Conquering Fear on Kilimanjaro

One woman’s journey to push herself to great new heights

On top of the world

As a professional counselor, Deb Corbett spends her days advising clients to "push open the sides of their box and dance outside of it," but three years ago she realized she needed to take her own advice. "I wanted to transition out of the place where I'd become too comfortable," she says. Corbett, then 43, found her challenge in the most unlikely place: an email from the Rotary Club of her hometown Charlotte, North Carolina, inviting her to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and raise money for the eradication of polio.

"Climbing Kili definitely was uncharted territory for me, in more ways than one," says Corbett. "The excitement and the newness of the adventure overshadowed certain realities: I'm afraid of heights; I don't like bugs; I've never slept in a tent; and I'd never done anything remotely that physical. Oh, and I used to weigh 300 pounds."

Shedding 126 pounds through a combination of bariatric surgery and a strict training regimen had been the biggest struggle of Corbett's life up to that point—and the biggest transition to deal with afterwards. "For years I'd felt the protection of being 'invisible' under all that weight," she says. "As my shape began to change, I had to learn what it felt like to be noticed. It was an unexpected change. I had to learn how to stretch into that unprotected, uncomfortable place." Would she feel even more exposed and vulnerable during her quest to summit the famous volcanic mountain in Tanzania?

Not everyone in Corbett's life was an unabashed advocate of her taking on the climb. "I asked my father to support me," recalls Corbett. "He was so worried about the risks that he offered to donate $2 if I continued, or give me $500 to stay home." While Corbett realized her father was acting out of love, she took his offer as an even greater incentive to succeed.

On September 10, 2012, Corbett arrived in Africa. Two days after acclimating at base camp, she began her ascent, full of fear and doubt. "The hours leading to those final moments demanded more from me than I had ever experienced at one time in my life," Corbett recalls. "The mental climb was as exhausting as the physical climb.

But make no mistake, the physical part of the journey was punishing. Says Corbett: "Near the top, leaning on my trekking poles for support, I practically fell asleep each time we took a break—the air was so thin. My water pack leaked, and I lost over half of my supply for the summit climb. Energy snacks stayed only a few seconds in my stomach and quickly exited the way they came in, leaving me trembling with fatigue and stomach cramps.

"I pushed, climbed, prayed, cried, sung, gave up, and regained confidence all to be faced in the final moments with large boulders, a steep drop, and an even steeper incline. I faced these with spaghetti legs and an exhausted spirit." Corbett knew if she was to make it to the top, she had to cross those rocks. "I cried at the thought of coming so far and not making it, for at this moment in the journey, I had to face my fear of heights and believe in myself to make it through. With the encouragement of my guide, I crawled on all fours, across and up the rocks, taking the deepest breaths possible to muster the strength." As the ground evened out and she caught the first glimpses of Kilimanjaro's crater roof, her utter exhaustion was pushed aside by an overwhelming and indescribable sense of joy.

On top of the world at 18,770 feet, watching the sun rise over the clouds shrouding the land below, Corbett thought about something a friend back home had told her: You don't conquer the mountain, you conquer yourself. "I realized that this journey was part of my greater journey in life," she says. "I'd pushed beyond what I thought were my capabilities, but balanced and respected the fine line of my limits. Learning and growing are steps in life."

Reaching her goal on Kilimanjaro helped her make even greater changes in other areas of her life. She hopes to help other women do the same when she takes them on a climb this summer.

Climbing Kilimanjaro became a metaphor for the big transitions that would come in the wake of Corbett's triumph in Africa. Once home, she decided to focus her counseling practice on the area that now resonated most for her: personal leadership—combining the process of looking inward while moving forward at the same time. The decision meant a journey into re-branding—not just her business but also herself.

Post-climb, Corbett says she has become "much bolder" in engaging in "meaningful conflict." No longer willing to tiptoe around issues, her marriage is better for it, she believes. Corbett chose the name "Dovetail" for her new business because "it's the strongest joint; it unifies the parts into a harmonious whole.

"There are more ascents in Corbett's future. She's organized a Kili climb in June of 2014 called "She Summits," which now consists of a group of 12 women from around the country who will ascend the mountain in search of their own personal transition and transformation.

"A motto on the mountain is 'pole-pole' which means take it slowly, step by step," says Corbett. "It's something you really learn up there. Life is not a race to rush through, but rather a journey of growth to enjoy, explore, and experience."

Tags: travel