The Day I Conquered Kilimanjaro

It’s been on my list for a while. The 100 things to do before I die list – The Bucket list.

Having climbed Machu Pichu (South America) Kuari Pass (Himalayas- Uttarakhand) & Tigers nest in Bhutan a bit too easily in the last couple of years, the challenge of Kilimanjaro was irresistible. Standing magnificently tall at 5895 feet, the top 7 summits of the world, the highest mountain in Africa it was calling out to me loud. So I discussed it with a few of my like minded friends – the crazy outdoorsy ones. The ones who love climbing mountains, jumping off bridges & rafting down rivers.  Some of my other friends – the lets go to a European chalet in our Prada suits  & drink gallons of pink champagne till we pass out were aghast. ‘Why on earth would you want to climb Kilimanjaro? They wondered “Have you lost it Suchitra? Haven’t you heard of Ebola?!

Tch Tch. Blah blah. And much more back and forth blah.  And then many emails, face book inboxed, whatsapped, ‘desperately trying to juggle dates’ blah’s later, we were a group of 5 friends.  Three Indians, one German and one British.  Visas done, tickets booked, hiking gear purchased.

‘Kilimanjaro here we come” we called our whatsapp group & exchanged fitness tips, training schedules, dietary achievements (or rather failures) fervently in a bid to keep each other inspired and the fears of failing to summit  at bay. We jogged, we ran up stairs, cycled, ate protein bars and did all the supposedly ‘must do to get to the top of the mountain’ stuff.  Including the yellow fever and polio vaccine. Malaria tablets are optional. Tanzania & its neighbouring countries are completely Ebola free btw so all the la di-da fears of Ebola are totally blah. Talked to many experienced climbers. All of who told us- “The fittest fail at that altitude. Just make sure you take Diamox. (The anti altitude sickness pill.) Even serious athletes have been unable to make it to the top of Kilimanjaro, because it’s not the strength in your leg that takes you up. It’s your body’s ability to deal with reduced oxygen that’s the clincher. And so Diamox is a must. 1st day of the climb onwards. Twice a day.  By the last day it’s as if you’ve eaten magic mushrooms, the high is incredible. Lucy in the sky with diamonds kind of yippy trippy hippie high.

A  week before the climb 2 more (friends of a friend)  joined  us- one from Lisbon & the other from Adis Ababa – so now we were a group of 7. Very mixed. Very cool .Very excited. The itinerary is customized to us – we are a closed /private group. A private toilet is booked and meals ordered to specification.

We arrive in the town of Kilimanjaro (also known as Moshi) & after an overnight stay at the modest hotel Springfield (owned by our tour operators Zara Tours) set off the next morning.  There are seven established routes to climb Mount Kilimanjaro – Marangu, Machame, Lemosho, Shira, Rongai, Northern Circuit and Umbwe. Ours was the Machame Route.

The previous evening our chief guide Theo and his assistants Zungu had given us a thorough briefing on the dos and don’ts- Minimum four litres of water a day, lots of chocolate nuts and electral or Gatorade, no coffee (accelerates heartbeat) and MOST important -POLE POLE which is pronounced & means  the same as hauley hauley in Hindi- ie slowly slowly. One step at a time. That’s all we were to focus n for the next 5 nights & 6 days – one foot in front of the other. There are 21 porters and guides to our group of 7. The itinerary went as follows

 

Finishing Point                           Altimeter                                                Distance

Day 1:        Machame Hut                           1800-2900 m                                          12 kms

Easy.  Mostly through the national park over graded steps.  Lunch is packed & carried in our back packs. By the time we reach camp, tents are pitched in the ground, hot dinner is ready & we fall asleep easily after some excited chatter and song singing. This is the rainforest area. There are distinct vegetation zone on the mountain, From Rainforest to moorland, to alpine & finally almost arctic conditions, the contrast between each stark.

