This is the final part of our three-part interview with Shabbir Burhani, Kilimanjaro conqueror. For this section, we delved into each day of his trek to Kili. 

TGN: Alright, Shabbir! We’ve discussed everything, from your own adventure background to how you prepared for the Kilimanjaro trek. Now it’s time to tell us what it was like each day! 

SC: Wow! This could be a few pages on its own! I’ll tell you a short summary of each day, with the highs and lows of the climb. I’ll keep some suspense for others to experience themselves if they get a chance to climb Kilimanjaro!

There are various routes to climb Kilimanjaro, catering to climbers with different levels and depending on what kind of landscape one wants to experience during the climb. We chose the 6 day Machame route, which is popular and challenging, with spectacular views and landscape as you climb at different elevations. It also gives you time to acclimatize, so you have better chances of summiting. We set up various camps along the way to spend nights and acclimatize moving upward.

Day 1: “We came here to scale, not to fail”.

After a long sleepless night in anticipation of the climb, we had a hurried breakfast and did a final gear check before loading the bus, which took us to Machame Gate, the trailhead to the climb. We had 4 guides, 2 cooks, 1 waiter and 31 porters, yes quite a large party…all set for the expedition. Starting at 6000 ft, we climbed up the lush green rainforest to Camp-1, Machame camp, at around 9500 ft. This was a relatively short day, with just a 3 to 4 hour ascent to get to camp before sunset. After a much needed dinner, we got into our 2-person tents and retired for the night!

Machame Gate at 6000 feet
Machame Camp at 9500 feet

Day 2: “If you are not breathing, you are cheating, shut it!”

After a good breakfast, we started early from Camp-1 towards Shira cave, Camp-2 at roughly 12,800 ft high. This was a tougher climb on steeper terrain, and even a few boulders to climb over along the route. The landscape had already started changing, with smaller shrubs along the route. The views were amazing along the way!

The climb towards Shira Cave

It took us roughly 4 hours to Shira Cave camp, after which we had a good lunch at the already set up campsite. Since, we had some time on our hands, we rested a bit and took off for an acclimatization hike in the area just above our camp. We could feel the chill and some of the effects of high altitude. I did experience a mild headache and a tingling sensation in my fingertips, which are pretty common symptoms. Overall a tough, but great day!

Sunset above the clouds at Shira Camp

Day 3: “Living the lava life”

After an uneasy night at that altitude, we woke up to a long day ahead. We had scheduled a long 7-8 hour trek starting from Shira Cave at 12,800 ft, going up to a steep section towards Lava tower at 15,200 feet.

Trekking at Lava Tower, with Mt Meru in the background.

We had lunch at Lava tower, and then descended to a rocky section, which was quite taxing on my knees. This was an important section to acclimatize, because it ascends and descends back to Barranco camp at 13,500 ft. The landscape had very minimal flora, more of a rocky terrain.

Lava Tower

It was an intense day, but somehow was not as bad as Day 2. Towards the end, I experienced a bad headache which just got worse by the time we reached camp. After a short nap and some ginger tea, I was feeling much better! We were camping at the foot of the very tall rock section known as the Barranco Wall, which we’d have to climb next day. For the rest of the evening, we gazed up at Barranco, trying to decide which section we would start our climb on tomorrow. It’s an intimidating wall, but it also makes you really look forward to the challenge.

Day 4: “Hey Barranco, we’re gonna rock you!”     

After another sleepless night (in anxiety) we got up to very cold temperatures, trying to be brave and get through the morning routine. I must say, waking up in the middle of the night to take a leak can be a difficult task in the brisk cold weather. If you kept a pee bottle in your tent, it’s okay, but either way, you have to take care of nature’s call. Anyway, with a long and challenging 8 hour day ahead, we packed up and headed to the base of the mighty Barranco Wall. It’s all of 1100 ft of sheer vertical rock, with some areas chalked out for climbing.

Climbing Barranco Wall

We had to follow each move of our guides so had to focus. At certain sections, we crossed a ledge where there was barely enough place your foot. After a never-ending hour and a half, we saw the top of the wall and scurried up the rock in euphoria.

Euphoric at the top of Barranco Wall

Finally, we completed one of the most difficult sections of the climb. After a short snack break, we headed down the Karanga valley, which was a pretty steep descent.

 

Happy to have Barranco summit behind us.

