In an exclusive interview, actor Nivetha Thomas opens up on her first-ever mountaineering expedition
“My eyes welled up when I reached the summit. It took me three hours to hike the last 50 metres,” says actor Nivetha Thomas, who scaled Mount Kilimanjaro a few days ago. At 5895 metres above sea level, Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, East Africa, is the highest single free-standing mountain in the world. Nivetha was accompanied by Telangana mountaineer Poorna Malavath, her coach Shekhar Babu Bachinepally and 15 crew members.
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Speaking from her father’s home in Dubai, where she landed after the summit, the 25-year-old actor says the seeds for the expedition were sown in September 2019, when she presented a TED talk. At the event, Nivetha listened in rapt attention as Poorna spoke about mountaineering. In 2014, at the age of 13, Poorna became the youngest Indian and the youngest female in the world to scale Mt Everest.
“I felt an unknown interest in mountaineering surging within me. Poorna and I stayed in touch and I met her coach, Shekhar. I began reading up about mountaineering,” says Nivetha.
Over the last year, Nivetha upped her fitness regime for Saakhini Daakhini, the Telugu remake of the Korean film Midnight Runners. She trained in judo, jujutsu, running, kickboxing and endurance training, all of which helped her cope with the varying terrain and altitude-related issues during the expedition.
Call of the mountains
Attempting to scale Mt Everest, says Nivetha, would have involved disciplined training for two years, which was tough given her filming schedules. However, when Poorna informed her about an expedition to Kilimanjaro, Nivetha was keen to join. “Shekhar felt I was fit enough to take up the expedition. I was on the sets of the Telugu film until five days prior to the trip. I barely told six people who are close to me about my plans. Minutes before I lost internet connectivity in Tanzania, I put out a story on Instagram that I will be off the radar for 10 days. Nothing more.”
Nivetha was aware that, however much she studied about the mountains, there would be surprises: “I had never gone on hikes, forget climbing mountains. But I was determined to do this. I followed instructions strictly. If they said pack two thermals, it had to be two thermals, nothing less.”
She reached Tanzania on October 10 and met the three trainers who would accompany the team; she was briefed about the following day: “They took it one day at a time and never overloaded us with information. I focussed on one step at a time and concentrated on my breathing during the eight-day hike — six days of ascent and two days of descent.”
Mental preparation played a key role during the journey. There was no room for negativity or anxiety. “Shekhar told me that each mountain requires a different preparation and that the mountain has to choose you and allow you to scale it, which I realised is true.”
Over the next eight days, Nivetha would learn a lot of new words: ‘pole, pole,’ (slowly in Kiswahili, an East African language). Taking it slow makes it easier for the body to acclimatise to the altitude and diminishing oxygen levels.
The other thumb rule was to stay hydrated to ward off altitude sickness. “Severe headaches, nausea, diarrhoea and insomnia are common symptoms. Luckily, I did not experience those,” she says.
The terrain changed every day: rainforests on day one, moor land on day two, dry moor land giving way to rocks on day three, rocky terrain on day four, a desert on day five and the glacial summit on day six. “The weather changed by the hour, from sunny to foggy, rains to chill,” adds Nivetha.
On the first two days, the team hiked for seven hours. Later, it would increase to 12 and the summit day involved 18 hours of walking. Wanting to see the sunrise, sunset and the stars from the mountain was one of the reasons for her expedition. “At the end of the day, you feel like running to a pile of snow and playing with it, but your body will want you to rest. You have to pay heed, eat well and rest if you want to wake up the next morning and walk for hours.”
The journey to the summit began late evening and turned out to be arduous: “The guideline was to keep moving, even if very slowly, but never stop. At minus 12 to 15 degrees, you risk cramps and frostbites. The guides were extremely patient. As my oxygen saturation was good, they allowed me to go ahead.”
The descent was quicker and she found herself in a cheerful mood, sometimes taking over the reins of guiding the team down the slopes: “You have to watch where you put your feet because you can come down pretty quickly.”
She has already decided her next expedition, though she doesn’t spill the beans. She terms the expedition a life-changing experience, where nothing else mattered apart from being close to Nature: “No amount of money or fame can match that experience of scaling a mountain.”
Before the expedition, she was of the view that anyone can do it. But her coach and guides asked her to reserve that statement until she scaled the peak. Reflecting, Nivetha concedes, “I don’t think it is for everyone. You have to be physically and mentally prepared. As you progress, it is more of a mind game. I could see people from other teams barely being able to walk and having to be pushed by their guides. The mountains have to welcome you.”