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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Reach for the sky

Back down from Kilimanjaro, I wasn’t as sore as I thought I’d be. I was aware of my muscles (calves and glutes especially), but not to the extent I expected after eight days of hard hiking. When I reflect on summit night, I realize that as soon as I was sure I couldn’t make Uhuru Peak—or the crater rim, for that matter—the sooner I turned around, the better. No point climbing higher only to have a longer descent. 

Back at Barafu camp after the summit attempt. 4,600 m
I got several hours of sleep in my tent back at base camp, which is more than those who reached the top got. I credit this with my not stumbling and hurting an ankle or knee on my way back down later that day, because the Mweka Route is the worst on the mountain. It took me, Tommy, the other descending climber, and her assistant guide, the wonderfully named Happygod, a long time to get down to Mweka camp. In that time we saw two porters, separately, wipe out on the trail, one of them really hurting his ankle. Some companies just don’t care how much their porters carry or even if they have adequate footwear, and they’re always in a hurry.

I learned some other things on Kili and I hope they’ll help anyone who might be contemplating the challenge, because it’s well worth undertaking. One thing is the dirt. If you spend any time in Tanzania in the dry season, you already know how much of it is just dust, but the dirt on Kili gets into everything. Nose, mouth, lungs, fingernails. Everything you wear or sleep in. I am not a prissy person but I wished my niece had been there to paint my nails some gaudy color, just so I wouldn’t have to see how filthy they were. I almost cried when I got back and found the lodge had booked us a room with a bathtub. You’d cry too if you saw what the tub, or sink, looked like after I tried to wash up.

There are no boundaries on the mountain. Everyone talks about the toilet all the time. (I suggest skipping to the next paragraph if you’d rather not have some practical information.) You quickly lose any inhibitions you have about using a tree, rock, or whatever you can find, or indeed the long-drop outhouses that are found at campsites and periodically along the trail. I was fortunate enough not to need a trowel for burying anything, but I do think it’s pretty awful how people leave toilet paper lying around. (Someone complained about how difficult it is to use the squat toilets but I assure you, if you’re not able to maintain that position, your legs aren’t strong enough to carry you up Kili anyway.) A brilliant suggestion I read, which I wish every woman on Kili knew about, is the use of “panty liners” or whatever they’re called on a day-to-day basis. It minimizes the need for T.P. when you’ll be glad of any savings in time and energy. Also, that expensive “wicking” underwear can live to fight another day. 

In general, it’s depressing to see litter in a wild place and especially on a world treasure like Kilimanjaro. Why anyone would throw candy wrappers or hand warmers down on the trail, I do not understand. Carry a Ziploc bag and pack any trash out. I would do this on any hike.

Something I brought and never used: soap. It never came out of my bag. The crew provided soap and hot water periodically for washing, but there was minimal opportunity to wash anything other than hands. What you can’t bring too much of is hand sanitizer and wet wipes. You definitely want to avoid any kind of tummy upset under the circumstances. The American gals in the tent next door had so much baby powder and dry shampoo going on, they joked about what Albert and Muhammad, the tent guys, thought when they shook out their tent in the morning!

One other thing that someone suggested, but ended up being useful for a different reason: Bag Balm. I’d read somewhere that it would be useful for keeping cuticles soft (everything gets so dry and crusty in the cold, dry, thin air). But Bag Balm really came into its own for greasing my feet before I put on liner socks. It kept me from forming “hot spots” that would have been painful blisters. Without blister prevention (and the “second skin” plasters you put over hot spots to keep them from forming), there is no way I could have kept walking.

So much for the practical. The drive to Londorossi Gate is one of the longest starts to any route up Kili. We were lucky enough to see giraffe and zebra on the way.
Not the best picture, but you can see a zebra standing between the giraffes. Ca. 2,360 m
We also saw colobus monkeys at our first campsite, but they eluded my camera. As did the stars, that night and every night. I was amazed not to find other people outside at 8:00 PM (“backpacker’s midnight”) looking at the Milky Way. You’ve never seen a sky full of stars brighter or clearer than over Kilimanjaro.

