By Ami Kapilevich
As the leader of the 7 Summits Africa Challenge, Åke Lindstrom is marrying his two greatest passions: high altitude and African tourism development. Starting 4 November, the mountaineer who summits Kilimanjaro up to 10 times a year will lead a mixed-experience team attempting to summit seven African peaks back-to-back in seven weeks, to raise awareness of seven crucial causes.
We chatted to Lindstrom about his love for mountains, African mountaineering, and the upcoming expedition.
What sparked your interest in adventure and mountaineering?
I was born in Nairobi, Kenya but my family quickly moved to Sudan, so I spent my formative years – until the age of 9 – in Sudan. I’ve been told that my first safari was at the age of three months and we were nearly washed away in a flash flood in Kenya! I came back to climb Mount Kilimanjaro back in 1997, and the high altitude taught me some lessons that I don’t think I will ever forget.
Well it was my first jaunt into high altitude. I must have been around 17 or 18. I was so young, so cocky. Straight out of the gate, I was pushing my body as hard as I could, and two days later I was absolutely floored. I felt so sick I thought I was going to die. I remember thinking: this is insane, I am perfectly fit and in the prime of my youth. But once I slowed down and started listening to the guides and showed a bit of respect for the mountain, it all started to come together. It wasn’t an easy finish, but these are the lessons you take with you for the rest of your life. Perseverance, respect, humility. Focusing on and achieving your goals. It was a pivotal moment in my life. Kilimanjaro made me fall in love with high altitude.
A journey into high altitude is a journey into yourself. It’s such a unique environment. It’s a place where you need to obtain mastery over your own body, and of your own destiny. As a species we are incredibly adaptable and resourceful and that, for me, is the essence of the journey. Knowing yourself. Knowing the environment you’re in. And then allowing the change.
How do you as an expedition leader guide other people through that journey, that process?
Before we even start the expedition, we try to walk the people through what they are about to experience. Its about getting the people calm, and pointing out that, for sure, at some point you are not going to feel great, but by doing certain things you can get through it.
Part of that is also letting go. A lot of people come in very proud that they’re very strong, they’ve trained hard, and they’re ready to do this… But in addition to the experience and support, we also try to be realistic. Some people are not going to get to the top. And that’s fine. That’s part of the journey. And that’s okay.
At the same time, there is a strong network of support around you all the time, and if you use it wisely, anybody can achieve the summit.
Africa is not as well known as a mountaineering destination. What makes the African experience unique?
In a word: variety. Most mountains are a journey that starts long before the peak. And Africa definitely delivers every single time. You go to Mount Kenya – the experience from the foothills to the summit is so different to that of Congo or Nyiragongo or Rwanda, or even further afield to the Simiens or the Atlas Mountains. These places are so massively diverse. I’ve climbed a lot in the Himalayas, and the Andes – and I love all these destinations – but Africa is a level of variety that is really unsurpassed.
What have been some of your most memorable experiences in East Africa?
I recently went to Margherita Peak and Mount Baker in the Rwenzoris (Uganda) just to understand some of the peaks there. At the bottom of Mount Baker, you just see this cliff that is hundreds of metres high, and then up at then top somewhere is the summit of Mount Baker, and that was shrouded in a bit of cloud.
The next morning we set off at about 4 o’clock because we wanted to get to the top and back down in one day, so we had a lot of work to do. We got up and we started to climb and it started to snow. We were very lightly packed, because we intended to go fast. And at the point where we were above the cliff, which was hundreds of metres of vertical nothing, I slipped.
As I was sliding down I got my hand into a crack, and stopped. At that point I was like, “Wait a minute. I’ve got a kid at home who is six months old. I’ve got a wife waiting for me. I’ve got the Seven Summits Africa expedition coming up. I’ve got to actually survive this.”
And then there’s Kilimanjaro, which is home to me. I do Kilimanjaro anything from three to 10 times a year, but every single time that I go up there’s always something special; it just happens every time. For example, Kili is the highest freestanding volcano in the world. Once we were inside the crater training with guides and I found this yellow flower – a Sinecio. It felt like it was shining at me. Just this radiant thing in one of the most inhospitable places in the world… a little flower surviving. That was the special moment for me.
In a few days time you will be leading the Seven Summits Africa Challenge. Tell us a bit about the expedition, and how you became involved in it.
Sally [Grierson] and Carel [Verhoef] have been pitching these crazy ideas for as long as I have known them. Carel came to me and said, “Look, we’re doing this project. We want to climb seven peaks in East Africa in seven weeks for seven causes, and just raise awareness of a new form of eco-adventure tourism in Africa…” I was just like, “Yup. Okay. Let’s go.”
As a concept, it’s brilliant. Africa has so much to offer and this is a great opportunity to get that message out there, and to raise awareness. And it’s a world-first. What’s not to love?
What are you most nervous about?
I don’t believe that worrying about anything going wrong is productive. Anyone going into an adventure expecting the perfect result is going in with the wrong mindset. This is a phenomenally complex situation that we’re going into, and while we’re all hoping it all comes together, the journey is always going to be much more valuable than a summit.
We’re going to have to make some tough decisions along the way that we are not going to like as a group. But that’s completely normal. That’s the essence of true adventure and expeditions.
What do you hope to achieve with the 7 Summits Challenge?
Mount Kilimanjaro doesn’t need any more marketing, but it can be a beacon that shines on these other destinations, and hopefully this expedition will light them up. Mount Kenya, the Rwenzoris, Nyiragongo – each one of these needs recognition as a phenomenal trekking destination, and I can’t wait to show people how beautiful these African mountains are.