Compassion International writer and sponsor Katy Causey recounts her difficult trek up the highest free-standing mountain in the world. She joined 23 other sponsors who raised money for clean water in Tanzania.

We are more than conquerors through Christ. I can get up this mountain. Please, God! Get me up this mountain. I repeated these words over and over, willing myself onward. It was 3am, and only moonlight and headlamps guided our way. Along with 23 Compassion sponsors, I had hiked since midnight on just a few hours’ sleep. Despite four layers of clothing, my body shivered and my fingers went numb. Snow covered the steep path and I stumbled in my hiking boots—the lack of oxygen caused uncoordinated movements and a rapid heartbeat at 17,000 feet. And still we had four more hours and 2341 feet to go until we reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

We undertook the gruelling trek to raise funds for the vital installation of a water well and storage tank in an impoverished city below Kilimanjaro called Arusha, Tanzania, where Compassion church partners help hundreds of children in the Child Sponsorship Program. I was aware of the crucial nature of this mission. Water sources in Tanzania are often contaminated with sewage, sickening children whose families can’t afford filtered water. And more than half of Compassion’s church partners who minister to children in Arusha don’t have easy access to safe drinking water at their churches. Yet little did I know how deeply the climb would call out the need for restoration of my own broken dreams. Months earlier, my younger sister had died after a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis.

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Slow Ascent

We all knew this six-day trek would require much from us—but we could not have imagined just how much. Our skilled Tanzanian guides repeated over and over: “One day at a time. If you keep thinking of the top, you’ll forget to enjoy the beauty you’ll see today. You must go polepole”. Polepole, the Swahili word for “slowly”, became our battle cry, and as we hiked we learned more about one another’s stories.

Stories like those of Pammi Simone, a 35-year-old from Pennsylvania whose husband died three years ago. “At a time when I really needed support, inspiration and a hope that life can be meaningful, I found Compassion’s clean water initiatives,” says Pammi. Pammi and her friend Michelle approached Compassion with the idea to raise money for clean water through climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and 21 other Compassion sponsors answered the call to join the expedition.

As we hiked, I thought of the children lugging their own heavy loads in the city beneath us. Some children walk up to six hours a day just to fetch water for their families and therefore miss school. The other sponsors and I discussed these issues as we trekked, our concern for children bonding us.

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Conserving Oxygen

Our conversations faded as we crossed barren, lunar-like deserts on day four. While earlier we shared stories and laughed, now at 15,419 feet we conserved any oxygen we could. It was hard to breathe even while seated.

Before our final ascent, we stopped to sleep. After a couple of fitful hours, we emerged from our tents, struggling with zippers encased in ice. It was 11pm and at midnight we began our final ascent.

Slowly, slowly. God, why do I feel like You too often react slowly, slowly? My mind wandered to questions I desperately wanted answered: why do thousands of children around the world die from waterborne diseases each day? Why did Pammi have to lose her husband? Why did I lose my only sister?

I found fresh heart from a scripture Sean Dana, our trip leader, shared: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1). The peace that surpasses understanding engulfed me. It was as if Jesus revealed to my heart: you may never understand why there is such suffering in the world and in your story. But I am trustworthy and I know the way to the mountaintop.

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A Lightened Load

A guide noticed my struggle and lightened my load, putting my daypack on his shoulders. The summit still seemed far away, yet without my daypack, it felt like the weight of my doubts and expectations for how I thought the world should look were also released.

My determination and trust were rewarded with indescribable beauty. In one direction, the moon set over a field of glaciers. In the other, the sun rose with hues of pink and orange, and the full expanse of the vast landscape we’d traversed spread out before us. We had reached the roof of Africa.

Overwhelmed with emotion, sobs came from deep inside, and I was reassured when I saw others crying too. We found inspiration in the “cloud of witnesses” who prayed us up the mountain and invested in our funding efforts. And in the memories of witnesses like my sister, cheering us on from our heavenly home.

Kilimanjaro was now a part of us. It will continue to serve as a lifelong reminder that our efforts can restore broken places.

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Join the experience of a lifetime and sign up for Compassion’s Adventure Trips: Mount Kilimanjaro Challenge today!

Words by Katy Causey

Photos by Chuck Bigger and Pammi Simone

This originally appeared on Compassion International’s online magazine and has been republished with full permission.

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