“There, ahead, all he could see, as wide as the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.”– Ernest Hemingway
In September 2019, I became one of the 30,000 people who flock to Tanzania each year to try tag the top of Africa. Kilimanjaro is a popular tourist destination because of its relatively high summit-success rate, status as the easiest of the seven summits—the highest mountain on each continent—and proximity to some of the best safaris in the world. The dormant volcano rises 5,895m (19,341ft) above sea level with a peak further from the center of the earth than the top of Mount Everest.
Many established paths chart the way to Kilimanjaro’s summit. I chose to trek the seven-day Machame Route, as it is particularly scenic—passing through five distinct climate regions. The climb began from the Machame Gate with an 11km hike on a well-trodden path through the Tanzanian rainforest to the Machame Camp. Along the way, monkeys, birds and other wildlife could be spotted from surrounding trees. Any forest-bathing benefits were offset by the fact that we were entering the first of three altitude zones experienced on the mountain, “The High-Altitude” zone (2,500m – 3,500m).
The following morning, we entered the second altitude zone, creatively named, “The Very High-Altitude” zone (3,500m – 5,500m), where we would spend the next four days climbing. Day two led us out of the rainforest into the Moorland region, where we covered just over 5km on the way to Shira Camp, sitting at 3,850m. After settling into camp, we spent several hours climbing higher only to return to Shira Camp for the night. The logic of the ‘climbing high, sleeping low’ theory is to help increase one’s acclimatization line—the elevation at which altitude symptoms occur.
The aforementioned theory was applied on the third day, consisting of a push to Lava Tower at 4,600m for lunch before descending almost as low as the day began – Barranco Camp at 3,940m. Lava Tower is situated in the highland desert, a barren region dotted with volcanic rocks and resilient plant life; surviving an average annual rainfall of 20cm (8 in) and withstanding oppressive sunlight during the day to go with subzero temperatures at night.
On day four we encountered the most technical section of the climb, The Barranco Wall. Despite its dangerous and daunting reputation due to its incline and exposure, the wall was fairly simple; a steep natural staircase without a railing on one side. Much harder this day was the eccentric loading on my legs as I descended from the top of the wall back to Karanga Camp at 4,000m.
Upon arriving at the final camp, Barafu, we took a load off, ate dinner, slept 2-3 hours and left around midnight to push for the summit. The last day took us into the final climate region, Arctic, and the “Extreme Altitude” zone (5,500m – 8,000m). After suffering through the night, we arrived at Uhuru Peak shortly after sunrise. While the views were breathtaking, the summit is no longer as white as Hemingway described. The mountain’s glaciers have shrunk by 88% since 1911 and are expected to be completely gone between 2040 and 2060.
At the summit of Kilimanjaro, the density of air is roughly 50% of that available at sea level. This results in the increasing difficulty of every activity—from tying my boots and mental processing, to the physical exertion required to climb to the summit. Oxygen saturation levels for the average person drops to 80% at 6,000m – a level that would warrant a trip to the hospital if registered at sea level. To compensate, the body respirates at a higher rate, increasing both fatigue and dehydration. Simultaneously, it triggers an increase in production of red blood cells, allowing more O2 to be delivered via blood flow. Pharmacologists have created solutions to amplify the body’s natural adaptive responses in such situations. To trick the body into thinking it has too much CO2, Acetazolamide increases the acidity of the blood, stimulating deeper and faster breathing. In addition, a simple iron supplement assists the body in producing more hemoglobin, the protein found in red blood cells that carries oxygen. With enough time, the human body can adapt to all altitude zones on Kilimanjaro, minus the appropriately named “Death Zone”, encompassing anything above 8,000m. The key there is with enough time. On Kilimanjaro, the mantra is “Pole Pole,” which means “slowly, slowly” in Swahili.
We saw our first helicopter rescue on day two at Shira Camp and more at Karanga Camp. Plenty of climbers were escorted down the mountain on the summit night, having reached their limits. Most climbers will experience mild or moderate symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness during their ascent. Common symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, nausea and loss of appetite can be managed, however; if AMS progresses to a severe state, it can lead to hallucinations, the inability to walk and the collection of fluid in one’s lungs. In such cases, one must descend immediately. Further high-altitude health risks include the life-threatening High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)—both of which require evacuation.
Climbers are personally in control of three aspects that influence their summit shot– technical ability, physical fitness and mental toughness. Those lacking these skills are usually safe; the demands of the mountain turning them around early in the expedition. Having just one of these aspects offers the climber a small chance to tag the top, but a greater risk in finding themselves in a life-threatening situation. Possessing two of these skills tip the risk/reward in the climber’s favor, while all three sets one up to safely summit, barring any negative weather events. One of the biggest risks on any mountain is not turning around in time. Summit fever is a strong force, but the knowledge that most mountaineer deaths happen on the descent by climbers who have already summited, must always be kept in mind to offset the pull of the peak. As world renown climber Ed Viesturs states in his book No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks, “Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory.”
Mountaineering is mainly “type II fun”. It’s a lot of suffering during the climb and enjoying the achievement after you are done. Days on a mountain are routine: wake up early, eat breakfast, pack up camp, climb all day, set up at the next camp, eat dinner, prepare for the next day, go to sleep early, repeat. If you’re not careful, the time can become a painful series of putting out fires: trying not to get sunburnt and frostbitten (often in the same day), drinking enough water to avoid dehydration without forgetting to use water purification tablets (a certain way to get dehydrated via stomach issues), eating enough food when your appetite is naturally reduced, trying to keep your base layers dry or drying them out if they are damp, etc.
Mountain climbing can seem like a Sisyphean task, especially as you yo-yo up and down to sleep lower than you climb each day. The key to enjoying an expedition is to embrace the struggle. Nazi concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl spoke to this mindset in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, arguing the three ways people find meaning in life, the third of which being the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. He goes on to say, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Former Navy SEAL and ultra-athlete David Goggins speaks of the need to callous our minds as repetitive manual labor callouses hands. To get comfortable being uncomfortable. The irony being, those who can best embrace the suffering are freed to bask in the awe-inspiring sunrises, breathtaking views of the seas and clouds below and the surreal starry skies that look photoshopped.
“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
― George Mallory
The lack of cell service on the mountain provided freedom from my regular day-to-day tasks and left time for deep thinking and reflection. Inevitably, some of those reflections went back to office life and how lessons from the mountain could equally apply there.
A common question asked on the mountain was, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer being, “One bite at a time.” The idea is that any task, no matter how big, can be broken into bite-sized pieces. The key is balancing short term execution with long term goals. The flattop of Kilimanjaro in the distance was a north star for us climbers. We could simply look up and be reminded of the ultimate goal, the goal driving the immediate necessity – putting one foot in front of the other.
Reaching the summit of a mountain is only the halfway point. It’s a worthless achievement if you aren’t able to descend safely. Similarly, crafting a great product or market strategy is useless unless one can bring it to life. Knowing you have to get back down informs how high you should climb. Likewise, knowing a strategy has to be executable, should determine the reach and scale of the idea.
Kilimanjaro taught me that you often have to go backwards to go further. Mountaineering forces its climbers to take two steps forward, and one step back. It’s a formula that allows time for the body to adapt. Similarly, the paths on a project, career and/or business won’t be linear. That’s a good thing.
POV by Sean Mooney, Sr. Strategic Account Director at INDUSTRY