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I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

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Travel

Jan 03, 2019

Climbing for a Cause: Returning to Kilimanjaro for Elephant Conservation

Sarah Kingdom returns to Kilimanjaro, not for the first time, but now with a team that are fighting for Elephants in Africa, that are under serious threat.

WRITTEN BY

Sarah Kingdom

This wasn’t my first time up Kilimanjaro and it won’t be my last, but it was the first time I had climbed with a team so passionate about the cause they were climbing to raise funds for… elephant conservation.

One elephant killed every 15 minutes!

Elephants in Africa are under serious threat, primarily due to large-scale poaching for ivory and also as a result of conflicts arising from elephant / human interactions. It is estimated that 25,000 elephants are being killed in Africa every year… this works out at approximately one elephant killed every 15 minutes!

A pair of the famous Tsavo Tuskers. Photo: The Askari Project

The driving force behind the group climbing Kilimanjaro with me this time was Bradd Johnston from The Askari Project. ‘Askari’ is the Swahili word for soldier, and a particularly appropriate word when used in connection to the current urgent need for elephant protection. Bradd, an Australian zookeeper, set up The Askari Project to raise funds to support elephant conservation, particularly the protection of some of the last Great Tuskers in Africa (an elephant with tusks reaching the ground is typically defined as a big tusker). The Askari Project supports the operations of The Tsavo Trust in Kenya.

142 arrests being made and 62 poached elephant tusks being recovered.

The Tsavo Trust is a Kenyan not-for-profit organisation which works with the Kenyan Wildlife Services. Since its inception in 2013, the Trust’s efforts have helped reduce elephant poaching in the project’s local area by 50%. Last year alone their plane flew over 700 hours, covering more than 52,000 miles, monitoring and patrolling the Tsavo area in Kenya. These efforts resulted in the recovery of more than 1,000 snares, numerous poacher campsites being located, 142 arrests being made and 62 poached elephant tusks being recovered.

The Askari Project Kilimanjaro Team were putting themselves to the test, lacing up their trekking boots and putting one foot in front of another to raise funds to support the conservation of African elephants.  

Looking across the saddle towards Kilimanjaro. Photo: Sarah Kingdom

Every year, over 35,000 people set foot in Tanzania specifically to climb Kilimanjaro. As the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, Mount Kilimanjaro is a place of myth and legend. Climbing this mountain may not require any technical skills or special equipment, however, the journey is not to be taken lightly, climbers need to be prepared and understand what lies ahead.

Many of the group had never trekked before and most had never climbed before. This was going to be a trip that took all of them out of their comfort zones and made them confront their personal inner strengths and weaknesses… after all the summit of Kilimanjaro at 5,895m above sea level, is not only the highest place in Africa, it is also one of the highest points in the world that can be reached without mountaineering equipment.

Kilimanjaro with wildflowers below and blue skies above. Photo: Sarah Kingdom

There are many routes up Kilimanjaro, but we had opted for the seven day Rongai Route as this was a route that would allow the group five days to acclimatise before their final assault on the summit.

Day one dawned and we set off for the mountain. After a fairly long drive, we finally reached the start of the Rongai Route. Our path wound through towering pine trees and the occasional colobus monkey was spotted. We walked at a slow pace up a steady slope, letting our legs get used to the idea of walking. The only way to tackle this mountain is inch by inch, unless, of course, you are one of the super fit porters who climb it a couple of times a month. We had 38 of these porters with us, and they speed past us with the group’s luggage, camping gear and water supplies balanced on their heads.

Reaching our first camp by afternoon, the group set about getting comfortable for their first night on the mountain. After dark, the temperatures on Kilimanjaro fall quickly. Our first ‘mountain dinner’ done, the entire group headed off to their respective tents for what would hopefully be a good night’s sleep. From my tent, I could hear them settling into their sleeping bags and getting used to the idea of camping life. I knew exactly the sort of thoughts going through their minds… “will I be warm enough or should I put on a pair of socks?”, “why didn’t I go to the loo before I got into my sleeping bag?”, “where did I leave the torch?… finally the rustling and fidgeting stopped and the group settled down to sleep, serenaded by the sonorous snores of one of the group.

Sunrise on the way to the summit. Photo: Sarah Kingdom

Day two and the team were greeted with sunshine and a small bowl of warm water to perform daily ablutions. Despite having slept pretty fitfully, all were in remarkably good spirits. After breakfast, we set off for an uneventful day’s journey to Camp Two. Night two in the tents and I can see the group are becoming more accustomed to the discomfort of tent life and working out various ‘coping mechanisms’.

Setting off day three, we head to Kikilewa Camp; a pretty steep climb and the pace slowed as people began feeling the effects of the increasing altitude. Having told them all this camp was my favourite and the most scenic, it was a bit disappointing to see heavy mist roll in, hiding the view and blanketing the camp in clouds right up until departure time the next morning!

