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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Kilimanjaro on a Whim

I am going to start with this picture of us on Uhuru peak so that you realize this is a happy story. In this story the heroes do reach their goal, and maybe if they get lucky, live happily ever after. However, don't let an ending-first story detract from its content by deterring you from reading to the last, because there is a lot to tell!

Kilimanjaro is a lot of things: a giant mountain, an incredible sight, and something that my sister and I decided over a month ago that we were not going to do. It wasn't that we didn't want to climb it, but we had managed to find a number of excuses that we were fairly happy with; are we really prepared? Do we want to spend the money? The original proposal and pressure to climb was all from me anyways, and I didn't think it fair to push. The point is, we were so firmly decided that the climb was a no go that when we hit Nairobi we took the time to mail some stuff home, including the bulk of our warm clothes and my waterproof pants.

If you're wondering, then, what pushed us to climb it - despite our blaring deficiencies in gear - the answer is of course the mountain itself. There is no greater salesman than that giant chunk of rock. April in East Africa is the start of the rainy season, and according to a precipitation chart we saw, the month of heaviest rainfall for the whole year in Tanzania. Understandably then, when we reached Moshi from Arusha, the whole mountain was clouded over and impossible to discern in the gray.

As we started to explore Moshi, I found the city rather to my liking. Unlike the dirt sides streets and overall brownness of Arusha, Moshi features a rather green backdrop. Despite how content we were with the city though, we were always looking skyward and trying to catch that one glimpse of the summit. When it finally happened we were not prepared. Late in the afternoon of our first full day of Moshi, the sun was out in full force. We were on our way to the YMCA to have a swim in one of the best pools I've ever seen. As we noticed the clouds were parting, we stopped and started looking around, bickering about where it could be.

The truth was that we just weren't looking high enough. It was Brandon who first looked up, and then directed us to do the same. Thus we had our first glimpse of the stunning vista that is the white capped peak of Kilimanjaro as seen from Moshi town. It literally loomed out of the hill backdrop of the country side, towering frosty and impenetrable. Jess instantly turned to me:

"Still want to climb it?"
"Yeah." I answered flatly, staring in awe.
To Brandon: "You?"
"Yeah." Equally stunned.

I don't know if that was the exact moment we decided that it was inevitable, but it certainly put the wheels in motion. Within a day we were at the tourist agency at the YMCA trying to negotiate a possible trip, and within two days and a good quote there was never a doubt that we were going to climb. The only real question, with Easter weekend approaching, was that of when we would leave - as in our North American holiday-oriented brains, making people work on good Friday or Easter Monday is next to blasphemy - but were assured that the guides and porters would rather make money than be with their families. This turned out to be true, the mountain was not as empty as predicted, and all the lodgings were rather full as we went up.

We left Moshi at around nine on Good Friday, and after an hour drive, arrived at the Marangu gate and signed into the guest book. The first day of Kili was two things: the easiest and worst day. The hike itself on day one is rather straight forward, a mere 8 kilometer hike through some beautiful alpine rain forest that bared a striking resemblance to Mgahinga where I stayed in Uganda (except no bamboo). The reason I thought it was the worst though was strictly due to the build to the climb. As we reached the park gate I was shaking from a mixture of nerves and excitement. The drive out to the park had seemed so unbearably long, and with so much mountain to go, I was feeling overwhelmed.

Luckily the cure for my tension and unease was movement, and starting out from the gate and falling into a rhythm proved enough to give me focus and calm me down. Day one is very short, a mere three hour hike, and we reached the Mandara camp site early in the afternoon. The camp ground was located in a clearing among the trees, and spotted with huts that were divided in two, and slept four a side. The beds were simple, furnished with bare mattresses and caseless pillows that could have contained who knows how much drool.

Our time in Mandara was used to acclimate to the altitude (2700m) and to help facilitate this, our guide Zongolo (sweet name) took us to a nearby crater to let us have a walk around. The crater was really rather anticlimactic, and we were positive that it was just an excuse to get the hikers moving around since they have so much time at the end of day one. However, we made the best of it, and decided to act out the word rim, as shown on the sign, so that you can understand. Here is me dunking an imaginary basketball very professionally:

Day two was much more rewarding, and featured a 12 km hike through a zone known as the moor lands. Basically the moor land is just scrub vegetation, including long grasses and undersized gnarly and prickly bushes. Fortunately, the walk provided me many opportunities to say in my most annoying voice "need moor land", to what I assume was everyone's enjoyment.

The only annoyance of the walk on day two, similarly to day one, was the implementation of the much overused Swahili phrase "pole pole". I realize it looks stupid written, as you are pronouncing it with a English-speaking accent.
Here is you: "Pole pole? What the fuck does pole pole mean?"
It is however pronounced "pole-eh pole-eh" and is the single most overused, annoying phrase in Africa. It means, simply, slowly slowly, and if you ever go to Zanzibar all the totes will yell it at you as you breakaway from them and whatever kind of crap they are trying to sell.

It also means that if your guide is saying it, you will be taking really small, short steps, and a relatively easy walk will take a lot longer. I was feeling really well though, and because of some logic I had concocted about the life span of red blood cells and my time spent in Uganda at altitude, I was rather convinced that I was perfectly acclimated, and we could go faster. It really was a rather easy walk.

