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Hold Your Banner High

By Roger Staiger

I kicked off my 37th birthday by passing out in the shower. It was a Monday morning, and I had entered the shower thinking ahead to another week as chief financial officer for a failing residential builder. At work, my boss was insisting that I continue telling our investors that the market was doing great — the opposite wisdom I was teaching students in my real estate capital markets class at the Carey Business School. The internal conflict that caused was obviously too much for my brain, or my body, to take. I awoke relieved not to have bitten off my tongue when my face hit the wall. Two days later, I resigned as CFO, effective November 9, facing the largest decision of my career: What next?

Rather than rush into a new full-time position, I thought I'd take advantage of this unexpected opportunity. By mid-October I had decided: I would summit Kilimanjaro, the tallest peak in Africa.

I announced my plans to my enthusiastic students, who suggested I bring along a Johns Hopkins banner for a photo op at the top. My main intention was to reach the summit and ponder my great question — What next? — but sure, I would happily bring the banner. During our last class, one of my students asked if I was prepared. "Of course," I said. I'd been a Boy Scout, and I had done about a dozen hikes in Shenandoah National Park. "How difficult could it be?"

Very difficult, it turns out. It took six days to summit Kilimanjaro. I enjoyed the first two hours of the climb. The rest is an unpleasant and painful memory. I wrote a log of each day's climb, and below is a summary of the summit.

Day 6 — Heading to the Summit

It is bitterly cold. I am bundled in all my gear, ready and anxious. I have donned three pairs of socks, two fleeces, a Gore-tex shell, gloves with liner, hat with liner, batteries, film, cameras. Wish me luck!...

...Before I begin to describe the day I've had, I must first warn that anyone doing this should be institutionalized. Climbing Kilimanjaro without training is absolutely insane. True climbing is difficult, and no, the Boy Scouts do not prepare you for Kilimanjaro.

The ascent was to begin at midnight, but my guides and I suffered a few delays. By 1 a.m. we were headed to the summit. I would like to say I was full of excitement and energy, but really I was tired, cranky, smelly, and anxious. I wanted to reach the top, take the picture with the Hopkins banner, and return to a hotel room with a shower.

The temperature was unspeakably cold, the night dark, and the terrain very steep. I should have expected this, given the 1,200 meters that were required to summit, but it just hadn't registered. The ground was frozen hard beneath my feet. It soon began to snow. This was going to be some climb. It took about 30 minutes just to get beyond the rocks that shielded the camp.

The worst part was that the hour delay had allowed other parties a head start. This was not a race — but when I looked up, I could see their lights in the distance. They were nearly vertical from my position! At that point I actually reached into my vest and felt the banner to remind myself that facing my Hopkins colleagues and students was less desirable than a manly death in pursuit of the summit.

The mountain had no less than a 60-degree slope, with switchbacks to enable hikers to make the climb. It took some time, but I found my rhythm and was taking a breath with each step. The pace was slow, no faster than a shuffle, but consistent. At one point I thought, My grandfather moves quicker with his walker! However, each shuffle brought me closer to success.

I swear the mountain met the sky. Finally, I had to stop looking up at the hikers ahead of me — it was just too debilitating. I kept my head down, focusing on the single beam from my headlamp and thinking, My mountain is four feet in front of me. It was the only way not to focus on the vertical distance — I was going to make it to the top four feet at a time.

The snow kicked up, and I was hiking in near-whiteout conditions. One misstep would send me tumbling. I leaned into my walking poles for stability. At 3:15 a.m., a hiker from another group came down the mountain, passing in the opposite direction. He was most likely suffering from altitude sickness. This worried me — I had never been this high, and the guy appeared fit, younger, and more energetic than I was. Toby Keith played in my mind at that moment: "I may not be as good as I once was. But I'm as good once as I ever was." I needed this to be my "once."

The morning continued and I kept climbing. My guides kept saying, "pole, pole" — Swahili for slowly, slowly. It was a death march. Finally my guide said, "You are almost there." I was in a haze. My muscles were weak, my limbs weighed a ton. I would make it to the top — I just didn't know how.

The last 300 meters to Stella Point, a stop-off before the summit, was a near-vertical climb. It was about 8 a.m., the sun was coming up, and the ground had begun to thaw, making it feel like I was walking up a very steep beach. It was pure insanity, and for the first time it felt competitive: the mountain versus me. Finally, I arrived at Stella Point. I sat — collapsed, actually — and rested for 10 minutes. Those last 300 meters had almost killed me, and the summit — Uhuru Point — was still another 200 or 300 meters up and at least a 45-minute walk.

When my guide, Ellis, realized that my slow pace could make the last leg take hours, he encouraged the assistant guide to get behind me and push. Pride was not an issue at this point, and this is how it went for close to an hour — I would lift my foot, the assistant guide would push me forward, and I would catch my balance. Eventually we found our combined rhythm.

At 9:05 a.m., we reached the summit. I took photos, including some with the Hopkins banner, then lay down to rest. Ellis prevented me from falling asleep, insisting we head back. It was probably about 9:30 when our descent began.

The walk back was just as unpleasant as the climb up. The slope caused my toes to jam the front of my boots, creating massive blisters. The walk just went on forever. I think I finally made it back to camp around 1, possibly 2 p.m. At that point, lunch was ready. All I wanted was to sleep. I was nauseous from the altitude and effort and did not want to eat. But I did. Finally I finished and hit the tent for some desperately needed rest. I slept for about an hour, until the porters started clamoring to leave for the next stop down the mountain, Millennium Camp. I packed and we finally left around 4 in the afternoon.

I really thought that when a person climbed a mountain like Kilimanjaro, he sat for a while to ponder. I expected to consider life's many choices, to find fulfillment, to gaze appreciatively upon the view of Kilimanjaro Crater. Instead I found nausea and exhaustion. My actions were not symbolic, they were perfunctory — a list of to-do's to be checked off as quickly as possible. My goal had been to find the meaning of life. It soon became to get off that mountain and find life without misery again. Fortunately, as the days pass, so do the unpleasant memories. They are replaced with more pleasant ones — including the incredible feeling of accomplishment I found at the top of Kilimanjaro.

Roger Staiger is an adjunct faculty member and a member of the advisory board of the Carey Business School's Edward St. John Department of Real Estate.

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