The longest 6 hours of my life

Edson at his usual exuberant self was imploring us to finish our dinner of pancakes. Geoffrey, our cook, had made pancakes for dinner thinking that those were our favorite. He wanted us to have a full meal before the summit night. But, 5:30 p.m. is a strange time for having dinner especially if you have finished lunch just 3 hours back. We nibbled a bit dutifully. Our small dining tent could barely fit 4 of us. But it was cozy. This was where most of our conversations had taken place over the last 6 days. This was our family Katta!

Asseno is a tall, strong African man. He commands respect when he opens his mouth to speak about climbing Kilimanjaro. He rarely jokes. He is also undoubtedly the best climber in our group. No wonder he was our group leader and main guide. Saidee on other hand was a short affable person. Always cracking jokes, always smiling. As both of them entered the dining tent, Saidee said “Look the shisha gang has reached basecamp, ha ha ha” this was his favorite joke. Every time there was a lot of mist around us, Saidee would say that people were smoking too much shisha !! Asseno was more serious, he started the briefing for summit night “ Guys, if you thought the last few days were tough, those were nothing. Tonight is going to be very very hard. Among the 4 of you, I think Malhar and Anu have the best chance of making the summit. Lalit, about you and Shree, am not so sure about you guys but we will see. It’s not unusual for people to freeze and vomit on summit day. If you get too sick to continue, we will bring you back.”. Saidee tried to lighten the mood “ Guys, climbing Kilimanjaro is mostly in the ‘head’. If you gather enough mental strength, anyone can climb. Any questions?” We mumbled a few silly questions like how many guides we will have. What happens if we take more than 7 hours to climb? Is it a 5-kilometer climb or 6 kilometers and some such? All of those were addressed by Assesso with a simple line like “ we will do what’s best for you. Kilometers do not matter, can you keep yourself from being exhausted and cold is the question.” I could see in his eyes that he was treating us like ignorant kids who had no idea what’s in store for them.

We returned to our tents to catch some sleep before midnight. Just as I was getting in my sleeping bag, Shree coughed “Lalit, I don’t think I will come with you guys” Malhar overheard that in his tent. He went, “Mama, you have to at least try, Let’s start climbing and if then you don’t feel up to it, you can come back a bit at least try it.” A feeble “Ok” later, Shree started snoring. This was something new for me. Shree never snored but 6 days of constant rain, cold, and cough meant that she had started snoring while sleeping.

I lay wide awake. I was feeling guilty. What kind of stupid adventure had I got ourselves into this time? How can I be so insensitive towards Shree and Anu? I should have known they couldn’t handle the cold. Will I be able to make the summit? What if Asseno is right and I am too unfit to climb? How would I face the kids again and tell them to love mountaineering as I do? What can I tell Shree that she gathers enough strength to summit along with me? I tried to sledge her, I said “How can Assesno insult us like this? Who is he to decide if you and I can make a summit or not? We will make it just to show him wrong” It evoked no response from my better half. A big bout of cough later she was fast asleep again.

2 years back, after we had just finished a cycling trip around the Maharashtra coast, Girish had floated this idea of doing Kilimanjaro. Girish is my childhood adventure buddy. We have done numerous (mis)adventures over the last 30 odd years. The first one was when we were both just 13 years old. We rarely believed in preparing / training for our cycling/mountaineering adventures. Most of the time we would just turn up and do it. I remember our first 200km cycle ride done in 45-degree hot sun or a 3-day hike which turned to 5 because we got lost, sick, and almost died. In between, we took a break for almost 10–15 years tending to our respective families and careers but then reignited the old flames in 2019 by repeating a 400km cycling trip we had done as 21-year-olds. After that, we were hungry for the next adventure and Girish suggested Kili. I loved the thought! This was a unique opportunity to climb the highest mountain you can just walk up to !! This was the highest one could reach without learning the technicalities of rock climbing/ice climbing. We decided to do it in Dec 2020. We also decided to train this time. At the ripe age of 41, it was clear that we could no longer just get up and do adventures. The bones were creaking now. 1 year sounded like a good time for prep. I asked Shree if she would be keen to join us. She showed a bit of concern about the cold weather but otherwise jumped on it. I bought books, read everything there was to read about Kili, found a tour guide I thought would work, started training, and then the pandemic happened.

