Monday, September 26, 2011

In Juan's Words: The Last and First Miles

Here is a fantastic Guest Post from Juan Martin Botero, sharing his story about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and why he mentors for Partners for Youth with Disabilities. You can make a donation in support of PYD by sponsoring Juan on Saturday's Rodman Ride for Kids in Boston by clicking here. Donations will be accepted until November 15! Thanks Juan, for sharing your story!!

Often when I go biking long distances or if I go up or down through mountain trails; the last mile is the longest and is the hardest. In the night we started the final approach to Uhuru Peak, the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (one year ago), skies were clear and there was no moon, so it was extremely cold and it was pitch dark. The light of my headlamp revealed just a couple of feet of trail, and revealed some of the porters who were busy organizing the gear and fitting my chair/device. Still the anxiety and the adrenaline from the previous days were fueling my determination to put a foot in the summit. But it was the last mile… Nevertheless, it was not the time to give up, although I was tired, cold, and knew the trail only in maps, so I did not have a concrete idea of what was coming, only that it was rocky, narrow and steep in some parts.

We started our way up, the porters, the guide, my climbing partner, and me. The moon came out, it was almost full, there were no clouds in the night sky, and a steady breeze was blowing. I turned my headlamp off. The narrow switchbacks started. My chair would not fit and the pulling team could not stand in front all at once. So for some parts I walked with my arms around the shoulders of a porter and sometimes I piggy-backed on the superhuman porters. After a couple of hours of walking and of concentrating on our heavy breathing breaking the silence, we reached The Gillman’s Point.

There I could use the chair again, so we stopped for a break. And I asked myself: “this is pretty good, should I go back?” I sat on a cold rock with the question on a blank mind. And then the sun rose. We were standing at about 18,400 feet above sea level, with clouds under feet, the Mawenzi peak shining like gold, and the mountain opening majestic before our eyes: and then I saw the summit; it was right there, behind us. About two hours later we were standing in the summit, the highest point in Africa: 19,143 f.a.s.l..- The last mile, really about 3,300 vertical feet, was the hardest, but that sunrise made it all worth it.

The first mile, in my case was very easy. I sat in a wheelchair [beginning] about five years ago, and before that I climbed many peaks in the Andes. I traveled to many beautiful and far places in South America. I even started a mountain and rock climbing group in Colombia. Traveling, climbing, exploring, learning, meeting new people: I got an incredible opportunity to know and to shape myself. This made the first mile in my life amazing and it empowered me to be here now and to be in the top of Kilimanjaro.

But when I look at children with disabilities, I realize that their first mile is not an easy one. And I am humbled by the strength I see in them. To realize that they are also going through that mile, discovering and shaping themselves but facing obstacles that I have encountered as a grown man; only makes me wonder. For this reason I believe in Partners for Youth with Disabilities, and I became a mentor: because I hope I can share with them my strengths and my stories, and I can show them that we can all climb Kilimanjaro in our own terms: in other words that we can achieve our goals and it is only the last mile that is hard but that we have to and can do it.

I have been a mentor for over two years now, and I hope the kids have gotten from me as much as I have learned and am learning from them. For example my mentee, Eric, introduced me this past weekend to sled hockey: something completely new for me and completely amazing. Now I want do it, seeing him, who has been practicing it for the past two years, made me want to jump to the ice… but I need to break the ice first, I am going to give it a try first on his sled in a skating ring. But I would never have become interested on this if it was not for him. And that is what I hope I can give him eventually.

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