At 4am, jaded, drowsy, experiencing excruciating pain on my injured knee, I questioned myself if I was a masochist. Why did I blow away a year’s savings to put myself through this hell?
The Kilimanjaro glacier, which was glowing under the full moon until now, had just disappeared from view. We were only halfway to the top from the basecamp.
“It isn’t worth the agony”, I was seriously considering withdrawing.
This is why climbing Kilimanjaro is a team sport. Our team, comprising of another Indian, two Pakistanis, two Tanzanian guides and a summit porter encouraged me to continue. Altitude is an unbelievable equalizer. I wasn’t the only one feeling low; a parade of zombies of every age, size and weight paraded up the steep slope, raising the head only to figure out how much longer they had to continue. “One step at a time”, I mumbled incessantly.
Two hours later, as the first rays of the sun started to illuminate Mwenzi peak, I thanked my team for helping me stick to my goal. I don’t think I have ever seen a better silver lining than the one around Mwenzi peak that morning. At 5800m, everything is divine; but the sunrise that morning is definitely the best I have ever witnessed. And I had earned the right to relish it.
The morning sun had evaporated the sombre mood on the mountain; but it was only at the false Stella peak that I heard shrieks of joy. Numerous pictures and selfies were shot. The Uhuru peak across the Kilimanjaro crater now seemed attainable. The tough work had been done and it was time to enjoy, or so I thought.
The guides coaxed us to pause the celebrations until we reached Uhuru. I soon understood why. As I placed a step forward, my heartbeat shot up as if I was sprinting. I could even hear my heart palpitate to counter the lack of oxygen . I stood and waited for the pulse to stabilize. When I placed another step forward, I could hear my heartbeat again. Altitude had started to affect me. Nothing is trivial at 19000ft (5800m).
Thus began the toughest hike of my life-a 0.5km, 500ft stretch that took more than one hour. “One step at a time”,I repeated the mantra. By the time I reached Uhuru, I had no energy to celebrate. Even the otherworldly scenery couldn’t entice me to stay longer. My only concern was to get a summit photo and run down before altitude could affect me any further. My friends had reached earlier and seeing my condition, arranged for all the photo sessions.
Hiking down steep slopes is difficult with a healthy knee. With an injured knee, it is a reflection of hell. However, the symptoms of altitude sickness forced me to race down as fast as I could through the scree slopes despite my knee taking a toll.
I couldn’t but help noticing how people were destroying the mountain. Most porters,guides and climbers created their own trail as they sand-skied down the scree slopes, totally oblivious of the irreversible erosion threatening the mountain!
We were finally done with hiking for the day when we reached the campsite at around 5pm, 17 hours after we had started the summit hike. Freshening up, I realized that I had accomplished the toughest item on my bucket list. I could finally jump with joy and let off the victory howls.
As I cuddled up in my sleeping bag, it dawned on me that I couldn’t have scaled the peak without support from the group which was almost like family now. My Pakistani friends were the elder siblings I never had. They encouraged me, made me laugh, warned me of tough parts which could hurt my already injured knee and ,in general, acted like guardian angels. Isn’t that how it is supposed to be?
Our summit climb and teamwork was a microcosm of a hypothetical conflict-free Indian subcontinent. Ever since the British played Dr. Evil to divide what was then India, incessant in-fighting has hindered progress in the sub-continent.
I often dream of animosity-free Indian subcontinent marching together towards progress. To get a whiff of the power it would create, think of the invincible combined India, Pakistan, Bangladesh cricket team! We are the same people, if we join hands, I am sure we would be among the most developed nations in the world. Unfortunately, in the current messed up political climate, there is little possibility of the Utopian dream materializing in my lifetime.
As I parted with my Pakistani friends, possibly to never see them again, the famous poem by the Nobel laureate poet and visionary Rabindranath Tagore crossed my mind
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”
All photos on this website are copyrighted. Do not copy or use without permission.