Saturday, August 19, 2017

Climbing Kilimanjaro Days 1-2

Don't even think about it, Tricia. Don't--damn.

April 30, Day One
When I awoke in my room at the Kilimakyaro Lodge in Tanzania and rolled over in bed, the view through my window was of Kilimanjaro. Clouds had moved in slightly but not enough to obscure the all-important peak. There it stood, snow-capped and waiting to be conquered by our hopeful group of five.

Mt. Kilimanjaro is an inactive volcano, its last explosion creating the Uhuru Peak, named after the Swahili word for 'freedom'. It is the highest freestanding mountain in the world and the fourth highest of the Seven Summits, the seven highest peaks on each continent. Kilimanjaro is 5,895 meters or 19,341 feet. For comparison, Everest base camp is 5360 meters/17590 feet. The highest peak in North America is Mt. McKinley at 6194 meters/20,320 feet.

Kili can be summited via six routes of varying difficulties requiring from 5 to 8 days. We chose a 7 day Lemosho Route. The Lemosho is one of the least populated, at least until it meets up with the Shira and Machame Routes. Lemosho is a camping route and considered the most scenic. We would be tackling it during the first week of May which is the rainy season.

While Kili does not require technical climbing experience, it is a physically demanding climb. According to Wiki, "The Kilimanjaro National Park shows that only 30% of climbers actually reach the Uhuru summit with the majority of climbers turning around at Gilman’s Point, 300 meters short of Uhuru, or Stella Point, 200 meters short of Uhuru." About 10 people die on the mountain every year, typically from Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), heart attack or hypothermia.
All of that was on my mind that morning since our planned attack on the mountain had not begun on an auspicious note.

The night before, at the beginning of what was going to be our final celebratory dinner as a group of 10, Jeremy, our official photographer and arguably the member most excited about our climb, passed out at the table, falling to the floor. Tara screamed when this happened, causing the majority of us at the opposite end of the table to assume a wild animal had wondered into the dining room. I know all of us would have preferred that to the reality of what had happened. Fortunately, one of our group is a trained First Responder and she tended to Jeremy until he felt well enough to sit up and eventually stand. The suspected culprit was the Diamox he was taking to prevent altitude sickness, but we weren't positive. He made a call to his father in the U.S. who told him to visit a hospital. He, David and the only employee at the lodge with a car and a grasp of English, headed to the hospital where they remained until just before midnight. To the tremendous relief of everyone, the results were good.

After submitting to a saline drip to flush the Diamox from his system, Jeremy was given the tentative OK to begin the climb without the aid of the drug. At breakfast everyone was in high spirits once again.

We met our main climbing guides, Sinai and Antony, and after a brief stop at the hospital for Jeremy to get his blood pressure checked and receive the final OK from the doctor, we headed to Moshi to pick up our porters for the climb. On the way, we passed two shops selling coffins decorated with brightly colored beads. I didn't point them out, not wanting to put a damper on our mood, especially in light of Jeremy's recent health problem. But seeing those coffin shops, at the base of Kili for a reason, did concern me a bit.

In Moshi we met our cooks, Lucas and Dustin, as well as the 15 porters who would carry our camp supplies. Our group of hired help would total 21 for 5 climbers. The 5 of us would only be responsible for carrying our own daypacks; the camping equipment, food, and our main packs would be transported from camp site to camp site by the porters.

After stopping to fix our third flat of the trip, we reached Londeroso Gate to have our bags weighed since porters aren't officially allowed to carry more than 15kg (although they would prove to end up carrying at least double that).

All the equipment being weighed.

The porters signing in at the ranger station. At every camp, we would sign in to the ledger so the parks would have a record of the climbers' progress up the mountain.

I was experiencing gastro-intestinal distress that I attributed to the Diamox since it's a known side effect. Diamox is a medication for treating glaucoma which was proven to help acidify the blood which allows it to absorb more oxygen, making it useful for combating altitude sickness. But it wasn't without its downsides, which included diarrhea, increased urination and intense tingling in extremities. I crossed my fingers that the effect would pass. Fortunately by this time I had become increasingly inured to the 'restrooms' in Africa. Squat toilets in Japan or China seem like luxuries compared to the ones there. I doubt I'll find anything more rustic or unpleasant.

