Saturday, August 19, 2017

Kilimanjaro Climb Days 3-5

Start at Day 1

May 2, Day Three
We woke up today well rested after getting at least 8 hours of sleep. We also were happy with the knowledge that today would be a short day, maybe only 5 hours. Mike reported he had woken up with a mild altitude headache which had gone away with breakfast. I was concerned because I'd become out of breath simply from walking to the 'toilets' (although this would become less of a concern since it seemed to happen every morning; perhaps I'm more tired immediately upon waking).

Breakfast on the Shira Plateau.

After packing up our gear with considerably more efficiency and speed, we set off from the plateau. My fears that the altitude was already beginning to bear down on us were alleviated. The hike was nice and we became winded in all the appropriate places. I wished all days could be like that one but then it would take a month to reach the peak. During the hike, Jeremy did his best to psych us out with comments about how difficult tomorrow would be since we would be pushing to 15k feet and retreating to sleep at 13k. He would do this often during the trip, inadvertently scaring the rest of us with his ominous reminders of what lay ahead. I don't think he realized how much it distressed us.

Even though the porters are only supposed to carry 15kg each, nearly all of them doubled up on their loads. They were speed demons, packing up camp, passing us on the trail, and setting up camp often hours before we reached it. Made us feel very out of shape.

Prompted by Jeremy's warnings, as we walked I continually asked myself if I would be able to summit. With the exception of today, each day had been difficult, moreso than I expected. I admit I wasn't in the best shape I've ever been, but I'd pushed myself hard at the gym long past when I badly wanted to stop. I remember at one point actually thanking myself for working so hard at the gym because at least it put me into *this* shape, even if it wasn't the greatest. I can't or don't want to imagine what this would be like for someone less fit. But I didn't kid myself: I feared the urge to quit, probably during summit day, might be strong. It helped tremendously that I'd told so many people that I was doing this. I didn't want to have to admit to them that I couldn't hack it. So unless AMS became an issue, I was going to try to grind this out. It was telling that I'd been thinking about what my Facebook status would be after I summited and it would run something along the lines of, "Summited Kili. Would not recommend."

We camped at Shira Huts II, at 13k feet. This was the highest I'd been up to that point and I felt fine. We made it up just before the rain and mist swept in. Again, we were the only group there. The place has a weather station and an A-frame building that looks like a restaurant but in fact holds toilets, six for each gender. Pretty swanky, too, with tiles and glass block windows. Kinda surreal seeing that up there in a place full of rocks. Jeremy even discovered that one of the men's stalls had a seat. Hallelujah! It was like a gift, haha.

I was sure that after this experience nothing would seem too dirty or gross to me. My fingernails were permanently caked with what I hoped was dirt. The bite piece on my Platypus bladder was surrounded by dirt; I didn't care, I sucked on it anyway. Dirt floated in the boiled water the porters used to fill our water bottles and bladders (or maybe it was bits of the pots breaking down). My sleeping bag was full of dried mud. I hadn't washed my face or any part of me except my hands in three days and I didn't expect to in four more. I lost the cap to my Chapstick so that was pretty crusty, too. None of it mattered when you were exhausted, cold and already dirty. Although I did plan to do a course of Cipro after this to ward off the host of infections I was sure were waiting to pounce.

Dreary Shira Huts II.

My suggestion? More sun, less fog, rain and ice.

Four of us minus Tara took a short hike uphill to a small waterfall to take photos. Jeremy had us posing all over it, trying to break our necks or something.

After a half hour or so, Sinai waved us back to camp to sign the Shira Huts II ledger. The guys looked through the ledger to see who had been there before us. They found people who had listed their occupations as 'gigolo', 'male stripper', 'Zeus' and 'princess of power'. You could write whatever you wanted for your occupation.

The white triangular building is the outhouse. The building to the left is a more rustic outhouse. With the exception of the 'classy' multi-outhouse at Shira Huts II, outhouses typically consisted of a hole bracketed by two flat stones for your feet. They rarely had doors.

Mt. Meru, 15k feet.

Writing this report.

May 3, Day Four

Last night brought the worst night of sleep for all of us. I experienced a panic attack when I thought I was suffocating in my mummy bag. I nearly ripped my bag apart trying to find the face opening. I'm guessing it was a combination of the mummy's small opening, the balaclava I was wearing and the thin air. It was a pretty terrifying few seconds. In addition to the altitude, it was unbearably cold. I've never had to sleep in such low temperatures. I thought I was prepared. I wore 2 pairs of wool socks, long underwear (both top and bottom), sweat pants, my wool sweater, my insulated parka and a balaclava and I was still shivering. I eventually couldn't take it anymore and jammed foot warmers into my socks and pulled on mittens. Neither addition did enough to allow me to sleep. If I actually got 2 hours of shut eye it was a miracle. In the morning, my miserable friends revealed their their nights had been equally rough.

