I was recently asked “Gary, what has been the BIGGEST disappointment in your life?”
The answer came to me easily.
Kilimanjaro – the highest mountain in Africa. Failing to reach the summit.
This was in 2007. Having trekked at altitude in Nepal, North Africa and Europe this would be the toughest test yet. I’d been beyond 5,000 metres above sea level before but Kili is closer to 6,000m. It’s one of the world’s highest trekking peaks.
For my previously successful trekking trips I’ve tended to use one company (Exodus) because they’ve always looked after me and often deliver way beyond what’s said in the brochure. One of the features of their trips is that they provide an English-speaking leader for the whole trip. This has the advantage that you still have the expert knowledge and skills of the local guide leader(s) and crew AND the support of someone who can liaise with that crew and tell you what’s going on at any stage. It’s an arrangement that’s worked on every trip before.
This time, for the expedition to Kili, I went with a different company because my wife wanted to use (and support) a local, smaller, independent company. And the summit trek was part of our honeymoon so I didn’t really want to say no.
The smaller company we went with did not provide an English guide – just local guides.
I have to confess at this stage that my preparations for such a large trek had not been as thorough as they had been for previous treks. But I was still up for the challenge and confident of success (I’d never failed to summit before).
Once in Africa, the preparation trek for Kili had been a summit of Mt Kenya, which I managed despite tired and wobbly legs on the descent. The local guide leader was superb at guiding me down safely. I trusted him with my life.
After a day’s rest at the hotel it was time to head out for Kili. Each day we climbed higher and higher up the mountain via the less travelled Rongai route and eventually arrived at the Kibo Huts “base camp” at around 4,700m.
The following morning, our small group woke in the dark early hours to begin the slow ascent to the summit.
A couple of people had to turn back not long after – the altitude and fatigue just too overwhelming for them. Hardly surprising that less than half the people who go up actually make it to the very top.
I kept going, slowly slowly.
I couldn’t keep up with the pace of others and suddenly found myself alone with just one assistant guide – someone I didn’t know because they’d only been drafted in to assist with the Kili ascent. Their English was very poor.
I kept going but the going got tougher and tougher.
At one point my guide too my daypack from me to ease the burden.
It made some difference but not enough.
Whether it was altitude, fatigue, lack of preparation or a combination of all these things…. I ground to a halt. I leant on my walking poles.
I was very tired. I needed to know how far it was to a major “checkpoint” on the mountain, Gilman’s Point. I need to know how far it was to the summit.
The guide couldn’t speak enough English to understand me or answer my question.
Was I 30 minutes away from Gilman’s? An hour? An hour and a half? The summit would be reached up to two hours beyond that. And you still had to descend safely afterwards.
Without knowing precisely where I was on the mountain and struggling to think clearly I ended up making a decision I still regret to this day.
I told the guide to take me down.
He supported me and despite my weary state we ran down the mountain. It really was a rapid descent. The assistant guide did a great job of getting me safely to base camp (where my wife was waiting having succumbed earlier to the altitude and been forced to turn back) and I’ll always be thankful for that. And I’ll never forget the incredible views from the severe slopes as dawn rose.
But the lasting, painful memory is one of failure and not knowing.
I’d reached a plateau.
I knew how to walk but I needed a guide. Someone who could show me exactly where to go and tell me how long it would take. Someone who could remove the worry and the need to make tough decisions from my hands.
I’ll never know if I could have made it to the top.
With the beauty of hindsight I’d make a different decision today. Not a reckless one. An informed one. Because it’s important to stay alive, too. No good reaching the top but not being alive to tell the tale back home.
And this story, close to my heart, reminds me that there is a parallel with business.
You see companies and entrepreneurs who make a good start and then one year they just hit a plateau. They can’t seem to take things to the next level or overcome a particular revenue barrier.
If that carries on for another year or two it can be even tougher to break.
How different it might be for them if they chose to take advantage of a guide. A guide who spoke their “language”. A guide who knew precisely how to find the path to the top, a way to reach a new and exciting revenue summit.
If the right guide leader had been with me in 2007 I truly believe he would have guided me to the top.
Instead of my biggest disappointment and one of my deepest regrets, I’d have been standing on the roof of Africa and returned home with renewed confidence for my new life ahead.
There’s often a fine line between failure and success.
It’s always easier with a guide – who could be a coach, a trainer, a consultant, a mentor for you.
I absolutely believe that.
It’s why I invested in having a mentor. Not any mentor. But someone I know will take me to the top.