Monday, January 14, 2013

A Father's Journey for his Son

By Ashesh Gandhi - When my brother Pritesh first mentioned about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro - I thought to myself that the idea would just pass and never really get any traction. However, this was far from the case and next thing I know we were planning teleconferences and Pritesh and Achal were looking into outfitters and I thought - Gosh - This is really going to happen. Pritesh and my cousins then added an extra element and tied the climb to the Yash Gandhi Foundation and raising awareness of I-cell - a rare genetic disease that had affected my son Yash. This was very touching and inspirational on many different levels for both my wife and I. Once we had decided on the date of the climb and all the logistics in late September, it was just amazing how the Gandhi machine came alive, bursting with energy, passion and enthusiasm to raise awareness of I-cell and raise funds for research in I-cell. In less than a month, a family friend Aesha volunteered and created the Yash Gandhi Foundation website from scratch. Pritesh spent countless hours writing and submitting grant proposals to more than 50 Pharmaceutical companies to request funding for the foundation to help raise awareness of I-cell. Equally, my cousins provided valuable input and ideas on tweaking the website and creating a Donor page and as well as a separate Kilimanjaro challenge for I-cell page where we could blog and our friends and family could follow us during our climb as well as raise awareness of I-cell. My cousins and other family members also played a critical role in spreading the word about our charity event and fund-raising efforts. Our goal was to raise $5000 from corporations and another $5000 from individual donations. We exceeded our fund raising goals in both. Support for the Yash Gandhi Foundation and Kilimanjaro challenge for I-cell from friends, family and companies was unprecedented, overwhelming, encouraging and inspiring. We received funding from 3 Pharmaceutical companies that specialize in rare diseases including Genzyme, BioMarin and Raptor Pharmaceuticals and individual donations poured in from friends and family. To date, we have raised over $20,000 in just under 3 months!! In preparation for the climb, I completed 2 sprint triathlons and spent the last 6 weeks in the gym at least 4 days a week swimming, biking and being on the Stairmaster - I was confident of my physical abilities with all the intense training but was worried about the altitude sickness since you can't really train for that. I was also quite nervous about the climb but Sonal helped me to turn my nervous energy into positive thoughts and outcomes.  
Day 1: Today is the day - the climb to Kili - no turning back now. Woke up at 6:30am to get ready as Papa was coming to pick us up around 8:30am. We slept a little late last night because Swetal and I kept packing and re-packing our duffle bags to adhere to the 15kg weight limit for the porters. No hot water again today so had to take a cold shower. Was a little disappointing because today would be the last day we will have a shower for a while. It would have been nice to have a hot shower. We had a delicious breakfast of Papaya, watermelon, and small bananas called Matunda (I love the fruit in Africa - no wonder I don't eat as much fruit back home in the states - it is just not as fresh), Spanish omelette, mango juice, Kenya coffee and toast. Everyone seemed jovial and excited with the climb. Papa came over by 8:45am with Gasper the head guide and additional assistant guides. The first thing they did was hand out bottled water so that we could fill our camel bags and large plastic boxes that had our lunch. There was a universal OH NO in our group because everyone was thinking the same thing - where will we put this lunch box? We re-arranged our backpacks to accommodate the lunch boxes. The guides made sure our bags were buckled and zippered and loaded them on the van/matatu. We all squeezed in the van - all 7 of us and also the 3 asst guides, Gasper and the driver. The road to Machame route was very rural with lots of farms and small villages. We talked with one of the asst guides - Francis and he had climbed Kili about 55 times!! Incredible!!! As we introduced ourselves to Francis - a funny thing happened - when Pritesh introduced himself - Francis tried to repeat his name but said "Princess" instead and that was enough ammunition for the Gandhi clan to begin calling Pritesh Princess. After a few steep hills, the van made it to Machame gate. The ride was only about 30 mins. We were asked to wait by the pavilion until we were called to register.  

