I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. 

12 years ago, I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. 

I was part of a group of 20 people who were climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for a school in a small town in Tanzania. 

I was 100% focused going in. I worked out, I had a personal trainer, I went to a nutritionist, I did all the preparation and requirements. We were climbing with a reputable company that leads tours up the mountain all the time. 

 

Now, here’s the thing about Kili. First of all, Kilimanjaro is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. I’ll just pause on that and let you reflect, because I know somebody’s going to come at me and say that Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world. Yes, Everest is the tallest peak in the world, but it is a peak in a mountain range. Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is the tallest freestanding mountain, and is the tallest freestanding structure in the world. 

There are many different routes that you can take to climb up Mount Kilimanjaro. We took what’s called the Machame route, which is a route that takes seven days to get to the summit. Kili is not like Everest where it’s a technical climb. Imagine Kili as a very, very steep hike. For seven days, we were hiking up this mountain. Most days, you’re climbing for 12 to 14 hour days. It is physically very challenging, but it’s not technical. There are a few tricky peak places where you need help from the guides, but generally, it is just a very steep hike. 

Day one, day two, day three, I was good. I was in a zone. I was focused. I had trained and really prepared myself for this climb. 

Day four, I was good. 

Day five, I started to really struggle. Now, a lot of people struggle. In fact, there is a very high percentage of people who do not get to the summit on every climb. On day five, a lot of people climbing with us were struggling. Some people needed oxygen. Day five was tough. 

Day six, I felt like I hit a wall. It was such a hard day. I remember at the end of the day just crying. I was exhausted mentally and physically. I was just done. It was actually very hard to move because of the lack of oxygen.

They do have people with oxygen tanks, it’s something that you’re able to have at any point when you feel like you can’t breathe. You are being tracked as well, they’re constantly checking your oxygen levels, your heart rate, all of that kind of stuff. 

I remember getting to the end of the day just going into my tent and crying because I was done. I was excited too, because day seven ws just around the corner. One more day and it’s the summit, we’re done. On summit day, you wake up at three in the morning, and it is about a two hour walk. It’s not that far. You can literally see people on the summit when you’re at Camp One on day six. And so for me, I thought that I just needed to push a little bit more to get to that peak. 

Two hours. I was just two hours away. 

That night, night six, I didn’t sleep. I was coughing a lot, and I didn’t know why. I thought it was just because of the cold. Once you get that close to the summit, it starts to get extremely cold.

Day seven, everybody wakes up around three. We were all getting ready to summit. The medic came to me and did the standard checks. Everybody had to do medicals before you set out at the beginning of any day, and particularly day seven, because you are going up to the summit where oxygen levels are pretty much non-existent. 

I went into the medical tent and the medic checked my oxygen levels. He checked my chest and breathing. He didn’t say anything. He left for a moment and then brought in another medic. They checked my levels again. They didn’t say anything. They left again and came back with our tour leader. The tour leader spoke to me.

“Sandra, I’m really sorry to tell you this. But you cannot summit. I cannot allow you to summit today.”

I wasn’t allowed to summit.

I remember getting all emotional. I remember asking if they had made a mistake. Like what do you mean, I can’t summit? It’s two hours away! 

And he said, “No, I cannot let you summit today. Because if I let you go to the top, I run the risk that I’m going to bring you back down this mountain in a body bag.”

I was angry. I was mad. I thought, “There’s no way you’re not gonna let me summit. I’ve walked for six days, 12 to 14 hour days, and you’re going to tell me now that I’m not allowed to summit? No way.” 

So I fought with him, and the long and short of it was that he said, “I’m not going to do it. You’re not thinking straight. You’re not thinking about the fact that the reason you’re coughing is because your lungs are starting to fill up with fluid. If I let you keep going, and with the lack of oxygen, we will bring you back down this mountain in a body bag.” 

Statistically, there are a lot of deaths that happen on Kili from people who just don’t cope well with the lack of oxygen. 

I had to go back down the mountain

It still makes me feel emotional right now. I had to go down the mountain. There were 20 of us who had gone up that mountain, and I was the only one out of 20 people who had to go back down. And so I got assigned a guide to go down with me. I also got assigned a medic to take me down and to monitor me on the way down. I don’t actually even remember how long it took for us to go down the mountain because I was just mad the whole way. I was upset. I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I was just all of these thoughts just whirling in my mind. And when we got back down the mountain, I went to my hotel room, closed the door, and I didn’t come out for two days. I literally went into my room and cried for two days. That’s how upset I was because I felt like I had done everything I needed to do, right, I had trained hard, I had got nutrition, I had followed all the instructions, I had done all the things… and here I was, the one person out of a group of 20, who was sent down the mountain without having summited. 

