Last Stop: 19,341 Feet
January 10, 2023
There is a running joke among people who know me: Don’t invite me on a trip unless you are serious. I will call the airline within five minutes of the discussion, navigate hotels, and highlight the top 10 things to do anywhere in the world. So, in July of 2021—somewhat isolated from Covid and with too many canceled trips in the rearview mirror to count—our CEO Robin Ferracone called me and asked if I would consider a climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro the following summer. Without a second thought, I said, “Let’s do it.” In the next breath, I asked, “Are you ready for the front-end training to better equip us to summit?”
I’ve led marketing and business development at Farient Advisors for the past 12 years. I’ve never shared a hotel room with our CEO, let alone a smallish mountaineering tent for eight nights. Would it be a great bonding experience? Would it be something out of Lord of the Flies? A career limiter? Would she take enough time away from work to train properly (whatever that means) Would she be ready? Would I be ready? And, irrespective of what you may have read, there really is no Wi-Fi on Kilimanjaro.
From July 2021 through our departure in August 2022, we got our plan together. What would it take to get ready? What exactly would we need? How would we make time for training? What kind of collaboration would it take? Since we are both Type A personalities, we speculated would we be the fastest people on our trip? The slowest? In the middle? And most important, how would we fair in the grueling ascent to 19,341 feet with 30-mile-an-hour winds and bone-chilling temperatures that would ultimately freeze our waterlines, fingertips, and toes? Like most things in business and life, it came down to planning, training, goal setting, and a lot of positive thinking.
Planning and the world of possibilities.
1. Start with a good provider.
As with anything, experience counts. Robin booked us with Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) and admittedly it is hard to go wrong with that provider. Eight nights on the mountain to acclimate, lots of support to move and feed our small group every day, and thorough wilderness medical training just in case.
2. Buy, borrow, or rent the right equipment.
With the A&K packing list in hand, and many trips to REI and the REI website, gear acquisition became an all-consuming distraction. From the 10 pairs of Smartwool socks to the Solomon boots, base layers, hiking sticks (required), warm tundra-style coats, mountaineering mittens, Camel products for water, large day packs to be ready for anything, headlamps, and a sleeping bag that works at 0o Fahrenheit—the list was overwhelming. The challenging part was that everything, including the sleeping bag, had to fit into a duffel (base camp) bag and weigh 44 pounds or less (an enforced requirement of the Tanzanian government as a weight limit for all porters).
3. Train, train, and then, train some more.
There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “Proper planning prevents piss poor performance.” Within the context of the Seven Summits (the highest mountains on each continent), Kilimanjaro is not Mount Everest, which provided some leeway in our training. In the quest to deter misery and enjoy each day on the mountain, we hiked a lot. This included Mt. Wilson in southern California on what may have been the hottest day on record with a 4,000-foot elevation gain, and Westridge in west Los Angeles where one can gain 2,000-plus feet of elevation on a trail above the fire road and simulate altitude by hiking with two KN95 masks firmly in place. For those days (many of them) where we couldn’t find blocks of three hours or more to hike, we did Performance Zone training using the Peloton app, elliptical machines, and good old-fashioned stair climbing.
After selecting the provider, equipment, and training regiment, baseline goals were simple: avoid political conflict, don’t get hurt, and don’t die. To this end, travel insurance plays an important role in “plan B.” Once you’ve planned for the worst, it’s time to consider goals—what’s the purpose of this trip anyway?
Goal setting matters in business and life.
1. Tick something big off the bucket list.
The older and better resourced we are, the more opportunity we have to do big things. The bucket list gets shorter.
2. Summit the mountain and have some fun along the way.
We trained. We researched. We analyzed. We took 10 consecutive days of Diamox to acclimate to altitude. We overthought some things and not others. For example—Robin spent the winters of her youth in freezing cold Indiana and I grew up in upstate New York, on the Canadian border, 60 miles south of Montreal, but nothing in our pasts prepared us for how incredibly cold it would be on summit day. The good news: Calories don’t count on the way to 19,341 feet. We easily consumed 4,500-7,500 calories per day including Snickers, cookies, dried fruit, trail mix plus meals, and lost weight.
3. Bring your resilience.
Quitting is not an option, but there were moments of doubt overcome by a greater desire to succeed.
Winding up to wind down.
After seven days of acclimating to climate: trekking up then down, down then up, navigating the infamous Baranco Wall hand over hand and foothold to foothold, we landed at Barafu camp (elevation: 15,255 feet) and then kept going to the next upper camp at 15,800 feet to have this rocky part of the trek behind us when it was time for our ascent. The day before summit creates an excitement (or anxiety) akin to a young child on Christmas eve. After a quick nap, we were up at 10:30 p.m. for breakfast with a planned departure at midnight. Stepping outside the tent, the wind was rocking the campsite at about 30 miles per hour, and it was cold—really cold. We had seven plus upper layers, three plus lower layers, wool socks, and mountaineering mittens. Robin had cleared out REI of all hand and foot warmers and generously shared them with the entire group. They were good for the first 90 minutes until the bitter cold numbed the hands and feet for the next several hours. It was so dark on the summit trail—nothing was visible three feet away. We trudged uphill for hours in the dark with the hypnotic glow of the headlamps and our ever-capable guides and porters singing Hakuna Matata and clapping loudly to keep us awake.
After seven hours of climbing there was a hint of sunrise to the east and what was left of the famous snows of Kilimanjaro to the west. We arrived at the Stella Point Crater, also known as one of three Kilimanjaro summits and a long 600 feet from Uhuru Peak, our goal. Counting every step for the past seven hours, we were now so close. No turning back. With the sunrise in full view and the summit within reach, I did what any reputable marketer, traveling with her CEO would do, I unfurled our Farient Advisors’ banner and got ready for our closeup at 19,341 feet.
By Randi Caplan