The wait at the Pavilion seemed forever - the driver told us that they had to recruit additional porters and then they had to be processed. All the potential porters were hanging out on the other side of the gate, waiting and hoping to be recruited. In the meantime we had to use the bathrooms and went to the old fashioned toilets with a hole in the ground – a taste of what was to come. While waiting in the Pavilion, we saw some colobus monkeys in the forest. One monkey even decided to come inside the pavilion looking for food. It found a peanut that had been dropped by Preena and then scampered off. Finally we were called to register and we could start our climb. The climb to Machame camp or camp 1 was supposed to be about 4.5 hours. We met up with our assistant guide Michael and Gasper our head guide. The porters had already left. The first few mins of the climb was just a gravel road, which then led to a Path into the forest and the beginning of Machame route. For me personally, it was a little challenging because some of the terrain was quite steep but this was nothing compared to what was about to come and of course the final climb. Luckily Ruchir brought his music on his phone and Achal brought one of those small portable speakers and we started off with a Dhoom 2 song and followed thereafter by other Bollywood songs. I ignored the steepness of the terrain and enjoyed the music and the beautiful lush rainforest that had engulfed us. The grade was really steep in some parts and I was awed by the porters and how they managed to not only carry our duffle bags but campsite stuff like chairs and food and kitchen supplies on their head. These guys were amazing!! Several funny things happened as we were climbing - back in the pavilion we saw an Australian dude with legs the size of a tree trunk - this guy was built - as he passed us on the trail, Ruchir commented that Jada Pag waro (guy with fat legs) was passing us and Swetal Promptly nicknamed him JP!! We all joked that by the time we reached our camp JP might have already summitted. After about 1.5 hrs we stopped to eat our lunch. Lunch was delicious with homemade cucumber and tomato sandwiches, spicy Doritos, matunda, orange, a box of mango juice, crackers and my favorite Cadbury chocolate. I decided to save the chocolate for later. After lunch we continued our climb and we met our cook Amadeus who was on his way to the first camp. He informed us that for dinner we would be having potatoes, cucumber and leek soup, Fish fillets, vegetable stew and bread - sounded delicious. Suddenly the skies opened up and it began pouring - we had to put our rain gear. It rained heavily for about 30 mins but we continued with our climb. The terrain was getting steeper and I could see we were almost getting to the height of the canopy. This was a lot harder than I expected especially for the first day but Ruchir encouraged us and the music helped as well. We finally arrived at Machame camp situated at 3018m or 9927 ft - we registered and then went to our campsite. We had actually made it in 5 hrs - a lot faster than anticipated and the porters were still setting up the tents. They gave us chairs to sit on while they prepared 4 sleeping tents and 2 larger tents that would be the makeshift kitchen and dining area. I was impressed with their speed. In a few mins they had our tents ready and welcomed us to the dining tent for coffee, tea and a snacks, which was popcorn. We later had dinner followed by our vital signs check. This was entertaining - We passed the thermometer around taking the temperature under our armpits and when it came to Swetal's turn, he put the thermometer in his mouth without thinking - that was hilarious! Everyone's oxygenation and heart rates were good. As we prepared to retire for the night, the inevitable challenge of going to the bathroom (Number 2) came up and it was quite comical. Some of us chose to go in the hole in the ground type of stall and others decided to take the risk at night and go outdoors in the forest!
Day 2: We woke up to a beautiful morning filled with bright sunshine and a little chill in the air. The views were stunning with blue skies and the backdrop of Mt. Kilimanjaro and its snow capped peak. We got into a little trouble with Gasper as he had mentioned to us the night before that we needed to eat breakfast at 8:30 and be ready to leave the camp my 9:30am. However, we were busy taking pictures and filling our camel bags with water and being pharmacists debating on whether we should add 2, 3 or 4 iodine tablets to the water - Ruchir finally gave us the right answer - we were supposed to add 4 iodine tablets to 2 Liters of water. We then re-packed our duffle bags and this was already getting old - rolling the sleeping pads and bags was no easy task and we had to do that in our small tents. We then rushed to have breakfast after being told off by Gasper. Breakfast was awesome - there was porridge, omelet, toast, mangoes and sausage links. I thought the porridge and sausage links were delicious. The rest of the gang decided to add Chevdo (an Indian snack) to the porridge to make it tastier. I noticed that I was the only one who ate the sausage links and couldn't help but wonder if the rest of the gang were observing if I would have any type of GI distress related to the sausages. We completed our morning vitals and then we were off to Shira camp.  The hike to Shira camp was approximately 4 hours and the views were stunning! We were now getting to the level of the clouds and the dense forest that surrounded us on day 1 disappeared and was replaced by moorland. We went through a spectacular zone of mosses, mist and clouds. Our hike was uneventful and I found it much easier than the first day. We passed a natural waterfall, took some pictures, drank some of the water from the waterfall and continued on our way. We finally reached Shira camp right around 1:30pm and had a hot lunch. Shira camp is located at an altitude of 3756m or 12,355 feet. We unpacked our sleeping bags, took a nap and then had dinner from 5-6pm. We did our vitals and everyone was doing quite well. I was surprised that my oxygenation levels were high and comparable to Preena's - one of the youngest in the group!! I felt good about that and decided to gulp more water. My average water consumption so far was running between 3.5 and 4 Liters and I was determined not to fall behind. One of the key successes to fighting off altitude sickness we were told was water consumption in the range of 4 liters per day.  
Day 3: Day 3 at Shira camp began with the usual hot breakfast of porridge, toast, sausagelinks and omelet. Today we were packed and ready to go at 8:30 am. The trek from Shira to Baranco camp was supposed to be for 6 hrs. We were going from an altitude of 3756m to 4100m or 15,000 feet at the lava towers for acclimatization and then descending to the Marangu valley/Baranco camp at 3970m or 13,066 feet. We were going at a slow and steady pole pole pace, but Gasper our head guide said we were going too slowly. On our way we met JP as well as JP's dad. JP's dad asked me if we were related to Mahatma Gandhi and I said yes with a half serious face. He was intrigued and we were all engaged in a casual conversation as we were trekking and then he asked again if we were related to Mahatma Gandhi and the moment we said no that we were just joking he quickly left us - that was quite funny.

