“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? This: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.” Rene Daumal
Climbing Mount Kenya. 5000 meters above sea level. A trek of 50 km. As cold as minus 15 degrees centigrade at the summit. No toilet or shower for four days. Sounds appealing?
When my friends ask if I want to join in for a climb of the second highest peak in Africa (after Kilimanjaro in Tanzania), I feel quite intimidated. Can I really do this? At the same time I feel intrigued and inspired by the challenge, and thankfully, I give in to the peer group pressure.
I hope that more experienced mountaineers would agree with me that there is something very special about conquering a mountain. It impacts you both mentally and physically.
The volcanic rock and high altitude offers something of a hostile environment. The air is thin (only 50% of the oxygen at sea level), making breathing difficult and your head feeling dizzy. Very few plants survive up here in the infertile soil. Rare signs of life create an eerie stillness. Wind, snow and blazing sunshine add to the mix. It is clear that this is a place where humans do not belong and even would struggle to survive for an extended period of time.
This is exactly what makes the climb so fascinating. It is just you and the mountain. Nothing else matters.
I would say that climbing a mountain is more of a mental challenge than a physical one. The odds are against you. Without a focused and strong mind it is easy to let the feeling of inadequacy absorb you and make you give up.
As I climb, I reflect on what this experience teaches me about life, my approach to challenges and ultimately about my own leadership.
These three lessons sum it up for me:
1) Leadership, and life, is all about going from where you are to where you want to be. But where is there?
“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves” Edmund Hillary
What would your life be without dreams, hopes and a vision for the future? Setting goals is crucial to feel that you live with meaning and purpose. However, the mountain taught me how important it is to grasp where “there” really is. On Mount Kenya, it is too easy to focus on only reaching the summit, where actually the descent that follows can be far more challenging and exhausting. Where do you really want to go? For me it was not to the summit. It was the additional 25 km to the park gate and a hot shower!
2) You reach your goals step by step
“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase to take the first step” Martin Luther King
As we enter the national park and glance at the snowy and rocky peaks, powerfully towering thousands of meters above us, my first thought is “how on earth will I ever make it up there?”. It looked so, so far away.
The key to successful delivery on any challenge is to take it step by step. When we are woken up at 02.00 am to begin our ascent to the summit, I crawl out of my sleeping bag into the pitch black darkness, having slept for just a few hours and with hat and gloves because of the freezing cold at 4,200 meters. Suddenly, the task at hand feels completely overwhelming.
If you focus on nothing but where to place your next step on the slippery screech, you will eventually make it to where you want to be. In Kiswahili there is a mentality of approaching life ‘pole pole’ – slowly, slowly. Dreams come slow and go fast.
We live in an information-rich world, sometimes creating a poverty of attention, or filter failure. This leaves us stressed, overwhelmed and less capable at making decisions. Focus on your next step and keep life simple.
3) In times of challenge and uncertainty: Keep you head up, keep your heart strong
“Over every mountain there is a path, although it may not be seen from the valley” Theodore Roethke
There are not many things we can take for granted but here is one: Life will bring you change and challenge. Big or small. What matters is how you deal with these situations. The sense of not knowing can be viewed negatively and easily trap us; What if I fail? What if I can’t do this? Or it can empower us, help us to grow and make us stronger.
From my own experience, when I find myself dealing with the unknown, plunging into the depths of potential fear or failure, I can come out feeling more alive than ever before.
In situations when I feel lost and need courage, I sometimes rely on inspiration from others. When I feel like I am about to defeat myself on the mountain, I listen to Ben Howard on my iPod. His calming words go straight to my heart.
Keep you head up, keep your heart strong. Keep your mind set in your ways….
Now walking back, down this mountain. The strength of a turnin’ tide.
Oh the wind so soft, and my skin, yeah the sun so hot upon my side.
Oh lookin’ out at this happiness,
I searched for between the sheets,
Oh feelin’ blind, I realise,
All I was searchin’ for, was me
I have started to appreciate the unknown as a way of getting to know myself better. Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves so don’t be afraid. Stay true to yourself and you will find your path.
Lift your head up, stay strong and keep going.