Summiting Mount Kilimanjaro: Lessons in Self-Leadership Summiting Mount Kilimanjaro: Lessons in Self-Leadership
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It’s 2:17am on the 17th December 2020 and my tightly booted-feet trudge gradually forward in zig-zag formation up a 70% incline in the eerie darkness. An artic breeze bites my exposed face – the balaclava pulled down to allow extra oxygen deep into my lungs – in the distance, a row of headlights glisten in the night. It’s Day 4 of our Kilimanjaro journey and we summit at Gillman’s Point at 6:34am – losing two members of our party along the way who succumbed to the harsh conditions – ultimately rewarding us with a phenomenal view of the sun rising behind Mawenzi Peak. A dramatic array of pinks, purples and oranges light up the morning sky; the spectacle reflecting the gravity of the next moment’s decision: to proceed to Uhuru Point or descend.

This was a decision I had made long before beginning the 6-day trek – ‘go hard or go home’ has always been my unofficial life motto – my intention to sit beneath the Uhuru signpost had been set weeks prior. This was pure competition against myself; the power of my mind, the strength of my body and the will power to stay focused against all odds.

The final battle to Uhuru took a further 2 and a half hours; my heart pounded relentlessly in my chest from the slightest of motion. The true gift of realising my aspiration was absorbing the stillness of the world; endless views of the glaciers as the sun danced on the icicles – for the first time in a while I was fully centred and aligned with nature; at one with the mountain.

Suffice to say the climb is not for the faint-hearted – a member of our party passed out on arrival needing oxygen and emergency evacuation. A word of caution to know your limits and listen deeply to your body – all signs are apparent, and we always know what we must know. I’m sharing what I learnt on this journey that renders me a new and improved woman who having openly uttered ‘I’ll never do this again!’ now yearns to return.

Respect the Mountain. Her sacred slopes are to be revered; the diversity of flora and fauna as you walk each day transition naturally from tropical rain forest, moorland, alpine desert and the artic ice cap at the summit. I ask you to spare a thought to the diverse range of clothing and equipment required to successfully climb Kili – a word on how this was made possible to follow later in this piece. The mountain has an energy of its own – a juxtaposition of alluring yet hostile – she wields the clouds that surround her and transitions from blazing heat to low-visibility mist, to heavy rain in mere minutes. Respect her. Align to her. Be at one with her.

Oil your Machine

Lest we underestimate the immaculate design of the human body. Throughout the journey, my mind was flooded with memories of physical daredevils I’ve met like James Lawrence (who completed 50 ironman challenges in 50 days) or John McGrath (who can bend a steel wrench) – if they can manipulate their bodies to achieve the seemingly impossible; what tiny part of that power could I harness with my body? Four weeks prior to the climb I started eating clean – I’m already a strict Pescatarian so this was an easy transition – I did 30mins of yoga each morning and a 2-week HIIT challenge. I oiled my machine with intent and my end goal in mind: Uhuru or bust! I’ve struggled over the years to maintain the discipline to workout frequently; rather tending to engage in short bursts of activity – like a plant, one must always nourish and feed yourself with things that benefit your mind, body and spirit. As I sat on the rock under the Uhuru Point signboard at 5895m I marvelled in a deep state of gratitude at the ability of my body; when adequately oiled. I may not be the fittest; but by golly this body worked a miracle to carry me here.

The Power of Intention

What the mind can conceive, you can achieve. As we flew to Moshi the night before our climb, a 5-minute ‘motivation to climb a mountain’ audio played on loop; soaking deep into my psyche. ‘Climb Warrior! Climb Soldier! Climb Overcomer!’ the brash American voice blared into my ears – my blood beginning to boil and adrenaline rush as I visualised the ascent to Uhuru. The same voice spoke to me throughout the journey when my mind tried to trick me into giving up or turning back. ‘Miri, what are you doing here? You don’t have to do this; you can go home! You paid to take this crazy journey; enough is enough!’

Without control of your mind, you will forever be limited in life. This has been one of the biggest lessons from my journey. Successfully summiting depends far more on the power of your mind than the strength of your body. Harness it and achieve what you will.

Energy is Everything

Quantum Theory proves that not only do particles consist of energy but so does the space between. If everything is energy, then everything is one; and therefore, everything is possible. Your vibrations connect with those of your companions; choose your travel-buddies wisely! The journey is deeply personal and introspective – I was fortunate to travel with my brother Joshua, colleague & friend Amani and 3 other young men. Being the only woman in the party didn’t bother me in the least – we were united in our desire to connect with nature and challenge ourselves with the aim of ultimately summiting. I couldn’t conceive a better group of travellers – one more or one less would’ve altered the vibe – it was as it should be. Bonus: My brother and I have uncovered a unanimous love for mountaineering and plan to take annual trips together to scratch the itch.

Marginal Gains

My body adopts a natural rhythm of 10 steps forward - frenzied heartrate – rest - inhale 6 deep breaths to reduce heart rate - 10 steps forward - repeat. For 6.5 hours (starting at midnight and summiting at Gillman’s Point at 6:34am), under 6 layers of clothing and in single file in our group of 6 climbers (+ 6 expert guides) we make marginal gains. Small incremental steps forward inevitably led 4 of us to the summit. What felt like insignificant progress – a mere 10 steps forward on the volcanic sands that fought to slide you backwards – was all it physically took to succeed. So often we expect ‘big results now’; we write-off the opportunity to attempt great feats for fear of the treacherous path ahead. The journey reminded me of Desmond Tutu’s infamous words ‘there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.’ The truth is, everything in life that seems daunting, overwhelming, and even impossible can be accomplished gradually by taking on just a little at a time.

Heed your experts’ advice

Kilimanjaro is hinged on a delicate ecosystem that involves an entire community of experts who make the journey possible. The combined knowledge of guides – who have summited 100s of times – chefs that nourish your body along the way; and porters who marvel in strength carrying 20kg on their heads up and down the mountain at double our pace. Soaking up this wisdom and heeding their advice is paramount – they claim to know who will summit before the journey even begins; by reading energy and analysing each traveller in the first few hours.

Climbing the mountain supports countless families of these experts who rely on tourists (both domestic and international) to earn a living. Knowing that a personal challenge can have socio-economic impact makes it all the better – the current global pandemic has pushed this ecosystem to the precipice with many living on the poverty line who once spent 90% of their year on the mountain with groups of climbers. Build our nation and contribute to this fragile ecosystem by climbing the mountain – every shilling counts. We used a local firm called Kili Africa Tours – currently run by Seif who used to be a Guide on the mountain – his entrepreneurial spirit pushing him to setup a thriving agency that benefits countless people who wholly depend on the mountain. Reach out to me of you would like an introduction and I will gladly do so – their expertise carried me to the roof of Africa – for which I am eternally grateful.

Miranda is the Founder & Managing Partner of Empower - a Tanzanian Consulting Firm that passionately provides Talent, Advisory and Insight services to clients across Africa

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Miranda Naiman
Written by

Miranda Naiman

Miranda describes herself as ‘an unstoppable force for good’ and is the Founder of Empower - a disruptive Consulting Firm that passionately provides Talent, Advisory and Insight services to clients across the African continent.

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