The Kilimanjaro of 74-year-old Giannis Karadoukas
The true story of a man who met his true youth at the top of Africa.
Since 2015, when I decided to pursue my dreams, mountains have been winking at me, inviting me to meet them like never before. There, is where I discover myself. This is how I become wiser and stronger every day.
And I write these to you without the slightest trace of arrogance, as I feel that the mountains transmit to me, in their own way, the wisdom of nature. Which if each one of us, is silent toward her, she will whisper and share with us her secrets.
(View from the top of Μt.Kilimanjaro)
And it is this sharing that makes me wanting to continue to climb high by having people next to me, who never before thought of climbing a mountain, and now they are standing on their own top, gazing at the vast horizons in contentment and confidence.
Neither record making nor the age challenge become the real reason I love to help people like Giannis.
(Me and Giannis during hiking in Greece)
What motivates me is the way I feel when I look at the flooded by tears eyes of people when they finally reach their top. In Giannis story, that happened on the top of Kilimanjaro when after climbing for 7 hours nonstop, I said to him: "We did it!".
There, at almost 6,000m, with -25C and a wind pounding us incessantly for hours, with our breath taken due to lack of oxygen, I felt such satisfaction seeing in front of me a man who at the age of 74 was actually reborn. He flooded in on a dreamy morning, as if life were just beginning for him.
On the roof of Africa, I realized that it is worthwhile to keep trying to motivate as many people as I can and make them see that if they really believe in their dreams and take action, anything is possible.
The proof stood right next to me, alive and excited, named Giannis Karadoukas.
(Taking the last steps before the summit)
The beginning of the journey
All these wonders started two years ago, when I received a message on my cell phone, by him. Giannis introduced himself by describing the feelings and thoughts I created to him when he first heard my story about climbing Mount Everest in 2017.
He was so inspired by the power of my soul and shared his desire to hike together at some point. Until that day, John had nothing to do with climbing high mountains. He just used to trek with friends on low mountain trails, near his area.
After a while we met on one of the hikes, I co-organize with the Hiking Association "Dromeas Thrace", he confessed to me something that shocked me.
And I will never forget, watching his face, full of passion and also a suspicion of shyness, saying to me: "Kiki, I feel that all these years I lived, it was as if I was constantly gathering woods, log-log, as if I was preparing to light a fire. For some inexplicable reason, however, I could not find matches or a lighter. I was just picking woods. And then you came and at once lit your match and the spark gave its flames, enlightened my whole world! ".
I confess that this metaphor of his, about our acquaintance moved me deeply. I felt exactly what he was experiencing since exactly the same thing had happened to me when in 2014, I attended the speech of my mentor and trainer, the Indian Mountaineer, Satyabrata Dam; my beloved Satya.
At the same time, I experienced a sense of responsibility to meet his expectations. I had in front of me a man who in the eighth decade of his life was looking at me with the look of a teenager asking me to help him achieving his unique dream; to step on his own top.
And in fact, in the very near future, since for him time was really precious. When you are born in the 40's you do not postpone anything for the next day.
(Glacier and shadow of Kili´s peak)
Desires, principles and dangerous paths
I neglected to mention that the wish of Giannis, as he expressed it to me, is to climb as many high mountains as he can. Great dream that creates a really great goal, but very vague.
The latter had to be concretized and clarified. After all, this is the basic principle of the realization of everything.
So, with Satya’s help, we set a plan of action and ascents in the mountains in Greece, enriching it with daily exercise to improve Giannis fitness and to strengthen his muscular system.
When the crew arrived, the first really high mountain we decided to climb together was Kilimanjaro, in 2018. In Tanzania, therefore, the requirements to rise six kilometers above sea level, with an atmosphere so thin due to lack of oxygen that even experienced climbers are losing for their steps and breath.
The questions arise were reasonable and multi-layered when I was thinking about my first time on a mountain over 5,000 meters.
Was a man with a degree of experience like him and the given age, dragged on dangerous paths by the common passion and enthusiasm of the three of us?
On the other hand, I had read about the stories of the people who climbed Mount Everest at the age of 85. With proper preparation, strong will and enough amount of good luck I thought we would succeed.
About two months after the day Giannis trusted his life to me, I found myself leading along with Satya, a small group of peoplewho wanted to reach Everest base camp (5,400m) in Nepal.
(Everest Base Camp, 5400m)
The 11-day high-altitude hike was a good test to check his physical condition as well as the physiology of his body in situations unprecedented for him. It was, after all, an ideal training for him in conditions of reduced oxygen, acclimatization and life at high altitude.
About this adventure at Everest Base Camp, I will write another time in future. As for now, what I need to share is that Giannis not only managed to reach comfortably at 5,400 meters at Everest Base Camp (EBC) - as it is called -faced with awe and a childish enthusiasm the mythical peak of Everest, but also climbed his first mountain peak, Kala Pattar, at 5,643m, there in the Himalayan mountain range.
(Trekking towards EBC, surrounded by the Great Himalayas peaks)
Note that, even though hiking at EBC does not require any mountaineering skills to complete, the success rate though is not as high as expected, in terms of a hike. On the contrary, every year many hikers are hospitalized in Kathmandu, with severe symptoms of hypoxia, and several deaths are reported too.
So, having in front of me a man, who showed me how deeply determined he is, I start organizing our trip to Tanzania. After completing 14 months of joint preparation, the 24th of December 2019 finds us at the sunny Moshi (Kilimanjaro International Airport), feeling the humidity of the tropical environment in every single pore of our body.
Everything here is different; the atmosphere, the landscape, the people, even the sense of Christmas, since the traditional Christmas trees, decorated with colorful lights, adorn tropical gardens, hit by the relentless African sun and not by the delicate snowflakes. Here temperature, even during nighttime, never drops below 35C.