There’s a water source at the bottom of the valley, and we’d need to fill up water for our next campsite. It was hard enough for us to climb up from the valley, but our porters carried jerry cans and drums of water on their heads! We stopped between Karanga and Barafu camp for a quick lunch, and then headed off for the final 2 hour climb up to the Barafu camp at 15,200 ft. Each day was getting tougher, and today was by far one of the toughest climbing days we had endured. As we got to camp, we could see a few climbers descending from the summit. We could see the toll it had taken on them and only feared our summit attempt.

Barafu Camp at 15,200 ft, with the Kibo visible behind

We had an early dinner, and then, like every evening, we were briefed about the next day’s climb. After studying each one of us for 4 days, the head guide divided us into 2 groups based on our pace. One group would leave at 12:00 midnight and the other at 1:00 am. After that, we had to get into our layers of clothing, get our gear and backpacks ready, and go to bed early to get a few hours of sleep. As you can imagine, nobody slept much!

Day 5: “Going up is optional; coming down is mandatory”

It’s summit day! At 11:00 pm, Joel, our camp master, woke us up. I was already awake anyway, but I pulled on my remaining layers, put my boots on, and headed to the mess tent. I was anxious, nervous, excited…all the emotions running up my spine. Summit day was finally here! I hardly ate my breakfast, still anxious about what lay ahead, visited the restroom (our very own toilet tent) and packed up. Ready to roll! Finally, by 12:15 am, we started our ascent towards the Kibo, a steep ridge that leads up to the rim of the crater.

It was a beautifully clear, brisk night. We could see a line of headlamps glowing all the way up ahead of us. Behind us, the city lights glittered in the distance. The pace was set by our guide Penda, who has probably summited Kilimanjaro a 100 times. Jerome, who was our other guide, and one of the porters tail ended the group.

Headlamps lighting up the Kibo

We climbed along the switchbacks of the Kibo and gained steady elevation. Between 3-5 am, during what they say is the coldest time of the night, we experienced some high winds and bitter cold. At that point I had all my layers on, including my down jacket, and my face was covered with a balaclava, trying to brave the chill. We must have stopped every 45 mins for a short break, to sip water and eat a snack before heading up the hill again. As we went higher, at around 17,000 ft, the mouth piece of the Camelbak froze, and we could hardly bite off the frozen energy bar either. Nevertheless, we kept chugging along and finally after nearly 6 hours, we reached the top of the Kibo to Stella Point at 18,885 ft.

Just before sunrise, en route to Stella Point
Stella Point at 18,885 ft

By now, my energy was drained and it took a lot of motivation to move even one foot. I dropped my backpack at Stella Point and headed towards Uhuru peak, which was about 45 minutes away. That section seemed like the longest stretch of the trek, but finally I saw the sign saying ‘Uhuru peak’ just a few steps away. It was an incredibly emotional moment, and tears just rolled down my eyes. We hugged each other, congratulated ourselves on the successful summit attempt.

After years of yearning and months of preparation, I finally took those last few steps to the summit. At 7:30 am on Feb 26, 2016, I stood at the top of Africa. It was a dream come true.

Uhuru Peak at 19,341 feet

But we had to get back too! After about 20 minutes at the summit, we headed back down, took a break at Stella Point, and descended along the steep ridge of the Kibo. At that point, I had lost pretty much all my energy. The adrenaline that had kept me going to the summit was draining away, and I was exhausted. It not for the guide, I don’t know how I would have made it down that section. Finally after a very long 11 hours, we reached the campsite again. I lay down in my tent and took a well deserved nap. By 1 pm, we had to pack up, eat lunch and head back further down to Mweka camp, which was another 4 hours descent to 10,000 ft.

Saying goodbye to the summit from Barafu Camp

With a reluctant farewell to the summit, we got back on the trail. It felt great to go back to lower altitudes, and to see the lush green rainforest landscape! Finally around 5:30 pm, we arrived at Mweka camp. This was by far the toughest day of the expedition; but of course, the most rewarding!

Back at Mweka Camp
Happy to be back at 10,000 feet

Day 6: “Time to bid farewell”

After an early breakfast, we gathered outside the Mess tent for a little ceremony. All the guides and porters sang a local song, “Jambo Bwana”, and we joined them for the celebration of a successful expedition.

Celebrating a successful climb with the team

We had collected tips for all the crew members, but nothing could do justice to the sense of gratitude we felt. We headed back down the home stretch to Mweka Gate. After a 3.5 hr hike, we got to the gates, and were handed our certificates. We had another celebration with the group, and then it was time to bid farewell to the crew. After that, we loaded up the bus and headed back to the lodge, for a well deserved hot shower and soft beds.

The victory pic!

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 2 of this interview with Shabbir Chandabhai: Training for Kilimanjaro