It’s summer, a time synonymous with vacations, holidays and taking time to slow down, relax, and recharge. Studies note the number of workers who take time off varies widely, dependent on the country in which they live. In America, half of its workers don’t take time off for one reason or the other. I try to set an example and take time off to not only reflect on the first half of the year but to recharge myself – mentally and physically.

I was reflecting on my six-day hike up Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain and the highest freestanding mountain in the world. The memories remain vivid as the many challenges of that 2015 summer trip continue to influence how I approach everyday life. So much of what I do in business influences my personal life and many of those vacation experiences influence how I approach business.

This bucket list excursion was a last-minute decision, requiring me to shorten the normal year-long preparation to a couple of months. I can’t count the number of times a work project dropped in my lap with an unreasonable deadline. So, I entered business mode, tapping the experiences and learnings of those who made this trek before me. Reinventing the wheel was not an option. It was time to complement the experiences and research of my travel companions with that of my own to create a plan best suited for me. A fast learner and in decent physical condition, my last-minute prep focused on being mentally strong which truly saved me in the weeks to come.

Road to Africa – The first stop was Nairobi where I caught a local bus to Moshi, Tanzania to meet up with our team. The transport was interesting as it provided a glance into a day in the life of the locals. One of the best experiences was meeting people from all over the world: the missionary couple from Virginia, the recently divorced mom from Chicago, a college student returning to Tanzania, and a woman from New Zealand on a two-month tour of Africa. Once in Moshi, I had one final night of good sleep then boarded a van for the mountain.

The drive to the Machame gate, elevation 5,400 feet and one of six official Kilimanjaro’s routes, took us through the rainforest along a road shared with local farmers who carried their goods as they have for generations – on their head.

Our first hike is supposed to be relatively easy as we made our way through a rainforest. Five hours and 4,000 feet in elevation higher, we arrived at Machame Camp for the night. I am focused on the real immediate problems: the pain in my arch, my heart beating very fast, altitude sickness and my lost wolf socks. The wolf socks and boots are the keys to the entire gear. Great, I have one pair of socks for five more days – I jokingly tell myself that I’m dead now.

Throughout the process I have worried about the dangers of the trip: will I make it, will I die? I even purchased evacuation insurance, just in case. Well, reality has sunk in and I determine the need to get back to my mental game, to focus on the positive side of the trip, address the problems, and to remain positive and have fun. I have an incredible opportunity with wonderful people around me. If I remain positive and try my best, yet fail due to physical or outside conditions, I can live with that, but I cannot fail due to a poor mental state.

The route is incredibly scenic, yet I was defeated, exhausted and in pain for most of the journey. I thought about quitting – a lot. This day was billed as the easiest and I could not understand why it was so hard for me.

Insights from my teammates revealed they were not experiencing similar difficulties, especially Juan. He had to slow down to wait for us. That got me thinking. What did Juan do that was different? What was his thought process? As I’ve often done in my professional life, I observe and adopt a few best practices. Conclusion: Juan was not looking at the day’s destination, but simply two steps ahead; and, he focused on nothing but positive thoughts. I adopted this philosophy and felt much better.

Day 2: The most scenic and easiest day – okay, the most scenic

Excitement filled the air as we left Machame Camp at 9,400 feet for a 5-kilometer hike to Shira Camp. Across scenic moorlands and up to an elevation of 12,500 feet, the day’s effort took about five hours.

Day 3: Becoming acclimated – mountain sickness or not

Today is the first day the average hiker may experience mountain sickness. We started at 12,500 feet and would end the day at 13,000 feet. It was the day to acclimate our body to a higher altitude. The day’s excursion was a bit deceptive as we hiked 10 kilometers over six to eight hours going up in elevation to Lava Tower, a sleeping volcano, and down in elevation to Barranco Camp for the night.

Coming off a full night’s sleep, I felt great, my heart was beating normally, I had no headache, and had the right gear to protect me from high winds and dust of the semi-desert climate. In short, I was ready for six miles.

But as soon as we started, it hit me – I felt terrible. It was extremely windy, my head hurt and the closer we got to Lava Tower, the symptoms of mountain sickness worsened. My headache intensified and I became nauseous. Fortunately, a mountain sickness pill cured the headache and hoped the few bites of lunch would cure nausea. Just 10 minutes into our hike down to camp nausea did go away – along with what lunch I had eaten. A few words of wisdom from a guide had me drinking more water, which ended up being my miracle drug. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate would be my mantra going forward.

Taking a cue from my professional life I reached out to my fellow hikers for insights, including a doctor from the United Kingdom who had a few words of encouragement: my experience on Day 3 meant my body was acclimating to the higher elevation. Once again when put in a challenging environment that tests one’s mental and physical strength, we tap our life experiences to overcome these challenges: assess, consult, and adapt.

Day 4: A walk above the clouds, with a fear of heights

An exhausting Day 3 resulted in good 10-hour sleep. Following a morning coffee, I am ready to embark on a 5k hike up to Karanga Camp, elevation 13,100 feet. Once again, the four-plus hour route is geared toward acclimatization. Having nothing more than a fast-beating heart, I take a preemptive dose of Diamax to stave off any mountain sickness and keep hydrated.

Today I hiked with Ying and Jia. Ying is the person responsible for me being on this adventure. Jia is her friend of 20-plus years. Several months back mutual friends had suggested Ying and I meet. Over lunch, we discovered a mutual enjoyment of travel, my plan to backpack across Northern Europe and Ying’s hike up Mount Kilimanjaro. Two months later here we are walking above the clouds and partaking in a life-changing experience.

