About 5 years ago, I would never have imagined myself climbing a mountain. It was tough, dangerous, and took a lot of time and effort. Being a city boy, most of my activities were tied to the hustle and bustle of noisy agglomerations of buildings, and hordes of people with zombie-like faces going about their business, not paying attention to the thousands of other people surrounding them. Nature was a far away place that I would sometimes see through the window of a car, but never actually experience.
This would all change in 2015, when I set out on an adventure that would change my view of the world and give me perspective on what is important in life and what isn’t. Ancient wisdom states that this type of reflection is fundamental to living a good life and the ancient Stoics advocated contemplating the vastness of the universe as a way to find your place in it. This broad view then allows you to zoom in and focus on your own existence.
Marcus Aurelius in his personal journal “Meditations” noted down his reflections on how things are connected in the universe.
“Frequently consider the connection of all things in the universe and their relation to one another. For in a manner all things are implicated with one another, and all in this way are friendly to one another; for one thing comes in order after another, and this is by virtue of the active movement and mutual conspiration and the unity of the substance.“
However, for a person who spends their entire life in the city, this is quite challenging. All the noise and impersonal ways of doing things distract you from being able to focus on the whole. The Stoics once again had an answer to this: live according to nature. Living according to nature can connect you to the whole, and give you a particular place in the order of things. In the words of Marcus Aurelius:
“This you must always bear in mind, what is the nature of the whole, and what is my nature, and how this is related to that, and what kind of a part it is of what kind of a whole; and that there is no one who hinders you from always doing and saying the things which are according to the nature of which you are a part.“
Reading these words, the city boy in me only had a very theoretical idea of what they meant. Something more was needed in order to awaken a magnificent wanderlust and to gain a connection to what it really means to live according to nature.
This realization came on one fateful day in 2015, standing on the top of Africa. However, before that a whole series of events transpired which led me on the course with destiny. My brother had lived in a place which was close to the mountains and gained a craving for mountain hikes. He had already climbed Kilimanjaro once before and came up with the idea of doing it as a family adventure. I was hesitant at first, but finally decided to give it a try.
While Kilimanjaro is not an impossible climb, and is quite doable for fit city-dwellers, you still need to have respect for the mountain. It is 5895 meters high, and has been known to scuttle the advances of even the fittest of sportsmen. A few months of intensive preparation are required if you want to be sure that you are fit enough to climb it and also to enjoy the experience.
I had spent hours in the gym working on my cardio, but the first real test came in the Alps. In order to acclimatize to the low pressure and lack of oxygen in the high altitudes, you need to slowly build up your mountain conditioning. Things are different in the mountains and your body needs to get used to it. So we started off on a series of hikes in the mountains, which culminated in the attempt to climb Mt. Breithorn, 4164 meters high, but considered one of the easiest peaks over 4000 meters to climb.
This proved to be a wake up call. At one point of the climb, my head started aching really badly and I had trouble even taking steps. I managed to push myself and reach the top, but it was very painful. After coming down, I realized that if I had so much trouble reaching the summit of a mountain which is barely above 4000 meters, I would probably fail scaling up a mountain which is much higher. I needed to work harder. And work harder I did.
Then in August 2015, we arrived in Africa, in the country of Tanzania where Mt. Kilimanjaro is located. This is the highest mountain in Africa, and while at its bottom you find sub-tropical rain-forests, the top is covered with snow (although unfortunately the glaciers are constantly shrinking due to global warming). The days you spend circling the mountain allows you to see nature in all its stages, you trek through forests, then enter areas full of small bushes and weird tiny trees, to be followed by landscapes which literally resemble the Moon.
1) Willpower is something you can build up
Climbing a mountain is the ultimate test of your willpower. For you are always going up and up, and the walk gets harder and harder. What you could do easily at lower altitudes, now becomes much harder. Just putting one foot in front of the other is an act of conscious will, biting through the pain in order to reach your goal.