We waited for at least an hour at Londorosi gate because of a problem with the entrance fee. The weather was very cool and the clouds completely filled the sky and blocked our view of the mountains. We ate our box lunches while we waited: butter sandwich, fruit, muffin, cut veg and a drink box. I only drank the juice and ate the banana since my stomach wasn't happy with me.

We finally started on the road to the Lemosho Gate, except the road was full of deep crevices due to the rains. The follow-up van to our Land Cruiser contained our gear and the porters and it was having a difficult time navigating the muddy, broken roads. We eventually had to stop in the road to relieve the van of all its supplies and gear. Everything was loaded onto and into the Land Cruiser with us, including the porters. The interior of the vehicle was crammed with 8 people and the remaining 13 crouched on the roof or hung off the sides. It was pretty comedic, and even the porters found it amusing. They broke into the "Kili song" as we drove.

It was pretty damned funny watching the Land Cruiser slip and slide through the mud and fall into the crevices because each time it did, bags would fly off the roof and/or porters would fly out into the grass and bushes. Unfortunately the road became so bad that not even the Land Cruiser could make it. Then it began to rain. In the rain we had to get out of the car, put on rain gear, and hike up to the trailhead of Lemosho rather than drive to it. Through a series of misunderstandings and budgetary problems, I didn't buy rain pants or gaiters, both of which meant I ended up wet and super muddy. I definitely underestimated how much mud would we would encounter.

As for the hike itself, it started out fairly fine, barring the rain. A week on safari, eating and sitting on our butts in Jeeps, however, hadn't done our fitness levels any favors and immediately I was reminded of a major truth of adventure travel: the stories and triumphs are fantastic to share and photos always show you smiling. But to actually experience the adventure really, really sucks. It's hard work and it's uncomfortable and the payoff only comes afterward in the form of bragging rights. Those rights were 6 days away.
The rain let up fairly quickly, but we still had much road to cover.

Once we left the road we didn't have much of a path to follow through the jungle. The Lemosho Route is the youngest of the Kili routes so the path is less distinct, and we weren't even on the official route anyway. We had yet to reach the trailhead. We did a lot of rock and tree root scrambling, which is extremely tiring on the entire body since you're engaging every muscle to pull you up/ease you down. When the sun went down we had barely reach the trailhead and we still had our scheduled itinerary to meet. We broke out our headlamps and continued through the pitch black jungle while monkeys chittered and screeched from the trees around us. Maybe the scenery was beautiful, but with the darkness and being unable to look up from the ground for fear of twisting an ankle, I saw none of it. The hike was somewhat reminiscent of the 'Death March of Machu Picchu' that Dave and I experienced in Peru in which we hiked 18 miles through the dark on train tracks, but this was more difficult because the land wasn't level; we were ascending from 7000 ft to 9500 feet. Or so we hoped. Every time we struggled through an ascent, it seemed it was followed by a descent. The descents were demoralizing, especially with updates from Jeremy who had an altimeter on his watch which kept us informed of how much altitude we *weren't* gaining. It often seemed like we were losing altitude or staying in place rather than gaining any much needed ground.

We were miserable, tired and wet. Tara had a minor meltdown because of the ants which had nasty bites. Michael had to urge her to take a deep breath and calm down. Sinai ended up shouldering her daypack for her to keep her moving. It was a pretty tough intro to our climb for all of us. All I kept thinking was that this was only the first day. Already I was tired and gasping for breath. We walked very slowly, a theme of the climb (pole, pole - slowly, slowly), but that was tiring in its own way since you couldn't build up momentum. When, after a long, grueling ascent we reached camp, we all let out an exhausted cheer.

The tents we were given were roomy, at least for my brother and me. Mike, Jeremy and Tara were together in the other tent. Each tent possessed a front entrance area (Dave and I called ours the 'foyer'; the others named theirs the 'vestibule'). It had a dirt floor which was where we left our dirty boots, poles and anything wet. Farther inside was a zippered sleeping area. Initially, it was a bit of a hassle arranging our packs and setting up our sleeping pads and bags since most of our equipment as well as ourselves was dirty and wet and we wanted to avoid cross contamination with dry gear as much as possible.

