Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds

Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds by Kara Richardson WhitelyThe thing about being a writer is that, if you are gainfully employed, it’s likely you spend your time writing about other people. I am a “content specialist,” which is the new term for copywriter because it implies I write for both web and print. Which means I spend (some of) my days interviewing and writing about people who do cool things in order to market the organization I work for.

That organization happens to be a major “highly-selective” university, for which I am producing a series of stories and videos about some of our most outstanding first-year students.

And let me tell you, my self-esteem can really plummet in the face of children (because that’s what 18-year-olds are to me now) who are already: published novelists, award-winning activists, award-winning athletes, award-winning Telemundo stars, and the children of semi-famous people—which, while not an accomplishment itself, often offers the means a driven student might use to achieve incredible accomplishments.

I literally come back from every interview and say to my coworkers, “Guys, why am I not doing anything with my life?”

All that unnecessary preamble is to say that I really enjoyed reading Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds by Kara Richardson Whiteley because damn, is she relatable.

Here is a middle-class, underemployed, overweight mother just doing her best to make a living and be a good mom and wife all while wrestling her formidable demons. I relate so hard.

In this memoir, Whiteley tells the story of her third (yeah, third!) climb up Mount Kilimanjaro.

“But, Shannon, I thought you said she was relatable. This super-athlete doesn’t sound very relatable,” you say.

Well, I say to you, remember the subtitle of her book. This athlete weighs 300 pounds!

And, in addition to the difficulty her weight adds to this third climb, Whiteley is actually coming off a disappointing second climb of Kilimanjaro, when she didn’t make it to the top due to altitude sickness. Apparently, that is a very serious thing, which she details in the book. I had heard the term, but as Whiteley and her group ascend throughout the book, it becomes more and more of a factor. You almost start to feel light-headed and nauseous along with the climbers.

Whiteley alternates the tale of the climb with episodes from her past. She talks about her strained relationship with her father, who left when she was little, and how that affected her and her mother and brothers. She also tells the story of being molested by her brother’s friend at the age of 12 and of the backlash she faced from schoolmates after reporting her attacker. She was also bullied because of her weight all through her childhood and adolescence. If you were bullied too, the episodes she describes may bring back those difficult memories. I know they did for me.

As with many people carrying “too much” fat on their bodies, Whiteley is a dieting veteran. She tries everything and, in adulthood, ends up at Weight Watchers. Through the program, she loses 120 pounds and embraces a life of fitness, leading her to climb Kilimanjaro for the first time with her husband.

Unfortunately, a lot of the weight piles back on after she gives birth to her daughter Anna. And a cycle of dieting and bingeing continues. After her failed second Kilimanjaro climb, Whiteley comes home disheartened, feeling sure that her weight played a part in her “failure.” She plans another climb, this time with several friends, and begins to build up the trip in her mind as the possible resolution to her food and weight issues.

Have you ever wildly pinned your hopes on something you thought would save you from your own designated issue? I have. So I get it.

Whiteley has several realizations on the mountain as she’s forced to be alone with her thoughts. She doesn’t resolve her food and eating issues while climbing because, of course, the mountain cannot magically change her relationship with food and her body. Instead, she resolves to continue to work through them. I’m reminded of the annoying adage, “Wherever you go, there you are,” meaning, you can’t run from your problems. You always take them with you. But I think that’s Whiteley’s overarching point. She took her problems to the mountain to wrestle with them under stressful physical conditions that required her to face her body and her feelings about her body.

I had one very judge-y thought while reading. As I got through the first few chapters, I thought, she doesn’t have much of a style. But that’s OK. She’s not a writer practicing the craft of writing. She’s a woman who climbed a mountain telling us the story of how she climbed the mountain. But further reading proved me wrong as Whiteley is actually a writer. Before the period of unemployment she mentions in the book, she was a full-time newspaper reporter. Whoops.

So, there’s my judgement: her writing is pretty basic and straightforward with no real style. Voice for sure. Style, no.

I didn’t care though. This book made me feel like I could climb Mount Kilimanjaro and I think Whiteley would be happy to know that. I’m not a published novelist or an award-winning activist, but if someone like Whiteley can wrestle her demons on the tallest mountain in Africa, surely this overweight Midwestern mom has a chance with her own demons.

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