I Climbed Mt. Kiliminjaro Because Eleanor Roosevelt Told Me To


Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” After losing her job and eventually herself, writer and Jezebel friend Noelle Hancock took Eleanor’s words to heart, spending a year of her life doing one scary thing a day. The result is her memoir My Year With Eleanor. In the following excerpt, she’s halfway through her hike up Mount Kiliminjaro.

Three hours after leaving Horombo, my guide Dismas and I arrived at Zebra Rock. It had once been just a black lava cliff, but years of mineral-rich rain had stripped the color so that it was now covered in white stripes. I had to admit, Zebra Rock was striking to behold. Emphasis on the behold. While I was admiring the view, I noticed an arrestingly steep hiking trail winding up the mountain next to Zebra Rock. I pulled my sunglasses down the bridge of my nose to stare at it over the tops of the lenses. Then I looked at Dismas.

“Wait, we’re not actually climbing up that thing, are we? It’s practically vertical. Is that even legal?”

“It’s like a narrow stairway to heaven, no?” Dismas answered dreamily.

“It’s the road to hell, Dismas,” I said flatly.

“Poly-poly, Noelley. Poly-poly.”

“Slowness is not a problem for me, in case you haven’t noticed. If I were to go any slower, I’d be standing still.” He responded with a grin.

Despite its steepness, it was not as bad as I anticipated. I settled into a groove and my breathing relaxed. Groups of other hikers were gathered at the top, snacking on various provisions. A guy from the church group offered some pieces of dried mango that looked about the way that I felt.

By the time I returned to Horombo, the hikers who had climbed the summit that morning were staggering in looking like the backup zombies from the “Thriller” video. They were wild eyed and stiff limbed, not to mention completely filthy. During dinner a fourteen-year-old boy rose from the table next to ours and, without a word to his family, walked outside the dining hall. Through the window we saw him double over and vomit three times. A few minutes later we saw a dusty woman being helped to her cabin in the posture of an injured football star, each arm slung over the neck of a porter. Marie and I exchanged worried glances. Henri asked the German couple next to us with telltale sunburned noses whether there had been any snow at the peak. “No, but there was hail on the way down,” the man answered.

Hail? No one had said anything about hail! A helmet was the one thing I didn’t bring. There was no way I was going to make it to the top. How could I climb seven thousand more feet tomorrow? I’d barely made it two thousand feet today. I felt my eyes welling up. I couldn’t do this here. I had to get back to my cabin, but first I had to finish my dinner or I wouldn’t have enough energy tomorrow. I started cramming great forkfuls of pasta into my mouth. I was chewing fast, trying to get it over with as quickly as possible. I bit my tongue hard. I kept going, chasing the pasta with a slice of fried bread. I bit my tongue again, drawing blood this time. I let my fork clatter to my plate. Then, to my horror, I buried my face in my hands and started to cry. My bunkmates Marie and Henri fell silent, the way you do when someone you don’t know very well is crying and you’re unsure whether to ask what’s wrong or let the person be. I whisked the tears off my cheeks with my fingers, composed my facial expression, and stood up.

“I am finished with dinner,” I announced and hurried out of the dining hall back to my cabin. After few minutes, when I had a really good cathartic cry going, there was a knock at the door. Being interrupted at the start of your cry is like being interrupted masturbating or accidentally ripping your headphones out of your ears during a good song. I felt a flashing irritation. I opened the door expecting to find Marie and henry, but instead Dismas was standing there. They must have said something.

“Miss Noelley, are you sick?” His forehead was furrowed in concern.

“No, I’m not sick.”

“No headache? Throwing up?”

“I’m fine, really. Please, I just need to be alone.”

“I see you tomorrow morning then.” He tipped his cap and walked away. I closed the door and felt my face contorting again, lips pushed out, chin quivering, eyebrows drawn together. I bent over into a gutteral, full-body sob. When I’d signed up for this trip, I’d known that it was important to come alone so I couldn’t use my boyfriend or friends as a crutch. But I was suddenly overcome with homesickness. I missed [my boyfriend] Matt and [my friends] Jennifer and Chris and Con Edison, the gas company that supplied my heat. I will never take any of you for granted again! But most of all I missed sleep. I’d been gone for six days, and I couldn’t believe it was going to be five more days before I was home again. Then I remembered something [my friend] Chris had said last week.

“I know it seems like a long time, but let me share a little secret from when I was a rower in college.” He’d explained that when he was on the crew team at Yale, he often had to do timed tests on a rowing machine, appropriately named the erg. “They’d be like an hour of the hardest strain of your life, and I’d always tell myself, ‘No matter what happens, in an hour this will be over.’ Whether I sucked or did great or even if something terrible happened like I tore a muscle, there would be a time in the near future when I wouldn’t be doing that activity anymore. It’s kind of a wimpy way to think about things, but it works.

“And just remember,” he’d added, “if things get tough, eat the sherpa. That’s what they’re there for.”

How bizarre that I’d just finished dinner and Chris, Jennifer, Bill, and Matt hadn’t eaten lunch yet, that it was summer where they were and spring here. It was like they were living in a parallel universe and I’d time traveled, which I supposed I had. I was living in the future. My dad had gone to China on business a lot when I was a kid. Whenever he’d call, the first thing I’d ask was, “What day is it there?” This had been a thrilling concept to me, that it was Monday in Houston and he was calling me from Tuesday. Now this filled me with sadness — everyone I loved was part of the past.

I allowed myself ten minutes and then it was done. To calm myself further, I repeated Eleanor’s quote like a mantra: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Marie and Henri, bless them, lingered over dinner to give me time to pull myself together. When they returned, I was smiling and we made polite conversation before bed.

Excerpted from My Year With Eleanor, by Noelle Hancock, published by Ecco books, a division of HarperCollins. Copyright 2011.

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My Year With Eleanor

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