When we finally had it all sorted, I collapsed, exhausted, onto my sleeping bag. But sleep was yet to be had. Someone called into our tent. It was our 'waiter', Michael, a wide-smiling Tanzanian who would serve us our meals and washing-up water during the climb. He set some rice sacks on the floor of our tent between our sleeping bags and covered this with a red checkered blanket. He then set out place settings and mugs for five people along with various powdered drink options like instant coffee, tea and Milo, an Ovaltine-like mix. When we realized we all would be eating in our tent, we invited Mike, Jeremy and Tara over to share our first meal on Kili: sliced white bread, 'cucumber' soup (veg soup), penne pasta and a tomato sauce with sliced carrots and peppers in it. This would become a rather standard meal. The food was good and most importantly hot, but I was too tired to eat much and I was afraid of adding to my gastrointestinal woes.

Michael returned after we'd finished and cleared everything away. None of us could stay awake much longer so the guys and Tara returned to their tent. It felt great to finally lay down, but to my surprise and dismay, I couldn't immediately fall asleep. I lay there listening to Mike snoring and the porters talking (15 of them can make quite a racket). The porters, by the way, were packed 10 to a tent with the excess sleeping on bunks in the ranger's hut.

Michael, our waiter.

The porters' tent, which also served as the kitchen.

I finally fell asleep, shivering, only to wake up an hour or so later with the urgent need to pee, something I'd dreaded ever since reading about Diamox's effects as a strong diuretic. I had packed a pee funnel for the trip, but sadly I'd left it at the Masai boma (what a bewildering discovery *that* must have been for them). I was not a happy camper as I unzipped out of my sleeping bag, put on my headlamp, slipped my feet into my chilled boots and trucked out to the spider toilet with the moths fluttering around my head. I called it the spider toilet because the outhouse was smothered with webs clogged with the mummified bodies of tiny flies. No matter which way you squatted you found your face a few inches from a milky fly graveyard.

May 1, Day Two

Waking up wasn't nearly as bad as I expected it to be, mostly because I was relieved at how well I had managed to sleep once I'd emptied my bladder. My sleeping bag had slid halfway across the floor of the tent but I was nice and warm in it. The bad part, of course, came when we had to pack up our bags before Michael set up breakfast in our tent. This involved a confusing scramble to determine what to wear, where to put the dirties, what went into the packs that the porters would carry which we wouldn't see again until camp later in the day, and what we'd need to put into our daypacks that would still allow room for 3 liters of water and a Tupperware lunch box the size of a shoebox. This packing process would become easier with practice, but on this first morning I was stressed as I rolled up my sleeping bag and tried to cram it into my backpack. By the way, I had forgotten to buy a waterproof cover for my backpack so I was forced to make do with a white kitchen trash bag which didn't completely fit over both the pack and my sleeping pad, resulting in cold damp clothes. Later, Dave and I consolidated our gear so that all the dry stuff went into his waterproof duffle and all the dirtied and bagged items went into my less protected backpack.

Packing up in the morning. You can see breakfast spread out in the middle of our tent, making things a bit more difficult.

Michael came by to collect our water bottles and bladders. When he returned them to us filled with water that had been boiled clean the night before, the water was still warm. Drinking warm water when you're hot and winded is not pleasant, fyi.

We began our second day climb with the assumption that we'd fallen behind schedule since we'd had to start hiking on the washed out road and not at the trailhead of Lemosho. This was extremely discouraging for me because Day One had been difficult enough and now we had the added pressure of having to hike longer and farther today to make up for what we failed to cover yesterday. Today's route, just like yesterday's, was challenging. Lots of narrow jungle paths and the dreaded ascents up roots and rocks. I was winded for much of the way and had lactic acid build up in my thighs.

Then it began to rain. We'd been advised to pack our rain gear in our daypacks so I had ski pants with me and a parka. As it rained, I quickly put my parka on over my pack and myself. I thought I could get away with my convertible pants, but Daniel, the guide trainee, brought over his ski pants for me to put on over my convertibles. Since he already had the pants out and was in the process of trying to pull them on up over my boot I let him do it without mentioning I had my own pants. I figured expediency was more important because it was turning into a deluge and we all stood unprotected.

Picture me balanced on one leg in the middle of the jungle while rain is pouring buckets and poor Daniel is trying to jam his pants over my muddy boots. After all that, they didn't even fit me, so I told them I had my own pants and we struggled to strip Daniel's off me so we could try again with mine. By this time my legs were soaked to the skin and Dave and I asked Antony if it was even worth the effort anymore to put on the new pants. Antony said I should strip off my convertibles and put on the ski pants (something I had planned to do under drier conditions), so that's what I did. As the rest of the group continued on, Dave stayed behind with me as I stripped down to my underwear in the rain and balanced on each foot to put on my ski pants. By the time we were done, I was out of breath from all the gymnastics of wrestling these pants on over my boots and wet skin but I was glad to be in waterproof gear because the rain fell even harder. It miraculously stopped when we broke for lunch and began to pour again as soon as we resumed hiking.

