Kilimanjaro Challenge 2012

Mount Kilimanjaro, in Chaga, the ‘Mountain of Greatness’… but in Swahili, the ‘Mountain of Cold Devils’. When the ‘Climb Kilimanjaro for BEHT’ advert caught my eye in the Oshwal Magazine, I immediately decided that one day I wanted to be the one standing on the summit of that mountain, watching the sunrise across the whole of Africa. But I had no idea what was waiting in store for me.

We all sat down for dinner at our lodge on the evening before we embarked on our trek, having met our guide for the first time. Full of anticipation, excitement and slight anxiety, we were ready to go, with four months of taxing training behind us. The group of eleven, ages ranging from 14 to 62, included Hitesh (our leader), Dilip, Ashok, Praful, Nilesh, Suresh, Dipak and Vipul, with Diva, Shiv and I representing the younger generation. Our training had been kick-started with a bank holiday weekend trip to the 3 Peaks in Yorkshire, followed by an hour of power-walking a day.The weekends would bring longer treks, and the group often amassed to train together at the Dunstable Down and Ivinghoe Beacon.

The next day, after breakfast we set off to the starting gate of the trek, and once we had been signed in, the climb officially began – 4 months of training had all come down to this. There was no turning back. We trekked for four reasonably optimistic hours through the lush rainforests teeming with greenery, returning the greetings of descending climbers wearing rather deceptive smiles. Despite avidly searching through the trees to catch a glimpse of a Colobus monkey, we did not see one, but my dad refused to let us miss out with his exceptionally embarrassing monkey impressions. At last Mandara Hut emerged in our field of vision and with it the thought of the tea and popcorn awaiting us. One day down, five to go! The following day we slowly tracked a slightly longer hike to Horombo Huts, where we stayed two nights, as the greenery gave out to sparse plants and dry grass. The catch phrase of the trip was ‘pole pole’, slowly slowly in Swahili, which is how the guides constantly urged us to walk in order to acclimatize.

The cloud level had fallen below us over night (being above the clouds was one of my personal highlights of the trip!), and so we had a beautiful clear view of the snow covered summit. After a day of acclimatization to Zebra Rocks and a good night’s rest that would certainly be needed, the hard work really began- the 8 hour walk to Kibo Huts… and then the midnight climb. The landscape had become arid and barren, with huge boulders dappling the rocky dessert. The air had also become thinner and much colder, but my dad still managed to find the effort to sing through all the panting and heavy breathing. As soon as we had arrived, we prepared our clothes, water and food for the midnight climb, and tried to catch a few hours rest, battling against the cold, altitude and loss of appetite.

Midnight finally came, and soon we were ready to go, nerves churning furiously in my stomach. The temperature was below freezing, and even through my five layers of skiing clothes I shivered. It was a clear, inky black night, the stars twinkling above us, and our headlamps throwing shadows on the ground. To be honest, most of that six hour struggle to the peak was a blur. One after another, we moved one foot at a time, climbing unbelievably slowly and still losing my breath because of the altitude and cold. It was so steep that we walked in zigzags, ‘pole pole’, through the dust, the bitterly cold air harshly stinging my face. Every time I sat down for a break, my muscles had contracted, and to walk again felt like dragging two lead poles up the slope. All the water and food had frozen up in the -15⁰C temperatures, and I felt so hungry that my legs were shaking. I had no idea how I managed to make it to Gilman’s Point, and it must be said that I would have easily given up not half way up the climb if it weren’t for my dad, whose amazing support and encouragement propelled me to take one more step at a time.

Ten of the eleven climbers made it to Gilman’s Point, 5695m asl, and seven continued all the way up to Uhuru Peak, 5895m asl. To me, it seemed that this final trek was much more mentally challenging and test of determination than a challenge of physical strength. Undoubtedly, physical strength is an enormous part of conquering Kilimanjaro, but with a few months of focused training it is achievable. Despite this, there is no amount of training that can prepare you for the conditions you climb in. Never before have I experienced and never again can I imagine a situation in which I will feel very last trace of energy being sucked dry, and through that immensely overwhelming surge of exhaustion still find the determination and strength in myself to keep placing one foot in front of another. Reaching Gilman’s Point brought a wash of numb relief and joy through me, only when the sun rose from behind Mawenzi and bathed the distant glaciers and iced filled craters in golden light did I realise what I had done – I had officially climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. The descent was by no means any easier than the ascent, but the moonwalking – like experience of traipsing through the fine, volcanic dust was very surreal, as I felt only half conscious of where I was. To reach Kibo Hut was paradise, and my eyes had clamped together before my head had touched the pillow. However, our day was not over- it was only 11am and we still had to walk all the way back down to Horombo. I’m tempted to say that those 11km were even worse than the final ascent, because the clouds obviously thought that we had not suffered enough, and threw down every single different form of precipitation from the sky- rain, snow, sleet and hail. The final day took us right back down the mountain to the gate, and Shiv, Diva, Dad and I all skipped through it in celebration, where on the other side cold Fanta’s that we had been craving awaited us.

It cannot go without saying that the true, unwavering heroes of Kilimanjaro are the porters and guides. The porters each carry 20kg of food, clothes and cooking necessities up the mountain, walking tirelessly without complaint, to make sure that the food they cooked for us was the best it could possibly be. The guides, who led us up the mountain, worked just as hard, if not harder, and when the final ascent came they carried not just themselves but several rucksacks and even people to the peak, supporting and encouraging us all the way. The work they do for the money they are paid is phenomenal.

The whole group gelled together so well that I think we will all be in touch for quite a few years to come. Everyone had the chance to talk to each other along the several hour treks, and each personality was quickly established. Whether teasing each other, offering moral support on the walks, or sharing the many bags of food, whole group was always involved. The teenagers were the best behaved- it was quite funny to see grown men playing tricks on each other.

This unbelievably rewarding experience has inspired me in several ways, firstly, never to turn away such an incredible opportunity to test your endurance, physical strength and determination; however young or old you are, to embrace and appreciate any experience, however rewarding it is. Age is only a number, because Suresh Shah, 62, reached the peak (first!), his slow but steady pace leading him straight to the top, despite him not seeing any of Kilimanjaro because he was so focused on the ground the entire trek. After looking at the lives of the guides and porters, and how they still give you their all even though they do not have that much to give, I have discovered that a little personality can go a long way, and it has also inspired me to want to do lots of charity work in East Africa when I grow up. Looking back, my time on the mountain taught me one thing- that satisfaction only comes with 100% – if you don’t give, you won’t get.

The number of communities and children in Gujarat that BEHT has helped with their schools and hospital is astonishing. With your help they could change the lives of so many more, to give them just a fraction of what we take for granted every day, and a little goes a long way. But I leave you with one last thought -if they face a Kilimanjaro every single day of their lives, there is no reason that you can’t face the mountain once.

This article has been written by Ria Chavda aged 14 1/2 years. We hope that she has inspired some of the young and old people to take up a similar challenge like this.