UNION, NJ — Kristen Hudson thought about turning back as she neared the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. The ground was icy, her body was exhausted and she would lose a couple of steps each time the wind gusted, guided through the darkness of night only by the light from her headlamp and a voice inside her telling her to keep moving forward.
Hudson’s six-day trek to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Ta which took her about 19,000 feet above sea level and some 7,500 miles from home, started Aug. 5. The ascent ended in the early hours of Aug. 9, with a cold drink and a feeling of accomplishment. She returned to the base of the Tanzanian mountain in East Africa on Aug. 10.
She is hoping to pass the lessons learned that day — the power of perseverance, the joy of meeting nearly insurmountable challenges, the ability to choke back the fear and keep going — to her students at Kawameeh Middle School, where she teaches U.S. history.
“I feel like I learned about what I can accomplish,” said Hudson, a Union native. “I push myself to the limit, even though there were times I wanted to quit. It was like, ‘No, it’s not an option.’ You think about it as you go. You’re like, ‘What am I doing.? Why am I doing this? The wind is blowing, the dirt is blowing everywhere.’ And your like, ‘What am I doing?’ But then it’s like, ‘No I’ve got this.’ You push yourself through it.”
Hudson’s adventurous spirit probably goes back to her childhood days growing up in Union. She has fond memories of attending Franklin Elementary and Burnet Middle School. The family moved to Middletown while she was in middle school, but her thirst for new experiences continued to grow.
There was that time she decided to drive across country by herself. There were so many snowboarding excursions. She spent time in such far-flung locales as Iceland and Argentina. She’s run marathons and trudged through several muddy obstacle course events.
Climbing Kilimanjaro, however, proved to be something else. Hudson remembers looking out of her hotel room window in Tanzania, gazing at the mountain and wondering if she could make it to the top.
Hudson traveled halfway around the world by herself, but made the trek with a group of people brought together by the travel company. Britons, Australians, Russians and her — the 10 of them were met by soaking rains at the beginning of the journey, which starts in a jungle.
The weather turned colder in a few days once the they climbed above the clouds.
By time they neared the summit, the conditions went from bad to worse to worst.
“The terrain is crazy and, the night before we reached the summit, there were 75, 80 mph winds,” Hudson said. “It was insane. Apparently, it happens twice a year and it happened then. It was super windy, like ridiculously windy. It was exhausting. It was physically exhausting because you were walking on sort of like shale rock. You slide every time you take a step. You slide back a little. It was just exhausting.”
She wasn’t alone. Hudson said several others in the group would later admit that they were considering turning around, too.
So, Hudson trudged along and summoned strength even she didn’t know she had. At the summit, high above the world, there was a new perspective on the life.
“It was like, I don’t know what the word is,” Hudson said. “I thought I was going to cry, but I didn’t cry when I got to the top. I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ And we took a whole bunch of pictures. Someone said, ‘Let’s go back down.’ I was like, ‘What? We just got here.’ It was totally worth it. Once you got there, it totally exceeded my expectations of what I — I don’t know exactly what I was thinking about.”
She took photos and remembers her time at the peek in snapshots. She remembers, for instance, needing something cold to drink. She remembers thinking about seeing Kilimanjaro from the plane flying into Tanzania and then realizing, “Wow, I’m going to be standing on top of that. And I did. So, it’s pretty cool.’”
The descent wasn’t easy either. She lost three toenails but, as she put it, “sucked it up.”
Finally back in the safety of her classroom, she plans to impart lessons learned on the trip to her students. She says she’s planning to give a slide show presentation from the climb of Kilimanjaro and the safari she took afterward.
Hudson said some of her students are often astonished when she tells them about some of her adventures, but her advice to anyone — especially her students — is to go out and experience life.
“There’s a whole world out there besides New Jersey,” said Hudson, who is in her 16th year as a teacher. “Just to experience different cultures, different ways of life. People are pretty much the same as you all over the world, although obviously, they’re coming from different backgrounds. Just to go and do it and see as much as you can. I know it costs money, but I’d rather have the experience. You learn a lot about life. you meet a lot of people. I have friends all over the world, literally.”