Updated: Sep 13
In our series on mind-body fitness, we are happy to share a travelogue by Rajesh Sadasivan, a Boston-based tech executive and a marathoner. Rajesh has attended MindGym workshops and recommends using a holistic mind-body training approach to hikers who are aspiring for a challenging climb like Mt. Kilimanjaro where nearly 40% of the climbers are unable to reach the summit.
All of this started when I met a few of my school friends at a pub in Bangalore. They had been planning a hike to Kili for the last 1-year and one of the potential hikers had dropped off, leaving an empty slot available. I immediately signed up for the slot! This blog chronicles my journey since then and is meant to serve as a guide to newly-minted hikers aspiring to climb Mount Kilimanjaro (Kili).
I had done a few hikes in Switzerland but none over 4-5 hours long with an elevation gain of 3000 ft. Kili was a different beast standing well over 19,000 ft.
I started my preparations with a friend in Boston who is a regular hiker. He was also an ultra runner. Given what I had signed up to, he asked me to visit the sports store REI, and buy the necessary gear. One of the guys in the store had hiked Kili just 2 months ago, and took me around the entire store and got me pretty much everything I needed for the hike. I live in Boston and I started off with Monadnock, the Blue Reserves and Wachusset, along with him. They felt good and gave me a sense of what´s in store. I had quit smoking and cutback on my drinking in the days post coming back from Bangalore. This helped provide focus and improve my lung capacity.
I also felt the need to couple my physical training with mental training and mindfulness. Having a good grasp of the basics about Mindfulness through MindGym workshops, I signed up to a Vipassana program which is a 10-days retreat involving meditation, and abstaining from all digital distractions and worldly interactions. I just had 6 months at the point of signing up to the hike, so needed to have a focused training plan to improve my mental and physical faculties to feel prepared. The Vipassana program made me more self-aware, mentally strong and determined. Coming back from the program, I continued to meditate everyday, which helped me stay calm and importantly feel my bodily sensations and watch my reactions to it.
I had to improve my physical endurance and strength training further, since the Kili hike would be a 8-day schedule where we would be trekking six to seven hours each day gaining an altitude of 14,000 feet. I also signed up to Orange Theory to reduce weight, improve strength and endurance. Orange Theory aims to drive up the heart-rate to the orange zone multiple times in each workout, thereby increasing the metabolism for nearly 18 hrs post the work-out.
Given that my training hikes were happening only 3 or 4 times a month (over the weekends), I had to add additional workouts that helped ensure that each day I was pushing my limits, stretching, tearing and repairing muscles since that would be the routine at Kili during the 8-day period. So I started running 4-5 miles each day. I did this routine for nearly 3-months and also did a Boston 10K run during this time. I clocked 57 min for the 10K, and was happy with the result, since I had not actively been running for a few years now.
The 2 hikes I did before a month of leaving to Africa, were Mt. Lafayette (Franconia Ridge), and Mt. Washington both in NH. These were reasonably tough 8-9 Mile, 8-hr (up and down) hikes, and made me feel I was ready.
With a detailed packing list comprising gears across weather-zones, equipment for using in the tent, medicines and many other things, packing was done over an entire week instead of just a couple of days. Don’t forget the e-Visa and any flu / malaria / tetanus / yellow-fever shots that would be required too.
I was slightly nervous – as you know bad news takes the elevator while good news takes the stairs. Some friends´ friend had died a few weeks ago, doing the Kili hike. He was 50, very fit and a Boston marathoner. So I had too many people express concerns and advised caution. It was finally the day to fly out – my wife hugged me and said ´Just come back´, with a tear. It meant everything to me, and I knew I had to listen to my body at all times, and know when to turn around, should there be the slightest of doubts.
With mixed emotions of nervousness and excitement in equal proportions, we were all packed up. We headed out post lunch – our hike today was just over 3 hrs, for about 3.2 Miles with an altitude gain of 550 meters. Our stay was at Big Tree camp overnight. I got allotted tent # 9 – I read this as a positive sign, since my lucky number was 9. I am not superstitious but was retrospectively rationalizing that things were progressing well, and there was no need to worry – Hakuna Matata as they say in Swahili. Did you know Swahili and Hindi share a lot of common words (thanks to Arabs of yesteryears) – Dawa for medicines, Barafu for Ice and so on. We had a nice cucumber soup for dinner. Went to bed at 8 but didn’t sleep well – maybe the altitude / jet lag. Surprisingly didn’t feel tired getting up, so I must have had short bursts of sleep. Anything below 8000 ft would not affect the body, anything above 12000 would feel noticeable and 18000 ft and above are considered extreme / dangerous altitudes. I had started Diamox the previous day, in preparation for the hike – this was meant to avoid AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) as precaution.
