From Snows of Kilimanjaro to Uhuru Peak

By NAVEED GILANI

Yuichiro Miura, at age 80, is the oldest man to have summited the Mount Everest.That too, for the third time!It was in May 2013. I read the news with much admiration and a whole lot of envy. But that’s not his only achievement.He had first thought of climbing the summit when he was 65 and did just that at age 70. He went back again at 75 and figured now that he knew his way around the mountain – where to take the right turns and how to avoid the crevices and ice chasms, he might as well go back at 80. So he did.

When I read this I had been working on my own bucket list and thought to myself, ‘I am no Miura but I could attempt something less ambitious, a smaller peak, and who knows, by the time I am 80, that is if I reach that golden age, I could do the same as Miura’. The more I thought about it the more I got excited despite wife’s opposition.

Which peak would it be? Earnest Hemmingway’s ‘Snows of Kilimanjaro’ tugged my heart reminding me of the movie with Gregory Peck, Susan Hayworth, and Ava Gardner that I saw as a child. The view of the snow covered highest African mountain was still vivid in my mind with much else faded away with time. Of course I couldn’t expect the same ice cover on the peak as was in the 50s when the movie was shot (85% shrunk since 1912). Climbing Kilimanjaro wasn’t too technical, which works fine for me, with a lot of nostalgic appeal to it. Kilimanjaro it is, I decided.

Having decided on the mountain (Kilimanjaro elevation: 19,341 ft.), the next thing I did was to find out if others would join me in this epic trip. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that Yuichiro’s son had accompanied him to the Everest and therefore I asked my three sons if they would like to join. Danesh, my middle son agreed immediately. Other two could not, due to their other commitments. My nephew, Sherry, was ready the moment I suggested it. Incidentally, the last time I took Sherry along on a much less ambitious trip, 9,800 feet, was when he was 16 years old back in 1995. After the two day trek he had vowed never to do it again. As they say time is a big healer, by now he had forgotten the arduous journey. Munir, my friend and partner in many a trek gladly agreed. Naji, my brother, a passionate cyclist, also agreed. Colin, my colleague, was the most courageous of them all. He had had a heart attack some months back and after checking with his doctor he decided to come along. Oh! Have I mentioned that, our touchstone Mr. Miura had four operations for arrhythmia since 2008 not to mention the history of diabetes and hypertension.

Then there were 6. The prep begins…………………….

Choosing the climb guide – Topi adventures was selected, more about them later.

Getting the right gear – boots, clothes for all weather permutations, headwear, climbing equipment, sleeping bags, backpacks, etc. etc. Some we already had, others we bought or rented from Topi.

The trekking route we chose was Machame. There are at least six different routes that one can take to climb Kilimanjaro, all with different levels of difficulty and scenery. Machame, though more difficult than some of the others is most popular. Another decision to be made was how many days you want to take to complete the route. As none of us were competing with Yuichiro Miura we decided to take it slow and complete in 7 days.

December, although not the most popular time, suited us all. Kilimanjaro is just below the equator in the southern hemisphere therefore it will be summer time in December. Chance of rain is also low and we could all take off from work. Sherry was going to be in Africa anyway on a work assignment so we decided to do it during 20th through 29th December. This was 2013.

I kept telling all to start preparing for the trek with a physical exercise routine. Not everyone followed the instructions. Least fit among us all was Sherry who doesn’t have a regular exercise routine. I was most concerned about him but his work kept him busy without much physical activity, or at least that was the excuse he always gave. I suppose he was relying on his fledgling age and the natural gift of his healthy pedigree. I did my bit by spending at least one hour in the gym on cross trainer, and exercise bike, followed by climbing 24 flights of stairs once or twice.

One other bigger concern was the Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) which can affect different people in different ways. None of us had ever climbed that high an altitude. Danesh and I had done up to 4,200 meters (13,800 ft.) in one of our earlier treks and I remember having acute headaches and nausea sucking all the fun out of the trip. This time we would use Diamox – a well proven and safe drug to prevent the sickness. Later, I was glad that we did.

Colin and I were to leave from Dubai meeting up with Munir and Naji at the Dubai airport. Munir was arriving from China, and Naji from Karachi. Sherry was to join us in Moshi where we were to stay at the Parkview hotel before and after the climb. Sherry, who lives in Washington DC, had been in Burkina Faso for his assignment that I mentioned, flying into Nairobi from where he had decided to take an 8 hour bus ride into Moshi. That African bus ride is another tale that Sherry would love to share. Danesh was to fly in from Washington DC one day before we were to start the trek. Sherry too was to arrive one day before while we had planned to spend two nights in Moshi – just to soak in the African Sun.

