Ain’t no mountain high if you are ready to face your fear: Dr. Anindita Bhateja’s journey to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro
“To escape fear, you have to go through it, and not around it.” Riche Norton’s words resonate in my head as Dr. Anindita Bhateja shares her journey of overcoming fear.
It was a grueling 48 hours atop Mt. Kilimanjaro, where, though pushed to the edge, Dr. Anindita overcame her fears and rediscovered humanity. A few seconds is what stands between death and us and no one understands the value of time than the doctors who undergo this battle on a daily basis. But what happens when a doctor’s life is hanging by the thread? Dr. Anindita found herself holding precariously to a sliver of life, on her first attempt to scale Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Born to doctor parents and married to one, Dr. Anindita’s early years were spent in Patna, where she did her schooling from Notre Dame Academy. Married into a family of doctors, and being surrounded by doctors all her life makes her a very calm and composed individual. “In the face of emergencies at home, or work, I am never rattled.”
Perhaps the only thing that rattles her is her fear of heights and this is how she overcame it:
The first steps
Her early steps steps didn’t lead her to hiking or climbing but walking and half-marathons for even walking was a difficult activity for her.
It all started with her husband Dr. Arvind Bhateja’s decision to run a half-marathon.“I was heavy then and though I had lost some weight post pregnancy, I still had trouble walking. So when I heard from him that a half-marathon covered 21.5km, I exclaimed that I don’t even drive that much,” Dr. Anindita quips. However, her husband had a knee injury so he had to give up on the half-marathon and took to cycling. When he cycled in Cubbon Park in Bengaluru with their two children, Dr. Anindita took to walking. “It was tough for me, I took 45 minutes to do 2-2.5km,” she says.
The slow and steady win the race and so Dr. Aninita took one step at a time. In 2009, at the age of 39 she ran her first half-marathon because of the encouragement she received from her friend. Despite the self-doubt, she managed to complete it in four hours.
However, she recalls that her initial reaction was not of jubilation but anger. “I was angry at myself for having taken so much time and I decided to never do it again. It took around 15 days for me to cool off and savour the sense of achievement.” Till date, Dr. Anindita has run 12 half marathons across the world. She has done two in USA and one in Edinburgh and New Zealand each.
This set the tone for her to turn towards her biggest challenge – conquering her fear of heights.
In 2014, on a trip to Bhutan with her husband and daughter she went atop Tiger’s Nest. It was an experience that pushed her to overcome her fear of heights. “It was like climbing the Mt. Everest for me. My head would spin every time I looked down. It took me six-and-a-half hours instead of four-and-a-half. My daughter held on to my hand for three hours while I cried, got angry and even threw up. I felt bad for what my husband and daughter had to go through because of me. So I decided to change that.”
Dr. Anindita started reading up on mountaineering and the necessary skills required for it. For a novice like her, Mt. Kilimanjaro presented a perfect case. “It is one of the seven mountains of the worlds. It’s the peak of Africa and is 19,341 feet to be precise so I said, ‘let’s go to Kilimanjaro’,” she says.
One goal, one mission
Dr. Anindita set out to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro early this year with a group of individuals with the same mission. The climb lasted from January 27 to Feburary 2. She says, “I knew it was not going to be an easy climb. I had started worrying and fretting about it a month before. I was very petrified about what was going to happen.”
Given her fear of heights and spending a month clobbered by anxiety, she was already worried about the climb. “To keep myself motivated and going I told myself, I would take one step at a time and one camp at a time,” she says.
The group took the Kilimanjaro Machame route. Being the only one in the group without mountaineering and trekking experience, it was a huge challenge for her from day one. During the trek she also had to climb through a 5km-long straight wall, a result of a landslide years ago. This wall tested her strength and determination to the core.
It was in that one week that she overcame her fears and found humanity –both atop Mt. Kilimanjaro. Two men in the group, Prosper Peter Malando and Frank Jumbe, who were professional mountaineers with over 15 years of experience, came to her rescue.
What takes people four hours took me 12 hours and every step of the way I had no energy in my bones; I could not walk, I thought I would die of exhaustion but – Frank and Peter kept me going. My life was in their hands. There were times when the climb was so narrow that they asked me to step on their foot and then walk over the narrow bits. Who does that for a stranger?
Given that mountainous terrain is not hundred percent safe and there is some element of risk involved, especially while climbing a straight wall tested all of Dr. Anindita’s mettle. Her fear of heights, lack of skill, and a risky climb combined to test her spirit and stamina. Places where the trail was narrow or difficult at that height made things difficult.
It was Peter and Frank’s patience and their generosity that saw them help her climb through. “For more than 48 hours, I was alone with them, safe and comfortable in their company. So much so that when we made it to the last camp, they fed me from their plates because I was so exhausted that I could not even eat food and drink water.”
She had made it to the last camp and since the exhaustion was extreme, she decided to not summit. It’s a decision she hasn’t regretted for she discovered two wonderful souls and a country she loves like her own. In a strange land she had found people who had supported her through a very tough and tiring time.
On top finally
After she got back to Bengaluru she kept on thinking about going back and summiting. So in June this year she went back with another friend and with the help of Peter and Frank she reached the top. No small feat at 46. She says,
The feeling was exhilarating. I had overcome fear last time round, and since I was familiar with the route there was no discomfort when I climbed the second time round.
Not only did she make it to the top she decided to share this experience with millions of people back home. “If I could do it others could too and that with the help of two amazing people like Peter and Frank.”
That is when she decided to start Afrikan Adventure.
Afrikan Adventure is an adventure company that helps to plan and assist treks to Kilimanjaro. Registered in Tanzania, she did the initial investment required for setting up the website and registering the company. Peter and Frank are an integral part of the company and accompany the individuals and groups who register.
“We offer options for people who are at different levels of fitness. Our guides know every bush and boulder along the route having spent most of their lives in Tanzania and dedicated it to Kilimanjaro. They lead teams of outstanding porters, cooks and aides to ensure absolute safety and comfort for every one of our clients.”
Given that climbing is a time and money-consuming activity, Dr. Anindita and her team are aware that things will pick up slowly.
Afrikan Adventure is her first step towards giving back to the community and helping others discover Mt. Kilimanjaro.
I want to go back and help the people there, putting my medical knowledge to good use and supporting the children through my alma mater Notre Dame Academy which has a branch in Tanzania.
For Dr. Anindita , who is based out of Bengaluru, Tanzania has become like her second home. Not only has she fallen in love with the country and its people she also has received a lot of love and gratitude. In a world defined by aggression, drive, competition and negativity, Dr. Anindita discovered humanity, compassion and benevolence among strangers in the process of facing and overcoming her fears.