The trek to the lava towers was now entering the alpine zone and it was brutal and I think that is an understatement. We were all starting to get pounding headaches and it was gettimng misty and cold. Swetal was more tired than usual. We tried to eat our boxed lunches but the vegetable pie was tasteless and there not much choice. I forced myself to eat the vegetable pie and most of the boxed lunch, fighting off the urge to throw up. There were some squirrel rats that ate our crumbs and some of us even fed some of our lunch to them. Most of us also ran out of water, which was not a good thing. We had a choice to not get acclimatized, avoiding the lava towers and head straight to the Baranco camp. However Swetal was brave and even though he was tired, he decided to go the harder way via the Lava towers. Pritesh and I started telling stories of our childhood (mainly embarrassing stories of Pritesh) to keep the team distracted and entertained. It took us a long 6 hrs to get to lava towers and then a tough downhill descent to Baranco camp for another 2 hrs. As we started descending into the valley, we saw more and more plants called Senecios and Lobelias. With sheer determination we all finally made it to the Baranco camp. We were tired, hungry and just wanted to go to sleep. We had pasta for dinner and did our vitals. I was surprised to see my oxygen saturation maintaining in the 90's. Preena's was the same - this girl was tough!! We then all called it an early night. Day 3 was tough but hopefully it helped us to acclimatize. Day 4 involved climbing the Baranco wall.  
Day 4: We again woke up to another gorgeous day full of sunshine albeit cold. Uhuru peak seemed closer than ever and the scenery was stunning! We checked on Swetal and he seemed better and everyone was in much better spirits. Today, I was feeling quite nervous because we were going to climb the Baranco wall, which was about 800m high, and I'm afraid of heights!! We had our breakfast and were ready to go! Today the spirits were high and everyone was quite excited to climb the Baranco wall. I was hoping that we did not have to climb the wall until a couple of hours into the trek but that was not the case. We descended down the valley from the camp, crossed a small stream and then out of nowhere the sheer Baranco wall came into view. I felt a little nauseous but just told myself to take it one step at a time. Swetal was leading us today and he was setting a pretty good pace in climbing the wall. Everyone was having a great time grasping the rocks by their bare hands, swinging their bodies and legs to steadily climb the Baranco wall. I was not having a great time and was afraid to look down and tried to focus on just clinging to the rocks and boulders. I had a hard time understanding why people say you did not need technical skills to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro - Climbing the Baranco wall was practically like rock climbing but without the benefit of a restraint system! I kept saying to myself just go slow and take one rock at a time! I was amazed how the porters and guides could balance and climb the rocks with all the stuff they were carrying. At the halfway point, we decided to take pictures and I just decided to grab a rock and sat cross-legged on a flat spot - I was afraid to move or look down. After about 1.5 hours of climbing we finally made it to the top of the Baranco wall and I had a huge sigh of relief! We now had to descend into a valley to go the Karanga camp. This was no easy feat - at least not for me. We had to use our hiking poles to traverse rough terrain that was on a downward and steep angle with huge boulders - one slip or twist of the ankle or knee and you would be done!! I think the descent was for about 45 minutes; we crossed the Karanga River and then climbed up for another 45 minutes or so to a final height of 4055 meters/13,300 feet. Karanga camp was cold, windy and rainy. We had hot lunch and then took a short nap followed by dinner and then retired for the night. We all felt much better today and our spirits were high. We all felt pretty good and quite confident that we would reach the peak.  
Day 5: Today was going to be a long day! We needed to hike to Barafu hut, which was our final camp before our push to the summit. Today with our usual breakfast, we also had a drink made from the Rosela plant. We were told that it would help us with altitude sickness. Heck - I drank 2 cups if would help! The drink was red in color and it was steaming hot with a slightly bitter taste. Our hike today was going to be for about 3.5 hours. We were climbing from an altitude of 4055m to 4633m/15,239 feet at Barafu. Now there was very little vegetation and the terrain was getting rockier and inhospitable. Barafu in Swahili means ice and the temp was definitely dropping and getting windier and colder. The trek was not too bad and almost flat until we had to ascend the final 200m to the Barafu camp. We reached Barafu camp around 1pm. Barafu camp was quite depressing - it was windy, cold and rainy. We had our lunch/Rosela water and then were instructed by Gasper to be ready for dinner at 5pm. At that time, he was going to let us know the plans for the summit at midnight and also introduce us to our summit guides. We had our lunch and then went into our tents and I fell asleep which was a good thing because I knew I was not going to be able to sleep after dinner. Dinner was quite solemn - I think the nerves were kicking in and the anticipation of the final climb to the summit. Gasper came into the dining tent after dinner and introduced us to our summit porters. Each of us would have our own summit porter who would carry our daypacks for us. He instructed us to sleep until 11pm and then we would be woken up to put on our warm gear/layers and we needed to meet in the dining tent at 11:30pm for snacks, tea/coffee and then start the summit climb at midnight. I gave Gasper the foundation banner that we planned to unravel at the summit. We retired to our tents and prepared our clothing/gear/headlamps, and packed our water, snacks and cameras in our small daypack. I also packed Yash's little Elmo that I planned to place in the moment box on the summit. We could not sleep a wink between 6pm-11pm. The wind was howling, it was hailing outside and the weather was just nasty. At one point, I even thought the guide might cancel our ascent to the summit. The wait seemed forever and finally at 11pm, the guides woke us up and we got dressed in our warm clothes. At 11:30pm, we all assembled in the dining tent - this was it!! Summit day was finally here!!

Day 6 (Summit Day): We had light snacks, some Rosela water and we were ready to go at midnight! We all said to each other that we could do this!! We gathered outside the dining tent - the weather was not letting up - it was very windy and very cold! It was pitch dark outside and our headlamps only illuminated the person's boots when we looked down. I thought this was a good thing since I'm afraid of heights. There would be no height perception and all I needed to do was follow the footsteps of the person in front of me. The ascent to the summit was going to be in the range of 6-7 hours. As we started our trek/ascent, it was quite surreal. Pritesh had given me some good advice on breathing - he advised us to mouth breathe and that may help with the gas exchange. I was used to mouth breathing from my swimming practices and it turned out to be very good advice - I was able to keep pace without tiring out. We stopped for short breaks every hour or so. I drank water from the camel bag that my summit porter carried and made sure to blow the tube so that all the water drained back into the bag to ensure it did not freeze in the tube. Achal kept reminding us that as soon as we started seeing daylight, it meant that we would be very close to the summit and that was something we could all look forward to and that thought helped me to continue the ascent. My fingers were getting numb even though I had glove liners and fleece-lined gloves and I kept clenching and unclenching my hands to keep the blood flowing. I blocked out the wind, the numbness and tiredness by thinking of all the supportive messages from friends and relatives, the success of the fundraising, the bond we had developed amongst the seven of us as well as with our porters and guides and in my heart I felt Yash was with me and telling me "go papa"!! I also thought of all the inspirational messages that Kavi and Sonal had sneaked into my homemade granola bars and the mental toughness and positive thoughts that Sonal had prepared me for prior to the climb. Looking back - I think all these thoughts ultimately helped me power up the summit. At 5000m, we learned that Swetal was not able to continue as he was having breathing difficulties and had to descend. We were quite worried but Gasper assured us that he was in good hands and he was fine. I was praying that Swetal was okay but had faith in our guides and porters and knew that they would take good care of him. Soon daylight was breaking and we were ascending to Stella point, which meant we were getting closer and closer. 

Uhuru peak was only 45 mins from Stella point. We were now traversing over snow covered ground and continued trekking in a switchback fashion until we finally made it to Stella point at an altitude of 5,685m or 18,652 feet. The view was stunning at Stella Point - the skies were pink, we could see the summit of Mt. Meru and down below the faint twinkling lights of Moshi. We also saw the glacier wall, which was quite stunning. All around us was snow - I was quite surprised at the amount of snow on the ground. The guides and porters congratulated us on reaching Stella point; we hugged each other and then took some quick pictures. We now had to muster our strength to get to our final destination - Uhuru peak. As we started to make our way, the weather suddenly changed drastically. The pink skies were gone and were replaced by a raging blizzard with blowing snow and howling wind. It seemed like Mother Nature was playing a trick on us and threw in a monkey wrench to change our plans but we were a determined group and continued on. As we made it to half way to Uhuru peak, we again ran into the JP clan and of course our sense of humor was still high and we all sang "Jada Pag" Jada Pag" and JP was quite cool about our chants and wished us good luck! The 45 min trek to Uhuru peak seemed to take forever but we finally made it to the top of the highest freestanding mountain in the world!! The snow-covered sign was hard to read but it proclaimed - Congratulations - You are now at Uhuru peak - 5,985m or 19,341 feet!! At first, it was hard to believe but then a wave of emotions came down me and I was trying hard to fight off the tears in my eyes. I could sense that the rest of the group felt the same way as well. We hugged each other; the guides congratulated us and hugged us as well. Gasper quickly unfurled the Yash Gandhi Foundation banner and we took a picture. 