Day 2:       Shira Camp                                2900- 3850 m                                         7 kms

Steep climb. As we go higher into the forest the vegetation changes gradually into a moorland. Trees are getting sparse. We huff and we puff & we climb on. Sometimes like a monkey on all fours.  By the time we reach camp at the end of the long day I am too exhausted to go see the Shira caves. The boys go. It’s getting cold. The layers of clothes and jackets are coming on

Day 3:     Baranco Camp                            3850m -3950 m                                         13 kms

If we make it through day 3 we will summit we are told. We make it. Easily. But muscles are sore. Sleep is short. The air is beginning to thin. It’s exhausting.  The temperature is plunging south as we climb higher

Day 4:    Barafu Camp                               3950-4670                                                  13 kms

Barafu means ice. It’s freezing.  We are too tired to care about the fact that Barafu is a variation of the Hindi word baraf. Yes the Indian influence in Tanzania is strong and many words are common between Hindi & Kiswahili. Just before reaching camp I slip on a rock. The knee twists at a grotesque angle & I land with a thud. The pain is excruciating. I cry for many minutes, grit my teeth, dust myself & trek back to the tents grateful that the injury is not worse considering the angle and impact of the fall. Its 5.30 pm.  2 combiflams & a few oxalgin rubs later I feel better.  Zungu my guide gives me a foot rub. I fall asleep for a few hours, This zone is alpine desert. Inhospitable waste

We set out for summit at 12 am that same night. The pain is my knee is making me dizzy. I pop 3 more combiflams.. Theo the guide asks me several times if I’m okay- he’s not sure I should climb at all. I dismiss off his worries with a cheery smile disguising my discomfort – I’m going & that’s that. Having come this far there was no way I was letting it go now.  Not even a torn ligament could stop me . My friends go ahead . Since I’m injured I will slow the group down drastically & that’s not fair on anyone. So  Zungu and I head out by ourselves 15 minutes after the rest have trudged on

Day 5:    Summit  Night                            4670m 5895 m                                    22 kms

The mountain is a string of headlamps that climbers wear to keep their hands free to carry their hiking poles. It’s as if the stars are falling into us but in a forward direction- Aah that’s my magic mushroom moment I smile to myself at that bizarre thought. There are groups of climbers ahead and behind, the mountain is ink dark dotted with tiny dots of white light. Visibility is as far as the power of one’s own head lamp. We are a few days short of full moon and the wind chill is brutal. Winds so strong you feel them slice your cheek like thick blades. Rough weather we are told ‘ Hasn’t been this freakin windy in months.

Thanx! I want to go home.  I m tired, in serious pain & starting to babble. The water running down my nose freezes in the icy air even as Zungu patiently wipes it off. He sings aloud to encourage me also doing a little dance for me to follow. One two three four & a step two three four Kiswahili mountain shake.  I have to rest every 10 or 15 mins- I can’t go ahead. The incline is too steep & my legs have turned to lead. On some rocks I have to actually pick up my legs with my hands to aide them higher, or ask Zungu to carry me across.  I am getting more and more delirious as the hours pass and every cell in my body is screaming from exhaustion pain and cold. “Come on – don’t give up now sister’ Zungu pleads over and over again as I scream at him to get me a helicopter and take me back to base. “Who the hell are you that I should finish the climb for you” Ii scream in a state of incoherent mountain induced dementia. Zungu doesn’t bat an eyelid at my drama queen moment- instead points to the many climbers returning back. Some of them are vomiting violently on the rocks. It’s about 3.30 am “You can’t stop in this cold sister. You will die “I’m told as I collapse on a rock or stand against a boulder to rest again and again “You will freeze in this weather” At that temperature it’s easy to die of hypothermia. To keep moving is the only way to stay alive. WTF was I doing on this mountain? Had I gone mad o wot to even think of climbing Kili. Why why why of all the places on earth was I here? I kept babbling that I wanted to go home- even as I plodded on. One groaning stamp after the other.

