I was out of shape, out of breath, and out of luck.
Just climbing up two flights of stairs knocked the wind out of me. And yet, I had agreed to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with a group of friends the following year (2012). I knew I had to do a lot to prepare in the six months leading up to my trek.
In addition to my new exercise regimen, I started talking to people who had climbed to the roof of Africa and I noticed a common theme. These fit trekkers reassured (more or less) that the trip was simple and easy, with the exception of…
The formidable Barranco Wall.
On the fourth day of the six-day Machame route up Kilimanjaro, we would encounter a massive, nearly vertical rock face, 257-meters tall.
The pathways up the wall are steep, narrow, and risky. The only way to get around some of these tight corners is to get down on all fours and scramble. So steep is the wall that it is home to the Kissing Rock – a spot so tight, you need to get intimately close to the huge grey rocks to pass it without falling off.
It sounded horrible to me.
Sitting in the comfort of my apartment in Dubai, I went online for reassurance. Instead, my fears increased. Related Google searches to ‘Barranco Wall’ included ‘Barranco Wall deaths’ and ‘Barranco Wall Kilimanjaro deaths’.
Needless to say, I was dreading the day we’d meet the ultimate boulder-nemesis.
So, imagine my surprise when I found myself effortlessly at the top of the Barannco Wall.
With a huge smile stretched across my face, I wondered:
What was all the fuss about?
Why did everyone find it so challenging?
And how come I seem to be smiling so much?
On reflection, I know it had everything to do with the way our guide approached the wall.
The Magic Of Pole, Pole.
You see, Kajeli, our intuitive and observant guide, had gauged our level of fitness and pace in the three days leading up to the Wall. Embodying the ethos of ‘pole-pole’ (Swahili for slowly, slowly – pronounced ‘polay- polay’), he started our trek that morning an hour later than usual. By doing so, he ensured the groups of more experienced trekkers would get a head start on us and wouldn’t be in our line of vision. While we were on the wall, he always told us to let the people behind us overtake our group.
Along the way, we took breaks.
Many breaks. We took a break to drink some water. We took another break to take photographs. We took a break for my sister to collect a few flowers to press in her notebook. We took a break because it was time to take a break. And all the while, Kajeli kept reminding us ‘pole, pole’.
And ‘pole-pole’ we were.
While most normal trekkers take 30-40 minutes to scale the wall, we took 2.5 hours.
It took us more than four times the time it normally takes others to climb the wall. What’s the big deal though? After the wall, we just had another 3 hours of trekking to get to the Barafu camp for an early night before summit night. There was actually no real reason for us to push beyond our level of fitness to hurry up the wall.
By forcing us to slow down, Kajeli helped us reach our goal without injury.
Talk about a life lesson.
Understanding your pace before you set your goal
So often, my ambition races ahead of my actual ability.
When in the corporate world, I pushed myself to compete with professionals in the C-suite and not my own peers. I used to think of ways to speed up my career trajectory. I wanted to cut ten years off my resume by working smart and networking effectively. Clearly I had a problematic notion of pace. There are many reasons for that (h/t Fiona Proctor). The toxic capitalistic insistence on being productive has convinced us we need to squeeze every single second to be as productive as we can be… for PROFIT (h/t Ixchel Lunar). I won’t get into it here.
It was a lesson that I’ve clung on to and tried hard to live by. If I’m honest with you, I still struggle to balance ambition with awareness of my ability. Every now and then I have a small victory which encourages me to keep connecting with my pace.
You’ll Never Make it!
A few years later, when climbing up to the monastery at the top of Petra, I found myself in a similar position. The hot Jordanian sun was streaming down on us. I had run out of water and the group I was with were striding fast ahead of me.
“You will never make it,” a boy said to me. He was trying to convince me to pay him a few dinars for a donkey ride up to the monastery.
“Donkey, lady? You’ll never make it. Donkey, lady? You’ll never make it… donkey… lady?”
And on and on, he sang. His question of ‘donkey, lady?’ slowly turned into a statement. I became convinced he was trying to insult me.
I tried to block out his smug chants. I closed my eyes and remembered the Barranco Wall.
I stopped trying to keep up with my group. I accepted that they were significantly ahead of my path and I couldn’t catch up.
Take it slow, I told myself. One foot, in front of the next.
And slowly, I plodded along. I took as many breaks as I wanted. I took breaks even when everyone around me was walking. Sometimes, my fellow trekkers were resting but I felt I could go on, and so I did.
Slowly but surely, I made it up to the monastery.
I was surprised to note that only one other person from my group had made it to the top. I was convinced that I would’ve been the last one to get to the top because I left the group and slowed to my own pace. I was convinced that by the time I got to the top, they would all be so bored from twiddling their thumbs waiting for me.
How interesting to learn that that wasn’t the case at all.
In fact, that moment helped me finally realise what is meant by taking things at your own pace.
Competition is truly an exercise in futility because everyone is at a different level and going through different things.
Leaving the pack
Leaving because you can no longer match the group pace – is a scary humiliating act. It goes against our primordial nature to be part of something larger. It means we are no longer accepted. It literally means we are going to be alone on our journey.
And yet, it is necessary to leave the pack when the pace is too fast. If I can’t keep up with everyone but still I insist on it – two things happen to me:
- I will physically hurt myself
- I will psychologically hurt myself
Reconnecting to my pace
It is only in leaving the group, that I am able to reconnect with a pace that feels GOOD to me. When I walk on my own, at my own pace, I don’t feel pressure to perform for others. In fact, I can check-in with myself, my purpose and my intention. I can ask myself – what is it that I really want? Did I go on this journey because I wanted to scale to the top or did I want to look at the landscapes and enjoy myself?
When we slow our journey to our own pace – well, that is when we can bring compassion and nuance to our contextual assessment of the larger picture.
A friend once told me about the time she went on a hike with her morning latte in her hands. All the other serious trekkers bustling past her with huge backpacks and trekking poles had a great laugh at the sight of her.
One of them even told her husband:
“Screw these poles. Next time, I’m going to be like her and bring my coffee along. She’s clearly having the best time of us.’
Meditation on the question of pace
This won’t be the last time I write about this topic.
Every moment of my life that I reclaim from the grind of capitalism is a meditation on the question of pace.
I’ll leave you with this:
Reconnecting to YOUR pace in life can reframe the difficult and daunting to the plausible and even pleasant.
And, you know..I’m all about the pleasure… 😉