My hands were frozen and numb but I did not care at this point. I took of my gloves and snapped some quick pictures. The other team members did the same. I then took out Yash's little Elmo from my daypack and we took a group picture with Elmo. Finally, I placed the little Elmo in the momento box and I let the tears flow but the tears would not come out because they were frozen! I thought of all the kids with I-cell and of course Yash and I could imagine them clapping and cheering - this was such a proud and special moment in our lives. I think we were at Uhuru peak for only 5-7 minutes - the guides don't let you stay there for too long as there is only 40% oxygen in the atmosphere at this altitude. We quickly put our cameras away and began our quick descent to Stella point and then to Barafu camp. We felt more energized having accomplished our goal and made our way down as quickly as possible. After about a 3 hour tough descent, we finally made it to Barafu camp and we were so glad to see that Swetal was okay and doing fine.
Post-Climb: After the grueling climb to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro there were so many things going through in my head, but most important was the fact that Team Kili set out to accomplish a mission for raising awareness of I-cell and raising research funds without even blinking an eye. They left their family members to be part of this important cause, and for that I'm extremely grateful and very proud to be part of team Kili. I'm also extremely grateful to all our friends, family and neighbors who have been so supportive and encouraging all the way. Without their support, messages and wishes, I would not have made it to the summit. Thank you!!! Thank you!! Thank you!!! Finally - to the K7 team - you guys are the best, toughest, kindest, passionate, funniest and the most inspirational bunch of people that I have met and had the privilege of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro with. Lots of love --- Ashesh

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Achal - Kili You Have Been Conquered!

We walked into a hot stuffy office and were asked to sit down in a line like a group of naughty school children. Our tour organizer strutted into the room and resembled a mafia don straight from a 70's Bollywood movie. He took a seat in front of us and after looking us up and down, his first words were 'Are you all sure you want to do this?'. It's fair to say that his personality matched his looks! After nervously confirming we were ready to climb, he introduced us to our head guide Gasper who briefed us on what to expect over the next 6 days and was also on hand to answer any questions. Having a heavy pharmaceutical bias within our family, it wasn't long before the questions directed to Gasper were medical related. After being asked what pulse oxygen level our stats could drop to before it would cause him concern, he replied 68. This was met by gasps by the 5 pharmacists in our group! Being medically illiterate, I wasn't sure what the fuss was about, scoring 68 on a test was normally a good thing for me! I was later told that a pulse oxygen level of 98 was normal and that just a few points below this would mean being put on oxygen in most hospitals around the world. After answering all our queries Gasper ended the briefing by telling us that we would make it to the top and have a great time (at the end of the climb he admitted that on first impressions he thought less than half of us would make it!)

The next morning we made our final preparations, had our last shower for 6 days and waited anxiously for our tour operator to pick us up. He arrived in a mini van and gave us a last minute pep talk which included phrases such as 'think of the mountain as your home, be one with the mountain' and 'Don't gulp water, but drink it with love'. Finally he sent us on our way to Machame gate where we would register for the climb and meet the rest of our porters. Although there was 7 of us doing the climb, we had a 20 strong team which included our head guide Gasper, 3 assistant guides, a cook and the rest of the porters who set up camp for us. With every passing day of the climb our admiration and respect for the porters grew. They were extremely professional, polite and in many instances put themselves through some treacherous situations in order to ensure we made it to the peak safely.

We began the 5 hour trek on day 1 in high spirits. Our route took us through the rain forest and the gentle gradient meant we were able to enjoy our surroundings. We reached Machame Hut (3000m) late afternoon and were, somewhat naively, thoroughly pleased with our progress. Camp had been set-up and after having had dinner we retired for the night under a sky peppered with stars. That first night gave us an insight into living conditions on the mountain and although we knew that there would be no showers and basic washroom facilities (a hole in the ground!) the stark reality of this was starting to sink in. In fact, for me, aside from the physical challenges of climbing and altitude sickness it was really the living conditions on the mountain that represented a large mental hurdle throughout the 6 days.

Day 2 greeted us with bright blue skies and after a hearty breakfast we set on our way to Shira Hut. One of the highlights of the climb was the stunning scenery we witnessed with everyday bringing new terrain. So after conquering the rainforest on day 1 we trekked through rocks and waterfalls on day 2. We reached camp slowly but successfully and the first effects of how exhausting the daily treks could be were starting to be felt. After reaching camp we slept for a few hours before sitting down to dinner where the mood was jovial. We were upbeat, 2 days completed with minimum fuss. We went to bed feeling confident. Day 3 would see that this was short lived.

Day 3 was the game changer in terms of our attitudes towards to this climb. It involved a 6 hour trek up to Lava Tower (4600m) before coming back down to Baranco Camp (3900m). This day was extremely important for acclimatization as you climb high and then sleep low. The 6 hour trek took us 8 hours and we all felt the effects of altitude sickness in the form of headaches and fatigue. Our pace was slow our moods were downbeat and the weather did its best to discourage us with a mist surrounding us for most of the day. This was the toughest day of the climb for me, and as a group took all of our resolve to complete. We reached camp with our confidence bruised, battered but most importantly not broken. Dinner was eaten mainly in silence with thoughts of how challenging the day had been racing through my mind. With the whole group downtrodden, Ashesh gave a timely reminder of why we were doing this and compared our challenges on this climb to the daily challenges faced by I-cell sufferers. His words struck a chord with every one of us and were much needed at the end of an energy sapping day.

The next day had in store for us an exciting ascend up the Baranco Wall. The sun was shining, and the trek was the most technical that it would get during the 6 days, with the route flirting dangerously with the edge of a cliff face for much of the climb. Due to the intensity of the climb this was a short day with a total trek time of 3 hours. In contrast to our normal pace we completed the day within the estimated 3 hours and reached Karanga camp in good spirits. Our guides were wondering whether this was the same group they saw struggling the day before!

