The Mountain of Greatness: Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

Shannon Shorr takes adventure to the top of the world

For hours, Shannon Shorr struggled up the rocky face of mountain with only the light of his headlamp and lamps of his hiking partners cutting through the darkness. Every breath was challenge at 19,000 feet above sea level and collapsing from fatigue began to seem like a possibility.

Shorr kept his eyes on the boots of his hiking partners in front of him, Jesse and Paul Yaginuma, matching them step for step. The pre-dawn temperature was well below freezing, the mountain winds cut straight to the bone and they all couldn’t feel their fingers and toes.

Uhuru PeakJust after 6:30 a.m. Shorr and his small company reached Uhuru Peak — the highest freestanding peak in the world at 19,341 feet — and experienced the most transcendent experience of his life.

Up to that point in his life, Shorr had traveled the world playing in some of the most prestigious poker events in the world — accumulating over $5.6 million in career earnings. But nothing he had ever done could compare summiting the tallest mountain in Africa with the Yaginuma brothers.

Three weeks removed from the grind of the World Series of Poker, Shorr, Paul and Jesse embarked on the trip of a lifetime, with the mission of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Shorr detailed his experience in his blog and the trio dove a little deeper into their experience.

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“After a nine hour flight from Atlanta I connected through Amsterdam where KLM Airlines took over carrying service. I arrived to Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania after 22 hours of travel through eight different time zones to the nightmare that only my duffel bag had arrived. Additionally I’d packed a huge suitcase that included my daypack and much of the essential gear I needed, perhaps most importantly my broken-in hiking boots. My concern became real while waiting with many others in the lost baggage line in the third world country – watching workers document all of the claims with paper and pen. I filed my claim and was told that my baggage was most likely in Amsterdam and wouldn’t arrive in time for my hike which was to begin in just 13 hours.”

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“That was a pretty big nightmare,” Shorr said. “Literally, when we landed I had 12 hours until when we were supposed to be picked up to go on mountains. So, I was freaking out a little bit.”

Shorr was talked into going to the hotel and luckily there was supply store nearby. He purchased some second-hand boots that were already broken in, but hadn’t seen any miles in quite some time.

The sudden feeling of not being prepared enough for the trek sunk into the trio.

“Preparing was something that was tough for all of us purely scheduling-wise. Jesse and Shannon were out in Vegas for the Series and didn’t have too many off-days to fit in a training regiment,” Paul said. “I was back in Maryland, but working full time, which also made it difficult.  We had all done some hiking previously, but nothing near what it would take to tackle Mount Kilimanjaro.”

camping Kilimanjaro

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“We admittedly started the climb entirely too fast and broke quite a sweat on the first incline into the rainforest. I remember thinking ‘What did I get myself into?’ Our guide Ewald, aka “Professor,” had to rush in front of us from below to slow us down.

We got a great taste for the rainforest and quickly made camp on day 1. Guides and hikers are required to sign in each afternoon at camp. Something is cool about the fact that history of Kilimanjaro is documented with paper and pencil. It goes along with the awesomeness behind the idea that you’re out there, it’s just you and nature and no interference. We arrived to two two-man tents that had already been set up by our porters, a mess tent where we would eat dinner each night, and a few chairs which we would generally chill in each afternoon after completion.”

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“We weren’t sure what to expect with exposure on the mountain for the first day, but it was shortest day we had hiking-wise,” said Jesse. “We only hiked for about three hours that day, made camp fairly quickly and it was warmer just for the fact that we were at a lower elevation.”

“We were not really expecting to see a whole lot of wildlife because the guides told us that the animals usually stay away from the trail, but we actually saw three monkeys swinging from a tree,” Jesse continued. “One of them actually fell out of the tree on to this tent right in front of us.  He probably fell three feet out of the air, honestly. He looked around in a daze for a few moments and ran off into the jungle.  That was the welcoming we got to Mount Kilimanjaro, so it was a fun way to start it off.”

“But as we found out the first day on the mountain, our hiking pace, both during training and on the mountain, was far too ambitious and we had to be constantly reminded by our guides to slow down or we would burn out,” Paul said. “Our guides saying “Pole pole” (pronounced pole-ay — meaning slow in Swahili) was a constant during the entire journey.”

“The first day and a half was pretty special,” Shorr said. “We were in the rain forest for that, it takes about that long before you emerge and actually get a view of the mountain. That initial feeling of being out there in nature away from everything and knowing that we were totally separated at that point was pretty cool in itself.”

“Even just getting set up the first night for camping was different,” Shorr continued. “I hadn’t camped in probably 20 years.”

