The Importance of Team on Kilimanjaro

our group photo on the Stella Point summit

Every day new impressions come to me about the Dream Mountains Kilimanjaro experience. Today I am thinking about the importance of team in our success in making it up the mountain.

Team is something that Shawn Dawson and the other leaders emphasized throughout our seven-month training period. We did group hikes in the Gatineau, we climbed Mt. Marcy, we got to know each other through team socials and events throughout the fall and winter. The importance of ‘team’ was pounded into us.

We actually only really came together as a group once we were all together in Tanzania as our team came from locations across the country.

Through six days of hard climbing on the mountain things changed. We really became a solid unit. We were all that we had. On the mountain we added 93 porters and guides to our ever expanding team. We were becoming a unit moving towards the summit.

another day of trekking up Kilimanjaro – we always climbed as a group

This is where team becomes real. I remember one day near the Lava Tower. I was totally exhausted mainly due to the effects of altitude sickness. My group headed out and I just couldn’t keep up with them as we scrambled down steep scree. I should have stayed behind, but that was my group and I needed to be with them. After a few minutes of scrambling, dizzy and head aching, I saw just ahead of me a smiling Jason Colley, calming waiting for me. ‘We saw you on the scree, so I thought I would wait for you’.

Saved by the group! I formed up with the others and made it down the steep descent to our next camp. Jason, our group leader stayed behind me the rest of the way to make sure I made it down safely to camp.

On the summit night, I was part of a group of climbers who found ourselves together, alone on the mountain slope. The sun was just coming up, but we were chilled to the bone and exhausted. We sought shelter behind a big rock and tried to figure out what to do. Some of us – including me – suggested turning around. We really didn’t know where we were on where we were heading. We were immobilized as more climbers piled into our shelter equally exhausted. Then a super duo, Megan and Heather Benoit (twins no less), told us all to get our act together and get climbing. No one had a better idea so slowly we started following Heather and Megan up the slope.

On the slope close to our group’s ‘moment of truth’

This was the ultimate team moment. Shawn couldn’t do any more for us. He had trained us well, now it was up to us. We all turned toward the summit and every member of our group summited within the next two hours.

This was for me the most dramatic moment in the climb. We were a true group, formed through challenge and hardship, totally trusting in each other. We encouraged each other for the next two hours and then happily embraced when we finally made it to Stella Point.

Another moment. Much later in the day we descended from the peak to a rain forest camp. I had injured my leg on the initial descent and was very slow getting down. The other climbers, equally exhausted had gone ahead and I was alone on a steep and rocky trail.

A porter, carrying another mammoth load saw me and stayed with me all the way down to the camp. It got very dark on the trail and I didn’t want to stop to find my headlamp. No need, the porter lighted my way down all the way to camp. Once we finally arrived, he made sure I signed in and then passed me off to another porter who led me to my tent in the pitch darkness. I thankfully collapsed into our tent so grateful again for the wonderful team who shared the mountain with us.

Our wonderful team gathers for a photo on the last morning of our descent to the park gates

Do the best teams develop through adversity and challenge? I am not sure. I only know that I feel closer to these people than I have felt to any group for years. Obviously, I don’t include my family and the people I worked with at my last wonderful school, but apart from these people, I can’t think of another group of people that I feel a closer bond to.

What a wonderful privilege to have experienced this level of closeness with people who were complete strangers only a few months ago – what a true gift. Maybe this is the true meaning behind this experience, there is huge value in working closely with people in situations of true adversity – this is where you really can define what it means to be a member of a team.

If I decide to climb again, the group experience will certainly be one of the main reasons for going through all of this again!


a wonderful, joyous celebration with our porters and guides the morning of the final descent

Lessons learned while climbing Kilimanjaro

On Mt. Kilimanjaro, we climbed for 8 days, usually 6-8 hours a day, not including the 16-hour summit day.

That gives a climber lots of time to think.

Now that I am back in Canada, I am trying to put together some of the lessons I have learned while on the climb. There are several I am mulling over now, I am sure there will be more later.

First, take risks. Its a short life and it is very easy to get caught up in the comfortable routine of everyday life. I sincerely believe that you need to be looking for the risks out there that will make you a stronger person, that will help your school, that will enhance learning and that ultimately will stretch you out of the comfort zones we all enjoy too much.

