Knowledge and Experience

The summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro from the Shira Plateau, Tanzania, Africa

I mentioned I’ve been thinking about Kilimanjaro quite a bit in my last post.  It was 4 years ago this month that I was there, and a good friend just got back from a successful trip.

This friend has climbed Cayambe (18,997′), Cotopaxi (19,341′) and made it almost to the top of Aconcagua (21,500′ when avalanche danger turned us around).  And these are just mountains we went to together.

She’s also summited Denali (20,322′), Mt. Blanc (15,781′) and a bunch of peaks in the North Cascades.  I’m sure there are plenty I don’t know about.  She loves it.

Hiker on Aconcagua, Argentina

So after all that… what was she doing on 19,348′ Mt. Kilimanjaro?!?!

Let’s take a look at the three categories of mountain enthusiast I’ve come across and how they might respond.

Category 1:  “Kilimanjaro!  That’s insane!” – says the person who doesn’t know mountains and thinks they’re all Everest (K2 would be more appropriate here, but they haven’t heard of it).

Category 2:  “Then why did she go to Kilimanjaro? That’s easy!” – asks the dude who’s never climbed a mountain but reads about them in survival stories.

Category 3:  “I hear Kili is beautiful.  How did it go?” – wonders the hiker/climber.

Have you ever noticed this?

I do, because I’ve been all those people.


Category 1 – Mountains are Huge!

A drawing what a mountain might look like to a child

Do you remember this?  We were all there at one point, even if it was when we were little kids.  They’re all stormy all the time.  They’re all ascended by ropes (hand over hand!).  They’re cold.  The top is a point.

“They” are the White Mountains, the Rockies, Everest and everything in between.

For some people this stays true for life.  There’s nothing wrong with it, and these people are fun for me to talk to in bars or at work.

As a child, we first learn what a mountain is – see a picture or a movie, or hear or read a story about a mountain  – which is dangerous.  So that’s what all mountains are, all the time, until and if we ever learn more, whether by reading or seeing.

There’s nothing past the most basic understanding.  A mountain is a really big pile of rocks.  When we don’t understand things, we tend to generalize more than usual.  They’re all the same.

These people do things that I don’t know much about, that blow my mind.  But they’ve learned about them and done them enough that they’re no big deal.  Well, maybe they’re still a big deal, but you get what I’m saying.  They understand those things, so they make sense to them.  I don’t, so they don’t make sense to me.  To me, those things are “insane”.

Mt. Washington comes to mind for me, living here in the Northeast.  Tell someone in this category that you went up it in winter and see what happens.

Category 2 – That One’s Easy!

Double rainbow over Shira Camp on Shira Plateau, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, Africa

The most common category I encounter.  Most people tend to learn at least a little bit about mountains in their life, and lots of people know someone who has hiked or climbed on one – if they haven’t done it themselves.

There’s a huge range here…  From the still-blown-away-by-everything, to the person who loves mountains and the stories that go with visiting them, and who’ve done a whole lot of reading and watched a movie or two.

The latter is an interesting part of the spectrum.  I want to mention again that I was at this stage for a long time – I’m not trying to bash anyone here.  I live in the equivalent of Category 2 for a few different interests, and probably always will.

It’s human nature for us to compare things.  And when you know about a broad subject (like mountains), it’s easy to start comparing things inside that subject.  We often default to better/harder and worse/easier.

Often, you start hearing things like “that one is easy” when someone has read a lot, but has zero or almost no experience.

Kili is a favorite for these people to show others in the same category just how much they know.  They know that the elderly can do it.  They know that there are no ropes involved.  They know you don’t need crampons or a down suit, or OXYGEN!

So it’s easy!

People in Category 2 often end up moving to the next category because they are interested enough in mountains to have learned about them or visited them.  They might have learned a little or a lot by now, but I’ve never run into anyone at this particular place who’s actually been to more than a few.

Eventually they read or see enough to know that not all big mountains are vertical walls of rock and ice.  They know that storms happen, but man, there’s a lot of great weather up there, too.  So they start going.

Category 3 – Sounds Like a Nice Trip!

Sunset in camp high on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, Africa

People in this category have been there and done that, even if they haven’t been there and done that.

They know any mountain can be a nightmare given the circumstances, like bad weather, sporting a blister, or just being in a bad mood.  They know that altitude sickness can make things miserable in a place you’ve been before with no issues.

They know that many trips, much of the time, are beautiful and energizing, not constant fights for survival.  Why else would people do it?

And they’ve done it enough that they realize there’s a middle ground to the experience – all those hours walking slowly on the simpler terrain between the exciting stuff.  All that time in camp, which may just be the inside of your tent.  If they didn’t like those hours and days, they’d probably stop going.

Before this category, there are only highs and lows.

“When will I get to the summit?  When will I get to the summit?  Am I going to get lost?  What’s it going to be like up there?  Will I be too cold?  What if I get hurt?  I’m at the summit!  This is the best thing ever.  Now I have to go down?  Which way did I come from?”

Someone in this category has stopped ranking the mountains – comparing each one they hear about to the highest or the “hardest”.  They can understand why someone would go to a mountain that they have no interest in, and know that mountain is really cool… and maybe still not be interested in it.

They know they can’t describe all of the things they’ve seen and the experiences they’ve had to people that haven’t been – or even who have been.  And they’re cool with it.  They know whatever you’re telling them about your mountain isn’t a perfect picture, either (even if your story comes with pictures).  They can probably fill in some of the blanks, or pull a similar story from their own memories.  But they know they aren’t going to be able to see the best moments of your trip in their mind’s eye based on your description.  And they appreciate that.

They know that it’s all relative.  They know that they don’t know it all.


If you’re reading this, you’re not in Category 1, even if you were when you started.  You know something about the mountains.

Are you in Category 2?  Very possible.  All that reading I was talking about?  It’s mostly happening on the internet.  Social media and blog posts encourage self marketing, subconsciously at the least, so learning about mountains here as opposed to books may actually increase your exposure to the hard/better, easy/worse thinking and encourage it in you.

So please know – a mountain is hard, a mountain easy.  It’s pretty, ugly, high, low, and whatever else.  Do you see the same color blue that I see?  And that blue you see is different in different light, right?  That kind of thing.

Wherever you are in Category 2, consider joining the club of Category 3 – go for a hike or a climb.  You can read everything about mountains you can find for the rest of your life, and stay in Category 2.  Lot’s of people do and they love it.

But hiking and climbing are a lot more accessible than people in Category 1 realize – you’ve learned that in your reading, right?  Give it a shot.  It will enhance your enjoyment of staying in Category 2 or put you on the path to 3.  Win/win.

Category 3… What’s up?  Anyone gone anywhere beautiful lately?

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