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What Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro Taught This Woman About Her Career

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Joey: Everybody’s doing stuff!
Chandler: And we just sit here. I mean, if I die, the only way people would even know I was here would be by the ass print on this chair! Look, we have to do something. Okay? Something huge!
Joey: (snaps his fingers) We could climb Mt. Everest!
Chandler: No no, not something stupid, something huge.
Joey: No-no-no-no-no, I saw an ad for this video, people climb that thing everyday! We could totally do that!
Chandler: Why not?! I mean, it’s just, it’s just climbing! It’s just, it’s just steep!
Joey: Yeah!
Chandler: We´re going to Everest! Okay, it would be nice to leave an ass print on Everest!
Phoebe: (entering) Hey!
Joey: Hey!
Phoebe: What-what’s up?
Joey: We’re gonna climb Mt. Everest!
Chandler: Yeah baby!
Phoebe: Really?! I looked into that. Yeah, but, I mean it costs like $60,000 and y’know you can die. And, you would die!

The above was one of my favorite scenes from Friends because I think it encapsulates that feeling we all have of wanting to do something meaningful with our lives, like risking our lives to climb a mountain. Yes, we can do meaningful things in our careers, but I am talking about that moment where you really, really challenge yourself to do the unthinkable. Maybe it is running a marathon, maybe traveling to a third world country, maybe doing a headstand in yoga (did that last week for two whole seconds #bucketlist). It is different for everyone. And for Caroline McCarthy, it was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

McCarthy is a former journalist and ex-Googler currently striking out on her own as a consultant, working with clients on narrative-based marketing like branded content and events. She has done her fair share of traveling and challenging tasks herself, but the girl still thought life wasn’t exciting enough. We were lucky enough to chat with her before her next adventure.

Why did you to decide to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro?

I had this vague goal for 2012 that I was going to stop making excuses and start saying yes to experiences that were simultaneously appealing and challenging. I’ve always been really good at boxing myself in and saying, “Well, you only have two weeks of vacation, so this will never work,” or, “That’s got to be way too logistically difficult,” or, “You’ll never be able to afford that.” That kind of mindset affects you on and off the job, and limits your creativity. Frankly, it wasn’t the best year for saving money, but I wouldn’t change a thing about it. So, around October of last year, a thread popped up on an email list that I’m on for women in the tech world coming from a woman who’d been approached about being an ambassador for a European nonprofit’s first “global” Kilimanjaro trip. I’ve gotten pretty outdoorsy in the past few years, and so in the spirit of “saying yes,” I think I’d emailed for more information within about five minutes.

Were you scared to do this?

Oh yeah. Though I’d say I was less “scared,” more just bewildered by how it could all possibly work. I mean, there’s travel and the logistics associated with it, there’s fundraising—since it’s a non-profit, and, by the way, we are still fundraising throughout 2013!—and then there’s the mountain itself. I’d never been to East Africa before, and had no idea what to expect, and I get nervous when I’m not in full control of a situation. I started to hear from people I knew and co-workers who had climbed Kilimanjaro and said things like, “Oh, I hallucinated above 16,000 feet,” and, “You have no idea how the altitude sickness will hit you.” So it was more uncertainty than fear, but at a certain point when stress levels are high you can’t tell the difference between the two.

Describe how the trip worked. How do you even get to the mountain?

It’s actually much easier to get to Mt. Kilimanjaro than I assumed it would be. There’s a sizable airport right near the mountain—Kilimanjaro International Airport—and while no airlines fly direct from the U.S., both KLM and Turkish fly from New York with only one stopover, and there are similar options for a few other big U.S. cities.

But that’s the boring part. The real reason why we were there, and why the trip was structured the way it was, was because the non-profit group in question, Ladies Trekking, is working on a book project of inspirational essays by female mountaineers whose proceeds will support its mission of connecting women who love the outdoors with supporting education for underprivileged kids, especially girls, in the areas where they climb. That’s a big problem in countries like Tanzania where outdoors tourism brings a lot of money and attention, but the majority of the population doesn’t see any real benefit from it. So we were a group of international women who were climbing the mountain together and fundraising together to kick off production on this book, Dreamers & Doers. It’s going to be published in the fall.

