‘This mountain reminds me that I am made of steel!’ said an MBA student, fresh off the summit of Kilimanjaro. Another student wrote to me the following week: ‘I’ve wanted to do humanitarian work for over a decade,’ she said, ‘two days back from Kilimanjaro, I made the shift.’
This is no surprise to me; just welcome validation that experiential learning outside one’s comfort zone can have a profound and lasting impact at a deep emotional level. My personal classroom has long been the mountains, and for a couple of decades I’ve led treks in the Himalayas and Africa, most notably on Kilimanjaro. It is the most rewarding work of my life, to learn and share with others, discoveries about ourselves and our relationships with others, that are so often amplified in remote, natural environments.
‘Outside one’s comfort zone’ is a clichéd expression, one I hesitate to use – and yet it is no hyperbole. The majority I’ve accompanied on Kilimanjaro are city dwellers and over half have never slept in a tent. A few have only ever walked on pavements. Thus, there are challenges enough on the gentle lower slopes, long before the summit day; a day which is extreme and different from anything that precedes it. Summit day begins with a midnight start - pinpricks of light from head torches in the dark - sub-zero temperatures, and, of course, oxygen levels half that at sea level.
The lessons are as many and varied as the individuals on an expedition, too many to record here. But there are always a few recurring themes, a couple hinted at above:
Confidence. I’ve climbed with many high achieving individuals whose self-esteem is nonetheless in their boots, perhaps a feeling of falling short of expectations. There is nothing like employing one’s complete being to meet a challenge – physical, mental, emotional – to restore a sense of self.
Clarity of purpose. The simple rhythm of walking seven, eight, nine hours a day, in a natural and stunningly beautiful environment, allows a subconscious filing of thoughts, a throwing out of mental clutter, which, most often reveals a single clear objective or purpose to one’s life.
Discovery of strengths. So often people discover strengths they didn’t know they had when meeting such a challenge, surprising themselves and others. This discovery can be carried home to the workplace, where an individual may then be employed in a more effective manner.
Humility. Altitude is a great leveller. It pays no heed to status or physical prowess. Rather it is a matter of physiological make-up, like the colour of one’s eyes, that determines how well someone performs at altitude. I witnessed no finer example of humility, and generosity of leadership, than expressed by a super fit naval helicopter pilot, the first woman of her country to hold this position. She was the only person in the group unable to climb on the summit day, and, as I stuck my head in her tent for one last check to see if she might find strength to accompany us, her eyes revealed the pain of her disappointment. Yet, while the rest of the group slowly made their way to the summit, she mentally turned a negative into a positive. She slept, of course. Then she got herself up and dressed and walked a little way up the slopes above the high camp, and as the climbers descended from the summit, she was there to give each one of them a congratulatory hug and celebrate their achievement.
Trust. In the mountains, trust in self and others is critical. We know that in business, too, trust is a vital ingredient for success; that it’s when people trust one another that things get done.
And lastly, bonding. The list of learnings from the mountains could go on for a very long while, but wouldn’t be complete without mention of the relationships built and teams strengthened through such a rare and vibrant, challenging, shared experience. This is the most lasting benefit and deepest joy.