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!

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