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What I learned about myself climbing Mount Kilimanjaro at 300 pounds

Kara Richardson Whitely, a plus-sized adventurer and mom of three, shares her inspirational story, which is being turned into a movie produced and likely starring Emmy-nominated actress Chrissy Metz.
Author and adventurer Kara Richardson Whitely.
Author and adventurer Kara Richardson Whitely.Rajan Chawla / Rajan Chawla Photography

At 300 pounds, Kara Richardson Whitely was not your typical hiker. But Whitely is used to proving naysayers wrong.

For example, on the second night of her five-and-a-half-day trek up the Rongai route of Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2011, Whitely finally laid down after a 10-hour hike only to hear the guides joking about her in Swahili. She didn’t know most of what they were saying, but she could hear them calling her “Mama Kubwa,” which means “big woman,” followed by bursts of unkind laughter.

The next day, Whitely questioned the head guide about what she overheard. He confirmed that the porters and guides who were supposed to be cheering for her success were making fun of her. They didn’t think she would make it to the top of the mountain.

After years of binge eating to avoid dealing with past trauma, Whitely finally decided, right in that pivotal moment, to move forward, both emotionally and physically. She said, “Did you take any bets? Because you should. You should bet on me.”

Kara Richardson Whitely hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Kara Richardson Whitely hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro.Sally Kidd

Now a speaker and consultant for brands that connect with the 74 percent of Americans who are overweight, Whitely, a 47-year-old mother of three, recorded her journey in a book she wrote, “Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds.” The book is currently in the process of becoming a movie, produced and likely starring Emmy-nominated actress Chrissy Metz, best known for NBC’s “This is Us.”

Taking the first step

Since childhood, Whitely had a complicated relationship with food. “When I was 9 years old, and my parents were on the verge of divorce, I would literally hide in the pantry. Chewing would drown out the sounds of their screams,” said Whitely, who lives in Summit, New Jersey.

As a latchkey kid, she would eat to combat loneliness. And when she was sexually assaulted at age 12, she escaped the situation by offering her attacker something to eat. Whitely said that in a very literal way, “food saved me.” But it also weighed her down as she began binge eating.

Just before her 30th birthday, Whitely received a travel catalog in the mail. “I realized that I spent so much of my life telling myself I'll go places when I lose weight. And I said so many things with that clause after it … I'll buy myself a new wardrobe ‘when I lose weight.’ I will go to the doctor ‘when I lose weight.’ And this is a very common narrative: you feel like you're just not worthy until you get to that perfect number on the scale.”

Even though she was at her highest weight — 360 pounds — and she “couldn’t hike a staircase,” Whitely decided that she couldn’t spend any more time waiting. She decided to rediscover something she had always loved: the outdoors.

Kara Richardson Whitely says hiking helped her battle anxiety and depression.
Kara Richardson Whitely says hiking helped her battle anxiety and depression.Allie Gaddy

Because Whitely’s attempt to find hiking gear was unsuccessful —“even the socks were too tight”— she bought the one thing that she always saw in people holding in hiking photos: a water bottle. Whitely said, “Those people carried around these giant Nalgene bottles, the kind of water bottle that if you and the water bottle fell off the mountain, it would survive but you wouldn't. That’s the kind of water bottle I needed to feel a part of this community.”

Armed with her water bottle and a copy of “50 Hikes in New Jersey” book, Whitely started tackling the easy climbs. As she struggled with the physical elements of the hike, she also battled her own anxiety and depression.

Once she started on the trail, however, Whitely said, “Those first few steps in the woods drew me back into my body in ways that I hadn't experienced in a long time. Bingeing was all about pushing away the emotion, the feeling, the fear, the happiness and even the joy in my life. But hiking and being in the outside was about pulling it all in.” She focused on the suction of mud against her boots, the cracking of a twig underfoot, the rustle of the wind in the trees. “I was literally stepping into this world where I didn't exactly fit in. But I wanted so much to be a part of it, but I couldn't help but move forward,” she said.

When molehills become mountains

Whitely was moving her body in ways it hadn’t moved in a long time. She began doing moderate hikes, and then more challenging hikes. She hiked Camel’s Hump in Vermont and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. She also started doing boot camps and lost a significant amount of weight—120 pounds. So much weight, in fact, that it was all anyone talked to her about.

To change the conversation, Whitely set her sights on a new goal: Mount Kilimanjaro. “It's the highest mountain that you can walk to the top of. It's five-and-a-half days up, one-and-a-half days down. You start with hot rain forests, and then you end up with glaciers. I mean, it's just the most epic hike I thought was possible,” Whitely said.

Whenever people asked about her weight loss, she would reframe the conversation. She would tell them she was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise money for Global Alliance for Africa, a Chicago-based organization that develops local programs and libraries for at-risk communities. Together with her husband, Chris, she raised $12,000.

