Friday, March 4, 2011

Climbing the Mountain By Tanya D.

I don’t know how long I have wanted to go to Africa. Maybe since seeing Out of Africa who knows how long ago, maybe since the first time I ever saw those incredible animals in the zoo, maybe since I have become addicted to Animal Planet, National Geographic, Nature, and all of the other animal shows on TV. Whenever it was, the idea has been in my mind to go. So, when my friend and frequent travel companion Maureen put a trip together, I was eager to make it happen.

My first hurdle was timing. The trip was first proposed for 2010. That year was our ten year wedding anniversary, and my husband and I had already planned a return to the island where we had been married. It turned out that others invited on the Africa excursion also couldn’t make it for various reasons, so the trip was postponed until 2011.

Maureen had done her homework. She wanted to be in the Serengeti during the Great Migration. She found out that February is a great time to see lots of babies, and therefore lots of predators. Maureen had also added a small bonus to this trip; a quick climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Hmmmm, I thought. Do I really want to climb this mountain? I am not much of a hiker, have no gear, and not super excited about backpacking and sleeping on the ground for a week. Well, no matter. If Maureen wanted to do this, then what the heck, I was in. The next major hurdle was to convince my husband, Stan, to get on board. When I brought up the topic in 2010, he wasn’t too interested, but left open the possibility of going later. So when I brought it up again later in 2010 for a trip in 2011, he had done an about face and said he was not interested in going to Africa at all. There were several reasons, but none of them seemed legitimate to me. So we had a few discussions about it, and I told him that I wanted to go, and that I wanted to experience this trip with him, but that if he decided he couldn’t do it, then I would go alone. He contemplated this for a few days, and then decided that he would go. Hurray! In retrospect, I don’t know how I would have been able to do the climb without him. It would have been so much harder.

We set about researching the climb, found all sorts of web sites about climbing the mountain, read list after list of stuff to bring, bought backpacks, camel backs, long underwear, jackets, boots, gators, socks, hiking pants, (did I mention that we didn’t hike and had NO gear at all?), head lamps, iodine tablets, balaclavas, more socks, more long underwear, sleeping bags to 10˚, sleeping mats, rain gear, and on and on.

We spent a small fortune before we even knew what our flights would be! We began hiking around San Diego County to prepare for our assault on the roof of Africa. I have to give Stan credit, once he decided to do it; he was committed and kind of excited about the whole thing. Out initial thoughts were about climbing this mountain that neither of us had any real aspirations to climb. I figured that the safari and the subsequent trip to Zanzibar (isn’t that a cool sounding place?) would be the restful part of the trip, and we didn’t have to think much about that part.

One thing we weren’t sure about is what route we would be taking. As the time approached, we found out it was to be the Machame Route. This route had been dubbed the Whiskey route (probably because you needed some at the end of each harrowing day). Maureen had eschewed the “easier” Coca Cola route (the Marangu route) as being “namby-pamby,” and that the more challenging route we had chosen was supposedly much more beautiful. Of course, having not done the Manangu route, I can’t say for sure if it would have been easier or not, but over the course of 6 days, I think we were all willing to have taken the namby-pamby easy way out!

I got a book about all of the routes and read about ours. It really didn’t seem like it would be all that hard. The first day was about 10K. Gee, how many of those runs have I done? If it takes me less than an hour to run a 10K, then how long could it possible take to walk one? I figured maybe 3 or so? The increase in altitude was about 1200 meters. I didn’t really take that into consideration at while I was figuring all of this out. The 2nd day was only 5.3 K. Wow, this should be easy! That couldn’t take more than a couple of hours. I wondered what we would be doing all day at the 2nd camp. The altitude change on that day was listed at 818 meters. Should be a piece of cake. Day 3 was another 10-11K with an increase in altitude of 147 meters, then a decrease of 641 meters. So there was going to be some uphill, followed by some serious downhill. I am thinking maybe 4-5 hours or so? Day 4 was only 8.5K with an increase in altitude of 676 meters. I didn’t think that would take long either, but I did note that this was the route to the final base camp from where we would summit at midnight that same night. I figured this would be a long and brutal day. This base camp was at 15,295 feet. Then that night to the summit which is another nearly 5K straight up. I figured this would be hard after no sleep. To top this off, when we returned from the summit, we would eat, rest a few minutes, and then head down to the lower last camp. It is about another 6K. You go from the summit at 19,341 feet to 10,190 feet. Anyway, after reading this, I figured it was doable. I was ready, but definitely apprehensive.

