Do You REALLY Want to Hike That Mountain? Or: the Dangers of Overweening Optimism

Do You REALLY Want to Hike That Mountain? Or: the Dangers of Overweening Optimism

I had the good fortune of working in Nairobi, Kenya this year. It had been 15 years since I have traveled to that beautiful country and while I normally like to go to new countries if at all possible (there are so many to explore), I was looking forward to finding some new places to play in Kenya after my work was over.

A colleague recommended Mt. Longonot, located one and a half hours outside Nairobi, where all the flowers of Europe are grown and shipped from. My new friend told me I could take the day and hike up and around the rim. It’s about 15km high at the highest peak and 10km at the rim.

Let’s take a risk, I thought, having read the research about how moved experiences make us happier. I thought I would break from my normal routine of slugging or site seeing in a new country and try something more active.

My driver guide picked me up at 6am at my hotel and said to me: 

“Hi. I’m Black Santa.” 

“What?” I said in my sleep-deprived voice. 

“I’m Black Santa. I’ll be your guide for the day.” 

I thought I was in a Tyler Perry movie for a minute. Black Santa? At least he was funny. I thought I didn’t get the joke, but then he explained.  His name really is Santa. He uses the joke as a litmus test to see if his passengers have a sense of humor. I passed. This is why I love to travel. If someone said that in the US you’d probably get slapped or at least a talking to. 

He had me sit in the front of the van with him. Suddenly we were equals, friends (or friendly) rather than tourist, driver. 

As we drove in the dark toward our destination, I saw lots of school children and their parents standing on the side of the road. Or walking. And walking. And walking. Since we had been driving for a while I knew there wasn’t much where they were headed. “Where are they walking to?”

“School,” he said.

“How long will it take them to get there?”

“A few hours.”

A few hours?! My kids complained when we had to walk the mile back from the 4th of July fireworks because our hotel shuttle was stuck in traffic. 

On we pressed. After the obligatory stop at a roadside market where I was sized up and the wares were appropriately marked up for me, we drove to our destination. Mt. Longonot.

Note to self:  If you are going to hike during the day in Africa, near the equator, and you are melanin deprived, bring your own sunscreen.  In other words, prepare. Your melanin-abundant guide will not have any.

“Are you sure? We could try to buy some,” Santa said. 

“No, no, I’ll be fine.” My midwestern ‘don’t bother anyone’ disposition combined with my optimistic ‘I’ll be fine’ thoughts didn’t serve me here. I, as it turned out, was not fine in the African heat. I burned. My neck and shoulders were practically sizzling by the 3rd hour of hiking. It might not have been so bad if I could have hiked faster. But here it turns out was my second major area of OPTIMISM – BLINDNESS. 

I think I’m fitter than I am. In my head, I’m the same size and fitness level I was before having children, before my father died, before I turned 40 and my metabolism changed.

We started hiking. I started panting. 

Santa asked me, “Do you work out a lot?”

“Some,” I huffed. 

We hiked a bit more as I felt my heart rate rising. I looked down at my Apple watch. My heart rate was getting close to my max and we weren’t halfway up to the rim. 

“You ok?” 

“Yup,” I gritted. “Just fine!” My banter with Santa slowed as I thought, ‘Ok all I have to do is get to the rim. I can do this.’ 

The only weight we’re carrying is water – and we need it. It is hot and dusty on Mt. Longonot. A thick film of dust covers my arms.

Also, note to self: investing in hiking pants is more akin to investing in an experience (i.e., no heatstroke) rather than just purchasing for consumerism. While I had hiking boots and others on the trail were hiking in Vans, I had the misfortune of wearing jeans. Yes. Jeans. Really I am usually more prepared than this. 

After about two hours we made it to the rim. ‘Yes!’ I thought. ‘We can go take a nice boat ride on Lake Naivasha, take a few pictures, and then I can post on social media and be done.’

Shannon Polly hiking Mt. Longonot

“Now we go to the top of the rim,” Santa said with a smile.

“No, Santa, that’s ok. I’m good.” (The indirect Americanism of “I’m good” didn’t translate very well.) 

“Ok, if you are good, we rest a little and we go.” 

“No, no, I meant I don’t need to go to the top.”

 “Oh but it’s very beautiful. You have come all this way!”

Call me unambitious, but I didn’t feel the need to scale the top of the unknown mountain in Kenya. If I’d paid to go to Kilimanjaro, maybe, but this was just a day trip. 