She described that first climb in 2007 as “anticlimactic,” but she did make it to the top and back down. Her next adventure, having her first baby, introduced new anxiety and old problems. Whitely said, “What I didn't realize was how quickly the weight was going to come back. Not because of the pregnancy, but because I started to binge again--with absolute fury. And what I learned, in retrospect, is that I lost the weight by moving more, eating less. But I didn't deal with the emotional part of bingeing.” She gained 70 pounds during the pregnancy … and more after her first baby girl was born.

Kara Richardson Whitely, left, at Mooney Falls in Havasupai Canyon
Kara Richardson Whitely, left, at Mooney Falls in Havasupai CanyonCourtesy of Kara Richardson Whitely

Desperate to regain control, Whitely returned to Kilimanjaro for her second climb in 2009. She had been caring for her daughter and didn't train for the journey, which she called “an epic fail.” Whitely had to turn back shortly before the summit of the mountain because her body was physically unable to keep climbing. The failed trip was followed by what Whitely called a “pretty dark time.” She started bingeing in secret, replacing the food she ate so that her husband and daughter didn’t know it was gone. She said, “What few people understand as the absolute stress. And there’s so much shame all wrapped up into it, too. It’s a really incessant and exhausting mental conversation.”

Whitely didn’t intend to return for a third climb, but her friend and her cousin-in-law both said they wanted to make the climb … but only if Whitely joined them. Unable to say no to an opportunity to raise more money for Global Alliance for Africa, she tried to figure out a way to say yes. “I needed to love myself where I was and go from there. My body had birthed a child, my body had climbed the mountain while plus-size. And so I trained in that way: it didn't matter to me if I was going to lose a pound or not. I was building strength.”

Whitely felt good at the start of her third climb in 2011. But that feeling came to a halt when she overheard the guides joking about “Mama Kubwa” on the second night. By speaking up and confronting the head guide, however, Whitely was able to finally speak her emotions rather than feeding her emotions.

She said, “One of the greatest lessons for me on Kilimanjaro is that if something is bothering you in the moment, you need to deal with it immediately. So if you're thirsty, you need to drink. If you're hungry, you need to eat. And if something is bothering you emotionally, you have to deal with it.”

From book to movie

A reporter by trade, Whitely began writing a book about her travels as a plus-size adventurer, focusing on that third trip to Mount Kilimanjaro. She completed writing while at the Butler MFA Chamonix Summer Writing Program, a three-week intensive workshop in the French Alps with “Wild” author Cheryl Strayed in 2014. Whitely said that Strayed became a “beautiful force” in her life, and she is even quoted on the cover of “Gorge” as saying the book is “moving and inspiring.”

Strayed wasn’t the only admirer of Whitely’s honest and forthright take on being a plus-size adventurer. Chrissy Metz was, too.

Metz didn’t discover the book on her own. Whitely, who had been a fan of Metz and her work, attended an event for the launch of Metz’s book, “This is Me: Loving the Person You Are Today.” As Metz signed a copy of her book, Whitely told her about her climb, and Metz said that her costar, Mandy Moore, happened to be on Mount Kilimanjaro right at that moment. Whitely presented Metz with a copy of “Gorge” with her contact information conveniently inside.

Adventurer Kara Richardson Whitely has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro three times.
Adventurer Kara Richardson Whitely has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro three times.Rajan Chawla / Rajan Chawla Photography

Whitely didn’t hear from Metz for four long months. She said, “I just thought maybe my book just ended up in the recycling bin. But then I got the most beautiful email about the book that I've ever received. She said that she highlighted every page.”

Metz and Whitely have begun the often-complicated process of putting the movie together. Supported by PatMa Productions, they’re currently on the hunt for a director.

‘Living in the now’

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many people increased the amount of time spent outside, and Whitely was no exception. She hiked 100 miles of the Vermont Long Trail in the summer of 2020 and traveled through Discover Puerto Rico to encourage plus-size people who are reluctant to travel. She’s also working with brands like L.L. Bean (one of the few brands to offer plus-size outdoor gear) and KEEN (footwear for people of all sizes). She continues to serve the plus-size community in any way possible, including acting as a National Binge Eating Recovery Advocate for the Eating Recovery Center. And as a mom, she has been spending more time with her husband and their two daughters, ages 13 and 8, and their son, age 5. Recovery from eating disorders can be a lifelong process, and Whitely's progress is holding steady.

Whitely’s climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro taught her something that many people learned in the last year: to appreciate what’s right in front of you. She said, “The thread in ‘Gorge’ and in my story is really living in the now. You don't need to wait until you're the perfect size, you're with the perfect partner, that you have the perfect job to do the things that bring you joy.”