29 September 2022

What I Learnt from my Kilimanjaro Trek

Steve Halsall

Red Tiger Consulting


This has been a project 3 years in the planning and finally, on Tuesday 6th September 2022 11 trekkers all congregated from various parts of the UK to Arusha in Tanzania with a shared objective – to reach the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro.

Arusha sits at the foot of Mount Meru and the city forms the gateway to Kili and the safari tours. At a colossal 5,895m Mt Kilimanjaro breaks through the clouds and stands at the highest point in Africa in the north-eastern part of Tanzania, bordering on Kenya. The mountain is made up of 3 volcanoes, Shira (which is the highest peak), Mawenzi and Kibo. There are still Glaciers on the top but experts believe that it will be a matter of years before they have fully receded due to global warming.

Our group decided to do the Lemosho route over 8 days which would give us the best chance of acclimatising to the altitude. The route would start us to the west of the mountain and we would skirt around the south in order to do our final ascent northwards on day 7. It is effectively 6 days up and 2 days to come down. Day 4 was known as our acclimatisation day where we walked to Lava Tower (for lunch) which sits at 4,600m and then we descend into Barranco Camp at 3,900m. Climb high, sleep low, as they say.

The trek was managed by Kilimanjaro Climbing Company (KCC), owned by Simon Ashton who is firmly part of the Red Tiger family. Simon was the only one with past experience of Kili – this was to be the 9th time he had summitted.

The 11 of us all had different reasons for doing the climb – some collecting for charity (with a variety of national and local charities), some for the personal challenge. We had individual goals but together we were a collective supporting each other. I think everyone had their own private battles along the way, but we also took responsibility to keep morale high and ensure our fellow trekkers were supported throughout. We all agree that it is impossible to truly reflect our experiences in words. It is fair to say we struck really lucky with the group and we cannot fault the attitude and personality of the entire KCC team who supported us in our challenge.

It struck me when thinking about what to write that some of my key take-aways, whilst applicable in a personal context, can just as easily be applied to a work or business context as well. I get the sense that we are sometimes so busy in the moment we don’t take enough time out to pause and think. This trek allowed plenty of thinking time, away from the distractions of work or life in general.

Teamwork is Key

We all looked out for each other. A really moving point for me was at our final meal together as a group. This included the guides and the porters as we were one team.

In his closing speech, our lead guide, August (words fail to describe how amazing he was and his smile was so infectious) said that in his many years of taking people up the mountain he had never seen such a group looking out for each other. He pointed to the fact that when we were about to complete the trek the more advanced people in the party held back to deliberately wait for those further back. We said “we started this together, and we will finish this together”.

In life there will always be people who go at different paces (the hare and the tortoise fable springs to mind) and that is normal. But what was important here is the joy we all felt when we completed the task together – we collectively celebrated everyone’s contribution to the goal of completing the trek, firstly by reaching the summit and secondly by completing the whole trek. Plus, never under-estimate the power of the collective. If a group is aligned in their goals and objectives then there is no limit to what can be achieved.

We Are All Born Equal

It is fair to say that we were not a very diverse trekking group. Diversity is certainly a hot topic in my specialist area of recruitment. Our trek participants sat firmly in the middle-class Caucasian cohort. That’s not to say that there wasn’t some diversity within our group – we certainly weren’t clones of each other. We had diversity of age, gender, country of origin, chosen career path etc. Any egos or social constructs that there may have been in place prior to coming into the trek were firmly left in the UK. The mountain is a great leveler.

This equality extended to the wider support team which included the many guides, waiters, chefs and porters who were there to support us on our mission. Whilst we had paid for the ‘experience’ there is no escaping that this was their job, their means with which to feed and educate their families, and one that they took to with unbridled joy and passion. It is a credit to Simon and his leadership team at KCC to truly have such an engaging and motivated workforce. Their support and songs along the way played a key role in our collective success and overall enjoyment of the whole trip.

restaurant at the kilimanjaro trek

Their desire to support us carried on into the last meal together in the restaurant. We wanted everyone to sit down and eat the food as a group but Aman, (pronounced Amani) who was a porter and our ‘waiter’ for the trip, carried on serving us despite us pleading with him to sit down and eat some food as he had now officially finished his work!

