Mount Kilimanjaro is no joke. Despite being widely regarded as the “easiest” of the Seven Summits – that famed collection of continental highpoints – it’s still no stroll in the hills. While it doesn’t demand any technical skill, Kili will make you dig deep: there’s the rollercoaster terrain, the extreme altitude, and the mound of ever-shifting ball-bearing scree you slowly slide up on summit day. At its highest reaches, every breath is an effort, each heavy step is lifted in extreme slo-mo, and the howling cold digs through to your core.
I know – I’ve been there. I’ve huffed and puffed and laughed and cursed and smiled and shouted my way to Africa’s highest point, which makes it even more impressive to me that author Kara Richardson Whitely summited not once, but twice, while weighing 300 pounds at her heaviest.
Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro At 300 Pounds is a flashback-laced account of the author’s third trip to the storied peak. However, much like Wild – the insanely popular memoir by Whitely’s mentor Cheryl Strayed – is not a book about the Pacific Crest Trail, Gorge is not a book about Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s a book about Whitely – her past, her present, her struggles, her doubts…and ultimately, her self-acceptance.
Just as Strayed took readers back to her Minnesotan roots, Whitely takes us to Canada, then Vermont. In unflinching detail, she recounts the dissolution of her family, molestation at the hands of her brother’s friend, and her father’s gruff disinterest in her life. From grade school onward, she turned to food as comfort, using binging as a means of protection and escape. The result was teasing, ostracism, and a spiral of shame and self-doubt. She explains, “I hated being big, but I didn’t know how to stop this cycle of feeding my emotions.”
While dreaming of being a “hiker girl,” craving adventure, and searching for motivation to lose weight, Whitely made the decision to train for a trek up Kilimanjaro. That first summit was her “reward” for losing 120 pounds. Emboldened, she planned a second trip, a charity climb benefitting Global Alliance for Africa, after the birth of her daughter. However, she didn’t train, gained back a considerable amount of weight, and wasn’t physically prepared for the rigors, which ended in Whitely aborting her climb before reaching the summit – “I had gone from being at the top of Kilimanjaro to the low point between two mountains – the gorge.”
Embarrassed and defeated, Whitely wanted another chance. Determined to end her Kilimanjaro saga on a proud note, she launched into a third bid, forcing herself to train and preparing herself to finally confront the emotional roots of her binging. “My biggest fear on the climb wasn’t conquering the mountain, but conquering myself.”
Dubbed “Mama Kubwa” (“big woman” in Swahili) by the porters, Whitely faces a lot of doubters – and at times, she’s the most vocal one of the pack. But as it often does on mountains, something shifts inside. She finds strength, she pushes on, she proves them all wrong. “I didn’t have to keep climbing over and over again. I didn’t have to lose weight to be worthy of being on top of the mountain. I had the strength within me all along.” And with that realization, 300 pounds of baggage was left among the dust and rocks of Kilimanjaro.
Whitely’s story is inspiring, but make no mistake that it is a sometimes uncomfortable read. Her style as memoirist is not about eliciting laughs, but rather, expressing facts wrapped in emotion – she doesn’t shy away from dredging up the darkest corners of her binges and self-loathing. Talking about obesity – accepting fatness – is a taboo in our society, especially when it comes to imagining a 300-pound woman being fit enough to enjoy regular hikes, much less scale one of the Seven Summits. Perhaps the real magic in Whitley’s story isn’t that she “conquered” the summit of Kilimanjaro, but that in writing about it, she conquers some stereotypes in the process.
Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro At 300 Pounds, by Kara Richardson Whitely. Published by Seal Press. Release date: April 7, 2015.
GIVEAWAY! We are sending a copy of Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro At 300 Pounds to one lucky reader. We’d love to hear about a time you pushed yourself to the limit, whether that was on a peak or somewhere else. Tell us about it in the comments section of this article before 12a PST on Wednesday, April 15th, and one person will be selected at random to receive a copy of the book!