Original Article by Akhila T, Redmond WA.
Kilimanjaro. I heard that name almost 1.5 years back when P dragged to a “seminar” about mountaineering that he often does. The seminar turned out to be our future guide “Sandeep” talking about his new adventure company,Miyar adventures and how they were taking a few people up Kilimanjaro. The whole thing sounded fairly exciting and challenging and I automatically registered Kili in my bucket list. It was only almost a year later that we decided to finally do it.
I had a miscarriage earlier in the year 2015 and P with his ever encouraging spirit had said, let’s do something else life changing this year 🙂 and so we decided to climb Kilimanjaro.
And so we started to prepare for Kilimanjaro in September of 2015. We knew some basic details. It would be a 7 day climb, reaching a maximum altitude of 19,300 feet. I did not want to know too many details about the climb because I felt it would scare me off. I knew so little that I thought we only had to climb up to the top and then there would be jeep that would bring us down, similar to how we had done Macchu Picchu last year. Fortunately I figured out in time that was not the case.
Training started in ernest, with us wracking up as many hiking miles as we possibly could. We caught up with a few other people of the group who were way more planned than us and had chalked out multiple hikes that they would be doing over the next three months to get ready. We had actually never hiked in the fall season in the pacific northwest, so the views came as wonderful surprise. My main form of training became “Hatha Yoga“. that I had just learnt in August and the weekend hikes. (FYI – people looking to increase strength and flexibility, do give hatha a chance. I definitely saw a huge difference).
Hiking in the fall season had another advantage – we got to hike in all sorts of bad weather – rain, snow, night lights etc. So our gear got tested pretty well. One evening P and I ended up on the hiking trail at 7.00 pm, well after dark only to find halfway through the hike that our head lights stopped working. Extra batteries! Damn!. Another time, I got completely drenched in the rain despite all my rain gear. We then learnt about rainproofing our rain gear. (REI has some good rain products for that). Gloves were another big battle for me. No matter what sort of gloves I tried, my fingers kept getting too cold. Finally found a pair of great mittens at REI that worked for me. Another advantage was hiking in bad health. Fall season is the time for flu. I was feeling feverish one day but still decided to give Mailbox hike a shot. I got halfway up before we decided to turn around. It was great training though, as it was much needed on Kili. P had battles of his own. He tore his meniscus playing soccer and as he tried to compensate for his knee, his back started to hurt pretty bad. He figured out how to pace himself to help manage the pain. All of which again came handy on Kili.
Come end of Nov, we started to feel confident about our training. Only concern was that we were going to India before Kili and we would not have much time to train or maintain our fitness in India. We told ourselves we will get up early each day and go for a 30 min run in India. Well, who were we kidding, anyone who has been to India on vacation knows that is not possible. In our defense we did manage to run for two days and do yoga on a couple of others but that pretty much defined our training. As our climbing partner put it, we were just doing a “carb load” in India to get ready for the hike. Another concern was getting sick in India. We managed pretty well for the most part of the trip until we saw a fresh water swimming pool in Ooty and jumped in for a swim. Oops! Both P and I ended up with a sore throat and cold which we carried up the mountain.
21st Dec. We packed up all our stuff and started on the journey to Kili. Other than an almost missed flight in Dubai, our flight was mostly uneventful and we reached Kilimanjaro international airport which our luggage intact. As soon as you get into the airport the thing that strikes you is that everyone is carrying a backpack and has hiking shoes on. You know you have come to a climbing destination. We were put up in Hotel Stella Maris by our guide which was managed by charming young man called “Innocent”. Tanzanians apparently have a penchant for good sounding English words as names. Another thing we found out that “hurry” in a not a word in their dictionary. Everything from food, to the cars, driving to the base camp and starting the hike, happened in its own sweet time. Well we did not have anything to complain though, we found some great company on the hike and the fun was just getting started.
Climbing Kilimanjaro takes you through 5 climatic zones – Plantations, Tropical forests, Moorland, Alpine desert and Summit. Day 1 was tropical forests, nice and shady. As we chatted and started walking, one of the guides walked to the front and told us not to get ahead of him. It took us a bit to realize that he was trying to set pace for us. We needed to last for 7 days. He told us walk pole pole ( slowly, slowly in Swahili) as that it the only way you can walk up the mountain. A nice lunch and a couple of hours of walking got us to our first camp of the day Machame camp at around 9K feet. Today was also officially the first day for all of us on Diamox (Altitude sickness prevention tablet), which meant I spent a good part of the night rushing to the toilet due to the side effects. Anyone who has been camping the cold will tell you that is not a fun experience. On the brighter side I saw some amazing views of the peak in the moonlight.
