This is Part 2 of our three-part interview with Shabbir Chandabhai, Kilimanjaro conqueror. For this section, we discussed Shabbir’s training schedule and how he prepared before his Kilimanjaro trek. Some sections of this might be repeats from the previous interview, for the sake of those who are only reading one part.

TGN: How does one train to do high-altitude climbs?

SC: There is no fixed regiment to train for such climbs. In fact some climbers say one should just go climb and that is training on its own!

However, I have always believed that more you train prior to the climb, the better chances you have for success. I trained individually and also with my trainer for this particular climb. He designed a routine for me in terms of functional and strength exercises, but I also decided to work independently on my cardio.

All good in the Cascades, with Mt. Shuksan in the background

TGN: What did your training schedule look like?

SC: Well, I had to get fit first. I decided to do Kilimanjaro in 2008, but I had a lot on my plate at the time. I developed some severe lower back problems around 2009 which lingered for a few years. Finally by 2011, I didn’t want to wait any longer. I started off just trying to get back in shape. I started running a few days a week, and then when I was confident, I joined a gym. But the really intense training truly began in 2016, about 4 months before the climb. I’d do 3-4 days of cardio, mixed with 3 days of upper body and core weight training. On my rest days, I usually went swimming or did yoga. In terms of cardio, I mixed it up with 5-7 km runs on mixed terrain, used the step master, went on inclined walks and long bike rides. After the first month, I wore my trekking boots and put on 30-40 lbs back pack while training.

As mentioned earlier (in Part 1), we were a group of 11 people, so it was important not only to know each other, but also to train as a group and understand each other’s strength and weaknesses. We worked together, motivating each other and helping each other achieve our training goals. We met at the gym every Sunday morning for 4 months, and trained together as a group. That was probably the best part of training.

TGN: What are some of the challenges you expect on high-altitude climbs like these?

SC: The challenges can vary from expedition to expedition, and from person to person. In terms of climbing, for Kilimanjaro, we carried only 30 litre packs ourselves. All our remaining bags were carried by porters who supported the expedition from the beginning. In the Himalayas, sherpas do the same job.

In terms of health, Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is an illness that can affect mountain climbers, hikers, skiers, or travellers at high altitudes, usually above 8,000 feet (2,400 meters).It is caused by reduced air pressure and lower oxygen levels at high altitudes. The faster you climb to a high altitude, the more likely you will get acute mountain sickness. We all learned the symptoms to look out for: dizziness or light-headedness, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, headaches, loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, shortness of breath. We were aware of more severe AMS symptoms like chest tightness, confusion, cough, decreased consciousness or social interaction, coughing up blood, etc.

Apart from that, just being at such high altitudes exposes you to high winds with sub-zero temperatures, in the midst of that unforgiving landscape. That itself is a major risk you have to deal with, apart from the chance of being caught in bad weather at high altitudes.

Yes, there are risks in high altitude climbing, but one needs to take it one step a time, be patient and cautious and not succumb to summit fever. We were always reminded of Ed Viesturs’ quote: “Getting to the top is optional; getting down is mandatory.”

High altitude camping in the Cascades

TGN: What’s the best part of a high-altitude climb?

SC: Not to minimize the risks and challenges, but there really is nothing like a high-altitude climb. You get to experience different landscapes as you climb through various zones and terrains. There’s peace and tranquility at the top, and the views are spectacular. This is a time when I put all my worldly worries behind me, take a deep breath, and enjoy the moment!

Atop Barranco Wall, en route to Kili

TGN: High-altitude isn’t only about being physically strong or having stamina. What kind of mental preparation do you do before a climb?

SC: As I said, you can train as much as you want, but it all boils down to that moment when you are standing at the base of that mountain, ready to take the first step, and then actually climbing it! That means that along with physical training, you’ll have to work on your mental preparedness. You have to understand that there will be suffering involved: the long day of climbs carrying heavy packs, extreme cold and high winds, pain, risks, etc. Your mind will play that quitting game, so you better be prepared and suck it up. Overcoming this mental torture is the only way to get to the summit.