When you are on the verge of quitting, your mind says “no” and you push through the pain. At that point you learn that willpower is something that you can work on, something that you can control. Your body has hidden reserves left, which you can utilize to power through when the going gets tough.
2) Pole, pole — go slowly
Mt. Kilimanjaro also teaches you another lesson. Your mountain guides always remind you to go: “pole, pole”, which in Swahili means slowly. For if you rush too fast at the beginning, not only might you not have enough strength to finish the journey, but even might make yourself sick. The point is to go slowly, but surely towards your goal.
3) Each problem you face is like a mountain you are climbing
A mountain is sometimes used as a metaphor for life, and by scaling one, you begin to understand why that is. Getting to the top and then descending safely down (for getting to the top is just half the journey) you have accomplished something which most people will never do. Also by climbing the highest mountain in Africa, all the other mountains that you will face in your life will feel smaller in comparison.
Getting to the top is also a success that you can keep in your memory for the rest of your life to inspire you. For when the going gets tough in the future, you can look back at this accomplishment and inspire yourself. You pushed hard through this challenge and got to the top, you will be able to do so in other circumstances as well. Things might get tough, but they can be overcome, just like a mountain can be climbed.
4) You gain a perspective on how other people live
While on the mountain, you meet a cast of characters, which helps put your life in perspective. You are required to hire local guides and porters, which then aid you to negotiate the mountain. Through constant exposure to them, you learn a bit about who they are, and where they come from. Some of them are on the mountain to support their families, others to secure a better job.
One guy we met was there lugging around heavy packs in order to pay his way through university. Life isn’t easy for these guys, which makes you more thankful for some of the things that you have. For you this is an adventure of a lifetime, for them, this is their job.
5) You connect yourself to the greater whole
Standing at the top of the mountain, you are at a point higher than anyone else in Africa. Around you, a desolate landscape reminds you of the power of the natural world, for this is the edge of the caldera of an ancient volcano which had exploded long ago. The experience is further heightened when you realize that where you are standing at, Uhuru Peak, is the highest part of the Kibo volcanic cone, which is lying dormant, but not extinct. Powerful forces are stirring around underfoot.
Your eyes stop their gaze at the huge swathes of snow and ice that are lying scattered around, the last remnants of a glacier, which just a hundred years ago covered virtually the entire peak. This reminds you of the wonder of nature, but also of the human power to destroy it.
The rugged beauty that you see in front of you transports you to another plane of experience, as if you were entering another world. You sense being part of something more powerful than yourself, and it makes you feel a sense of other-worldly awe. This not only connects you to the rest of the universe, but according to scientific studies even makes you a better person:
“New research from UC Berkeley and UC Irvine suggests that experiencing awe can actually prompt us to act more benevolently toward others. In other words, awe can help make the world a better place.“
When you are at the top, you realize how retarded some of the problems you face back home really are. You are confronted by stupid people, useless work, and bad luck. Yet, here you are, literally at the top of the world.
You should remind yourself of the old Stoic mantra of focusing on what you can control and forgetting about the rest. At this moment, you are experiencing the ultimate triumph, something that all those other petty people who ruin your life will never get to experience. They will focus on their stupid little wars, back-stabbings, and selfish acts, while you have pushed yourself and done something real. In that moment remind yourself of another saying by Marcus Aurelius:
“Begin the morning by saying to yourself: I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.”
Being in the mountains shows you what living according to nature really means. It connects you to the greater whole, and reminds you how the worries that you have back in the “real” world are unimportant, even stupid. For where you are living at is not the real world, but instead a fake construction. Nature is the real world. It has been here for millions of years before us, and it will survive us all.
If you want to read more:
Here is the original story I wrote on my blog describing my experience of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. I also wrote a short guide on what you need to do to prepare for climbing the mountain. The thing is that this was just a beginning of the experience. Since then, I have climbed several other mountains, including Mt. Blanc.
I originally published this piece on Medium’s publication “The Startup” here.