So, I did summit Mount Kilimanjaro!
Climbing Kili has been my life’s goal since 2017. In 2020, I went through my climb – I summited, realising this dream; the experience was so fulfilling that I convinced my girlfriend (now wife) to go for the same adventure with me the following year (2021).
The journey to the highest point in Africa, the tallest, free-standing mountain in the world, is a dream to many. Summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro is, without a doubt, one of the most gratifying experiences. Whilst there are those who do it as their day job and tackle this challenge hundreds of times in their lives, most of us are still bound by our not-so-correct assumption as to why we cannot climb Kili. Some have attempted and succeeded, for some tried it and ended up having the worst experience, others have the gut and drive to attempt Kili more than once.
My first attempt was purely a longing ambition to experience it; my second attempt was a desire to go back with someone I love the most, my wife – Maggie!
In this article, I will reflect on what I/we learnt in our journey to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro. Here are 5 life lessons that I/we learnt along the way.
1. Don’t Feed the Beast: It’s all in your Mind
Most times, if you ask anyone who wishes to climb Kili and think they are not able to, their answer stems from deeply rooted misconceptions about the journey supported by all the million reasons that will make them fail the challenge. I refer to this as “Feeding the beast”, an idiom meaning to devote an amount of resources/time/energy to a self-perpetuating pursuit/situation/behaviour, which in return has a negative effect over time.
On my first attempt to climb Kili, I was still recovering from a minor knee injury, I had a fracture on my Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) – In simple terms, the ACL prevents the shin bone from sliding out in front of the thigh bone. I was recommended to stay out of any intense physical activity for at least 6 months. Without being ignorant of my medical condition, I chose not to let this stop me from pursuing the journey. I researched and got supporting gears, i.e., Kneecap and Med, then proceeded with the plan. In my second attempt, Maggie was very sceptical about her ability to take on the challenge; honestly, the idea came up just 2 months before the trip. Growing up in Moshi close to the mountain, she had several reasons as to why the journey was impossible – and being fit was an obvious concern.
Over the two months of our preparations, the activities that I think helped her to get the confidence she needed were not physical (even though she did some 7-minute cardio here and there). We spent a lot of time watching documentaries about the mountain; I kept telling her stories of my first attempt - setting a visual and realistic expectation about the journey. She also heard stories from our friends who had done it before. Her curiosity led her to articles and more videos which helped to demystify a lot of misconceptions about the mountain.
These experiences reminded me that, in our day-to-day life our actions, behaviors, and decisions are based on the experiences we’ve had throughout our lives and the stories we tell ourselves about those experiences. Those stories build a belief system that greatly impacts the way that we act, behave, and respond to opportunities presented to us. These belief systems can either be the confidence you need or the beast that will shrink you.
In the end, it’s all in our minds – being physically fit is important to climb Kili but being mentally prepared tops it all. In both attempts, endurance was more important than strength. Contrary to what most people might think, a big part of Kili is walking long distances rather than climbing (except on the summit day ).
2. A Bite at a Time: You have an entire day to Just Walk!
Desmond Tutu once wisely said that “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” Summiting Kili is analogous to eating an elephant. Most times the only thing that is on the minds of many is taking that victorious picture at Uhuru Peak. With this image in our minds whilst climbing the majestic Kili, at closer proximity and looking at the top, getting there seems impossible.
When you reach at the gate, as part of briefing, the guides will tell you about stops you will make each day – I used the Marangu route in both attempts. In this route there are three stops (Mandara, Horombo and Kibo Huts). The guides will tell you how long it takes to travel from one stop to another; for example, it takes 6 Hours from Mandara to Horombo. I figured, since the only task I have for an entire day is to walk then I can as well spend the entire day; meaning, I didn’t have to meet the 6-hours expectations – I have time to make it in 9 or 10 hours if I wanted. I did this each day. Instead of focusing on getting to the peak, I just wanted to get to the next stop - this helped me set realistic expectations and break the goal down into smaller, reasonable, and doable milestones. This allowed me to enjoy the trip because I had enough time to take some healthy breaks, ask questions about the mountain and enjoy the scenic picnic spots.
What I learned from this is most of the time in our lives, we feel demoralized, overwhelmed, and even scared to go after our goals because we can’t break them into small manageable chunks that we can accomplish gradually by taking on just a little at a time.
3. It takes a Village: While your focus is the MOUNTAIN, Their Focus is YOU!
We often don't have a complete picture of how many people it takes to help just one person realize their dream to the summit. In my first attempt, I was surprised to learn that a team of 8 climbers will be accompanied by more than 24 staff who play specific roles in supporting the mission. I thought maybe this was because we were many. However, I realised in my second attempt with Maggie, we had 11 support staff (2 Guides, 1 Chef, 1 Supermarket – carrying all the groceries, 1 Waiter, 6 Porters). The effort these people put in throughout the journey is remarkable. They are a true definition of hard work, care, and support. Watching them in action and hearing their individual stories will leave you with so much to be grateful for.
Throughout the trip, everyone diligently worked towards enabling us to have a comfortable journey. Each porter carried at least 20 kg on their back – and still sped past us (with a smile) to ensure the camp is setup before we arrived; they even prepared hot water and cooked a three-course meal for us at the camps. Sometimes when we were close to the camps they would come and help us with our day bag packs. We had the most delicious meals throughout the trip; we had medical check-ups daily, the Guides were very informative, and our waiter was beyond supportive. So many people that we only saw during the day played a key role and fuelled our success day and night.
