Ottawa·First Person

How climbing Kilimanjaro gave me the courage to be my authentic self

Six years ago, Shauna Wiseman summited Mount Kilimanjaro. She writes how that trek brought her the courage to start her transition and how the outdoors continues to bring her joy and a sense of self today.

I credit the outdoors for helping me realize how to live as my authentic self

A person at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Shauna Wiseman says climbing Mount Kilimanjaro gave her the courage to start her gender transition. (Submitted by Shauna Wiseman)

This First Person article is the experience of Shauna Wiseman, who describes herself as a woman of trans experience and an outdoors enthusiast in Ottawa. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

As the first rays of dawn broke on the African horizon, bringing warmth to the dusty volcanic hillside I had been slowly ascending for the past four hours, I felt tired but determined.

My dream to climb this peak began almost 15 years earlier after my parents took me to see the IMAX film, Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa. I was attracted to this mountain for its changing terrain, its history and the fact that it's one of the closest points on earth to the stars. 

But mostly I was drawn to the internal struggle of the people that took on the challenge of climbing the mountain. Many of them spoke of a profound change. Seeing the world anew from different eyes. 

At the time, I was trying to figure out who I was. Puberty was hitting and something was off, but who could I turn to?

A man in front of a volcanic peak.
Wiseman's guide, Joseph, on the day they summited Mount Kilimanjaro. (Shauna Wiseman)

Instead, I got on my bike, spending hours in the National Capital Commission forests, listening to music that reflected the anger I had inside — feelings I would later know to call "dysphoria."

My grandfather was a land surveyor who dragged my then teenaged dad through the woods of Ontario lake country to help plot out the land. My dad fell quickly in love with being outside, which he passed on to my brother and me.

Later, a neighbour invited me on a trip to the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York. At over 1,200 metres, this was a challenge I could sink my teeth into. 

Trips to the mountains became my chapel — a place to collect my thoughts, clear my mind and visit when I had big decisions to make. 

A person with mountains in the background.
Wiseman says a high school trip to the Adirondack peaks gave her a taste for climbing. She is pictured in Keene, N.Y., in 2007. (Submitted by Shauna Wiseman)

A gender journey

I never fit in with the other kids and was never a hockey player like many of the kids I grew up with. Instead I liked getting lost in fantasy and make believe. 

I explored myself behind closed doors and, lacking more positive influences, found "role models" in shadier corners of the internet. Hiding things from my parents, not because I thought they wouldn't love me, but because they wouldn't understand. 

After college, I found my community in Toronto and was finally able to be the authentic version of myself. As messy as those early years were, the euphoria of seeing myself in the mirror was palpable. I knew I couldn't let this feeling go — I had to make it my reality.

A woman in a blue cap.
For Wiseman, this image of her in the early days of her transition capture the euphoria she felt at finally seeing her authentic self in the mirror. (Submitted by Shauna Wiseman)

On top of the world

The last 100 metres to the top of Uhuru peak on Mount Kilimanjaro at 5,895 metres felt like it took forever. Stopping every 10 steps, I threw up twice and struggled with the lack of oxygen.

As my guide and I reached the top, we found ourselves alone, and the waves of emotion crashed over me like ice falling off the nearby glacier. This was more than just the realization of a long-held dream. It was the understanding that I had that inner fire to face my struggles and to find myself. 

A smiling woman sits on a couch.
Wiseman says after she returned from her climb, she was finally able to shave her legs and stop "pretending to be a mountain man." (Submitted by Shauna Wiseman)

At the end of one journey, I was ready to leave the old version of me behind and start to find the raw, authentic version of the woman I knew I was. 

In the days that followed, I basked in the glow of this new inner strength I'd found.

Despite looking and smelling the part of a rugged mountain man, I had never been more sure of the adventure to find my womanhood that lay before me.

A screen grab of Shauna Wiseman's Facebook post about coming out at work.
Five years ago, Wiseman began hormone replacement therapy. Today, she says she is lucky to have a good job, a partner and the love and acceptance of her family. (Submitted by Shauna Wiseman)

It's been six years since I climbed Kilimanjaro. I've fully socially transitioned. Hormone replacement therapy has been kind to me. I am engaged to my wonderful partner (he proposed to me during a hike!) and I have a job I love.

I am truly leading a happy life grounded in my love of the outdoors. You'll often find me on the trails around Ottawa getting my dose of nature. 

Woman hiking on top of peak.
Wiseman says the outdoors helped her became her authentic self. She continues to regularly spend time in nature in and around Ottawa. (Submitted by Shauna Wiseman)
A man and a woman holding hiking poles while standing on a bridge.
Shauna Wiseman, right, and her dad, David, regularly spend time together in nature. (Submitted by Shauna Wiseman)

I also have the love and acceptance of my dad and entire family.

Climbing that peak made me realize that the strength I gain from the outdoors would be enough to be a bridge between me and my dad — no matter how he took the news that his outdoorsy, creative, lonely kid was not his son, but rather his strong, confident, trail-tromping, independent daughter. 

A selfie of a man and a woman.
Wiseman, right, and her fiancé, James McKay. He proposed on a hike. (Submitted by Shauna Wiseman)

Hope is a funny thing. If that kid alone in the woods on her bike could see the trails she has travelled now, she'd be proud. 

I get people telling me I'm brave and courageous, but I'm only this way because the world forces me to be. Searching for identity isn't something exclusive to trans people — we all do it. 

Nature and a mountain helped me figure out who I was. Maybe it can help you, too. The view from the top is worth the challenge.

Selfie of a woman in a cowboy hat by a lake.
Wiseman says climbing that Mount Kilimanjaro made her see that the outdoors would always help connect her to her dad, even as she transitioned from his son to his daughter. She's pictured on a camping trip with her dad in 2019. (Submitted by Shauna Wiseman)
Shauna Wiseman credits the outdoors for helping her realize how to live as her authentic self.

Do you have a compelling personal story that can bring understanding or help others? We want to hear from you. Email us with your pitch.


Shauna Wiseman

Freelance contributor

Shauna Wiseman is an outdoor enthusiast from Ottawa who works in marketing for a handcrafted goods marketplace. She is open about being a woman of trans experience. That's the term she uses to share her unique path as a woman has life been shaped by being transgender.