The arrival plan went well for all of us, except for Sherry and Danesh. Sherry’s bus ride was a little more grueling than he had anticipated. Danesh’s flight (Ethiopian Airlines) never made it for the connecting flight in Addis Ababa, resultantly he arrived into Moshi at 3 AM in the morning of the day we were to start the trek. I, being his father, was much concerned of his fatigue and jetlag after umpteen hours of flight from North America to Africa just before stating a trek of this magnitude. His later sprightliness during the trek proved it to be an unnecessary worry. No doubt he was the youngest and the fittest among us all.

One day before the trek,Topi adventure’s guides came and gave us an introduction to the trip with all the dos and don’ts and other important tips. They checked our gear to make sure we had all that was needed. We were going from a rather hot condition in Moshi to the extreme cold conditions at the summit with a wide range of temperatures in between which required different set of gear – wicking t-shirts to ski balaclavas to gloves for subzero temperatures.

On 22nd December we were to leave Moshi early to meet up with the porters, guides, and cooks, at the starting point called the “Machame Gate”. Since Sherry arrived later than expected the day earlier and Danesh arrived early in the morning their gear had to be checked resulting in a delay. We arrived at the gate around 11:00 AM. After completing the necessary paperwork we were good to go. We left the gate a little after noon. By the way, Tanzania does a very good job in keeping the trek regulated. Throughout the trek we had to register in and out of each camp so they keep track of each and every trekker along with a close eye on the adventure operators, guides, etc. Our first destination was to be Machame Camp at 3,000 meters (9,840 ft.). We had to climb 1,200 meters (3,935 ft.) on our first day. It was a scenic trek through the moss covered trees of the Kilimanjaro cloud forest. We were all energized and in a playful mood joking and making wittycomments at each other. Walking at varying speed we gathered for lunch halfway through. As expected Sherry was taking it slow. Our head guide Emanuel was extremely experienced and knew exactly who would need more cheering and bucking up. He walked with Sherry at his pace. On the way, I decided to hold back to walk with Sherry and Emanuel firmly told me not to do that. In his opinion it would be demotivating for Sherry to be feeling responsible for holding us back. He assured me that he will accompany Sherry all the way through. I still stayed along and had a good time chatting with Sherry whom I don’t see often being geographically separated by oceans and continents. As we closed into the camp, the thick forest thinned out and the vegetation changed to heathers, tall grasses, and wildflowers – all still beautiful. On way there were a few spots where, through the clearing in the forest, we could see the Uhuru peak on the Kibo crater rim, our ultimate destination. It was a good sight and got our adrenaline pumping each time we saw it. Sherry and I were the last ones to arrive at the camp at 7 PM when the sun had already set for the day. Gathering at the mess tent, which the porters would pitch at every camp before our arrival, we compared notes on the day’s experience. Some found it moderately hard others harder. Adrenaline kept pumping. We wolfed down the excellent hot food that was prepared by the cook. Before going to our tents, again these were also pitched each day before our arrival. I shared mine with Danesh. Before turning in Emanuel gave us the next day’s plan and what to expect. We were snoring in our tents by 9:00 PM.

We woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed the next morning and after a good hot breakfast started our trek, at 8:15 AM – later than planned, to the Shira Camp which was at an altitude of 3,840 meters (12,600 ft.) Although considered to be the easiest day on the Machame Route, the day’s trek included several uphill sections. The hike is generally exposed and can be hot on a clear day. We were lucky, it wasn’t hot. As we gained altitude, the vegetation changed with trees diminishing in size giving way to Kilimanjaro’s famous high altitude plants (I am not going to mention their names though I have learnt of their names). It was a steep climb but I found it much easier than our first day’s trek. Others thought opposite. Colin had to slow down and Sherry even slower. Emanuel stayed with Sherry every step of the way ensuring that he takes it as slow as his physical condition allowed him. Munir, Naji, Danesh and I were still packed with energy on this second day,kept up a good pace, arriving at the Shira camp at 2:00 PM. Sherry arrived two hours later. Shira camp is located on a plateau created when Kibo’s lava filled the Shira crater.

For the next few days it became the routine to be served with popcorn and tea upon arrival followed by an early dinner and into our tents by 9:00 PM.

The third day was to end in Barranco camp at an altitude of 3,950 meters (12,960 ft.) with a much up and down climb en route. We were to arrive, by lunch time, at the Lava tower located at a height of 4,530 meters (14,850 ft.) before descending to the Barranco camp which is considered to be the most scenic on the Machame route. This day is very crucial for the acclimatization. All of us did very well on this day, even Sherry who had finally found his trekking rhythm. It was a good test day for Colin and my knees that are pretty much shot from God knows what, mine probably as a result of excessive running during younger days. Both of us found the descent from the Lava tower to the Borranco camp tough. We took it slow distributing much of the strain to the trekking poles which I find a blessing on such treks. Colin and Sherry arrived around 5:00 PM, a long day after having left the Shira camp at 8:00 in the morning. All others had arrived an hour and a half earlier. The evening was cold, chilled further by the swooping winds from the surrounding mountains.

