“What I learned about resiliency and life from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro”
A trek to the summit of Kili doesn’t just push your physical limits. Just ask Jack Groppel, who made the pilgrimage with his son—and two artificial knees. As 2017 comes to a close, he reflects on the journey, and shares what everyone can take away from his experience as we get ready to ring in a new year.
It was 10 PM, and this was the wake-up call from our guide, signaling it was time to get dressed and report to the dining tent so we could eat and begin hiking to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
We were camping at 15,250 feet, and only getting a couple hours of sleep. The temperatures overnight during our hike to the summit were expected to be around zero degrees Fahrenheit, and we were scheduled to reach the 19,341-foot summit around daybreak the next morning.
I was on this expedition in Tanzania with my 12-year-old son, Shen, whom I’d adopted from China in 2008, three Johnson & Johnson colleagues—Jennifer Bruno, Caren Kenney and Jo Ann Swasey—and various family members and friends.
It was going to be a challenge we’d never forget.
Twenty-five years ago, along with my colleague Jim Loehr, I founded a program dedicated to improving energy management and performance that helps foster sustainable behavior change. In 2008, Johnson & Johnson acquired our venture and it became the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute (HPI).
We train everyone from military members to CEOs on how to be their best selves by maximizing energy and cultivating resilience.
As I climbed Kili, I found myself reflecting back on those early days of HPI, when Jim and I were just beginning to apply our science and training to world-class athletes. A lot of those teachings rang true as I challenged myself in ways I never knew possible.
But Kilimanjaro still had its own lessons to teach.
Bringing HPI Tenets to Life During an Experience of a Lifetime
My son was the youngest member of our expedition and I, at age 65, was the oldest.
The experience was deeply personal for all of us for different reasons. For me, it was a dream come true to not only satisfy my childlike curiosity about Africa, but to also trek with my son and have a true adventure together that we would remember forever.
I was also facing an added challenge: putting my two DePuy Synthes Sigma® Total Knee System knees, which I’d gotten in late 2010, to the ultimate test while trekking scores of miles uphill and downhill in an attempt to reach the summit of the highest free-standing mountain in the world—one of the world’s continental “Big 7.”
Shen and I felt like we’d done everything we could to get ready, and we were aware of what we were getting ourselves into. But Kilimanjaro still offered up surprises.
A mountain of this magnitude creates its own weather system. With each hour, we had to add or shed clothing layers, depending on the temperature; breathe the fine silt dust the mountain threw off with each step; and use our trekking poles to either push steeply uphill or brace ourselves on downhill steps.
It was a constant struggle, and we quickly had to learn to embrace and adapt to the challenges the mountain gave us.
Our Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute training courses teach the importance of balancing stress and recovery, and nowhere was this more profound than on this extreme altitude mountain. When my son and I hiked in the Rockies a month earlier at 12,000 feet, we recognized the need to stop every now and then to catch our breath and acclimate.
We were now hiking at an altitude that was well over a mile higher. Summit night was a slow, tedious climb, which meant taking one or two steps and then stopping to catch our breath as we climbed for nine hours straight through the night.
When you looked up and saw a never-ending string of hikers’ headlamps on the innumerable switchbacks going up into the pitch-black, star-studded sky, I felt totally disheartened. But there was beauty interspersed with discouragement.
Every 50-100 meters, my son and I would ask our guide, “Can we find a rock?” This meant we needed to stop for a minute (it was way too cold to linger for any longer), lean against the rock, get a quick drink since the hoses on our hydration packs had frozen solid, have a quick bite of a snack, then go again.
It was an incredibly arduous night of hiking, but one that was made possible by clearly understanding how to manage stress and recovery.
Facing Down Fear—and Embracing the Journey
Even with all the preparation and planning, there were unexpected twists and turns.
For one, I was truly surprised by the amount of fear I felt at times. As a teen, I was an Eagle Scout and basically lived outdoors. I would jump from boulder to boulder in streams and swing across tree limbs.
But this was different. I was definitely nervous when our guides, who were extremely skilled, instructed us to “grab this piece of jagged rock with your left hand, put your left foot on this 2-inch, mud-covered ledge and hold out your right hand while at the edge of a 50-meter drop.”
We also had to contend with the sheer amount and intensity of step-ups, step-downs, slippery volcanic scree (gravel), shale plates that would slide when you stepped on them and more.
In the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones was scared of snakes. In one scene, he rolled over in a tomb filled with them, and said, “Snakes. Why does it have to be snakes?” That was me more than a few times. My internal voice was muttering, “Mud. Why does there have to be more mud? More scree. Why does there have to be more scree?”
I was constantly realigning my internal self-talk to validate or eradicate my emotions.
