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

No comments:

Post a Comment