Training for high altitude trekking in the Cascades

There’s no way you can train your mind, but training with certain reality scenarios may help overcoming some hurdles on the mountain. For example, I live in Chicago, where the winters are extreme. I’d pack my backpack, put on all my layers of clothing, and head out in sub-zero temperatures to walk on the streets. Oh, that wind chill as low as -20 Celsius to-28 Celsius hitting your face hurts real bad! But it helped to prepare me for my time in the mountains. If you do a few climbs and experience different situations for yourself, it helps you know what to expect. However, every day is different. I say, stay positive and enjoy the moment!

At Shira Cave, en route to Kili

TGN: You mentioned that you went climbing in the North Cascades to prepare. Tell us about that.

SC: Since I intend to do some high altitude climbs around the world, training in an alpine setting was key. Thus based on recommendation from a trusted guiding company in the Pacific Northwest, we ventured into the North Cascades to climb Mt. Shuksan. It is not a very tall mountain, but it was ideal to train in terms of glacier travel, cramponing, crevasse and self-rescue,  etc.  I must say, it was even more challenging than Kili. I mean Kili had its own challenges; but Mt Shuksan is considered a pretty tough climb, especially the summit pyramid.

This expedition started off at approximately 2,500 feet in elevation. We climbed through dense forests and up into the alpine zone, to camp at approximately 6,000 feet on the edge of the Sulphide Glacier. It was a long day, with 50 lb. packs, 5-7 hours in duration, probably the hardest day of the trip. We set up camp on the glacier, carving an even ledge on the snowfield.

Trekking on snowfields in the Cascades

Day 2 was a training day and we learned several very important aspects of climbing in that environment which would be key for our bid to the summit. On Day 3, we had a really early breakfast, geared up and roped up, and started out before sun rise.  We travelled through various steep sections of the hill and dodged our way up avoiding crevasses. We say the spectacular sunrise in the midst of the beautiful mountain ranges of the cascades as we took our first break around 7500 feet.

Sunrise in the Cascades

We chugged along higher and got to the base of the summit pyramid which is a massive 800 feet of vertical rock wall. This was the most challenging part for me, due to my lack of experience on technical rock climbing. However, with the help of our great guides, we removed our crampons and commenced our assault on the rock wall via a section called the gulley. We must have climbed 600 feet of this wall when we came to a very difficult section, everyone moved ahead, except me. I just could not lift my leg to complete that crazy manoeuvre to go to the next rock. It was killing me, I slipped and was almost dangling trying to desperately hold the edge of a section with my fingertips and tried to get a little bit of a toe gripping on an edge below. This was a do or die moment!  Since we were all roped up, Johnny, my guide, hauled me up a certain steep section, which helped me climb the remaining section to the summit. We finally reached the summit 10:30 am (Aug 23, 2016).

Just above 5000 feet

TGN: How much difference did it make to have good guides even during your training climbs?

SC: When I got to the top of the Cascades, my spirits should have been pretty high after achieving the daunting task of doing such a technical summit. However, all my focus was “How the hell will we get down??!!?” Anyway, we ate a snack, took some photographs and enjoyed being that high for half an hour or so. And then it was time to head down. I followed Johnny and Adam’s (the other guide) instructions on my way down through a very steep section. Then we belayed and rappelled our way down through some pretty dangerous sections. It took us about 2 hours of this to get to the base of the pyramid, and I wouldn’t have bee able to do this without the highly experienced guides we had.

Class 3 rock scrambling in the Cascades
Belaying in the Cascades

Shabbir Chandabhai set off to Tanzania with his group in Feb 2016. On the 26th of Feb, he summited Mount Kilimanjaro at 19,341 feet.

Read Part 1 of this interview with Shabbir Chandabhai: Kilimanjaro conqueror

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