Throughout the ages religious leaders and prophets, including Buddha, Mohammed and Moses have all climbed high mountains for divine inspiration, guidance and self awareness. But what could a recently retired grains trader, a former futures trader and a commodities trader learn from climbing the highest peak in Africa? Alistair Ping provides the answer.

    With adventure tourism increasing around the world, more and more executives are shunning traditional holiday destinations in favour of pursuits which stretch them both physically and mentally. Many come back to their high-pressure work environments exhilarated by their experiences and better able to cope with the stresses of day-to-day life. Others return from their adventures and make life-changing decisions. Ask the local Tanzanians what Kilimanjaro means and you will get a variety of responses but the one that rings most true is that "kilimangairo" means "the journey that never ends". At 5985m, Mt Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa, arguably the world's highest volcano and the highest free-standing mountain in the world. It also takes its place as one of the "Seven Summits", a holy grail for climbers consisting of the highest peaks in each of the seven continents. In researching Kilimanjaro one reads a variety of opinions ranging from the view that Kilimanjaro is just like climbing a 3km staircase to the opposite extreme where one is warned of altitude sickness, freezing temperatures, high winds and physical torture. Being relatively young and fit, and with a cockiness that comes from trading in large amounts of money on a global scale, my comrades and I decided it would be a walkover. Our preparation consisted of a couple of long day walks in the Drakensberg mountains and a day spent in the local hiking shops in Johannesburg getting kitted out with the latest high-tech equipment.

    What fools we were! Any illusion that the climb would be easy was blown away on day one. We had chosen to take the Machame route, a lesser used, longer, and more beautiful route than the Marangu route, which is now dubbed the "Coca-Cola route". The six-day trek would take us up the south western side of the mountain, from where we would traverse to the south eastern side before making our assault on the summit. The longer route would also give us more time to acclimatise to the altitude. Day one began in Dar Es Salaam at 5.30am so as to allow us to make our way through the traffic to the airport and catch our flight to Arusha at 7.30am. It is near the end of this flight that one gets the first view of Kilimanjaro and her sister Mt Meru as they rise above the clouds to greet the plane as it closes on Arusha. At this point it's hard to imagine that in four days time one will be standing on the top at the place where the locals believe God lives. From the airport we were met by the local tour guides and taken to Moshi for our briefing. "Don't walk too fast," we were told, "the main reason people fail to make it to the top is because they walk too fast, 'pole pole', 'slowly slowly'." It was repeated often, along with advice to drink as much water as possible and eat as much as possible.

    When it was felt we had taken some of this advice in, it was time to meet our guides and porters. The three of us had a guide, an assistant guide and six porters, all reinforcing our belief that the climb would be easy. The porters would carry our heavy packs and all food and equipment, leaving us with just our day packs . In an old two-wheel-drive van we bounced our way up a deeply rutted muddy track, through the local villages and on to the Machame Gate where, at 1800m, we would begin our walk. It's here, as the porters sort out their loads and the guide pays the park fees, that the excitement sets in. It's actually happening, you're going to climb to the roof of Africa. The first part of the walk is easy, a gentle stroll along a four-wheel-drive track into the rainforest. The track soon deteriorates into an uphill slog through ankle-deep mud where one struggles to remain upright and thoughts of twisted ankles and soggy shoes begin to plague the mind. As you trudge through mile after mile of mud the beauty of the forest fades and you begin to wonder what you've got yourself into, maybe this isn't going to be so easy after all. As darkness closed in we finally made it to camp one at 3100m, exhausted, hungry and ready for bed. There's no five-star accommodation here, dinner consists of rice, vegetable stew and a piece of meat, followed by a cup of tea and a warning that we would be setting off at 8am.

    Day two begins with porridge, fried eggs, toast and a renewed respect for the mountain. Any illusions that the climb will be easy have now disappeared and the last chance of turning back has gone. It's now time to make a commitment to the mountain, the personal challenge has really begun. Within an hour of walking you emerge from the rainforest and thankfully leave the mud behind as you enter the heathlands, a drier vegetation belt full of ericas, proteas, helichrysums and giant lobelias 3m or higher. It is only 6.5km to Shira Camp, at 3840m, and the day's walk is easier than day one. Arriving at Shira Camp we are greeted by the view of Mt Meru poking above the clouds and it's now that you realise just how high up you are. There is a noticeable decrease in air pressure and a consequent shortness of breath. Tasks which are normally easy leave you gasping for breath and the decreased pressure allows excess fluid to accumulate in your body. Mostly this affects the eyes and the brain causing severe headaches but in extreme cases it develops into oedema, a life-threatening condition. Pulmonary oedema occurs when the arteries around the lungs begin leaking fluid into the lungs. The result is pain in the chest, followed by coughing up of blood tinged spit and finally death. Cerebral oedema occurs when the arteries around the brain begin to leak fluid. This is even more serious than pulmonary oedema and can lead to death within 12 hours. The only solution for both conditions is a rapid descent to lower altitude, something that nobody, who is committed to the mountain, wants to do. This is why mountains kill people, once you're up there, the mountain has you in its clutches. For reasons of pride, nobody wants to return to civilisation and say they failed. It is this arrogance which becomes one's undoing.

