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Kilimanjaro - Last of the mountain hikes

It all started with a nondescript book that I read mid 2015 which talked very briefly about the author's experience on his hike to Kilimanjaro. The book isn't something that I even finished but this notion of hiking up to Kili stayed with me. The intent of this blog is to give some perspective into what you could be getting into if you plan a hike to Kili. At different points in time during the climb, we all had our questions on why we were doing this and none of us had very good answers. Mostly a desire for solitude, to switch off, disengage and reflect back and figure if we can get some answers to whatever we toil for. Or maybe for nothing too deep...just to be out there with friends.

Me and a batchmate of mine (Prof) had hiked up Sandakphu (Assam & Sikkim) in December, 2015 and when discussions veered around where to head out in 2016, I suggested Kilimanjaro. Another batchmate from b-school, HAS who runs his own adventure tourism start up ( worked the details and the three of us were on for this. Sometime around April'16, the dates got firmed up for the 1st week of October. The trip was pitched to a bunch of our other batch-mates and we got a couple coming in from Chennai as well - Venky and Prakash.

HAS did warn us upfront that this wasn't a walk in the park and suggested a bunch of conditioning exercises for the next 6 months which all of us diligently chose to ignore. Prof's idea of a workout was the 5-6 kms he used to stroll around at the golf course; Venky's workout consisted of climbing up and down stairs in Chennai followed by weekend bouts at Toit in Bangalore. Prakash did take this a tad too seriously and he embarked on a prep hike to Arunachal where he sprained his ankle and subsequently dropped out of the trip. My workouts consisted of the regular morning runs around in Whitefield and then hoping that it would all pan out well. We had a last minute addition to this group in the form of RP (another batchmate from b-school) who joined us from Seattle. Our man from Seattle introduced us to the concept of Ketogenic diet which was his prep for the hike and we still rib him on what US does to regular folks from India. So, he had packed up a bunch of Keto diet foods and we were all looking forward to figuring out what this was all about.

We had a really mixed group - 3 of them (HAS, Venky and Prof) all running their own ventures with RP and me pretty much running on our own terms in our regular jobs. Loads of interesting conversations from the start up world, options on the next trips & the mundane routine of IT services.

We all landed up at Kilimanjaro (for me - Bangalore - Mumbai - Nairobi - Kilimanjaro) on 8th October and drove down to Moshi town where we were staying at Springlands hotel. This hotel serves as the starting point for folks coming in for the climb or for the safari. An extremely well maintained and laid back hotel with the most amazing staff that I have seen. Right from reception to maintenance, restaurant and anything else that you might need to rent, this place has it all at fairly reasonable prices. Each room has 3 single beds with foam mattresses which a couple of us (being the mid 40 crop we are) found it rough on our backs.

That aside, 9th of October was for walking around Moshi town and the local guide mistook us for the regular Americans / Europeans and they took us to a slumming tour of the local Moshi market which is the run down version of the KR Puram vegetable market in Bangalore. We were definitely not interested in this version of tourism and promptly got back to a regular restaurant and downed a few "Kilimanjaro" beers while planning for the climb starting morrow.

Day 1: Start from Springlands Hotel to the Big Tree camp (2700m)

We were all up for it and excited not really knowing what was in store for us. We had a beast of an SUV take us to the registration point and that's where I started to feel that this might not be what I was hoping it to be. Truckloads of folks at the registration point; add to that at least 4 porters per climber and you can imagine the multitude we have. The porters were accompanying each group carrying tents, utensils, tables, chairs and everything else that would make our lives a wee bit easier as we climbed. The number of men and women working on carrying our camping equipment, kind of put me off right at the start of our trip. I was clear that my next trip will just have a guide and me carrying my own load.

New rules – Rule 1: Never heading to any place where I'll need others to carry the load for me.

Porters – 4 for each climber

And then the multitudes were off, trudging through some kind of tropical vegetation. The walk was fairly easy and to me it felt like I was walking through the plantations back in Kerala. Day 1 lasted all of less than 3 hours of walking post lunch and this landed us at the "Big tree camp". The first day of the trip was also the biggest turn off of this trip. The camp was set in a cleared up mound of dusty land where over 200 folks pitched their tents along with their mobile toilets. This was as close as any of us were going to get to a refugee camp. Our lead guide promised that tomorrow's camp at Shira 1 will be more spread out and scenic and at this point, anything had to be better than the "Big tree camp". A camping party along with the porters broke into a rendition of "Hakuna Matata" and dancing and we made our way to it. Venky for one was thrilled to bits - we are all going to go dancing up the mountains was his refrain.

Day 1 campsite!!!

Day 2: Big tree hut to Shira1 (3500m)

After the fiasco that was Day 1 camp, I was ready to get moving as early as we could. The problem with so many climbers and the associated support team is that you can never truly get going at your own pace for the first couple of hours. There are always umpteen people working on passing you – the porters are literally running their way up with all the equipment on their back or balancing it on their heads. This almost feels like a pilgrimage and out goes any solitude that I hoped for.