We climbed from 2650 mts to 3500 mts. It took us 6 hrs. Today´s climb was called the ´Elephants back´ as it had a steep climb up, a flat walk on the ridge and climb down to the camp. Terrain moved from rain forest (zone 2) to ´Heather & Moorland´ - the 3rd zone. 1st zone is Cultivation which we cross as we drive to get to the gate. It was a lot colder by now, and we were given hot water bags to sleep. Our pulse and oxygen levels were taken. Mine was 89 and 98 respectively, which is pretty good. The pulse levels across the group ranged between 70 (good) to 115 (high). Similarly oxygen levels above 75 were considered fine. There was no concern for anyone, but being above 11000 ft we used to watch out for each other to see if everyone is fine or some have gone silent / have a headache. Today was long but tomorrow is expected to be shorter with a 4-hr trek and elevation increase of 350-400 mts. Had a muscle relaxant, painkiller and my usual Diamox (125mg, twice). Diamox causes a lot of peeing, so will hopefully get some sleep now and get up in 3 hrs to pee. Dinner was a nice carrot soup and some beef. Have a very slight headache but expected at this stage. Sleeping now at 9PM. Super dusty terrain. Despite using a mask, have black soot in my nostrils and mouth. I had luckily carried a balaclava, a scarf, adequate tissues and a mask – this helped for the dusty terrain all through. Played poker briefly in the evening and won 20 $. Our camp today was at Shira-1.
I got up to a frosty morning – my hands were freezing as I stepped out for a pee. I wondered if the hike was harder or sleeping-in. The head-lamps had to be used at night when getting out of the tent (as rangers could mistake us for moving animals otherwise). We had 2 chemical toilets (Male / Female), which was a luxury according to other experienced hikers in the group. We got to see Kili in all its naked beauty for the first time, with the glaciers. After a sumptuous breakfast, we hiked 10kms today. Was relatively easier than day-2, but the residual tiredness still made it hard enough. Our elevation gain for the day was 350 mts. So we were now at Shira 2 camp; reached here by 1:30 after having started at 9AM. Had lunch, a quick nap and had to do another acclimation hike at 4PM for 1 hr. We got another 50 mts elevation gain and went back to base. There was another route (via the cathedral, which was 3-hrs longer), at this stage. Our lead guide mentioned it, but didn’t ask our opinion on whether we wanted to do it. We were all thankful, not having to choose as none had the energy to consider a longer route. However other than pretty views, it was aimed to help acclimatize. It was still very dusty all along. I had to keep blowing my nose to get rid of the dust - with the dust there was a little blood that came. The guide alongside me, Kennedy said it’s a good thing because if the blood doesn’t come out, you get a headache. I have a dry throat. Along with the dinner (bad stew), the plan for day-4 was shared. It’s going to be a hard day with an elevation gain to 4600 mts - lava tower before getting down to 3900 mts at Barranco camp. Should be 8 hrs and about 12 Kms. Hoping I can hold up. Time to sleep now. It’s past 8:10 - had a muscle relaxant and advil. I had carried a book (interestingly titled Antifragile, Nassim Taleb), but never got around to reading, given the body aches, cold weather and lantern-lighting in the tent.
PS: I heard Chandrayaan 3 landed on the south side of the moon. Such a proud moment for India.
We got up to our morning coffee and a lovely sight of the mountain. Today´s climb was hard and long. We went up from 3850 mts to 4600 mts - lava tower and then descended to barranco camp at 3900. Distance wise it was close to 11 kms. It took us 9 hrs. We had a packed lunch at lava tower. Starting at 8AM, we stopped at lava tower for lunch at 1:30 and left at 2:15 and arrived at barranco camp at 5. After a much-needed wash-up (daily quota of 1 medium sized bowl of hot water), we headed for dinner and tea at 6, where everyone was exhausted but feeling good about the day. Lucia our guide said that she was very hopeful that we would make it to the top since we had scaled 4600 mts without much of an issue. This was also the first day I heard of dry shampoo from one of the other women hikers in the group.
