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8 Days Unplugged-From Summiting Mount Kilimanjaro to COVID-19 Re-Entry

Written By: Cris De Souza



On March 8th, 2020 I left Miami Beach, FL to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, summiting Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. I was supposed to make this journey 2 years ago with two of my dear girlfriends, however it wasn’t in the cards. My flight from FLL to JFK was delayed due to weather (it was January), and Qatar Airways had one daily flight from JFK to JRO via Doha. Needless to say; I missed my connection and the next available flight was 3 days later, by that time my climbing team would have been ½ way up the mountain.


Fast forward two years later, I decided a “do-over” was in order, and my itch and quest to summit Kili was not going away. I signed up for the next climb, and went to train for 6 months, hiking the sand dunes of Johnathan Dickenson State Park and sleeping on the ground in a tent for 2-3 nights in a row between day-hikes, or however long I could sneak away.


This trek was to benefit Leukemia Lymphoma Society, I was climbing in honor of a dear childhood friend who lost his life to leukemia. At 8 years old, I volunteered to donate my bone marrow (my friend was adopted) and was a match and my friend Todd Franklin’s life was extended by 5 years as a result and he lived to be 13 years old. The climb was to honor his memory and raise money and awareness for all blood related cancers.


Before leaving, I checked in with my fearless leader, Jackie Friedman, President of Nexion Travel Group and asked if I should leave on my journey, the COVID-19 pandemic was just starting to make waves in the travel industry. She reassured me everything would be fine and gave me the green light to embark on my adventure of a lifetime.


An Extraordinary Climbing Team with One Degree of Separation

Upon my arrival in Moshi, Tanzania on March 10th, I met my climbing team in person for the first time, we had met serval times via Zoom, it was amazing to meet them in person. They were extraordinary human beings, all marathon runners and two were leukemia survivors, we were a team of 6 in total and raised over $50K for Leukemia, Lymphoma Society’s Climb4ACure as a group.


As the universe would orchestrate, one of my climbing partner’s (Tony Giavonicci) little brother was a former colleague of mine at Royal Caribbean, I actually hired him into the company’s revenue management department 20 years ago!


The Harsh Reality of COVID-19 Re-Entry

Upon returning from my journey of a lifetime and summiting the “rooftop of Africa,” I had no idea that life as I knew it would change in an instant. I just came back from the trip of a lifetime, summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, the rooftop of Africa and on the long flight home, I had some time to reflect, I asked myself “what’s next” “what’s the next mountain to climb in my life?” I had no idea the biggest challenge I faced in my life was to happen just a couple days later.


Two days after I came home and went back to work, I got a call from my boss, she immediately put me on hold and connected us with human resources. In less than four minutes, life as I knew it changed in an instant. My position had been eliminated due to COVID-19. As a divorced mom and breadwinner who’s livelihood is responsible for providing for my two sons, I immediately felt sick to my stomach. A wave of anxiety and dread came over me, I was paralyzed in fear.


In the same week, I went from feeling on top of the world to spiraling down to the lowest valley, I had fallen into a deep well of fear, dread, and despair and I felt like there was no way out of the well, I was in too deep.


After a weekend of wallowing, a voice inside my head said to me, “Cris-you’ve been through this twice before in your career, and you’ve managed to make it to the other side, you’ve always landed in a better place, with more abundance and happiness.”


3 Powerful & Profound Lessons Learned from the side of the mountain

And in that one moment, with that one message, I made a simple pivot, a shift in my focus and my mindset, and I was out of the well, just like that. I felt a great sense of peace, liberation, and freedom I had never experienced before in my life. It was that same day I reflected and recorded the powerful and profound lessons I learned from the side of the mountain, later which I coined “the message of the mountain.” An opportunity to serve other people who’s lives had been affected by COVID-19 unfolded. Four months later, I’ve had the privilege and the pleasure of sharing “the message of the mountain” and have touched over 2K people in an effort to inspire and remind all of us of these moments of awakening.


Lesson 1: You Must Have the Right Tools for the Job

I thought I would have everything I needed to successfully climb the mountain inside of my equipment bag . It looks big, however you have to fit all your stuff inside the bag (toiletries, clothes, gear, sleeping bag, sleeping pad). To climb Kilimanjaro, you must go with a guide service, you can’t go on your own & your porter carries bag to every camp for you. I did a ton of research on having all the right gear and I spent a pretty penny ensuring I was well equipped.


