5,895 meters Up Part 2: Accepting Help & Dedication to Gratitude
Storming, Norming & Performing
As we approached Summit Day (Day 5), I had time to reflect on what I needed to “survive” the 8 hour climb — in the middle of the night to reach the peak.
Our lead guide informed us of a major change of plans: we’d be climbing as one unit, one group, one team. We had become accustomed to the idea of two groups and I had made peace with being in the slower group so long as I made it off the mountain. As panic set in, I quickly grabbed our trek leader and classmate.
Do you think we’ll be fine summiting as one group?
It seemed that our lead guide and our student trek leader thought we were a well functioning “unit,” and that we could be successful as one group. I thought differently.
Our initial conversation led us to do the most HBS thing possible: discuss group norms, set expectations and devise an action plan. Why would we do anything differently from what we were so used to? We had mentally and verbally done this no less than 375 times in each of the cases we read and discussed in class. Every group simulation or team project included a team launch along these lines. Deciding what a CEO should do, figuring out which strategy to pursue in The Beer Game or how best to climb a mountain as a group: all of this could be discussed and lead to a favorable, consensus decision.
I just want to make it to the top…
After reviewing what had worked well for us as a group and what worked less well, we agreed on a set of rules for how we would reach the summit as one group. Our alignment on the “how” took us an hour, yet our discussion of “what” success was took only 2 minutes. With a show of hands, nearly everyone wanted to reach the summit in time to see the sun rising.
In a short period of time, I had learned to enjoy eating the humble pie life was serving to me. I was content to just make it to the top whenever that might be. Yet, we were one unified group and we decided the sunrise was the group’s definition of success.
We then spent about 5 minutes making clear to our lead guide that it was important for us to reach the summit by sunrise and while we wanted to remain as one group, we needed him to pace us appropriately and warn the group if we needed to splinter so the sunrise-seekers could make it in time. We stressed this fact. If there was a way to crack the case, it was to know this is what the most important outcome was.
The level of hurt I experienced was unreal. I had struggled for 5 days and I was going to hold everyone back. I didn’t want to be the weakling nor the one who others continued to wait for to catch up.
How was it possible that this group had no compassion for my situation?
And then I realized I had not put in the work to gain their compassion. I did not prepare for this climb. That was my fault. Why should they take pity on me to sacrifice their ambition? How many times had I done this with others who were much less capable? It was a moment of clarity for me that still makes me bitter. I knew that they were right to be focused on their goal even if it meant we didn’t’ really get there as a unit. Yet, I was not going to ask for further pity after letting my ego drive so much of my lack of preparation.
And so we climbed.
The Longest Night Ever
Into the night we went as one group with our headlamps guiding us. Very quickly, I started to struggle to keep the group’s pace. As I kept my own pace, the group would wait for me to catch up. As I reached our resting place, hoping for a break, we soldiered on. I felt guilty wanting to take a longer break after everyone else had waited for me, I didn’t feel as though I had earned the right to request a bit more time. But I truly needed more time.
After many breaks (I lost count), it was clear to me in that darkness of the night that I was the heavy anchor. No one wanted to leave me behind, but everyone wanted to leave me behind. It was not their fault, we had agreed on a plan and we were sticking to it. While it might seem like the delirium of the altitude had gotten the best of my mind, it hadn’t. It was so clear to me as I angrily spoke to our guide. We needed to stop forcing cohesion that just didn’t exist.
We are not one group, stop trying to make us one group. I’m holding everyone else back. They want to see the sunrise. Please just go ahead.
In a way, I guess I was screaming at myself to be better. And I was screaming at my classmates to be better. It was that outburst that allowed us to splinter and me to eventually quiet down the loud skeptical inner voice. And as it went out into the universe, we split into two groups: the slow group and the fast group.
While I don’t remember much of that night, I do remember a few highlights and what others tell me I did that was noteworthy. The exhaustion of the preceding 5 days and the 3 hour hike we started earlier that day ahead of this 8 hour climb was the only thing on my mind.
My body was not mine. My mind was divorced from my body. My mind was defeated. All I wanted was a nap.
One thing we were told we could definitely not do at high altitudes: sleep. Yet, I tried my hardest to nap. I was convinced a little time to close my eyes would energize me and keep me going. At nearly every break I tried to nap like the 3 year old who does not care where he is napping, I was solely focused on sleeping.
“You don’t’ know my body. Trust me. Just 5 minutes to close my eyes and I’ll be ready to go.”
An Angel Arrives
This was altitude sickness. This was exhaustion. This felt like it was a mental battle for survival. Yet, at no point did anyone in our group ever mention turning back. I don’t think I ever thought about or mention turning back. But I really can’t say with certainty.
What little I do remember before reaching the peak was that one sectionmate who had provided medical help to the entire team, counsel at night (we shared a tent) and literal support until the very peak. I distinctly remember him pushing me up the mountain as the two guides kept me upright, hoisting me up like a puppet unable to walk. Or that drunk friend that has had too much.
It wouldn’t be until much later on that day when I was “conscious” again that I realized how fortunate I was. My sectionmate has also helped others, staying behind to address a climber with asthma and another who had only started experiencing the effects of altitude on the summit night. It was a reminder that someone who had wanted to see the sunrise put his needs second to those who were struggling. It actually gave me hope while in a bad place.
He made a choice that many others may not have made. And to be clear, this is not “the right thing to do.”
Is this that dissimilar to providing the homeless person with spare change, providing directions to a lost stranger or almost any other intervention where you have capacity to fill a gap that exists for others?
I had not previously given much thought to these small acts of generosity until this moment. We had expert guides with a combined experience of over 25 years. Moreover, very few people die on Mount Kilimanjaro, so this wasn’t actually a life-or-death situation — despite feeling like it was while in the moment. He did not have to intervene. But he did.
Reaching the Roof
As we, the slower group, reached Stella Point (an hour or so from the peak). But it was still dark. Thankfully, one of the guides took a picture of me or I would not have remembered anything between my shout-burst and reaching Uhuru Peak. As the sun started to peak out from the clouds and the snow continued to fall, my mind started to clear a bit more. While the sunrise was not visible given the weather, the faster group had waited for us to canonize for the ‘gram. I had previously joked I was just doing this climb for the ‘gram, but boy did I struggle for that pic.
As we finally reached the peak of the Kilimanjaro, I sat on a rock in a daze just ready for the whole experience to be over. Our group was waiting in line to take our picture with the sign. And we were finally about to “flex for the ‘gram.”
But really, I was just relieved to finally be allowed to sit…in peace.