When Climbing Mental Mountains Becomes Literal

I was sitting in the dining area of the grocery store where my hiking group, Unlikely Hikers, meets to carpool, watching people I thought I recognized from the internet walk around with snacks to purchase. This group hike was extra exciting because half the members of the Curvy Kili Crew were joining us. Soon they were heading my way, introducing themselves with hugs and handshakes. The space became loud with joyful noise and what was likely the biggest group of plus-size women anyone in the store had ever seen. Our hiking boots and trekking poles added extra mystery for curious onlookers. It was thrilling – taking up all of this space unapologetically.

People of size are all too aware of the space we inhabit because we receive frequent messaging we don’t fit in the world. It’s not just verbal. Chairs are being made smaller with constricting arms and two-hundred pound weight limits. Tables in restaurants are often too close together. We’re not even going to talk about airplane seats. A lot of us keep our heads down and our mouths closed.

The Curvy Kili Crew (CKC) is a group of twenty plus-size women of varying sizes, hailing from four countries: Canada, Kenya, Australia, and twelve U.S. states. Their ages range from mid twenties to early fifties.

Photo by WHOA Travel.

Most had never met before. They were visiting Portland for a group training weekend before attempting a hike of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. Kilimanjaro, or Kili, is Africa’s tallest mountain. Around thirty thousand people attempt the hike every year, but little over half summit due to altitude sickness. The highest of Kili’s three summits is Uhuru Point, at more than nineteen thousand feet above sea level. The trek is considered a hike as opposed to a climb because you don’t need technical gear or mountaineering experience, making it the most accessible peak of the world’s Seven Summits. “Accessible” being relative as hell.

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As a plus-size person – I prefer to call myself fat, though many don’t – I know why doing this adventure with other plus-size women is important. Western culture has turned pathologizing and hating fat people into a sixty-six billion dollar industry. Fat is seen as a weakness in character and intelligence, as if it’s a choice and not simply a physical characteristic in the same way one is thin. When it comes to exercise and athleticism, it’s assumed our interest and participation has to do with weight-loss as opposed to movement for the joy of it. Designating this adventure as one for plus-size women means there is already a foundation of understanding between participants. It’s a safer space to attempt something that would be off limits in other contexts. People of size aren’t part of the outdoor adventure narrative. Straight-size people (meaning, not plus size) don’t know about the struggle of finding larger gear and sleeping bags, or what it’s like to carry a heavier body up a trail, let alone a mountain.

We got the carpools in order and headed 45 minutes outside of Portland, into the Columbia River Gorge where we’d hike the Pacific Crest Trail, starting at the famous Bridge of the Gods, to Dry Creek Falls. All of our out-of-town guests were excited to hike on the trail Cheryl Strayed made famous in Wild. It became noticeable early on that the ladies were at far varying levels of hiking experience and speed. Speed is not the same as ability, though we often conflate the two. They were more than capable, but on a guided hike like Kilimanjaro, there are expectations on mileage within time-frames for the consideration of supplies and the safety of the hikers and crew leading them. You can’t just decide to take an extra day on the mountain if you need it. Wrangling twenty people is a lot. I do it all the time with my group hikes, but they end after a few hours and aren’t on an entirely different continent. How can you make sure everyone is training as much as they need to? Bogus expressions like “a group is only as strong as its weakest member” negate the purpose of community, but what about when it comes to a physical goal that’s literally dependent on everyone’s individual hiking abilities?

After taking too many group photos and selfies in the moss-covered basalt amphitheater housing Dry Creek’s perfect horsetail waterfall, we made our way back to the trailhead and shuttled back to Portland. We met up for dinner, then headed to CKC member, Bonnie Crawford’s house. All eleven of us gathered around the living room.

I asked everyone to introduce themselves, share how they identify and what words they use to describe their bodies. Some of the women first introduced themselves as wives and mothers. Others started with their careers. They were tax accountants, executives, stay-at-home moms, licensed massage therapists, yogis, students, nurses, firefighters. It was hard to not think about ensuing group dynamics when spending a week on a mountain with near strangers across a thirty year age span and varied backgrounds. Deb Malkin, from California, identified herself as a queer fat-activist. She was the second oldest member of the group at 49. Doing Kili was a 50th birthday to herself. She described herself as a late-bloomer to choosing adventure, saying she wouldn’t be a part of this group if it wasn’t for fat activism. “For women, our main job is to conform. Dieting and exercise is inherent and expected of us. What about the inherent value of just being born?” Committing to the Kili trek was expanding her personal sense of being. “Going at my own pace is a reclamation of my humanity.”