We reached our next camp, Mawenzi Tarn, by lunchtime the following day. In the afternoon, I dragged the team off, very much against their will, on a cold and damp acclimatisation ‘stroll’ up in the hills behind the camp, promising them a spectacular view of Kilimanjaro and the route we would be taking the following day. Sadly though the clouds once again refused to cooperate and having trudged for an hour up the hills there wasn’t a glimpse of the mountain to be seen at all!

Trudging past glaciers on the way to the summit. Photo: The Askari Project

oxygen deprivation for a number of the group really kicks in.

Day five dawns; we have a long day ahead of us, we need to reach base camp, at Kibo Huts, as early as possible in order to ‘rest up’, because, just before midnight tonight, we will set off for the summit. After a relatively short, undulating walk across moorland, we have a long haul across the ‘saddle’, the flat, barren, desolate area between Mawenzi and the Kibo crater. The path to the summit is clearly visible and, for many of the group, it appears terrifyingly vertical… reality starts to set in. The last hour of the walk is a relentless slog as oxygen deprivation for a number of the group really kicks in.

This is it…

Arriving at Kibo base camp in time for lunch and a summit briefing, everyone is a little subdued. Lunch, a nap, a light dinner, another nap (or at least some fitful snoozing!) then at 11pm it is time to wake up. This is it…

A cup of tea and a few biscuits later, I line them all up for a few last minute instructions and then we are off, at midnight, up a zigzagging route on the slippery shale slope.

The Milky Way lights the night skies above Kilimanjaro. Photo: Bobby-Jo Vial

In the dark, with only our head torches lighting the way, I can hear rasping breaths all around me. It’s a crisp clear night, the stars seem very close and the moon is full. It takes a while for the group to get into ‘climbing mode’; heads down, focusing on the feet of the person in front, not looking up, down or sideways. The cold bites hard, temperatures are around -10deg C. All around I can see the head torches of other climbing groups strung out along the trail like fairy lights.

Plodding on for what will ultimately be nearly eight hours, the team finally reached the top. Unfurling the banners they have brought with them, they pose for photographs to prove they have conquered the mountain and, quite literally, have the world at their feet! Everyone savours the moment. I’m sure they all felt it was hellish at times, and their bodies certainly took a hammering, but they are have achieved what they set out to do and raised both awareness and funds for the future of the continent’s elephants.

On the summit at last. Photo: The Askari Project

2019 will see a team from The Askari Project climbing Kilimanjaro again to raise funds for elephant conservation. This time they will be accompanied by renowned wildlife photographer, Bobby-Jo Vial and will be joining forces Kope Lion (www.kopelion.org), who strive to foster human-lion coexistence in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. , where intensifying human-wildlife conflict has been tough on the lions and where in the past few decades lions have begun to disappear from their former ranges separating the famous Ngorongoro Crater lions from the Serengeti.

Iconic Tsavo Tuskers. Photo: The Askari Project

The future of wildlife is in our hands. Their survival depends on generous supporters, so please assist these projects, however, whenever and wherever you can…If you would like to join the 2019 Kilimanjaro climb to raise funds for The Askari Project and Kope Lion please contact [email protected]

For more information about or to donate to the projects supported by the Askari Project’s Kilimanjaro expedition please visit:

The Askari Project, The Tsavo Trust, and Kope Lion.

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Expeditions

May 21, 2019

Field Notes: Solo Ultra-Running the High Himalaya

Peter Van Geit, wilderness explorer, ultra-runner, Founder of the Chennai Trekking Club, shares the field notes from his 1500 km alpine-style run across 40 high altitude passes the Himalaya.

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WRITTEN BY

Peter Van Geit

During the summer of 2018, I completed a three-month journey across 40 high altitude passes in Spiti, Pangi, Chamba, Kinnaur, Shimla and Kangra districts of Himachal, in the Himalaya. As always, I ran alpine style, which means self-navigated and with minimal gear through forests, alpine meadows, moraines, glaciers, snow and wild streams. Although I did meet up with a few friends for portions of the journey, my mostly solo exploration took me to many lesser known passes only used by shepherds including Chobia, Chaini, Kugti, Pratap Jot, Thamsar, Kaliheni, Lar La, Padang La and Buran to name a few.

In the following collection of photos and captions, I jumped districts and valleys across the Pir Panjal, Dauladhar and Baspa ranges traversing through the picturesque valleys of Pangi, Saichu, Sural, Miyar, Hudan, Chandra, Tsarap, Zanskar, Lingthi, Lugnak, Lug, Barot, Ravi, Pin, Parbati, Baspa, Chenab, Buddhil Nai, Pabbar, Chamba and Spiti.

