How the loss of her father led UAE-based radio personality Malavika Varadan to summit Mt Kilimanjaro

Watching her father die of cancer, bound to a wheelchair after a paralytic stroke led her to summit the highest mountain in Africa

By Malavika Varadan

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Published: Fri 17 Mar 2023, 12:42 AM

I had decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in the summer of 2022. I lost my father on the 1st of February 2022. He had fought cancer for 6 years and after a paralytic stroke in 1996 was bound to a wheelchair for 25 years of his, and my life. He was my very best friend, and my home. I was 9 when he had the stroke and had spent most of my life seeing the man I loved and admired the most in the world confined to a metal chair.

I decided that I would spend his 1st death anniversary celebrating what it meant to be able to move. I would draw on his strength and his silent power. I would imagine every time he saw a beautiful mountain landscape on television and wished he could go, but could not.

I decided to climb a mountain as a sort of pilgrimage for the religiously confused, a way to navigate grief through physical effort - for I know that whenever I felt at my absolute lowest, somehow I found my way back to me, through my body.

This journey gave me all that and more.

We did it.

This picture was taken at 6:54 am at 5895 metres above sea level, on the highest free standing mountain in the world. Mt Kilimanjaro.

It had been by far, the most grueling, difficult 7 days of my life. Difficult mentally, physically and emotionally. We climbed about 70 km, we trekked 6-8 hours every day in cold, rain, hail and burning winter sun.

What you see here is a picture taken on summit morning. We had started our climb at 11 pm the previous night. We were in ski gloves and ski pants, with a minimum 3 layers on every extremity. I could not take my hands out of the gloves to wipe my nose, and one of our summit porters had to do it for me.

It was a full moon night and -10 degrees celcius. The wind ripped through the air, howling into our ears.

All we could see through our head lamp was the feet in front of us, a bright, silver globe in the sky and the shimmering lights of Moshi city below us. The mountain was but an unseen monster to conquer, an outline in silver light.

The thud of our poles hitting rock. One breath. Exhale. Step. Step. Breathe. Step step. Thud. Comically slow. Somehow, when I had imagined this night from the comforts of my bed in Dubai, I thought it would be more dramatic, maybe involve some hanging from a belt or clawing at a rock, but all it was was a slow, rhythmic, difficult one foot ahead of the next.

Sean, our leader, broke our journey up into 60 minute chunks. Every 60 minutes he would shout how far we had ascended and how far we had to go. Every 60 minutes we had 4 minutes to sit, drink, ‘use the washroom’ (A rock), snack or just take it in and we would have to line up again, army style, bags on ready to move.

The first hour we smiled, nervously.

The second hour, our desi bunch started to sing old bollywood favorites barely breathing through "Zindagi ek safar hai suhana"

The third hour we tried distracting ourselves with banter, tired chatter over the audible sounds of struggle.

The fourth hour - by 3 am, we had no energy left. We just walked on.

I was in conversation with my mind. Don't stop. Don't you dare stop. You will not give up. Faith and positivity. One foot ahead of the next. You will not be defeated by exhaustion. Mind over body. I reminded myself that I was the daughter of my parents - whose had starred hardship in the eye, never once flinching - I would draw on the knowledge that what ran through their veins, ran through mine. That I was made of the same stuff.

Still I rise, still I rise, still I rise. Still like dust I rise.

The master of my fate and the captain of my soul.

My favorite poets echoing in my ears.

The last hour of darkness was the hardest.

It felt as if we had been doing this forever. No end in sight. The volcanic ash and altitude making it hard to breathe. Our balaclavas wet from our running noses and wet mouths. The moon refusing to set. The sun refusing to rise.

Finally at 5 am we hit the crater rim. Stella point. 5600 metres. To our right - the tall, charcoal black mountains, like coffee powder, so smooth it could crumble if you touched it. Over it, silver, glistening snow like vanilla ice cream. To our right the glaciers that we are told won't last the decade - and behind us, the crack of dawn.

The sun rises differently at 5800 metres. In our cities, the sun rises and sets into the land or sea, but from the mountain that morning - it looked as if the sky had literally cracked open

Like a trap door.

Like an eye.

The sun shone and the landscape was suddenly colored a bright orange. Humans, rocks, glaciers, all of it.

And slowly, as slowly as an unfurling leaf the sun rose and we reached Uhuru peak.

At 6:54 am.

I got there and simply fell to the floor weeping. Partly because I was so exhausted, partly because I was so overwhelmed by finally achieving the goal I had set out to, so many months ago, partly because the beauty of this mountain was just so overwhelming.

How wonderful this earth is. How strong our bodies are. How powerful we can be,

yet how vulnerable we can feel. The smallness and the bigness of who we are.

If you have even for one second considered climbing a mountain, I suggest you do. Don’t wait. Do it. Of course it is a physical feat that takes training, discipline and patience but even more it reminds me of so many fundamental truths of being human.

I chose Kilimanjaro based entirely on an ex-colleagues account of his journey. Sid, my friend and co-host on radio, had said that when he looked up at the starlit sky on the night of his summit, it had fundamentally changed him inside, and that was enough for me to make up my mind. While other mountains and expeditions - like Everest Base camp had been widely advertised, it felt like Kilimanjaro would be somehow, easier. Though, experts say they are more or less similar in difficulty.

From the day I signed up, in July of 2022, to the day of summit, on February 6th I worked on my goal every day. Climbing the stairs of my 7 storey apartment, up and down and up and down, at 5 am in the morning. Training at the neighborhood gym - strengthening my legs and my endurance. And walking, a few times a week with a backpack weighing 6 kilos.

There were several companies offering the Kilimanjaro expedition, but I chose Summit Expedition because it was run by an inspiring woman called Caroline, whose story I had heard and was moved tremendously by. I am glad I went with them, because not once on this journey, did I feel like my safety and comfort - both mental and physical - was not considered a priority.

Most of all, I came back from Kilimanjaro with a renewed sense of courage, and a few lessons and observations that pervaded the way I navigate my regular days:

That there are still places in this world where our credit cards and business cards mean nothing. Where our lungs and our hearts are what take us to the finish line. That when you are cold, and tired and struggling to find your strength, a stranger will walk past you and give you a word of encouragement. This is the magic of being human. That a porter by the name of Innocent wiped my tears on summit night, gave me a bottle of water to drink and told me I would be ok if I carried on, and though he is such an integral part of this core memory, I will probably never meet him again.

That I went on this mountain craving a kind of solitude, a lonely grief. But I found friends, I found the magic of song, I found that the simple joy of singing and dancing can get us through our darkest moments, literally.

A life in this city can very quickly turn into a hamster wheel - of bills and schedules, of social media, of transactions and of responsibilities. And somewhere between our remittances and our rent, we forget that there is a world out there where the parameters by which we measure the meaning of our lives are different. It’s important for us, every one of us, to find a way to step off our hamster wheel once in a while - and to take a step back, or a step up in this case, and view our lives through a different lens. To come back to ourselves with a renewed sense of passion - and a deep, deep belief that we truly are capable of conquering the mountains that life places before us - with faith, humility, determination and hard work

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