The Woman Who Conquered Kilimanjaro

Author Kara Richardson Whitely decided—at 300 pounds—to scale Mount Kilimanjaro. Three times. Her story shows what’s possible if you just take that first step

Kara Richardson Whitely has learned a very simple lesson that has taken her places: “Molehills lead to mountains.” Or, if you take enough steps, you’ll reach a summit. For Whitely, it was a well-known one: Mount Kilimanjaro, the legendary highest peak in Africa. And she did it while weighing 300 pounds (she details her experience in her book, Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro At 300 Pounds, in bookstores now).
    Why Kilimanjaro? At 19,342 feet, “It’s the highest peak you can hike, meaning that it’s not a technical climb,” says Whitely. “It’s like going from the equator to the North Pole in one long, arduous hike. People say it’s 20,000 feet but it’s a little less.” Then she laughs. “At the top, that doesn’t really matter.”
    Whitely has struggled with food and weight loss since she was 9 years old. When she decided to take on Kilimanjaro, she knew she had a mountain in front of her, literally and figuratively. So she made it a series of molehills. “You have to take the first steps to start on the journey,” she says. “My training started on flat trails in New Jersey.”
    Here’s what she learned along the way...

You can lose different kinds of weight. “Hiking is great for shedding baggage. Not just pounds, but baggage. The reason I love being out on the mountain or in a state park is that you’re just surrounded by the woods without any distractions, hopefully with your cell phone off, and you can talk through or think through what you’re going through. For me, it was just as much about finding out how I got to—at my highest—360 pounds, and learning where to go from there.”

Your body will reward you. “All the training made me stronger and more able in my day-to-day life, but it also made me a more active participant in my life. My doctor has said a number of times that my activity level—even though I still struggle with the food part—helps keep my blood pressure low, and my blood sugar and cholesterol at picture-perfect levels.”

Support counts. “I have a group of friends who have a weekly call. It’s not about, hey, let’s catch up. It’s about supporting each other in our relationship with food. It’s so helpful to have that community to go to. Every week it’s a reset button for me. Now if I’m struggling with something emotional, I try to open my mouth to talk, not to eat.”

Haters will never stop hating. “It’s ridiculous how society treats people who are struggling with their weight, even when they’re trying to make healthy changes. I read this great blog post from a woman who is 300 pounds and was buying vegetables at the grocery store and some guy said, “It’s about time.” And she had already lost 100 pounds! Who are you to say this? Even when people try to do the right thing, they’re often mocked. I found that on the mountain, too. I was the biggest hiker they’d ever seen. But instead of you-go-girl, you-can-do-this, they immediately made fun of me, and placed bets against me. So even though I felt so strong and ready for the journey, it was heartbreaking. Obviously, I got back into my strength, but it was a devastating moment. I know a lot of friends who had that experience, where they’d just been humiliated in the gym or while walking and trying to take care of their health. You have to keep going. Each step makes you stronger, each step gives you more power.”

The true definition of courage. “The ability to move forward even though the journey may be difficult, knowing in the end it will be rewarding. And I guess that defines climbing a mountain.”

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