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“I mostly was asleep by 8 or 8:30 each night, occasionally rolling around in the tent for a little while when the conditions became colder. And let me tell you it was cold. On the final night it was to a point where we wrapped up in everything that we had in order to stay warm. As it got colder we all three slept in just one two-man tent for warmth. In my other downtime I read best selling “Freakonomics” on the mountain and found it interesting. We spent 20+ hours on the mountain playing a card game called “Presidents” that the guys introduced to me. I got pummeled all trip long.

I awoke around 3-5:30 a.m. each day, content with my night’s sleep. The sun came up at 6:30 each day and we were able to catch some beautiful sunrises. I managed to meditate four to five days on the trip which was instrumental in me making summit. Breakfast each morning was a big bowl of pourage which we mixed with chocolate Nutella, peanut butter or honey. Afterwards we were brought a platter with three eggs, six pieces of toast, and three medium pieces of sausage. I’d fold the sausage and egg in the bread and coat it with the chili ketchup.

We’d eventually get underway with our hikes from 8:30 to 9 a.m. The hikes were obviously spectacular and I stayed in the moment as best I could. We spent lots of time talking and joking, and I feel like I learned so much from my hiking mates. Occasionally toward the end of hikes we would stream music as motivation. I played Eric Prydz “Liberate” countless times.

We eventually emerged from the rainforest and things really started to open up. It wasn’t until late day 2 that we actually got a view of the peak that we’d attempt to conquer. It was a cool feeling not thinking but knowing that the guys and I were going to summit. I don’t really have words to describe the views we saw along the way, so I’ll let the footage speak for itself when I put it together.”

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Jesse’s innermost experiences came from some of the views while he was climbing. “You had to experience the view that you get from the start through the jungle,” he said. “When you get to the mountains you get to look down on the clouds and it really is an absolutely transcending experience — the sights just around you are fascinating.”

“After the initial wave of ‘What have we gotten ourselves into?’ had worn off and we began to get accustomed to mountain life, the hike itself never ceased to be an amazing experience,” Paul said. “Having the last thing you see before going to sleep be unpolluted stars and the Milky Way, then waking up with the sun to a blue sky is an experience all on its own. Paired with the sights of the mountain and the physical exertion of hiking all day, you’re really able to tune into the task at hand and appreciate in real time how incredible it is to be able to make the trek.”

“I’ve been doing a lot of meditation this year, which has really taken me to another level mentally. I’ve been staying on a meditation grind pretty well, so I was in a really nice state of mind,” Shorr said. “I’d just seen a bunch of family, so I think doing all that type stuff definitely helped and gave me the will to get there.”

“I’ve been on a bit of a self-improvement journey for the last three years and I heard a lot about meditation,” Shorr continued. “I guess it was mainly a life balance thing, but I had a lot of success with the way I felt after my meditation sessions. I definitely think it has helped my poker game as well. It helps me to remain calm in almost all situations. I feel like I was really composed before but I feel like I’m even more composed now.”

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“For the first six days we averaged around four hours of hiking per day including occasional stops for rest or water. We had just a ten-hour break before our summit climb was set to begin at midnight, starting day seven. The guys and I managed to get very little sleep in the meantime.

We awoke to an alarm at 11:15 pm and finished putting on all of our gear before consuming some tea and crackers. We got underway around 12:30 am. We began the steep ascent of the mountain in the dark night lit up only by an unforgettable view of the full moon and stars and by all of us hikers’ headlamps in a line. The view was literally something from another world. It is one of the reasons you should book your Kilimanjaro trip as soon as possible. We trekked and trekked and trekked for over four hours and I can speak for all of us when I say that we were physically and mentally exhausted. Still, there was no chance of us coming up short. The conditions were well below freezing, and we couldn’t feel our fingers and toes for the majority of the trip. It was around this point that I experienced the best high of my life. It was the type feeling you hear super long distance runners and other extreme athletes talk about when they’re pushed to the absolute brink. It was amazing. I occasionally smoke weed and have used MDMA a handful of times. It should be said these substances have played a vital role in my growth as an individual and are both excellent if used responsibly. They cannot compare to the feeling I had on the mountain however.

Around 5 am we were informed by our tour guides, Ewald and Amadeus, that we were ninety minutes from summit. This is the point that I found my true second wind and became overwhelmed by emotion. I drew so much strength from the yoga and meditation practices that I’ve incorporated into my life. I just kept breathing, staring at the shoes in front of me, and taking one step at a time. We were going to accomplish this feat. Around 45 minutes from summit we reached Stella Point which stands 18885 feet above sea level.

Things flattened out and we all pushed on toward summit. Our dream came true at 6:34 a.m. Paul surprised Jesse and me with a flag from our hometown states of Maryland and Alabama, respectively. Regrettably it was so windy that my flag is barely visible in the pictures. We hugged and high-fived then took some quick pictures in the freezing and windy conditions as dozens of others hurriedly took pictures as well. We were at summit for maybe fifteen minutes.”

