Personal (almost-fail) story: what climbing can teach about life and business
Let me start by stating the obvious: humans are irrational.
Let me give just one illustration of our irrationality. Climbing. Why do we climb? Some mountains have picturesque and pleasant landscapes, forests or flowery fields. Some happen to have spectacular views from top when weather conditions allow. Apart from those few – and they are in relative minority – serious mountain climbing (anything above 4,000m and even many lesser ones) implies significant effort and investment; rewards, i.e. the usual goals of reaching the top and view from the top, are usually less than what we expect.
How do I know? I climbed a number of peaks in European Alps including the highest one in mainland Europe, Mont-Blanc. And only few weeks ago, I came back from Tanzania, where I climbed Kilimanjaro.
Kilimanjaro, consisting of three volcanic cones, is the highest mountain in Africa and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world, rising 4,600 meters from base to summit. Of three volcanic cones, Kibo is active and can erupt again any time (most recent volcanic activity registered 200 years ago). Kibo’s peak, Uhuru (“freedom“ in Swahili), is the highest (5,895m) peak of Kilimanjaro. Climbing Kilimanjaro is easy and requires no technical climbing or mountaineering experience, the biggest challenge being body’s ability to acclimatize to its high altitude. Unsurprisingly, most fatalities are caused from improper acclimatization and altitude sickness rather than falls. Only an average of 70% of climbers ever make it to the top.
Many who climbed Kilimanjaro will tell you one thing if you ask them about the experience: the last day ascent to the peak is rough (by any of the routes) but quite unrewarding in terms of view as once you reach around 5,600m height, it almost flattens (at least via Coca-Cola route). For the remaining 300m or so, it feels like walking in a field with occasional boulders on the way. The only way you know you reached Uhuru is when you see a green plate that says you reached the top of Africa.
My guide Loi (who has nine years of experience climbing in Africa) and I started off almost the last ones from the Kibo base camp. Sunrise was still far off, and I didn’t feel much delight or happiness. I felt cold (temperature hovered between -15C and -20C), exhausted (our cook forgot to put with us food) but nonetheless satisfied.
So, why do we climb? To me – and to the alpinism greats such as Reinhold Messner – climbing is a way to create oneself, explore one’s boundaries and uncover ones hidden characteristics. This claim is not only valid for individuals but also companies (especially startups), as their activities and vision can easily be paralleled with a climb towards their own “peak.”
That last leg from the Kibo base camp (about 4,800m) to Uhuru peak (5,895m) is the most testing part of the trip for anyone. The ascent usually starts at midnight. Many don’t even make it out of the Kibo base camp as altitude sickness, nausea and headaches sent many aspiring climbers to toilettes and kept them huddled inside their sleeping bags. Once started, climbers face a steep (450) slope of slippery pebbles and sand. Guides impose a snail-pace on climbers because of steepness of the slope, high altitude, low (between -5C and -10C at Kibo the base camp) temperature and whipping winds. The normal speed on that slope is about 500m/h (distance covered by walking up, not altitude). Trying to go faster usually results in panting, nausea and exhaustion, as 5000m is the altitude at which the density of oxygen is twice as less as at level 0, and it is impossible to breathe only with nose as the inhaled amount of oxygen is insufficient (either you breathe both with your mouth and nose or you can take tablets of Diamox which increase oxygen intake and circulation in bloodstream).
Despite the adapted snail-pace, Loi and I started overtaking many small groups. Normal practice was of walking for 15-20mins and taking a short break, allowing the body to acclimatize and rest. During the first three hours, we took only two short breaks, one when I had to take off a pullover which was making me sweat, and second when Loi needed to take a piss. We “raced,“ as one English climber described while he and his guide tried to keep up with us.
From the beginning, I was being drained of energy fast, not least because I was burning lot of energy breathing with my mouth and nose. Realizing I was loosing much energy, I tried to minimize all distractions that could result in further energy lose. Many climbers were constantly looking up or down, checking out how others were doing and spying for any potentially nice view, although it was dark and thus nothing much to see. One could also hear climbers talk to each other, as they were tightly lined up one behind another and walking up slowly. While talking wasn’t in itself a bad thing, it consumed energy. Loi and I neither looked around nor talked much before reaching the first milestone, Gelman’s point (about 5,600m).