In August 2021, after almost 2 years of the pandemic, it felt like life was just passing us by. Call it impulse, one day I just decided that I was going to Kili in Dec 2021. Whoever could join me would join whoever could not, would not. I was tired of even thinking about the 3rd wave. Fortunately, Shree, Malhar, and Anu agreed to join, and now this Girish&Lalit adventure had turned into a family adventure !!

In spite of all the promises to train hard, August -Dec went with almost no training. In fact, I had gained a few kilos and an uncomfortable paunch. I had also developed chronic knee pain along with my usual back pain. Finally, when we turned up in Moshi Tanzania for a climb for Kili, I was the most unfit I had ever been in my life. After the first couple of days of the hike, I recollected some of my old tricks like getting in a rhythm of walking for long times, dealing with rain and cold better, etc. By today, apart from recurring knee pain, I was actually ok. I was raring to go to the summit and felt extremely confident that I should be able to do it. I was still angry that Asseno did not agree with my assessment though.

“Hello, Papa” Shouted Edson in his deep spooky voice. He had this weird way of saying “Hello” we loved him for that. Also, after the first few days, he started calling us Mama and Papa like Anu and Malhar. That was quite cute. I checked the watch, it was 11:30 p.m. I had wasted 6 precious hours of sleep in over-thinking. I was hoping I will have the strength to stay up all night to make the summit. It sounded even tougher now.

I started changing into Summit day cloths,

  • Knee guard for my dodgy knees
  • 2 socks along with Hiking shoes
  • 4 layers at the bottom (thermal inners, track pants, hiking pants, and waterproof pants)
  • 5 layers on top (thermal inners, 2 t-shirts, fleece, down feather jacket)
  • Hand gloves along with hand warmers
  • 4 layers on the head (Neck Gaiter, cap, balaclava, and hoodie)

While I was getting ready, I tried to nudge Shree to wake up. After a couple of tries, she finally woke up and started getting ready herself. A cup of tea and a couple of biscuits later, we were set to leave. We had 4 guides for the night; 1 for each person. Saidee was leading with Anu, then Mussa with Malhar, Vasco with me, and Asseno with Shree at the end. By the time we left our basecamp at Barafu, it was 1:00 a.m. The temperature felt sub-zero and with windchill, it felt very very cold.

As usual, Saidee picked pace with Anu. Malhar and I followed and we left Shree and Asseno a bit behind. This was our usual routine. Shree totally believed in the “Pole, Pole” (slowly slowly) way of climbing and we could not keep up with it cause at that speed none of us would even warm up so we always went ahead, leaving Shree with the best guide. The first climb started immediately out of the campsite. We had our headlamps on but visibility was still low. I was just following Malhar’s footsteps. I started with my usual method of counting steps. Over years there were many “hacks” I had developed for endurance. The best way is to build a rhythm in breathing. I could achieve that by counting from 1–100 or even singing a song in my head. In our briefings, Saidee would keep emphasizing how it’s important not to think about the summit but just to take it as a “walk in the park”. I tried to compare the summit hike to our hike to Nandi hills. The elevation gain was actually quite similar approx 1.5 kilometers. The only difference was that I was trying to do “Nandi Hills” at an altitude of more than 5000 meters with sub-zero temperatures and extremely windy air. As we kept climbing, the bodies started warming up a bit and walking did get a bit easier. After some time, we seemed to have completed climbing the very first hill. Saidee stopped and asked everyone to drink some water. All the guides gave us fist bumps with a smiling “well done”. It seemed like the first hurdle was behind us. Apparently, at least 10 more such hills lied ahead. The water in our bottles was freezing cold. While I drank some, I could feel it burning through my throat to my stomach. “It’s a sign of dehydration, Papa” informed Malhar. I got further worried but kept quiet. Right at that time, we saw Asseno walk up to us. After congratulating us on the first hill, we asked “Where is Shree?”. “She is too unwell to continue and wanted to return. I agree with her decision. She wants me to help all 3 of you complete the summit. I hope you will fulfill her dream.“ Malhar and I looked at each other. We both realized it’s for the best. For the last 3 days, Shree had been showing signs of severe cough and altitude sickness. She finds it hard to deal with extreme cold as it is. Being unwell and exhausted on top of it was very hard on her. We did not say anything. We hated calling these things like “dream” and all. But Asseno loved to put that pressure. It’s was amazing to see how contrasting our 2 lead guides were. Asseno would say, “Let’s Summit for Shree”. Saidee would say “Think of it like a walk in the park !” I preferred Saidee’s way.

