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Interview with an adventurer – Shabbir Chandabhai, Kilimanjaro conqueror!

Shabbir Chandabhai is a Bombay boy who went to the US to study, got married, had two children, and is an architect. But that’s where his story diverges from the norm. He’s recently conquered Mt. Kilimanjaro, done some intense alpine climbing in the North Cascades, and is aiming at Everest next.

Shabbir took a break of 15 years (f-i-f-t-e-e-n y-e-a-r-s) to build the life he wanted, and then decided he missed the mountains too much. So he whipped himself back in shape, set his sights on Uhuru in Kilimanjaro, and found himself at the top of this towering giant one day.

Naturally, The Great Next couldn’t wait to hear from him.

Image credit: Shabbir Burhani

TGN: Tell us a little about yourself. What do you do for a living? What kind of adventures do you like? What do you do for fun?
SB: I have been a dreamer since childhood (no wonder I could never focus in school!) I dreamed about exploring the unknown, travelling to far off places, designing and building things. By profession I ended up being an architect, however I love reading, photography, and generally being outdoors. I love the urban environment, rather than the secluded suburbs and I have lived in mega cities all my life. Maybe that is why I love to get away to nature at the first opportunity. Growing up at sea level was fun; however I have always preferred the mountains to the beaches!

When I am not designing, I am usually lounging on my Eames chair reading or working in my backyard, sometimes I’m planning social events to meet family and friends; but at the back of my mind, I’m always working on a new plan to go ‘into the wild’.

TGN: Have you always been an adventurer? What inspired you to start?
SB: Not really. I was always an introvert as a child, loved to be home and play with Lego, rather than go out and play with friends in the park. However, my parents encouraged us to get outdoors. Once I remember getting a good scolding because I ventured out biking with some friends outside my residential colony, which was beyond my bounds. Maybe I should not have taken my mom’s words to “get outdoors” as literally.

My parents used to enroll us at YMCA summer camps, and we always had a ball of a time. Slowly we started going for camps to various hill stations around India, which was a huge inspiration for me to get out there with a bunch of new friends and explore.

TGN: Tell us about some of your most memorable early travel experiences.
SB: In my college days, we took a trip to Nepal, starting in Kathmandu, and driving to Pokhara. From Pokhara we could see the spectacular Annapurna range. After Nepal we ventured into Gangtok, Sikkim. That was the first time I saw Kanchenjunga with Makulu, Mt. Everest and Lhotse in the background. Now, I am not sure if it was good or bad, but viewing Everest from Tiger Hill was when the aim to try to climb Everest someday was born. I was always pretty good at geography in school, and all I could think when I saw Everest was of its height: 8848 metres.

On another camp to Uttarakhand, we had to pass a physical test to qualify for this camp in the high mountains. I completed the rigorous course around the hills of Belapur (New Bombay) with ease and qualified. From Shimla, we trekked higher to a remote village which was 9000 to 9500 ft above sea level. We learned some technical rock climbing, rappelling, tent pitching, and target shooting and did some unforgettable trekking on the hills in the vicinity. Trips like these were pretty much the foundation for my love of the hills and mountains.

Towards my final years in college, we ventured out on some other trips to Kullu, Manali and Shimla. Went up Rohtang Pass, Sela Pass, Changu lake and then another unforgettable trip to North-east India in 2000. We travelled all the way up to Tawang and Bomdila and trekked within that region close to the India-Burma and India-China border. The culture, the architecture and the landscape, a combination of all these made it a spectacular destination and ever since I have been longing to go back to the Himalayas.

Image credit: Shabbir Burhani

TGN: But then time went by?
SB: Yes. After college, it was time to graduate and build a career. I graduated and worked for 2 years in Mumbai and in 2002, headed to the US to get my Masters degree. Got married in 2003 to my amazing partner in crime, and have had 2 wonderful kids since then. Time flew by and I never got a chance to get back to climbing. Yes, we did do some camps, hikes and whitewater rafting, however nothing was an intense and challenging which I dreamt of. 15 years of my life just whizzed by….

TGN: And now you’ve climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Congratulations! How did that come about?
SB: In 2008, I happened to go to Tanzania for a wedding. That’s when I saw the spectacular Mt Meru. I’d been out of the game for a while, but the yearning for the mountains hit me hard again. I spent some time trying to work things out, and then finally decided to get back to it. I started small, joining a gym to do some cardio and weight training with a professional trainer. I got into running a few days a week as well. All the time, I could feel Kilimanjaro waiting. I asked family and friends if anyone was interested in climbing with me, but nothing really materialized. By some chance, I happened to mention to my trainer, Matt, that I was going to climb Kilimanjaro, no matter who joined me. And guess what? He decided he’d join me. We managed to gather another 9 members to climb with us.

So we trained for 4 months, 4 intense months of gruelling training, and then finally, set out in Feb 2016. On the 26th of Feb, all of us reached the top of Kilimanjaro, at a height of 19,341 feet.