Santa and I went back and forth for a few minutes. It was a bit awkward due to the fact that other tourists (including one from my husband’s tiny home town) were listening to us. I felt embarrassed. 

Finally, Santa looks at me and delivers the death blow. “Yes. We. Can.” Oh boy. Invoking Obama’s quote to an American, while I’m in Kenya. How could I push back on that?

So on we went. We compromised that we would go to the peak and back, rather than all the way around, which was a slightly shorter route. As we kept walking my heart rate started climbing again. The four different types of rock started to be less fascinating as they were slipping under me and I had to grab onto trees to keep from falling. 

“You are not fit but we will go slow,” Santa said. 

WTF? I bust out in a half-laugh, half protest sound. 

“What? You are not. We will make it – yes we can!”

I looked at my water. I felt my heart pounding in my chest and my watch says 189 bpm. That is way above my max. No wonder I’m heaving. 

“Are you ok?” Now Santa looks worried. I don’t think he wants a dead American on his hands. 

“I’m fine,” I said in an angry tone. 

“You will remember this when you are back at home in DC eating pizza,” he replies.  

I’m seething under my hat.  I love pizza.

I look at my watch again. 

“What does that do?” he asks.

“It tells me my heart rate and calories burned.” 

“All that in a watch? Well good, that means you are losing weight.” 

I give him a look that says, “I can’t believe you just said that.”

“What? You are losing weight. Don’t you want to lose weight?” 

“Santa,” I panted, “You don’t say that to American women.”

“Why?  Should I tell you to love your big booty instead?”

“Ugh,” I sighed, exasperated. 

“What?” 

“I’ll tell you when we are back at the van.”

I didn’t feel like explaining why I was offended for almost everything coming out of his mouth. I was too busy fighting the voices in my head. 

  • I don’t have a lot of cartilage under my knee caps. 
  • What if your knee blows out here? Who will rescue you? 
  • What were you thinking? 
  • Just turn around. 
  • Stand up for yourself. 
  • What if you have a heart attack? Your mom had that heart condition, you know. 
  • This is not fun. 
  • And you didn’t pack sunscreen? 

Santa keeps turning around and checking on me. We’re both worried that I won’t make it to the top, that I won’t feel like I got my money’s worth and therefore he won’t get a tip. But I’m also worried about me. Sort of. “Don’t fall. I can’t carry you.” 

Santa hasn’t learned the sunk cost theory. I don’t feel like I need to get to the top to get my money’s worth. The money is spent. Does that make me unambitious? Or worse yet, a quitter? Angela Duckworth coined the word “grit” and is now a bestseller because of it.

Caroline Miller, MAPP has said in response that there is such a thing as “stupid grit.” Persevering in the face of evidence that maybe this isn’t the best path for you. My training for the Army 10 Miler ended about a week into my training. It turns out my orthopedic surgeon father was right. My knees aren’t suited to long-distance running. Does that make me weak for quitting? 

Sometimes when I facilitate programs, they will have surprising quotes on the wall and the NASA ”failure is not an option” is a favorite. 

Also Churchill? “Never, never, never give up.” Even though he was talking about the enemy during wartime.

Well, spoiler alert;  I didn’t die. I didn’t blow out my knee. Our 3 km hike took about 5-6 hours. It made me realize the domain areas where I am “Growth mindset” and “Fixed mindset.” 

I checked my phone on the rim and had a client ask if I could facilitate a program I had never seen (when most people only facilitate it after having seen it at least three times). Sure! I wrote back. Growth mindset. Five minutes later I’m imagining my death on this mountain (or Santa’s death). Very fixed mindset. I realized that as I was alone with my thoughts. But just realizing didn’t help me snap out of it and think “what a wonderful growth experience!” Nope. I was still angry. Albeit, grateful for the German tourists who shared their sunscreen. But still angry by the time we got down. 

I’ve never enjoyed a cold bottle of water more in my life. 

Am I glad I went to the top peak rather than stay at the rim? I’m not sure. It would be a tidy ending to say, ‘I’ve grown so much…I’ve learned about myself and am looking for that next mountain top experience….’ But to be honest, I’m not so sure.  Is going halfway up a mountain ‘enough’ or ‘settling’?

When I got down I texted a (very fit) friend and told her I had just hiked a mountain. 

She wrote back:

 “Why on Earth would you do that?”

Shannon Polly after hiking Mt. Longonot.

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