The phrase that my son and I repeated throughout the trip was a version of the Chinese proverb: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, and then the next step, and then …” At the beginning of the trek, we realized that we had a lot of hiking ahead of us. But there were times when you felt it would never end.
On the famous Barranco Wall, for example, we were told it was only 300 meters straight up. However, it looked endless every time we evaluated our progress. On summit night, when you looked up and saw a never-ending string of hikers’ headlamps on the innumerable switchbacks going up into the pitch-black, star-studded sky, I felt totally disheartened.
But there was beauty interspersed with discouragement. At about 5 AM on summit day, we saw the curvature of the Earth as the sun approached the horizon. Then, about an hour later, we were treated to an incredibly beautiful sunrise.
But even amongst this awesome beauty was the prospect of becoming truly deflated by the challenges if you didn’t consider the question: What matters most right now?
“When we saw the snow-covered mountain emerge from the clouds for the first time, I felt very intimidated, wondering how I could possibly get to the top. I had to shift my thinking to just focus on the next step I needed to take to move forward,” said my colleague Caren. “Each day I realized that I was stronger than I thought, that I could push myself further. It wasn’t about making it to the top—it was about taking it one moment at a time, feeling gratitude for the incredible experience and focusing on the people in my life that matter the most.”
When we were about halfway through the trek, the porters learned I had two artificial knees. They started calling me Chuma Mtu, which means “Iron Man” in Swahili. While my son loved the nickname, it brought pressure because Iron Man could not fail.
Bringing Home Lessons from the Mountain
The sense of family and the trust that developed among our fellow climbers and guides was almost beyond explanation. The guides, and even the porters, would constantly caution us, saying, “Pole, Pole,” which means “slowly” in Swahili, to emphasize that we had to go at a snail’s pace at times to allow for acclimatization.
But the one story of peer support that surpassed all others happened after Shen and I had climbed all night on summit night.
It was about 7:15 AM and we were exhausted. I looked at Shen and he seemed completely dazed. Concerned, I asked, “Shen, are you OK?” No answer. “Shen, you have to answer me. Are you OK?” I persisted. He nodded yes. Then, our guide came back to him and asked, “Shen, do you want to go back?” Shen shook his head no, while a park ranger was looking on.
And then, it happened. From about a quarter mile above, our fellow climbers on the crater rim saw Shen and started cheering and screaming for him. Hearing them, he put his head down and started walking. We made it to the crater rim, and ultimately to the summit of Kilimanjaro. But, without that outpouring of love and camaraderie, I’m not sure the result would have been the same.
“Over the course of our climb, my understanding of what I considered to be my ‘family’ ultimately extended to include my colleagues, their amazing children, other hikers and all of our incredible guides, porters and cooking staff—all 140 of us that shared this incredible experience,” said Jo Ann. “We relied on one another for support, encouragement and inspiration that could often be found in the smallest of gestures. We became personally vested in each other’s journey, and drew energy from one another to help make it through the challenging times and celebrate our accomplishments along the way.”
As we journey through life and business, we need to ask ourselves: What can I do to care for myself and others during times of uncertainty or when things get tough?
“Climbing Kilimanjaro was the hardest thing mentally, physically and emotionally that I have ever done,” says Jennifer, who hiked with a new DePuy Synthes Hip System. “I learned I am a lot stronger and resilient than I ever thought I was. I also learned about letting my guard down and letting others help me. When my husband was taken off the mountain with altitude sickness, I was overwhelmed and completely lost. By allowing myself to be vulnerable and rely on the support of my adult children, fellow climbers and their families and our caring guides, I found the motivation and inspiration to make it to the summit.”
In our lives, there will be pressure, insecurity and trust issues—and we’ll need resilience, teamwork and the right balance of stress and recovery to prepare for surprises and adapt to what life gives us.
On the late afternoon of summit day, and after a somewhat intimidating briefing on summit night expectations, I asked Shen how he felt about everything. His response: “I think you’re a little crazy for bringing everyone here.”
But, hey, perhaps you need a little bit of insanity to attempt to climb a 19,000+-foot mountain.
When we were about halfway through the trek, the porters learned I had two artificial knees. They started calling me Chuma Mtu (pronounced chooma-meh-tu), which means “Iron Man” in Swahili. While my son loved the nickname, it brought pressure because Iron Man could not fail.
And I didn’t. Out of 29 climbers, 26 of us made it to the summit, including all four members of our company team.
As I look back on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I realize that reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro wasn’t the true goal. The life lessons we each learned during the trek was the real destination, and that is what made this trip the adventure of a lifetime.
What’s your Kilimanjaro? Watch as Jack, captured on camera halfway up his trek to the summit, explains the importance of training for life’s challenges—no matter what they may be.