2010 had been an incredibly challenging year for me. I had taken up an executive job in a new company (with what I now know were some pretty lunatic bosses) in a different country, bought a new house, relocated the family and by October I had worked my butt off 12 to 14 hours per day an average 6 days per week for 11 months. I needed a breather.
WHAT I DID ABOUT IT
By early November I had set my mind to finding a challenge that could help me find that breathing space. Things were only getting worse at work, with the level of demand and expectations sky high, and my own personal and family life was close to non-existing. As always throughout our entire life together, my wife was extremely understanding, holding our fort together, taking care of our two toddlers whom I barely saw on a day to day basis, but this didn’t make it right. I needed to get away from it all.
So I quickly considered a few options. One year earlier I had wanted to get back in shape so I decided to run a marathon (which I successfully finished, though with a shameful time), so that was out of question.
I learned that you can do this parabolic, “gravity zero” flight in Cape Canaveral, but it was too short an experience (it lasts only 5 hours) and it was also not challenging enough physically for me (I needed some proper pain to get the stress our of my body), so I wrote this one off as well.
Next I looked at White Water Rafting in South America but it seemed to leave little opportunity for introspection, which I desperately needed, so it was crossed off the list.
Finally, I thought about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Work had taken me a couple of times to Tanzania by then (though to the capital Dar es Salaam only), and I was intrigued by it. Upon further checking, I realized that it ticked all the boxes for me:
It would take between 5 and 8 days to complete, so there should be enough time for self-contemplation and introspection;
It was physically demanding but didn’t require me to be in pro-athlete-level shape;
While you climb the Kilimanjaro as part of a group, it is effectively a personal challenge, much like a marathon;
Finally, there was an element of danger, since up to 7 people die every year going up the Kili, but it wasn’t “Everest-dangerous” (I am crazy but I’m not stupid).
So it was decided. I would go up the Kilimanjaro, and hopefully find myself along the way…
I wanted to make this challenge memorable, so I decided to pick a travel date and group schedule that enabled me to reach the summit of Mount
Kilimanjaro on New Year’s Day of 2011. Forget about the ideal 3 months prep, I booked the trip the first week of December, which gave me a grand total of about 2 weeks to prepare physically, buy all the necessary gear, arrange flights and hotels, you name it. All while still having to perform daily at a job that I hated – it seems I had found an extra challenge!
Travel day arrived, so I got on the direct KLM flight to Kilimanjaro with a smile on my face. The kind of naïve, ignorant smile that gets you killed. I had no idea what I was up against as I landed, and I kept running checklists through my mind to make sure I hadn’t forgot things like, say a sleeping bag that can take temperatures up to -15ºC (5 ºF). As a tech junkie, I was also fundamentally worried about….. batteries. I was carrying two mobile phones, an iPad (yes, an iPad!), a video camera, a flashlight and a camping light. There were no power plugs on the mountain, and this threw chills down my spine. I decided to buy a sun-charging unit last minute, just so I could sleep better.
THE ADVENTURE BEGINS
After a night spent at a small hostel in Arusha, I was picked up by a mini-bus from the organizing company (Team Kilimanjaro, which I highly recommend) and headed to the official Kili entrance for climbers. After the necessary formalities, our group – formed by a head guide, 2 assistant guides, 5 climbers and some 7 or 8 porters – started the ascent through the Lemosho route.
What followed was the most grueling, but also exhilarating 7 days of my life.
The first couple of days there was not much in the way of climbing, as the planned altitude to be gained was little compared to the remainder of the week. During this period, we endured the typical African weather, and the habitats of a rainforest and moorland – with temperatures reaching 28º C during the day. When you’re wearing mountain clothing and boots, and thermal underwear, this becomes quite challenging!
While this was going on on the outside, I was making my own, personal trip inside my mind. Often, I was busy with the care needed to ensure the climb went according to plan (this in itself was a good thing, since it prevented me from getting drowned in my worries from back home); little by little, though, I started to relax and take in the wonderful freedom that you can only feel when surrounded by a ladscape as beautiful as this. . The levels of stress started to decrease, the inner batteries started to recharge. The mind got more free. I was on the right path.
THINGS GET TOUGH
On day 3, the climb got more demanding. That night we would sleep at 4200 m (13800 ft) altitude, which meant the temperature drop would be significant and the body needed to start adjusting. Altitude sickness is a significant danger when climbing, and it is known to affect anyone almost randomly, irrespective of your physical fitness, for example (the only way you can really improve your chances of not being affected by it is to take as long as possible to ascend, in order for your body to adjust). Actually, only a few days before my attempt at the Kili I had read that former tennis champion Martina Navratilova had had an emergency rescue, in part due to altitude sickness.
Another thing you have to consider when attempting such a feat is to watch what you eat very carefully. A bit like during marathon prep, it might not make for great tour brochure covers, or blog post headlines, but unless you take care you run a serious risk of not making it to the top. Two of my four co-climbers almost gave up the night before reaching the summit due to stomach pain and altitude sickness.
So after 7 hours walking on day 3 the group had had an invigorating dinner, followed by a movie session (on the iPad of course!), sitting around the dinner table inside the tent, dressed with artic outerwear and sipping warm tea. Everyone was exhausted and we hit the moist, uncomfortably thin tent mattress soon after.
Next morning one of the porters gently tapped on my tent to wake me up, offering a bowl of warm water as he always did every morning. This was all that was available as far as personal hygiene, which for someone that is used to showering, brushing my teeth and shaving every single day can be hard to adjust to… and I’m not even going to discuss the challenges of other personal needs, not to gross you out. I have two words for you though: Long Drop!