I kept having this feeling: that I was on the mountain for somewhat different reasons from other climbers. Ours was a great group, but they tended to spend their time in camp hanging out in the dining tent (we were very well fed and watered, which helped). I liked them but could not spend all my time in there talking about the toilet and who was taking Diamox. I wanted to get out from the crowd and appreciate that I was in nature.

One of the guys brought a mirror. I don't know how he could stand it. I didn’t see myself for over a week and I could tell I wasn’t missing anything. It felt great just to get in the tent after a day’s hiking, change out of boots and socks and into fresh clothes for the night and following day. And I loved the idea I read to wear a necklace or some small reminder of looking nice, even though I’m not into conventional femininity. Anything just to feel a little bit normal and clean!

Stretching was a good idea, as often as possible. It helped me go to sleep warm and kept me from waking up too stiff. Another idea the girls in the powder tent had, too, was to cut off drinking liquids at a certain point in the evening, to keep from being up the entire cold night. Of course, this presumes you’ve had your minimum 3 liters of water (plus soup, tea, etc.) during the course of the day.

White-necked raven on the outhouse at Shira 1 camp. 3,500 m
Hydration is critical up there. I get a dehydration headache if I don’t drink enough at any elevation, and on the mountain, you’re breathing really dry, dusty air. They say “breathe through your nose” but I found that impossible a lot of the time—too stuffed up. Every time I even thought about getting a headache or suffering from altitude, I automatically took a sip from my Camelbak. It turned out to be easy to drink 3 L a day.

The kind of person I am is, I had planned and prepared meticulously for this trek for so long that when I was finally there, all I had to do was follow through. It didn’t turn out to be that simple, of course, but I did try to be there in each moment. One of the Canadians kept wanting to see the peak of Kibo, saying “That’s our goal,” but I wasn’t that focused on the goal. I needed to walk each day and in the end, that was all I could do. 

As I’ve mentioned, the crew took ridiculously good care of us. Muhammad and Albert dusted our boots off when we came into camp (to be fair, this kept them from having as much dirt to shake out of our tents the next morning). Everything, including the duffel bags, were set up for us; I couldn’t even put my trekking poles in my “verandah” without some porter helping me. By the way, for those who were worried that I threw the duffel bag away at the end of the trek: It, together with a number of items I have no need to carry around the world with me, were donated to my trekking company to give to porters. I even hand washed the technical shirts rather than give them something dirty. It gives me pleasure to think some hardworking Tanzanian will soon be seen on the mountain wearing a Toronto Pride & Remembrance Run T-shirt. 

The cook, David, fed us lots of carbohydrates and familiar “Western” foods, but we also got to try ugali, a kind of stiff corn porridge used to scoop up delicious greens; banana fritters; and lots of tropical fruit. Our guides also performed twice-daily health checks using pulse oximetry. The jury is out on whether oxygen saturation measured this way accurately predicts acclimatization, but it was good of them to keep an eye on us. My pulse has never been particularly slow and whenever it’s measured it goes up automatically, so I raised eyebrows even before we left the lodge. I joked that I had “orange hat syndrome”—reacting every time I saw a guide coming with the pulse oximeter. The head guide described my “resting” pulse as “like police car.”

Kibo from Shira 1 camp, third morning
On the third day I reached the highest altitude I’d ever been at: over 10,000 feet. The sky cleared and before dawn I could see the highest peak, Kibo, clearly outlined right outside my tent door. There was a beautiful half moon. That night we camped at the little-used Moir Hut, an alternative to the main Lemosho Route, which meant we were the only group camping there. We had time for an acclimatization hike to a higher altitude before supper. There was a bit of “proper traversing” on this, which should have clued me in to all the rocks to come, but I had no headache or ill effects from the climb itself. Everything was tired, but nothing actually hurt. I didn’t want to turn around on summit night because I’d skipped a “bonus” hike.