For me, I needed to get out of the destructive cycle of work and I needed to challenge myself physically and spiritually. In some ways, I needed to find some way to cleanse myself from the corporate education world. Bitterness and cynicism were seeping in and I needed a totally new challenge to break a destructive cycle. Climbing the highest mountain in Africa seemed to be the ticket.

The Barranco Wall – looking down

If you are not taking risks, what are you doing? What are you waiting for? Why are you wasting your time waiting for something to happen – nothing will unless you make it happen.

Second, your body is your vehicle. I have taken part in some challenging physical ventures over the years. As a youth, I planted trees in the mountains of British Columbia. Later, I ran marathons and more recently, I took part in bike touring events stretching over two days and over 300 Km.

What I learned from these experiences and again on Kilimanjaro was that without a well-maintained body I was going nowhere. I trained hard for six months to build up my muscles and lung capacity, I was careful about what I ate, I drank up to 6 litres of water every day on the mountain. All of this because I wasn’t going to make it if my body shut down – it was the only way I was going to summit.

This is a great thing. We really don’t have to depend on our bodies very much. We may appreciate them more when we get sick, but generally, we live a pretty sedentary life and we make few demands on our bodies. It is liberating to turn your focus on your own body and see it as the only vehicle that will help you reach your goals. I appreciate my body more now and am committed to keeping it in good shape to be ready for the next challenge.

Tough morning of steep climbing on the way to Shira Camp

Third, what is your social mission? We are all connected and many of us in the Global North are very privileged. So when choosing a venture or a project, ask yourself what is the social good I am creating as part of this project. For us, this was easy, each of us was connected to a charity through the Dream Mountains Foundation.

If I ever do this again (I can’t believe I just wrote that), I will do it because the expedition will allow me to give back to the community – in my case the Sens Foundation.  Everything we do is social and everything we do should have some social good attached to it. When I worked at my last school, all our projects were designed around the idea of helping students and families that did not have the same opportunities as most of us enjoy. All of the Dream Mountains charities try to address this imbalance.

Finally, listen to people who know what they are talking about. As a principal, it was easy to disregard the advice I received from many people. Part of this was plain arrogance, part of this was based on the fact that I didn’t always receive very good advice that could help our students and our school – very few people at the district level had a good understanding of the roadblocks to progress that existed for our children.

So, it is important to discern. Who has valuable advice. Who is motivated to work with you to make you and others successful? This is a challenging process and you may be disappointed – many times over. Having said this, there are good, wise people out there who will work with you and will ensure that you are successful.

On Kilimanjaro, we had three people like this – Shawn Dawson, Kristi Johnston and Jason Colley – our Canadian guides. Each of these people consistently gave us all important advice that prepared us for this incredible climb and that protected us on the mountain. I can’t say I always liked their advice, but they were right, they were experienced and most importantly they knew how to lead people – a very rare commodity in my opinion.

I can say I listened to them, I took their advice and I have immense respect for all three of them. In your own ventures and work, try to seek out people like this, people you can really trust who will not let you down.

If you are a leader, try and do this yourself. Don’t disappoint the people who work with you. Strive to give them advice that will empower them and help them grow.

Make sure they make it to the top of their mountain.

Our Dream Mountains Team at the beginning of the climb

Summiting Kilimanjaro

Very early in the morning (around midnight), we begin our push to the summit. This is the most mentally and physically challenging portion of the trek. The wind and cold at this elevation and time of day can be extreme. We ascend in the darkness for several hours while taking frequent, but short, breaks. Near Stella Point (18,900 ft), you  will be rewarded with the most magnificent sunrise you are ever likely to see coming over Mawenzi Peak.

Ultimate Kilimanjaro – Machame Route

This is a challenging post to write, but it is the post that needs to be written now – how we summited Mount Kilimanjaro on April 7th and 8th.

We trained very hard for this climb and our training never let us down. We were able to trek for days up the Machame Route, considered a high difficulty route, especially in the rainy season.

Because of the roundabout nature of the route, we saw the summit almost every day, although for days the summit seemed elusive and distant. How we were going to summit such a massive peak remained a mystery.