I never told anybody after that. Most people who know me know that I climbed Kili, but I never made it to the summit. It was something that I carried with me. Instead of seeing it as just personal experience of failing at this one thing, I took it to be that I was a failure. 

I thought I was a failure.

For the next seven years of my life, this was something that played over and over in my head — that I’m a failure, that I can’t finish anything, that I’m not good at things, it doesn’t matter how hard I try. For seven years, I didn’t want to allow myself to dream big dreams. I didn’t want to allow myself to be put in a position where I could fail. For seven years of my life, I just kind of did the bare minimum. I didn’t push myself. I didn’t even try. 

I was reading a book recently that’s called ‘How We Change (And 10 Reasons Why We Don’t) by Dr. Ross Ellenhorn. In this book, he talks about fear of hope. He says that when you hope for something, when you try and achieve something and you fail, the disappointment is so big, that you develop something that is called a ‘fear of hope’ — you don’t try and put yourself out there or do anything because you’re afraid to allow yourself to hope. That’s what I did for many years of my life, just kind of coasting through life, not really trying because I didn’t want to be disappointed.

I knew I was meant to do more.

Living this kind of life causes something to happen — tension starts to develop. For me, that tension was knowing that I was capable of more than I was doing. Coasting through life didn’t feel comfortable. It didn’t feel good. I knew I was meant to do more. And ultimately, a long story short, it led to me applying to go to Columbia University at 40 years old to go back to school.

I got accepted, which was mind blowing. I allowed myself to dream for a minute that I could get into this Ivy League school that’s so hard to get into, and I got in. And for that moment, it was almost like it negated all of those doubts, all of those things that I believed about myself for so long.

I went to Columbia University to study Journalism, and it was hard as heck. I went into Colombia not even knowing how to use a camera. I had to learn a lot of things, but I loved it. I felt alive. I felt like I was being challenged. I felt like I was finally allowing myself to dream, allowing myself to have big goals, big dreams and things that I wanted to do.

Am I failing again?

Something happened at Columbia. I’ll spare you all the details, because I also have to protect other people’s confidentiality as there are other people involved. The long and the short is when it came time for me to complete my master’s thesis, which was a big portion of being able to graduate to pass my master’s degree, I found myself in a situation where there was some conflict and tension. I ended up being in a situation where the academic advisors and  faculty called a meeting with me and the person I was working with to tell us that we were going to be put on academic probation, which effectively meant that I was going to be failed out of my master’s degree at the very end. I had completed everything and all that was left was my master’s degree. That’s all that we had to finish for me to pass, and we were told that we would be put on academic suspension if we didn’t resolve the issue. 

The worst part was that it wasn’t even my fault. I was doing my best to cover it up, but I found myself in this situation that I had no control over. I remember just being absolutely devastated because that story came back from Kilimanjaro, that “I was a failure. I never finish anything that I start. I’m not good at anything.” That was the story that played over and over again in my mind. 

When we got the official notification that we were going to be put on academic probation, I booked a flight, and I went home. My full intention in flying home was to never go back. Because in my mind, when I took myself back to Kili, I thought, I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of them telling me that they’re gonna fail me. I’m just going to  count myself out. That way, I can always say that they didn’t fail me because I quit. 

I went home.

My husband, who’s an incredible person, didn’t say anything. I told him, “I’m not going back. I’m done.” 

He said, “You have to do what feels right for you. Is this what feels right for you?”

I remember crying. In the end, I really thought about it. The I decided, you know what, I’m not going to quit, because that’s the story I’ve been telling myself all these years — that I’m a quitter, that I give up, that I’m not good enough.

I went back. 

I thought to myself, if they’re going to fail me — just like when I was climbing Kilimanjaro, where I had to be escorted down that mountain — then they can fail me and walk me off campus. So I went back. 

And here’s the thing that happened in going back. I worked my ass off. I worked so hard on that master’s thesis, I cannot even begin to tell you. One of the things that helped me keep it all together was my husband, who would spend hours on the phone with me, encouraging me and telling me that I could do it. Then I also had a group of amazing friends who had been in class with me, they really supported me. 