In the evening, as we were sipping our tea in the mess tent we were pleasantly surprised by the sounds of sudden clapping of hands accompanied by a group singing that filled the otherwise quiet of the campsite. We hurried out and were treated to a very pleasing show put up by some of the porters. The chorus lead’s baritone voice along with African stomping in rhythm with the clapping spurred shakes among us all encircling the troupe. Some among us couldn’t help jumping out of the circle to join in. After the show we all agreed that none could jiggle their derriere better than the lead with the baritone voice.

Our original plan was to complete the trek in 7 days which also includes the final ascent to be attempted on the sixth day a little after midnight. The idea is to arrive at the top of Uhurufor the sunrise and then turnaround to be back at the campsite by around noon. Emanuel, who had been with Sherry every step along the way, was very concerned about his physical limitations. Mentally, Sherry was the toughest among us all, except Danesh I suppose. Many a times, he later told us, alone at night in his tent he seriously wondered if he would be able to take it anymore. Each time he shunned the thought and vowed not to give up. Colin was also having difficulty in keeping up at the required pace. He too is tough despite the heart condition that, I am sure, would have stopped me to go any further.

That night at the Barranco camp Emanuel proposed that we re-consider our plan. In his opinion starting the final ascent at night was not advisable for Sherry and Colin. He felt that at their slow speed they are likely to freeze before reaching the top. Alternatively, he suggested that we start in the morning and return by day end. We discussed and decided to give up on the sunrise at the top and finish it all together as a team. This also meant that we combine the following two daysclimb, relatively short treks, in one day. So we did.

It was X’mas day when we started from Barranco Camp at 8:00 AM. Our next stop was to be in Karanga valley at 4,200 meters (13,780 ft.). It started with a one and a half hour of scramble up the Barranco wall, the hardest part of the day where at some places we had to use our hands to pull up our bodies. Then descending down into the green Karango valley we climbed back up the ridge on the other side. This would have been our campsite had we continued with the original plan. It would have been a short half day climb but now we had to continue on to the last camp at Barafu.

We had a big lunch before starting again. This, for me, proved to be a big mistake. Usually appetite is the first thing that one loses at higher altitudes. In our case the Diamox that we were taking was taking different effect on all of us. I was completely fine till just that lunch after which I lost my appetite and my entire physical condition suddenly went downhill.

Barafu camp is located at 4,600 meters (15,100 ft.) and the entire terrain is very uneven and rocky. The trail from Karanga valley to the camp passes through alpine desert with little vegetation. On the way several of Kibo’s glaciers can be viewed as we hike by them. Barafu Camp offers stunning views of Kibo and Mawenzi peaks.

We lugged ourselves into camp around 4:00 PM. Sherry and Colin arrived around 6:00 PM. Our physical condition was not pretty for we were all sapped of energy. Munir, and Naji were relatively better. Danesh was the most cheery, bucking up everyone particularly Sherry. ‘Chipper Dee’ was the nickname that he earned the next day after arriving at the summit.

The next day was the big day so we tried to turn in early. It was planned that Sherry and Colin would leave at 5:00 AM and the rest of us would follow at 7:30 AM. The idea was to reach the summit all at the same time. As I was not feeling well since after the lunch I did not have a good sleep. It seemed like the AMS had attacked my stomach in a big way. I had to run to the camp toilet many times during the night which was a difficult task in itself. Temperatures were below freezing and each time you went you had to take off layers and layers of warm clothing with practically no light except for a small headlamp. You cannot blame me for being extra grumpy in the morning. Didn’t eat much for breakfast, had zero appetite.

The BIG DAY was tough to say the least. It was a steep climb gaining 1,295 meters (4,240 ft.). We had to ascend through a very rocky terrain in the beginning to frozen scree close to the end. Each step was very small and our speed was very ‘pole pole’ (Swahili for slow slow). All of us were deep in our own thoughts, probably asking ourselves why did we have to do this? Each step we would closely listen to our heartbeat because the air was extremely thin, cold too, and the heart had to pump twice as hard to deliver the required oxygen to all the extremities, which were close to freezing despite being bundled up in gloves, balaclavas, and doubly thick socks. ‘Chipper Dee’ was the only one singing songs trying to cheer us all up. From time to time Naji would shout at him to shut the hell up.

