Sunday, March 23, 2008

Just Like Kilimanjaro Rising from the Serengeti, or How We Bumbled our Way to the Roof of Africa

Day 1: After a fitful night of sleep in which I dreamed that our porters were going to be evil, we were picked up by our team and taken to the office where we met our wonderful 11th hour addition to our hiking team, Willa-Lee Reid, a Canadian from Vancouver, by way of Edmonton. After intros and final formalities, we were off to the Machame Gate to start the climb.

One of the problems with researching, waiting and building the expectations for an event is that you start to believe the thumbnail sketch of how the hike will progress. So, when we started, I expected the first day to be a leisurely stroll up a gentle incline-a sort of warm-up for the difficult days. And, while the day did not turn out to be a monster, it was a little steeper than expected. The environment is absolutely stunning on this stage; lush rain forest with hanging moss off of every tree. In keeping with a hike through a rain forest in the beginning of the rainy season, it took only an hour of hiking for the rain to begin.

Day one also also served as an immersion in one of the central experiences of the climb. Hiking Kili is not like any other hike. You don't hike alone, you hike with 100-odd tourists and 600-odd porters/cooks/guides. The effect of this massive entourage going up a mountain is that you loose that intimate "commune with nature" vibe but gain a "we are all in this together" brotherhood vibe.

Day 1 Group: Day one we were joined by a group that would be known by our trio as "the Kathmandu-ians," but officially the Hollander family-Judy, Brian and Jesse. Though Americans living in Kathmandu, the three won the award for most inventive way to meet up for a trip with (if I remember correctly) Judy coming from Goa, Jesse from Laos and Brian from Rwanda. We had a wonderful chat going up the hill comparing all of the omens that seemed to align for our trip-though there was some debate as to the possibility of a full moon being on tap for our summit day. Put simply, Judy was of the opinion that whatever day we were to summit was the day that it would not be a full moon. Our group has to admit that we did razz Judy a bit for her anti-Pollyanna phrasing. But we kept up the optimism, believing the confluence of leaving on St. Paddy's Day, shortly followed by Good Friday, with a full moon thrown in for good measure would keep the gods on our side throughout the hike.
Day 2: After a good night's sleep, and by that I mean the "going to bed by 8 pm in a wet tent to escape even more torrential downpours" variety of good night's sleep, we awoke ready for a solid 6 hour day of hiking. Day two was a bit more difficult of a hike--with much more scrambling up boulders and rocky ledges than day one's stroll through the rainforest. We also saw the terrain change on day 2 from lush rainforest to hardier cactus-like vegetation and the beginning of colorful ever-present mossy boulders.

Although we took our time--"pole pole," or "slowly slowly" in Swahili being the oft-repeated mantra of guides and porters as we made the steady ascent--we started to feel the difference that altitude can make. Even moving slowly, you begin to feel like you're not getting all of the oxygen you need and getting your breathing and heartbeat down to resting levels takes a bit longer than on a usual hike. And "pole pole" roughly rhyms with "Wooly Bully" which can get stuck in your head and drive you a little crazy. As a group, we tried to break up the "Wooly Bully" theme repeatedly, but it kept on coming back! I guess Sean Kingston isn't powerful enough magic...

Day 2 Group: Today we met Steve, a nearly 50 year-old Kiwi who had been planning the Kilimanjaro climb to coincide with his 50th birthday for as long as he could remember. At the end of day two, he was looking sunburned and worse for wear, but determined to make the summit on his birthday. Steve's birthday became another good omen for us all. His trials and tribulations of sharing a tent with a snoring South African who managed to keep not only Steve, but half of the campsite awake on night one, also gave us something to laugh about.

