Kara Richardson Whitely’s poignant new memoir, Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds (Seal Press, 2015), details the plus-sized hiker’s third trek to the highest peak in Africa. Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and mentor to Whitely, calls the book fearless and beautiful. And it is.
It’s an adventure tale wrapped inside an addiction story, and it’s impossible to untangle the two. The book touches on Whitely’s previous Kilimanjaro climbs: her first successful one marked a 120-pound weight loss, while her next attempt was thwarted only 300 feet from the summit. As Whitely once again strives to scale the 19,343-foot mountain—this time topping 300 pounds—she’s burdened by more than excess weight. In brutally honest prose, she shares her guilt over binging on a gallon-sized bag of chocolates, her humiliation hearing her hiking guides joke about her, and the trauma of being molested on her twelfth birthday by her brother’s friend. These memories and more haunt Whitely’s every footfall up the mountain. Even as the adventurer braves altitude headaches to arrive at the top of Africa, she writes that she still crumbles at the sight of a cupcake. It’s this juxtaposition of strength and weakness that makes Whitely’s story so accessible. But her victory doesn’t bring any magic cure with it. Instead, she ultimately comes to accept that she’s a powerful woman, one who happens to be big.
At a recent visit to The New School in New York City, the 40-year-old memoirist discussed her newly released book, her fundraising for Global Alliance for Africa, and her life as a writer, wife, and mother of two daughters living in Summit, NJ.
The Rumpus: Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was a huge undertaking, one that you trained for extensively. What proved more rewarding, scaling the mountain or the process of tapping into the troubling emotions that was required to write your memoir?
Kara Richardson Whitely: It was gratifying to reach the roof of Africa, life changing. But writing was more rewarding, to take a story and build it out and share my experience with food. I’ve hiked Kilimanjaro three times and raised $20,000 for the AIDS orphans of Africa and that was most rewarding.
Rumpus: What made you want to write this book?
Whitely: I knew there was a story in my Kilimanjaro climbs. When I lost weight, people looked at me differently. I started at 360 pounds and lost 120. Even at 220 pounds people would say, ‘Hey, skinny.’ A year after my first climb, I got pregnant and gained 70 pounds back. My second climb ended in failure, and for my third climb—even if it was crazy for someone my size—it was about ending up on top, using my strength and courage. I wrote Gorge knowing that two-thirds of people in the United States are overweight or obese. I felt comfortable sharing my experience knowing I’m not the only one. So many people struggle with food, and I’m hoping this touches them.
Rumpus: Throughout Gorge, you are brutally honest about the suffering your food addiction brought you. Just before your second Kilimanjaro attempt, you realized your hiking pants didn’t fit. To solve the problem, you found a seamstress and had two pairs—a grey one and a beige one—sewn together. Then you describe feeling alone and ashamed, emotions that brought you to eat a huge bag of chocolates in your hotel room that night. Ultimately, you blamed the binge for not being able to finish this climb. Has sharing such painful memories been cathartic and helped you to deal with your food addiction?
Whitely: I think so. I had never told anyone about that binge before the second hike. It was one of my worst. I cried so many times when writing it, I think because I didn’t want to believe I would do that to myself. But overall, yes, the more I talk about and write about my food issues, the clearer my behavior is to me, and I can confront a situation before I start binging.
Rumpus: What was it like, writing this book?
Whitely: It started as an adventure story, but it kept coming out, ‘Yeah, I’m fat.’ I was trying so hard to get the book proposal right, and finally my agent said: ‘Write it as an addiction memoir.’ Then, when I got down and dirty with my compulsive eating—like the story of me binging in my hotel room—when I got into the bullying and the shaming, anytime I wrote into that vibe, it worked.
Rumpus: Cheryl Strayed tweeted praise for your memoir before it was published. Can you talk about how she came to help you with your book?
Whitely: Like so many people, I fell in love with Cheryl as a writer and a person as soon as I read Wild. I knew I needed to bring the same bravery to the page that she did, so I wanted to learn from her. I attended a few of her events, which really kick started my writing. Her “Write Like a Motherfucker” column, published on The Rumpus, was the sweet kick in the pants I needed when I started to wallow in writer’s woe, especially the bit about coal miners. She taught me that good writing hurts, and it’s okay to bleed on the page.
We really got to know each other during a three-week class she held in Chamonix, in the French Alps. This was the month before my manuscript was due, and I was there to polish my final draft. I submitted the first twenty pages of the book, and I was silently terrified that her critique would be something like, ‘This a great start,’ and I’d need to start all over again. When she said she loved my work, it was as if balloons and confetti dropped from the ceiling. Cheryl is a beautiful and powerful teacher in so many ways, and I am forever grateful for her guidance, friendship, and support.