Our route up the mountain recorded by my InReach tool and translated to Google Earth
The summit in the distance

We worked our way up through the camps, dealing daily with less oxygen, to the point where it was a major struggle to put your socks on in the morning. Scurrying up a short incline would leave you breathless and all our Canadian and Tanzanian guides had to warn us not to rush – ever.

Our approach to the summit involved a 5-hour climb to Karanga Camp (elevation 13,106 ft). We realized that we would never sleep at this camp. We ate a great lunch (the food was always great!) and then rested for the afternoon. At 6:30 PM we all gathered for dinner and were organized into three summiting groups, each led by a Canadian and Tanzanian guide. I was part of the first (slowest) group and we were instructed to be ready to summit by 11:00 PM that night.

Karanga Camp

At the appointed time, we gathered up in a straight line in complete darkness, illuminated only by our headlamps.

We were in utter darkness, totally dependant on our guides, heading now to a summit that was invisible. Soon, the weather turned vicious. The group was buffeted by very strong ice cold winds that cut through all of our clothing layers. We hid behind rocky outcrops to get respite from the wind and to layer up. Eventually, I was wearing everything I had with me – two tightly woven merino wool layers, a hard rain shell, my down-filled Kilimanjaro puffy and another hard shell.

This bizarre combination seemed to do the trick, allowing me to move without being cut in two by the winds.

We climbed very slowly through the night, sometimes with our guides who encouraged us to dance and sing to keep warm, sometimes on our own. The night went on forever. Far below, we could see the second group coming up the trail by their bobbing string of lights.

At some point, probably around 7:00 AM, we found ourselves on a broad, steep slope. We were scattered all over the mountain with no real sense of where we were heading.

dawn on the mountainside

This is when high altitude really began to kick in. Nothing can prepare you for this. It is very easy to get disorientated above 18,000 ft and as a group, even with the encouragement of our Tanzanian guides, we really didn’t know what we were doing.

We decided as a group to continue up the mountain face, even though it was impossible to see the summit! We were reaching for the crater rim – Stella Point (elevation 18,884 feet). The summit was really a long ridge and I really didn’t know we were at the summit until I stumbled up to it.

The crest of the summit – Stella Point

We had probably been climbing for around 11 hours at this point and our little group was totally exhausted. We could have continued to move on the Uhuru Peak, but almost all of our group was wiped by the night climb and only three of 30 climbers made it to the next peak on the volcano rim.

This was an incredible feat. As I wrote about the Barranco Wall, it takes a few days to realize what an achievement this is. It is starting to sink in at this point, especially the incredible will power it took to make that night climb.

We did really well – 28 climbers summited at Stella Point. The general overall success rate is around 65%, so we did much better than the average. I think our success has a great deal to do with the incredible training and leadership of our Canadian guide team – Shawn Dawson, Kristi Johnston and Jason Colley and the amazing support of our families and friends back home.

The climb is over, we are safely home, we have achieved something special.

 

The Barranco Wall – Don’t Look Down

Climbing the Barranco Wall

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Technical climbing

Climbing involving a rope and some means of protection, as opposed to scrambling or glacier travel.

Barranco Wall was one of many great challenges on our climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro. While some people contend that Kilimanjaro is a ‘non-technical’ climb, Barranco Wall really challenges this assumption.

Barranco Wall in the twilight

I looked up at Barranco Wall for the first time after an 11-hour trek in the rain. I remembered years ago planting trees in the mountains of British Columbia and remembered that I actually found mountains threatening and sometimes foreboding. Staring up at the wall, I actually could not see a way up the rock face. Intimidating for sure.

Heading out in the early morning to scale the wall.

There is a way up the wall, it reveals itself the closer you get to the rocky face. One by one we slowly made our way up a very steep incline. In writing this post, I looked over all the photos I have taken and really didn’t find any that do justice to the climb. I realize that even though I had four cameras with me, I was more focussed on getting up the wall in one piece.

One section of the climb is called the ‘kissing wall’ – at this point, you have to hug the wall as closely as possible and step over an open section of the rock face. We stepped out into the abyss to be caught on the other side by one of our wonderful guides. We followed their advice and did not look down!

An interesting thing about some of the really challenging portions of the Kilimanjaro climb, you really don’t have any chance but to go up. Your body can do this, you just have to will yourself to keep climbing, no matter what is behind you – just keep moving up the mountain.