Reflections - On the first day, Lucia (the lead guide) had told us to think only of the day ahead and never of the next day or the summit day and so on. I still kept doing it – anxiety, some fear, excitement etc. Today I genuinely let go and internalized that message and it felt like a breath of fresh air - I didn’t feel the task ahead, was daunting and felt I could do it. I went back to my comfort zone (of watching my breath in the moment), during the long hike. I am ready for tomorrow although every inch of my body is aching. Had the usual half tablet Diamox, 1 advil and 1 muscle relaxant. Daily measurements of SPO2 and Pulse levels are in the normal range. Dinner was pumpkin soup, some pasta and sauce. Goodnight for today. Used my hand warmer tonight for the first time although today is just as cold as the last couple of days and no more. Tomorrow is the great barranco wall scramble but is expected to be a 5-hr hike to Karanga camp. It’s dangerous but we take it slowly (Pole-Pole in Swahili). This was a life-long lesson I carried forward – to take things slowly, and not feel rushed.
Day – 5
Got up to a beautiful day. Took it easy because all routes meet at barranco camp and there are people leaving from 5AM. We left around 8:30. The barranco wall is an interesting climb along the wall of the mountain. I had read horror stories and so was focused. It wasn’t too hard. There is a part where you literally kiss the mountain as you move from one side of the ledge to the other hugging the mountain. I did too. Todays walk was about 6-7 kms and took us 5.5hrs. We reached at 2. There were many ups and downs as we cross Karanga river before the final ascend to the Karanga camp. The Karanga river is the last source of water for all higher camps, including Barafu, Kosovo and others, so porters travel back and forth to this point to carry water via different routes. The temperature was scorching during the day - got sunburnt despite using sunscreen. Temp drops by nearly 20 degree centigrade by evening. A simple lunch with fried chicken drumsticks and potato soup was adequate. Heard some good hip-hop music since a friend was playing.
Seeing the porters do this day-in and day-out with so much of luggage on their head, puts out the harsh realities of the have´s and have-nots. Its like the ´posh banker´, who uses a helper to carry his luggage to the hotel room and then hits the gym to carry some weights.
Day – 6
We started at 8:45AM, reached Barafu (remember Ice) camp at 12:30PM and onwards to Kosovo camp at 1:40. So about 5 hrs in total for 5 kms. There was a lot of climbing on the way. We scaled from 3950 mts to 4950 mts. So we are now just over 16000 ft. Tonight we will head to the summit which is another 1000 mts higher and expect to reach in about 7 hrs - let’s see. Pole, Pole as they say - no hurry as far as we stay safe.
Some things I learnt on the way.
1. Eat when you don’t feel like - you need the energy and more so if you plan to take any medication.
2. Drink plenty of water and electrolytes - even when you don’t feel like it or pee too many times. You reduce the chances of headaches and AMS significantly.
3. Listen to your body - there will be times when you feel like catching a breath. While your group might be advancing, you should stop, bring your heart rate down and then start again. No rush.
It’s been a fabulous climb with great sights of the mountain all along and the clouds and the alpine desert topography (zone-4) as they call it. We held a very slow, steady pace today with fewer breaks and are now ready for lunch. We will need to sleep, change and be ready for our night climb to the summit. The sleep was barely adequate – the winds were howling, it was very cold, we were all nervous about the summit in 10 hrs and had to pack and dress appropriately.
We all got ready and arrived at the mess by 11:30PM for a short soup and packing water for the hike. We started off the night hike at 12:10. The reason for the night hike (in case you were wondering), is that mountain weather changes post noon, and so it was important to get to the summit and get back to base before then. It was an arduous 6:30hr to Stella point - the first peak. One of our members needed oxygen and had to call it off and return to base. Remember we had scaled 1000 mts the previous day and after a brief 10 hr break, this was another 1000 mts. Scaling 6000+ ft in 24 hrs, when you haven’t had enough sleep, was very hard.