Uhuru, our ultimate destination of the BIG DAY, means freedom in Swahili. This is the name given to the highest point on the Kibo volcano rim. To reach Uhuru you climb up to Stella point, also on Kibo rim, and then trek along the rim to Uhuru.

We met up with Sherry and Colin about two hours before reaching Stella point. They were having a tough time but nobody was ready to give up. Emanuel had promised that even if we only get to the Stella point he would still give us the coveted certificate confirming our completion. Colin later told us that he had major problems with breathing and keeping balance. Emanuel was very watchful of each one’s condition and would have immediately aborted the mission if he felt anyone’s life was bordering the point of no return.

We had a quick lunch of biscuits and fruit juice and started up again. Pole Pole.

After seven hours of grueling trek we reached the Stella point at 2:30 PM. It was very cold and very windy. All the bundling up in warm jackets and woolen undergarments did not seem enough. Took a lot of pictures at Stella point and then trekked to the Uhuru peak. Through heavy snow with some slip here and there, it took us another hour and twenty minutes to reach the summit that we had been so anxiously sighting at a distance for last so many days. The video of Sherry’s arrival at the Uhuru peak shows the celebratory mood of the group seeing him complete his last drag to the peak. Chipper Deecan be heard in the background cheering with a lung full. We took a bunch of pictures, as a group and individual ones. We couldn’t stay much longer, the air was thin and temperatures dropping fast.

The return trip began at 4:30 PM.

We were told that it would be very easy coming down. We will take a different route coming down and we just need to slide down the steep slope covered with scree. Not true for me, I couldn’t slide. Naji and Chiper Dee had no problem going down and soon they were nowhere to be seen. Munir and I were much slower. The scree was no longer frozen and was a layer of dirt mixed with rock sizes ranging from gravel to big rocks.  We had to be very careful with each step lest we slip and fall on our back which, despite careful stepping, happened a few times. Sherry and Colin were still behind. Later we found that both of them had to be almost carried back by the porters, and our guides – Emanuel and Vincent. Emanuel saw Colin’s condition to be poor and could see that he had lost his sense of balance. Sherry was just exhausted beyond recovery at that altitude. Soon it turned dark and we only had one headlamp, Munir’s. Mine gave up. Climbing down in near darkness was not easy. Close to the camp Sherry and Colin caught up to us and we arrived back in Barafu camp at 9:00 PM.

Didn’t have any dinner. Didn’t feel like it. Physical condition notwithstanding, we felt deeply elated at the time. Without celebration we went straight to our tents, nevertheless.

The last day was a long one. All the way from Barafu through Mweka camp, where we had lunch, to Mweka gate where we took the van back to the hotel in Moshi. We descended 3,100 meters (10,180 ft.) on that day. My bad knees were no help. Colin, Sherry and I were the last ones to arrive at the gate. Danesh had arrived almost two hours before while Munir and Najian hour before. Luckily for us we did not encounter any serious rain during the entire trek, except for a few sprinkles here and there, till we arrived at Mweka gate where we were drenched just getting from the waiting room to the van.

Later we all had the after effects of the strenuous trip; our toes felt completely squashed with some dead toenails; climbing up and down the stairs was excruciatingly difficult; had no appetite for a couple of days; I had a nosebleed that would not go away till many weeks later; Colin had a very strong stomach bug for many days; and common to all was the feeling of accomplishment. Sherry was the one who taught us all that toughness of mind is the most important element. Danesh, our ‘Chipper Dee’ had no issues to speak of. God bless him.

Did you know that the Kilimanjaro National Park shows that only 41% of trekkers actually reach the Uhuru summit with the majority turning around at Gilman’s Point, 300 metres (980 feet) short of Uhuru, or Stella Point, 200 (660 feet) meters short of Uhuru. Kilimanjaro is often underestimated because it can be walked and is not a technical climb. However, many mountaineers consider Kilimanjaro very physically demanding.

WE DID IT. J

Tailpiece: Mount Kilimanjaro National Parks earns over $50 million a year for Tanzania. All this is through the sweat of porters, guides, and cooks. On the average every climber will be served by 4 or 5 of these people carrying all the equipment needed to make the climb a 5 star comfort as far as trekking goes. One is overwhelmed by the number of these people on the trek and wonder how much of this $50 million trickles down for their welfare. Judging by the looks of it, not much at all. I write this on the heels of the most unfortunate avalanche accident claiming 13 Sherpa lives on Mount Everest. In solidarity with the ones who died the Shepas have, for the first time in history, decided not to return to the mountain for the year 2014. While the dangers for the porters at Kilimanjaro may not be the same as those for the Sherpas in Nepal the social impact is the same. Wonder if we, the trekkers, can do something to help alleviate their plight. Think about it.

 

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