 

scrambling up the rock face

Looking back on Barranco, I think this will be one of the moments I was proud of what I could do and what our team could accomplish. It takes a few days away from the mountain to really discern the moments that are unique and worthy of celebration.

Barranco was certainly one of those. We didn’t flinch, we climbed the wall.

Celebrating on top of the wall

Why we climb

Why did you climb Kilimanjaro?

This is a question many climbers may be asked in the next few weeks. It was gruelling and the climb tested our physical and emotional limits. Why did we do it?

There may be many reasons, but for everyone, part of the reason will certainly be the charities we raised money for. All climbers were expected to raise $5000.00 for a selected charity. Teams of climbers worked together on the featured charities. In my case, I raised money for Rec Link – a group that opens up recreational opportunities for kids and families in Ottawa inner city neighbourhoods.

Another one of the charities is SOS Children’s Villages, an international organization that works for children in 134 countries around the world. The children SOS works with are at risk due to the loss of parental care. In some cases, these children live in community with a house ‘mother’ who cares for children on a daily basis until they move on to other communities. SOS provides health care, education and a family-centered base for the development of the child.

We had the unique opportunity to visit a SOS community in Arusha once our climb was completed.

This was an important visit. It is rare that climbers get a chance to see what their money does and how their selected charity works. We do this work in the belief that all of our efforts will pay off and that the charity will be able to do a little more good work because of our efforts.

It really brings all this home when we actually get an opportunity to visit one of the projects that is associated with a Dream Mountain charity. I don’t think it matters a great deal where we visit or who we see. We all could have visited some of the neighbourhoods served by Rec Link and we would have heard similar stories.

The important thing to remember is this is why we climbed. It wasn’t for us, it was for others who we had the privilege to support through our fundraising efforts.  Our greatest success came before we ever touched ground in Tanzania.

We achieved something for people who we will never know. We worked as a good team and we raised over $200,000.

This is what counts and this is why we climbed.

Asante sana to our guides and porters on Mt.Kilimanjaro

Thank-you

Over the 8 days of our climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro, asante sana became one of the essential Swahili  phrases we all learned.

Asante sana to all our wonderful guides and porters – all 93 of them.

Our guides and porters all came from Zara Tours, based in Moshi, Tanzania.  (Twitter: https://twitter.com/zaratours)

Zara Tours is managed by Zainab Ansell, a creative and committed social entrepreneur who I wrote about last week.  Zainab employs all the porters and guides and has made a great effort to bring more stability to their lives by creating bank accounts for all employees so that payment for expeditions goes directly into their accounts to assist the families of Zara staff.

The porters carried everything we needed – food, water, much of our gear, tents, toilets – they were a moving village. Every day, they began our day with a hot cup of tea or coffee at our tents. They then supplied us with a great breakfast while filling up our water bottles and water bladders for the day’s climb.

They then broke up camp and scampered way ahead of us to set up camp for lunch and our night stay.

While we carried a small day pack, our porters carried everything else. The life of the climb flowed through them.

We were accompanied each day by our guides who stayed with us, checking on us throughout the day. On summit night, they were the ones who carefully watched us and cajoled us to keep going – slowly polepole. At one point, as we froze during the night ascent of the peak, the guides actually broke out in song and started dancing. I am not a great dancer, but I moved right along with them in order to warm up in the frigid dark.

The guides and porters took care of us.

After hurting my leg on the way down from the summit, several porters looked after me and eventually lighted my way to the next camp – almost in complete darkness. That was a really long day.

When climbers started to struggle down off the mountain after the long summit night, porters alerted to our level of exhaustion dropped what they were doing and climbed up the mountain to meet us and make sure we got down to base camp safely.

They did this because they were so committed to helping us – Canadians unknown to them only a few days ago.

On the last morning as we prepared to descend to the park entrance, everyone gathered to sing and dance in celebration of our collective achievement. We sang and danced with our guides and porters because we had become connected to these incredible people – our lifeline on the climb, our guides to the top.

Asante sana

Back from Kilimanjaro

The climb is over and the group is in the process of returning home to Canada.

The climb was a great success and almost the entire group summited on the night of April 8th after gruelling night ascent.

There is so much to write about – our wonderful porters, all 93 of them, our time in Moshi, the visit to SOS Children’s Villages in Arusha, all the incredible climbing days from the opening gate to the summit and back down again – the last day’s ascent, including 18 hours of climbing, trekking, falling and descending and much more.