FINDING WHAT I CAME FOR
Day 4 is an acclimatization day, where you climb to 16,000 ft (4876 m) and back again to 13,000, as you walk some 7 Km (5.5 m) over 6 hours in a semi-desert environment to ensure your body adjusts to the altitude and thinner air, thus minimizing chances of altitude sickness. This is the key reason why I chose a longer route, helped by the fact that this is “the” least crowded route, which would give me the freedom to think about life, work, family, the future. To find my way, after all.
As I stood outside the tent that morning, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the beauty of Mount Kilimanjaro. Above the clouds, you get this overwhelming feeling of peace and tranquility. Time stands still, and it reminds you that all the daily hustle and bustle, the life-at-lightning-speed you live is so, simply because you allow it to be. For me, this was a revelation: I had felt so wrapped up in my work life that it was difficult to imagine there could be any life other than getting up at 6 AM, hitting the office a little after 7, and leaving no earlier than 8 PM. Plus travelling at least half the time.
I clearly had my priorities wrong. I was working my butt off to ensure my children had a head start in life, and my wife and I could have a more enjoyable retirement. I forgot that while you do that, children don’t stop growing up, and the health of a couple’s relationship needs daily nurturing. Things just had to change.
ENJOYING THE PAIN
On day 5 we had a 10-hour climb in front of us as we’d walk a total 9 Km (or 6 mi) and ascend 2,000 ft (600 m) to the Barafu Hut, where we would sleep at an altitude of 15,000 ft (4,500 m). This was quite challenging, since a number of factors were starting to build up: the sleep had been little throughout, air rarefaction meant there was less oxygen in the air, which made everyone even more tired, and some people started having stomach and headaches.
I, on the other hand, was feeling over the moon. My stomach was fine and I felt no dizzyness whatsoever. Most importantly, I had found what I had come for. Looking at things from a 15,000 ft (4500 m) perspective, it was obvious what was screwing my life was a stupid job with even more stupid bosses, and my lack of realization that I had to take action, and remove myself from an environment that wouldn’t allow any other motto than “work is your life, your family”.
By then my over-active, over-achieving nature had kicked in and I was starting to drive some of my colleagues a bit nuts, pushing for a faster pace, one that was challenging for me. Soon after we left in the morning, I would set off with Sam, one of the assistant guides, and we’d both enjoy an even lonelier, more peaceful ascent, just the two of us and the wilderness. It was glorious and I was thrilled.
THE LAST DAY
Day 6 started before Day 5 was even over. After the 10-hour hike, we had an early dinner and hit the tent for a quick snooze. We wanted to get to the summit by sunrise, which was 1200 m (4,000 ft) above us, an 8-hour 5 Km (~3 mi) climb so we had to leave camp no later than 11 PM. Tired and cold, I had a bit of trouble breathing by now, and this was shaping up to be the most challenging day of my life.
To make matters worse, we would converge with every other ascent route after around 1 hour of climbing, which made up for a very busy and compact (ie sloooooow) column. I had forgotten that this was New Years’ eve though, so I was in awe when I reached the base of the almost vertical ascent to Gilman’s Point (5681 m), which reminded me of a Christmas Tree, decorated with each climber’s headlamp as they climbed the twisted, upward path.
To make up for an even more unforgettable experience, we hit midnight as we started this ascend, and after an emotional countdown by everyone on that dark mountain ridge, followed by a quick celebration with whatever stranger closest to us, we would hear another countdown every following hour as each climber’s homeland midnight hour was reached and they celebrated the arrival of yet “another” New Year.
By 5 AM I had reached Gilman’s point and, having decided to climb faster halfway through the ascent in order not to freeze, I now asked the guide to wait for the rest of the group in order to summit together. We could stay at that altitude for a maximum 30 minutes, otherwise we would face a serious risk of freezing and therefore have to urgently climb down and not summit at all. We waited.
REACHING THE SUMMIT
By 5:30 AM it was no longer pitch dark, but we still couldn’t recognise the face of those further than, say, 40 to 50 ft (10 to 15 m) away from us. My colleagues had not arrived at that point. Despite the warnings of my guide, I decided to wait just a bit longer.
But after another 15 to 20 minutes I couldn’t bear the -15ºC (5ºF) temperature any longer, and the guide gave me an ultimatum: either get going to the summit or climb down.
We left for the summit, but I made sure we’d go at a slower pace in order to allow them to catch up. I learned later that the two girls that had been feeling ill got worse, and almost didn’t make it to Gilman’s Point. They eventually did though, and had to take a rest there, which is why we never met at the summit (we did a little after I left though).
At about 6:15 I reached Stella Point at 18,600 ft (5,670 m), and the hardest part was over. We had 1,5 hours walk left, across the ridge to reach the summit, and at about 8 AM we conquered Uhuru Peak at 5,895 m (19,341 ft) altitude.
WHAT IT ALL MEANT TO ME
It was a very emotional moment for me. I shed a few tears. I felt proud of myself for achieving yet another goal I set in my life. But mostly, I felt tremendously fortunate for having an ultra supportive wife, parents and brother who were always there for me through thick and thin. I called each of them from the summit to thank them. A few minutes later, I learned that a climber had died. As if I needed any further sign! The future was clear: I should leave the high paying job that was ruining my life, and come up with a plan that allowed me to spend quality time with the family and enjoy all the pleasures of being a part of my children’s lives as they grow up. The future was bright.
Every year since, I have set myself a challenging goal. One that stretches me physically, sure, but most importantly one that ensures I take a few steps back and see the bigger picture, not let myself get bogged down to the little stresses of everyday life and remind myself of what’s really important in life. You should try it too.