We had to stop every 10mins for a breath. When we reached the second milestone, Stella’s point (about 5,700m), I sat on a piece of rock and was ready to lay down there and then. By then, I stopped feeling cold – all I wanted was to put myself in a horizontal position and close my eyes. Loi realized that we had to move on, otherwise we would freeze to death on that altitude. With an enormous effort of will, we continued to march on. The whole ascent was turning into a rough test of my physical and mental stamina. I became so drained of energy that 15mins before we reached the summit, I dropped onto a piece of rock and was unable to move. Loi, realizing how difficult it became for me to continue moving, try to give me psychological boost, promising we had only 15mins to reach the summit. I had to force myself to stand up and walk. Last few hundred meters, to give myself more confidence, I started loudly saying to myself “Hayk you can make it; focus on breathing and putting one foot in front of the other and you will make it.“
About 15mins later, upon seeing a green plate a few dozen meters ahead, I asked Loi what it was. At that point I was already having hard time uttering words. Loi turned to me and responded, “we still have another 5mins.“ Luckily, he was joking – to me didn’t seem funny at all at that moment. He came up and hugged me congratulating and saying we did it. I slumped onto the pedestal on which the green plate was planted, claiming we were on top of Africa. I sat down with my back to it. Loi asked for my camera, which was in the pocket of one of my pants. I refused. He insisted – I again refused. I told him if I as much as unzipped my pants, exposing even a tiny bit of my body, I would freeze to death. He took my two hands in his hands, only realizing they were almost limp. He didn’t insist any further.
We promptly started the descent, without taking any pictures or getting a good view from the highest point in Africa. It was cold (between -15C and -20C) and dark (5am – sunrise came about 6am), and we had to make our way back despite a perceived impossibility of walking further. Shortly after we launched ourselves back to the base, I realized something. There was no one at the peak when we arrived. This meant that we were the first to arrive to the peak. This thought had a much-needed psychological effect on me. Although we started out late and didn’t revitalize our energy stock due to absence of food and hot water, we made it to the top and did so faster than anyone. This thought gave me much-needed force for the way down.
It was only after we passed Gelman’s point and found ourselves on the steep slope that Loi got me to take out my camera and take a shot of the two of us, still in darkness, dead-tired but happy. He was no less exhausted, but having climbed Kilimanjaro extensively during the last nine years, he was bearing it better than me, my last significant ascent (with some funny adventures on the way down) being 11 years ago on Mont-Blanc.
We made it safely back to the Kibo base, and I had a serious talk with our cook whom I told we almost didn’t make it because of his negligence. As we continued our descent from the Kibo base, we met many climbers on their way up who would ask for advise and tips. We invariably warned them about the last leg and necessity of having energy food and hot water.
Now back to companies. Their ”climb“ is interesting and usually more challenging at the beginning of their existence, or in what we call a “startup“ stage. It is at this stage that many companies create or find their core around which the later growth cristalizes. It is at this stage where many of startups stumble, fall and never recover. Startup stage of a company is thus essential, and it is important to understand how to ”climb” it in order to attain the stated goals and vision.
By an interesting coincidence, I happen to work with a visionary and ambitious startup called Jornal @Verdade. Founded in 2008 by a budding entrepreneur Erik Charas with a grand vision of changing the way information is created and shared and ultimate goal of changing the hearts and minds of Mozambicans, this news agency focuses on grassroots aspects of social and economic development. By having its main target group of readers amongst the most underprivileged and dispossessed, @Verdade offers information, education and aspiration to those who would otherwise go without.
Drawing parallels, equally applicable to individuals and startups, below is what I learnt – and advise others to apply – from both climbing and being exposed to startups in Africa:
- When setting up for a journey or a goal, it is important to have an objective which is far and high but attainable;
- Once the goal is set, break it into stages (and corresponding mini-objectives in each stage) and stay focused on mini-objectives in each stage;
- After reaching each mini-objective, acclimatize yourself or, in other words, get used, to it before moving on – moving on too quickly might become harmful and counter-productive;
- When setting up for a goal, know what to have (skills, equipment, etc.) and take with you for each specific part of the trip and leave behind what is NOT necessary;
- Ask advise from those you meet along the way, and especially value advise from those who have already “made it“ (to the peak or reached a goal);
- The ascent’s objective is its final destination or goal, but having fun and benefiting from the ascent itself (by attaining and rejoicing each mini-objective) is as, if not more, important at each stage than reaching the final destination.
In merely four years, @Verdade became the most read and known newspaper in Mozambique. And while it continues plunging upwards, it has still a long way to go. Its ascent is steep and it has all the currents (political, economic and social) lined up against it. It continues to move on and, at times, like any other human being or startup, needs an encouragement and support as it stumbles and falls. @Verdade’s strength resides in a strong belief of its staff in the value of what @Verdade set out to do and its resolve to achieve every stage of the set goals. It is this relentless drive towards its goals coupled with immeasurable attention and consideration it gives to its target group that will eventually result in realization of its vision.
I believe in @Verdade’s vision and I hope soon all Mozambicans join us in our belief, turning this country into a place they would like their children and grandchildren to grow up and live in.
Failures, confusions and uncertainties pop-up around us at one point or another in all aspects of our lives. They push ourselves towards our limits. They make us discover and re-create ourselves, whether in professional or personal pursuits. They makes our lives worth living.