Shabbir Chandabhai is a Bombay boy who went to the US to study, then got married, had two children, and is now a successful architect running his own firm. But after that is where his story begins to diverge from the norm. Shabbir conquered Mt. Kilimanjaro, did some intense alpine climbing in the North Cascades, and is aiming for Everest next.

Shabbir took a break of 15 years (f-i-f-t-e-e-n-y-e-a-r-s!) to build the life he wanted, and then decided he missed the mountains too much. So he whipped himself back into shape, set his sights on Kilimanjaro, and found himself at the summit of this towering giant one day. What an inspiring story! Naturally, The Great Next couldn’t wait to talk to him.

The Great Next: Tell us a little about yourself. What do you do for a living? What kind of adventures do you like? What do you do for fun?

Shabbir Chandabhai: I have been a dreamer since childhood (no wonder I could never focus in school!). I dreamed about exploring the unknown, travelling to far off places, designing and building things. By profession, I ended up being an architect, but I also love reading, photography, and the outdoors.

I enjoy the urban environment, rather than secluded suburbs, but I have lived in mega cities all my life. Maybe that is why I love to get away to nature at the first opportunity. Growing up at sea level was fun; however I have always preferred the mountains to the beaches!

When I am not designing, I am usually lounging on my Eames chair reading, or working in my backyard. Sometimes I’m planning social events to meet family and friends, but at the back of my mind, I’m always working on a new plan to go ‘into the wild’.

Training in the Cascades, with Mt. Shuksan in the background

TGN: Have you always been an adventurer? What inspired you to start?

SC: Not really, I was always an introvert as a child, loved staying home and playing with Lego, rather than going out and playing with friends in the park. However, my parents encouraged us to get outdoors. Once I remember getting a good scolding because I went biking with some friends outside my residential colony, which was beyond my bounds. Maybe I should not have taken my mom’s words to “get outdoors” so literally.

My parents used to enroll us with YMCA summer camps, and we always had a ball of a time. Slowly we started going for camps to various hill stations around India, which was a huge inspiration for me to get out there with a bunch of new friends and explore.

TGN: Tell us about some of your most memorable early travel experiences.

SC: In my college days, we took a trip to Nepal, starting in Kathmandu and driving on to Pokhara. From Pokhara, we could see the spectacular Annapurna range. After Nepal, we ventured into Gangtok, Sikkim. That was the first time I saw Kanchenjunga with Makulu,  Mt. Everest and Lhotse in the background. Now, I am not sure if it was good or bad, but it was at that moment, when I saw Everest from Tiger Hill, that I decided to try to climb Everest someday. I’ve always been pretty good at geography in school, and all I could think when I saw Everest was the height, 8848 mts, something I learned in my childhood days.

On another camp to Uttarakhand, we had to pass a physical test to qualify for this camp that was high up in the mountains. I completed the test (a rigorous course around the hills of Belapur, New Bombay) with ease, and qualified. We trekked from Shimla to a remote village that was 9000-9500 feet above sea level. We learned some technical rock climbing, rappelling, tent pitching, and target shooting, and did some unforgettable trekking on the hills in the vicinity. Trips like these were pretty much the foundation for my love of the hills and mountains.

Towards my final years in college we ventured on some other trips to Kullu, Manali and Shimla. Went up Rohtang Pass, Sela Pass, Changu lake and then another unforgettable trip to North east India in 2000. We travelled all the way up to Twang and Bomdila and trekked within that region close to the India- Burma and India- China border. The culture, the architecture and the landscape, a combination of all these made it a spectacular destination and ever since I have been longing to go back to the Himalayas.

TGN: But then time went by?

SC: Yes. After college, it was time to graduate and build a career. I got a job and worked for 2 years in Mumbai, and then headed to the US in 2002 to get my Masters degree. I got married in 2003 to my amazing partner in crime, and have had 2 wonderful kids. Time flew by, and I never managed to get back to climbing. We did some camping, some whitewater rafting, a few hikes, but nothing that was intense or challenging. Before I knew it, 15 years had whizzed by.

TGN: But now you’re back from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro! Congratulations! How did that come about?

SC: In 2008, I went to Tanzania for a wedding. That’s when I saw the spectacular Mt Meru. I’d been out of the game for a while, but the yearning for the mountains hit me hard again. I spent some time trying to work things out, and then finally decided to go for it! I started small, joining a gym for cardio, and doing weight training with a professional trainer. I also got into running a few days a week. All the time, I could feel Kilimanjaro waiting.

I asked friends and family if anyone was interested in joining me, but nothing really materialized. But I happened to mention to my trainer, Matt, that I was going to climb Kilimanjaro. And guess what? He decided he’d join me. We managed to gather another 9 members to climb with us.

It became serious once there were more people training with me. After a gruelling 4 months of intense training, we set out in Feb 2016. On the 26th of Feb, all of us reached the top of Kilimanjaro, at a height of 19,341 feet.

The victory pic at Kili

TGN: Wow! What did it take, getting to the top?

SC: It wasn’t easy, I can tell you. In my teenage years, I suffered from asthma. A few years ago, I developed some severe lower back problems that lingered for a few years. So by the time I started training, I wanted to challenge myself, test my body and soul, so to speak, and hence wanted to get back and climb. It was very challenging indeed, especially after 15 years. However, I loved the experience, which has been sort of a self-discovery for me, and ever since then, it has got me to do more and challenge myself further, not only in climbing, but all aspects of life!

TGN: You’ve also done some crazy high-altitude climbs. Tell us about those. What’s the highest altitude you’ve been to?

SC: According to the definition, high altitude is between 5000-11500 feet; and very high altitude is 11,500-18,000 feet. In the lower Himalayas, I’ve been as high as 14,000 feet. But for the Kilimanjaro trek, we climbed to Uhuru Peak, which is at 19,431 feet, with some Class 3 rock scrambling. In the North Cascades on Mt. Shuksan, I’ve climbed the summit pyramid at 9131 feet, which was tough because it was a mix of alpine climbing and technical rock climbing.

TGN: Do you tend to stick with climbing and trekking, or do you do any other adventure sports?

SC: I’ve got that mountain madness, and I don’t think it’s curable, so I’m going to keep trekking and exploring peaks. However, I do enjoy whitewater kayaking, so I do that when I’m not trekking.

TGN: Do you have a special memory from your Kilimanjaro trek? A moment you knew you’d never forget?

SC: Yes, it was a particularly poignant one for me. I climbed Kilimanjaro with the intention to raise funds to cure PSP (neurological Parkinsons). My father was diagnosed with PSP some time ago, and we’ve all watched him suffer through his ordeal. He’s been a great inspiration to us; to see him being strong and positive motivated me to change my lifestyle, get back into shape, and try to overcome all challenges with a smile. I hope to live up to his dreams, hope to enjoy life and do what he would have loved doing in good health.

After all the challenges of the trek, remembering the trials that my father has been through, and then finally seeing the summit a few steps away, it brought tears to my eyes. It wasn’t about proving anything to anyone, or putting on a show. It was about personal hard work, overcoming the most audacious obstacles in life, reaching a personal goal was like a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. For me, this is the moment I will never forget.

Read Part 2 of this interview with Shabbir Chandabhai: Training for Kilimanjaro

Read Part 3 of this interview with Shabbir Chandabhai: What each day is like on Mt. Kilimanjaro