Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Fine Madness


It was in the morning hours of 5th July 2012.
Morning in Europe – so closer to noon time in India.
I called my dear friend Manoj Joglekar to wish him on his birthday.
He did not answer his phone the first time. This was unusual. It is not possible to reach him late in the evening as he goes to bed early.
But during the day time he is punctual to a fault.
He answered his call the second time around.
And I could hear him breathing hard and panting.
The time of the day was fairly unusual to imagine him engaged in any activity that would require such a labor :P
And then he blurted out that he was descending from Kilimanjaro
He decided to celebrate his birthday in such a grand style.
He wanted something special for his 50th.
(Now everyone knows his age – while the fact remains that even now he effortlessly charms the pants off all the women he encounters)
The seed was sown.
Only men are capable of such compulsion. I had to do it too, if possible before I am 50!
The following travelogue is a result of a simple act of wishing someone on his birthday!!

Disclaimer 1

The inherent capacity of a human to push one’s body to its limits and indulge oneself in an action that borders on insanity is well established. The travel documentary that follows is of one such venture. There is nothing to explain. Nothing to defend. As the famous mastercard advertisement used to say
Tickets 1000 USD
Tour Operator – 1400 USD
Equipment – 500 USD
The feeling when you stand thus – Priceless

Disclaimer 2

We were a group of three who embarked on this. As only I have this compulsion to pen down everything the perceptions and descriptions are purely mine and not meant to collectively represent that of all three.

Every dark cloud has a silver lining:

Though the physical abuse was unbearable at times, it still did one good thing. It saved us from the ignominy of watching the 7-1 Blitzkrieg that the unstoppable German machine unleashed on a hapless and as we later saw on the highlights, clueless Brazil team. The massacre of Samba was something that we came to know much later.

2nd July – Driving Day:

It is only in a place like Europe that we could plan to drive a distance of 900 kms in a single day. Two of us left around noon and reached Frankfurt at 8 in the evening to rest. The plan was to meet the third guy the next day and proceed. During the peak season Condor flies special planes once a week from FF to Kilimanjaro directly.

3rd July – Lazing around day

Checked out as late as possible and reached the airport where we met the third member of this madcap episode and it was a smooth departure. No delays, no last minute screw ups, none of that kind

4th July – The first look of the monster

How often we underestimate the job in front of us or overestimate our capacity! When we initially looked at the plan we contemplated about the landing day. We thought why waste the whole day doing nothing and why not do something worthwhile. We even contemplated stepping out for a quick visit to Serengeti Рnaivet̩ sometimes knows no limits!
The whole drive from the airport to the hotel and the morning hours spent in unpacking, repacking was done in a cloudy weather. We kept asking the waiters the direction to look for to have a glimpse at the bitch. The weather was overcast and the waiters pointed in the general direction to look for. 
The hotel had more waiters and assistant staff than visitors!
All the plans of a quick visit to a wild life park or any explorations vanished when we realized how tired we were and after breakfast peacefully drifted off to sleep.
Woke up around lunch time and after having lunch we were told to meet our guide at 1600 hours for the briefing. Felt nice to feel the sun on our skin and realized suddenly that the sky must have cleared.
Looked in the general direction and …..GASP

 Despite coming from the land of the Himalayas and never having visited them I was not prepared for something like this!!!!
All my life I have always looked in the general direction of the horizon when I was looking for a mountain.
Say an upward glance of 25 deg from the horizontal and there you saw it.
Here I was looking in to the sky!!! I not only needed to increase my upward glance a tad higher I needed to crane my neck.
For the first time since the last two years I felt a feeling that was pure and primal and completely different from the kaleidoscope of the emotions that were running through me ….. FEAR!!!!
This was sheer terror. Jack Nicholson was gritting his teeth and bellowed “You can’t handle the truth” and I could not agree with him more.
The garrulous jovial and bubbly trio suddenly lapsed into an eerie silence.
It was not too late to stop unpacking and leave.
All plans of exploration, wild life parks vanished and we retired to sleep
At 1600 hours we were received by a Morgan Freeman lookalike with the voice to boot who introduces us to our guide Arshad who looked like Will Smith.
With a baritone that seems to come effortlessly to all African men, he explained the torture that we would be submitting our body to. The camp commandant of Auschwitz- Birkenau must have had a lenient program for the inmates.
He was mentioning something closer to 8 hours of trekking each day with the summit day trek multiplying that by a factor of 2.
The smile wore thin and we were suddenly worried.
Thus it was that three men, who suddenly felt older in a day’s time, went to sleep.
The clouds thankfully came on again and blotted out the beautiful bitch from us.

5th July – Monochromatic day – Color Green!