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“Day five we were all fairly exhausted and knew we had to scale the largest cliff we were to face during our climb, but having been through the past four days with each other, there was an unspoken understanding that none of us had come this far to give up and the climb would be a team effort for all of us,” Paul said. “On summit day we made sure to walk side-by-side for the final few hundred yards in order to finish our journey as a group.”

“The real true high came on day seven. It came when we were about probably two hours or 90 minutes from summit knowing that we were going to make it,” Shorr said. “You can’t really describe it unless you’ve experienced it. It’s just the most amazing feeling. It’s just like outcome with emotion and saw a layout of how it was kind of like life. If you put your mind to something, it can be accomplished.”

“The summit climb was a completely different animal than the rest of the hike,” Jesse said. “Unless you’ve done something like it, I don’t know that there is any way to prepare for it. Physically, the altitude just hits you like a brick if you’ve never experienced it before, and mentally, halfway up the summit climb we all felt like we could pass out at any moment. To be honest it was very possibly the toughest thing that I’ve ever done, quite possibly that any of us had ever done.”

“While climbing, all I kept repeating to myself was that I wasn’t going to come this far and quit, so I might as well keep moving.  All I was focused on was staring at the person’s feet in front of me and putting one foot in front of the other,” Paul said. “I thought that maybe it was just me having difficulties with the altitude, but I would later learn that both Jesse and Shannon felt like they might pass out at any moment. We would later share with each other that all of us had a similar tactic of staring at the person’s boots in front of us and repeating some kind of mantra about not quitting in our heads.”

“When we reached the summit, we all caught a second wind and were able to appreciate the feat we had just accomplished,” Paul said. “For me personally, the final stretch where we turned the corner and could finally see the summit sign was emotional. I didn’t realize how relieved I would be to have made it and there was a mixture of oxygen-deprived elation and an understanding that I had just fought through the hardest thing I had ever done. I feel that the realization that we had just pushed ourselves harder than ever before, and succeeded, rivaled the satisfaction of any other part of the journey.”

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“The real struggle of the trip for me was coming down the mountain. Having never really experienced altitude, I really got hit at the summit and had some difficulty skating down the initial 2.5 hours of the mountain. My headache was pounding and I was completely exhausted. Thanks to Jesse and Paul’s motivation I eventually made it. Once back down the mountain to base camp around 10 am, we debated whether to walk the three hours to the intended final night’s camp or to truck on for six hours to reach the starting gate of the mountain. It was a no-brainer, and we chose the latter to avoid spending another cold night on the mountain. We also wanted a shower so ridiculously bad. Sixteen hours of hiking later, the porters loaded up all the gear and the seventeen of us piled into the van. 

Jesse, Paul and I arrived at the hotel at long last. Showers were so important to us that we flipped coins to determine which lucky guy amongst us got to go first. I got third. We headed downstairs for an appropriately named African lager called ‘Kilimanjaro’. We were just about to walk upstairs and get sleep when our guides and newfound friends Ewald and Amadeus pulled up in a vehicle outside the hotel. We all piled in a car and headed out to the nearby Moshi, Tanzania bars/nightclubs. We took over the dance floor with our favorite porter, Peter. I finally slept after 2 a.m. in what amounted to the craziest 24 hours of my life.”

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“Having a variety of experiences in your life outside of poker really puts poker problems in a certain perspective that you can judge it a little more objectively,” Jesse said. “You can put things in perspective better where a downswing won’t bother you as much in the rest of your life when you really understand how big, how many other things that are going on in the world around you that poker is really not everything.”

“I think it definitely helps ground you and balance you in that sense.  Also, the trip just was an amazing experience to share with anybody,” Jesse continued. “It really bonds people together and really pushes yourself and each other to the limit. Anybody you have that type of experience with, you’re going to have a closer bond with in the future.”

“After the summit climb, we agreed that knowing the other two simply wouldn’t give up was very motivating and allowed us to succeed as a group,” said Paul. “We all shared the mentality that there was no way we would quit and I’m glad I was able to make the journey with people that have that kind of drive.”

uhuru peak

The transcendent experience left an impression on Shorr. “It really trivialized basically everything. It made me realize that nothing’s that big of a deal. It was a meditative nature experience that sort of brought along that realization,” Shorr added. “I think it’s good for people to get out and do that type of stuff. It definitely helped me — a sort of shift in my step.”“I distinctly remember standing up on that mountain and realizing just how small I was. Just how little basically anything is, much less poker, which is just a card game where we’re all sitting around a table trading money with each other,” Shorr said. “I realized that I put way too much of my self-worth in the past based on how my poker results were, which obviously is not any way to live.”

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October 2014