Day 5 we made another short trek to our final base, Barafu camp (4600m). We reached camp early afternoon, had lunch and were advised to rest before dinner. At midnight we would begin our final climb to the summit. I went into my tent with the intention of sleeping, but thoughts of the final climb mixed with the howling wind which rattled the tent chased any rest away. We had dinner and were given a final briefing of how the summit climb would work. We would all be given individual guides, we needed to wear all of our warm clothes and we needed to try and get some sleep before the midnight hour approached. Barafu in Swahili means ice and the camp really did live up to its name with conditions becoming bitingly cold and hail stones assaulting our tents.

At midnight we lined up, the seven of us with a guide each and slowly began our ascent in the darkness. The climb was surreal, the head torch we all wore illuminates the feet of the person before you and that is all you see, so although you climb in a group the final ascent is a lonely affair. The conditions were becoming more inhospitable with every step. The cold penetrated our gloves and numbed our fingers. After two hours the water in our camelbaks and bottles had accepted defeat and frozen. The hours of 2am to 430am were especially difficult for me. I remember being frozen to the core and trying to occupy my mind with whatever thoughts would help me escape from the conditions. In my head I kept repeating 'just keep walking'. At 5am the first wisps of sunlight could be seen on the horizon and with them my spirits lifted enormously. I knew at that point that we could not be far from the peak and as the sun rose over the mountain it was a sight that I felt privileged to have witnessed.

After a steep climb through snow we reached Stella point under clear blue skies. We started our final push to Uhuru peak during which the mountain threw its final challenge to us in the form of a blizzard. We battled through and reached the summit where we unfolded the Yash Gandhi Foundation banner and put Yash's Elmo in the memory box. The rush of emotion at reaching the summit was amplified by the knowledge that I had achieved this with my family and for a cause that was so close to all of our hearts.  Kili you have been conquered!

Pritesh - To the Roof of Africa!

By Pritesh Gandhi - During our cousin Achal's wedding in London, we wondered where and when our next family reunion will occur. Our discussion usually took us to exotic destinations and our imagination generally led to hysterical laughter--primarily because we knew we were not known to be overly adventurous! When we came up with the notion of climbing Kilimanjaro, as always, it was humorous at first but it quickly hit an intriguing nerve in all of us. Perhaps it was because we were all "Out of Africa" for over two decades and it would be really great to go back to our roots. Perhaps it was an awesome idea for a family reunion that was not the usual wedding or baby shower. Perhaps it was because many of us are almost hitting our 40's and it was a mid life crisis thing. Whatever the reason, the Kilimanjaro idea gained traction and inertia. We researched several outfitters and in classic Gandhi style conducted numerous conference calls to discuss travel dates, plans, agents, equipment and most importantly what food we were going to eat!

Kilimanjaro was becoming a reality. Now, it was time to make the trip even more meaningful. Given that I work for a company that focuses on rare diseases and our nephew, Yash Gandhi, passed away from a rare genetic disease, we thought we should dedicate this family reunion to Yash and other children with this disorder.

I distinctly remember when Yash was diagnosed with i-Cell and vividly recall his last day with us. Yash continues to have a lasting impression on all of us that knew him. His charm was strikingly cheerful and he persevered through physical and mental challenges with immense strength. (Interestingly, humor and will are attributes that got us to the summit). We wanted to make a small but meaningful contribution to children with I-cell, their care givers and most importantly create world wide awareness of the disease. I clearly remember calling my cousins Hetal and Achal, who have conducted numerous charity drives and discussing the idea of anchoring the climb to the Yash Gandhi Foundation! They loved the idea and we quickly socialized the concept with the rest of the team. As usual, without any hesitation, we were united and focused our attention on making the Yash Gandhi Foundation at the center of the initiative. Ashesh and Sonal were very grateful for dedicating this initiative to children with i-Cell.

Together, without any true expectations, we reached out to companies, families and individuals to support Team Kili for I-Cell. Our principal aim was to create global awareness of I-Cell. Our plan was to use the progress towards the summit as a vehicle to drive traffic to the Yash Gandhi Foundation website. A family member donated her valuable time to develop a highly professional and sustainable website so as to connect families, care takers, clinicians and scientists. The Yash Gandhi Foundation website was fully functional in the Fall of 2012.

We are all very excited about climb Kili for I-Cell. I commenced talking about it with immediate family members and close friends and tried convincing them to join us. Successfully, I recruited Ruchir and Ronak to join in. Honestly, the more they read about the Foundation, the climb and experiences of others, the more excited they were about it. (Although I was very happy that they joined us, during the climb, I thought that everybody would hate me for making them go through it).

As time progressed, we trained at and changed our eating/drinking habits. I went to the gym at least five times a week. Alternating between 5 K runs in Boston along the Charles, the step master, spinning classes, swimming, the elliptical and muscle conditioning classes with my wife Nital. I was in the best physical shape that I had ever been. Furthermore, I cut my carbohydrate intake as well. Ronak and I climbed White Mountains in NH a couple of times. My philosophy was that although we could not train for the altitude, one factor that I could train for was stamina and physical fitness. Overall, I felt good about myself and most importantly the cause.

Support for the Yash Gandhi Foundation from friends, family and companies was unexpected, overwhelming, encouraging and inspiring. Our parents and kids played crucial roles in spreading the word. Nital's Mom knitted clothes for the girls' year-end fundraiser; proceeds were donated to the Yash Gandhi Foundation. My Dad wrote hundreds of emails to various families and acquaintances located in numerous countries. Overall, the reach was global. Now, the pressure was on for us to get to the summit.

Before we knew it, Team Kili for i-Cell was in Moshi, Tanzania for our pre-climb orientation with our outfitter. Water consumption and breathing tips were paramount. Our guide, Gaspar, told us that a pulse oximetry of less than 68 would be concerning. I remember looking at each other and thinking that a pulse ox of 68 would mean that we would be somewhere in an ICU on a ventilator.