The big day arrived. We departed San Diego on a red-eye to the Dulles airport in Washington, DC. We had met up with Mary Ann in San Diego. Once in DC, we had several hours to wait for our next flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We met up with the rest of our travel partners; Maureen and Augie, and Ryan, Mary Ann’s son. We had a long, but uneventful flight to Ethiopia on Ethiopian Airlines. Once there, we changed planes for a 4-hour flight to Kilimanjaro airport.

We arrived at our hotel in Moshi, the Springlands Hotel. This hotel was the base for our outfitter Zara tours. It was hot and dusty when we arrived. The hotel grounds were attractive, almost charming, but the rooms were closer to dumpy. As with many hotels in 3rd world countries, lots of stuff didn’t work, or didn’t work well. The power went off frequently. There was no air conditioning at all. Each room had what might be called a swamp cooler, but these contraptions produced no cool air. They turned out to be glorified fans. The water pressure was fairly non-existent; the drains were slow. The rooms were very small, and had two twin beds with holey mosquito nets. We had so much gear, that it took up most of the room.

During the next day (my birthday), we watched groups come and go from the mountain. It was some sort of organized chaos. We quizzed people who had come back; What route did you take?; How was it? How was the weather?; Any advice? Most of the people seemed none the worse for wear. One older guy, seemed fairly thrashed. I think I identified with that guy, and it made me even more worried. We heard all sorts of weather reports ranging from clear, sunny, and extremely cold, to rain, snow, and everything in between. Who knows what we would get.

The night before our climb, we met our guides. They were Eli and Stanley. They seemed cool, laid back, and experienced. I felt like we were in good hands. They told us briefly what to expect, what to bring, and when to meet the next day.

On the 10th we packed up our backpacks and the duffle bags that the porters would carry, stored the rest of our belongings in a secure area, our valuables in a safe deposit box and climbed into the bus with our some other hikers.

We were taken to the Machame gate, where we had to sign in and generally gather all of our porters, guides, and belongings together. This process took about ½ hour or so. Then we started out. It was really exciting! The area was so beautiful; all jungle and moss. Monkeys and weird birds were everywhere. Lots of little colorful flowers. We were lucky to have a dry start. It was warm, but not really hot. I think we all had shorts on. There was a lot of sensory overload. You were trying to see everything, watch where you were walking, and chat with all of the other people on the trail. We were walking with a group from Scandanavia. I think they were from Denmark, but I have forgotten. One couple was celebrating their 40th birthdays. They were with a couple of younger single guys. I think there were a couple of girls from Norway. We also ran into a group from Cananda. They were young, maybe early 30s, and two of them were doctors. I guess they were big triathaletes as well. Everyone seemed eager and happy to be attempting this endeavor. I felt great that day, even though I had the remnants of a cold. Stan had also been sick, but he seemed on the mend that day.

That first day was supposed to take us 5-7 hours. I did not record how long it actually took us, but you can assume it took us longer than 7 hours. It turned out that Mary Ann, who had her hip replaced a year ago, was having some difficulties. We started out at an altitude of about 3000 feet and increased to about 5000 feet that day. Mary Ann had to get one of the guides to take her back pack. It was too much weight for her to carry. That continued for the remainder of the climb. Once we got into Machame camp, the porters already had a dining tent up, and hot tea and popcorn were waiting for us. That was pretty cool. The weather was also very cool! I was hoping our sleeping bags would be adequate. The cooks prepared a dinner of soup, fish (icky), and vegetables. We ate whatever we could and then hit the sack by 9:00 pm.

The second day was supposed to be 4-6 hours, but it took us about 7-8 hours!! We were headed to Shira Camp at 12,600 feet. This day Augie began having some trouble with is heart rate. A few years ago, he had surgery to repair a valve. He was taking medication to keep his heart rate below 140 beats per minute. During some of the more strenuous hiking, his heart rate attempted to exceed this number. It made him feel short of breath, and he had to stop for his heart to get back to normal. The distance we traveled was supposedly only 3.1 miles, but it took forever! This was supposed to be a short day, but not for us. This turned out to be a recurring theme for our group. The scenery and views this day were amazing. We moved into the heather or moorland zone. There were lots of moss and lichen on the rocks. At the end of the day we were at the Shira Caves campsite. Ryan went to explore the caves, the rest of us were too tired. We had a discussion about Augie’s condition. We ran into those doctors again, and we asked their advice. It seemed like everyone recommended that Augie abort this mission. If he was going to abort, this was the place because he could hike a short distance to a road, and then get picked up by an ambulance and taken to Moshi. We all thought he should do this. He wasn’t really on board with it, but finally decided it would probably be best. I thought that maybe Mary Ann should give up too, but she didn’t. She was determined to go forward with the rest of us.

