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The Day I Conquered Kilimanjaro

30/09/2015 8:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Suchitra Krishnamoorthi

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), and Tiger's Nest (Bhutan) a bit too easily in the last couple of years, the challenge of Kilimanjaro was irresistible. Standing magnificently tall at 5895m, the highest mountain in Africa and one of the top seven summits of the world was calling out to me loud. So I discussed it with a few of my likeminded friends -- the crazy outdoorsy ones. The ones who love climbing mountains, jumping off bridges and rafting down rivers. Some of my other friends -- the let's-go-to-a-European-chalet-in-our-Prada-suits-and-drink-pink-champagne-until-we-pass-out type -- were aghast. "Why on earth would you want to climb Kilimanjaro? Have you lost it Suchitra? Haven't you heard of Ebola?"

Back and forth we went, blah, blah and more blah. And then, many emails, Facebook messages, WhatsApp chats and juggling of dates later, we were a group of five friends -- three Indians, one German and one British. Visas done, tickets booked, hiking gear purchased.

"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."

"Kilimanjaro here we come" we called our WhatsApp group and 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. We got the yellow fever and polio vaccines; malaria tablets are optional. Tanzania and its neighbouring countries are completely Ebola-free, by the way, so all the panic around this particular disease was nonsense. We talked to many experienced climbers, and all told us: "The fittest fail at that altitude. Just make sure you take Diamox (an 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 legs 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, from the first day of the climb, twice a day. By the last day it's as if you've eaten magic mushrooms, the high is incredible. The "Lucy in the sky with diamonds" kind of yippy trippy hippie high.

A week before the climb, two others (friends of a friend) joined our group -- one from Lisbon and the other from Addis Ababa. Now we were a group of seven. Very mixed. Very cool. Very excited. And armed with a customised itinerary, a booking for a private toilet and meals ordered to specification.

We arrive in the town of Kilimanjaro (also known as Moshi) and 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.

"We huff and we puff and we climb on. Sometimes like monkeys on all fours."

The previous evening, our chief guide Theo and his assistant Zungu had given us a thorough briefing on the dos and don'ts -- minimum four litres of water a day, lots of chocolate, nuts, Electral or Gatorade, no coffee (accelerates heartbeat) and most important: pole pole, which is pronounced and means the same as hauley hauley in Hindi i.e. slowly slowly. One step at a time. That's all we were to focus on for the next five nights and six days--one foot in front of the other. There were 21 porters and guides to our group of seven.

The itinerary and adventure unfolded as follows.

Day 1

Finishing point: Machame Hut

Altimeter: 1800-2900m

Distance: 12km

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

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Day 2

Finishing point: Shira Camp

Altimeter: 2900- 3850m

Distance: 7km

Steep climb. As we go higher into the forest, the vegetation changes gradually into moorland. Trees are getting sparse. We huff and we puff and we climb on. Sometimes like monkeys 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

Finishing point: Baranco Camp

Altimeter: 3850m -3950m

Distance: 13km

If we make it through day three 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 as we climb higher.

Day 4

Finishing point: Barafu Camp

Altimeter: 3950-4670m

Distance: 13 km

Barafu means ice. It's freezing. We are too tired to care about the fact that barafu shares roots with the Hindi word baraf. Yes, the Indian influence in Tanzania is strong and many words are common between Hindi and Kiswahili. Just before reaching camp I slip on a rock. My knee twists at a grotesque angle and I land with a thud. The pain is excruciating. I cry for many minutes, grit my teeth, dust myself off and trek back to the tents, grateful that the injury is not worse considering the angle and impact of the fall. It's 5.30pm. Two Combiflams and 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 wasteland.

"My knee twists at a grotesque angle and I land with a thud. The pain is excruciating. I cry for many minutes, grit my teeth, dust myself off and trek..."

We set out for summit that midnight. The pain is my knee is making me dizzy. I pop three more painkillers. One of our guides, Theo, asks me if I'm OK several times; he's not sure I should climb at all. I dismiss his worries with a cheery smile, disguising my discomfort. I'm going and 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 and that's not fair on anyone. Zungu and I head out by ourselves, 15 minutes after the rest have trudged on.

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Day 5: Summit Night

Altimeter: 4670-5895m

Distance: 22km

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. The visibility is limited to the power of one's own head lamp. We are a few days short of a full moon and the wind chill is brutal. Winds so strong you feel them slice your cheek like thick blades. Hasn't been so freaking windy in months, we're told.

Thanks. I want to go home. I'm tired, in serious pain and 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 and a step two-three-four. The Kiswahili mountain shake. I have to rest every 10 or minutes. I can't go ahead. The incline is too steep and my legs have turned to lead. On some rocks I have to actually pick up my legs with my hands to bring them higher, or ask Zungu to carry me across.

"I am getting more and more delirious as the hours pass. Every cell in my body is screaming from exhaustion, pain and cold."

I am getting more and more delirious as the hours pass. 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?" I scream in a state of mountain-induced dementia. Zungu doesn't bat an eyelid at my drama queen moment. Instead, he points to the many climbers returning from the summit. Some of them are vomiting violently on the rocks. It's about 3.30am. "You can't stop in this cold sister. You will die," he says as I collapse on a rock or stand against a boulder to rest. 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 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. It's 7am. The yellow and orange hues of the rising sun dazzle the skyline. A few metres away is Stella Point, a 100m from there Uhuru peak. I realise I don't have my camera. After months of planning and 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 two more steps sister, just one more step sister," as he props me up and propels me forward. Have I really made it? Now I'm crying even louder -- but this time it's from sheer relief and the euphoria of completion.

I made it, I made it! I can't believe it!

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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 classic Kundan Shah film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron? I am much like the corpse in that film, as two able arms hoist me by the elbow and help me down. Soon I am strapped on to a mountain rescue stretcher carried by six 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 and 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.

The day I summited Kilimanjaro was 2 February 2015. It's been more than seven months now. I am still not entirely recovered from my torn ligament and have to wear a knee support when I exercise. But the sense of achievement and satisfaction obliterates the inconvenience caused by the fall. I feel 1000 metres high -- actually make that 5895 metres high. I show off my certificate rather proudly. First Machu Pichu Suchu and now Kilimanjaro Krishnamoorthi. I'm on a high.

"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?

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My tips

  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 their second or fifth or eight attempt--either way, it's OK.
  2. Fitness is essential. In preparation for the climb take stairs whenever you can. Practice on the treadmill at the highest incline. Most importantly, train to walk with a load of 15kg or more 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 and fleece you. Book directly with local climbing tours- I went with Zara Tours in Tanzania.
  4. Carry enough warm clothing. Nothing is too much for summit night. (Decathlon in Thane stocks all the best mountaineering gear. For those travelling abroad before a big climb, Blacks UK and North Face has good stuff too.)
  5. 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.
  6. Take a big stash of Diamox, a pill for altitude sickness. Twice a day to be started on the first day of the climb.
  7. 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 (slowly, slowly). Hakuna matata (no worries).
  8. Take a longer tour. Mine at seven nights was too short and therefore too exhausting. Eight to 10 days would be ideal.
  9. And last but not the least, do sample the Kilimanjaro beer--because if you can climb it, you gotta drink it!

Jambo Jambo! Poa Poa!

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