The breakfast would not go down. You were nervous. At the same time you wanted this to start. Once on the way, there is no turning back. Then it is just a matter of countdown. Slow attrition.
The weather matched our gloomy mood. Overcast, raining and damp.
We were all geared up, the guards for the boots, the raincoat, the back pack and the works. The British had left their legacy of paper works wherever they ruled. This was no different. Our guide was filling out permits in triplicate and we finally set out at 11.15 hours for what would turn out to be one of the most defining adventures of our lifetime.
Pole Pole is the phrase we were told to remember for the next six days. Translated it means Slowly Slowly One step at a time.
All men are competitive by nature. We Indians are a notch above. When three of us started to climb it was evident that we were trying to set the pace. It gives one some wicked pleasure to lead the way, take a pause, and wait for the others to catch up.
With a suppressed smile of having proved that one was tougher.
 This , despite the guide telling you “Pole Pole”
After a while the guide realized that the three grown up in his group are actually children and he took the lead and set the pace.
The difference was stunning.
The climb was the same but the strain on us was immediately reduced by a stupendous margin.
Also that the relaxed body allowed the eyes to roam around and feast on the stunning forest that was in front of us.
Like this

The day was long and wet and we reached our camp site exhausted. The site was Machame Camp at an elevation of 3100 mtr.
Already the highest that any of us had ever climbed!
The tents were already set up. The dinner was ready. We were briefed about the coming day and we slept like babies.
Before winding up on the day 1
…….. the toilet!
The guide asked us if we would have private toilet with us on travel and we said yes with absolutely no idea what it would look like.
There was this tent pitched up right behind our dining tent with a plastic bucket, cylindrical and long with a lid on top. The most haunting fear was that the bucket would topple while we are on it or while we try to leave and this single thought continued to haunt us for the entire trip.
This could be one of the reasons why climbers lose appetite as days wore on!

6th July – the climbing day!

What else do you expect when you climb a mountain!
 We need to climb from one elevation to another.
Only a lazy mind can concoct fairy tales where the climb is always like an ascent through a multi-tier car park, and though we would climb, the climb would not be killing and at an end of a day long climb we would still reach the next stop, exhausted but not nearly dead.
All such fairy tales were given a decent albeit abrupt burial in the first hour of our climb on day 2.
We were woken up and after a small wash with water from a fruit bowl we set out after our breakfast with lunch packed up.
This was meant to be a 800 m climb and we expected that we would be able to do it under 6 hours and reach the camp in time and relax better for day 3 which was described as the worst day in the brochure.
We kept climbing.
At places the sticks were a hindrance and we had to tuck them in and resort to nearly crawling.
The day had its benefits thrown in.
The visuals on the way up were stunning.
We were now married to the mantra of Pole Pole and embraced it heartily.
The bitch called Kilimanjaro kept appearing above the ridge, from between passing clouds suddenly and teasingly, always on your right, constantly reminding you of the daunting days ahead.
She looked all pristine, sleeping there peacefully like an hibernating Anaconda, smug and calm.
The guide often called us out to stand by the side of the trail to leave the way for the porters.
Nothing could be more humiliating. Here we were huffing and puffing with a puny 4 kgs of load on our daily ration back pack and we had to stand aside to let a battery of porters who were rushing past with a load of anywhere between 15 and 22 kgs, hoisted on their head in a clumsy ruck sack.
To add insult to the injury all of them were boisterous and singing and talking.
The guide would often stop to explain the flora and fauna.
It was a ruse to give us a break. He knew it, we knew it and he knew that we knew it but still with a gentlemen’s agreement we never breathed a word about it and used all the stops to admire the view along the way, like these….

The destination was reached with one of the worst howling wind we had ever experienced. The weather was dry, the wind was hurling small sand particles and minor stones. The lips were chapped. The evening tea was given a skip. We crawled into our tents.
The wind never stopped.
It continued all through the night.
The wind made the already scary loo visit even scarier.
Look at the tent!

Whoever is in charge of these matters decided to spare us for a while, unknown to us the same treatment was being reserved for the summit climb day too. The wind died towards the morning. Our guide told us that quite a few bigger tents were ripped out during the night.
Our dining tent was to be removed and re-erected to make it even possible to sit and dine.
The loss of appetite was becoming evident already.
The camp elevation was at 3840 mtr. Nearly twice as much as we had ever climbed in our life before. The cold was permanent. The sleeping bags were the only saviors.
The body was already longing for the comfort of a soft bed and a duvet in a warm room !!!!

7th July – The acclimatizing day

This was already officially announced in the brochure as the most difficult day. We were to climb to an elevation of 4600 mtr and descend to almost the same level of the previous day, cca 3900 mtr. This is supposed to be the secret behind the high % of success of this route.
Incidentally this route is known as the “Whiskey Route” J
Don’t ask me why.
The killing routine began again.
There were more stunning views on the way, more porters passing by. All excuses to halt and catch your breath were grabbed at shamelessly. We reached a point just before the highest point for the day called “Lava Tower” for our lunch.
As if our confidence was not already sky high we witnessed a young healthy looking Swede abort his lunch, lurch to a distance and throw up!!
Our guide stole a look at us and inquired if we were suffering from nausea and/or headache!
There were aches all over, some places we never even knew that existed!
How do we differentiate one from the other? We bravely said no and shook our head.
Some of the typical plants.