The whole expedition will last at least 10 days. The route we have chosen to climb, is probably the most impressive and the most beautiful, while it also offers the opportunity of an ideal acclimatization, which increases the chances of success climb to the top.
Its name is Lemosho and it starts from the Londorossi Gate at 2,360 meters, which you reach after a few hours of driving from Moshi. Thus, stepping on the western slope of Kilimanjaro, the route leads us to Shira Plateau.
From here begins the adventure of an ascent that on its way meets all climatic zones - from low alpine meadows to the eternal glaciers at the top. In Kilimanjaro the hike is smooth and escalates without technical difficulties.
Your constant companion here is the struggle in breathing into the thin air, a situation with which you coexist from the moment you cross 3,000 meters.
Having enough experience in high mountains, I know how to manage the lack of oxygen, in contrast to Giannis, who is unrestrainedly excited, looking forward to moving steadily higher and higher.
But this can be the beginning of the end of his journey since the high mountains require patience and discipline.
"Shall we not go any further?"
The ascent to the altitude must be done with inviolable time reverence, without overestimations and amateurism, giving our body the necessary time to acclimatize and begin the overproduction of red blood cells that we will need as the atmospheric pressure decreases with oxygen.
Every now and then I remind Giannis to breathe deeply and drink water (part of the acclimatization process) which means at least 4-5 liters per day
Daily ascent of about 6-8 kilometers gives us about 600 - 700 meters of altitude, a process that takes 5-6 hours at a time.
Giannis is always impatient every time we arrive at the next camp where we will spend the night, asking: "Will we not go any further? That was all for today?
He feels strong and with his spirit focused on the goal, he has inexhaustible energy.
Shows good acclimatization elements, enjoying the local cuisine offered to us daily by the support team and sleeps satisfactorily given the conditions, ie for the first time in a tent, on a thin mattress on the stony ground, at temperatures ranging from 0C to -15C during night and with the mind anxious about the challenges he will face the next day.
Here in Kilimanjaro, in each organized expedition, the hiring of a full support team is mandatory, ie porters, cooks, kitchen assistants, and even mountain guides, regardless of the client's experience. It is a Government´s rule in order to support the local economy.
(Porters and climbers, hiking towards the high camps)
The wages of these porters and the support team are of course low in relatio to the volume of work and compared to other world mountaineering destinations, but they are still the only income for them and their families.
In Tanzania the porters come from many different tribes and among them are the well-known Masai people with their peculiar appearance that includes, among other things, huge holes in the lobes of their ears and collars on their neck.
They are very strong, permanently smiling and willing to show you the famous traditional dance of their adulthood which includes admirable vertical jumps.
Giannis struggles daily to memorize phrases taught to him by our new Maasai friends, yet the result is not the best always making the rest of us bursting into laughter, teasing him. The only phrase he finally manages to pronounce after many repetitions is the famous "Hakuna Matata", which means "No Problem".
During these eight days in the mountain, Giannis showed the real material from which he is made off. I never heard him complaining about the adverse conditions we encountered or about the constant exhaustion he felt from the low oxygen levels, nor about the bitter cold during the summit day, which actually begins early at midnight, when the air is still icy and the temperature reaches -30C.
This day, is a big and demanding day, as we start from the Barafu base camp at 4,673 meters, and at around 11 pm to 12 midnight we make the final ascent of about 6-7 hours to the top of Uhuru, at 5,895 meters.
From there, add another 5-7 hours for the descent, to reach Mweka camp at 3,068 meters where we will spend the night.
In other words, we are talking about an altitude difference of four kilometers in a course lasting and about 12-14 hours of hiking in adverse conditions.
Most inexperienced climbers, when making their first climb during the night, are experiencing a strong anxiety about what they are going to face into the darkness, while feeling the harsh cold air on their exposed face. Same happened with Giannis. Deep into his eyes, along with the longing of completing his dream there was also an obvious doubt, which in turn was soothed by Satya´s and mine constant presence next to him.
The final push.
The terrain of the last day is quite different from what we have trodden so far. We are no longer hiking, but we are required to climb rocky volcanic slopes which reach even 50 degrees.
The result is that your breathing is literally cut short every time you break away from the steadily slow ascent, which at sea level would seem outrageously slow.
Up here, however, is the marginal rate at which you can still hardly breathe and continue walking with your teeth clenched and hoping to be at the coveted peak soon. Satya gives the rhythm in front, followed by Giannis, with me last right behind him, with my ear constantly listening to his breathing.
I'm worried we are going fast enough for his potential and I urge Satyas to slow down every time Gianni´s breathing becomes irregular. At this point we meet several groups that take the road back before they even reach the top, as some members obviously could not continue anymore.
Exhaustion, the unprecedented experience for many and this coldness that freezes the blood in your extremities, making the mind play strange games, very often make the way back seem the only logical direction.
Our pace is steady and somewhat faster than the average of the other teams around us. That makes me happy.It shows that Giannis is still strong and that we will finish without surprises.
I watch him closely behind him and admire him, because even in the last meters before the peak, where fatigue and exhaustion reach their maximum, causing the legs to stagger and the lungs to beg for a little more oxygen, the heart and the mind take the first floor. So, there I see Giannis standing tall, in full focus, continuing with firm steps on the ice and climbing higher and higher; step by step.
And so, slowly but in grace, on New Year's Day 2020, Giannis stepped on the highest peak in Africa.
And now, this incredible 74-year-old man, has become part of this wonderful universe we live in, where all the incredible, beautiful and impossible ones can become a reality, simply because you deeply believe in them.
C U ON TOP
Kiki Tsakaldimi, Mt. Kilimanjaro, 2020