Sugantha Muthukrishnan has always enjoyed listening to the catchy song “Kilimanjaro” from the 2010 Tamil film Enthiran. In the film, the song featured famous Tamil actor Rajinikanth and Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai singing a duet with a host of tribal dancers against the backdrop of Machu Picchu in Peru. Being huge fans of the two Indian film stars, Sugantha made a monumental decision to see the real Kilimanjaro – not in Peru – but in Tanzania, Africa.
Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano in Tanzania and is the highest mountain in Africa standing at 19,341 ft above sea level. After having climbed Mount Kinabalu twice, Sugantha was looking for another challenge – a challenge that would enable her to achieve a crucial milestone in her life.
Here’s her story:
Sugantha, what made you decide to climb Mount Kilimanjaro?
S: It was the day before my fortieth birthday in December 2015. I pondered over what I had achieved during that year – I had done pretty well in my career, I got promoted but somehow, I felt unfulfilled. 2015 was a great year for my career and yet it was a tough year for me – emotionally.
Then I remembered a Christmas party in 2014 when I met a pilot who had flown over Mount Kilimanjaro, and the Kilimanjaro song from the Tamil movie Enthiran. And so, I’d thought, why not climb Mount Kilimanjaro?
I googled and found a travel agent based in the U.S. called WHOA (Women on High Adventure) Travel, and WHOA had a seven-day full moon climb in July 2016. Without much thought, I signed up and registered for the climb right away.
Did you research on other travel agents to compare their services and prices?
S: Nope. Instinctively, I knew that this was the trip that I wanted to go and signed up right away. I had six months to prepare for the climb.
How did you prepare for the climb?
S: I climbed fifteen flights of stairs in my condo with a daypack weighing six to eight kilograms every other day. The exercise took about an hour or an hour and a half, depending how often I stopped to catch my breath. Apart from the physical exercise, I also researched the trail and told myself that I could do it.
You were mentally and physically prepared for the climb. How did you feel on D-Day?
S: I flew to Moshe in Tanzania and met the local WHOA Travel representative, Karen, an American from Los Angeles, at the airport. Karen briefed us about the climb, got us acquainted with the local culture and so on.
I’d thought I was mentally prepared ready but I panicked on the first day of our climb. All of a sudden, fears swept over me. Karen sensed my fears and hugged me. I broke down and cried but Karen said to me, “Don’t cry, you’ll be fine. When you come back, I’ll be right here with beer and pizza”.
That was very sweet of her!
S: Yes, with that big hug from Karen, I was ready to start my climb. The first two days were fine as we hiked through Kilimanjaro’s rainforest and alpine desert but by the third day at Lava Tower, high altitude sickness started to kick in – I experienced migraines. Thankfully, I only suffered migraines but some climbers suffered from nausea or breathing difficulties. At 15,000 ft above sea level, I popped Panadol tablets to relieve my migraines and moved slowly.
After we had acclimatized at Lava Tower for half a day, we hiked down to lower altitude at 14,000 ft and then I fell.
Oh dear, were you badly injured?
S: No, I wasn’t badly injured but my doubts and fears returned. I cried and I was shivering, in fact, I was the last to reach camp that day. But at camp, one of the guides, Aboo, reassured me that I could do it that I could reach the summit.
When did you reach base camp?
S: We reached base camp on the fourth day and it was so cold! At the same time, there was no running water to wash up.
We left base camp at 1am to climb to the summit with full moon in view. As we reached closer to the summit, we had to climb on volcanic sand – it was tough. You know, the expression “two steps forward, two steps back?” Each time I took two steps forward, I slid back because of the volcanic sand – there was no grip. Then another guide said to me, “Give me your backpack, I’ll carry it for you”. I gave him my backpack, he held my hand and we climbed all the way up to the summit on the fifth day!
Wow, that’s incredible! How did you feel standing on top of Mount Kilimanjaro?
S: It was amazing! I sat at the top of the mountain and I cried. Whatever self-doubts I had about my capabilities, they all went away. That was when I realised that the worse thing that we could do to ourselves was to self-doubt.
That’s absolutely true. Was Karen waiting for you at Moshe with beer and pizza?
S: Haha, yes, she did! It took us another two days to hike down and as promised, Karen was waiting for us with beer and pizza. We had a huge celebration party. Despite our success in climbing the mountain, I must say that the guides and the porters were the ones who carried us up to the summit – they were absolutely wonderful and dedicated!
How did you feel after that phenomenal trip?
S: Climbing the corporate ladder and chasing material wealth are not the only joys in life. I have achieved successes at work but at the same time, the politics in the office were choking me, thus mountain-climbing was an avenue for me to channel that negative energy.
The experience from the Kilimanjaro trip opened up doors for me in my career. I took up a regional role with another company for which I’ve travelled to Nepal and that has inspired me to champion women’s causes as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility programs.
Where else have you been after Kilimanjaro?
S: Since the song Kilimanjaro was filmed in Machu Picchu, I joined WHOA Travel again to hike Machu Picchu in July 2017!
My plans for 2018 is to climb Mount Fuji in June and Everest Base Camp in October.
To Sugantha, we wish her good luck in climbing Mount Fuji, Everest Base Camp and many more mountains! How about you, have you climbed any mountains? Do share your mountain-climbing experience with us!