What I learned after arriving in Moshi, was the most valuable tool I brought with me wasn’t inside of my equipment bag, it was between my two ears, it was my mindset. The mindset I brought with me was that instead of turning away from pain, I had to turn towards it, I had to face it and embrace it, I had to have some level of curiosity and be open to what was happening inside my body.


Every day in our journey we went up in altitude, it was difficult. That summit night, I had to say “yes” so many times. Every time we took a break, there was an option to turn back, and I had to “say yes” again and again. In the first 2 hours of that summit night, I emptied my gut, I suffered from extreme altitude sickness. At 4 hours, I tried to eat a power bar, and it was frozen solid, so I had no food. 5-6 hours into summit night, my water supply froze. At that point I had no water. Every time we took a break, I had to stand back up and say “yes, I will continue climbing.” It was that mindset I brought with me and that I had acquired through training the countless weekends before I stepped foot on the airplane.


I told myself, “Cris-you just say yes one more time, and get back up. You can choose to stay in and sleep or you can choose to say yes and do that run, complete that hike.” The right tool for the job was a positive mindset.


Mindset Moment #1: Getting Stuck Before Getting Started…

Speaking of mindset, on the way from the Londerossi gate to Big Tree Camp where our journey was to begin and it started to rain. I don’t just mean rain, it downpoured, it was a deluge. The road to Big Tree was dirt, when the dirt got wet, it turned into mud.


Our bus with all our equipment on top got stuck, I don’t just mean stuck, I mean stuck. It took all of us laying down 2×4 planks under the wheels, finding rocks and small boulders for leverage and all of us getting behind the bus to push the bus out of the mud bog.


We made it, and we were covered in mud from head to toe, we were completely exhausted, and we hadn’t even begun our journey….Many of us have come across these mud bogs recently in our travel businesses and in our lives, I’m sure you can all relate….


Mindset Moment #2: The Baranco Wall

The Barranco Wall….only 2.5 miles of distance, elevation gain that day was 5.4K feet, basically it was a straight up climbing day.


Of my group, I think I was the only one who loved the wall, most everyone else hated it….what I loved about this portion of the climb was that it was very technical and you really needed agility and a “spider man” sense of movement to enjoy it. From a mindset perspective, what I loved about it was that the only thing I could focus on was the present, my next hand placement, my next foot placement…It really kept me centered on the “here and now.” Sometimes it looked like we could move up the wall the way the rocks were situated, and sometimes we had to backtrack and try another route.


I was listening to a leadership webinar recently with John Maxwell, and he talked about how we used to say “life is a marathon, not a sprint.” Maxwell said, today with COVID-19, we need to change our mindset to think of “life as a maze, not a marathon.” He said we’ll have to always try new paths and directions, when it leads to a dead end, we may have to back-track and navigate a new path.


Mindset Moment #3: The Lava Tower

On day 3, our journey was climbing to the lava tower and the entire hike that day was full of boulders and rocks and this day was a 7-hour hike, mostly up-hill with a final elevation of 4,500 meters (15K feet) once we reached the tower, this was one of the toughest days of the journey for me as the boulders were bigger than houses, my legs quivered from the ascent and I became out of breath as the air became noticeably thin with the elevation gain. As travel advisors, we’ve all had to stay positive in the rough terrain of the past several weeks for our clients, for our families, for ourselves….it’s important that we acknowledge that we’ve had the mother of all boulders put in our path. Our collective strength, resilience, and positive mindset has made all the difference in how we spend our days and how we show up for our clients, our families and ourselves.


Mindset Moment #4: Embracing the Unexpected-From Monkeys to Moonscapes

Another aspect of the journey I particularly enjoyed as it relates to mindset was embracing the unexpected….In the beginning, we saw exotic monkeys in unexpected places and towards the end of the journey, we felt like we were literally walking on the moon…


For us as travel advisors, it’s critical that we embrace the unexpected and focus on the gifts that this experience has given us. Understanding that yes, there are real hardships, real struggles, real pain, and challenges and on the flip side, what are some of the unexpected gifts we’ve received as a part of this unplanned journey? For me, it’s been the gift of sharing this message with my travel industry community, the gift of being able to home school my younger son and strengthen my relationship with him and the gift of being able to laser focus on my physical, emotional and spiritual health.


