Lessons from Mount Kilimanjaro

Posted By: Troy Porras Leadership,
Last summer I went to Africa with my seventeen-year-old son. We did some humanitarian work for a couple weeks in Ghana and then flew to Tanzania and hiked Mount Kilimanjaro. Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the Seven Summits. The Seven Summits are the highest mountains of each of the seven continents. Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa at 19,341 feet. We were hiking for six days and had a lot of time to think of lessons that could be learned, and I am going to share a few of those lessons with you today.

Lesson 1 - Pole Pole. Pole Pole is a phrase in Swahili that means “slowly” or “calm.” The guides probably said that 100 times a day. They reminded us that the mountain wasn’t going anywhere and that we didn’t need to hurry. It was always going to be there, and we should go slow and steady. I think there is a life lesson there for us. Often, we are in a hurry. We are busy answering phone calls and returning e-mails and it seems that there is never an end of things we can do, but I think if we live life a little more “Pole Pole,” it could be a lot more fulfilling.

Lesson 2 - Be ready for difficult times. It’s almost certain that in life we are going to have hard times. We were going along and the first five days it seemed easy. We hiked an average of only five miles a day, although we did gain12,000 feet of elevation over those days. Austin and I hike quite a bit here in Colorado including many 14er’s. Over the first few days, we thought Mt. Kilimanjaro was just like an easy 14er. As we got closer to the summit it got significantly more difficult. The last day we got to our camp at about noon and our guides told us we we’re going to leave at 11:30 at night for the summit push. They instructed us to eat dinner around 5-6pm and then get some rest. We tried to follow their instructions, but of course we were too anxious didn’t get much sleep. At 11:30PM we woke up ready for the summit. We were at 15,000 feet and it was -10 degrees outside. We put on these big parkas and started going. The hike to the summit is only 3 miles to the summit, but its 4,000 feet of elevation gain so it is incredibly steep. Envision a black diamond ski run. In fact, it was just like that, there was snow on the ground, and we were hiking in these tracks that had been left in the snow. As we were hiking along, suddenly I started feeling a pain unlike anything I had ever had in my life. Between my shoulder blades, I had this sharp pain. I don’t know if it was the altitude or lack of oxygen, but it felt like someone was stabbing me over and over again in my back. I have never felt pain like that in my life. It reminded me of what’s going to happen to all of us. At some point in our lives, we are going to have difficulties. And often those difficulties come when you’re least
expecting them.

So, the lesson we can learn there is that we should appreciate the good times when we have them. If you’re in a good place now, if you’re having a good week, if you’re having a good day, having a good month, or a good year, enjoy it while you can! Because it is certain that at some point your life, you’re going to have some struggles. Whether its physical pain like I experienced that night, emotional or spiritual. We are all going to have hard times. The other thing I learned is that even as I was hiking that night, there was a spectacular sky. And even with the depth of the difficulties, it’s important to remember that there is beauty all around us and we should enjoy that as best we can.

Lesson 3 - The last lesson I learned was that we need to learn how to accept help from others. That is difficult for me and is probably difficult for most people. We had been hiking with our guide for six days and by that point we were practically like family. As we were hiking that final night, he could tell I was suffering. He offered to carry my pack and I declined. But sometime between 3-4:00AM in the morning I agreed to let him carry it, and that was difficult for me. The minute I gave him my pack though, I felt rejuvenated. I felt a new sense of energy that I didn’t have before and I learned to appreciate that. Another person helped me that day as well, my son Austin. We were hiking single file and it’s very steep, so I was using my hands and my legs and occasionally would step up and then fall back. But Austin was right behind me and he would physically grab and catch me as I was falling to push me forward. That was extremely moving for me and it was amazing to have him there to help me. All of us have people in our lives, friends and family that are around us that want to help in difficult times. And we need to learn to accept their help.

There was a lot of learning in the month we spent in Africa. Much could be written about our profound experiences building a school and getting to know the children we were serving in Ghana. There are lessons to learn from the animals we saw on safari. But these lessons are just a couple of the things we learned from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.