Trudging through muddy paths, hanging precariously on cliffs with loose stones, passing magnificent waterfalls gushing straight out of rocks, lighting a bush fire on top of a windy mountain or gasping for breath at 5,895 metres above sea level is not what Kenyan employees used to do to bond or build resilience in workplaces.
But now, organisations are taking up mountain hiking as a bonding and a team-building exercise.
Cold at one point, drenched in sweat in another instance and anxious while manoeuvring harsh terrains, mountain climbing exposes employees' vulnerabilities, making them lean on each other's strength to reach the peak.
“When you are at the top of a mountain, it puts everything into perspective. You are a tiny spec in the greater scheme of things. It is a very humbling feeling,” says Ronald Marambii, the managing director of Bank of Africa (BOA) who recently climbed Mt Kenya with his team. For Mr Marambii, hiking was a natural progression from jogging almost daily.
“I have always enjoyed outdoors and jogging,” he says.
In May, the BOA team of 12 climbers made it up to Lenana, the third highest summit on Mt Kenya.
To build endurance for the Mt Kenya hike, Mr Marambii says that they had to do test runs, including climbing Ngong Hills and Mt Longonot, which were high enough to work on their muscles.
His most memorable hike was Mt Satima in Aberdare Ranges, which takes a hiker to an altitude where one has to learn how to breath to avoid altitude sickness. The night before the hike, it rained heavily but the bad weather did not deter the team.
They left Nairobi at 6pm and arrived at 10pm. As luck would have it, one of the trucks got stuck in mud and the team struggled until 3am to push it out. They walked five kilometres to the base camp. They did not make it to Satima peak but clocked a total 30 kilometres on the hike.
“We did not reach the peak but we were excited and it brought guys together. As a team leader, it was stressful but everyone was OK,” says Mr Marambii, who also joined the Central Bank of Kenya employees climb up Mt Kilimanjaro last year.
For a team leader, reaching the top of a mountain means that the entire group has to make it up safely, a point that Daniel Amanja, an assistant director for research at Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) agrees to.
While climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, Dr Amanja was left in charge of his hiking team after the CBK deputy governor was unable to complete the climb on medical advice.
Well into his 50s, Dr Amanja’s fitness levels can put a teenager to shame. He and four others were ‘sweepers’, he says, meaning that they had to make sure no one falls behind or gets hurt.
Ten years ago, he took a picture of Mt Kilimanjaro peaking from the clouds. The photo graced his computer but little did he know that he would make his way to the top of the mountain that is Africa’s tallest.
When he got to Mt Kilimanjaro peak, he could barely contain his excitement, taking dozens of photos at the famous signboards and at the edge of the peak.
Bank of Africa, CBK and Pernod Ricard Kenya are some of the organisations that have taken to the summit to build strong teams and also raise funds for various causes, veering from the norm of marathons and roadshows.
The three raised funds for Angaza Kifafa under the National Epilepsy Coordination Committee, St. Kizito Litein School for the Deaf and Mathare Entrepreneurship respectively.
“As an organisation, it was important to us to undertake a true challenge and put ourselves through something difficult as a team,” says Predrag Amidzic, the managing director Pernod Ricard Kenya, who climbed Mt Kilimanjaro.
Despite being a lover of extreme sports, Mr Amidzic says that the climb was the hardest thing he has done in his life.
Before hikes, one can build stamina by running up multiple flights of stairs, walking for even 18 kilometres everyday, adhering to a strict diet and drinking plenty of water.
Sophy Musande, a credit administration manager at Bank of Africa, walks into the interview with a 'giant' water bottle, which she sips religiously through the interview.
Water, she says, is good when climbing mountains. It helps release the toxins from the body and reduces mountain sickness as the air thins at high altitudes.
Craig Van der Zee, the head of finance at Pernod Ricard Kenya, says to prepare for Mt Kilimanjaro hike, he walked his dog daily, did squats and lunges.
The most treacherous times during the hike, were the cold and windy nights, he says.
“Despite all, it’s a beautiful trip through the rainforest, the moorland, the desert tundra and then the ice caps. It’s an opportunity to challenge yourself physically and mentally,” he adds.
His colleague Wairimu Kagwa, who has also climbed Mt Kenya and Mt Meru, says she prepared herself mentally but made little effort doing physical exercises, which she regretted terribly.
“But when I got to the peak, there was a feeling of elation, exhaustion, lack of sleep, lightheadedness … mixed with a feeling of urgency to get to lower altitude as soon as possible,” she says.
The Pernod Ricard team reached the peak on one of the coldest and windiest nights in three years.
“The last hour of the climb, from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak, was agonising. All physical and mental strength was gone with the wind, literally. The wind was blowing so hard I had to hold on to Omari (one of the guides) because I thought I was about to be blown off the mountain.
Apparently, those were some of the strongest winds experienced in the last three years,” says Maryanne Ng’ang’a, a community manager at the alcoholic beverages company.
“The weather was truly terrible. The wind was boisterous, a true Siberia cold (oddly enough we were in Tanzania), snow up to the knees … everything managed to freeze from water bottles, backpacks, fingers, toes. I swear, the last day of the ascent was worthy of a Hollywood movie: ‘Pernod Ricard Kenya versus The Roof of Africa’,’’ jokingly says Damien Souchet from Pernod Ricard.
Stephen Mwania, his colleague adds: ‘‘I was thirsty, my water had frozen. I couldn’t feel my left palm. I could see the peak yet I felt like I should quit. But I didn’t, thanks to my colleague Rory who helped me through.”
Even for those who regularly take on tough physical challenges and have trained consistently, mountain climbing can never be a walk in the park.
Corporal Lindah Kathambi of the police service went up Mt Kilimanjaro with the CBK team. Even with her training as a police officer, in addition to climbing many mountains and doing daily runs, she still broke a sweat.
“We had climbed Mt Longonot, Mt Ugali, Kilima Kiu, Aberdare Ranges, Ngong Hills, Mt Kilimambogo … about 10 of them to prepare,” she says, adding that the continuous test runs before tackling high mountains help build stamina.
“Team work and confidence is essential for hiking,” she explains.
"There was a point on the Barranco walls on Mt Kilimanjaro also known as Breakfast walls where people hold hands and support each other as not to fall.’’