Rumpus: One of the most agonizing moments reading your memoir was when you were in your tent one night in the midst of your third trek and you heard your guide laughing and joking about you in Swahili. Although you didn’t know exactly what he was saying, you recognized your nickname, Mama Kubwa, which means ‘big woman.’ You could tell he was mocking you, this man you needed to trust and depend on to finish your hike. How did you overcome this moment and find the resolve to continue?
Whitely: This was one of the most painful things for me to write because even though it was an extreme example, it is what a lot of plus-size people face when they try to be active. We face ridicule just taking walks in our own neighborhoods and we’re often mocked at the gym. We’re doubted when we load up our grocery carts with fruits and vegetables. In many ways, people bet against us every day. I decided to confront the situation: I told the guide that he needed to bet on me.
Rumpus: How did you come up with the title Gorge?
Whitely: I worked for an amazing branding firm called Monaco Lange for three years, and I learned the power of a word. “Gorge”—meaning the low point between two mountains and also to eat too much—was the word I was looking for. There was so much power in it. The title didn’t come until I was almost finished the manuscript. I was writing the last scene in Bushkill Falls, which is a gorge. Suddenly it dawned on me that was the title. There’s also a third meaning—these days “gorge” is short for “gorgeous.”
Rumpus: When did you make the time to write Gorge?
Whitely: I was working full-time for the branding firm in New York City. I would wake up at 5 a.m., when the house was quiet, and pound out a few pages before my day began. Writing before dawn is still my favorite time to write.
Rumpus: Before Gorge, you had already self-published a book called Fat Woman on the Mountain and had developed a following. Did that help you to get Gorge published?
Whitely: Being self-published did establish me as a speaker in the REI network, with people who were already interested in Kilimanjaro, so when I speak, it’s in a packed room. I’ve been connecting with people I worked with the past several years, like at the American Hiking Society, and readers who were already familiar with Fat Woman on the Mountain. Now that Gorge is out, the interest is snowballing.
Rumpus: Through your memoir, you’ve shared details of such a personal and painful struggle that ultimately ends in triumph. Gorge can appeal to a wide-ranging audience that includes hikers, outdoor enthusiasts, parents, and people who struggle with food (or any other type of) addiction. What impact would you like to see as the result of sharing your story?
Whitely: That the fitness field, doctors, people that know someone who struggles with food, will know what a food addiction sufferer goes through on a daily basis. There’s Weight Watchers, diet pills, Slim-Fast, and beneath it all is a profound and deep depression, where the darkness lies. The more I eat the worse I feel, and it spirals. Life doesn’t stop because you struggle with weight—‘I’ll do this when I lose weight’ or ‘I’ll buy that when I lose weight.’ Life is now.
Rumpus: It must take a tremendous amount of confidence to attempt such a daunting challenge as scaling Mount Kilimanjaro. How does this confidence reconcile with the way you treat yourself after binging or compulsively overeating?
Whitely: Confidence is outward facing. The things that gnaw at me are inward facing. There’s a private place in my mind where I beat the snot out of myself over food choices. Outwardly, it’s easy to be confident.
Rumpus: During your last trek, Tracey, one of the hikers in your group who is an elite athlete, had to be evacuated down the mountain for altitude sickness. What did this near-death experience of your fellow climber reveal to you?
Whitely: Tracey was in dire straits. She’d competed in Iron Man competitions—that’s how dangerous and unwieldy altitude sickness can be. Here’s this rock star athlete, and she’s struggling to breathe as her heart beat out of control. On the mountain, all bets are off. Altitude is king on Kilimanjaro.
Rumpus: What’s your next challenge?
Whitely: I’m ready to move on to other mountains. I want hiking and wellness to come naturally. Sunday is family swim at the YMCA, and these are true fitness moments for my family. My next book is Family Plot, the story of my journey from processed food to produce in my community garden.
Rumpus: How does it feel to be such a positive, active role model for your daughters?
Whitely: We love to hike as a family. My goal is to make sure hiking is a natural part of our lives, always.
Rumpus: What advice would you give to those who want to tackle a huge feat, whether it’s writing a memoir or climbing a mountain?
Whitely: It’s all about taking the first steps. Molehills often lead to mountains.
Rumpus: Any specific advice geared to writers working to publish a book?
Whitely: Don’t give up. The workhorse gets the books. Rewrite it ten times. The people who succeed are the ones who won’t give up. No means, ‘Keep going, make it better.’
Rumpus: How has your attitude about yourself, particularly regarding your weight, changed since your third attempt to scale Mount Kilimanjaro ended in success?
Whitely: I’ve profoundly changed. I see myself as enough, and I’m grateful for that. Before, I valued myself for failing or succeeding on a diet. In this moment, I feel powerful, successful, strong. I try not to look for victories on the scale. Today’s victory is that I didn’t open the tortilla chips. I’d call that a win. Every time I open my mouth to speak and not to eat, it’s a great victory.