We ascended some more, which wasn't fun in the rain and mud, and left the trees and most of the vegetation behind. The route leveled out as we entered the Shira Plateau. Thank god it was a plateau because the wind began to blow and our unprotected hands became red and stiff from the cold and I don't think any of us had much coordination. Reaching camp at first offered only marginal relief. The wind and rain were still pounding us and we were forced to wait outside our tents as the porters brought out our backpacks.

Once inside our foyer, Dave and I used our shaking, red fingers to remove our sodden rain gear. Everything was soaked. The rain gear didn't breathe so we were wet with sweat wherever we weren't wet with rain. To finally slough all that wetness and climb into our warm, dry camp clothes was a blessing. My camp outfit consisted of long underwear, sweat pants, ski hat and an alpaca sweater I'd purchased in Peru. Just as we collapsed onto our sleeping bags, it began to hail. It was kind of awesome but not the camp experience I had envisioned when Sinai, our guide, told us we would reach camp at 2 PM and have the afternoon to relax. I'd pictured our tents sitting in a meadow under sunny skies (where the hell I got this imagery I have no idea). Obviously, this couldn't have been further from the reality. Everything we'd worn was wet and a small lake was forming in our foyer until Dave asked the porters to divert the water.

Then, maybe an hour or two later, the sun came out and oh, how that lifted everyone's spirits. Everyone immediately began draping our wet gear over the tents and hung them from trekking poles to dry. The fog burned off, and I could get my first unencumbered look at the Shira Plateau.

The camp is typically busy, but today it was empty of all but us. The camp is called Shira Huts I. In the busy season there can be upwards of 200 climbers and porters. There are about 10 outhouses to support them.

Ranger hut at Shira Hut I.

Dave and Jeremy found a creek nearby and then a waterfall with a decent little pool at its base. Of course they wanted to jump in, and while Mike and I recorded the event for posterity and some of the porters watched with huge grins on their faces, Jeremy and Dave dove into the water. Apparently it was cold but the sun was hot enough to warm them up quickly. The ranger for Shira Huts saw this and called on Mike to convince them not to do it -- "They are crazy!" Yep, pretty much.

With most of our clothes dried out we felt pretty good. We had a dinner of fried fish and potatoes with another excellent soup. Because we were the only group at camp, most of us skipped using the outhouses, perhaps traumatized as I was by the spider toilet, and used the numerous bushes. We found out later from Antony that we are not as far behind schedule as we'd feared. It turned out our printed itineraries were slightly off -- or at least that's what we were led to believe, a fallacy which would later bite us in the ass -- and so it was great to believe we wouldn't have to make that major push to catch up to where we were supposed to be. We were already there, according to Antony.
While listening to them discuss the itinerary, it struck me how soon we'd reach summit day. The long, tiring slogs had tricked my mind into believing I'd entered some sort of tortuous limbo where I'd be doing this for weeks before we reached the peak. But it was only 4 days until the final push. I was more excited now, and maybe more hopeful. I was confident I could last 4 more days.

The five of us were generally doing well. Dave, Tara and I were on Diamox. Dave and I had experienced at times tingling in the hands and feet. Most noticeably in the feet after sitting cross-legged at dinner, although I'd had painful tinging at night which had occasionally kept me up longer than I would have been. The tingling was exactly like the feeling you experience when your limbs fall asleep and feeling returns to them, only ten times more intense. Sometimes I'd grimace and rub my feet to try to massage the feeling away. Another side effect of Diamox, which was of negligible concern on the mountain, was that carbonated beverages like soda tasted terrible. Specifically, the sweetness seemed to disappear, leaving you with only the taste of the soda water. So far Diamox had had the opposite effect gastronomically in Dave and me. I envied him, although I'd grudgingly learned to live with my 'condition'. I just wished I could eat more; I ate light since any food in my body necessitated trips to the outhouses or bushes. I didn't know how Tara was faring except that she once mentioned concern over the tingling in her feet. She had mostly isolated herself and didn't interact with us as a group. Plus, she barely ate, which the rest of us worried would become an issue as we expended more and more energy into the mountain.

Continue to Day 3...


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