That third day was particularly nice. I really enjoyed hiking the Shira Plateau, which is what's left of the oldest peak of Kilimanjaro, and the beautifully quiet campsite and first clear views of Kibo. We were a strong group and that did not yet feel like a drawback to me.
Me (and Kibo) at Moir Hut. 4,200 m
My Canadian Olympic winter hat (“toque”) got the odd handslap and cheers of “Canada” on the trail. At Barranco camp the next night, a couple of women from Calgary came over and started talking to me. Their Canadian gear, naturally, consisted of Mountain Equipment Co-op stuff. I told them one of our team was from Calgary too. The guy with the mirror!

The stars were still amazing, but everything was feeling like a lot of effort by the fourth night. And my teammates seemed to be focused just on the summit, not Tanzania. They had stories of other adventure travels they had done or wanted to do. They were there for different reasons from mine, and maybe that’s what propelled them upward.

The descent from Lava Tower campsite, our second acclimatization ascent, into the Barranco Valley was interesting as we started to see all kinds of vegetation again. I wasn’t able fully to appreciate it though, because of constantly having to watch my step on the rocks. I was at the head of the line that day, paced by assistant guide Amadeus, and as a result, I was happy with the pace. Reaching Lava Tower was a highlight, as it's just 7 m lower than the highest mountain in Switzerland.
Lava Tower campsite. 4,627 m
David and the crew even served us a hot lunch at Lava Tower campsite! If I didn’t make it, it wouldn’t be because my appetite was gone.

The distinctive groundsels of the semi-desert, Barranco Valley
People spent a lot of time running around trying to get a phone signal. I didn’t get it. Hadn’t we come here to spend time in nature doing something unusual? I wasn’t planning even to turn my phone on, except as a backup camera on the seventh day.
There were some cocky men who had held us up on an earlier day, pushing their guide to pace them faster, then slowing down so we had to keep stopping behind them. Now they were suffering from the altitude. I thought, at least I know better than that: snail’s pace for me. But the fifth day brought scrambling up the Barranco Wall.

I cannot imagine the routes that do our fifth and sixth days’ hike all in one day, and then summit at night. I found the hike from Barranco to Karanga camp, and then up to Barafu on the sixth day, to be bloody hard work. It was a shock to adjust so well to the altitude, and sleep well at night, yet find all the up and down rocks to be so exhausting. When I got into camp on the sixth day, Innocent (one of the Innocents) gave me a hug!

I wrote in my last post about feeling pushed and worn out, and how I just didn’t have enough energy left on summit night itself. When I was walking back down with Tommy, I immediately felt warmer and better than I had at 5,200 m. I looked around and saw a bright red crescent moon, and the lights of Moshi far down below. I like that I had the presence of mind to appreciate that.

Back at Barafu camp, I was at the same elevation as Lava Tower campsite—4,600 m. I could eat only pure sugar, so thanks to the friends who gave me Kendal’s Mint Cake, which was eaten by the first men to summit Mount Everest. 

Once we got back down to Mweka camp and the hard part of the descent was over, I was determined to enjoy the final day in the forest. I felt lucky because missing the summit might have ruined the trip for some of my teammates; they were so oriented towards it. I enjoyed a lot of my trek but I was also humbled by how unbelievably hard it was.

Glad to be back in the forest. Ca. 1,800 m
Someone at supper asked if I was going to give T. a big hug when I saw her. Yes, but shower first! We all agreed that she was really smart not to have come on this challenge, as even those of us who wanted to do it were taxed to our limits. 

Oh yeah, one more thing. On the way up everyone was debating the usefulness of a “pee bottle” and being able to take care of this without going out into the cold multiple times during the night. Only one person was successful, and she (I) was careful not to acknowledge this until the whole climb was over. The She-Wee had not proven necessary along the trail, but it really came into its own in a single tent ;-)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Much good advice that gives a real feel for the details of the trek. Our 2 favorite sentences, one from the ascent, the other from the descent: "You've never seen a sky full of stars brighter or clearer than over Kilimanjaro." And "I looked and saw a red crescent moon and the lights of Moshi far down below." Groove & Pop