Climbing the Salkantay in the Peruvian Andes became more of an expedition than a regular hiking trek during our May 2015 True Leadership Experience. It was an experience, indeed. Eight women (CEOs, COOs, business women, writers and professors) supported by several men (guides, shamans, cooks, horsemen) climbed the mountain, gasping for air, pushing on, moved by the inspiration from mother earth. We were all quite well prepared. Nine months of training, both mentally and physically made us perfectly ready for the trip. Our intentions were clear, our bodies were strong and our sisterly connections were in good shape.
But a Peruvian Apu is not just a mountain. It is a sacred place and a spirit to be highly respected. That’s what our two accompanying Q’éro shamans taught us all the time. Urpichay. Respect the mountain and Pacha Mama, mother earth. We could not agree more. Yes of course. Urpichay to Apu Salkantay and to Apu Ausangate. We ask your permission to visit you. We ask for your welcome and your protection. We will both give and receive during our journey. This greeting turned out to be more than a polite ritual. We had to embody these unyielding principles with every step and in every breath.
From our first step onto the mountain, I discovered this was not normal walking or hiking. The lack of breath, the nausea, the headache, the diarrhea, the cold. This was tough, beyond the difficulty of my pilgrimage from the Netherlands to Rome last summer. This time, we all discovered that the only way to climb this mountain was to take it step-by-step. No talking, no complaining, and no way back. We had to make it to the campsite before dark, and there were not enough horses for all of us. One step at a time, one foot for the other, we climbed the pass. Like zombies grimacing at each other: come on, you can do it! Pausing every 10 meters, catching our breath again. We kept an eye on each other: Is everybody coming up, nobody being left behind? In the end, we all made it. Just before dark. We encouraged each other, we passed cups of tea, and we fell into each others’ arms.
Was this the leadership experience we had prepared for? It didn’t seem like it. No brave actions, no leadership skills training, not one leader standing up and showing the way, no world changing accomplishment. Only a mountain pass being climbed. It was later we started to realize that exactly this was what our leadership experience was meant to be about: going step-by-step, focusing on what needed to be done here and now, taking responsibility for ourselves in the first place, keeping a supportive eye on each other, respecting and living by the primal powers that make the world turn. No more and no less, that is what true leadership is all about: keeping your inner spark burning, putting one foot in front the other, and living in full respect of nature and the environment around you.