The majority of the women were white, but less white than many “body-positive” spaces. As for how they described their bodies, most did not use the word “fat,” and while I was unsurprised, it made me curious. My interactions with everyone online to this point was in relation to body-positive communities with the word “fat” explicitly in their titles, like Fat Girls Traveling, a community of fat world travelers. I started wondering about my own ease with calling myself fat.

I’m a size 20ish, white, queer, femme. My queerness afforded me access at a younger age to people and community with little regard for dominant culture’s beauty standards. It gave me permission to claim a fat identity. I’ll codeswitch when I can’t read a room, and refer to myself as “plus-size,” but most of the time I’m just fat. In fat-positive community, there’s often a question of who gets to call themselves fat. A size 16 person is having a different experience in the world than a size 36 person and it’s even more compounded when intersected with race and trans & non-binary gender identities. I’m wondering if the real question is, who gets to feel comfortable calling themselves fat? I’ve always felt uneasy with euphemisms like “fluffy” and “curvy” as opposed to literal terms, but talking to the CKC, I became very aware of how little my opinion of what folks call themselves matters.

It seemed like a good time to ask where the name Curvy Kili Crew came from. Bonnie remembered they were discussing their discomfort with possibly using the word “fat” in their group name. Group leader, Christa Singleton, offered up “Curvy Kili Crew” – not thinking it would actually stick.

In 2016, Christa, from Virginia, attempted her first hike of Kilimanjaro with the women’s travel agency WHOA Travel. She was the only plus-size woman in the group and though she had a positive experience with her team members, she was very aware of being the only person of her size and being slower than others. Christa made it within 300 feet of the summit, for which she received a summit certificate anyway. After she descended the mountain, she thought she’d never try something like this again, but it gnawed at her. Just 300 more feet! And, how might this experience be different with a group of plus-size women?

Christa was only home for a hot minute before deciding she wanted to do it again, this time with other plus-size women. She posted online to gauge interest and many responded. A private link was made for those who were seriously considering joining and the response was enormous. There was a need. Christa could have her second shot and show other plus-size women what they’re really made of.

I asked them how they were training for such an unimaginable trek. Stair climbers, treadmills and, of course, hiking. Most of them admitted they didn’t feel good about how much they were training. Working full time, some of them also being mothers, means that finding time to exercise is an enormous privilege. What does it take to feel like you’re really preparing when most of us are instilled with ideas about exercise being a form of self-discipline, even punishment? It’s easy to feel like you can’t do or be enough.

Bisa Myles, from Indiana, admitted she felt as though she wouldn’t ever be able to get in trail shape. She was just one year out from the end of treatment for breast cancer. Kilimanjaro wasn’t on her bucket list, but she had never in her life decided to do something just for herself. She wanted to do something big. While she hesitated with committing, when she came across Christa’s post, it started sounding like this was the thing.

It struck me how few of them said they were “outdoorsy” and even less grew up doing outdoorsy things. Kathy McCready, a registered nurse from Minnesota, Andrea DiMaio, a business owner and yogi from New York and Alyson Avery, from Pennsylvania who worked in tech, were the only three out of the ten who grew up doing outdoors activities. A few others started hiking in recent years. Most everyone had some form of physical activity they enjoyed. Bonnie Crawford is a two-time Ironman finisher. Bisa had only began hiking because of this adventure. When I pressed her about this she laughed, responding, “I’m from the southside of Chicago! We don’t hike.”

I finally asked the question I was dying to ask, “why Kili? Why fly across the world to take this chance when there are so many epic and more affordable adventures all around us? Why not start with a three or five star adventure instead of going directly to ten?”

Bonnie gave a little smirk: “Go big or go home,” and then, “why not?”

Photo by WHOA Travel.

I could think of so many reasons why not. Obviously, it’s expensive and a huge time commitment. I’ve only recently begun thinking about traveling. Being a high school dropout struggling to pay rent, compounded by PTSD and generally feeling unsafe, I’ve always kept my world small. I’ve barely seen the U.S., though that is changing thanks to my work with Unlikely Hikers. These amazing women were opening my eyes to pure possibility. The mental fortitude it takes to decide to do something like this is wild, especially if you’re hoping to summit.

They knew what they signed up for. No one could predict what would happen, but their willingness to try imprinted on me. For a lot of them, it was the element of travel that was most exciting. For Christa, world travel is an essential part of any adventure. Same for Bonnie. In preparing for this journey, she realized it was no longer about her: it was about setting an example of what people of size can do. She wanted to unlock the mystery of adventure and travel for others.

Celeste Thompson, from California, identifies as “supersize” and “superfat.” She explained how, for years, her hatred of her body kept her from getting out and enjoying anything. She hadn’t allowed her own family to see her for seven years. The shell she had created for herself affected her mental health. She had a breaking point: get out or die. She chose to get out. She started hiking and soon created a goal to hike in all fifty states. She even applied to Guinness World Records to be the biggest person to summit Kilimanjaro.

Andrea DiMaio said Kili had been on her bucket list for years. For her, hiking was freedom. She dieted for more than 30 years and it never worked, even though she’d been successful at many other things. She realized she wasn’t failing at dieting – dieting was failing her. She feels like a bad ass when she’s active, “people in bigger bodies are doing the same things as everyone else.”

I had to ask, “have any of you ever summited a mountain of any size before?” Only Bonnie had, and just a few weeks prior. She hiked Dog Mountain in the Columbia River Gorge, a notoriously difficult trail for many people, regardless of size.

Success and failure are often based on impossible standards and always need adjusting. We have to fail to have any idea of real success. I asked everyone what success and failure looked like for them in the context of this journey. Alyson was first to respond, “there’s the answer my therapist wants to hear and my actual answer.” She described herself as a perfectionist overcoming the way fear of failure has limited her. “In the most basic sense, reaching the top is my idea of success,” everyone nodded understandingly at this, “but I also know I’ve already succeeded because of how hard I’ve worked and how hard I’ve pushed myself out of comfort zone.”

Deb also described herself as a recovering perfectionist, something myself and many fat people identify with. We have to do better, be better, to combat assumptions about fat people and our internalized fear of embodying those assumptions. “Choosing to show up and just going with whatever happens. It’s a dance with the unknown. I hope to rewrite past stories of failure. Explore my limits, meet an emotional edge and continue anyway. I hope it also means summiting.”

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On March 3rd, 2019, after nearly three days of traveling and many airplanes, the Curvy Kili Crew began their trek of Mount Kilimanjaro. Summit night would take place on March 8th, International Women’s Day. Nineteen of the members made it to base camp, the last camp before the summit. Due to altitude sickness, only two members, Kathy McCready and Autumn Stoflet, summited Gilman’s Point, the first of Kili’s three summits, at an elevation of almost 19,000 feet.

I let the dust settle a bit before I asked about everyone’s experiences, or as they called them, personal summits. I wasn’t surprised to find many are still processing it. Their experiences varied, most notably between those who had a “life-changing” experience and those who expected to be changed – only to find they felt the same once back in their own environments. There were some common threads in everyone’s overall responses: re-entry shock, grueling, surprising, nauseating, exhausting, supportive, pain, gratitude.

All but four members said they would do it again.

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The Curvy Kili Crew’s members were Kathy McCready, Celeste Thompson, Christa Singleton, Bonnie Crawford, Bisa Myles, Megan McReynolds, Deb Malkin, Andrea DiMaio, Yolanda Berry, Alyson Avery, Kara Hardman, Claudia Patterson, Kat Ward, Autumn Stoflet, Diandra Oliver, Casey Cunningham, Shazz Nderitu, Eve Bogdanove, Molly Homchenko and Karen Rooney.🌲


edited by carmen.


outsiders - see entire issue

Jenny Bruso is a fat, femme, queer, writer, hiker, group hike leader and founder of Unlikely Hikers on Instagram. She is sponsored by, Merrell, REI, Eddie Bauer and Next Adventure. Her work can be found in Outside Magazine, Portland Monthly Magazine, FabUplus Magazine, Huffpost, the REI Co-Op Blog, Popaganda and Upworthy. She lives and adventures in Portland, Oregon. You can find her on her website or on Instagram (jennybruso and Unlikely Hikers), Facebook (Jenny Bruso & Unlikely Hikers), or Twitter (@jenny_bruso and @UnlikelyHikers).

Jenny has written 1 articles for us.

13 Comments

  1. Wow! This was a great read. As a fat person who is starting to get into hiking and spending time outdoors this is so encouraging and comforting and I’m so glad to know that I’m not alone. These folks are inspiring and badass as hell!

  2. Wow! Thank you for sharing this beautiful experience. It is amazing what happens when women step outside of comfort zones and invite others to join them. Keep breaking down barriers and perceived expectations that feel very real.

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