My wife and I came back from our trip to Kenya. We achieved our primary goal of climbing Mount Kenya. My wife was able to get on Nelion and Batian, the highest two peaks in Mount Kenya. According to Wikipedia, only 200 people get on Nelion each year and only 50 people get on Batian each year.
I attribute the success to polepole (pronounced “PO-lay-PO-lay”), which is Swahili for slowly. The mountain isn’t necessary hard. The major cause of failed attempts is altitude sickness. In a mild form of altitude sickness, you get headaches and vomiting. In more severe forms you get fluid build-up in your lungs or in your brain, which can be life threatening. Altitude sickness is caused by ascending to high altitude too fast. It often affects the young and the very fit more, because the young and the very fit are able to ascend fast to begin with.
The standard itinerary for climbing Mount Kenya goes from the bottom of the mountain to the top in four days. We paid extra to our tour operator and made our itinerary six days. When we met other tourists on our way up, we would naturally chit chat about each others’ plans for the next few days. Others were going twice the distance and twice the elevation per day. It naturally made us wonder whether we were too conservative and we were missing out. Our guide kept telling us polepole.
Polepole won in the end. When we finally reached the highest hut, we were very well acclimatized. We were able to perform to our ability and achieve our goal successfully. We weren’t trying to set a speed record. Making sure we get there and come down safely was more important to us than the number of days it took.
On our way up we met a young couple from Estonia who were very close to their next camp but had to come down because they had severe headaches from altitude sickness.
We didn’t just sit in camps when we were going polepole. Our guide took us to caves, waterfalls, and up and down nearby hills for more exercise. We camped at a beautiful lake that other people only look at from a distance. Polepole not only increased our chances of success but it was also more enjoyable.
Polepole applies to preparing for retirement as well. We live in today’s world that incites FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). The age at which one retires is used as a primary measure of success. Retiring in one’s 50s is no longer early. You’d have to do it in your 30s. Before you know, a 12-year-old will have retired already.
Don’t fall for FOMO. Safety and soundness are more important than the age at which one claims the “retired” badge.
Training and Preparation
In addition to practicing polepole, we also prepared ourselves before we went on the trip. We had vaccine for yellow fever and we took prescription pills for preventing malaria, even though we saw very few mosquitoes when were there. We would’ve probably been fine if we didn’t have the shots or take the prescription. Wasted money? Yes, but we are happy to waste it.
Translation for personal finance: Buy insurance if the consequence of an unlikely event is poor.
We also trained for several months. Our longest training hike was 9 hours and over 20 miles with 6,000 feet of elevation gain. When we were in Kenya our longest day up was only 4 hours. We don’t regret our seemingly over-training at all because the training hikes were still very enjoyable even though they may not have been strictly necessary.
Translation for preparing for retirement: If you make your preparation enjoyable, working more years than strictly necessary isn’t a waste.
Help From a Guide
We hired a guide. We learned the Swahili word polepole from our guide. The guide helped us navigate.
We met two guys from Colorado at the top hut. They didn’t have a guide. They got on the second highest peak the day before but they weren’t able to go to the highest peak even though it was only 400 yards away in distance and 10 yards higher in elevation. They failed because they ran out of time after getting lost in finding the start of the route and getting lost again on the way up. Getting a little lost and finding your way can be a small adventure, but getting seriously lost at high elevation can have very bad consequences.
Our guide isn’t necessarily a more capable climber but he knows the way. That made all the difference.
Translation for personal finance: There’s no shame in getting help when you need it. Machismo has its limits.