After a hot shower (our last one for a while) and a healthy breakfast, our outfitter met us at our hotel on the following day and provided us with mineral water and lunch boxes. The red lunch boxes were huge and added tremendous weight to our already heavy backpacks that included water, cameras, snacks and solar chargers. The drive to base camp was through rural Tanzania as we began our initial conversations with our guides. Francis, one of the assistant guides, was sitting next to me in the van and I asked him how many times he had reached Uhuru Peak. He casually said that he has made it to the peak 55 times and this was his 56th trek. I asked him what his secret was and he very humbly said, "think of the mountain as your comfortable and do not think too much". Yet again, these pearls of wisdom were invaluable to me especially on day 3 of the climb.

Interestingly, the rest of the porters were selected after we reached the gate. We were getting restless as we waited for over 1.5 hours to commence our ascent. After watching some monkeys and taking some pictures, we finally began snaking through the dense rain forest of Mount Kilimanjaro. After a 5-hour hike in the rain, we successfully reached Machame Hut at 3000 meters. I felt good and was really hoping the rest of the climb would be the same. At dinner, we had leek soup (a standard every night going forward), rice and vegetables. Dinner was good and Swetal even asked our waiter, Prosper, for the recipe to which he responded..."welcome"! After every dinner and breakfast, we checked our pulse, oxygenation and temperature. My saturation over the rest of the climb ranged from the mid 70s to the mid 90s.

The following morning, we had our breakfast which generally consisted of eggs and toast and were off to Shira Hut. Because we did not want to carry the red lunch boxes, we opted for a hot lunch at the camp site. This was probably not the best idea for me because it took us over 4.5 hours to get to the camp site and I arrived with a slight headache. By now, I was already getting sick of eating granola bars. Our meal conversations generally included a strategic plan for going to the bathroom, Ronak's amazing sleeping patterns (he can sleep anywhere) and bets around the table and what our oxygenation readings were going to be.

Every morning started off being clear and as we began our climb, the clouds got thicker and a mist followed us until we got to the camp site. Day 3 was bad for me as it was for the rest of us as well. A six hour assent to Barranco camp took us over 8 hours. The terrain had changed from rain forest to shrubs to rocks. Considering my experience on Day 2, the dreaded red lunch box consisted of tasteless food that I had to force myself to eat. We finally got to camp and the team decided to go directly to the camp site as I went to register the team. We were all anemic at dinner and I had a massive headache. If Day 4 was going to be anything like Day 3, I knew I was going to second guess myself on getting to the summit. Ashesh gave an encouraging pep talk to the team before we retired for the night reminding us that kids with i-Cell suffer on a daily basis with breathing and feeding issues. I believe we all took this to heart and was a much needed reminder of our purpose. I had a couple of bites of pasta and went right off to bed before checking my oxygenation which was in the mid 70s.

We woke up to a spectacular view of Barranco Wall. I slept well and was pumped. Actually, I think we all were. Barranco to Karanga was supposed to be a three hour hike and we completed it in less than three hours. We were all in good spirits and had good laughs that night - mainly because Ronak kept us entertained.
Below are some one liners from Ronak:

1. Can we pray to the Swahili sun God for some warmth and sunshine?
2. This food is just NASTYYY!
3. This is the best rock in the world I have ever sat on...ever!
4. Why are the porters listening to Chinese radio?
5. This is the best toilet ever...I even played a couple of games of solitaire!
6. I am so frigid (this has a different connotation in the UK).

The following day, we were off to Barafu camp. It was getting cold. Although it was supposed to be a three hour hike, we reached Barafu after 4ish hours. After lunch, we went to our tents to prepare for the night climb. We brought Mac and Cheese with us and we asked our cook, Amadeus, to prepare it for dinner. Dinner was early and the Mac and Cheese turned out to be a soup. I am glad that Swetal did not ask for the recipe.

I tried to sleep but was too anxious. The sound of ice pallets beating down on the tent was not helpful either. We were awoken at 11 pm so that we could get changed and have a snack before the ascent to Uhuru Peak. The snack consisted of popcorn, cookies and tea. We promptly assembled at midnight. Gaspar, our lead guide, was going to set the pace. I felt good and as we commenced our climb, I kept on a slow and steady pace right behind Preena and made sure that I was breathing at a fairly rapid rate. Within an hour, I could not feel my fingers and my water had frozen. Gaspar decided to separate us into two groups and within 20 minutes we were together again. Ruchir was now in front of me and I kept on looking down and just kept focus. Day light was breaking, we were well above the clouds and Stella Point was now within reach. Once at Stella Point, we snapped a couple of quick pictures and were off to Uhuru Peak. I felt like I was in the Arctic tundra. Snow everywhere and the wind of howling right passed us. Because of all the snow on us, it looked like Ruchir had eye lash extensions with the icicles on his eyes. After an hour, we got to Uhuru Peak and took some pictures with the Yash Gandhi Foundation banner. It was an emotional moment for all of us! We gave each other high fives and hugged each other with a sense of pride and accomplishment. I know our nephew was cheering us on and was jumping up and down with joy that the team made it to the roof of Africa!

Well, it was indeed a trip of a lifetime for a truly noble cause. The support was heart warming and inspiring. The donations were unexpected and incredible, and will go directly to fund translational research towards finding a cure for I-Cell. In order to achieve this goal, it does not end here. Please keep spreading the word and make sure you join us for our next adventure in the pursuit of making a difference in the lives of patients and their caregivers.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

What the Climb Can Teach Us About I-Cell

Ronak, Achal, Preena, Swetal and Ruchir
By Hetal Gandhi - They set off on a journey knowing it would change their lives and their entire perspective on life as they know it. That’s exactly what my family did on December 13, 2012, when seven people embarked on a mission to “Climb Kili” to benefit the Yash Gandhi Foundation. A year’s worth of training, reading and arming themselves with the best supplies could not have prepared them for peaks and valleys they would face along the way.

Throughout their trip, I’ve acted as a documentarian. A mere observer in some aspects, a messenger of sorts, but all the while, a loving sister, a proud aunt and a sympathetic sister-in-law, who tried to play a small part in a tremendous undertaking.