Mindset Moment #5: What Happens When the Wheels Fall Off of Your Day…

On day 1 when we were climbing from Big Tree to Shira 1 camp, my porter (who traveled ahead of me, got confused and turned left instead of right. He went left instead of right. He walked 6K in the opposite direction. He was more than 10 kilometers away when I arrived at Shira 1 camp. Everyone had their tent set up for them, with their gear inside their tent except for me… I had two choices when I arrived-I could have a) pitched a fit or b) embrace the unexpected. I chose to embrace the unexpected, my gear arrived just before sundown and I had a roof over my head and a sleeping bag for the night. Since COVID-19 erupted into our daily lives as travel advisors, everyday we have a choice, we can embrace the unexpected and focus on what we can control, which is our own attitude, mindset and actions or we can spend our precious energy and mindset focusing on what’s beyond our control in the outside world. The choice ultimately is yours every day: do you chose to focus on what’s in your control and contain your energy or do you chose to give away your power and energy to circumstances that are beyond your control and crash and burn?


Mindset Moment #6: Appreciating the beauty of Contrast

On our 8-day journey unplugged from the outside world, I was grateful for the beauty of contrast in the extreme differences in the micro-climates we were so privileged to enjoy. From the Moorlands with the “Groot Forest” (trees resembled the character Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy) to the amazing flora, fauna, waterfalls and surprise sightings of the mountain, Kilimanjaro teaches all who climb her to appreciate the beauty of contrast, both on the mountain and in life.


My week of summiting Kili on a Monday and coming into a really tough situation with losing my job on a Friday, was a week of contrast, however I’ve really come to appreciate the gifts this contrast has given me. During our climb, we slept on the ground with a sleeping pad and a sleeping bag for 7 nights. We also had no shower for 8 days. When we came back down the mountain into Moshi, I developed a new level of gratitude and appreciation for a proper bed and running water. On June 3rd, when the beaches re-opened in Miami after being closed for more than 10 weeks, I gained a new level of appreciation for being able to swim in the ocean and walk on the beach. Yes, our lives are different than they were pre-COVID, and they will be forever changed in many ways. It’s up to each and every one of us to find the gratitude and appreciation to accept life on life’s terms today.


Every day when we woke up climbing the mountain, our attitude determined our altitude….and our level of happiness that day…..We all chose gratitude, happiness and smile from the inside out, and we all ended up winning in the end. This is how I start my day every day, I write a gratitude list, each day in the week and I find something new I am grateful for. I also look for one thing I can do every day to serve another human being, how can I help and how can I serve another good human?


Lesson 2: The Power of Tribes

In my climbing team, the six of us were from the U.S. and the rest of the folks on our tribe and team were from Africa, all Tanzanian from the Taugua tribe. An old wise man said that “faith and trust in a higher power can move mountains.” The reality is that it takes 5 Tanzanians to get one American up the mountain to summit Kilimanjaro. For each climber, you have 5 workers supporting you to ensure you have what you need to be successful. From cooks to servers to porters to the eco-toilet attendant to your dedicated guide, mine, his name was Mark, and he will always sit at the right hand of the Father as far as I’m concerned. I let go and let him lead, and he did everything for me except carry my ass up the mountain when times were tough. My tribe helped me when I suffered altitude sickness and they made sure I stayed safe.


There’s a myth that adventurers are “lone wolfs” that can do these great feats because of the strength of their own will and bodies, that myth couldn’t be any further from the truth.


The truth is that my strength to summit, my strength in business and in my life always comes from my “tribes” those groups of people who have my back, who’ve always there and willing to help, and who puts the needs of the tribe ahead of their own needs.


Here in the travel industry, your local ASTA chapter is an invaluable tribe for support, if you belong to a host travel agency-your host agency is a priceless source of strength and encouragement. Every travel advisor has access to powerful personal tribes, it may be your church, your community association, your women’s group. I invite you all to lean into your tribes, lean into each other and draw strength from your collective community if you haven’t already done so.


My Kilimanjaro climbing team was an incredible tribe and I will always be connected with in such a deep and profound way.


Ron summited Everest the year prior, was an ultra-marathon runner, owns the largest patent law firm in the world and is living with leukemia successfully at 65 years old. Jen is an HR Director for a millennial start-up in silicon valley and also a marathon runner. Craig is also a leukemia survivor, works as a pharmaceutical sales rep for Novartis. He reps the drug that saves his life on a daily basis to oncology units across the country. Tony is Craig’s childhood friend there to support him on his summit.