One of my best friends, Nyasha, would come into my edit room and wouldn’t say anything. She would just sit with me, not saying a word while I was working. She would just be there with me. When I needed to cry, she would just let me cry when I needed to vent.  It truly was having her, having my husband, and having the people who were around at that time and their support that really pushed me through. 

Sandra, Nyasha, and her friends from class

I graduated. 

Sandra, with honors,  delivering her graduation speech

Columbia University, Documentary Journalsim Graduation, Dec. 4, 2015

Here’s the irony of the whole situation. Not only did I graduate and pass the class, I was in the top 10% of my class. I was given honors, which they rarely ever give out. And that film that I made as my master’s thesis went on to play at about 25 international film festivals. It won a Gracie Award for me for Best Documentary, and this opened up all of these amazing doors for me.

And so I wanted to share this story, a story that I’ve never shared publicly before. I think the reason I’ve never shared it publicly is because it’s still something that really strikes such emotion in me. I wanted to share that story with you if you’re on a journey, if you’ve ever failed, and you’ve started to tell yourself that ‘I am a failure,’ or ‘I’m not good enough,’ or that ‘I don’t deserve to have this dream.’ 

REMEMBER:

1. Be aware of the stories that you tell yourself. 

I want to tell you that it is nothing more than a story. 

Let go of that story. For me, I held that story for seven years of my life. I half-assed my life for seven years because of a story that I told myself about something that, in the greatest scheme of things, didn’t even matter. No one cared that I didn’t summit Kili. 

No one cared. Not even the people who sponsored me to climb when I went back and said, “Hey, I’m really sorry, I can give you your money back.” 

They even said, “No, don’t be silly, keep the money. And here’s more money, because boy, you really tried.”

I want to remind you the power of our stories, the power of our words, the power of what we interpret things to mean — it only is an interpretation. You get to choose what interpretation you put on anything. 

And so when you “fail”, you can choose to be like how I was and let that define who you are and define your life, or you can say, “Okay, I failed at that particular thing,” take a step back and take the time to reflect on: Why did that not go according to plan? What could I have done different? What can I learn? And how can I use this to grow? 

Be aware of the interpretations that you put on anything that happens in your life. 

2. It is okay to fail. 

I don’t know why we put this pressure on ourselves, that everything that we try must be a success. The people who are the most successful are also the people who have failed the most. Because you know what, if you’re not failing, you’re not trying. If everything is going perfectly smoothly and going according to plan, that means your dream is not big enough, You shouldn’t be failing, if you’re really trying.

All a failure is his feedback. It’s telling you that, “Hey, that’s not the direction that you should be going in,” or, “Hey, that wasn’t the dream for you,” or, “Hey, that’s not the dream for you right now, you’re not yet ready for that thing,” or sometimes, “Hey, I’m happy I failed.” 

In my case, I am happy now even though I still shed tears telling this story. Now, I am happy that I failed. Because when my logical mind thinks about it, if I had continued up that mountain, if I had continued up the summit, I could have died and I would not be sitting here telling you this story. 

3. Reflect on what you can learn. 

In every failure, always ask:

  • What can I learn? 
  • How can this help me grow? 
  • How can I do better and be better next time? 

My Mount Kilimanjaro story is something that I’ve carried so much shame about. But now that I can sit back and look at it, I can see that it wasn’t because I didn’t try, it wasn’t because I didn’t give my best effort. It just wasn’t meant for me at that time. My story about myself is not defined by that one failure.

This platform and community that I have built is called WORTHY. It is all about reminding all of us that whatever your dream is, whatever your goal, whatever it is that you’re going after, you are worthy. The fact that you are here means that you are worthy. 

All too often society tells us that you’re not thin enough, you’re not smart enough, you’re not old enough, you’re not young enough, you’re not. We’re always told we’re not enough. And so with this platform, it really is about who you are, and how we can support you on the journey into stepping into your full power into your full, extraordinary self. 

It is also about reminding you that all too often we look outside of ourselves for validation. We look outside of ourselves for people to tell us that we’re good enough for people to tell us that we’re doing a great job. And yet that true validation comes from within. 

One of my favorite line is from the Wizard of Oz, where the good which says to Dorothy, “You had it in you all along.” 

And that’s what I want to remind you of with WORTHY is that you have it — you have the power, you have the knowledge, you have everything that you need within you to be, to do, to have all of the things that you want. 

This story is a reminder that even if I fail, I am not a failure.

Sandra has a podcast episode on this topic in the WORTHY Podcast:

You can also watch it on YouTube: