Getty ImagesOn September 1, 2008, Bonner Paddock, then 33, began a weeklong climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy as an infant, Paddock, in leg braces, ascended 19,340 feet. He was joined by his friend Paul Flores, fellow climber Dilly Dilworth, team leader Tim Guy, and Tanzanian guides Minja and Moody. This recounting of Bonner’s excruciating eight-hour trek to the summit, an excerpt from Bonner’s recent book, One More Step, is a fascinating look at the way trust, determination, and even anger can fuel success.
Day seven, 11 p.m. I was up and dressed, wearing four layers but still freezing. It was deadly cold, 15 below or less—without doubt the coldest it had been since we began. Sitting alone in my tent, I was already short of breath. My mouth was dry, and my tongue felt twice its normal size. I drank some hot water, warming my hands on the mug, and then slowly, painfully, strapped on my braces and boots. The moment I slipped my feet into the boots, I knew I had made a mistake—a big mistake—by not putting them into my sleeping bag with the rest of my gear. They were frozen solid. My already stiff feet were now encased in what felt like concrete.
Carefully, I stepped outside the tent, and the rest of the group assembled. Finally, Moody led us forward, single file, into the darkness. Twenty minutes into the climb, I was already a wreck, my balance off and my legs aching. I stared at Tim’s boots and tried to follow his footsteps up the steep trail, but the path was uneven, and I felt that the wind might flick me off the mountain at any moment.
Terrified, I began shivering uncontrollably. I shook my numb hands and beat them against my thighs, hoping to get the blood moving. The only warmth I felt was from the burning pain in my ankles and legs. It was clear to me that if things did not improve, I would never make it the six additional hours it would take to get to the summit.
“I may not do this,” I mumbled quietly to myself. I thought about what that would mean for everybody who had supported me—my coworkers, my friends, and strangers who had donated to my cause. I thought of Jake Ryan, a four-year-old with cerebral palsy, to whom I’d dedicated my climb, and his family. They had faith in my ability to reach the top of Kilimanjaro. They believed in me. And I couldn’t betray that belief.
But by the end of the first hour, I was exhausted. The trail was now
littered with large rocks, and I could no longer drag my feet along, one
after the other, which is what I had been doing. I needed to lift my legs now, and this slowed me down even more.
Tim had said that by 6 a.m., we should arrive at Stella Point, a ridge several hundred yards below the summit, but the night seemed to last
forever. Four hours, five—I had no idea how long we had been at it—but the sky appeared to have no intention of ever growing light. The rest breaks could not come quickly enough.
“Is it time?” I would ask Minja.
He would either shake his head or say, “Close. It’s close.”
Somewhere—the hundredth switchback, the thousandth—the pain in my legs blew past anything I had ever known. With each step, my feet and ankles sent shock waves of agony. I wanted to cry, to sit down on a rock and weep. In a haze of frustration, I started to think of everyone who had ever doubted me. Of every jeer and joke. Of every time I was picked last for a team in soccer or basketball. The anger drove me on. I pictured a furnace fueled by these feelings. Throw in some logs.
I remembered getting into a fight in elementary school with a boy who’d teased me for my funny walk. I shouted at him, and he’d punched me in the stomach, knocking me down. I added it to the furnace.
I remembered all those visits to all those doctors. Walk here, bend there, the stab of needles. I remembered all the lies I had told when someone asked me why I was walking differently and all the girls who had probably never liked me because of my stork legs. I remembered those damn casts up to my hips.Courtesy Om Foundation
The furnace started to roar.
With each step, I heaped another log onto the flame: the scrapes, bruises, broken bones, clumsy falls. The trail got even steeper. Digging my walking poles in, I pushed myself up another step. Then another.
We finally took a break, and I collapsed onto a boulder.
“This night is endless,” I said to Minja, marveling at the fact. “Where is the sun? Where is the light?”
There was no answer.
Then I was on my feet again, heading upward. There was still so far to go. Another hour or more to Stella Point, then another hour after that to Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro. My eyes blurred, and the fog around me thickened. I stared at the holes worn in the knees of my pants, felt the cold seeping through them. My knees had been knocking so much with every step that they had worn through the fabric.
I wavered on my legs but then held steady, my poles supporting me. As the trail zigzagged up a sharp slope, I started to feed the furnace inside me again, harnessing anger I’d never encountered before. Sitting on the couch, my parents telling me that Dad was moving out for only a while, when in fact, he would never return. Time and again, my brother Mike setting a date for us to hang out, then never showing. There I would sit, stewing, not knowing why he had not come, blaming myself.
Then there was my mother, keeping me in the dark about what was wrong with me. I suffered through a childhood of bruises and broken bones—all because she could not acknowledge what was so painfully obvious: that I was not like everyone else. I had cerebral palsy. The furnace roared again.
Head down, one sluggish foot at a time, I advanced toward Stella Point. No matter how many steps I took, no matter how long I climbed, it felt as though I was getting no closer. The furnace weakened to a flicker. The cold and bruising agony in my body returned in force.
Then I heard Minja chanting a Swahili prayer, and I trudged ahead.
Soon, other voices broke into my reverie.
“Come on, Bonner! Come on! You got this, Bonner!”
I looked up toward the ridge wall.
Paul came down to cheer me on. “You’re almost there.”
Finally, I crested the ridge. I had reached Stella Point: 18,850 feet above sea level. I stumbled toward Tim, resting my head against his jacket. The others crowded around and patted me on the shoulder. Tim led me over to a boulder and helped me sit down behind it, out of the wind. I heaved for breath. For several minutes, I remained bent over, spots before my eyes, trying to regain my hold on the world.
Tim brought over a canister of some kind of lemon sugar water that tasted incredible. I hadn’t had anything to drink for hours. At last, I recovered enough to ask Tim how much farther until the summit.
“An hour,” he said. “It’s really easy. You did the hard part. But we have to get moving before the weather changes.”
Any relief I had felt during our break evaporated 20 steps into the final 700-foot climb to the summit. I felt nauseated and dizzy. The wind whipped around me, and the cold was sheer brutality. I lurched left and right, unable to hold to a straight line. Every few minutes, Minja tapped me on the left shoulder or the right, steering me back onto the path.
The trail became very rocky, and I staggered forward in a haze of exhaustion and pain. I heard voices, but the words were garbled.
I lifted my head slightly. The team was gathered together ahead of me. I managed to make out the words, “Congratulations! You did it!”
Paul and Dilly pointed to a sign another 50 feet up on the slope: the mark of the highest point in Africa, Uhuru Peak.
“It’s your moment,” one of them said.
I finally realized that the team was waiting for me. They wanted me to be the first to the top.
My poles bending under all my weight, I dragged myself up the slope. Then I was at the sign. I put my fists against it and tapped it a couple of times to make sure it was real. I leaned my head against the wood. I had summited Mount Kilimanjaro. The fight was over. I had won.
Cheers rang out. Paul and Dilly joined me, and we cried together, then took in the amazing view of Mount Meru in the distance, ringed by clouds, a long stretch of fortresslike glaciers, the giant volcano crater, and a clear vista for miles and miles of the flatlands surrounding Kilimanjaro. We were so high up that I could see the curvature of the earth.
I took one last look at the view from the summit, rattled by the strange thought that I had only just started something by climbing so high.