Nineteen thousand feet up, 1:30 a.m. darkness, sub-zero temperatures and biting winds. Benjamin van Aken emerged exhausted from the depths of his sleeping bag. Miserable and cold, he began the final stage of his climb.
Within an hour, a smile and a flood of euphoria replaced his misery: He had witnessed the most beautiful sunrise of his life from the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.
For van Aken, summiting the tallest mountain in Africa the summer after his second year at UCLA was a literal high point in his life, especially because he had spent the school year feeling physically inadequate and emotionally drained.
“It was one of the happiest moments of the year,” van Aken said. “It was very much a turning point. … I genuinely felt fulfilled and happy.”
Van Aken’s need to prove himself physically was evident even when he was young. His mom, Jenice Mortale, noticed him doing flips on the living room couch at age 5 and signed him up for a gymnastics class. He sprung and vaulted his way into becoming a serious gymnast, actively competing for the next 13 years.
But two years after Mortale changed the course of her son’s life, a completely different force changed hers. Van Aken was 7 when his mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She fought and beat it, then went into remission for several years. But the cancer came back – and this time, it wouldn’t relinquish its grip. After fighting for more than a year, Mortale died in August 2009. Van Aken was 13.
“It didn’t seem real,” he said. “She would come home at 9:15 every night. My family and I would be sitting on the couch watching TV, waiting for the lock to turn. … When she died, unconsciously we were still waiting for that lock to turn.”
A year after van Aken lost his mother, his third-grade teacher told his dad about Camp Kesem, a summer camp that supports kids impacted by their parents' cancer. Almost immediately after he was dropped off at Camp Kesem, a group of boys who had attended the camp for several years welcomed him and helped ease his nerves.
Van Aken remembers the joy of experiencing his first-ever backpacking trip. He also recalls playing a game that involved being stuck in a maze and having to find his way out.
“I was one of the last few people out. … Eventually it was like, 'I need help,'" he said. “It taught me the life lesson that oftentimes you need to ask for help.”
He now returns almost every year as a counselor to give back to the support system he benefited from.
While the camp helped address his emotional pain, he started to suffer physically at UCLA. He was forced to give up gymnastics in his first year after a torn labrum and a surgery left him unable to perform at the physical level he wanted.
In his second year, a buildup of mental and physical stress he hadn’t realized he was carrying led to an emotional breakdown. Van Aken felt in the dark about what was going on inside of him.
“It felt like there was something constantly wrong and I was not OK and I didn’t know why and it was super scary,” he said. “It was just super hard for me to get to campus and go to class.”
Van Aken turned to hiking, climbing and bouldering to find physical release for his emotions.
That summer, van Aken embarked on several trips to Middle Palisade and Mount Russell in California, but didn’t succeed in reaching their summits. His body wasn’t ready. He attempted to climb Middle Palisade three times. The first two attempts were foiled by a snowstorm, exhaustion and altitude sickness. On the third, van Aken tried combating the altitude with medication, but became even sicker as a result.
He attempted to climb Mount Russell twice using altitude pills, but these again made him feel sick. Confidence shattered, van Aken felt a huge weight on his mind and body.
“I tied too much of my self-worth into (how) I was climbing,” he said.
Bouldering posed an even more difficult mental challenge for him and his self-esteem.
“Ninety-nine percent of everything you’re doing is failing, and just that 1 percent is getting it,” van Aken said. “I was biting off way more than I could chew.”
He needed to overcome the physical challenges in his life to overcome his internal struggles, he said.
Kilimanjaro turned everything around. Van Aken didn't feel sick this time; he felt great. A pastel sunrise lighting up Tanzania broke through everything he had experienced and fought against – physically and mentally.
After he returned to Los Angeles, van Aken started therapy. He realized before the trip that he needed to talk to someone, since he was having panic attacks and nothing was getting better. He finally reached out to a therapist and made an appointment.
By the end of 2016, van Aken made a decision to dedicate his mind and body to the mountains. His therapist told him he had been experiencing symptoms of grief, and the best way to heal was to devote himself to the source of his happiness. He started consistently training, running as much as possible and building his ability to take in more oxygen. He added more mountain-specific training regimens into his schedule and started going on climbing trips to the Sierra Nevada almost every weekend.
“I’d wake up in the morning, go and suffer for an hour and a half and feel like I’d accomplished something,” van Aken said.
His intense, consistent training improved his mountain climbing ability. He still had his ups and downs, but his life felt like less of an uphill climb.
Van Aken felt strong enough this year to take on Mount Whitney in California, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. Van Aken and his friends were supposed to summit it together, but the weather changed their plans. One friend was unable to climb because of sun poisoning, while the other had a hard time breathing in the single-digit temperatures and wind chill. With a 1,600-foot slope and wind gusts pouring snow in front of him, van Aken decided to go on with two other, more experienced mountaineers.
The final 400 feet were steep, and the next hour and a half felt like life and death, van Aken said. The ice climbing required focus and careful, precise placement of his ice axes and crampons. The movement was monotonous and easy, but he knew any small error would result in him falling to his death. With a rush of adrenaline fueling his mind and body, he climbed slowly and steadily.
Van Aken conquered the ice wall and summited Whitney, a feat he’s now achieved four times.
He doesn’t know what his future holds. But he now understands what gives his life meaning: testing his physical limits and pushing himself to keep climbing when he falls.
“The majority of it is a really hard time,” van Aken said. “I’m falling a lot, my fingers really hurt and I’m bleeding … in pursuit of that one time, that one successful climb, when all of that is worth it.”