Celebrate the Highs, but Also Celebrate the Challenges Along the Way

This trek was a journey – yes, as a group we all achieved our ultimate objective of summiting the highest mountain in Africa, but there were a number of mini achievements along the way. There was quite rightly a focus on gathering around that well photographed summit sign, but we didn’t dwell on it, mainly because it was bloody freezing up there!

summit of kilimanjaro
Mount Kilimanjaro, Uhuru Peak

We had a number of other small victories along the way which were worthy of celebration. A lot of them in the early days seemed to relate to bodily functions (proving toilet humour is not dead!). First poo in camp, first (and last!) poo in one of the famous camp public toilets, first wild poo, first night wee in a tent without spillage (it seems a male only activity), first clear sunrise view of Kili, first headache due to altitude, the first time simple tasks such as fastening shoe laces rendered us breathless!

One thing I personally found challenging was the descent. I was worried about that from the off – particularly given the state of my knees! It did prove to be my biggest mental and physical challenge and it hit me in 3 distinct stages. The first stage on summit morning was ‘running’ down a steep dusty slope of scree back to Kosovo camp. The more mobile trekkers really enjoyed it and practically ran down the mountain – it took a fraction of the time it did to get up in the dark on summit night/morning.  I took a more measured approach and used my trekking poles as extra support to lighten the load.

The second stage took us from Kosovo camp (our base camp) to Maweka Camp which can only be described as a 5-6 hour trudge through an alpine desert and a dried up river bed. This was not good on the knees. The only plus side was that evening’s sleep was the best I had – fuelled by improved oxygen levels and sheer exhaustion. The final stage took us on a 4 hour walk through a slippery mud path in a rain forest to Maweka Gate which was horrible – particular as a slip could result in a crate of beer purchased as punishment.

It was the mini celebrations every day that gave us renewed energy for the next day and served to keep our morale high.  It’s good to celebrate the big wins but don’t forget the minor victories along the way!

Digital and Alcohol Detox is Good for the Mind, the Body, and the Soul

I have to admit my heart sank when, a few weeks before the trip, the news broke that the Tanzanian authorities had installed WiFi on Kilimanjaro. If they had I didn’t see it so it could be a publicity stunt or only available on other routes! 

Alcohol is not allowed on the trek and I would imagine it is not advisable – I dread to think what that could do in combination with the effects of altitude. It was great to drink nothing but coffee, ginger tea and water for 8 days, plus it was nice to not feel under pressure to have to drink alcohol – no ‘fancy popping down to the local?’ requests either!

digital detox during kilimanjaro trek
Digital detox?

The group were keen to establish contact with loved ones at home so once we arrived at Shira Camp (day 3 I think) and did an extra climb to a point where there was rumoured to be some sort of 4G reception. It was a mixed bag, dependent on our UK network provider, but for me personally it was a real joy when my WhatsApp and Messages filled up with connections to the life I had left behind.

I kept away from email but it was nice to send friends and family an update that I was safe and well and send a photo. I then helped a couple of my fellow trekkers establish contact using my connection. The only downside for those snatching phone/FaceTime/WhatsApp chats with loved ones was an amazing view of Kili to our rear and in front of us we had a perfect sunset!

My phone was relegated to camera only use (permanently on Airplane mode) and this served two other great purposes. Firstly, I had no idea on what was going on in the outside world (and I can’t honestly remember the last good news story so this wasn’t a bad thing). The only things we got on the peak above Shira Camp (via WhatsApp messages) was that the Queen was increasingly frail and the royal family had been summoned to Balmoral, LFC had lost convincingly in the Champions League and that Thomas Tuchel had been sacked by Chelsea. 

Secondly, it meant that I was in the moment when walking with my fellow trekkers. There were no interruptions from calls, buzzes and beeps and so I committed myself completely to the conversations. To me this is a great gift, and one I first learnt in my coaching practice, to be an active participant in conversation, to show real interest and above all else practice active listening. With increasing altitude it helped with the active listening as speaking for any great length of time was very difficult!