Achal, Ronak, Ruchir, Swetal, Pritesh and Ashesh
In the coming weeks and months, there will be much time for reflection from all the climbers and what they experienced, but what I can candidly share with you is how analogous this journey was to the cause which was the driving force behind it. The one thing I learned from watching my family take on this daring, bold and, at times, risky mission, is that what they did over the span of a week, in many ways, exemplifies the struggles of families dealing with children who have I-Cell.

Day after day, we waited for answers. Have they reached? Are they okay? Where are they now? Will they make it to the next camp safely? I can’t even imagine what it was like for the climbers, but I can tell you that for their families, it was brutal. It made me think that in some ways, the families who deal with I-Cell are much like the climbers – experiencing the grueling fight to keep moving on, sometimes shielding others from what they’re going through, feeling helpless at times, offering their support and just hoping they can do what it takes to get their child to the next milestone.

Achal, Pritesh, Swetal and Ruchir
 I know at times, the climbers shielded us from the harsh realities of what they were really facing. They sent us messages telling us, “We’re safe, we made it, we’re all doing great.” In reality, we know that the emotional and physical challenges were much tougher than they lead on. You see, that’s part of what you do when you’re trying to protect the ones you love. The sad reality is that as much as parents with I-Cell do to protect their kids, there is always the harsh reality that there currently is no cure, and that this difficult path is one they will continue to endure for the rest of their lives.

On December 14th, as the Kili Climbers were facing the last few struggles before reaching the peak, we found ourselves facing painful and heart wrenching news here at home. Twenty children, many who were the same ages as the children of our climbers, had been brutally gunned down in Newtown, CT. You can only imagine what it was like for our group of mothers who were holding their children tight and wishing that daddy was home to comfort them at this horrible moment for our entire nation. It reminded us of an important lesson - that in life, your family, health and happiness are all that matters. This is why they did the climb. To help I-Cell families enjoy the same simple joys that we have.
Preena and Achal

I’m happy to say that after the peaks and valleys that we’ve faced through the past weeks and really through our lifetimes, there is nothing we will treasure more than welcoming home our climbers. You know them as Ashesh, Pritesh, Achal, Swetal, Preena, Ruchir and Ronak. We know them as daddy, bhai, ben, bhabhi and beta. We love them with all our hearts, we couldn’t be prouder of their achievements in 2012 and the great things they will do in 2013. Most importantly, we are grateful for your support as we continue to fight for those I-Cell families to always have these simple gifts of life. The truth you find at a top of a mountain, a world away, is that everything you need to make you happy is right here at home.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

On Top of the World!!!

Super Seven!
December 19, 2013 - We can finally celebrate!!!!  Woohoo!!  After a long and challenging journey up Mt. Kilimanjaro, they've finally made it to Uhuru Peak.  We received word at 2:14 am EST and most of us were restlessly awaiting some type of communication after not hearing from the group for the entire day!   

They described it as an emotional and overwhelming experience to accomplish such a great feat in honor of such a personal cause.  Once they reached the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, they placed Yash's little Elmo in the wooden box where everyone leaves their journals of the climb.  They also held up a Yash Gandhi Foundation banner as they took their pictures together.  It's important to note that only half the people who attempt to reach the top of the world's highest free-standing mountain actually accomplish this goal.  It is not an easy climb.  

We learned late in the day that Swetal made it just short of the peak because of trouble breathing, but he listened to his body and recognized his limits, so we're glad that he's safe and was able to make most of the amazing journey with the family.  We are so proud of the entire team!  They trained for more than six months, they climbed for six days but the feeling they have today and the pride they've instilled in all of us will last a lifetime!   Congrats Team Kili!  

Ashesh - After the grueling climb to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro there were so many things going through in my head, but most important was the fact that Team Kili set out to accomplish a mission for raising awareness of I-cell and raising research funds without even blinking an eye. They left their family members to be part of this important cause, and for that I'm extremely grateful and proud to be part of team Kili. Being at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro was quite emotional for me and the rest of the team. With every step I took, I felt Yash telling me, "Go Papa," and along with the inspirational messages from Kavi, friends and family, it helped me tremendously to reach the peak. As we unfurled the Yash Gandhi foundation banner at the summit, it did not even phase me that we were at an altitude of 20,000 feet with heavy winds and snow. I felt the raw emotion of being so happy and so proud of our accomplishment and knowing that all kids with I-cell were rooting for us. My eyes were filled with frozen tears as I placed Yash's little Elmo in the momento box at the summit. I'm extremely grateful to Team Kili for putting their lives on hold to raise money for an important cause and to all our friends and family who have been so supportive and encouraging all the way. Thank you!!!

Pritesh - From my perspective - For those that state that Kilimanjaro is not a technical climb, I beg to differ.  The climb tests your will power, drive and motivation from Day 1.  Day 2 is all about mind over body and the summit climb is pure anxiety and thrill!

Ruchir - Exhilarating, but at the same time the most difficult thing one can accomplish!

Achal - The most beautiful trek that I have ever soon! 

Ronak - Every hike seemed never ending but we all built a memorable bond with each other!

 Message from Kavi

Message from Sonal - I will never forget the moment I reached out to my phone at 2:14am, and read that they reached Uhuru Peak safely. It was a moment that is so difficult to describe.  Tears just came rolling down my eyes.  I was so happy that they reached there so safely.  It was an incredible proud moment.  I just could feel Yash’s presence with me.  Him clapping his hands with joy and often as he did when he loved what you did, screaming “AGAIN!” (LOL, I don’t think that is happening.)
As we congratulate the climbers, there are seven very important people who have been part of this incredible journey. Simran, Khush, Sia, Kavi, Niaya, Krishani and Milani.
For months they have watched their dads train for the climb, spending so much time buying all their gear, and as a result, giving up spending some time with their dad.  For the last week, each morning and afternoon, they ask how is their dads and uncles are doing.  Each time they get the update - they reached base camp - it had been a excitement and proud moment for them.  They have been sending notes of encouragement to the climbers even before they started their journey.  I am just proud of these young kiddos.  
All of our parents have also been cheering the team on, offering words of encouragement, knitting sweaters, saying prayers and having faith their they would make it.  Mahesh Mamma has been keeping up with the team on What's App, Niranjan kaka and my father-in-law Jitendra bhai have been posting on Facebook and Nital's dad has been doing Hanuman Chalisa several times a day.
Finally, our cousin Hetal has been spending countless hours, pulling all the updates we have been getting from the team, and entering them in the blog, so each of you can follow their journey. We hope you enjoyed this amazing life experience with us!!  We may be strong as individuals but together we are invincible

Message from Khush

Message from Dilpa - Congrats again!  The kids and I are super excited for you all.  I know you all worked very hard for this.  This is a very important accomplishment and a major milestone in your life.  I know how proud Yash was to have you in his life and he is smiling really big today.  Everyone did such a terrific job.  Be careful going down the mountain.