To make matters nearly intolerable for me, I started my period. While I had known it was coming, I had been unable to predict just how troublesome and unsanitary it could be to use the outhouses while wearing so much gear and with an irritable stomach to boot, and thus I hadn't been prepared for how much misery I would be in for. I was in such low spirits (and probably a bit hormonal) that I shed a few silent tears at breakfast. It felt as if my body was doing everything it could to make this adventure as challenging as possible for me between the intestinal problems and now this. At breakfast, I had no appetite. I couldn't eat my ration of one fried egg and half a hotdog, so I forced myself to eat a few bites of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because I knew I desperately need the calories and fuel.

Today's plan was to hike up to Lava Tower at 15k feet and to sleep lower at Barranco Huts at 13k feet. This was an essential acclimatization process referred to as "climb high and sleep low". The climb in this case was very long and somewhat steep. Definitely a Stairmaster workout. This was our longest push without a break and I was tired and winded but as soon as we stopped for a water break I got my breath back, which meant most of my difficulty was altitude related. The others were faring far better, which made me feel a little self-conscious. But I reminded myself I was climbing under adverse conditions (self-pity can carry you for miles, lol). As much discomfort as I was in, I knew it would be awesome to say at the end that I had summited beside people for whom health issues were not, well, an issue.

The exception to this would be Jeremy. Up until then, Jeremy had been a chatterbox. Even while ascending the steepest pitches, he sounded no more out of breath than someone sitting and watching TV. He was definitely the most fit, to the point that I jokingly told him I would ferret out which sport would cause him to be out of breath. Turned out it's altitude that can quiet him. Poor Jeremy hadn't said five words all day because of an altitude-induced headache. I know how excruciating they can be after flying from sea level to Cusco, so I sympathized. Altitude headaches are not only piercing, but they feel as though your entire brain is pulsing and about to explode out of your skull. Dave, Mike and I agreed that we would ask the guides to carry Jeremy's pack for him tomorrow to help him out. He'd been carrying his huge camera anyway, which weighed a ton. And it wasn't like the guides would have a problem with it. They'd been carrying Tara's pack for her since Day One.

Lava Tower, the goal of today's acclimatization hike, is beautiful and impressive. From a distance it resembles Devil's Tower from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

After we admired Lava Tower for about 15 minutes, we began our descent using a route on the other side. You'd think descending would be easier than climbing but we all agreed that going down was just terrible. The rocks were loose, shifting beneath our feet, there was mud and ice everywhere, making our footing precarious, and every step jarred our toes, knees and hips. There were some impressive rocky overhangs that would have made for good pictures, but climbing down rocky waterfalls slicked with ice meant that no one wanted to risk anything but getting down and out of there. I got a twinge in my knee and nearly twisted my ankle. Dave apparently fell at some point. I was really tired and sore as I wrote this.

Lobelia trees

Our camp at Barranco Huts.

The effect of air pressure at 13k feet.

You can see the red dot of the porters' tent, middle left.

Camping in the shadow of the Barranco Wall.

Michael, our waiter, brought by tea and popcorn as a snack (apparently it's good for settling queasy stomachs). I was nauseous for about 10 seconds when I bent to unlace my boots, but it dissipated and never returned. I did have an on-again, off-again low-grade headache, but at least my appetite was partially back. I ate most of the popcorn and I ate decent portions of dinner, too.

We were aware that tomorrow would be another difficult day. We would be climbing to 15.3k feet to Barafu Huts, which is the staging area for the summit push. It was a big elevation. The plan was to reach that in the afternoon, crash for as many hours as we could, and then begin our summit attempt around midnight. Something told me I'd be hating life tomorrow and questioning my sanity, just I did often during today's climb.

May 4, Day Five

We learned that our itinerary was not, in fact, correct. We were behind. The distance planned for today was supposed to have been broken up over two days so as not to exhaust us going into the summit attempt. Now we would be attempting the summit under the most tiring conditions possible. I was not optimistic.

I slept relatively well last night, probably because I felt warm. I dreamed I was floating in a giant wave pool of warm water in San Diego. Why San Diego, I have no idea, but it was peaceful and did I say warm? I knew I was going to clutch the imagery as I climbed that night. This was the second dream I'd had about being warm, which tells you how much the temperature affected me. Previously I'd dreamed I was floating through rooms of a campus restaurant, listening to people talk about our summit attempt like people anticipating the moon walk. I floated into a room filled with large sofas covered with the plushest blankets imaginable and I sank into them and wrapped myself in their warmth. A pair of disembodied eyes kept telling me to, "go back, this isn't real", but I refused to return to my cold sleeping bag. Not sure if the lucid dreaming was due to altitude or Diamox.