We now had 4 guides among 3 of us. Saidee again set the pace which was not too slow yet not too fast. According to him, we would freeze if we go any slower and would develop altitude sickness if we went any faster. Most of the other guys from basecamp had left at around midnight. We could start seeing their headlamps in the distance now. We were catching up with the slowest among them. Now the speed of walking was unable to keep us warm anymore. The cold was seeping through all our gear. Especially, my face could feel the full brunt of the cold. It’s funny. When I would keep my nose covered by a balaclava or my neck gaiter, breathing would get tougher and my glasses would fog up making it hard for me to see. But if I did not keep my nose or mouth covered, it would get very very cold very fast. Just covering and uncovering my nose kept me busy for some time. Thinking about Nandi hills was not helping anymore. I started thinking about the best times in my life. That’s another thing that works for me when doing endurance adventures. Thinking about random stuff like best moments in life. Lots of them I shared with Shree. Turns out a couple of the first such moments that came to my mind were at least 10 years old! That made me worried again. Was I not enjoying life recently? I started thinking hard about finding happier memories from the recent past. That kept me busy for some time and Saidee stopped again for water and some food. This time we took out our protein bars. But they were frozen in cold and even biting into them was hard work. I just put mine away after a bite. Focussed on drinking a lot of water. I did not want to be dehydrated. Tried to think if I am getting any headaches but decided that I was not. In extreme conditions, I often find it hard to decide which part of my body is in pain because almost everything from toes to the nose was extremely painful. Then I made a cardinal mistake. Took out my phone and checked the time. It was past 3 a.m. Asseno noticed that. “Do not check time” he shouted.” Now you know that we have only climbed for 2 hours and there are 5 more hours to go. That can be extremely disheartening. Henceforth, DO NOT CHECK TIME. Ok?”. I mumbled “ok”. Both Malhar and I again looked at each other. Our guess was that we were anyway going much faster than most. We assumed we are going to the summit in 5–6 hours and not the usual 7 so 2 hours out of that means at least 1/3rd of the hike is done. This is the first time we felt that we are going to make it after all.

We restarted climbing after 2nd break. In between, all our guides would suddenly break into songs. These apparently were Kilimanjaro songs. They were singing to keep our spirits high whereas we just focused on putting one foot ahead of the other again and again. We overtook many familiar faces, people with whom we shared campsites, shared some jokes. There was Steve from LA, Manny from South Africa, and many others whom we only knew by faces. None of us had the energy to share any pleasantries apart from a feeble “hi”. After a while, I could see that Anu was not able to walk straight. Whenever it seemed like she would fall, Malhar would hold her hand. I asked Vasco to stay behind Anu ahead of Malhar. I knew it’s was barely enough that Malhar was taking care of himself. Additionally taking care of Anu was hard on him. Vasco went ahead of Malhar and literally created a railing around Anu with both his hands so Anu could not fall again. These guides in Kilimanjaro are lifesavers. They just keep doing it again and again. Just having Vasco around was not enough. Anu was clearly freezing and exhausted. She just stopped in between and said the dreaded sentence “ I want to go back”. All of us stopped. Saidee was Anu’s best friend on the mountain. He first gave her some water. Then Asseno force-fed some glucose to all 3 of us. Both Asseno and Saidee removed their top jackets and gave them to Malhar and Anu as additional layers. Saidee spoke “Anu, Stella point is only an hour away from here. Do you really want to go back or can you continue?” Anu to her credit said, “yes, I can continue” and then we started again. Fifteen minutes later, Anu again collapsed of exhaustion. We again stopped. Now Malhar was getting jittery. He was freezing due to these frequent stops. I asked Asseno if Malhar could keep walking along with Mussa while we all bring Anu up. Asseno felt that was ok. So Mussa and Malhar started walking again. We again gave Anu some more glucose water, some sweets to eat and got her going again. Now Saidee and Anu were walking together so if Anu collapses somewhere, Saidee is there to hold her. Asseno stayed behind Saidee and Anu. He also asked Vasco and me to proceed ahead of all of them.