The scenery improved as we walked along – the vegetation changing to some form of rolling meadows / hills. Shira 1 camp is about a 13 km walk, climbing upto 3500m. We got in at about 5pm and as promised, the camp site was well spread out and this felt so much better than yesterday. We get our first view of Kili as we make our way through.

That forlorn look – why am I doing this

Well, that’s our camp for Day 2 and so Iam onto my next resolution for future trips which brings me to the second rule.

Rule 2: No more camping and roughing it out. This will be the last of trips where I make things more difficult than they have to be.

While the camp was spread out, it was much more open and through the night we had strong winds bearing down on our tents. So from the wooded camp, Shira 1 was one of the coldest camps we were in through this trip. The food and everything that the support team did for us was the saving grace.

Day 3: Shira 1 to Shira 2 camp (3900m)

Day 3 started off bright and sunny and we were off to Shira 2 – a 11 km gentle hike. By Day 3, we had by default figured out a way to avoid the morning rush. We were almost always the last to leave camp by which time almost all of the fellow climbers have already marched off and we practically have the entire trail to ourselves.

The hike to Shira 2 is not too difficult except that it was getting warmer through the day. The altitude and our pace weren’t helping either and we were running short on our water supplies. We rationed water between our group and 3 of us – RP, myself and Prof set off at a quicker pace with HAS supporting Venky at the back.

The vegetation grew sparser as we moved on and while this was a gentle climb, a combination of the heat and altitude wore us down by the time we got in to Shira 2. Shira 2 has a couple of permanent rest rooms and that was a huge relief for all of us.

Campsite at Shira 2

Towards end of day, the effects of walking in altitude without enough water and the sun bearing down on us, got to Prof. He was severely dehydrated with a bout of headache and by dinner time he was exploring options on how to get back to the hotel. A night’s rest did make it better but not enough to continue and Living arranged for a Ranger to pick him up and get him back at the hotel.

Day 4: Shira 2 to Baranco camp (3900m)

Morning at Shira 2 was one of those perfect mornings when the sky is blue and the sun is shining and all is well with the world at large. Prof stayed put with his decision to head back and in hindsight, it was good that he did.

From Shira camp 2, we headed out to Lava Tower at 4600m. The terrain looks desolate and for large sections of this climb, I was all by myself. While it all looks dry, the rock formations are mesmerizing – the pictures do not reflect the majesty of these structures in the sheer expanse of the plateau

Lunch at the top of Lava tower was followed by a climb down to Baranco camp. It is amazing to see the change in scenery as we go down a few hundred meters. Climbing down was exhausting in that terrain and for all of us, this shook up all of our joints and more.

It was dark by the time Venky made it to camp and we had to send a couple of porters with lights to get him. The climb up followed by the even more arduous climb down was the limit for Venky and he was ready to give up.

Now to give up here would mean having to go back to Shira camp 2 and take the Ranger pick-up from the same place that Prof got picked up. The lesson here is that, if you got to quit, quit at Shira 2 or labor on till Barafu base camp.

Day 5 – Baranco camp to Karanga camp (4150m)

For most of us, the previous day’s hike was the most tiresome. While we were getting into Baranco camp, I got a view of the Baranco wall which we were supposed to scale the next day. It looked like a sheer climb but I was sure that while the climb would be steep, there would definitely be a pathway to get across this wall.

As we headed out to get across the wall, all of us including the rest of the climbers had to fall into a single file. In most places, there wasn’t a clear path and we had to wait for our guides to lead us through. I was introduced to the term “scrambling” by RP here and this definitely wasn’t what I had signed up for. It required me to walk over ledges (never ever looking down or up) and climbing over rocks which had me at my jittery worst. One section involved a “kissing rock” which requires us to hug the rock and literally kiss it to be able get over to the other side. RP and HAS had a ball, taking pictures at every turn with me cursing them for not getting on with it. All I needed was for these couple of hours to be over.

Baranco wall from the camp

Once I was past the Baranco wall, everything else seemed so much more easier. I reached Karanga camp without any more of those “moments”.

Day 6 – Karanga to Barafu camp

Barafu at 4700m is the base camp from where the actual summit to Uhuru starts. This was the easiest of the days where we made it to camp by 1.15pm. The climbers doing the 7 day trip typically skip Karanga and head directly to Barafu camp from Baranco. I would still recommend a stopover at Karanga so that when you get to Barafu the next day, you still have enough in you to start the summit climb at midnight.

I do not have any good reasons as to why the summit is done during the night. We did discuss this with our guides and his explanation was that we could catch the sunrise at the top if we start midnight. But for me, it’s not just the view at the top but also the view as we climb that matters. In any case, there was no convincing him and in our wisdom, we still assume that he knows better. But, I still believe that if there is an option of doing a daytime climb, say starting at 5.00am, it should be tried.