Humbled In So Many Ways

The trip couldn’t have come at a better time for me personally. It was a timely break from what has been a challenging and relentless year both professionally and personally. Coming into the trip it is fair to say that I was also weighed down by the wider national and global malaise, where my hope in humanity was hanging by a thread.

This trip helped me reconnect with humanity and restore my faith in humankind. This started with my fellow trekkers, ranging from close personal friends to people I had only ‘met’ previously on WhatsApp.  This provided an opportunity to spend quality time with everyone and really connect with people on a deeper personal level. Alongside that I have not laughed so much in a long time – laughter is a fantastic pick me up!

Once the trek was complete we visited Faraja Orphanage on our way back to Arusha. This is an establishment that is supported by KCC (they make a contribution from every trekker towards food for the orphanage). We were greeted by smiling, happy children even before we reached the main building. A small girl called Sarah grabbed my hand and became fixated with my watch which was hidden underneath the sleeve of my fleece.

The c50 kids (only a small handful of the total at the orphanage) were impeccably behaved and were under the strict instruction of the founder, Faraja Maliaki – a truly inspirational individual. We learnt about how he rescues some of the orphaned children from prison and the main cause of them being without parents is HIV and AIDS. Many of the children are born with HIV. 

faraja orphanage linked to kilimanjaro trek
Some of the kids from the orphanage sporting their LFC shirts

The kids sang a few songs and we donated 40 Liverpool Football club kits (of different sizes) which they all put on and sat down for photos. Faraja was also outlining how the lack of a regular sponsor means that in tough times ensuring there is food on the table for the kids is a challenge. A number of our group made additional donations in support of their cause. Our time soon came to an end and we reluctantly said our goodbyes – the children were waving and blowing kisses as we got back on to our minibus. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.

What Next?

Now I have been back for over a week I have to admit I am still adjusting to being back to reality. It was a massive come down after the experience we shared. I miss the camaraderie, the real human connection, the drop in pace. I don’t miss the need to pee every 30 minutes (due to Diamox and needing to drink 4 litres a day to try and counter any altitude sickness), or the lack of decent toilet or shower facilities.

We have all gone back to our homes, our families and daily routines/work roles but there is a golden thread of experience that will permanently bind this group together. We have already talked about having a reunion before Xmas and some of the group are already planning their next challenge! I am sure we will also meet up in Ambleside in July 2023.

My first week back at work had me attend an event in London in the City. It was amazing to see so many people at a face to face event, out in Spitalfields before and afterwards, but I couldn’t help feel uncomfortable with the ostentatiousness of some of the built form that surrounded me. Normally I would gaze in wonder at the mix of traditional and modern architecture and the grand scale of the buildings but it was as if my eyes had adjusted to a new lens in Tanzania which was a million miles away from the physical manifestation of capitalist success in the heart of our great capital.

For me personally this marks not the end, but the beginning of a year long journey to continue to support fund raising for Alzheimer’s Research UK. I am eternally grateful for everyone who has supported me and my chosen charity – most of you will know why it is such a cause that is close to my heart. As of the end of September 2022 the fundraising sits at 133% of my £5k target. That means I have raised, with your help, a massive £6,687, plus gift aid. Way beyond my wildest dreams – I can’t thank you enough.

The next stage in my journey is to continue fundraising with the writing and publishing of my first book which I aim to publish in September 2023. All proceeds for the book will be going to Alzheimer’s Research UK. This book will look at how Alzheimer’s / Dementia impacted my family and seek to use my experience to support other families who are impacted by this terrible disease. Watch this space in early 2023 on how you can get your hands on a copy!

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Published by Steve Halsall

Steve is the founder of Red Tiger Consulting. He has worked in Location Planning for over 20 years – both on the consultancy side and client side. His passion is building successful teams that evolve their capability (skills, software and data) to meet the ever changing requirements of analysis. In his spare time he is mainly kept busy with his two children, falling in and out of love with Liverpool FC and at some point he wants to re-start his golfing ‘career’.


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