Day 3 was another matter altogether. This route took us from Shira camp at 12,600 feet to Barranco Camp at 12,960 feet. The distance was supposed to be 15K and take 7 hours. I think it was close to 500 miles and took us forever (ok, 9 hours)!! It was endless. The weather started out very cold and we had numerous layers on, then the weather warmed up and we shed layer after layer. Then it started to hail, and continued for several hours. The trail went up, then down, then up, then down. The scenery was barren. This is the semi-desert with ugly dark colored boulders/rocks that had orange hairy lichen growing off of it. If I sound bitter about this day, it is because it was the worst day ever. When we got to the lunch spot, the lava tower, it was so cold, windy, and the hail was coming down so hard, that we didn’t really get a chance to eat. I was already exhausted at this point, and had no appetite. I was also really cranky. I am not sure if I was the only one or not, but I don’t think I ever even took out my camera that day. I didn’t want to record this misery. Once at the Barranco camp, I found our tent and went inside to begin getting the sleeping bags ready, but I had no energy and just plopped down on top of my duffle bag with my feet hanging out of the tent and was ready to pass out. Stan came and helped me to revive. We got our bags out and set up and then went to the dining tent. I can’t remember what they had to eat, but I couldn’t eat any of it. Even the tea was a struggle. I had begun to have suspicions about the tea. I was sure it was dehydrating me and keeping me awake at night. I think Ryan felt the same way. We mostly drank hot water from this point on. At dinner, I had a headache, and all of my muscles ached. I told the group that I could not go any further. I don’t know what else I said, I could hardly keep my head up. The guide, Eli, came in and we discussed the logistics for quitting. It turned out we had to hike up to the base camp anyway in order to escape this ordeal. That is not what I wanted to hear. I stumbled off to my tent and passed out.

Ironically, this 4th day dawned brighter. I don’t know who that person was the night before, but I was fine and raring to go! The initial part of this day was the best of all of them. We had to climb up the great Barranco wall. It was a welcome change from the continuous up and down over rocks and boulders of the previous days. While this was hard work, it was so interesting. The trail was just a flat area in the rocky cliff. The porters zipped by us with tons of weight on their heads and shoulders, and we struggled to scramble up the rocks. It was amazing. Of course, this day was not without its difficulties. I think this day was about 13k. It was supposed to take 8 hours. Stan, Maureen, and I split from Mary Ann and Ryan after the lunch break. Mary Ann was talking about giving up, but she still had to get the base camp at Barafu to do it. She suggested that the three of us go ahead because we need to get some rest before the summit attempt at midnight. We went ahead and got in fairly late. We ate a quick dinner and had a discussion with Eli about how it would all work. We would all get a guide. We would get up around 11:00 pm and get ready. They would have tea and cookies for us to snack on before we left. Eli thought it might rain. We went to bed around 9:00 pm. We didn’t get up until around midnight. For some reason, Stan was really annoyed that they didn’t wake us earlier. I couldn’t figure out what difference it could possibly make, but it really upset him. I went outside to use the bathroom, and found that it had snowed overnight. It was still snowing lightly, and everything was covered in snow. It was kind of eerie. We fumbled around and got all the layers on. I had on silk long underwear, smart wool long underwear, and synthetic long underwear, hiking pants, rain pants, two pairs of socks, a wool sweater, a down sweater, a polar fleece, and a heavy Gortex jacket. I had mittens, but my glove liners were wet from the previous day, so I didn’t wear those. I stuck 2 hand warmers in each mitten. Eli was my guide. He carried my pack this day also. I think he also carried it the day before after lunch. The day before that, some porters had come looking for us, and one of them grabbed my pack to help us move more quickly.

