The Moment Begins Now.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Roof of Africa: Climbing Kilimanjaro

I crawled away from the group assembled at the summit on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the roof of Africa. My breathing was coming in short, ragged, gasp-like bursts and the headache that exploded through my brain multiplied in intensity. Doing an army crawl, I nestled around a large rock, inhaled a knife-like gasp of air and propped myself up just as the sun exploded over the horizon in a dazzling array of pinks, yellows and oranges.

"It's beautiful," I thought to myself, as I forced my mind to thank my parents for everything as I gave up, closed my eyes, and drifted into an oxygen-deprived ending. I gave up on life, and let myself go.

Issa, my guide, was screaming through the haze of people at the top in the early morning. He pushed them, through his own altitude sickness to comb the entire mountain-top, thinking that I had fallen off the edge. Frantically, he searched around a rock in the corner, and saw me, sleeping as peacefully as a child. He dropped to his knees, ripped off his gloves and began shaking me with his strong arms gripped to my ice-covered jacket.

I didn't move an inch. The shaking continued as he pulled me close to his ear as he screamed, "RAVI, YOU ARE GOING TO DIE." My limp body didn't respond. The sun, meanwhile in the background, was rising steadily, shining with a fiercely bright glow for all the mountain-top to see.


Mount Kilimanjaro is Africa's tallest mountain, a giant, stretching to 5895 meters tall. Hundreds of trekkers a year attempt the summit, and according to the guidebooks, most do. It was this inclination that led me to believe that the climb would be little more than a hike; I've climbed lots of mountains before, I'm in relatively good shape and live in Kigali, which is at altitude itself. 

"I literally have nothing, but I would like to climb the mountain," I said to Jackson, the tour operator as he appraised me in shorts and sandals. "I don't even have socks," I said. He smiled, and I saw dollar signs flash momentarily in his eyes, as he pulled out a price list for the slightly-used equipment. "I'll see you at your hotel at 7am," he said with a genuine smile.

The morning arrives and I grab my pack and settle into the massive 4X4 Jeep when I'm introduced to the crew. Sidee is a slender-faced youth, known for his quick smile and bright, piercing eyes. He is the Porter for the crew, usually carrying the brunt of the load up the mountain. Beside him is Sele ("like Pe-le, the famous soccer player," he kids), a trusting Tanzanian with short dread-locks and a decorative chain around his neck. Ayubu is also crammed in the back-seat, but I never really figured out what he did. A little bit of everything, I suppose. One night, I defected from the mountaineers and spent it with the guys, and found out that Ayubu was as much comic relief as he was necessary. A great spirit.

In the front seat sat Issa, my guide of almost thirty years old. That summer alone he had been up the mountain more than 20 times. He and I would get close over the 5 days, and we would probe each other for the similarities that made up our lives. We trusted each other from the outset, and talked about our hopes... and fears for the future.

Day 1 was solitary and only saw a handful of trekkers coming back with speed walking efficiency down the mountain, while Issa and I ambled down the pathway, together, but alternating moments of solitude and conversation. The looming mountaintop that seemed miles away made me instantly pensieve, lost in my own thoughts. Could I climb up... there? Every time my mind wandered, I tried to bring it back here, to now, to the mountain. "Pole-Pole," he would say almost a hundred times a day, as if to himself.

Slowly, Slowly.

The end of the day led us to camp one, 2800 meters above sea level. The silence was deafening, almost frightening at times. The wisdom is in the trees, said Jack Johnson, not the glass windows. Theres so much the wind and silence have to say, I spent the night in thought of how I always run out of time to share with the world outside.

The food is made under the watchful eye of Sele, adding spices and salt, almost randomly to his creations. "You need strength to reach the top. I think you will," he added, fiddling with the dial of his archaic hot plate. White bread starts off most meals, with a choice of jam or peanut butter followed by cucumber soup which is then taken away and replaced with vegetable soup of the same stock and a main course of large potatoes and vegetables. Little did I know, this was the start of a month long experiment with vegetarianism.

Issa sat down while washing down the sodium with water and said, water helps acclimitization because here, the oxygen is so thin and water is made up of 2 parts hydrogen and 1 part oxygen. You get air, from water, he continued. Brilliant. I don't think I would have ever put that together.

