This travel piece captures the excitement, zeal and fear surrounding every climber’s ambition, and highlights why more than 30,000 people go to Tanzania every year to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the world’s tallest free-standing mountain and Africa’s highest peak. It also reflects on the importance of bringing your body, breath and mind together to enjoy every moment.
By Sandip Gupta
This article was written in 2018.
Ever since I turned 50 not too long ago, I have nurtured a desire to hike to the Everest Base Camp (EBC). So, when two of my friends floated the idea of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro a few months ago, I took it as a precursor to my EBC dream and quickly agreed. Before we knew, we had gathered nine enthusiastic people–from the ages 16 to 61–with a passion to climb the highest peak in Africa. The youngest trekker, my daughter Saanya, dedicated her adventure to help raise funds for an education cause called Room To Read that provides books and libraries to children in remote areas of developing nations. Meanwhile, the rest of us got busy buying all the necessary gear (around 50 items!) for the trip, and preparing our body to climb the highest free standing mountain in the world by doing regular exercises, hiking, stair climbing, and some breathing exercises.
I knew what to expect – cold, high altitude, low oxygen, night hike, long walks, rocky trek, etc. Singapore has limited places to train for these conditions, but I continued climbing 75 flights of stairs often, went to the gym every day and used a conditioning mask to get a feel for high altitude. I took yellow fever shots, malaria tablet and bought dosages of Imodium and Diamox for altitude sickness. It was also important to get to a breathing rhythm and increase lung capacity while achieving mind concentration, so in the last two months I practiced various breathing techniques,
including pranayama that would help me with altitude sickness— Kapalbhati, Anulomb Vilomb and long Ujjayi breaths.
A Great Start
We flew in from Singapore to Arusha via Addis Ababa. We were an enthusiastic bunch and stayed overnight at a cute lodge in Arusha, even sneaking a chance to explore the town and its neighborhood. We got a glimpse of the ice-clad majestic Mount Kilimanjaro as we drove to a quaint town called Moshi—it appeared so majestic and overpowering from far away. Our guide called himself “a 99% man” implying his success rate for climbing was just that. He said his secret was “pole, pole” which means “slow, slow” in Swahili. “Being slow and steady, with lots of water, will
make you summit,” he said. “Hakuna Matata!”
We began our ascent to Camp Machame the next day. Our porter was a very enthusiastic, engaging and helpful man called Joshua. Machame Gate was at 1800m and we were supposed to climb to 300m over the next 5 to 7 hours. The path was a combination of manmade and natural winding lanes surrounded by lush green rain forest that protected us from the harsh rays of the sun. Calm and crisp air surrounded us and chatter grew among the group as we got to know each other, exchanging notes about our families, profession and life in general. We took small breaks along the way, ate boxed lunch and resumed our climb. Joshua offered us water often, and we reached the camp late afternoon to check into our tents. It was not a hard day, and the group shared home-made savories with hot tea, coffee and popcorn, and even enjoyed a game of “Ungame”. The night was beautiful. I stared at the starlit sky and watched my favorite star, Venus, twinkling bright in the horizon, full of energy. I hadn’t seen a star-filled sky in many years and was mesmerized by the view. It was this sight and the distant conversation between guides that lulled me to sleep, eager to wake up for an early climb at dawn.
Feet on the Mountains, Head in the Clouds
The morning began with eggs for breakfast, and soon we headed out towards Camp Shira, a climb of 3750m, one that was not just steep but also had many switchbacks and rocky paths. Two hours later we were walking above the clouds, surrounded by fluffy cool cotton everywhere. It was amazing! We could see Mount Meru, the second highest peak, sticking its heads above the clouds–majestic and beautiful!
By the time we reached the camp site around late afternoon, I could feel a mild headache and nausea setting in as my body tried to acclimatize to the altitude. Others in the team complained of headaches too, and lack of appetite, but the guides insisted we eat. A few slices of pineapple, in fact, made me feel better immediately. Night came early and we woke up to high energy levels, ready to climb 4,600m to Lava rock. The plan was to then walk down to 3,900 and sleep at Camp Baranco.
Every step of the way that morning, we could feel a difference in temperature. The Mooreland region was dry, rocky and dusty, and there was a chill in the air. Unfortunately, my daughter Saanya started complaining of heaviness and constant pounding in the head. The guides kept saying “pole, pole”, and we slowly reached Lava Camp in time for lunch and afternoon rest. By this time, Saanya’s headache had worsened. It was important to get to a lower altitude soon to ease the headaches and altitude sickness that many had started to complain about. The day was necessary for us to acclimatize and get used to the thin air— drinking lots of water and a rhythmic breathing alleviated some of the anxiety.