Despite the rather slow pace, we still managed to get into the second camp rather early in the afternoon. This is a place we have affectionately named cloud city, partly because I forget the name of the hut, and partly because as we arrived the clouds were starting to creep in amongst the buildings. The camp for night two is located at 3800m, and if it is clear when you wake up, you get this:

You also get a view of the peak you get to climb, Kibo, located 9 km away and standing a looming 5895 meters above sea level:

And lastly you got a view of the other peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, which is much closer than Kibo, but stands 500m shorter at a mere 5400. I can't remember the exact name of it, but we were told that the rock was lose, and to climb it you had to have special permits.

This is also when it started to get cold.

Day three showed a very stark change in environment. The moorlands that we had spent all of the previous day slowly faded away until we found ourselves walking through an alpine desert, complete with lots of dirt and sand and very sparse vegetation.

When we finally stopped for lunch we realized that this was probably going to be the closest that any of us would ever get to being on the moon. Furthermore, we realized that Jessica's rented snow suit was probably really just a cheap space suit. The moon bouncing commenced:

The fun couldn't last forever though, and eventually the space police showed up, and put a stop to the fun.

That night we stayed at the last camp before the top, Kibo hut, located at the very base of Kibo peak, a whopping 4700m above sea level. This is where the problems with altitude tend to occur for most of the climbers. Headaches at Kibo hut are pretty much constant, and many people found themselves unable to stop throwing up. A few people were already having problems at the previous camp, and I am unable to imagine how they managed there, if they even made it at all.

The lodgings at Kibo are also drastically different. Unlike the four person seperate billeting featured at the previous stops, at Kibo they squish everyone into 10 person dorm rooms that are all located in one large building. The reasoning for this is that the rooms don't need to be great because you don't spend much time sleeping before you head up the peak. The problem though is that the dorm rooms actually facilitate the lack of sleep during the time you actually have to try and get some.

Everyone reacts to the altitude so drastically different, that to put ten of them together and expect them all to get some rest is impossible. Since day four, summit day, actually starts on the night of day three, dinner was served at five and we were expected to try and fall asleep directly after. The man above me snored. Yet, it wasn't just snoring, it was done in such a way that he sound like he was gutting a bear with a rusty spoon, relishing every last throw of death. People who snore in dorms are the worst, because you know that they're keeping you awake while simultaneously sleeping. Even worse was the man in the middle set of bunks beneath Brandon. His altitude sickness was one of the most severe cases I saw, and he would throw up whatever little food he managed to get down in consistent intervals.

Wake up call was at 11:30, and before that time I had managed a whole hour and a half sleep. Hot tea and some stale cookies were given, before shortly after midnight we set out into the darkness, and up the longest hill of my life. Our guide must have had some confidence in us, as we set out a half hour later than the last group before us, and before long we were already beginning to pass the straggling members of the large Chinese contingent.

The final ascent is a head game. It may seem surprising, but it is much easier to force foot after foot up a grueling hill than it is to actually understand why you're doing it. If you over think it you're done. In the darkness, under the light of the moon, the closest ridge above you is always visible. Yet every ridge seemed to breed a new ridge, until the number of rises after a rise seems infinite. I remember our guide saying proudly, not a short duration in, that we were 5000m up. Not an unimpressive feat, but disheartening when we were positive we were 500m higher.

The last day can be broken into two parts, the climb to Gilman's point, which is steep and long, and the hike from Gilman's to Uhuru peak, which is another 200m but much gradual. To get to Gilman's point is really to climb the mountain itself. At roughly 5500m is when I first started feeling the pressures of altitude. A uneasiness that had been brooding in my stomach had finally grown into full blown nausea, and every step was an attempt not to throw up.

I'm not sure what kept me going on. It could have been pride, or just sheer stubbornness, as I was forced at times to climb up rocks on all fours. When I crawled it was using arms that had long since been deemed unworthy of oxygen by my brain, causing the nerves to sent sharp jolts of pain up the numb appendages. At one point Brandon offered me some biscuits. All I remember is them tasting as dry as the desert from the previous day, and spitting them flaccidly out of my mouth and choking down some water.

The final approach to Gilman's was a trade off of lead group between us and a group of Americans from Colorado. I'm not sure if they were from boring flat Colorado, or crazy mountain part, but I assumed the latter and took great pride in finally passing them and reaching Gilman's first.

Reaching that point was one of the best moments of my life. Not simply because it was a feat in itself, but that from there we had a clear view of Uhuru under the light of a three quarters moon. The path to Uhuru was much less steep, and looked very attainable. Just past Gilman's is where the altitude final got the best of me, and I puked several times until nothing else could come up. Two good things came from this however: the first being being that I felt much better afterward, and found that I had the strength to finish, the second that I think I set off a peristaltic reaction, and the Americans who were creeping close on us again took their time in coming after us.

It was in this way that we were the first to the top on the morning of Easter Monday. We had set out last from Kibo by a half hour, and reached Uhuru first by another half hour, getting there at shortly after 4 in the morning. We were not long for the place though, and only stayed long enough to snap some pictures and leave. The air was well below freezing, as our ice filled water bottles proved, and the longer we stayed the more everyone felt the creeping of altitude induced nausea come over them.

We had defeated Kilimanjaro, and we felt like heroes!

Thanks for reading.

Much Love,


So cold...

1 comment:

  1. Congrats!!
    Makes me want to try it! where's the next hike?? I want to come!