And the view of the majestic Lava Tower

The descend was a killer.
The sole of your feet was hurting with every step. The knees were taking the load for the first time. Both our knees were not bad.
They were not good either.
The shoes were designed well to protect our ankles. But the knees remained completely at the mercy of the terrain.

We took close to 9 hours against the promised 6 hours trek and slept immediately after crawling into our tents.
We were woken up for dinner with three significant news.
One of our team members, who started the climb with a flu and continuous medication, started to shiver with fever and in one clear lucid thought decided to abort and go back.
We looked at the Barranco wall that we have to scale the next day. The guide kept telling us that it was steep.
We expected it to be steep but this was

And the elusive peak, now all the closer

As I crept in to the tent, I stole one look up at the dark sky. The glaciers and the ice covering of the peak glowed like gossamer ghosts in the night way up in the sky. For a brief moment I could actually see a face grinning.
The elevation was 3900 mtr. The appetite had already started to vanish.
This was a paradox. Here we were doing 20 times more manual labor than an ordinary day at work and consuming 1/5th food!!

8th July – The Longest Day

The body was by now in an auto mode. It stopped to complain. We woke up, said our farewell to our friend who was weeping like a child, yes the mountains can do that to you. Still it was a commendable, though a difficult, decision to make. Knowing when to quit is not easy and not all are gifted with that wisdom. He called it right. We would realize it 14 hours later J
The impossible climb which would have put Tom Cruise and the mountain goats to shame actually turned out to be fairly easy. We had to grip the stones and literally hang on to our lives. It was difficult at places more because our bodies had become inflexible. There was this woman from Ireland who was just in front of me. The sheer concentration and white knuckled grip on the stones and the frantic search of the foothold were all a delight to watch, to be performed by ourselves seconds later. Much to our surprise we reached our lunch point rendezvous on time at an elevation of 3900 mtr.


This turned out to be our last pleasant surprise for the next 24 hours. Of course we did not know it then!
After lunch we set out on a supposed three hour trek to the base camp at 4600 mtrs which actually took five hours. We reached the base camp, exhausted, weary, with a growling tummy and zero appetite and almost zero strength.
The ever nice guide told us to rest for an hour, get up, have dinner, grab a three hour sleep and be ready for the climb to the SUMMIT.
It jumped on us all of a sudden! We are actually this close! We could not believe it!
Could not eat. The weather was lousy. Cold and merciless. We developed cold feet both literally and figuratively.
Was our friend wiser when he departed in the morning? Should we call it quits now? What if we collapse in the middle of the night? Questions which had no answers and hence were not asked.
Could not drink the tea. Asked our guide weather two layers of thermal, a trekking pant, a t-shirt …. And before we could finish he gave the simplest of the answers.
“Wear all that you have – it is going to be cold!”
So we left with 4 layers of clothes and started the climb in pitch dark.
What happened between 2315 in the night and 0700 next morning is difficult to explain.
We were in a zone. I was sure I was hallucinating often. All I could see were the legs of the guide and all I knew was I had to step where he vacated. My friend behind me was doing the same. The climb was steady and torturous. The lungs were screaming for relief afte every 10th step. We stopped frequently. There was no shame left. Pride had left us long ago. We were just two insignificant souls who foolishly decided to pit their wit against Mother Nature. And were paying the price.
60 mtrs from the peak, the first halt of Stella Point (5745 mtr), she decided to alter the playing field. She unleashed a bastard of a wind which started suddenly and attacked us with scorn and venom. Believe her to launch this last affront coupled with one of the most glorious sunrises I had ever witnessed.
How often do you get to stand with the clouds below you and the sun appearing over the horizon?
We did not reach Stella Point. We stumbled there. As seen below.

 Here a miracle happened!
Like the goats that went hyperactive after eating a certain berry on the mountain side which led the monks to brew and discover coffee, I became fully awake and alert.
The Uhuru peak less than half an hour away pulled me magnetically towards it. I was suddenly running towards it.
The guide needed to stop me and let me soak in the majestic glaciers on my left.
Suddenly all the pain, every strained muscle, each aching part of your body, the crying limbs, the gasping lungs, the swollen lips were all worth it.
The view was majestic! Remember what Morgan Freeman tells Jack Nicholson about the grandeur of the mountain top – every word is true.
I cried!
I do not know why but it just appeared to be the right thing to do
2 years of dreaming, 9 months of planning, 6 months of training, 4.5 days of climbing all for this moment…..

The way down was almost in a Zen state. Nothing significant there!
A few closing points:
Before we get too overawed by our own achievements, there were people who were carrying their own full backpacks, no porters, and there were porters who were lugging 20 to 25 kgs and running past us. There is no doubt that we did something remarkable but compared to many on the slopes we would come way down the order!
This lesson of humility must not be ignored.
And for those who may get excited to attempt this, few words of wisdom.
·         Get in shape
·         Invest in the right equipment
·         Believe in your body
·         Do not push your body when it says NO – the mountain will be there and there will be another time
This has been an experience of my lifetime.

6150 mtr next year!!!!!