Day 6 – Midnight summit

The intent of getting to Barafu camp around noon is to make sure that you are well rested for the overnight climb. In any case, I was dreading the thought of climbing through the night and then there were the added terrors of having to do a “Baranco” rock scrambling in the night. I was assured by our guides that the summit climb is difficult but not dangerous like scaling Baranco wall.

Venky had decided the day before that his journey would end at Barafu and I must say that his mental strength is what got him this far. Each day, no matter how difficult the terrain is, Venky would make it home one step at a time and he had a tenacity which I’ve never seen in anyone.

As for me, I tried sleeping through evening but I could not – I wasn’t comfortable and like all things we dread, I just wished that we could start so that I could be done with it. This was the time I wished most that I was back in the comfort of my home.

Then there was this question around the amount of layering one needs through the climb. While the jackets can be peeled off, the same cannot be said for leg warmers. Finally, I stayed with one leg warmer and two pairs of knee length woolen socks. After an early dinner and another failed attempt at catching some sleep, we were off at 12.15am with our head lamps on 15th Oct night / 16th Oct early morning. We had 3 guides - Living, God (Godfrey) and Frankie, one for each of us in case any of us had to go back midway. A full moon night and these were the best conditions we could hope for. I was working my way up with God and for him this was a walk in the park – no head lamps for him, the moon lit night being more than enough.

Within the first hour of climb, I had to make my way through a series of rocks and ledges which reminded me of Baranco – that was just about 15 minutes and once past that, it just led to a series of never ending climbs.

In the first couple of hours, I settled into a rhythm of walking at an even pace without resting for more than a couple of minutes at a time. Given the winds and the sub zero temperatures, too long a stopover would have made the cold a lot more difficult to handle. At some stage during the climb, I broke away from my group and for the rest of the climb it was just me and God. The worst part of the night summit is the sheer drudgery of the climb. A close second would be the fact that the climb never seems to end. For the next 6 hours, it was just me and God, one step at a time. I was focused on God’s feet and staying as close to him as possible and making sure there are no missteps. Talk about taking the narrow path and this was as narrow a path there ever was. Most of these 6 hours were spent talking to myself, praying fervently for strength to make this climb and willing myself not to give up.

At around 4.00am, God mentioned that we were past the halfway mark and to me it meant that even if I wanted to quit, the only way was to move forward. I continued to pull myself on with just water breaks to sustain myself. Thankfully there were no signs of any form of altitude sickness which would have forced me to go down to a lower altitude immediately.

At 6.30am, I was at the last of the climbs when the faint lines of sunrise started to break through behind me. I have never been so glad to see that orange tinge on the horizon; the longest night of my life was done. The realization that this was finally getting done got me putting down the 3rd and last rule from this trip.

Rule 3: No more summit climbing through the night – this is more of an endurance test and I have no reasons to put myself through another of those.

While I was making my way up, God let me know that at the end of this climb, we could see Stella Point. To me that felt like a few more steps and it was done. As I labored through the last of the climb and I saw Stella Point, it felt like a never ending journey. Stella Point was still more than a kilometer away at the end of another series of climbs that I needed to do. This truly drained everything that I had left in me and with these last set of climbs, I was counting steps. I was having to take a break every 20 steps with the end point never seeming to get close enough. It took me over an hour to complete this penultimate leg of getting to Stella Point.

I cursed the folks who in their wisdom had decided that Stella Point had to be where it was instead of where I wanted it to be. I finally did get there and I think I made it very clear to God (my guide), that I wasn’t going any further. My adventure was done and all I wanted to do was to head back to the hotel. This is where God in his wisdom just refused to let me stop and I was too tired to argue so we trudged on with me at my truant worst. To add to my foul mood, I had a bunch of cheery folks passing me on their way down insisting that Uhuru peak was just round the corner. As if that was supposed to encourage me!!

As we got closer, I was glad God did pull me along. I can still feel how it felt to see those glaciers coming up out of nowhere. The sight of these massive walls of ice set against the dry arid mountain was surreal and I snapped out of all that tiredness for a while. I closed my eyes and let this all soak in; those thirty minutes made up for everything. If life is about collecting experiences, this one is right up there and God truly was the guide without whom I would have missed out on this.

Day 7 & 8 – Climb down to Mweka and back to the hotel

After the high of getting to Uhuru, we were back at Barafu base camp by 11am. We came down ‘skiing’ through slopes of screed. A short break at Barafu to have lunch and we were off to Mweka at 2pm. From 5900m at 9am to 3100m by 5pm – that was the scale of our climb and descent in a single day. An early dinner and all I wanted was to sleep after being up and being on the move for over 36 hours.

The next day was even better; we are at the pick up point in less than 2 hours and back home at the hotel by 11am the next day. A shower, some sleep, a late lunch and some Kilimanjaro beer never felt better.

So, did the trip turn out to be what I thought it would be? It was full of surprises, good and bad and for me, the half hour at Uhuru and what I felt there more than made up for everything. That half hour will stay with me for good and I have God to thank for that.

Next up, a solo trip to figure if I can truly deal with being alone.

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