Rising to the challenge

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Active Financial managing director Karl Pemberton on how the qualities needed to climb a mountain can also help us overcome the Covid crisis…

At the mid-point of 2020, I remarked: “Lockdown is like trying to run through treacle. It may be possible. Just. But the effort required to do so is like nothing you will have experienced before.”

Many of us faced similar challenges, and just getting our heads around things felt pretty stressful. As a little normality returned during the summer and as I reflected on our experiences, I was reminded of another personal challenge I’d faced.

In 2018, I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. It’s the world’s largest volcano and the highest freestanding mountain at 5,895m, or 19,500 ft. It may have become a popular challenge to take on, but it’s certainly no Roseberry Topping!

Inspired by tragic events that year, I spontaneously joined a group of close friends with only ten weeks’ notice, supporting the great causes of Mind and the GEM Appeal.

Thanks to the amazing team at Teesside University, I was able to use altitude training facilities that replicated the sub-zero conditions and prepared my body for the lack of oxygen I was about to endure.

The training was extremely tough, uncomfortable and time-consuming, but I knew it had to be done.

However, how many of us take this approach in our daily lives or our businesses? Do we step out of our comfort zones to learn, develop or upskill?

I am a huge believer in self-development, as are most within the Active team. Having spent years improving our skills through Teesside University Leadership Programme, Institute of Directors Chartered Director programme, Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business and the Chartered Insurance Institute Chartered Financial Planner programme, to name a few, I feel we were as prepared and skilled as possible to deal with what was thrown our way this year.

Had we not invested in ourselves, I’m sure our experiences and outcomes during Covid would have been very different.

My second analogy with climbing Kilimanjaro is about resilience, and especially mental resilience. Adrenaline alone gets you through the first few days on the mountain – perhaps in the same way as it did during the early days of lockdown. That “new” experience quickly disappears once the enormity of the task becomes clear, however.

We first saw the summit on day two or three. An eerily sunny, still and cloud-free day showed us how far we still had to go. It was huge! The battle was then mental, rather than simply physical.

Kilimanjaro was at times a lonely and very dark place to be, especially when pushing towards the summit on the last night.

We had already walked all day before setting off from Kibo Camp at midnight. With only head torches and the moon to light our path, we began shuffling up the mountain, one foot at a time.

It was at least eight hours to the top and you cannot talk because the air is so thin, and you need every ounce of oxygen to simply catch your breath.

It’s just you, the elements and your thoughts. The only way of stopping the pain and loneliness is by throwing the towel in – but if you do, you’ve failed! Sound familiar again? I thought like this many times during spring, and you might have too.

At 7.58am, we finally reached the summit, one team member short, taken back down with altitude sickness – which is an extremely kind term. Our friend collapsed and if she wasn’t taken to a lower altitude immediately, was at risk of a cerebral oedema!

Emotions were, therefore, mixed – proud, exhilarated, elated, yet exhausted, struggling to breathe and daunted by the almost immediate trek back down. More energy was needed, but from where? I had nothing left!

My words probably don’t do it justice, but when three fabulous mothers in our group say the pain was worse than childbirth, you get the gist!

I never thought I had mental resilience until that night. I thought of myself as “normal”, maybe even weaker than many. Perhaps that’s just our Teesside trait of not believing in ourselves?

I proved to myself that not only am I capable of getting through some dark and challenging times, but also how resilient the human body can be in such extreme conditions.

Thankfully, we don’t often get the chance to test ourselves to this extreme level, but 2020 has pushed many of those same buttons for me as Kilimanjaro did back then.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is that I had climbed the mountain before, in 2011. However, I was the one who was taken back down after collapsing on the midnight push for the summit. My body simply couldn’t cope with the altitude. I’d given my all, but it wasn’t enough.

That time I had not prepared as much or focused on the challenge. I fell into the trap of thinking that if others could do it then so could I.

Unlike my first attempt, my 2018 climb was with a group of close friends, who cared about each other and had each other’s back, no matter what. We were all climbing for the same cause and were together during the difficult times and to celebrate the successes, too. We were a team.

I firmly believe the business community of Teesside is also one of real friends and we should be proud to use the support on offer. Our community has many great, inspiring and normal people willing to help, you just have to reach out and make the most of it.

Asking for help is no weakness, it is a strength. I would not have got up that mountain without those around to push and support me.

Finally, it would have been easy for me to use this space to simply promote what we do here at Active and why.

However, after the year we’ve all had, I felt it important to show solidarity within the business community.

Preparation, resilience and solidarity got me to the top of Kilimanjaro and through 2020. I’m confident these qualities will also help get you through these challenging times. Do send me a message if I can help in any way. Let’s get through 2021 together.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the great Sir Edmund Hillary: “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”