Our climbing team wouldn’t have made it to the top of the mountain if it wasn’t for our incredible support team from Tanzania. Our support team “chopped wood and carried water” rain or shine, set up camp for us before we arrived, they were magic elves working hard for us. Together as one-tribe of incredible humans, we all helped each other and when a guide fell down, a member of the climbing team was there to help. When a climber became injured the support team was there with a “Kilimanjaro stretcher” to bring her down the mountain. Every morning, our support team got us motivated with tribal song and dance, they truly elevated our state and put us in a winning mindset for the day.


Regardless of what your current struggle and challenge is today, I invite you to lean into the collective strength and power of your own tribes. It took a village to get all of us safely and successfully to the summit of Kili, and it will take a village to get all of us through this pandemic and safely through to the other side.


On summit night, we lifted each other up when we couldn’t go any further and when our survival mindset said, “I can’t do this anymore.” In the end, a village that sings together, dances together and celebrates together stays together and emerges victorious in the end…


Lesson 3: The Power of Presence-Listen to Your Body & Stay Focused

On my 8-day journey unplugged from the outside world, I learned the priceless lesson of the power of presence. I learned that I must travel at the speed of my body (not at the speed of my thoughts) and surrender to the present moment-I learned this twice on the hike.


On the first night, my bag was delivered to my tent, and I thought that sleeping at 13K feet should be a breeze, I snow skied in Breckenridge Colorado and slept at altitude, this should be easy! That night when I went to unroll my sleeping pad and I tried to blow it up, I was completely out of breath. My porter offered to inflate the pad, I tried again and failed. I looked at the pad and looked at myself and said I need the help of the porter. My body had been hiking all day up at 15K feet (we would climb high, and sleep low), and I had to listen to my body and let my porter do for me what I couldn’t do for myself that night.


The second time I learned the power of presence and listening to my body was on summit night. “Pole-Pole” or “slowly-slowly” is how you hike, one step at a time, sometimes painfully. We were only 100 feet from the summit, so close. I saw the sign, I knew where I was going. I tried to run to the sign to be the first to get that famous picture, and I fell to the ground like a rag doll. I got up, my guide Mark said to me, “pole-pole Half Pint.” I was given the name “Half Pint” as my climbing name by my tribe as I was the shortest climber on my team. I had to take one slow step at a time for 100 feet to make it to the sign, at the same slow speed I had been traveling all night. My body would not let me travel any faster at 19, 341 feet.


Part two of that lesson came earlier that morning around 2:00 a.m., my thoughts traveled much faster than the speed of my body. I made the fatal mistake of asking my guide Mark, “how much longer” and he answered, “you don’t want me to answer that, if I do, you will not make it to the summit. Just focus on putting one step in front of the other, stay in the present moment. Focus on your breath, in, out and focus on one step at a time, at my speed. Slow down your mind and focus on the here and now. Can you do that?” I responded, “Yes.”


For the next 5 hours straight, I focused on “this step, this breath, this step, this breath, this step, this breath” for hours and hours. It was the only way I could find enough energy inside my body to keep on going the whole night. When my brain and thinking started going fast-forward and asking “how much further is it out there? How much longer after the dawn? Why isn’t the moon moving? This is the longest night of the year.” My thoughts were traveling faster than my body. When I started fading out my thoughts and focusing on my body and the speed I was traveling (which was set by my guide, not by me), I was able to take on the entire night of hiking and not feel the frustration of the future thinking “when am I going to get to the top, and when am I going to get to the bottom? Will the plane ride to Doha and Miami be on time?”


The power of presence for me was surrendering and being at the mercy of the mountain and my body, embracing “pole-pole” and focusing on the next step, one step at a time. As travel advisors, we are at the mercy of the speed of the pandemic. We can’t make the pandemic cycle through our communities and our country and our any industry faster than the pace of the virus.


Winning for me, in the end wasn’t emerging victorious and summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. Winning for me was embracing and learning the “messages from the mountain.” Winning for me today is all about this equation:

A Positive Mindset + Embrace Your Tribe + Slow Down=

Success & Happiness in Business & Life


At the end of the day today, it’s important for all of us to remember that the fog will clear and the sun will rise again!