It’s hard to know where to start, but I will do this as soon as we are home. Right now we are in the airport in Amsterdam waiting for our last flight to bring us home.

An incredible, hard, inspiring journey. The next step is really important, making sure all our supporters get a sense of how we fared over the past two weeks.

More to come – soon.

Moshie below Kilimanjaro

We had a chance to get out into Moshi yesterday after our team meeting. The temptation was to stay close to home and pack and repack and then pack again. Our main bag can be no more than 15 Kg, so eventually I unloaded lots of stuff.

Shawn encouraged me to go into Moshi with the bus so I went – Shawn always gives good advice.

The town was amazing. It is large, bustling full of markets, people, and street vendors. We walked through the local market and it was beautiful. All sorts of smells and scents. Everything from small dried fish to the biggest avocadoes I have ever seen to live roosters and chickens, fresh meat on display, everything.

There is lots to see and learn in this place and it comes with the excitement of experiencing something entirely new, a different world.

There are so many stories here that we just don’t have the time to learn about.  The amazing woman, Zainabu Ansell, who runs this hotel and works with hundreds of porters to make sure they get a fair wage and that what they earn is not squandered.

Two young men who are running a small orphanage, taking little children off the streets of Moshi. This is a truly incredible story that I just started to learn about last night.

These stories are repeated all over the Global South, and for me it is important to dive back into the lives of these people and witness how they struggle to make lives better for themselves and their community.

I hope there will be more time later to learn more about the orphanage and perhaps meet Zainabu. But the wifi is crashing and it is time to head out.

6:00 AM in Moshi, off to Kilimanjaro.

 

 

Team Meeting before Kilimanjaro

In the morning you can see Kilimanjaro from our hotel. It is a stunning sight and hard to realize that we will be at the summit in 5 days.

Now we are in our first team meeting and Shawn Dawson is going through what we need to know before we set out.

First – control your stress, we are all trained, but we are coping with extreme heat already and altitude will affect us soon. The most important thing is to relax and don’t let your mind defeat you. We can do this, we just can’t defeat ourselves.

Go slow. This is not a race. We take this one step at a time, keep to your own pace and keep to what you know about yourself.

Water – drink all the time, at least 5-6 litres a day. Today, even before we head to the mountain, Shawn has told us to drink at least 3 litres of water today.

Rely on your tent mate – this person is your partner, they can also let you know if things aren’t going well. Share with your partner at all times.

Sleep – try to sleep. There’s lots of time to sleep, it is sometimes hard to sleep on the mountain. Just do your best.

Eating – sometimes people have difficulty eating. You can lose your appetite. It is important to eat and we will have great food. It is important keep your strength.

Living, our chief guide and Shawn talking to the group.

The routine – we get up at 6:30 every day.  Before that – keep quiet, people need their sleep, respect that with you are in a very large group. You leave your tent, the backpacks and duffels come with you. By the time we finish breakfast, the porters are already gone – all 93 porters.

Pacing will be important. On summit night, climbers will be going out at different times depending on the pace climbers have established over the past few days. The goal is to get everyone there at the same time. One point, on summit night if you can’t carry your bag, you stop at Stella Point.

Car – means get out of the way. Porters are coming up and down the mountain all the time. Our job is to get out of the way – and stay on the high side. This is how we have trained since September – now this becomes really important.

group members getting the details

Today we also have to weigh our packs. The main duffel has to be no more than 15 Kg. Our personal pack can be no more than 7 Kg. If we go beyond that, extra weight will be taken out before we are allowed to climb.

Today, I will be packing and repacking to get everything just right.

 

 

First stage on the way to Kilimanjaro

We are in Amsterdam! The first stage on our way to Kilimanjaro.

For the first time, our group is all together – 29 people collected in the waiting lounge waiting for the eight-hour flight that will bring us to Kilimanjaro.  Everyone is tired after the first flight, but excited to be one step closer to our objective.

It is great to meet people who we have only seen on the group website!  These are our climbing partners and the people we will all depend on for the next seven days.

We should all be exhausted – its 3:30 AM Ottawa time, but we are about to start something very special.

Also, the coffee in Holland is really good.

Next stop – Moshi and Kilimanjaro!