Day 3: Day three was set to be the first of the hard days of the climb with an accent from 3100 to 4600 meters at "Lava Tower" and then back down to 3900 meters for acclimatising. The hike took us through the most varied terrain yet, starting with alpine scrub , passing through a lunar-like landscape up to some austere rock outcroppings and back down into a valley full of the most bizarre giant cacti that I have ever seen. Willa-Lee, Kristi and I were downright cocky after the 6 hours of hiking. While it wasn't an easy hike, we were told that this was going to be one of the hardest days of the 6. We finished without any of the altitude sickness that we were warned about, save for Willa-Lee's occasional headache. (Stay tuned for day five to see the three of us get our come-upance).
Day 3 Group: Okay, of the 100 odd tourists, we really enjoyed all of them. Well, all but a few. Needing an enemy, we (or maybe just me) decided on a group of 8 English university students who failed to say hi to us on a few occasions. Truthfully, they were fine people but I began to develop a somewhat imagined animosity for them. They would pass us in the mornings (often with there guide singing songs and seeming far too assured with the altitude and steepness of the climb) and we would spend the days passing and being passed by them. Stay tuned for day five when I rise above my pettiness and show what a big man I can be...
Day 4: Day four saw the continuation of the lunar landscape and another day of mostly slow and steady climbing over varied terrain. Dennis showed he had the right stuff by scaling rock faces overlooking cliffs with grace and aplomb. Maybe he was delirious from the altitude, but his fear seemed to vanish and he might have even said it was fun! It was also the beginning of the truly slow shuffle uphill that would characterize the ascent day, where even the thought of moving your feet more than a few inches seems impossible. Ah, altitude.
After a stop-over for lunch, it began snowing, and we spent the next 3 hours battling the wind and snow to make it to our cold and rocky campsite at 4600 meters.

Day 4 Group: Today we met Dean, who like Willa-Lea was from Edmonton. Strange coincidence? Shortly after, we met Lindsay--yet another Edmontonian. We began seeing conspiracies and worried about the dissolution of our team, until Willa-Lee introduced a new team name, "BC/ DC," and thus our fear of abandonment and team spirit were restored! Plus, nothing builds team spirit like making an enemy out of a friend, which was easy when we saw that Dean was served a hot lunch instead of our cold boxed lunches! We decided to forgive Dean and since we kept about the same pace, got a chance to chat some more with him on the climb that day.

Day 5: Summit day. So this is the day that seemed romantic in theory but sucks in real life. Essentially, we were supposed to catch a few hours of sleep, awake at 11pm and begin climbing at midnight by moonlight. Trying to sleep was impossible for me. Just the idea of the 4000 odd feet I had to climb in a few hours negated the restful state necessary for sleep. Plus, realizing that the constant rain-sleet-snow-ice-fog-icy rain of the four days had reduced all of my warm gear to various levels of dampness made me a bit panicky for a midnight, sub-zero trek.
But at midnight, sleep or no sleep, we set off for the summit. We all had our headlamps on but soon realized the full moon and the thin altitude combined to make the trail easily visible and quite beautiful. The opening few hours passed in a dream-like haze with the bluish light making it quite easy to stare at the feet of the person in front of me as we went up the trail. The only real memory I have of that stretch was a flurry of thunderstorms below us on the mountain lighting up the sky a freakish yellow orange. We all wondered if being on top of the tallest peak in Africa during a thunderstorm was the smartest thing in the world, but our guide, John, assured us it would be just fine.
All seemed to be going fine until about 3 am when we began the ascent to Stella's point. The hill does not seem to ever end. About half way up, I hit the first real freak-out of the entire trek. Trying to deal with the soaked layers of clothing, I decided (in a rush of supreme misjudgement) that it would be smart to strip off all of my shirts, turn them inside out and put them back on. Remember, it is well below zero, I'm having trouble breathing, and I am now shirtless. After throwing my clothes back on, my hands suddenly start to burn, then really burn, then really really burn then go completely numb in a manner of 10 seconds. I panic. Luckily, John and Richard (our assistant guide) do not panic and proceed to massage my hands and blow into them until I regain feeling. All the while, the two of then spoke in Swahili mentioning the nearest hut. I started to worry for the first time that I wouldn't make the summit. But pig-headedness may be my one saving grace. The idea of writing an entry and saying I was 1000 feet of the summit and had to turn around just pissed me off. So up we continued.
It's hard to exaggerate the absurdly slow pace of the hike to Stella's Point. The three of us were taking 6 inch steps in a shuffle pattern and getting ridiculously winded. After three hours of this shuffling, we got to the final bend and saw our first glimpse of the summit beacon. Here was when Willa-Lee had her first problem of the final day. As she described it, she could see the summit and thought that she was walking towards it but kept finding herself swerving off course.
Kristi, on the other hand recovered from being winded on the major accent and is probably single-handedly responsible for helping me make it to within sight of the summit as I had my second major setback. Seems that at nearly 20,000 feet the limited oxygen can make you hallucinate. And for me that meant small gold rodents darting all around me while I lolled my head like a drunken Stevie Wonder. Kristi, champ that she is, linked my arm and led me onward.
When we got to the final 500 feet, the critters went away and the adrenaline cleared my head. I have to admit with all of the dreaming, planning, frostbite, muscle aches, dampness, expectation and work, the only thing I could do was start blubbering, then laughing, then blubbering.
We stood at the summit for 20 of the coldest and proudest minutes of my life taking in the stunning blue glaciers, the view of all of the mountain and cities stretched out below us and the snaking lights of fellow hikers streaming up the ridge. We had finally made it and watched the sun slowly rise from the roof of Africa.
Group update: It was a full moon, and we loved mentioning it to Judy as we passed the Hollanders on the way down and gave them some encouragement.
Steve made it to the top with everyone we talked to agreeing that they got a little choked up when they saw him near the summit. Happy birthday, man!
The Eight English Students reached the summit 5 minutes after us but, as a big man rising above the petty animosity of small people, I would record in the ranger log that we reached the summit at the same time-6:15 am. Let those English naredowells believe that they can bask in the reflected glory of team BC/DC. But, we will all remember (with all due humility) that we reached the summit at 6:10am, now didn't we?!
Dean seemed to be planning to mug us just short of Stella's point as he stood trail side-unmoving in the shadows. Creepy, or maybe it was just the altitude. He did make it to the top shortly before us, even though he looked like he was about to pass out as we passed him on the trail.
Other friends of BC/DC: Collin, our Irish trekker who had some real problems on day four (headaches and vomiting) rallied and summited right behind us. We were really happy for him.
Adie, the snoring, loud-mouthed South African who shared a tent with Steve (and had a birthday the night before the summit) made it to the top after his guide (who had endured Adie's taunts throughout the hike) relished goading him on for the final kilometer.
The Norwegians, who were quite nice throughout the hike, also made it.