Anyway, we set out around 1:00 am. We all had our head lamps on. You couldn’t see much except the line of lights going up and up. It was crazy! Stan and I were together. We just plodded along with our guides, trying to step where they stepped. It was slow going. The snow just piled higher and higher. It became harder for the guides to see the path with the snow covering it. But up and up we went. We had to go a little and then stop. We repeated this over and over. Every time we stopped I would look up and see the line of lights going higher and higher, wondering if they would ever stop. Stan kept telling me not to look up, so I wouldn’t give up. I think we passed Maureen somewhere. Ryan had started off first. After several hours, the terrain changed to mostly steep rock faces. It was slippery and hard to find a good footing. At this point, I think we were around 17,000 feet, Stan decided that he couldn’t go any further. He had a relapse of his cold, and I think it had turned to bronchitis. He was feeling light headed and felt like he couldn’t safely continue. We discussed it and I offered to go down with him. I told him I still felt ok. He said to continue and he would go down by himself (with his guide). As Eli and I continued, there was a group of about 20 people who were coming down. They had decided to give up. At this point, I asked Eli “Am I crazy?” “Should I turn around?” He said that I had come here to climb the mountain, and that I should climb it! So, on I went. The lights were still going up. There seemed to be no end in sight. The trail, or the thing we were pretending to be a trail, grew fainter and fainter, and steeper and steeper. By now we were on an area of scree that was covered in about 2 feet of snow. You would take a step forward and slide back every time. It was slow painful going. At some point, Ryan passed me while he was descending. I tried to confirm the distance to the top, but he was as non-committal as Eli. Nearly there, was all I got. I think dawn had come by this point, but it was still snowing. I was nearly to the top of that steep scree mess, but suddenly I had no more energy. I walked at times with my eyes closed, thinking that a quick nap would be good. Finally, I told Eli that I couldn’t go any further. He knew we were so close. There was another guide coming down with his charge. Eli asked him to help. Eli grabbed by left side, the other guide, my right, and they dragged me up the last 10 feet or so, to the end of the scree incline. That gave me some solid footing. I felt like I could go a little further! We plodded on to Stella point. I kind of had decided that I would end it there. I knew that the Uhuru peak was only a little further, but I didn’t know if I had a little further left in me. About that time, a woman who might have been my age, or even a little older, came up with her guide. She was giddy. She congratulated me and urged me to go on the Uhuru. She said it was only three more little hills and we would be there. Eli reminded me that we were talking about another hour and a half. I decided to go for it. What a struggle. I am sure that Eli wanted to boot me over the side time and time again. I whined and moaned. How much longer? Do you see the sign? I can’t see it. Where is it? Finally I saw it. The woman who convinced me to continue was there taking photos. She was still giddy when we passed again. She congratulated me again. This time I had the presence of mind to return the compliment. I made it to the signpost. Eli took my photo. He also took a few others. The snow had stopped and it was actually beginning to clear. At first, we couldn’t see anything. Every vista was white, but once the sun came out, I could make out the glacier. Eli mentioned the names, but the only one I remember is the Heim glacier. They were magnificent. I stood on the edge and just took it all in. Amazing. Then in short order, it was time to descend. We went on the fast track! That evil incline now turned into a regular ski slope! We pretty much skied down on boots. It was kind of enjoyable. The sun was out in full force now. I had to keep peeling off layers. I did not bring any sunscreen and the lip balm I brought didn’t have any in it either. I knew I was getting fried, but there was nothing I could do about it. Eli wanted us to make good time, so he took one of my arms and all but marched me down that mountain. I felt like a rag doll sometimes. I have to say I was happy to get to camp though. None of our group was still there. My tent and sleeping bag was there, but everyone else had already started the descent to the Maweka camp. I was greeted by some of the porters and the cook. They were so nice and congratulated me for finishing. They gave me some juice that was wonderful. The cook made me some fabulous potatoes and vegetables. I was starving, but I took one bite of the potatoes, and could not eat another bite. Weird. Then Eli told me I could sleep an hour before we needed to leave. So, I passed out for a while. I woke up and packed up my sleeping bag and mat. Then Eli and I set out.

The downhill on this path was brutal. The trail turned into a creek bed with a million boulders to navigate. It would have been slow going, but Eli had my arm again and was marching me down the trail. We made it down in about 3-4 hours I think. I didn’t like the looks of the camp. It was black dirt. It seemed like a public campground, unlike all of our previous camps that were only for the summit bound. Our camp was set up among some trees. The ropes for the tents were everywhere. It was difficult to maneuver around. The rest of the group was in the dining tent. They had just had dinner. The cooks whipped up some for me after I washed up. I was finally able to eat a little. I couldn’t tell you what I had. I think there was rice in the mix though. I brought my camera in and showed my proof of being at the summit. We went back to our tents to get ready for bed. At this point we heard Mary Ann and Ryan saying that their backpacks had been stolen! We were shocked! When could this have happened? It must have been when we were in the dining tent. Such a horrible thing. Now Ryan did not have his summit photo. All of his cameras were in his pack. He lost them all. Ugghhh. That put a very negative spin on the whole experience. We tried to move past it, but it was hard. It rained all night. We woke up to a muddy mess.

The next day we had several more hours to the end of our Kilimanjaro adventure. More creek bed and downhill. My legs were shot. I was very happy to get to the end. We went and signed out. We had our boots washed and then hit the road. When we got to the hotel, they had “upgraded “our rooms to bigger and slightly nicer rooms. That shower was so incredible!! I felt like a new person! We all got cleaned up and then met with Eli and Stanley. We had a little certificate ceremony, took photos, and then distributed the tips. What a long strange trip it had been.