Being a night hike, we were walking with headlamps. We had decided that we won’t leave anyone behind and so we will walk at the pace of the slowest member. This was a bad strategy. Every time someone wanted to stop for water or needed a loo-break or were feeling breathless / light-headed, we would all stop. It was at least -9 degree centigrade and the wind was crazy (felt -15). So we would chill to the bone in under a few minutes and were very slow. We took 6:30hrs instead of the standard 5hrs to reach Stella point. A round trip to Uhuru and back, the highest point in Africa at 19,341 ft took another 2 hrs. Many were emotional at this point (with a sense of achievement, pride, relief etc.) Once we summited and took our well-deserved pictures with the congratulatory board, we had some water, tea, snacks and headed towards Kosovo.
This route was super dusty and took us another 2.5hrs. Finished off a light brunch since this was at 11:30 and we need to head out to Millennium camp which is a 3hr hike. We left at 12:45 and reached the Millenium camp at 4:30 - all downhill and full of rocks. Very dusty as the rest of the trip has been so far. Everyone was exhausted but equally thrilled. Some had altitude sickness and nausea. At least one member was close to needing medical evacuation with low oxygen levels – she had severe altitude sickness and had to be taken down in a stretcher ASAP. She will be observed at the Millenium camp until morning and if she doesn’t feel better, will be air lifted. Another member with a twisted ankle had to be carried down with 2 porters, then wheel-barrowed to the millenium camp. This was the hardest single day of this trip and probably my life in terms of physical activity with 14:30 hrs of hiking. My phone shows 30K steps and knees feel wobbly.
Now for some rest as tomorrow is the final day of the hike getting down to Mweka gate expected to take about 6 hrs.
Got up at 6 today as we had a 14Km hike down to Mweka gate. Finished breakfast and had a nice tipping ceremony where all the 46 staff who helped us over the last 8 days assembled and sang songs. We had decided the tip we would give each of the porters, summit porters, chef, guides and lead guide. This was given to them and announced in full transparency. They were happy with what we gave them. An additional discretionary tip was given by each of us to individual members who had assisted us with different elements of the hike over the last 8 days. Many of us also donated some of our gears, shoes etc. since many of them did not have proper shoes, clothing or gear to handle the terrain and weather. We started off at 8:45 AM.
The good news was that the 2 hikers with a twisted ankle and one with Altitude sickness, both had felt better and had decided to walk down with support from the assistant guides without needing further medical interventions. The first stop to Mweka camp was 4 kms and had mostly boulders. Once we reached here, we continued onwards to Mweka gate which was a further 10 kms. This was pretty, through the rain forests. However after about 4 kms of this stretch, we got treacherous terrain with small gravel that was wet from the rains earlier. It was all downhill and many in the group slipped and fell. I was going extremely slowly to avoid a fall. One Porter who crossed me asked me to take off the rubber edges in my hiking poles and trust my shoes, so I can place my feet more confidently. This required a lot of concentration and dropped our pace significantly. My friend who was an experienced hiker, told me the golden 3-point rule, which is that at any point in time, 3 out of the 4 limbs (2 feet + 2 hiking poles), need to be firmly on the ground. This helped a lot and while I slipped many times, avoided a fall. After a long 7 hrs with some good music and conversations along the way, we finally made it to Mweka gate.
We were welcomed with some warm beer (which felt great), and good food. We had to sign the register at this final camp (as we did at each of the other camps) for our well-deserved certificates. There was another celebration ceremony with singing and champagne, as we were handed over our certificates. We poured our glasses of champagne but instead of drinking it ourselves, offered it to the staff who sang and congratulated us. We were finally taken on a bus to a souvenir shop first and then to our hotel where final good-byes were said. It was an emotional moment for all as our lead guide, Lucia and her team had taken exceptional care of us and our safety at all times.
We had spoken of their lives, families and did give away all of the medicines we had carried and any additional gear that could be useful to them. We finally cheered with beers and whiskies at the hotel followed by a much-needed shower and hot food. We finally get to sleep clean on our beds and access to a clean toilet.
What a journey!
Our conversations on our takeaways from this trip included deep friendships built, appreciation for the staff who go through a lot each day to make a meagre amount of money, the importance of pole-pole (slow-slow) in life to ensure we get to our goals purposefully.
Comparing this to a marathon, would not do this justice. A marathon takes a significant effort in terms of training and endurance, but for runners who are hiking a mountain for the first time, climbing Kili is definitely harder overall. However when broken-up by each day, most days other than the Summit day would be easier than running a marathon. So stay prepared and cautious, but this is a very doable hike. Good luck.