Saanya’s condition was deteriorating and her oxygen levels were found to be low, so the guide maneuvered his way down slowly with her as we descended down a series of rocky hills. I was worried for my girl, feeling guilty and responsible for having brought her with me. But the spirit of fellow mates who encouraged my “Baby Simba” to be a trooper filled me with gratitude. It is no wonder that trekkers stick together during a climb. By the time we reached the camp, the vegetation had changed and Saanya was looking better too. After dinner, I gazed again at the moonlit sky while she slept soundly, connecting and thanking Venus which continued to twinkle brightly, watching over all of us. We all woke up rested to a fresh new morning, and climbed yet again the entire day, the summit of Kilimanjaro at the far distant urging us to move on steadily to her embrace. We climbed holding rocks and crevices, diligently paying attention to instructions by our guides, and we slipped on sand, rocks, mud and sleet as we went downhill towards Camp Karanga, our final stop before the summit.
The Final Journey
This was our important day—we were to climb 4800m to the base camp, and then at midnight we would head for the summit. We were bound by the weather condition including wind speed and the sun’s direction, and would get only 30-45 minutes on the summit before the scorches touched the peak.
We started the day “pole pole”, up and down through hills and flat terrains in cold and foggy weather. We reached Camp Baraffu around noon, grabbed a quick bite, and then hiked to Camp Kosovo in low visibility as we marched closer to the sky. All I did was follow the footsteps of the person in front of me, and made my breath rhythmic with every step. I was living the moment, not thinking of what the future held nor delving into the past. Once we were at the final base camp, we ate dinner early around 5.30pm, and were told to take a nap before our biggest climb—the grand finale!
I barely got 3 hours of sleep before I heard the guide yelling out for us to wake up. Four layers up and four layers down, beanie, two pairs of socks, three pairs of gloves, head lamps, warmers—all checked. I was all set to go. When I stepped out of the tent, my first sight was of Venus welcoming me to walk under a sky lit bright by a gazillion stars. This was the day I had been waiting for, and it was time to give my best as all preparations would come to test now.
Before we began the climb, we ate some light snacks with hot tea and coffee. And then we sat down and chanted some mantras and did a few breathing exercises. We were divided into three groups and the key was to walk slowly and take a few short breaks. The air was going to be thin, the temperature was going to be -20 degrees celsius, and it was going to be pitch dark. The first thing that hit our faces as we started walking was a sharp, icy-cold breeze.
Our head lights shining on sand and rocks, we went through switchbacks and reached 5,000m, one step at a time. My fingertips and toes were numb, and I had to shake the warmers so I could transmit some warmth, and life, into them.
I would breathe in through my nose and with every exhalation, I would chant Om. Breathe In, “Ommm”. Breathe In, “Ommm”. Breathe In, “Ommm”. The rhythm of my chant helped me focus and remain steady and positive. We took a few breaks along the way, and at the last break, we were served hot tea–what a respite! It really gave us the much-needed boost. We had been walking nearly six hours in the dead of the night, and at every 200m, the temperature dropped by 2 degrees Celsius. At -20 degrees, I felt breathless and every step was brutal. Om, Om, Om—I kept going,
getting the energy from the chant and from the thought that the end was near.
It was 5:56am on October 10, 2018, when we reached Stella Point—the dark sky was giving way to a streak of golden ray. I imagined hot melting iron being poured into a crucible, it’s warmth slowly spreading to people around. The horizon turned majestic—a beautiful hue of blue, orange and gold—as the sun kissed the sky slowly. It was magnificent. The air was light, my body was cold, my nose was dripping, but I felt nothing. The whole scenery ahead of me became bright and vibrant, and there was renewed energy and life in the surrounding. I saw glaciers and icicles on one hand, and the vast open horizon on the other. A blanket of cloud teased us sometimes, blanketing us and gradually letting go. We were at the rim of the crater and the caldera was covered with snow in the middle. After 45 minutes, we were at the summit— We reached Uhuru peak by 6.50am.
When we finally reached the summit, I was in a state of delusion as all this seemed like a dream: I could not believe I had done it. Everyone around me, my fellow climbers, were celebrating our success. I was amazed by Saanya’s will power, focused energy and patience. She completed it with utmost composure and calmness. I was so proud that she was with me until the finish line.
But it’s not over till it’s over. Like they say in yoga classes, it is just as important to get out of a pose as it is to achieve the pose. Reaching the summit may have been the ultimate goal, but we had to come down as well. The sun was creeping on us while we took all our customary pics. We had a quick snack and started our challenging descend—sand, pebbles, rocks made it slippery and dangerous. My focus was low and strength was fading out because of lack of sleep. One of our group members had to be airlifted due to high altitude fatigue, while another decided to head back to base camp when he reached 5000m. It took us 8 hours to finally reach Mweka Gate all the way down.
It was an experience of a lifetime—while celebrations and gratitude followed with the group once we were at the hotel, there was also a lingering unexplainable feeling of having seen something unforgettable, a place that will always be cherished for years to come. I defined a new threshold for the body and mind!
Sandip Gupta is a professional in Singapore, an avid dragon boat rower and positive thinker. He penned his Kilimanjaro experience in a journal which was edited as the above piece.
This article was first published in the print edition of Yoga Journal Singapore, which is now Yogahood Online.