Day 2: Thin Air (Breathe Deep)

We left the camp first, catching the Colabas and Blue Monkeys sleeping with their tails hanging below like short vines, as they caught the last moments of sleep. Acclimitization is proving to take it's toll. It's hard to eat to bursting levels, drink so that your walking in the brush as much as you are progressing and going slowly. Always. Slowly. Today, we climbed to the middle base camp, stomping grounds for those who attempted the summit from the days before as well as those who are on their way up. Those on our way up gathered around after supper to hear the struggles and hardships of those who summitted, and many left leaving feeling far more nervous than ever. The top was hard, they say, causing panic in the potential summiters. I broke from the group, and spent time with my crew, not wanting to be subject to the potential negativity and doubt that their stories brought. I knew how hard it was... or so I thought. That night, it was cold and I slept with everything I owned neslted to my body.

3 (Day). Kilimanjaro's disappearing snows have been well documented and used as evidence as a continuing case for the detrimental effect of global warning. Issa says that within 15 years, all of the snow will recede and leave this equatorial skyscraper looking like just another piece of rock. Our kids, he says, will never see the whites of the mountain's eyes.

For the next hour and a half, we trudged up the dirt path on the West face of the mountain and stood side-by-side of each other, listening to each other breathe. One in, One out. And repeat. As the day unfolded in perfect silence, our breath started coming in longer and deeper bursts. Our diaphragms expanded and we became more audible as we noticed our bodies working harder to obtain the oxygen we needed. The night was cold, and talking to someone required you to look slightly to one side, lest they become englufed in your visible smoke-like breath.

Day 4: Believe.

3800 meters can mess you up. The next camp, at 4700 meters can send you home. We trudged today to the high camp to begin our summit ascent at midnight that night. I stopped Issa and asked, "does it make sense that all of these tourists fly around the world for this, to climb this mountain?" He fired back, almost instantly, "Why are you climbing it?"

There was no definitive, inspirational, spiritual or conceptual answer to that. I just thought, like most things in life, I was given the choice to climb the mountain or not. I followed an instinct, and it's proved to be right most of the time, so I went with it. I guess I just may never have the opportunity to do it again. As Dad taught me, when an opportunity presents itself, you have to take it. It's the search I think, that holds the most promise. The idea that there may be some surprises or lessons to be gleaned from this mountain, from yourself in this.

To The Moon (The Summit)

The Kibu huts are located at precisely 4800 meters, where the landscape dramatically shifts away from lush, green forests to red, giant rocks. Rocks that look lie a giant placed them there, in a feeble attempt to play checkers at the top of the world. It's the people though, that have changed the most up here. Oxygen is at a premium and cracks are showing in some of the crews arriving, as the trekkers shuffle themselves from the toilet and back to bed, eyes filled with nothingness.

My moment of realization came when, squatting over a key-shaped outhouse, I thought it would be just fine if I crawled in and slept. My mind stopped it's rational side, leaning towards the goofy and grinning.

We sleep for three hours after supper, and awake to the gentle rapping on the door. The briefing is simple, 7 hours to the top, we won't stop, we won't go fast. We'll reach as the sun is coming up and then come straight down. Any more time up there is suicide.

Bags and gear are packed in a fury, zippers are locked with loud efficiency and a ball of subdued excitement fills the air. Izza looks at me through the glare of his head-lamp, and without a word we begin. His eyes showed no emotion in the least. I did the same, trying to distance myself, partition my mind from my body, in preparation of the impending crippling altitude sickness.


My eyes opened to the world again. YOU ARE GOING TO DIE, Issa repeated. I thought I was dead. A second chance, on life. It all came crashing back, the constant reminders that your body is in trouble, a headache tore through my skull and exited in the middle of my forehead, creating lurching movements. My breathing was broken and shallow, as if my lungs had given up on the effort. My lips were dried, burned and cracking, but the water was too far to reach. And now we had to climb for another 8 hours back to camp.

This, as I collapsed again and began crying on the top of Africa, was the hardest physical moment of my life. I cried uncontrollably. My mind and my body had thrown in the towel.  

Why can't you just let me lie down? Issa was persistent and allowed me the space I needed to fight it out with myself. Within minutes, we had to grab a woman who was delirious from falling down a thousand foot cliff, and it all came rushing back. You Might Not Live.

It was in that moment I chose life.

As we descended down the mountain, away from the sickness and the staggering headaches, I pulled a large American bill out of my pocket and put it into my guide's hand. "You saved my life," I said. "Without you..." I trailed off, voice cracking as the 16 hour hiking day was coming to a close.

"It's my job," he said. "They would have taken away my trail license if you had died anyways."

We both laughed hearty and long, arm over arm as the sun dropped in the distance behind us. I looked back, shook my head and jogged to catch back up with Issa.

I'm alive.

Life is perfect.


  1. Did someone really fall off a cliff while you were there? Did they Die?

    Also, good story

  2. Amazing, Ravi! You are incredibly inspiring, and strong. I do nothing but applaud you, for everything you have done, and keep doing.