Earlier this year, Christoph Flink (CEIBS GEMBA2009), Mario Mazzocca (GEMBA2009), Sophia Jiao (GEMBA2018) and Mario Feuerstein (GEMBA2009) climbed the Mount Kilimanjaro. The following is Christoph Flink’s first-hand account of his experience during their adventure.
New hiking boots to reach the top: $157
Medical Kit to keep you safe on the climb: $98
Renting a guide, a cook and a whole army of porters to climb Mount Kilimanjaro: $2,294.
Overcoming one’s limits and to reach the top together with my CEIBS alumni friends: priceless!
Mount Kilimanjaro – with its three distinct volcanic cones, Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira – is Africa’s highest mountain, rising majestically above its plains. It has been known since antiquity as the “Moon Mountain” on account of its white top. Unfortunately, the mountain’s snow caps are diminishing, having lost more than 80 percent of their mass since 1912. In fact, as Al Gore pointed out in his book An Inconvenient Truth, Kilimanjaro may be completely ice free within the next 20 years. Also as a result of climate change, measurements of its above sea-level are decreasing year-by-year – from 5,895 meters in 1952 to 5,892 meters in 1999, and from 5,891 meters in 2008 to 5,888 meters in 2014.
On October 6, 1889, German Hans Meyer and Austrian Ludwig Purtscheller became the first people known to have reached the mountain’s highest point, on the crater ridge of Kibo. They named it "Kaiser-Wilhelm-Peak" after the Emperor of Germany. The name was used until Tanzania was formed in 1964, and the summit was renamed "Uhuru Peak" (meaning "Freedom Peak" in Kiswahili). Prior to Meyer and Purtscheller, it took nearly three decades and various unsuccessful attempts by many climbers to reach the top. In those day, above 4,000 meters, it took ice climbing equipment to reach the top. Today, one can hike all the way up, with only a few chunks of glacial ice remaining during autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. Still, Kilimanjaro is one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.
Along the way, almost every kind of ecological system is found on the mountain: cultivated land, rainforest, heath, moorland, alpine desert and an arctic summit. It is like an ocean of green surrounded by dry savannah and with a life-less top. It is also a sky island. Its high altitudes have created habitat for strange and unique life, such as the delicate elephant flower and bizarre Kilimanjaro trees. Climbing Kilimanjaro is like walking from the equator to the North Pole in a week, providing dramatic changes in vegetation and animal life day by day. Despite its landscapes, the reason why people climb Kilimanjaro often is to mark a personal accomplishment or an important transition, such as a graduation, retirement, marriage or divorce. Kilimanjaro seems to inspire transformation. When you climb the mountain and stand on the roof of Africa, you see the world in a different way. What seemed impossible in your life before might now just be doable. The mountain top is a place for vision, inspiration, and a new beginning.
In February 2019, I travelled to Kilimanjaro with two of my CEIBS GEMBA2009 classmates, Mario Mazzocca and Dr. Mario Feuerstein, along with Mario’s wife, Dr. Sophia Jiao, who is currently a CEIBS GEMBA2018 student.
If you had asked us before the trip, why we wanted to climb this mountain, I think we all would have answered, “Because we can!” Though, as I passed through another phase of redefining my life – something, it seems, I end up doing every ten years – it was also an opportunity to take some time off and to reflect on my life’s changes, and to think about what may come next. On at least the first few days of the climb, while enjoying the unworldly landscape and nature, I had plenty of time to collect my thoughts.
As the world’s highest free-standing mountain, Kilimanjaro also involves the most rapid ascent, going from 1,500 meters to nearly 6,000 meters in only a few days. This leaves little time for acclimatisation to altitude. Some 30,000 people attempt to summit Kilimanjaro annually and approximately two-thirds of those are successful. Indeed, altitude-related problems are the most common reasons for climbers to turn back, and more than half of the hikers on Kilimanjaro suffer some of the symptoms of altitude sickness. The reported number of tourist deaths is about 10 fatalities per year. That is a 0.03% chance of death or 1 death per 3,333 climbers. Most die due to acute mountain sickness (AMS), the most frequent form of altitude sickness.
