Monday, August 18, 2008

Lessons from Mt. Kilimanjaro - 2LT Samir Patel

When I learned that my friend, newly-commissioned 2LT Samir Patel, would be climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro shortly after his graduation from West Point, I asked him if he would be willing to share some his experiences with the readers of The White Rhino Report. Despite his many responsibilities during officer training at Ft. Knox, he has been kind enough to share his thoughts on some of the lessons learned on his recent trek in East Africa.

In June 2008, my dad, my friend Rajiv and I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania (elev. 19,380 ft). We reached the top after seven days of walking nearly 30 miles. By time we got back down, we had trekked 45 miles. I hope these “lessons” from the mountain give you insight into what we experienced and how you too, can also summit the world’s tallest free standing mountain.

3 Lessons from Kilimanjaro

Lesson #1 - Your equipment matters; invest in quality and understand its capabilities

Granted, climbing Kilimanjaro did not require technical climbing (climbing with ropes, carabiners, or ice picks); it still meant that one had to buy the right kind of equipment such as water bottles, a warm sleeping bag, and a good pair of hiking shoes. Among the three of us, we had about nine Nalgene bottles. The seemingly unbreakable water bottles come in a liter size version that helps keep track of how much water you are drinking. Dehydrating is a serious problem to avoid on the mountain, but so is over-hydrating. Although the physical activity required for climbing—walking up hill for nearly 30 miles—seems immense, the pace you walk at is not as taxing as you might suspect.

When I went on a West Point assignment to India last march to observe the Indian military, I had the opportunity to visit one of their official outfitters. I assumed that any sleeping bag the Indian Special Forces used in operations in Kashmir and the Himalayas would be more than suitable for Kilimanjaro. Once again, I found out the hard way what happens when you ASSUME. Nearly each morning I woke up extremely cold from the lack of heat in my sleeping bag. After I warmed myself up, I then got to hear how my dad had to actually remove his REI sleeping back during the night because his was getting too hot inside. My sleeping bag had no rating tag on it; this tag tells you the coldest temperature in which the sleeping bag will keep you warm. My dad’s was -35 F. Mine was most likely good up to only 10 F.

Other than making sure one can breathe, foot care is the probably the most important aspect of trekking. The trails on Kilimanjaro are quite nice since thousands of people have been treading on them for nearly a century. However, the trail isn’t the problem. The situation inside your shoes is the main concern. If your feet are to survive the nearly 45 mile trek up and down Kili, they must be prepared to 1) protect against the constant rubbing between the interior of your shoe/sock and skin of the feet, 2) be kept dry, 3) be provided adequate protection from the occasionally rough spots of terrain and 4) remain warm. It is the friction between your shoe and feet that is the cause of blisters. That is why accurately sized hiking or trekking boots that match your feet’s dimensions is essential. However, keep in mind that on Kilimanjaro, you’ll be wearing thick socks to keep your feet warm from the -20 F temperatures so it is important that one take into account how a thick sock can affect your shoe size. As for keeping your feet dry, I actually wore two layers of socks. The first layer was a liner that is specially designed for wicking away moisture while the thicker layer, the wool sock, soaked up that moisture thus rendering my feet dry my entire time on the mountain.

Lesson #2 - Your age doesn’t matter

My dad, 55 and fairly prosperous in the stomach region, climbed the mountain on pretty much sheer will power. Although, he maintained a relatively active lifestyle by playing volleyball and hiking, little of his recreational activity prepared him for the environment on the mountain. One is constantly walking up hill with no end in sight and the oxygen gets thinner and thinner. However, from my dad I learned that the body can endure about pretty much anything; it is the mindset that needs training. There were certain moments on the trip that seemed like he was not going to make it. He often noted that his legs felt like they were lead weights and that his entire body seemed worn out. By the third day, as I took off his shoes and helped him take off some clothing, I knew that unless he got some serious rest, he may be forced to go back down. Yet never once, did I hear him entertain a word about turning back. Instead, he used his humor to lighten a seemingly grim situation by half seriously accusing himself of being “stupid for accepting” my persuasion to climb the mountain.

Lesson #3 - Keep Moving Forward

Twenty minutes into our ascent up the mountain, on the first day, I realized why I became an Armor officer—I do not enjoy walking. As I fought my boredom, the less than exciting memories of West Point foot marches fought back. I’m the type of person that finds recreational walking and running as something to be avoided. I get no joy from putting one foot in front of the other just so my heart beats a little faster. By the second hour, I realized all this and to make matters worse, I remembered our guide stating that we would walk around 45 miles by the time we completed the trek.

Lucky for me I had my dad and Rajiv to converse with as we kept moving. Experienced climbers of Kilimanjaro will tell you there are only two words you really need to climb the mountain—pole pole. Pole pole means “slowly slowly” and that’s exactly the pace at which we went—for all seven days it took to reach the summit. I have to admit that each day I internally agonized at the distance we had to walk and how long it would take. Physically, for me the climb wasn’t a problem, but my mental outlook was severely hampering my ability to enjoy the beautiful scenery around me. In fact, one will pass five different climate zones from jungle/rainforest to alpine desert to get to the top.

However, despite all this mental deliberation about how to proceed, I realized it is best to just proceed. “Keep moving forward” kept echoing in my mind as I recalled what my Royal Gurkha Regiment military science instructor kept telling me when dealing with friction associated to any decision. “Pole pole,” said my guide, “you’ll be surprised at how much distance you can go by putting one foot in front of the other.” At the end of the day, I learned that dreading about long distances is pointless—it doesn’t help you get any further. Besides, when you climb five climate zones there’s so much to occupy your senses that long distances are quickly forgotten.

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