S-l-o-w-l-y

Nov 02, 2016

Before we left for Kilimanjaro, I’d read that we’d hear the phrase pole pole (say pole-ay pole-ay) a lot. It means slowly in Swahili, and it’s what the guides say as you’re hiking. Makes sense: we knew going slowly was the key to getting used to the elevation and getting to the summit. It’s why we picked a seven-day route up rather than trying to get there in four. Slow & steady wins this particular race hands-down; it’s the key to staving off altitude sickness, which can stop you from reaching the summit.

Knowing that doesn’t make walking slowly any less annoying, however.

If you’re anything like me, a Type-A, get-‘er-done kind of person, walking slowly is something other people do. I move quickly, all the time and everywhere. I have things to do, places to be, people to see. This is the exact wrong attitude to bring to Kilimanjaro. You know who has a high success rate of summiting? Middle-aged, kind of overweight women for whom walking slowly might come naturally. Guess which group can struggle to summit? Very fit, younger men who just want to race up to the top and get there before anyone else in their group. The altitude gods smirk at the testosterone-fueled young guns, allowing them to go almost all the way up before bitch-slapping them with a headache that leaves the poor guys whimpering. The slower climbers make steady progress up to the top of Africa, passing the young guns who are stumbling back down the mountain and will only see the summit in other people’s photos.

Pole pole. The guides say it and the hikers pick up the mantra. Pole pole. Slow & steady.

I actually practiced walking slowly as part of our training and it made me a little crazy. I finally gave up, knowing that I’d be forced to walk slowly once we started hiking in a line, book-ended by guides. Believe it or not, I came to appreciate the slow pace. It was hard to go fast. The higher we climbed the harder it got. I recall starting to jog over to the dining tent at 15,000 feet and immediately feeling like I was running through oatmeal. Altitude made me fatigued and out of breath. I couldn’t run if I was on fire – I’d never make it to my destination. But I could get there by slowing down and simply walking. Pole pole.

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