Today we did a lot of difficult and extremely tiring climbing. Though there were parts that I felt I could do forever -- the steady incline climbs -- there were just as many Stairclimber moments that kicked my ass and left me gasping. Plus, we needed to scale the Barranco Wall, a very steep wall that separated us from the rest of the mountain. Antony had told us that morning that we wouldn't be traveling much lateral distance but we would be doing a lot of ascending and he was right. It was up and up all day. On the positive side, the wall was fun in a way because it required us to hand over our trekking poles to our guides so we could do free climbing. I think most of us enjoyed it because it was challenging and worked our muscles in new ways. It was also apparently relatively dangerous. I had long ago stopped looking ahead or behind me on the trail because it was discouraging to see how much farther I had to go and how little I had conquered. That didn't change on the Barranco Wall; I kept my head down. But I've since seen photos of the wall and David said that one slip would have meant probable death so this was some real climbing. It took us about 4-5 hours to make it to Karanga Camp. Had we been following our original schedule, this would have been our stop for the day and we'd set up camp. But since we were behind, we stopped here only for lunch.

Posing for photos. The thing about climbing Kili is that we don't have any photos of the really difficult parts because we were too busy trying to endure them. So pretty much every photo of climbing action that you see in this report is of an easy part.

Eating on the climb had periodically been a struggle. It wasn't until the final days that I legitimately felt hungry. The rest of the time I had to force myself to eat out of a need for energy. For lunch, the box typically contained variations of the following: half a sandwich (spread with butter or some weird veg-butter combo), a hard-boiled egg, a small, stale muffin, a finger banana, 2 inches each of carrot and cucumber, a pack of shortbread cookies, a fried item (fish, bread, or chicken leg) and a mango juice box. Of those, I usually could only manage the banana, the egg, two bites of the cookie and a bite of the muffin. Food had never been more disinteresting to me, and it sometimes worried me that I wasn't taking enough in.

After lunch we had 4 to 5 more hours of hiking to go to reach Barafu Huts, at 15k feet, the staging camp for summit. I remember being so tired during a break that I told Jeremy if someone offered me a million dollars to do Everest, I'd tell them, "F**** you." Doing this again, willingly, seemed preposterous.

We passed over an amazing field of shale that looked like the results of a war between kitchen flooring companies.

Barafu Huts, when we finally staggered into it, didn't do anything to lift our spirits. It's a camp of rocks and boulders, cold and grim, with one outhouse. It looks like it should be set against a cold, Arctic sea. Toilet paper was strewn between the rocks like seaweed and the camp smelled like the giant toilet it is. This was the first camp where we encountered other climbers. For the past five days we'd had the mountain all to ourselves, which is apparently pretty rare. It had been nice, like we owned the mountain. At Barafu Huts we saw the tents of another group, although we didn't actually see any of the climbers. Still, it was weird to remember that other people hiked Kili.

Dave and I were worried, perhaps more than the others, about the day's schedule since we had the designated meal tent. We'd arrived at Barafu around 5:30 PM. We needed to unpack and get to sleep as quickly as possible because we needed to be well-rested for that night. But Michael the waiter not only brought over tea and popcorn for a snack, an hour later he set up dinner in our tent. So during that time we couldn't do any packing or unpacking, much less get any sleep. Sinai and Antony came by to tell us the plan for the night. Wake up at 11 PM, snack at 11:30, out of camp at midnight. Dress as warmly as possible. Bring as much water as possible. If you throw up, drink some water and keep going. At the pace we'd been going so far, it should take us 6 hours to reach Stella Point.

We finally were able to lay down around 7 PM. We dozed fitfully, overly tired and worried (at least in my case) that the summit wouldn't be achieved because we were so worn out. The wake-up call came at 11 PM and it was a cold, nervous time. I'm not sure what any of us were feeling could be called excitement as we packed up our tents. Knowing it was going to be a potentially 16 hour day, I took care of business in the nasty outhouse, a process which depressed me because I was out of breath climbing up to the outhouse. I thought, If I'm already winded and tired from climbing to the toilet, how the hell am I going to climb to the peak?

Michael served us a snack of tea and cookies but I don't think anyone partook of either. The other group at camp set out at 11:15 PM, their headlamps moving up the mountain like a slow moving, glowing caterpillar. I was a little disappointed seeing them go. They would reach the peak before us.

Go to Day 6...


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