April 2014

April 7th, 2014 by Alexia Della Valle

Last month I climbed Kilimanjaro. One of my friends was organising this trip in September and I found myself saying yes before I’d even really thought of it. I then spent 3 months in complete denial until new year’s eve when I realised my 2014 was going to start with a bang – I was climbing the highest mountain in Africa!
Looking back on the experience now, I think it feeds into some of the subject areas Steps deals with every day: diversity, engagement, motivation, team dynamics and leadership... 
The group I went with was incredibly diverse: 22 people age 25 to 50, 15 different nationalities, living in different cities across the world and working for very different organisations. Some of us were well trained – we had two firemen, a marathon runner and a guy who regularly does ski touring – while others lead quite a sedentary lifestyle – sitting at a desk 8 hours a day and trying to make it down to the gym as often as possible but somehow always finding an excuse. It wasn’t our love for hiking that brought us together but our thirst for something new. We all wanted to live an experience that would challenge us and test our limits. The hike lasts six days – four going up and two coming down.

The first three days were all about us getting to know each other. We were living completely outside our comfort zones, without electricity, without hot water, sleeping 16 to a room and following a simple set of activities day in and day out. We’d get woken up at 6 am, have breakfast, walk for 8 hours (with a short lunch break in the middle of nowhere), have dinner, go to bed. No to-do lists, no need to make decisions, no need to forward plan. Our friend Filippo was the leader of the group as the organiser but he spent a lot of time with the guides making strategic decisions about our trip (as most CEO’s probably) and it was interesting to see who else took on different roles within the group out of their own initiative.

Simone, our Italian fireman, started a morning stretching routine for us to do before we headed off for our hike – he only spoke Italian so I took on the role of translating his direction in English for others to understand. This soon became a ritual and the guides and porters started joining in as well.  Guillame, the Frenchman of the group, always had a box of nuts and raisins with him and he’d take them during the breaks and share them round. When you are hiking it’s quite easy to focus on yourself – you have your own water and your own protein bars so you can stop and nourish yourself whenever you want. By sharing his box with the people around him he made the experience a shared one. An Italian guy brought a plastic chicken with him and Camilla (that’s what he’d named her) soon became the mascot of the trip. She was the leading model in most of our photos and her interactions with our Tanzanian lunch boxes brought general laughter to our lunch breaks. These all might seem like small, albeit weird things but they had a real impact on our group dynamics. They brought us together and motivated us to continue the journey as a united group.   

We didn’t realise how important we would be to each other until the 4th day. This is when we crossed the 3500m threshold and people starting suffering from altitude sickness. We were walking with 50% less oxygen so having conversations became harder, people become more introverted, focusing on their health and trying to keep moving. We had a long hike ahead, a very very long hike and everyone was trying to save energy.
Our last supper before the hike was a tough one for everyone. Most people couldn’t eat any longer as their digestive systems had stopped working, I couldn’t speak as my teeth were chattering from the cold and we had already lost a member of our group who had to go back down due to altitude sickness. When we finished eating, our leader announced that there was a decision to be made. We would be setting out for the final hike in a couple of hours and we needed to choose if we wanted to go in the fast group (leaving at midnight) or the slow group (leaving at 11pm). We knew we’d had different paces during the past hikes but being asked to make a decision so late in the day was difficult and uncomfortable.

