Several years ago I had the opportunity to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. As the highest mountain in Africa and one of the Seven Summits, it stands more than 19,000 feet. While my mountaineering brother referred to it as a “pleasure trek,” I found the climb to be both strenuous and rewarding.
To ascend Kilimanjaro, we took the most popular route, Machame, five days up and two days down. When we began our climb, the mountain was massive before us, rising high above the savannah. Sometimes we could not see the white-capped summit—the mountain was hidden by rocks or vegetation. We followed guides who had grown up beneath the mountain and had climbed it more times than they could count.
On the last day of our climb, we camped at 15,000 feet, sleeping only a few hours before waking at midnight for the final ascent. The last 4,000 feet, as the climb reaches the “death zone,” are the hardest. The trail is more vertical, the weather frigid, and each step in the loose rock spree seems to sink you further behind. The air was thin and everyone moved slowly, feeling the effects of altitude and fatigue. Before beginning the climb that morning, our lead guide reminded us, “this mountain you will climb in your mind.” After several hours of hiking with nausea and headaches and verging on exhaustion, we understood what he meant.
Elder Bednar teaches in his talk “We Will Prove Them Herewith” that preparation is an essential principle in overcoming opposition, noting that “Effective and timely preparation precedes successful proving.”1 We felt the importance of our preparation that morning. While physically exhausting, the trek had been the purpose of our training, and we relied on our physical and mental preparation with every step up the steep trail.
Elder Bednar also teaches about the importance of pressing forward in faith. This was another essential element of our climb that morning. As we ascended in the dark, all that was visible was that which was within the beam of the headlamps we were wearing. Though we were exhausted and could not see the summit, we pressed forward, trusting in the guides who had helped us come so far.
The mountain taught me that the act of following guides displays a willingness to connect or link yourself with superior knowledge and strength. We followed the instructions given us, even simple directions like walking with locked knees and breathing in rhythm to conserve energy and maintain adequate oxygen levels. We stopped regularly to eat and drink, and as we moved forward, we focused on taking one step at a time.
When the sun rose early that morning, a collective gasp came from our group; we saw not only the mountaintop but also the progress we had made. We were closer to the summit than we had imagined. The winds whipped our faces and the air was glacial, but I felt a sense of great peace and accomplishment.
Since the climb, I have often thought of my life reflected in the meandering path up Kilimanjaro. At times the trail is beautiful, the journey taxing but pleasant. I feel easily tethered to heaven—my faith is stronger than my fear, and my connection to God feels natural. Then there are times when the trail feels hidden from me, and I find myself without the gospel’s guiding presence. But as I press forward, following the teachings of the Savior and other trusted guides, I know I will see the metaphorical mountaintop. As Elder Bednar teaches, “As we ‘press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope and a love of God and all men,’ we are blessed with an eternal vision that stretches far beyond our limited mortal capacity.”2
This is the practice of faith—moving forward with a hope of things which are not seen, but which are true. I have had moments in the dark, feeling as though my feet were deep in the shifting sand, struggling but making no progress. There have been days that feel empty and hopeless, when the power of God seems ambiguous and the Atonement of Jesus Christ beyond my reach. Days when I fall far short of even walking the path, let alone reaching the summit.
But there are also moments that are gifts from a loving Heavenly Father; moments like that sunrise on our summit morning. These are not experiences reserved only for mountaintops or early mornings. I have had these moments in hospital rooms, while walking alone in the woods by my house, or while playing in the garden with my children. Moments like the sunrise on Kilimanjaro, when all was silent and the mountain was lit ahead with glowing colors, and I looked back and saw how far I had come. These are the moments and the memories worth climbing for. Because the sun always comes up, no matter how long the night.