JOURNEY WITHIN

By on June 1, 2012 in Adventure

The Great Equalizer

At altitude all climbers are created equal. Be it bus drivers, teachers, hedge fund managers, or otherwise self-styled kings of the world, the effect of high altitude on all people is the same.

Though some adapt to altitude better than others, everyone from the lowly laborer to the mighty CEO shares the same human physiology, and thus, no one is spared. A person’s wealth, strength or accomplishments, no matter how grandiose, will not help them cope with altitude sickness. The question is not who, but how much. And the higher you climb, the greater the effect.

Democratizing and inescapable, altitude is the world’s Great Equalizer. It’s enough to make our Founding Fathers proud.

What Happens at Altitude Stays at Altitude

Caused by the decrease in oxygen pressure in the atmosphere as you ascend, altitude sickness carries a range of symptoms including headache, dizziness, nausea, or the potentially lethal pulmonary or cerebral edema. The symptoms are especially amplified at extreme high altitude, which on Kilimanjaro’s summit, at 19,340 ft., lies far above the cloud line. What happens to a body at altitude will only happen at altitude, and when it comes to the Great Equalizer, nothing you do in your normal life can prepare you for it. Even being in fantastic shape does not help.

If not addressed, altitude sickness is relentless, and thus, it should come as no surprise that the average summit rate on Kilimanjaro hovers at a measly 40%. This means that more than half the people trying to summit will fail, revealing just how unforgiving the Equalizer is, and how ill-prepared for it so many climbers can be. They fail because they fail to acclimatize.

Bad Odds, Good Medicine

At 98%, Tusker Trail’s summit rate is significantly better—more than double—proof that Tusker’s founder, Eddie Frank, has created a secret sauce to deal with high altitude. The sauce, though hardly secret, is built on Tusker’s long-standing commitment to climber health and safety, and includes regular health checks by certified high altitude guides, the use of oxygen, pulse-oximeters, and hyperbaric bags.

By allowing climbers to better acclimatize, Tusker has made Kili safer, more enjoyable, and of course, easier to complete. Take care of the climber and the summit will follow.

Altitude Tests Your Attitude

Hailing from a cross-section of professions and backgrounds, Tusker climbers range from Type A super-achievers, to working folk, to world class athletes, to 3 pack-a-day couch dwellers. When they start off they all share one thing in common: the quest for adventure. And on the quest, Kili will often reward them with a life-changing experience. The change can be subtle or broad, but it manifests for almost everyone because altitude affects everyone, and when it does, it tests character. If the ultimate test of character is how you function under stress over time, then you cannot face the mountain without facing yourself. Inescapably, altitude will put you under stress. Anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant, or telling a lie.

From Hero Sandwich to Humble Pie

At the start of a climb, everyone agrees on one thing: they all want to summit. Soon, altitude starts putting that goal into proper perspective, which is to say, it doesn’t seem so easily within reach. It gets harder to walk, harder to breathe, and harder to sleep. People, taken out of their sweet spots, are then forced to cope with physical and mental challenges beyond their control, a challenge they most likely have never faced before.

A world-class athlete, a champion, suddenly cannot will herself to go higher, faster; think Martina Navratilova, who was evacuated from Kili with pulmonary edema. A big-shot “alpha” executive (who shall go unnamed), always on top, used to winning, used to getting his way, is suddenly made the “weakling” by altitude, coming in last to camp, needing extra help from porters, and more and more oxygen—not exactly his usual alpha male profile—and is finally evacuated despite his vigorous protest. Meanwhile, a humble guy, a machinist, whose lunch the exec would normally eat, becomes a rockstar on the mountain, acclimatizing well enough to help others.

With altitude so vigorously flipping the pecking order (hence, the Great Equalizer), one man’s hero quickly becomes the other man’s humble pie. From there, you either accept the lesson … or not. Most people accept it.

After Eddie Frank made the call to evacuate the Alpha, he vociferously blamed Eddie for “causing him to fail”, only later thanking Eddie for saving his life. And the humble machinist? Suffering from chronic asthma, fueled by new meaning in life, he’s set his sights on the Seven Summits.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Proving the point, the most common thread through comments after a climb is that it “changed my life forever.” When someone tackles an insurmountable goal by relying on the self, nothing but confidence is certain to rise. And it rises proportionate to altitude.

For, despite all the gear, and despite all the help from guides, porters, and fellow climbers, to keep going, people must ultimately turn within to find a way to put one foot in front of the other. No quick-fixes, no shortcuts. And once above 14,000 feet, where there is 40% less oxygen than at sea level, many start to doubt their ability to go on, yet once they find a way to rise up—and most of them do—their lives change.

Eddie Frank is careful to mention that not reaching the summit or getting sent back down for health and safety does not represent failure. It merely reflects a body’s response to the challenge of altitude. And how your body is challenged, and what you do with that challenge, determines how meaningful your climb will be. The consistent “thread” of change that climbers describe reveals the true secret sauce: on the mountain, there is meaning to be found. The person who goes up is never the same person who comes down.

A Dialogue with Self

No one is as strong as Kili. If you take its might lightly, or think that summiting is merely an act of will, you will quickly be separated from your hubris.

Skills required to navigate it are not skills that people learn in any other aspect of their lives. And so, the mountain forces a dialogue with self. Many are surprised by what they hear. People often find their best selves. If you forgo old ideas about failure and success; reconsider that adventure can be how you go, not where, then there are discoveries to be made, and great lessons to be learned.

Eddie Frank says that the journey up is really a journey within. After summiting Kili 47 times, he should know.

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