Image credit: Shabbir Burhani

TGN: What did it take, getting to the top?
SB: In my teenage days I suffered from asthma. I had some severe lower back problems around 2009 which lingered for a few years. I wanted to challenge myself, test my body and soul, so to speak, and hence wanted to get back and climb. It was very challenging indeed, especially after 15 years. However, I loved the experience, which has been sort of a self-discovery for me and ever since then, it has got me to do more and challenge myself further not only in climbing but all aspects of life!

TGN: You’ve also done some crazy high-altitude climbs. Tell us about those. What’s the highest altitude you’ve been to?
SB: According to the definition, high altitude is between 5000-11500 feet, and very high altitude is 11500-18000 feet. In the lower Himalayas, I’ve been as high as 14,000 feet. But for the Kilimanjaro trek, we climbed to Uhuru Peak which is at 19,341 feet, with some Class 3 rock scrambling. In the North Cascades on Mt. Shuksan, I’ve climbed the summit pyramid at 9131 feet, which was tough because it was a mix of alpine climbing and technical rock climbing.

In the Cascades

In the Cascades

TGN: What’s the toughest trek/climb you’ve done?
SB: Since I intend to do some high altitude climbs around the world, training in an alpine setting was key. Thus based on recommendation from a trusted guiding company in the Pacific Northwest, we ventured into the North Cascades to climb Mt. Shuksan. It is not a very tall mountain, however was ideal to train in terms of glacier travel, cramponing, crevasse and self-rescue, etc. I must say, it was even so more challenging than Kili. I mean Kili had its own challenges; however Mt Shuksan is considered a pretty tough climb, especially the summit pyramid.

TGN: Tell us about Mt.Shuksan. That sounds interesting!
SB: This expedition started off with trailhead, approximately 2,500 feet in elevation. We climbed through dense forest and up into the alpine zone to camp at approximately 6,000 feet on the edge of the Sulphide Glacier. A long day with 50 lb. packs, 5-7 hours in duration, probably the hardest day of the trip. We set camp on the glacier, carving out an even ledge on the snowfield. Day 2 was a training day and we learned several very important aspects of climbing in that environment which would be key for our bid to the summit. On Day 3, we had a really early breakfast, geared and roped up and started out before sun rise. We travelled through various steep sections of the hill and dodged our way up, avoiding crevasses. We saw a spectacular sunrise in the midst of the beautiful mountain ranges of the cascades as we took our first break around 7500 feet.

Sunrise in the Cascades

Sunrise in the Cascades

We chugged along higher and got to the base of the summit pyramid which is a massive 800 feet of vertical rock wall. This was the most challenging part for me, due to my lack of experience on technical rock climbing. However, with the help of our great guides, we removed our crampons and commenced our assault on the rock wall via a section called the gulley. We must have climbed 600 feet of this wall when we came to a very difficult section, everyone moved ahead, except me. I just couldn’t lift my legs to complete that crazy manoeuvre to go to the next rock. It was killing me, I slipped and was almost dangling trying to desperately hold the edge of a section with my fingertips and tried to get a little bit of a toe grip on an edge below. This was a do or die moment! Since we were all roped up, Johnny, my guide, hauled me up a certain steep section, which helped me climb the remaining section to the summit. We finally reached the summit 10:30 am (Aug 23, 2016).

Traversing snow fields in the Cascades

Traversing snow fields in the Cascades

TGN: Do you tend to stick with climbing and trekking, or do you do any other adventure sports?
SB: With the climbing fever deep within me, I will keep exploring and trekking; however I do love white-water kayaking, which I intend to keep doing while I am not climbing.

TGN: Do you have a special moment from your adventure travel? A moment you just knew you’d never forget?
SB: My father is and has always been a great inspiration to us. To see him being strong as he suffers through his ordeal of PSP (neurological Parkinsons) gives us hope. I hope to live up to his dreams, hope to enjoy life and do what he would have loved doing in good health. That’s one of the reasons I changed my lifestyle, got back into shape, leading a healthy life and no matter what the challenges, learned to overcome them with a smiling face (in most cases). Climbing Kilimanjaro with an intention for raising funds to cure PSP was one of my goals. After going through all the challenges (remembering that my father is going through far greater challenges) and seeing the summit within a few steps away bought tears in my eyes. It was not about proving to anyone or putting up a show, it was all about personal hard work, overcoming the most audacious obstacles in life, reaching a personal goal was like a light at the end of the long dark tunnel. For me, this is the moment I will never forget.

This one's for you, Dad!

This one’s for you, Dad!

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3 Comments

  1. Saifee Doctor

    GReat !! Shabbir amazed at your achievements
    Saifee Doctor

  2. Shabbir Doctor (Mamaji)

    You have revealed something new
    Keep up your spirits and climb higher
    Wish you the very BEST. Always

  3. Farida Anajwalla

    Bravo Shabbir !!! Wish you many such climbs and adventures. Wish you loads of happiness,. With much love and affection

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