And finally we are there. 7 am. The yellow orange & blue hues of the rising sun dazzle the skyline. A few meters away is Stella Point, a 100 metres from there Uhuru peak.  I realize I don’t have my camera.  After months of planning & even buying myself a new expensive camera for this trip I have forgotten to carry it on Summit night. I don’t have the energy to take even a step now. My face has turned to ice and I can no longer feel my frozen fingers or my lips. The pain in my knee is so bad I am swivel eyed. I don’t remember the last few steps to summit point either. All I remember is Zungu chanting just 2 more steps sister, just 1 more step sister as he props me up & propels me forward.  Have I really made it? Now I’m crying even louder- but this time it’s from sheer relief & the euphoria of completion. I made it, I made it!  Yay!!. I can’t believe it!

On the way down Zungu asks another guide for assistance- I am a rather heavy body to carry down one of the world’s tallest mountains alone. “You made it you made it” he congratulates me but I am almost passing out. Remember the corpse in the Kundan Shah classic film Jaane bhi do Yaaron? – I was much like that as two able arms hoisted me by the elbow & helped me down. Soon I am strapped on to a mountain rescue stretcher carried by 6 strong men who sing and whistle down the bumpy rocky pathway. My teeth rattle and my bones shake but my torn knee is relieved from the pressure of my own weight & I sigh. Congratulations everybody is telling me as I oscillate between euphoria and pain. I did it. It’s over.  It’s one big to do thing struck off my bucket list.

This was on 2nd February 2015. Its 7 months now. I am still not entirely recovered from my torn ligament & have to wear a knee support when I exercise. But the sense of achievement & satisfaction obliterates the inconvenience caused by the fall. I feel a 1000 feet high- actually make that 5895 feet high. I show off my certificate rather proudly. First Machu Pichu Suchu & now Kilimanjaro Krishnamoorthi -I’m on a high. Rocky Mountain high- Kilimanjaro

“OMG did you really summit? I’m constantly asked “You don’t look like the mountain type.”

Lo- Kar lo Baat. What exactly is a mountain type?  Is a woman supposed to grow a billy goat beard or look like a gorilla to qualify as a mountain type?

We have now changed the name of our whatsapp group to Kilimanjaro already done- What next? There are a few options I have in mind. Everest Base Camp, Stok Kangri or the Mont Blanc in the Alps? Any other suggestions? J

PS:

  1. Kili is neither as hard nor as easy as it’s made out to be. The only way to know if you can do it is to try. Many climbers summit at 2th 5th or even 8th attempt- either way its okay.
  2. Fitness is essential. In preparation for the climb take stairs whenever you can. Practice on the treadmill at highest incline. Most importantly train to walk with 15 or more kgs load on your back. (Our guides were wonderful and carried my backpack for me but everybody is not so lucky)
  3. Indian travel companies tend to overcharge & fleece you. Book directly with local climbing tours- I went with Zara tours in Tanzania & they can be contacted on www.zaratours.com
  4. Carry enough warm clothing. Nothing is too much for summit night.

(Decathlon in Thane stacks every best kind of mountaineering gear. For those travelling abroad before a big climb Blacks UK and North Face has good stuff too)

  1. Ladies take note. Altitude severely increases menstrual bleeding which depletes haemoglobin. It’s worth taking that pill to delay periods if your date clashes with your climb.
  2. Diamox – pill for altitude sickness. Twice a day to be started on 1st day of climb
  3. Attitude Attitude Attitude. It’s not the height of the mountain. It’s your attitude towards the altitude. One step at a time – Pole Pole. Hakuna Matata:

8: Take a longer tour. Mine at 7 nights was too short and therefore too exhausting. 8-10 days would be ideal

  1. And last but not the least sample the Kilimanjaro beer – because if you can climb it, you gotta drink it J

Jambo Jambo! Poa Poa!

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