The journey was one of stunning natural beauty, hospitality beyond words and overwhelming vastness of remote out-of-this-world landscapes.

Several weeks went into planning the route, analyzing maps including OSM (Open Street Maps), SOI (Survey of India), Google Earth, Olizane and various reference blogs. Credit goes to Sathya Narayanan who inspired me through his solo trekking explorations and wonderful blog before he went missing last August. Also thanks to my close friend Maniraj who identified many trails. Navigation (and photography) was done with my OnePlus 6 mobile and offline OpenTopoMaps. A total elevation gain of 200,000 meters with seven passes above 5,000 meters and 21 passes above 4,000 meters. Being an ultra runner and minimalist, carrying only 6kg luggage, most of the pass crossings were done in just one to two days after initial acclimatization, covering 30-40 km every day. The remaining time I traveled on HPRTC buses in between sections. The journey went across colorful alpine meadows, high altitude desert, vast glaciers, wild stream crossings, huge moraines, steep landslide-prone valley slopes, a few technical climbs and wilderness navigation near a few unused trails.

On many nights, I overnight camped in the tent I carried with me, but many times I stayed in shelters with shepherds and mountain tribes and in many welcoming homes at remote, hospitable villages. My food packing was kept basic with no cooking tools to reduce weight. No technical gear was carried except for a pair of hiking poles to assist in crossing streams, ice slopes, and landslides. The journey was one of stunning natural beauty, hospitality beyond words and overwhelming vastness of remote out-of-this-world landscapes. I indulged in lip-smacking local cuisine, encountered hikers and wildlife in the remotest corners of the Himalaya, and listened to beautiful music on local instruments. More details on passes, route, preparation, photos, and videos of my journey can be found at ultrajourneys.org.

Saichu Valley Apline Meadow, Pangi

Traversing beautiful alpine meadows dotted with pink and yellow flowers in the remote Saichu Valley in Pangi beyond the last village of Tuan. These higher altitude meadows of Saichu are grazed by many herds of the shepherds who migrate each summer from Chamba valley through one of the many passes across the Pir Panjal range. Here on the way to explore an unknown jot (5,260 m) trying to cross over from Saichu to Miyar valley.

Shepherd descending from the Kugti pass (5,040 m)

Descending from the Kugti pass (5,040 m) with a shepherd guiding his 500 sheep into the beautiful cloud indulged Chamba valley below. Kugti is one of the several passes across the Pir Panjal range used by shepherds for their annual migration to graze the high altitude meadows. Here we are crossing over from Rapay village along the Chenab river in Lahaul to the picturesque Kugti village in Bharmour, Chamba. The Kugti pass requires traversing of moraines and landslide-prone slopes on either side of the pass.

High altitude meadows of the Miyar valley

Bright red alpine flowers in the high altitude meadows (4200m) of the Miyar valley while descending the Pratap Jot (5,100 m) pass onto the moraines of the Kang La glacier. Pratap Jot is one of the several passes across the Pir Panjal range separating the Miyar and Saichu valleys. Around 10 shepherds and their 3000+ sheep graze the beautiful meadows of Saichu valley every year crossing one of these passes. The 25km long Kang La glacier seen here connects Lahual/Pangi with Zanskar, Ladakh – walking across this vast moraines landscape of huge boulders and rocks on top of melting ice is quite challenging.

Best friends in the mountains

“The warmest hospitality can be found in the most remote corners of our planet.”

Your best friends in the mountains – the gaddi’s! Here preparing hot chai, fluffy roti and yummy aloo gravy for two starved (and half frozen) travelers after an icy crossing of the Rupin pass with heavy snowfall and hazel during mid-September 2018. The shepherds leave home at the start of summer in May and cross several high altitude passes to graze their large herds of 300 to 600 sheep and goats in the remotest corners of the Himalaya returning only six months later in Sep-Oct. Every few weeks they descend to the nearest village to resupply rice, atta and other food items. They use home woven blankets and clothing to stay warm in their temporary shelters in the alpine meadows between 3,000 to 4,000 meters altitude. The warmest hospitality can be found in the most remote corners of our planet.

Chobia pass glacier

A heavily crevassed glacier as seen from the top of the Chobia pass (4,966 m), shepherd gateway across the Pir Panjal range separating the valleys of Lahaul/Pangi and Chamba. As per shepherds, the Chobia pass is the second most treacherous pass (after Kalicho) to cross the Pir Panjal range leaving around 20 out of 500 sheep dead during the annual crossing of this pass. From the Pangi side at Arat village along the Chenab river, one has to traverse steep landslide-prone valley slopes, a vast section of moraines and negotiate deep crevasses in the glacier (following a trail of sheep poop) before ascending a final steep rock to reach the narrow pass. On the Chamba side on the way to Seri Kao village, all bridges were washed away during flash floods in August 2018 requiring scaling steep trail-less slopes on one side of the valley unable to cross the forceful stream currents.