I was struggling to make a decision – I am one of those people that thrive on others and the fast team seemed to be people who were most motivated and least affected by the altitude sickness. My fiancé was joining the slow group as he wasn’t feeling well and hadn’t eaten in 24 hours. I don’t know if it was the name ‘slow group’ or the way people were feeling but motivation was running low and it felt like the team had been broken even before we faced the hardest bit. After much debating I decided to join the slow group. It was more important for me to motivate my fiancé and help him during the hike then be in the group that would motivate me.
We began the hike at 11pm and almost instantly the group split into a slower group and an intermediate one. 10 of us were in the intermediate group and the daunting hike began. We were walking in complete darkness (with most people wearing a head light). Every step was a real struggle – we had no light, 50% oxygen and walking on ice desert sand that made your feet sink. The group was really demotivated. People were being sick, others completely overwhelmed by exhaustion. At 3 a.m. the fast group passed us along the trail – the guides and porters were singing Tanzanian songs and the group seemed engaged and motivated – the type of high performing team every company would kill for!
At 4 a.m. my fiancé was feeling better and that’s when we decided to make the toughest decision yet – break off from the group and continue on our own. The group had begun to slow down and although we were exhausted something inside us was demanding us to push ourselves further and see how far we could go. It was a difficult decision to take at 4 a.m. (5 hours into the hike and still in complete darkness). These were our friends, our team and leaving them behind was hard. 
We spoke to our head guide, Elvis and he said we could go ahead with one of the guides, Dismas (a Tanzanian Rastafarian). Were we ready to set out into the darkness on our own? Would we make it? No time to contemplate, we broke free from the group and set a steady pace up the mountain. The Hungarian girl in our group quickly followed us. Her partner was suffering the altitude and it must have been an even harder decision for her to move on without him. In a few minutes we lost the group and the three of us became the underdogs – the fast group was ahead and going strong and it was our turn to start fighting.
I think that’s where we became a team of our own. We all knew that we only had one guide so we only had two choices – make it together or go back together. As a team we shared the limited resources we had left, motivated each other through the icy rocks and supported each other when one of us felt too weak to continue. At 5:30 am we reached the first peak, Gilman’s Point and at 7:07 we reached Uhuru Peak at 5895m. What got us there? I don’t know but there were moments when I had to dig very deep and find the strength to go on. Up there on the mountain I was focusing on one step at a time. Each step was a step closer to reaching my goal and achieving something that I would remember forever. My friends, my fiance and my guide helped me tremendously when I thought I was done but at the end of it all I am proud of how I found my own inner strength and achieved my own goal.  

Looking back on this experience I reflect on how much I’ve learnt. We came together as 22 strangers and soon we become a team with people taking on different roles and bringing different things to the table (including a plastic chicken!). The strength of the group was what kept us together till the very end. When things got tough and we needed to focus on ourselves we could do that with the conviction that we have created a strong enough bond that gave us the freedom to do what we needed to do individually. Isn’t that the strength of a high performing team? Everyone has their role within the team and their own tasks to focus on but they are able to achieve these goals so successfully because they have the backing from the rest of the group. 

From the last hike there are a number of life lessons I can learn from – some I don’t think have even become conscious yet. Leaving the group was probably the single toughest decision and when I look back I think could we have done more to motivate them? Could we have led them? I fear we were too weak to do either. What does make me so proud is that the group still made it to Gilman’s Point (the first peak) and when I think about how they were when we left them I have to bow down to each and every one of them. They had to fight harder than we did to achieve that. More than ever before, I believe that if you have enough willpower you can achieve anything you want. 

I also have been thinking about my decision to stay with my fiancé and the Hungarian girl’s choice to leave behind her partner – it’s hard to know what learning to take from this but I think it was about doing the right thing at the right time. I chose to stay with him before the hike began but would I also have continued without him if he had been unable to continue? I don’t know. All I know is that although we all had the same goal (reach the summit) we are all different people with different motivations and we all need to do what we need to do to achieve that. There is no prescriptive way to do it, just like there isn’t a prescriptive way to achieve our goals and objectives at work – we need to find our own path and make our own decisions. We are responsible for our own development just as we were all responsible in getting ourselves to the top. 

If I were to bring the analogy even further I would say that they are both a journey and I’m starting to see what the elements are to achieve it...  Come as prepared as you can be with all the resources you need, be part of a united & supportive team, willpower & determination are key, and finally, take responsibility for your own actions and decisions.  Up there on that mountain there are challenges to overcome and opportunities waiting to be taken - and you need to have the strength and resilience to do both.


