Shedding Baggage on Kilimanjaro

Kara Richardson Whitely talks about conquering Kili as a plus-sized hiker.
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Kara Richardson Whitely talks about conquering Kili as a plus-sized hiker.
courtesy Seal Press

courtesy Seal Press

Kara Richardson Whitely wasn't about to let Mt. Kilimanjaro defeat her again. Embarking on her third summit bid and weighing over 300 pounds, she was battling crippling self-doubt in addition to the long miles and high altitude on Africa's highest peak. She recounts the journey in Gorge: My 300-pound Journey Up Kilimanjaro, out this April from Seal Press. We caught up with her about overcoming negative self-image and gaining acceptance as a plus-sized hiker on the trail.

BACKPACKER:Talk about the specific allure of Mt. Kilimanjaro. What makes it such a special mountain to climb?

KRW: Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the highest mountains that you can hike to the top of, meaning you don’t need ice axes or ropes assuming all goes well. I’ve always trekked it to raise money for Global Alliance for Africa’s AIDS orphans programs, so it’s an iconic challenge for a great cause. Also, the range of climates on this non-technical hike is like walking from the Equator to the North Pole in one (very long and arduous) journey.

BP: In the book, you talk about suffering from negative self-image and fears that others would judge you on the trail. What advice would you give other plus-sized hikers about overcoming those feelings?

KRW: The woods and trails are there for you too. In fact, it’s my mission as an American Hiking Society Amabassador and motivational speaker to get more people hiking. You’ll trip if you pay attention to what others are thinking of you. Keep your eyes fixed on the path ahead. Believe me, even if you spend more time putting on your boots than on the trail itself during your first hikes, in time, molehills will lead to mountains.

BP:You also wrote that the best and worst thing about hiking is “having all sorts of time to think.” Expand on that a bit. Do you feel like you’ve gained a new mental toughness by hiking?

KRW: For years, I used food to distract myself from life’s trials and tribulations. It’s much easier to be present and living each moment—whether it’s a grueling hill or a magnificent sunset—in the outdoors. Hiking has taught me there are rewards (from epic views to accomplishment) for getting through tough moments. I try to bring a little bit of that into my life each day.

BP: Talk a bit about the camaraderie during the most recent Kili climb. In what ways did your fellow group members help you succeed?

KRW: Sally was my cheerleader. Tracey was the one who wasn’t afraid to shy away from what I needed to hear. Stacey was my rock (and still is). The guides and porters, while they made fun of me and bet against me, carried what I couldn’t and in the end, I was grateful for them to work out what I had to on the mountain.

BP:Ultimately, what do you think was the most surprising thing you learned on Kili?

KRW: I am OK with who I am, no matter where I am on the scale. The kindest and healthiest thing I can do for myself is to not beat myself up inside. To me, that is wellness.

BP:What outdoor goals have you set for yourself this year?

KRW: I want hiking to come naturally. I mean, I don’t want to let myself, or my issues with food get in the way of how much I enjoy the outdoors. That way, I can be a good example for my family and anyone else out there who wants to hit the trail. I’ll hike a lot along my national book tour – stopping in as many parks as possible – to stretch my legs. As for bigger goals, I seem to have a thing for volcanoes. I’d love to end 2015 year with a family hiking trip in either Hawaii or Costa Rica.

Kara Richardson Whitely blogs at http://www.kararichardsonwhitely.com