In my first attempt, we had a rough start, passing through the rainforest – most of the items in our bags got wet, some of our sleeping bags were too wet for use, and these guys gave away their own and stayed the long night to dry up all our clothes so that we can use them the following day. Whilst in Horombo, I tore my hiking shoes, which was a risk for me to climb; having big feet getting a replacement was impossible; the only way was to get somebody who could repair the shoes – Yes! these guys did it; in what world can you be prepared for such an event.
When I returned with Maggie, I wanted the same Guide for comfortability. Unfortunately, the Guide I wanted was unavailable. We were assigned a new pair of guides; one of them was a lady called Lucy. Lucy, a single mother with a unique story about her journey to becoming a mountain guide. She is amongst the best motivational speakers I've ever met. Lucy made Maggie extremely comfortable and confident; I could see how she felt the depth of her gratitude and reciprocated with an open heart.
These people are often unnoticed; they are rarely featured in many victorious pictures on top of the highest point in Africa – their contributions are sometimes taken for granted. Like this famous African proverb goes - "It takes a village to raise a child" in our lives, we always have hidden heroes who fuel our success. We must recognize them, appreciate them, reward them and be grateful for having them.
4. No one is Crazy: Success is relative
Those who climbed Mt Kili before would relate to the famous question after you tell anyone about your trip, “Did you make it to the top?” I had a friend who even said if you don’t have a picture of you at Uhuru, I will not count that you climbed Kili. Luckily, I did reach Uhuru Peak on my first attempt. From the group of 6 only 3 of us made it to the top. Does that mean the other 3 weren’t successful?
The downside of climbing a mountain is that success is often defined in an absolute manner. You either make it to the top, or you don’t.
In the case of our group, in my first attempt, those who didn’t make it had a very valid reason why they didn’t. One person in our team had a long-time knee injury; he persevered until the last day when he could barely walk. Someone in our group suffered extreme altitude sickness; he pushed to Stellar Peak and voluntarily decided to head back before reaching Uhuru Peak.
In my second attempt, both Maggie and I didn’t make it to Uhuru Peak. Despite that, we had a good strategy to wake up early before everyone else so we could get the momentum and go on with a decent pace to the top – 4 hours after the walk, Maggie developed frostbite on her fingers and toes (Frostbite is a condition that occurs when a person is exposed to low temperatures, which leads to freezing and numbness of the skin and other tissues) as determined as she was, we tried some techniques to reduce the pain eventually I decided to end the trip. I recalled the night before the summit; I reminded Maggie of a statement I got from a video of a couple who climbed the mountain together; I said to her, “Bebz if we are going to the top of that mountain, we are going Together!” There is also a famous message from guides who will tell you, “Respect the Mountain – If we can’t make it today, you can always come back another day – the mountain will always be here”. Going back was not among her options at that moment; she wanted to finish what she had started. She pushed herself, but the situation got even worst.
Attempting Kili for the second time, I have seen different ways people attain and celebrate their success. Some will go around that mountain, visit all the gates and never climb it to the top – this is a success; some climbers only want to reach Kibo Hut, some go the extra mile, beyond Uhuru, and camp at the crater. All these are different ways they define success.
Borrowing a title from one of my exciting books (Psychology of money); No one is crazy – Everyone looks at success through the lens of their definition and experience.
My three friends and Maggie, who didn’t make it may to the outside world have this equated to a failure; but when you put yourself in their shoes simply going beyond the 5OOOM mark was a rousing success. Arguably, getting to that altitude while being sick is more difficult than reaching the summit for a healthy individual, but not everyone looks beneath the surface.
The victorious picture you will see on social media of people who summited the mountain is often an illusion of what success looks like. We need to remember that true success is relative, even in the case of climbing a mountain.
As “un-romantic” as it sounds, the opportunity to spend seven sweaty, un-showered days in the wilderness together with Maggie trying to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro was one of the best things that has happened to us. The opportunity that this experience offered us to see each other at our worst state emotionally, physically, and mentally; enduring the pain, being deprived of sleep, being hit with unpredictable episodes of nausea and diarrhoea, and facing one of the greatest physical challenges of our lives, was a rewarding experience and will forever stay with us in our lives.
5. The Man at the Top: The work doesn’t stop once you reach there
In all my two attempts climbing Kili – coming down was the worst part of the journey. On both occasions, I had to be supported by two gents holding me on each side. Part of it was because I was tired, but my ACL injuries made it harder for me to descend because I couldn’t control my leg extension.
Did you also know that many injuries occur when descending a mountain rather than ascending? We are probably unaware of this because we often ask the way up and not otherwise. In Kili, there are wheelbarrow Stretchers always going down with a person, and at no single moment will they take someone up on a Stretcher.
Many people are always exhausted mentally and physically after the summit to the extent that they struggle with descending. When you are at the top, you only have a few minutes to celebrate; the excitement and satisfaction are momentary; it is the realisation that getting to the top was only half of the battle that drains your mind.
Even though you will walk down as a different person in so many ways, most of the events and experiences while climbing will come to make sense after your body endured the fatigue, pain, and exhaustion. At that point, that’s when you know it was worth it.
In this note, I hope my story, our story, inspired you, informed you and above all, encouraged you to want to attempt the climb. They say the top of one mountain is always the bottom of another; I would like to add even if the “another” is the “same mountain”. I will always advocate for this experience.
I will always go back to Kili when the opportunity presents itself. It is one of the most life-fulfilling experiences that I wish everyone to go through.
Currently, my friends and I are planning to go back for this amazing adventure – we are definitively looking for more people to join the trip – If you are ready for this adventure, hear this…
“Stop feeding the beast; start planning the bites, you are not crazy, and you will have the entire village to get you to the top!”
Those are my five life lessons, attempting the highest point in Africa twice.
Until the next climb!
By Amani Shayo on 10 Jan 2022
By Amani Shayo on 01 Nov 2021