5, 895 meters Up Part 1: Learning Humility & Accepting My Limits
I never would have thought taking my 1) ego, 2) skepticism 3) optimism and 4) my body on a week-long trip climbing up 5,895 meters would warrant such intense conflict. Thankfully, the tension among these climbing partners taught me some very valuable life lessons just a week before my 28th birthday.
Making the Decision to Climb
As I left the info session for a January-term trek, I thought to myself
“It can’t be that hard. I mean, many people less fit than me have completed this climb. I’m mentally strong.”
The beauty of this thought is that I am strong willed, believing I can accomplish any task with mental aptitude as the primary driving force. The danger of this thought is that I was setting off to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest peak in Africa, and had zero hiking experience.
After confirming with a few friends on the fence about the hike, I went ego first down a path that would truly provide the humble pie my body had been craving. On this path, I refused to “train” before going on such an excursion as I honestly believed I would be fine. I further rationalized that…other HBS students had done this trek, it wasn’t a technical climb, we’ll have many porters and no one really dies.
Yet, part of me was incredibly afraid to admit that I was not as fit as the old me: the me who went to the gym several times a week, ate well and maintained an inner mental peace. Instead, I had handicapped myself, providing an excuse if I did ultimately fail, and a big ego boost if I truly could live up to the hype of my former self. It was the perfect battle to pit my ego against my body.
Doubling Down on Ego
A few days before the climb, it was clear that the small group I traveled with was intent on training and practicing mini hikes to prepare to summit “The Roof of Africa.” Again, I refused (my ego, to be precise).
I knew failing in practice would entirely shake my confidence for the big climb. But I also knew that I would have to experience public failure. As an MBA student, I don’t like failing in public. Of course no one does, but as a Harvard MBA, where 50% of our grade is participation and you are constantly defending your worldview, I definitely was not willing to fail in front of my HBS peers. The culture of our school was such that failure was not accepted. I had already brushed the line of comfort with “HBS failing” — or a case study in maxing out on low passes. I had already experienced that cloistered feeling my first year of school and I refused to show weakness to classmates ever again. To make matters worse, we were traveling around Africa before and after this hike, and I didn’t want any public failures in training pre-hike to seep out in to the perception of my capacity outside of just hiking. I never wanted to make myself the weak link.
To really amp up the drama, I had not completely read the materials before trekking out for the month’s long journey. I packed lightly to avoid heavy baggage fees and with the knowledge I’d be able to rend most of my necessary gear in Tanzania (something of which I was assured). I felt proud that I had made a good decision to prioritize travel ease and be “last minute” (something I’m usually not). However, the decision to pack lightly turned into a running joke. “What tank top will you wear on the mountain?” was a joke that I didn’t stop hearing until the night of the summit. As in other situations with my HBS peers, I was resolute in showing the group my supposed lack of preparation was neither fear nor actual weakness.
I was the classic underdog in nearly every aspect of my life. It was a role I played well and one in which I always overcame. Hiking 19 thousand kilometers would be another notch in my ego’s belt of being the underdog who prevails. I was good at being underestimated. I thrived on it. And in a way, I sought it out by default.
Closet or Store?
As our lead guides bring us to what is a very small room with second hand gear, it becomes clear to me that I am in for a rocky road. The items from which I can choose are cast offs from other more successful hikers, not pristine gear as I had imagined (or that their website had led me to believe). It became incredibly real that I was about to suffer on this 7 day trip. But I put on my brave face as I had taught myself was essential. I was….ready…
I remember dividing the other 8 HBS folks into two groups: haters and helpers. The haters hadn’t stopped focusing on my lack of preparation for the two weeks leading up to this climb. While I wasn’t certain who was a helper, I realized at least two people were definitely helpers. One gave me extra batteries he had, as the headlamp I rented didn’t come with batteries. That was the first moment where I realized how grateful I was for something seemingly so small but that likely would be essential (it was). The other had rented almost as much gear as me and continuously reinforced that we would be fine for the rest of the week. I felt supported.
It’s Go Time
As we enter the park, the porters have started bringing our bags up to the first base camp and in an instant we have our gaiters on, poles up and eyes to the clouds where the peak is hiding.
It soon became too real and I realized there was no turning back. These were the bad decisions I had often made, a lack of fully thinking through a plan. A rarity and mental vacation from the overly analytical, overly skeptical and over thinker I am 99.9% of the time. It was freeing. It was scary. It would be 7 days (hopefully without injury) that would tell me what the pay off was for this gamble.
First step forward…
I’ve Got This
“You need to pace yourself. You need to slow down.”
These are words from our 4 lead guides, who had combined climbed for over 25 years nearly every single day. I ignored these words. I loathed these words. Who were they? They didn’t know me. They didn’t know that I always operate at my own pace and that it always works out.
I would show them.
Told You So
The idea of being told what I can’t do has been the fuel of my life’s fire for as long as I can remember. And I let my past experience and ego cloud the present. Any time I found myself lagging behind the 9-person group, I would speed up to ensure I was either first or in the first third. In HBS lingo, I was assuring everyone (but mostly myself) that I was getting a 1 on this climb.
“Yes, I’m in front again!”
But then…altitude happened. I would get winded, fall to the back of the group (a 3 in HBS lingo) and start the process all over, trying to be in front of the pack again. The very first day I learned that actually I do need to pace myself. I realized that I have 6 more days and if this is the easiest day, I probably should consider listening to these 4 experts.
Taming of the Ego
Growing up as I did, having to fend for myself and being forced into independence at an age earlier than I would have liked, I was not prepared to be dependent on anything or anyone.
As days 2, 3 and 4 passed and the rain continued, I accepted “defeat.”
More truthfully, I accepted that my body indeed had limits that my mind could not overcome. I accepted that I needed to let someone else be in control of my body.
My mindset shifted and I started to find peace in what became the “back pack” crew, the 3 of us who were the slowest by at least 30 minutes or more each hike during the day. Over time, we started to develop a level of trust and reliance on each other.
We became familiar with the same guide who oversaw the “back pack,” he who was incredibly reassuring and let us take as many breaks as we needed and attempted to make the journey as fun as possible. Even the teasing from the haters, which never stopped, really stopped mattering. As far as I was concerned, I was solely focused on getting to summit day (day 5) and completing the descent (day 7). The petulant child in me never quite went away, but he just let the hate roll off.