I remember taking this photo of Mount Kilimanjaro. We had just spent the day climbing up Mount Mawenzi which rises up opposite it. We had just stopped to take a break. At 4300 meters, the air was thin with oxygen and I was weary. As I looked across to Mount Kilimanjaro, the mountain we had set our sights on summiting, I was struck by the irony that we spent the day investing a lot of energy climbing a different mountain and ostensibly getting further away from our goal.

But I had learned the mountain climber’s adage: climb high, sleep low. By ascending to higher altitudes, the body immediately begins to acclimatize to less oxygen. The moment we reached the higher altitudes, our bodies would begin to adapt to the thinner air and continue to do so even though we would later descend. When we descended to a lower altitude to sleep, our adaptation process would continue so that our sleep would be even more oxygen rich at the lower altitude than if we hadn’t ascended first. And we would already be more efficient in our oxygen consumption for the higher altitudes to come in the following days.

Even though I knew the importance of what we were doing, I remember at that time thinking how wasteful that extra day’s climbing felt to me. Years later I can see the value of this day. Not just for the improvement in oxygen (our life force) but also because I learned on that day that I needed to bring more water with me as I ran out early in that day’s climb. This ensured that for our Kilimanjaro summit, I was better prepared, both aerobically and with sufficient water. It is only with hindsight and rest that I realized the value of this apparent backwards-step of a day.

If our full attention is given to the attainment of our goals we may never reflect on the importance of the seeming failures, backtracks, disappointments, and u-turns. We may end up missing the value and contribution these events have had on our lives and the lessons that can contribute towards achieving our dreams. It can make sense to pause and reflect on a setback and see if it may indeed be as important as progress made forwards, and an equally valuable contribution to a rich and vital life.

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