Climbing Kilimanjaro is on the bucket list of most people on the African continent. Most of us at the ABN Group have had a personal ambition to make this trek but the opportunity came in the form of a corporate memo from our founder, Rakesh Wahi, who asked for volunteers. All of us that went on this mission enrolled without really understanding the implications of what we had signed up for.
What followed was four months of training and getting ready for our greatest test of physical and mental endurance. We went on several hikes as a team, culminating in the final climb of Sentinel Peak in Drakensburg, South Africa. Through this period we assessed the strengths and weaknesses of team members and came up with a marching order and buddy pairing that in retrospect were the main reasons for our success.
A few days before we set off for the trip, I was given the responsibility to lead the 15-strong team, including two members joining from Murdoch University Dubai (an affiliate company). Rakesh gave me one task: Do what you need to but make sure that all 15 people make it to the top. Failure was not an option. For a mountain that has a 41% success rate for climbers, this was not an easy goal. Our head guide validated that of the 150 teams he had taken up the mountain over 10 years, only nine had a 100% success rate.
What followed between March 11 and 17 was one of the most exhilarating experiences of self-discovery for each and every one of the team members.
For corporate governance, our travel policy dictated that we set out from Johannesburg in two teams that regrouped in the sleepy town of Moshi in Tanzania. Some of us saw the magnitude of what lay ahead as we saw the majestic Kilimanjaro in the far distance, rising above the clouds at the same altitude at which we were flying. We assembled at the Keys Hotel and shared a memorable dinner of pizzas and beer and a final bath with the understanding that the next seven days would be spent in lesser luxuries.
After a group briefing and an introduction to the team of seven guides, 46 cooks and porters we set out on March 11 for the first day’s hike on the Rongai route. Most of us had packed about 13kg into our backpacks (constituting water and foodstuff) and a 14kg duffel bag was carried by our porters with all our clothing and provisions. We had expected rain on this hike but didn’t realize that it would hit us as soon as we started. Young children walked with us, nonchalantly in the rain, making us forget the discomfort. We ended the first day’s hike after an 11km march that we completed in four hours ending at an altitude of 2,400m. Other than the rain, this was an easy trek. As we walked to our camp site we were greeted by eight yellow tents pitched close together that were to become our home for the next six nights.
Our routine for the first five days was quite consistent; getting ready by 7.30AM, breakfast at 8AM and the daily march from 9AM to 2PM to reach the next base camp. We progressed steadily from 2,400m on day one, to 3,450m on day two, 3,683m on day three, 4,300m on day four and 4,730m on day five. Each day we would acclimatize by walking up about 200m in altitude with the concept of “walk high and sleep low”. We discovered, to our delight, that CNBC Africa presenter, Samantha Loring, is a qualified yoga instructor and she would make the team stretch and do breathing exercises that appeared frivolous when we started out but became our lifeline as we climbed above 4,000m.
Some events became common through our journey: The early breakfast of eggs, porridge and bananas, warm pea or cucumber soup for lunch, welcoming tea and Milo with popcorn at 4PM each day, before acclimatization, and soup with an overdose of starch and protein for dinner. The rule was to finish three liters of water at a bare minimum each day. One thing was clearly evident—organizers were making sure that we packed extra calories for the final assault on the last day.
The build up for the first five days was gradual and most of the team managed to get by with little or no discomfort. Communications had died with the expended battery life of our cellphones and the solar charging devices were a disappointment. Despite the shortcomings, I did manage to speak with my five-year-old son, who was distraught that daddy was gone for a week; for all of us the contact with families remained comforting and a constant encouragement.
We started the assault on Uhuru Peak at midnight on March 16, with our headlamps providing the much-needed beacon of hope as we progressed slowly, but surely, up a 70 degree gradient. The temperature dipped to approximately -17 degrees and winds picked up as we reached 5,000m. The journey from there to Gilman’s Point, at 5,700m, took us about seven hours. As team leader I was put under the most severe test as I tried to help team members face their individual challenges. We stopped for comfort breaks periodically but stayed together through all that the mountain could throw at us and the whole team made it to Gilman’s Point. This was our first milestone. The journey to Uhuru Peak from Gilman’s Point took approximately two hours and we all finally summited at 9.15AM on March 16.
Reaching Uhuru Peak saw emotions flow from all team members. Tears of joy were the expression of accomplishment and pride that we all felt. Once rested, the team decided to do the Harlem Shake, which was undoubtedly the expression of insanity that overcame everyone for a moment. The team then made its way back to Kibo Hut in three hours to a well-deserved hot lunch and nap before moving down to the next base camp. The ABN team conquered Kilimanjaro to become only the 10th team that our guides had managed to all take up to the top of the mountain.
As team leader, I saw some changes in every one of my team. First and foremost, 15 individuals went up the mountain but one family of 15 came down having accomplished the mission successfully with a priceless bond that will be cherished forever. What did we all learn? Just one lesson: No goal is too great or too small to accomplish if you work slowly and steadily as a team. In addition to this, as a leader I learnt that a leader needs to show genuine concern for his team and be there for them, larger than life, when they need him most.
Rakesh Wahi—the vice chairman of the ABN360 Group—dreamed up and financed the trip. He is a fit 53-year-old, who spent nine years of active service as an officer in the Indian Army and knows all about rough roads and battles.
“The trip was symbolic of where we see ourselves as a business. Climbing Africa’s highest mountain and the highest freestanding mountain in the world resonates with our vision to be Africa’s leading business media conglomerate. The true test of leaders is when you push them over the edge from their comfort zone into a zone of physical and mental hardship, and then observe their ability to think, rationalize, overcome hardship, carry their team members and reach a group goal. The behavior patterns of people change in such grueling conditions and personal survival can sometimes overtake a group goal. But, like in a battlefield, personal matters must become secondary to a bigger cause that everyone must believe in. That cause then defines the success of the team and motivates them to achieve the goal… This kind of physical and mental test cannot be achieved in a beach resort.”
How difficult was the ascent?
“There were several challenging moments. From a physical point of view, many members developed different ailments from fever, fatigue, insect bites, sunburns and altitude sickness to nausea and stomach-related viruses. On the mental side, the main challenge came on summit night when people had to call for their inner strength to make it to the top.”
How did it feel to stand there proudly at the summit?
“I could see emotions flowing down each one’s cheeks and the pride on their faces to have made it to the top together. When we started out, there were 15 people with different identities and backgrounds. When we reached the top, I could see that a family was born… On a personal level, it was a great achievement as my son, Sid, was also on the team. It was a great opportunity to spend time with him and see him face his own challenges to make it to the summit, despite getting altitude sickness and severe hypothermia.”
The Harlem Shake?
“This was indeed a surprise item on the agenda. The average age of the team was under 30 and a lot of their language, music and conversations were foreign to me. I did however, enjoy everything that I heard. I was at a loss when I was asked to join in the Harlem Shake but did it as requested by the team. I rehearsed it with the team at 4,700m and they were overjoyed to see me participate. I think it was a victory lap for the modern generation and could well have been any other form of expression. I thought it was rather cute and unique when I saw the final product on YouTube; after all how many people have behaved like complete lunatics at 6,000m.”