Recently, I was lucky enough to climb Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895m) with a team of students and two staff from Ellon Academy (north of Aberdeen). Our team was one of three from the school, yet only my team attained 100% success.
Were my team all ’super fit’? ….No. One student had serious doubts about her ability and had been ‘flagged’ as one to watch, due to a lack of fitness. Another was similarly overweight and didn’t overly like trekking (by her own admission). As we know, altitude sickness potentially affects everyone, regardless of fitness. None of us knew 100% that we would summit, before we started – we’re always at the mercy of the mountain.
Factors that contributed to the team’s success?
Psychology – mental fitness and belief.
To prepare the team, we did a few important things:
Ensured that the whole team completed our acclimatisation trek on Mount Longido – only 2650m at its highest point, but crucial for building self- belief, before attempting a much bigger challenge. (This was by no means an easy job – I steadfastly refused to send 2 students down, against the wishes of the local Tanzanian guide, just because they were a bit slower and finding it tough. Keeping students motivated, when they lacked faith and creating a supportive environment amidst the team, so they looked after one another, took patience. I was adamant that we were not going to split the team – the sense of camaraderie and shared spirit spoke for itself once we were back at camp.)
Constant encouragement: drip feeding praise and reinforcing, each day, how well we are all doing. Students create their own image of how tough it’s going to be, and don’t need to hear horror stories or tales of woe – there’s a fine balance to be struck because praise has to be genuinely delivered and honest. I’d like to think they knew I wouldn’t spin them a line.
Constant attention to the little things: health and hygiene – checking that we all had clean nails before each meal (I checked fingernails 3x per day.) Not easy to do with cold water and an old nail brush between sixteen. Antiseptic handwash was a given. We provided wet wipes for those with black necks – one or two looked like coal miners, with grime clearly not washed – until I insisted. (Teenage boys, huh!) The team knew I had their best interests at heart and wanted them to succeed, but that it wasn’t a ‘given’. We all had to work for it by looking after ourselves.
Ensuring everyone had the right kit – sounds straight forward, but individual checks need to take place, with extra gloves etc for those who think they might suffer from eg. cold hands, before you leave Moshi. Walking poles used by all.
3 litres water per person, every day and a ‘Buddy system’ to check this. I gave out lots of ‘Nuun’ tablets to ensure the fluid was ingested.
The route choice played a big part in our success – ascending slowly and steadily, along the ‘Rongai’ path and having 7 days on the mountain.
Crucially, we worked well with our guides and porters – clarifying a joint approach and agreeing our aims. We were lucky to have a great crew, and were able to split the team, so the slower ones were supported. The team summited in two groups – 14 of us in one group, with 2 girls being a bit behind. It didn’t matter that we weren’t all together, it mattered that we all got up, at a pace that was safe and achievable for all. Not everyone will want to operate in this way.
Finally, I think that trust played a part – I am an experienced leader, although it was my first time on Kili. I had spent over 2 weeks with my team, by the time we came to summit day. We were all in it together and knew it. I had briefed the team about what to expect at different points during the summit attempt – they knew if they could reach Gilman’s – classically the hardest section, they could summit.
It was an emotional moment, when we realised that we had ALL achieved our goal – and some had exceeded theirs. One that will remain with me, as other memories fade.