We also took a day after the hike to visit some of the schools that Ladies Trekking is actively supporting—the Maroroni Primary School, the first of ideally many primary schools where they will be donating textbooks, and the MWEDO Girls Secondary School, where they are funding scholarships for ten girls. I know the internet has “democratized” social enterprise and non-profit work in so many ways through micro-donations and Twitter campaigns and what have you, but there is really nothing like meeting the people with whom you’re working face-to-face. In Ladies Trekking’s case it’s like, “You have this amazing, gorgeous country and we want to say thank you for allowing us to experience it.”

What was the best part of this for you?

Kilimanjaro’s a unique experience, but it’s particularly unique when you’re in the company of ten other women from all over the world. I was hiking in the company of really incredible women from countries from which I’d literally never met anyone before, including Theresia Ismaili Majuka, who is now (to our knowledge) the first woman from the local Maasai tribe to ever make it to the summit of Kilimanjaro. You learn stories and you forge connections in ways you never thought possible.

What was the worst or most difficult part for you?

The second to the last day. This was the day when we ascended from 12,000 to 15,000 feet—we hadn’t yet gone above about 13,000 in the first five days so that we could acclimatize. We were slated to finish in the mid-afternoon and then would go to bed early so that we could wake up to start the summit climb at midnight. So, knowing that we had a bad night of sleep ahead of us was discouraging enough. I also found that 3,000-foot climb to be incredibly exhausting, and a bunch of the other women on the trip seemed to get through it with no problem whatsoever. I felt pretty defeated. I was getting concerned that this spelled bad news with regard to my ability to actually make it to the summit. But then, you know, you wind up in a tent camp at a windy, freezing 15,000 feet of elevation and you’re like, “Well, I could chicken out, but I’ve made it this far, so what the hell?” And that’s what it came to, more or less.

Would you do it again?

Totally. But not until I’ve finished my current mountain-climbing goal, which is a little bit closer to home and lower to the ground: making it to the top of all 35 3,500-foot “mountains” in the Catskills. Some of them don’t even have trails to the top, so there’s an added bit of strategic fun there. I’m going to have to get way better at using a compass.

Any career lessons climbing a mountain can teach you?

So, so many. But I’ll distill it down to one. The number one lesson of climbing mountains and pushing yourself physically like that in rather unnatural environments and elevations is that you need to listen to your body. If something’s wrong, you have to make a really quick decision as to whether it’s something where you think you can adapt or whether it’s a situation where you need to speak up and let it be known that something’s wrong. But you also have to be willing to understand that you’re part of a team and that there might be other people who depend on you. Thankfully, while climbing, I was ultimately fine physically. But in the corporate world, no matter where you fall in the pecking order, you’re looking out for yourself and your job, and you have to learn how to listen to yourself, too—I learned on the slopes of Kilimanjaro about balancing a team dynamic with understanding yourself and your needs and being willing to speak up about it. And I already see that playing out in the workforce for me.

Support the production of Dreamers & Doers on Indiegogo!


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Wow this is so inspiring. I've been trying to train for a marathon since January and I just keep falling off the wagon. Thanks for sharing Caroline!

Thank you for the kind words, Chelan! I ran a marathon a few years ago and what kept me on the wagon was having a team (we had a group fundraising goal) plus a training partner who had run marathons before. If you can find this it makes SUCH a difference.

I'm so happy I came across this article! The Friends reference only made it ring truer to home. I'm encouraged and inspired to see a story like this as I can totally relate to McCarthy; Just a couple months ago, I promised myself I would start saying 'yes' to experiences. Congrats, Caroline on your achievement, and thank you for you inspiring story!

Thanks for sharing your experiences! I think the line that stuck with me the most was the one highlighted with the graphic- 'Start saying yes to experiences.' Lovely. :)

The Friends reference was all Meredith's doing! I loved it. (And thank you!)

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