I had no clue of the time but I was counting and walking. I was worried about Anu but with both Asseno and Saidee with her, I knew she was safe. In Kilimanjaro, I had created my own distance measurement technique. I decided that my 1 step is approximately 1 foot and whenever I was tired, I would decide that I will walk at least 300 steps before I take a break so that way I would have walked at least 300 feet or 100 meters. I told Vasco that I am going to take a “short break” every 300 steps to drink water and gather my breath before continuing. So now every time I would pause, Vasco himself would say, “Short break, Lalit?”. I kept walking and walking. By now I had lost sensation in my nose. The hands felt frozen, the hand warmers I had put before the beginning of the hike had lost their potency. I was losing balance on simple steps. When you are that exhausted, you just keep losing balance even on a simple step. It’s quite like being extremely drunk. Suddenly I felt someone catching my down-feather from behind. A booming voice of Asseno said, “Walk straight”.” Where is Anu?” I asked. “She is coming” came a mechanical answer. He then started literally pushing me while holding my jacket. I gave an angry look. “Did he not know I was trying my best?” “Did he not know I was exhausted? Did he not realize there is no strength left in my legs to move anymore? What an arrogant prick”. About 10 minutes of this pushing and I saw a bunch of guys sitting around a board that said “Stella Point”. “Ah” I chuckled. That’s why Asseno was pushing me. He must have known Stella point is so close by. From here, Summit is only 300mtrs. I saw Malhar jumping around (I assumed it was to keep himself warm). Around the same time, the first rays of the sun came up. Mussa handed me a cup of hot ginger tea. By the time I finished my ginger tea, we saw Anu walk up. We were thrilled. Especially for Anu. Anu cannot handle cold. Our family joke about temperature is if it’s above Anu degrees or below Anu degrees. Above Anu degrees, there is no one perkier than her. She will be taking pictures, playing pranks, singing, dancing. But as soon temperature drops below Anu degrees, she goes extremely quiet. She will sit in her tent or in a corner without talking with anyone. Just by looking at Anu, we can tell what the weather is. This night was far below Anu degrees and the way she had fought her fears and body composition to climb up to the Stella point was just phenomenal. Cheers and hugs followed along with a lot of Pictures. After a hot cup of ginger tea Anu even took a video of Stella point. “Anu must go down from here” Asseno thundered. “She is too exhausted. It’s another 1 hour to the summit and she cannot do it.” He looked at me, I looked at Anu. I asked, Anu. “ Do you want to continue?” My exhausted brave girl hesitated a bit and said feebly, “yes, why not?”. Then I looked back at Asseno and told him, “You are the leader, it’s your call”. He said, “Nothing doing she is physically unfit to climb ahead”. We sent Anu back to camp along with Saidee and Mussa. Before leaving Saidee said, “ Lalit, from here there are only 2 steep climbs and then you are there on the summit, just go ahead and do it !!”. This was the first time Saidee had spoken about the summit.

Now it was just the 4 of us, Vasco, Malhar, Asseno and Me. I was a bit rejuvenated after the tea so for a minute I started walking briskly. Assenno reminded “Pole, pole”. I was back to counting 100 steps. This time around I realized that my body was so drained that even taking 100 steps was hard. I think I did many 50 steps and breaks before I saw the view I was waiting to see. The Summit point of Uhuru peak. I think I ran the last 30 meters or so. Don’t know where the energy came from. Malhar and I just drowned each other in hugs and we were jumping and shouting and did not know how to express our happiness. I started crying. This was one of the craziest ideas I ever had, the people I love the most stood with me even with such a silly idea and we actually made it. It was by far the hardest thing I had ever done physically. Malhar is an 18-year footballer with great fitness levels. Even for him, it was physically challenging. At the summit it all seemed worthwhile, we felt alive. And I asked myself the same question I ask every time we do a stupid adventure “Why do we do this?” The standard mountaineer’s response is “For the views, dear for the views!!”

From Right: Malhar, Asseno, Vasco and me

P.S:

If you are planning to go to Kilimanjaro don’t miss these 3 simple things

  1. It’s expensive: You must have at least $5000 budget per person including flight tickets
  2. Be extremely fit: While they say standard fitness is ok, it’s a myth. Be as fit as possible so you can deal with weather, altitude, etc other challenges better. I found this to be a good benchmark for any age group.
  3. Stay warm: I underestimated the cold on Kilimanjaro. Don’t do that. If you are thinking about taking that extra fleece, extra woolen socks, extra thermal inners, or extra ski pants, just pack them. Pack everything in dry bags so you do not get your packed clothes wet in the rains.

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