Fresh glacial snow near the Pin Parbati pass (5,300 m)

Fresh snow on top of the glacier near the Pin Parbati pass (5,300 m) in September 2018. The pass was first crossed in 1884 by Sir Louis Dane in search for an alternate route to the Spiti valley. The pass connects the fertile and lush green Parbati valley on the Kullu side with the barren high altitude desert of Spiti near Mud village. At the Parbati valley side, one encounters many shepherds and hikers on the way to the Mantalai lake and one can indulge in the scenic hot springs of Keerghanga. On the Pin valley side, the eye gets treated by the mesmerizing color shades of the valley slopes of the Spiti rock desert.

Tso Mesik ghost town

“Was survival of the harsh life in this barren high altitude desert too tough?”

Tso Mesik, one of the many ghost towns one encounters along the remote Tsarap river valley while hiking from the Gata loops (Manali-Leh highway) in Lahaul towards Phuktal gompa in Zanskar, Ladakh. What appears to be once thriving settlements with beautifully constructed homes, surrounded by fertile farming fields have been abandoned for many years. Residents seem to have left in a hurry leaving everything behind. Was survival of the harsh life in this barren high altitude desert too tough, did a natural calamity (2014 floods) force them to leave, did the comforts of the city life tempt them to migrate or did their lifelines (water streams) dry up due to global warming and melting glaciers?

Ibex skull found on the Lar La pass (4,670 m)

An ibex skull on the Lar La pass (4,670 m) deep inside the Zanskarian mountains in Ladakh on the way from Phuktal to Zangla. The entire journey involves crossing two other passes including Rotang La (4,900 m) and Padang La (5,170 m). On the way one passes through Shade village, one of the most remote settlements in Zanskar, being two days away from the nearest road head. Between Lar La and Padang La, I encountered yak herders grazing remote alpine meadows in this barren desert, producing 100 liters of milk from as many domesticated yaks every day, also producing butter and cheese. The same is transported using donkeys, horses and yaks to Shade village to survive the six months of total isolation during winter. All animals are carefully kept in enclosures at night, safe from nocturnal attacks by the elusive snow leopard.

Beneath the milky way at the base of the Phirtse La pass (5,560 m)

Dreaming beneath the milky way at the base of the Phirtse La pass (5,560 m), the highest of the 40 passes crossed in this trans-Himalayan journey, the Phirtse La connects Tangze village in Zanskar with Sarchu in Lahaul. The starlit skies were captured on my OnePlus 6 phone with 30 seconds exposure trying hard not to freeze off my butt in that very cold night at 4,700 m. The pass connects the Southern most section of the Zanskar valley which is dotted with many beautiful small settlements like Testa, Kuru, Tangze, Kargyak, small fertile patches in the barren desert of Ladakh. On the other side, one descends into the beautiful Lingthi valley encountering shepherds and wild yaks on the way to Sarchu where it joins the Tsarap river.

Menthosa peak, 6,443 meters

Menthosa peak, at 6,443 m, the second highest peak in Lahaul and Spiti, as seen from an unknown pass (5,300 m) while crossing over the Pir Panjal range from Saichu to Miyar valley in Pangi. Menthosa is situated in the Urgos Nallah, a tributary of the exceptionally beautiful Miyar Nallah. Here climbing up steeply from the beautiful alpine meadows of the Saichu Nallah beyond the last settlement of Tuan across vast stretches of moraines towards Great Himalayan Range to enter Miyar valley.

Trapped in a fog whiteout

“I got trapped in a sudden dense fog whiteout in the late afternoon at 4,100 meters and lost the trail.”

One of the most intense experiences during my journey. While descending from the Chobia pass, the most dangerous in the 40 crossed, I got trapped in a sudden dense fog whiteout in the late afternoon at 4,100 meters and lost the trail used by shepherds. Further descent was impossible being blocked by steep rock faces on all sides. Having lost my tent the previous day in the beautiful Miyar valley, I spend that night wrapped up beneath a small tarpaulin sheet braving the cold rains, while trying not to slide down from the inclined slope. Next morning the sunrise cleared up the fog and I was treated to a stunning view of the green Chamba valley below. One hour later and 500 meters lower I was enjoying a hot cup of chai and alloo roti in the first shepherd shelter on my way out.

Award-winning documentary

Upon returning, I shared all of the footage from my journey that I took with my OnePlus 6 and shared it with my friend Neil D’Souza, who compiled it into a short film which won the Best Mountain Exploration Film Award at the IMF Mountain film festival.

For more information on Peter’s journeys, visit ultrajourneys.org.

Instagram: @petervangeit
Facebook: @PeterVanGeit

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