    Day three consists of an ascent to 4600m, followed by a descent to 3900m. By climbing up and then sleeping at a lower altitude, the body is getting a clear message: produce more red blood cells to carry the diminished supplies of oxygen. It is a spectacular day. As you climb above 4000m the landscape becomes like the moon. It is eerily quiet, there is almost no vegetation and the air becomes perilously thin. It is now that our guide, Raspicius, begins to earn his money. He walks in front of us, setting a pace which would normally be reserved for septuagenarians. We stop regularly, he continually tells us to drink more and "pole pole" becomes our new mantra. As other groups pass us, the urge to walk faster is strong but Raspicius cautions us, "my job is to get you to the top," he says, "I know the pace that will get you there". There are no arguments from us, Raspicius has been to the top of Kili more than 60 times. Above 4000m the weather can change in an instant, one minute you can be walking in bright sunshine, then suddenly a cloud front will roll across the mountain and you will be shrouded in mist and quickly pulling on your wet weather gear to protect you from the snow and rain. Late in the day, after a 12km walk you walk into the most spectacular camp on the journey. Barranco Camp, sits at the base of the Barranco Wall, a dramatic 400m rock face which will be the first challenge on day four. The camp is seemingly perched on the edge of the mountain and when it is clear, it is possible to see all the way down past the clouds to the lights of the villages far below. It is here that it becomes extremely cold as the sun disappears and you may start experiencing altitude headaches.

    Day four is a long hard slog up, up and up for about eight hours. Any notions of competitiveness or separateness have now disappeared and the main concern of everyone is for all of us to make it to the top. By pooling resources we have everything we need, energy bars, aspirin for altitude headaches and words of encouragement are plentiful. Other groups continue to pass us but we stick to our slow pace. Arriving at Barafu Hut, 4600m above sea level, fills one with a sense of trepidation. There is only one hurdle left, the 1300m climb to the summit which will begin at midnight. We are given an early dinner of rice and meat which we try to force down. The air is now painfully thin, it's cold and anxiety about getting any sleep fills the mind. At 11.30pm we are given our wake-up call. After some light breakfast, and with our headlamps on, we trudge out of camp into the cold. Following our guide we begin the brutal uphill climb to Stella Point on the rim of the crater. After about half an hour another group walks quickly past us, seemingly in a hurry to make it to the top. Raspicius shakes his head "too fast, too fast, must walk pole pole if you want to make it to the top".

    After another half an hour we see the group stopped ahead of us. Soon we catch up to them, one of the group, a young girl is doubled over, she won't be going any further. We walk silently past, aware of the fact that it could happen to one of us. At about 5000m one begins to truly feel the effects of the altitude. Mental capacity is diminished, you feel slightly high and dizzy, you have no breath and you have to concentrate hard just to put one foot in front of another. One of our party begins to suffer, he has pains in his chest and feels nauseous, he urges us to go on. We leave the assistant guide with him and trudge forwards. Now we begin to do the Kili shuffle: 20 to 30 small steps followed by a break when you suck desperately at the air to find some oxygen. Every part of your body wants to go down, every part of your psyche wants to go up. It truly becomes mind over matter. As the first rays of dawn begin we are in sight of Stella Point and the desire to see the sun rise from the roof of Africa urges one on. It's a sight one will never forget, but it's still 2km around the rim of Kibo crater to Uhuru Peak - another hour.

    Finally at 7.05am we make it to Uhuru Peak, time to rest and take in the view. We wait for 40 minutes in the freezing cold, hoping that our comrade will join us but we can't stay long, it's still three hours back down to camp and then another four and a half hours to Mweka Camp where we will spend the night. We give up hope and start walking down but within a kilometre he appears, exhausted, dehydrated and emotional. He has vomited twice, has a splitting headache and is being aided by the assistant guide, but he's going to make it. He gives us a big hug and tells his story. As he sat in the dark on the side of the mountain thinking of his family he didn't think he could make it but Victor, the assistant guide had urged him on, picking him up and saying that the mountain was not finished yet.

    "I'd got to the stage where I knew I couldn't make it alone," he said, "but then all it took was for someone to extend the hand of humanity and here I am." That night we sat at Mweka Camp and celebrated with a few beers that someone had been ingenious enough to cart up from the bottom in expectation of our needs. There was only one more days walk and we would be back in civilisation, then soon after back to the city. So, what did we learn?

    • That the journey is the destination

    • The best leader sets a pace that allows all of the team to make it.

    • The way to tackle big challenges is to break them down into smaller goals and achieve them one at a time.

    • The present is your point of power

    • The team is always more powerful than the individual

    • You can't make a big journey without skilled and dedicated support.

    Adventure pursuits help to not only learn about oneself but also to see the futility of separateness and competitiveness. Mother Nature rules, you don't conquer mountains, they allow you to climb them - ignoring this reality can only be fraught with danger.


    The purpose of this database is to provide a full-text record of all articles that have appeared in the CDJ since February 1997. It is aimed to assist in the research and reference process. The database has a full-text index and will enable articles to be easily retrieved.It should be noted that information contained in this database is in pre-publication format only - IT IS NOT THE FINAL PRINTED VERSION OF THE CDJ - therefore there might be slight discrepancies between the contents of this database and the printed CDJ.

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