Kilimanjaro: The Secrets of the Summit
By Greg Conderacci
In January 2006, I participated in an interesting experiment that taught me several solid lessons for organizing and leading diverse teams to success – in the face of a steep challenge.
I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. The highest free-standing mountain in the world and the tallest in Africa, Kili presents climbers with formidable obstacles. The first, of course, is its altitude. At more than 19,000 feet, it is almost a mile higher than any mountain in the lower 48 states.
At its peak, the oxygen in the air is about half that at sea level. Mountain sickness, caused by the body’s inability to adjust to this hostile climate, can be dangerous, even fatal. The final assault on the top, climbing more than 4,000 feet beginning at midnight, has been compared to running a marathon up a flight of stairs in a huge, dark deep freezer.
The mountain demands respect. Although Kili is a “hike” with few technical sections, it is by no means forgiving. Failure to sleep, eat and drink sufficiently will quickly sideline a climber. So will climbing too fast. And so, tragically, will unforeseen events like the avalanche that claimed three climbers’ lives while we were on the mountain.
Fortunately, our hardy group of 11, many of whom didn’t know each other before undertaking the Kili challenge, fared well, with 10 summiting – much better than the average.
What were the secrets to the success of this group of near strangers?
- Great leadership. Does your project have an organized, selfless leader who will do everything he or she can to make it succeed? Actually, we had two: Brian Le Gette, the Baltimore entrepreneur who organized the trip and infected everyone with his vision and energy; Jonas Rutta, our Tanzinian lead guide, whose wisdom and experience carried us through.
- Solid support. Do you recognize the value of the people who do the all-important heavy lifting? It takes 40 Tanzinians to get 10 Americans to the top of the mountain. They were indispensable: they carried our stuff, they lugged our food, they pitched our tents and they showed us the way. Always cheerful, always patient they were always there when needed.
- Total commitment. Is every member of your team focused on the same clear goal? Actually, our goal was more than to climb the mountain; it was to get everyone to the top. We walked together pole pole (Swhali for slow) so that we would acclimatize together and help each other through the rough spots. Early in the climb, we dedicated it to one of the climbers’ sister, who was dying. After that, we were Team Cat (her nickname) and we all felt she was with us in spirit.
- Mutual respect. Are you recognizing and using each team member’s talents and energy? Everyone brought something to the party. A sense of humor. Persistence. A word of encouragement. A poem. Stubbornness. Energy. A drink of water. A pat on the back.
- Joy. Are you having fun? We never forgot: we’re on vacation – this is fun!