Message from Sia

Message from Simran

Message from Nital - Kili 7 – You have reached your goal!!!!! We could not be prouder of you.  For last 8 months, you have worked very hard to get here.  For past 7 days, you have put your life on hold – be it being with your families, friends, work, residency applications, holiday-parties……and today is your day! A heartfelt Congratulations to you all! Feel the pride, enjoy the moment, and know that Yash is smiling at you.  Your dedication and perseverance are inspirations to all of us! Thank you and we can’t wait to see you!

Message from Krishani

Message from Sheetal - As I read the blog today and read the messages and posts, I had tears in my eyes. What an ACCOMPLISHMENT from the trekkers! You guys did an amazing job. We are sure that this was no easy feat by any stretch of the imagination. All of us at home can't really even begin to imagine it, but we are so glad that you all did this with family and will be able to relate and share the stories. We can't wait to hear the stories and see all the pics and videos. We are so truly proud of your HUGE physical, mental, emotional accomplishments. We hope that you are all doing well. Hopefully you can breathe a huge sigh of relief (with lots of O2) and  relax and enjoy the rest of the "fun" part of your trip.
Thanks to Hetal, Sonal, and Nital for keeping us posted and up to date via texts, calls, and blogs. It was amazing to share the experience with all.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Day 6 - Powering to the Peak

File Photo of Uhuru Peak
December 18, 2012 - "Uhuru" means "freedom peak" in Swahili and that is what the Kili Team for I-Cell is reaching for today, in their final climb up the mountain.  We are asking for all of your prayers and well wishes as Ashesh, Pritesh, Swetal, Ruchir, Ronak, Achal and Preena all power their way to the peak.  This is THEE day that they've been waiting for and it's especially tough for our family because we have not had communication with them for the last 24 hours.  We believe they don't have cell phone reception at this time, so please keep them in your thoughts tonight as we get ready to celebrate their triumphant feat!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Day 5 - From the Valleys to the Clouds

December 17, 2012 - After climbing out of the Karanga Valley the trail ascends a ridge to the Barafu Hut, a bleak location with little vegetation.

File Photo of Barafu Camp

Special Messages from Sheetal, Milani and Krishani

Special Message from Raja

Day 4 - Climbing to Karanga Camp

December 16, 2012
By Swetal Gandhi - We are rock climbing right  now.  Going to Karanga Camp.  I am fine.  Walking up right now.
File photo of Karanga Camp
By Pritesh Gandhi - We left for Karanga camp at about 9:00 am.  Once again, the terrain was like no other we had seen.  On a number of occasions, we felt like we were rock climbing.  Views of water falls, fresh water streams and green vegetation intermingled with each other was indeed unique.  We made it to Karanga camp in 4 hrs 15 min; just in time for lunch.  For lunch, we had chips (for the Americans, fries) and pasta.  Achal and Preena brought noodles with them from Nairobi so we asked out chef, Amadeus, to make them for us.  After a few laughs, mainly making fun of Ronak, we had  much needed time to just chill! 

Just finished climbing Baranco Wall.  Two more hours to camp.  Day 4 is SO MUCH BETTER than Day 3.  Day 3 was just brutal.  We are all doing well.  We are now at 4200 m and it is 10:30 am local time.  We have safely reached camp!  Time for lunch!  Ronak thinks every Swahili sentence ends in an exclamation point!

Simran, Sia and Arav Cheering on the Team!

Hi!  I am writing this to you as we rest before our really long day tomorrow.  Today was a relatively easier day compared to yesterday.  In the morning, we had a spectacular view of Baranco Wall and right behind it was Uhuru Peak.  After a hearty breakfast consisting of porridge, eggs and toast we did our routine vital signs.  All our oxygen saturation values were good.  Most importantly, Swetal's values were excellent compared to the night before.  He looked really good as well and was his normal self.  It is really amazing how the numbers on a machine change your outlook for the day.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Day 3 - Braving it to Baranco Camp

File Photo of View from Baranco Campa
By Pritesh Gandhi
December 15, 2012 - Off to Baranco Camp.  Will keep you posted.  Feel like we are on the moon!  Amazing view of the mtn ahead of us.  Sleeping has been tough for most.  Going pole, pole!

By Ashesh Gandhi - Day 3 at Shira camp began with the usual hot breakfast of porridge, toast, sausage links and omelette. Today we were packed and ready to go at 8:30 am. The trek from Shira to Marangu camp was supposed to be for 6 hrs. We were going from an altitude of 3950m to 4600m at the lava towers for acclimatization and then descending to the Marangu valley at 3950m. We were going at a slow and steady pole pole pace, but Gasper our head guide said we were going too slow. On our way we met JP and JR as well as JP's dad. JP's dad asked me if we were related to Mahatma Gandhi and I said yes with a half serious face. He was intrigued and we all were engaged in a casual conversation as we were trekking and then he asked again if we were related and the moment we said no that we were just joking he quickly left us - that was quite funny. 

The trek to the lava towers was brutal and I think that is an understatement. We were all starting to get pounding headaches. Swetal was more tired than usual. We tried to eat our boxed lunches but the vegetable pie was tasteless and there not much choice. I think we also did not force ourselves to eat and that did not help. Most of us also ran out of water. We had a choice to not get acclimatized, avoiding the lava towers and head straight to Marangu. Swetal was brave even though he was tired to go the harder way. It took us a long 6 hrs to lava towers and then a tough downhill descent to Marangu for another 2 hrs. With sheer determination we all finally made it to Marangu. We were tired, hungry and just wanted to go to sleep. We had pasta for dinner and all called it an early night. Day 3 was tough but hopefully it helped us to acclimatize. Day 4 involves climbing the Baranco wall.