Jia was slower than the others in the group so and I decided I would stick with her and help her throughout the day. Much of today’s route is very steep, requiring us to climb with our hands along with steep drops and around cliffs. I was glad we were climbing in the dry season as I can only imagine climbing these rocks by hand in the snow or rain.

In the middle of one rock, with a cliff underneath, Jia got stuck and could not (would not) move. Now I am stuck behind her trying to figure out how to get her to take that next step. She was not budging and revealed she had done little to no training, but more importantly had a fear of heights and was terrified to make a move. I’m thinking: WHAT??? We are above the clouds, braving the elements, slowly climbing and shimmying around rocks and you think now is the time to reveal a fear of heights?  When asked why she came on this adventure, she was doing it for Ying, that she was determined her friend would not make the 16,000 feet trek solo. Now that is true friendship and honestly made me envious of their relationship.

A guide helped Jia calm her fears and we eventually made it to camp. Reflecting on the day, it may have been challenging and at times harrowing, we learned about true friendship as we walked above the clouds, where every turn was peaceful, beautiful and breathless. I try to savor these moments and take in the natural beauty to keep in my memory forever.

Day 5: Don’t think, listen

Only one more day before we make it to the Summit. We are off to Barafu Camp, elevation 15,300 feet. Just 4 kilometers away but the elements and less than scenic route will take between four and five hours. We experience very strong winds – the kind that makes it difficult to stand up straight and that results in a headache.

At this time, I decide I am not capable of making sound decisions so I will listen to the guides. If it is suggested I stop and go down, then so be it. I will not trust my own thinking after this point as I do not have any experience at this altitude. It is best to listen to those with experience.

Following lunch, we retired for a nap, had dinner and retired again until we set off for the Summit at 11 p.m.

Day 6: Summit Day! Walk, climb, stop. Walk, climb, stop.

With our headlights on, we leave Barafu Camp at 11 pm. We’ve traveled thousands of miles, made new friends and overcome fears and mountain sickness to be only seven hours away from achieving our goal – the Summit.

Wearing as many winter ski clothes as I can (maybe too many as it’s difficult to move), we begin our ascent in the darkness. I cannot see much further than a couple of feet ahead of me, which is probably good as the terrain is difficult and passing the cliffs would be terrifying. It is windy, cold and difficult to breathe. I walk when the guide says walk and stop when he says stop. Thankfully I do not have a headache or nausea. Summit Day is notorious for being the day most hikers suffer from mountain sickness.

It is difficult to breathe, and I feel as if I am three short minutes away from dying. As I see others quitting and returning to base camp, I think about doing the same. I’m reasoning with myself. I really don’t have to do this. Why am I risking my life? Who would know that I quit? Ying and I do not have the same circle of friends, I could photoshop a picture and nobody would ever know. Then again, I am not a quitter. Listen to the guides.

Walk, climb, stop. Walk, climb, stop. Jia was experiencing a terrible headache and finally decided to take the pills. Unfortunately, it was too late, and she had to be accompanied down. The lead guide warned her to keep moving, otherwise, she would be at risk falling asleep and dying of hypothermia. It was -10C.  We later learned many others experienced the same symptoms as Jia. Ying downed one pill before she continued towards our final destination. Despite the pills, she suffered from double vision most of the time.

Juan and I did not really talk much on the trip. I may have adopted some of his best practices along the way, but until Summit Day, we never really connected. On this last day, we navigated our way hand in hand, feeling like two dying people fighting for our last breath of air.

Juan and I rested every time the guide asked if we needed a break. The altitude and our fatigue played tricks on us. Completely exhausted and running on mental toughness, we would look up to see a rock that looked as if we had made it to the top, only to discover it to be an illusion.  This happened several times, yet we pushed on.

Finally, someone said we were close to the top. I lifted my tired, cold and weary head to see the Summit in full view. Suddenly I could breathe, there was plenty of air, I wanted to jump up and down in celebration. But my body was not cooperating.

It was 6:20 a.m. on August 22, 2015, and I had scaled the Summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. I was so proud as I had tapped every bit of mental and physical strength I had for this achievement. It was a wonderful and glorious day.

A few minutes later I see Ying. She too had made it but was experiencing double vision. We celebrated together, soaked in the sights and relished in our accomplishment. It was crazy to think that less than three months prior, we had never met, and I had never thought about such an adventure. Now I have accomplished a major life-changing event that required the planning, research, mental strength and toughness of some of the biggest projects I have worked on.

The top 5 lessons I learned from this trip and applied to business and life afterward.

  • You can do more than you think/feel. The U.S. Navy Seal’s 40% rule is real. You can always push yourself to become better and stronger every day.
  • Until you test the limit, you don’t know how much you can do with life. Human potential is unlimited.
  • Life is a choice, no matter what we choose to do, take full ownership. No complaining, no whining. Make a decision, do the work, and adjust during the process.
  • It only takes a second to make a decision, but it may take years or a lifetime to come to the decision-making point. Get used to making decisions.  Like any muscle, it needs practice. I speak from personal experience as it took me eight years to finally have the courage to leave the corporate world. Every year I would ask myself if I should start my own business, but until the summit moment, I didn’t have the courage to quit a seemingly comfortable corporate job with a nice status.
  • Success is 90% mental and 10% physical.

(click here for photos)