Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Asante Sana Kilimanjaro !

On my return flight Jo'burg last year, I read an article on climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in the flight magazine. I was allured by the majestic beauty of Africa's peak & the world's highest free standing mountain. My travel bug was aroused after seeing the snapshots & I added yet another destination to my immortal wish list.

My African trip to Malawi didn't materialize in July and I'm still remorseful about it. Instead of swimming in the serene waters of Lake Malawi, I made it to Ibiza in July - a perfect antithesis ! The travel God's have been very kind this year - Kilimanjaro came about a lot sooner than expected. I didn't really plan on going this year, but Insha'allah it just happened. I'm back to the grind after spending three weeks in Tanzania & a successful expedition to Kili in August :-).

Here's my anecdote...

I had a 100 reasons to set foot on Kili.  It's Africa's highest peak - the continent I adore, worship & can live all my life in. Africa is a perfect "Another time-Another world" setting with its timeless beauty, ancient landscapes & teeming wildlife which have been unchanged for thousands of years. The perfect way of expressing my fondness towards Africa would be to climb it's biggest mountain !

Most of my previous travels have been hedonistic in nature & this time I wanted to step beyond my comfort zone. I wanted to test my mental, physical & emotional barriers. I also desired to be in a state of solitude and disconnect myself completely for one week. Aquaterra Adventures were leading a maiden expedition to Kili in August'10 - I thought it was now or never ! My cousin Ruchit agreed to join me without any hesitation.

Kili is the poor man’s Everest. You can climb almost 20,000 feet in seven days & that makes it the "McDonald's" of  seven great summits in the world. Mt. Everest @ 29000 feet will make most people poorer by 2 months of time, 1 year of training, dozens of permits and cost $60,000.

 I was apprehensive as I lacked any previous mountaineering experience & had never been to high altitudes. I did a village trek in the Himalayas in 2009 - but there were no steep inclines &  it was almost like a scenic walk in the countryside.  My physical endeavours in Mumbai were limited to gym workouts & battling the half marathon once a year.

Kilimanjaro is a gentle climb as it inclines very gradually. But high altitudes, freezing temperatures & ferocious winds make it a difficult. Acclimatization is essential, and almost everyone suffers from some degree of altitude sickness. The primary reason why climbers fail isn't physical fitness - it's altitude sickness. If it strikes, climbers suffer discomfort like shortage of breath, nausea, hypothermia and headaches. Read more on altitude sickness here.

The weather conditions are extreme & gear required is extensive. The gear is expensive & not easily sourceable in Mumbai. I ordered most of my stuff online from in the U.S. It's a great store for outdoor enthusiasts & next time I won't bother to look any further. I got acquainted with two girls who were ardent trekkers & a journalist from Mumbai who had signed up for the same expedition. They had previously done the Everest Base Camp. We all ended up meeting and spent a couple of Sundays doing warm up treks in the Sahyadari Hills near Mumbai.

The moment of truth had arrived and I was excited, nervous, hopeful & scared as bid farewell to my family. I was flying to Nairobi followed by a connecting flight to Kilimanjaro. While we were flying, I got a my first birds eye view of Kili from the plane window. The skies was very clear so the view was spectacular. The mountain was perched adjacent to me & I couldn't believe that I was going up there. After landing in Kilimanjaro, we drove for an hour to a village called Moshi & arrived at our hotel. We had our first meeting that night for the climb briefing & introductions. Our expedition had 20 climbers, 2 head guides, 5 assistant guides & 60 porters. The group was very diverse with people from several nationalities, varied professions & the age group ranged from 25 to 65.

We met our head guides Chombo from Tanzania & Avilash from India. Chombo had lead several expeditions to Kilimanjaro & by now the climb was a leisurely stroll for him in the neighbourhood park. Avilash had summited peaks higher than Kili. He spends more time in the Himalayas than at home! The guides advised that the success mantra was simple – “Eat well, Sleep well & drink 4-5 liters of water”. On the mountain we were advised be on a diet constituting complex carbohydrates & snacks like chocolates, nuts & nutrition bars.  The other key was to climb "Pole Pole" as they say in Swahili. The translation is “slowly slowly.” Climbing "Pole Pole" was key to acclimatizing as we rapidly gained altitude.

The next morning we loaded our convoy post breakfast. There are several routes that go to the mountain and we were taking Rongai route. It was a three hour drive to the park gate - almost near the Tanzania-Kenya border.We passed  through a lot of villages, towns, and farms, past forests, coffee and banana plantations. We reached the park gate post lunch & began our registration process. Once you are inside the gate - there are no roads, electricity, shops or air rescue. I called home for the last time as the network coverage on the mountain is unreliable. As I entered the gate, I simpered at the "points to remember" sign at the park gate and initiated the journey.

The next seven days were a life changing experience - everything from the friendships built, my personal struggles overcome, learning to value the little things in life &  the brutal summit night !

Watch out for Part II of my story...Coming Soon !!!

(P.S. - All images by Jayant Sasikumar & Sanjeev Ganju)