Day 6: I guess it's not surprising that we didn't mention the rest of day 5, because everything after the thrill of the summit seemed to pale. Plus, the days bleed together when you wake up at midnight! It did turn out to be a 12-hour day of hiking, including a three hour straight descent through almost fluffy volcanic ash, which was a pretty thrilling, ski-like experience. We followed that by a one-hour nap and some soup, and then another three-hour descent--this one much less ashy, and much more toe-crushing.
After a well-deserved night of sleep, we set off for our final, day 6 descent. The entire day served as a reverse order review of all the landscapes we had seen. The only difference was that the way up took 5 days, while the downhill took 6 hours. We finished day 6 with a comfortable walk through the rainforest down to the main gate where we received our "diplomas" for reaching Uhuru peak. After a small lunch and bottle of Champaign provided by the company, we went to the nearest hotel for a long awaited shower and and an even longer awaited dry and warm bed for sleeping.

Day 6 Group: We got to say goodbye to the Hollanders and got to continue hanging out with 2/3s of the Edmontonian crew, Dean and Willa-Lee for another day in Moshi. Sadly, we did not see Steve to wish him a happy half-century.
We finally had to say goodbye to our crew, or our "entourage" as we affectionately referred to them. Other than our guide, John, and our assistant guide for summit day, Richard, without whom we literally would not have made it, we were rolling with a crew of 6 porters and our amazing chef, Joachim. It should go without saying that doing a 6 day mountain climb requires a lot of preparation and equipment--and fortunately for us, our entourage took care of all the details and allowed us to just think about the climb one day at a time. We were constantly amazed by how the porters on Kilimanjaro were able to balance heavy loads on their backs, heads, and shoulders, and nearly run past us every day, managing to have camp and meals set up as we hauled ourselves up the mountain. In short, they're the reason that rank amateurs like ourselves were able to succeed on this climb--thanks guys!


Lee said...

Wahoo! Congratulations! We've been thinking of you all week. Thanks for the day by day account. Kili is now on my "i'm gonna get there someday" list.

zeul said...

Sounds like quite the experience. As John likes to say and I feel likewise, "you'll never catch me dead on top of a mountain", but kudos to you for making the trek!

tracy said...

Awesome! I am quite proud of you two.

Ben said...

Congratulations. Now there are only six continents you have yet to stand on the highest mountains of... on which you haven't stood on the highest mountain... something like that.

Really, that's a big uphill hike. Glad you survived and thank you for sharing. I'm really digging following your blog

Thomas said...

amazing! i'm proud of you guys...congrats!

Vera said...


But I sure hope Denis hasn't any serious brain damage after this experience and that the "I take off all my shirts, turn them inside-out and put them on again at 0 degrees outside" was just an effect of the lack of oxygen...