.

Whether you are a Ninja walking through the doors of Mark Fisher Fitness looking to lose weight or an individual on a spiritual journey, it is the homesickness that draws us forward.

Like Dorothy and Odysseus, we have an inner voice and compass that is guiding us, gnawing away at us, and reminding us the way back home.

What I love about fitness is that when you show up daily to a physical practice, you can begin to get in touch with that voice, listen to it, and allow it to guide you.

At Mark Fisher Fitness, we believe community is the vehicle to amplify that inner voice. We believe that if you want to go far, go together.

So, the next time you are at the Clubhouse training with the person next to you, strike up a conversation. Who knows? You may go on some great adventure together.

And perhaps you will finally return home.


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Michael Littig is a Ninja Trainer and known as Jesus of Unicorpia at Mark Fisher Fitness. He’s a NASM certified coach, Fulbright Scholar in Drama (Mongolia), and lover of chocolate chip cookies. As a theater artist, he is the founder of the Great Globe Foundation, an organization dedicated to creating artistic exchange with artists across cultures, most notably in the Dadaab Refugee Camp on the border of Somalia.

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