“…what kind of mother would do something as dangerous as climbing a mountain at three hundred pounds? I decided to write my will before I left, and I also made Ana a construction-paper book bound with pipe cleaners. Worst-case scenario, I thought it would be something to remember me by. I called it ‘Mommy on the Mountain.’
Mommy is traveling across the globe to conquer a mountain called kilimanjaro.
The first few days will be a breeze as she walks by trees filled with monkeys.
Soon enough, she’ll be above the clouds, blowing you kisses to where you are now.
She will start one last hike under the stars. All through the night. One step at a time, she’ll be alright.
Then she’ll reach the top, such a proud sight, after trying with all her might.
A few more days and she’ll head home, happy to be with her family who she loved all along.”
I think I discovered Kara Richardson Whitely’s memoir Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds through author Cheryl Strayed Facebook page. Apparently Kara was once her student and has since become a friend. She gave the book a very nice review and I was instantly interested. It hit two of my bookish buttons: travel-memoirs and food/weight/body image memoirs.
I plowed through this book last week on my vacation, which is something of a feat for me, and a testament to the engaging and propulsive quality of Whitely’s writing. When my son took a short afternoon nap, or before bed, I would eagerly return to her compelling story.
It turns out that Whitely had written another book, a self-published one, called Fat Woman on the Mountain. It was published in 2010 and chronicles her first journey to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro a dormant volcano in Tanzania that rises more than 19,000 feet above sea level. In the course of training for and completing the climb, Whitely lost 120 pounds. I haven’t read that book, but Whitely touches on it and explores her first two attempts at climbing Kilimanjaro. The first one was successful, the second one was not. Early on we learn that she attributes her failure to reach the summit the second time in part to a binge the night before she set out on the trek. Before the second attempt, Whitely had a daughter named Anna, and regained 70 pounds of her previous weight loss. She takes this third trip to Kilimanjaro in part to make her young daughter proud of her, no matter what she weighs.
Whitely alternates sections describing her trek up the mountain with sections detailing the traumatic events in her past that still haunt her and push her to binge. Her parents’ stormy relationship, their divorce, and the subsequent physical and emotional absence of her father set the stage for a disordered relationship with food. Add to that an incidence of sexual molestation by her brother’s friend, and years of the diet/binge cycle. Whitely is so brave and so raw with her emotions and her past. I read in an interview on The Rumpus that she initially approached writing Gorge as a travel memoir, but that food, weight, and her past kept coming up. Her editor encouraged her to reveal more about her emotional struggles. I know as a reader that her decision to open up made this book so much more compelling for me than a straight-up travel narrative would have been.
That said, the parts of the book dedicated to her climb are fascinating. I knew nothing previously about Mt. Kilimanjaro, not one blessed thing. I was interested in her description of the different climates and topographies climbers pass through from the base to the summit. I was interested in her complicated relationship with her fellow climbers, and with the porters and guides leading them. She stands out among the hikers, obviously, and her (understandable) discomfort at being stared at and talked about is palpable. I truly admire anyone of any size for attempting such an arduous, physically and mentally draining trek, much less a woman of 300 pounds.
I gave this book four stars on Goodreads. As someone who has struggled and continues to struggle with emotional eating and bingeing, I felt connected to this memoir on a personal level. I was enthralled by the mechanics of the slow ascent towards the top of the mountain. Whitely ends the book with a clearer sense of who she is and what she’s made of, but there are no easy solutions or dramatic weight loss for her. What is left is a portrait of a real woman, a brave woman, facing her past and working towards a better future.