The only way to prevent AMS is through acclimatisation (the process by which the body adjusts to the decreasing availability of oxygen). It is a slow process, taking place over a period of days. As the amount of oxygen in a person’s lungs decreases, the blood becomes less and less efficient at acquiring and carrying oxygen. At the top of Kilimanjaro, when compared to sea-level, only half as much oxygen is taken in with each breath. This means that no matter how fast one breathes, attaining normal levels of oxygen in the blood is not possible at high altitudes. While physical fitness is important, the causes of altitude sickness are still unclear, and it is nearly impossible to predict how and when it will affect you. There are no specific factors such as age, gender, physical fitness, or previous altitude experience that directly correlate with susceptibility to altitude sickness. Some people get it and some people don't, and some people are more susceptible than others.
Aware of the need for acclimatisation, we chose a relatively long path to the top of Kilimanjaro called the Machame Route. This path leads halfway up and around the mountain top, before reaching the summit on the fifth day of hiking. Starting at about 1,500 meters, we spent the first night at an altitude of around 3,000 meters and the following 3 nights at 4,000 meters and above. Nevertheless, altitude sickness eventually caught up with all of us. We started experiencing typical AMS symptoms, including headaches, insomnia, tiredness, exhaustion, dizziness, and nausea. Some of us got sick during the first few days. I really admire my colleagues’ courage and stamina, as they forced themselves up the mountain with each step, hour by hour, day by day, without the slightest doubt in our ability to reach the top. I got a bit luckier and, except for the headaches (which are typical and probably unavoidable for high-altitude climbing) I felt well for the first few days. Yet, on the last day of our ascent to the top, altitude sickness hit me as well and all of a sudden I got very sick. And all of us felt extremely exhausted. But somehow, we finally reached Stella Point, which is also known as the small zenith of Kibo Peak. From here to the real top of Kilimanjaro, Uhuru Peak, was just another 229 meters in elevation and supposedly one more hour of relatively flat hiking.
With time running out and hardly any energy reserves left, we took selfies at the small zenith, as if this was our final destination. I am not sure if I would have continued to the top of the mountain if it wasn’t for my classmates. This was the moment when one of us demonstrated CEIBS leadership skills, and in subtle ways managed to motivate us to continue together as a team and without doubt to aim for the real peak. Nonetheless, it was still a long way to go. With the target in sight, I had to stop again and again. Realising that I simply had run out of energy, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make it and every time I looked up, the top still looked so far away. Then on the last couple hundred meters, John, our African guide, came aside me and forced me to take longer steps and go faster. That worked for another 50 meters and I was beat again. But when John asked me if I wanted to take another rest, I felt an adrenaline rush and I yelled, “No, let’s go!” Together we marched on. I was pushed by an ocean of emotions. Finally, amidst tears of joy, I reached the peak. Relieved and happy. Wow, what an experience!
It was at that moment that I realised that climbing Kilimanjaro was like getting my EMBA at CEIBS – not as emotional, but still a long, challenging experience and a journey fighting against oneself. Most importantly, it was not done in isolation. Just like during our EMBA journey, I was supported by friends who believed in me and wanted me to succeed as much as I wanted it. Indeed, what connected us was that we wanted to succeed together. And it was my classmates, then and as now, with whom I celebrated after reaching our common goal.
At this point, one challenge remained for us to conquer: The way down! After climbing for more than 12 hours, we now had to hike down for at least another 6 hours to reach our camp. And as it turned out, it was the way down that became the toughest experience of my life. At this point, I was incapable of focusing to put one step in front of the other for more than 30 seconds. My legs were sliding away, and I was sick to my stomach from exhaustion. I only had one desire left – to lay down and sleep. It was painful! But somehow, we made it. During the following day, though, as we continued our descent, our strength and spirits slowly came back. And we started to enjoy the fact that we had done it.
I am sure everyone has their own experience of reaching their physical limits and learning that this is what it is all about and that this is how you reach your goals. I wonder if I could have done it if it wasn’t for my friends and classmates. In fact, it was they who started this adventure and asked me to join in the first place. Climbing Kilimanjaro has become an encouraging experience. Now, I miss the challenge and I feel that I want to do it again! We are already planning our next trip together.
A special thanks to the CEIBS Alumni International Chapter (CAIC) and Christoph Flink for providing this content. For more stories from CEIBS alumni, please visit our Alumni Stories page here.
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