by Michael Mo, MD
Rising so prominently above the African savannahs, Mount Kilimanjaro must have loomed large in the imagination of early humans. The tallest freestanding mountain in the world certainly caught the attention of this later human. Requiring no technical skills, it was said that anyone with a reasonable level of fitness and a positive attitude can make it to the summit. Due to the relative accessibility, the promise of scenic beauty, and the challenge of conquering one of the famed Seven Summits, the mountain had cast a long shadow and an irresistible spell on me.
Ironically, personal setbacks provided the window of opportunity to do this trip. Quickly assembling a team of like-minded bodies and securing the services of a trekking specialist, we decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro during the short dry season (between January to March). We selected the Machame route as it is one of the shorter and more scenic routes, and the route provided good opportunity for acclimatization.
We started our adventure by travelling to Moshi, Tanzania, the idyllic town set at the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We arrived a day ahead of our trek to meet our guides and to get oriented. We were backed by an incredible team- an army of twenty two guides, cooks, and porters supported us four aspirants. Moshi felt familiar- the warmth of the Tanzanian people with their generous greetings of ‘jambo’, and the tangy and succulent mangoes served for breakfast reminded me of home. From our hotel, it was a short drive through leafy boulevards to the Machame Gate of the Kilimanjaro National Park where we registered and started our trek.
We covered the 62 km of the ‘whiskey’ route in six days. The journey was paced ‘pole-pole’ (slowly, in Swahili) over well-trodden paths. It was mostly a long walk with some bouldering along switchbacks (notably to scale the great Barranco wall, and the pre-dawn scramble up to the crater rim). The landscape on the trail transitioned, as one ascended, from tropical rainforests, to temperate moorlands, to alpine dessert, and to arctic tundra at the summit. It was like travelling from the equator to the poles and back in a week. It was glorious! The sweeping vistas that standing on the mountain afforded were nothing short of stunning. The diverse flora that have taken root at the various ecological niches on the mountain made for such visual treat. The climb to the roof of Africa was as beautiful as we could have possibly imagined.
The prize of climbing Mt Kilimanjaro came with a price. The height that made it so seductive also made it dangerous. At 5895 m, the peak of Mt Kilimanjaro is firmly classified as an ‘extreme altitude’ with oxygen levels about half of those at sea level. Altitude sickness hit us hard on the summit day- we were suffering from exhaustion, fatigue, and nausea as we trudged along the endless ridges leading to the crater rim. There were two helicopter evaluations while we were on the mountain. Nature was not to be trifled with.
We lost a few things along the way. Vanity was the first to go. Putting up appearances hardly mattered. All one noticed were determined looks from people committed to fulfilling their dreams. No one was bothered by the stench from not showering for days, all were preoccupied with chasing that whiff of success- which was getting stronger with every step taken forward. All of life’s noises were drowned out by the stillness of mountain- the rat race, the keeping up with the Joneses, the insecurities, all the hypothetical scenarios crowding the mind. Pride was banished. Looking back, these were the only realities that mattered on the mountain: that was that we were under the mercy of the mountain, and that a foot had to take another step forward.
Rain, hail, sleet, and snow greeted us everyday on the trail- and on the mountain there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. We came ready but nature can be surprising. On the fourth day, as hail was beating down on us as we were traversing Karanga Valley, in one of the more desperate moments on the mountain, magic happened. Hail hitting the gravel of the valley floor made the ground chime. The sky was falling and music was reverberating from the earth. Nature can be healing.
Reaching Uhuru’s Peak didn’t trigger a surge of happiness in me. Not yet. It was perilous to stay longer than necessary at that altitude; and I was aware I was only half-way through, and I dreaded the long way down. After quickly taking photos with the sign marking Africa’s highest peak, we embarked on the other half of our journey. The descent was no easier than the ascent. Our knees buckled under the immense stress. We managed to descend to Mweka Gate the following day where we logged our accomplishments with the park authorities. The celebration would finally come that evening at the Indoitaliano restaurant in Moshi where the refreshed team recollected memories and reminisced experiences over pizza and chicken tikka masala. Toasting with lassi and Kilimanjaro brew, the immense satisfaction of having accomplished such a worthy goal settled in.
Those days on Mt. Kilimanjaro were among the best days of my life. On the mountain, time itself seem to have stopped- like all of the past and all of the future had compressed into the present moment; and life was stripped to its bare essential. In the wild, amidst the struggle, I felt truly present and truly alive.