Comment By Comment Given
Daniel Amazing writing Alexia! You captured the soul of the trip, the emotional bonds that came to life from nowhere and the very deep struggles and drama that everyone had. Well, some more than others :) On the Hungarian girl leaving her partner behind (who was me), let me add my side of the story. First, her and I talked about this before, you have to go through a few what-ifs before you hit the mountain because up there things go too fast and you can’t think straight. I was very sick indeed but I was perfectly safe, bunch of people around me, lot of guides, too. Then by 4am she was feeling very cold, didn’t bring enough clothes, so going faster was actually essential for her. I felt that if only one of us can make it to the top while the other is still safe and being looked after, that’s a great day for both of us. I was really happy that she made it to Uhuru with you guys, that she could help you with water, that you could help her with encouragement. It made me feel good. I made it to Gilman’s and back safely and I’m proud, that was the most I could do that day. Not every relationship is the same, others will do it differently, but I’m happy we did it this way.
Panos Dear Alexia, I was captivated by your narrative so much that I felt I was there with your team trying to convince my lungs and feet to follow you.As it is formidable to endure the hardships of overcoming the challenges of untamed nature it is more so to retain the human compassion of caring for the "other".No "weak links" here.Brava to all of you !
Nadia Machaira Moving, very well written and honest. You transmitted the essence of this great experience, I thought I was there. I feel great respect for what you and Fede achieved. The comment of Daniel who was left behind was moving too.
andrea della valle What a great summary of your trip ! It had me wish i had taken such an adventure with such challenges and what i could have learned ! This experience will remain with you forever and it's always great to take the time to step back and analyse it like you just did . Brava!!!!!!
alexandra skaltsogianni thanks for sharing your experience with us. Your description about goals, motivation and achievent are very helpful for bigger but also eveyday actions. Most of all I was fascinated by how strenth rises up , when it seems there is no more left
Antonio Accurate description of what we experienced! So many fond memories, but as you mentioned signing the Kilimanjaro song at 4 AM was a highlight for everybody. It was also very nice to see you guys at Uhuru and I think that making the decision of leaving the group behind was extremely challenging and brave! Once again, congratulations on making it to the summit!
Cynthia Manoulidis Alexia..... phew! I feel as though I was right next to you through your entire journey and challenge. I commented earlier, but somehow it never got posted!!!! I must tell you that not only do you have an incredible ability to captivate attention with your detailed description of an everlasting challenge and accomplishment, but you gave me the ability to actually imagine exactly how it must have been! You should be a writer!!!!!!! You amaze me by how you manage to find such challenges and then make them a reality. In life, we often talk about things we'd like to do, wish we could do, etc.. but you ARE making these things happen and "hats off" to you for that!! I was very impressed with the "connection" your group had with one another, the empathy, consideration and respect. The memories you have made from this journey will warm your heart for an eternity! What did your description leave within me? I saw that a goal was made by an incredible group of young adults who collected information, organized this information and then set out to make this goal an accomplished reality. It takes determination, maturity, open mindedness, respect, consideration, organization, stamina and stable mentality to make such a mission...
Cynthia Manoulidis I can imagine that the decision to continue on this journey leaving your fellow climbers behind definitely hampered ones emotions and even confidence... being able to surpass that, put all in perspective and proceed takes strength, which I commend you as well as your friends! It takes a good, kind, solid soul to have such empathy and consideration for others. Many things I am saying it takes "YEARS" of maturing and aging and experiencing to fully understand and somehow you have managed to speed up the process ... I have understood by all that you write that this was also a "mental" climbing experience as well as physical. I have never had the desire to make such a journey, but in reading your experiences, I feel as though I did. In a situation at the certain point where you made the decision to stay with Fede I must admire you immensely as this show how a generous, loving and kindred spirit you are and I have no doubt your bond with one another strengthened even more and the memories of all this will be something only the two of you will ever understand and share. I also would like to mention something my father said to me on his last day of life... "you are whom you associate with... choose your friends wisely".... I believe you have mastered this my darling Alexia... you are surrounded by positive energy, thus more positivity exudes... Always trust your soul ... you are an absolutely beautiful human being and I am ever so proud to have you in my life!! What an INCREDIBLE journey!!!!!!! Thank you for sharing it all so clearly and beautifully!!! xxx

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