Our Mt Kilimanjaro climb began at a point above its peak.
On our way back from Madagascar in 2011, G showed me his pictures from his trip to Tanzania in 2009. As he scrolled past the photographs, he paused at the picture above and said that he wished to be there someday. At that moment I said “How about next year?”. And there, somewhere in the skies of Africa, we spotted the fireworks of our first wedding anniversary celebrations.
It wasn’t until December 2011 that our plans became concrete. We started to talk about our intentions to various people, to build peer pressure. You know, when you tell other people about your plans, you tend to become more committed towards your goal. Of course the greater motive was to form a trek-group that we could go with.
By early 2012, we were a group of 6 people and by end-of-March 2012, we were 8 of us. Four couples and all of them were from different parts of the world. Navdha, one of the trekkers, helped us nail down on one trek-agency. Once that was decided, there was no looking back. We all knew that it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. One couple – Sameer and Jennifer, were seasoned hikers from Seattle; another couple – Partha and Shilpa, were from Australia and we had never met; and four of us in India, we were doing our own preparations. We hit the gym and told ourselves every day that the boredom of doing regular, mundane exercise will pay off!
The night of 23rd August 2012, 6 of us met at Mumbai airport. Finally the next day, the whole group was together. Other than the emails that we had exchanged, if there was one thing common between all of us, it was Henry Stedman’s book.
Our trek began on the 26th of August post a morning birthday celebration for Navdha. We were more than excited on Day-1 and why wouldn’t we be? Almost a year’s worth of investment in mental preparation, physical endurance and sophisticated trek gear, was going to be put to test.
There are many routes to reach Uhuru Peak but we chose a longer, 9-day route. It’s called the Northern Circuit and is a combination of two other routes. It allows for acclimatization and offers the best sights around Kilimanjaro. The trek starts at 2300m, and after a 7-day walk we were going to be at 5985m.
We began by trusting our legs but we were going to finish with the support of 33 mountain soldiers who were our guides, cooks, caretakers and entertainers.
Jambo, Jambo bwana?
Abaari gaani, mzuri sana
Kilimanjaro, hakuna matata!
From Lemosho to Big Tree Camp, to Shira Camp 1 & then to Shira Camp 2, it was all about setting expectations. Diamox was our drug to prevent any oxygen related troubles and water was our health drink. Temperature dropped drastically at Shira Camp 1 itself. Before we crashed every night, we washed our hands and feet with warm water, and left the water mug outside our tents. In the morning, the water in the mug was all ice. In fact, we had ice pearls all over our tents.
By Day-4, we had crossed Shira Peak and each one of us had experienced mild issues with breathing or digestion. However, we overcame our troubles and were in great shape. Even a rainy Day 2 didn’t dampen our spirits.
As we started from Moir Hut for Pofu camp, things began to change. Our lead guide Jimmy, had climbed the mountain 200 times in his life but was on the Northern Circuit route only for the second time. And on Day 5, we were deviating from the familiar route of our guide.
“It’s there, on the other side.”
We heard Jimmy say that many times, and every time there was ‘another side’ behind the other side, that we had to cross. Soon we were lost and if there’s one thing you don’t want to lose on a long trek, is not the way but the trust on your guides. Despite many disappointments, we followed our guides. And all was forgotten once we spotted Pofu Camp, 5 hours later.
The view from the camp was the most delightful of the entire journey. With much grace, Jimmy explained to us his confusion on the way, and found relief in the spectacular night sky.
They talk about the highs and lows of land forms but by Day-6, we felt our endurance sway. Technically, we were good. But when you walk for 6 days, sleep in high altitude, lose taste and appetite and see no promise of comfort in any dimension, it takes effort to keep the spirits up.
Our camp for the 6th night was Third Cave. Between Pofu and Third Cave, the sight of our final destination became clearer. Uhuru peak was so close, yet so far.
“Gopal, do you want to race? We could get up at midnight, run, touch the peak and come back.”
The peak was illusive, and so is freedom.
On the afternoon of Day 7, we reached School Hut. This is where our greatest battle began. We were briefed about the summit climb. We rationed our energy supplies, wore the extra layers and balanced the water load. We already knew that a challenge awaited us. As a first step of preparation, we slept or at least tried to sleep.
At 11pm, we began what was going to be a 16-hour walk! We walked, limped and threw our headlights on the trail. We were sleepless, all of us. We snail-walked and I was on the verge of passing out on the way. The sleepwalking took us till Hans Mayer cave where we halted briefly. Jimmy let 6 of us go with the other guides and decided to come with Navdha – who had trouble with her knees due to a past injury, and Shreyas who decided to accompany her.
What followed was physically the most grueling experience. We pushed each other with our feeble voices, pulled each other up with random jokes, but all of us knew that somewhere inside we wanted it all to stop.
But we had to keep it going. The 6 of us stuck together in a queue. We tried to match our footsteps and stay alert. At around 6am, we climbed over the lip of the crater and what we saw, I imagine, can never be captured by any camera in the same way.
Behind us the sun rose against Mount Mawenzi and in front of us the moon adorned the glacier. It was astonishing!
I turned around to wish G for our first anniversary. But my voice was not to be found and the lips didn’t want to move. It was painful. Albeit, sweetly. After a cup of warm tea that the guides carried, we proceeded for Stella point and finally, Gopal and I dragged each other all the way up to Uhuru.
When I look at this picture now, it doesn’t remind me of any unusual feeling. I think I was numb, and am so glad that we took this ‘customary’ picture. It’s the only evidence of the moment of our first wedding anniversary, of the milestone that we had worked towards and of that spot that we struggled for 7 days to reach; yet there is nothing that happened at that moment, milestone or spot other than this photograph. Ironically iconic.
Downhill from Stella Point to Barafu was another gruesome fall. If anyone asked us that day about the most painful state to be in, it was being sleepless and working. And umpteen times I had to tell myself that there is no glory in being at the peak, if one doesn’t come down to share it.
After a much needed hour-long rest at Barafu, we had a blissful walk down to Millennium Camp. Celebrations? Well, we were not going to be in any state to party for the next 5 days.
As we walked out of Mweka Gate, we left behind our arrogance and footprints at Uhuru and a whole lot of gratitude with Ahsante. What we carried with us was the new found freedom, and the humility that came along the way.