Day 2 saw some interesting terrain taking us by to an altitude of around 12.8K. As we climbed up and down rocks in the rain, the cold and altitude started to catch up on me. I remember telling myself, this is extreemly uncomfortable but I would not trade this for anything. There was a certain warmth to the mountain which is very tough to explain in words. We were above clouds at this point of time and it all just looked very unreal. I must mention that all we had to really do was walk with our small backpacks. Setting up tents, cooking hot meals was all taken care of by the porters.
If not for them this journey would have not been possible.
Day 3 was going to be a major acclimatization day. We would be going up till 14.5K and then coming down and camping at 13.8K. My cold was getting worse, peppered with cough now, making it tough to breath. The lack of oxygen at that altitude did not help the matters. The gang decided to start singing songs to keep everyone’s spirits high. P was getting a pretty bad backache and he kept singing to distract himself. I tried to sing but I could hardly muster 3 to 4 words before I lost breath. I was jealous of the guys on the team, they were all doing really well while I was struggling but their high spirits did help push me forward. I tried to catch up but kept falling behind. At one of the stops I sat down and started to fall asleep. The guide walked up to me and asked me what was going on, I said I was doing fine but he realized I was not doing too well. He took my backpack from me, asked me to drink water and keep walking. The next hour was just a daze, I was sleep walking. By the time I got to the lunch tent I was so utterly exhausted that I had no idea what was going on around me. The lunch helped regain my spirits and as we descended down I felt my energy coming back. As the clouds cleared we saw a giant stone wall in front of us with the summit on the left. The magnamity of the mountain in that instance left us all spell bound. We were supposed to climb the rock wall the next day :-).
Day 4 was my favorite portion I guess. The first part of the day was a rock scramble on the Baranco wall and I loved it. All our time in the rock climbing gym helped as we thoroughly enjoyed it. For others in the team it was definitely the toughest day as they had never done scrambles before. Once the scramble ended all we could see was a desert for miles in front of us. At this point any straight climbs had becoming quite challenging for me, due to a completely blocked nose and incessant cough. The guides however were my strength, they kept me company and kept pushing me one step at a time. In my heart though I knew I would make it, I just had to focus on the next step and eventually that would lead to the camp.
Day 5 was a short day again with a rock scramble to the Kosovo camp. Once we reached our final base camp for the summit at 16K, the plan was to sleep till 11 pm at night and then start hiking at 12.00 am to the summit. We tried hard to sleep through the afternoon but the green house effect of the sun, make our tents into toasty ovens, making it impossible to sleep. I had been getting more and more exhausted due to the cold and needed all the energy and rest I could to make it to the summit. After a much needed dinner of soup and spagetti, I took some nyquil and slept off. I asked P to pack up for so I can get every last bit of sleep that I can.
11.00 am, we got up and to my surprise, my nose felt completely unblocked. That was a sign, I knew I was going to make this journey. The next 7 hours after that to the summit are pretty much a daze, other than the spectacular sunrise we saw on our way up. We just blindly followed the guides one step at a time. One of the guides walked up to me and said, Akhila, I would be disappointed if you don’t make it to the top. I told him, I would not disappoint him. We reached Stella point, the pre-peak at around 6.00 am. Our wonderful porters got ginger tea for all of us to drink. The drink was a life saver and the perfect way to mark the celebration. I got to know later that P had some server altitude sickness on his way up but fortunately the guides took good care of him, for which I am ever grateful.
The last 300 feet were a very humbling experience. Tears rolled down my eyes as I saw the peak. I knew there was something much beyond me which was making this experience happen. The wide crater on the right and diminishing glacier on the left marked the perfect setting for this beautiful summit day.
We spent the next 1.5 days coming down. I fell down quite a bit while coming down but nothing seemed to matter now. We had been on a journey that had helped us get beyond the shackles our physical self and made us experience the beauty of everything around us that we are a part of.
Before I went on the trip, it was meant to be a bucket list item that you check off and let friends know that you went to Kili. After the trip though I just feel grateful that we had the opportunity to be there and experience the grandiose of this amazing mountain.