WH Chronicle No. 1.25

Uhuru Peak, Kilimanjaro, 6:00am

January 14, 2011

Alas, no internet during the regular Chronicle publishing period, and by the time the monkey broken lines were repaired, Tom had departed for Kilimanjaro.  He’s back, and now I turn this week’s edition over to him for tales of mountaineering peril and adventure.

The Accidental Mountaineer

I got a call the second week in December from a colleague asking if I was interested in climbing Mt. Meru. This is the mountain in our backyard which we can see most every day and looks fairly tame. So, why not? We make plans, check schedules, decide the three day hike will work for pocketbooks and time schedules and depart for Arusha National Park to hike to the top. 

Let the hiking begin!

First mistake: we read, and believed, the guidebook. Not only is it more expensive (the porter's union has finally taken a stand on the unbelievably poor pay wages, but neglected to tell anyone, except the park rangers), but what they consider a nice little hike to the crater became a twenty kilometer hike uphill into a wildlife park that scared even the armed guide who was with us. Now, part of the fault is ours. We demanded the  side trip to the crater which we thought would be a nice thirty minute addition. They tried to talk us out of it saying it was too far, needed four days, cost more, etc. No, we shouted, the guidebook says... Fine. They gave us our guide and sent us off. There were many beautiful parts: trees, waterfalls, monkeys, vistas. And we walked and walked and walked. Towards the end of the hike the guide told us he had never taken anybody on this particular hike before and mentioned we should hurry because it was time for the elephants and buffalo to wander back into the crater and he was concerned.
A friendly blue monkey
Yes, that is a HUGE Ficus tree
Nice place for a picnic
Luckily, we were close to the first hut where we spent the night. We did this trip on a shoestring budget which meant packing our own cooking gear and food. Of course, we did have a porter who rode in a truck up to this point. But the meal was just as good as anything the "tourists" were eating at a third the price. We didn't have the wait staff or linen napkins and candles, but we were just as sated.
The next morning treated us to what amounted to a four hour stairmaster workout. They had even cut stairs into the path. "1000 steps," our guide assured us. We were very happy to reach the next hut. This is called Saddle Hut as it sits on a ridge between big Meru and little Meru. Hikers are given the option of climbing little Meru, a 45 minute climb, in order to acclimatize. We opted to rest, knowing we had to rise at 12 midnight to begin the final ascent to the summit of big Meru.
There was a full moon. There was wind. There were clouds. We couldn't see a thing. Of course there were headlamps and flashlights, but when you climb across a rock face, you want all appendages clinging to something because a slip might mean a fall of several hundred miles, for all we knew.
The knife ridge we climbed across at two in the morning!

On a ridge below Rhino Point. How did the come up with that name?

And we climbed. And we hiked. After three hours we stopped for a breath. "Half way there," says the guide. "I quit," says I. "Twende," says the guide. "Bulls--t," says I. "Twende," says the guide. We twended.
Around another ridge. You can see the lamps of other hikers way ahead which could possibly be the stars in the sky. But, we know better. Another ridge. Another hour. I count the tiny half steps with every three beats of my heart and two breaths I take. 
Yes, there is a top to this thing. How do you get to it?

Another ridge. The sun is coming up. Kilimanjaro's lovely head presents itself above the floor of clouds. Beautiful. We are happy. Let's go home. "Twende." says the guide. "Kiss my ass," says I. "Twende," says the guide. We twended.
Sunrise, when we quit the second time
Resting place after two hours of climbing

Nobody said anything about the last hundred yards being a rock climbing trip. You can see the flag of Tanzania up above and you hold that in your mind as you dig deeper and deeper for that last bit of energy. To climb? No, to not fall to your death!
The summit is reached. A beautiful clear morning. You can see all over the world. We sign the book, take pictures, and start back. Six kilometers up, over a thousand kilometers of vertical in six and a half hours. We spend ten minutes up there.
Ash cone in crater below the peak

Socialist Peak. At the top of Mt. Meru

The descent. If you do this hike in four days, you stop at Saddle Hut and sleep to prepare yourself for the rest of the descent. No, we were too cheap. We didn't understand. So, after having hiked to the top of Meru, we now have to get to the starting gate by closing time, six o'clock. Twenty-three kilometers, all down hill. I managed to stumble into the parking lot at 5:45, but Sara, my climbing buddy, had muscle failure and they had to send a truck to collect her about half a mile from the lot. They did let us out of the park anyway.
During the hike Sara informs me she has put a deposit down on a Kilimanjaro hike for January 10th, three weeks away. "It's a student price of $850," she informs me. Wow, I could afford that. Count me in! After the Meru climb, I don't even want to look at a mountain, much less climb one. But, alas, selective memory kicks in and that sense of adventure (and price) wins out.
Climbing Kili.
We are much more prepared. A tour company has arranged everything. They will even pick me up at the door! They tell us we can rent any equipment we might need at the entrance of the park. I spend almost thirty minutes packing all the things I think I need. "Do you have sunscreen? asks Daris. Go find the sunscreen. "What about sunglasses? Where did I put those? "You'd better have some blister bandaids." What are those? Thank the Lord above that I am married to this woman or I would be dead now.
The van arrives at 8:30am Monday morning. We drive to Marangu, hence the name of this route is the Marangu route, or Coca-cola route as it is the most popular. It can be done in five or six days. We choose five. The sixth day is to aid in acclimatization since the peak is over 19,000 feet above sea level. We think we can compensate by taking altitude sickness medicine. Sara has a big bottle of it, I have 10 pills (no, we didn't ingest all of it--at least not on the first day).
We arrive at the park entrance around 11:00am and I am taken aback by the number of people waiting to start their hike. I rent poles and a balaclava (the head gear, not the Greek dessert), meet the guide, deposit our big bags with the porters and we are set to go.
Ready to hike
 The first day is a relatively easy three hours to Mandara Hut, seven kilometers. It is through rain forest and is cool and comfortable and quite lovely with waterfalls, birds, rivers and streams. Once we reach the hut we take a side hike of thirty minutes to see a small crater called Maundi Crater. Then back to the hut for supper and early to bed. The huts sleep four so you get a chance to meet many of the hikers, if you can speak their language. The first night was a man from Korea who was teaching in Tanzania and was hiking solo. That's as far as our common ground Swahili could get us.
The next morning we are up at seven and after a hearty breakfast, we hit the trail. They encourage us to eat a lot the first three days because you lose your appetite the higher you get. But there was still a ton of food and the porters practically ran up the mountain ahead of us carrying 30kg so they could set up by the time we got to the next hut.
The second day we entered the moors. Lots of heather and scrub brush. Long views all around. Occasional peaks of Kibo and her sister Mawenzi, the two peaks that comprise the volcano of Kilimanjaro. This is a five hour hike of 13 kilometers and takes us to Horombo Hut.
Beehive of activity at Horombo Hut. Kibo in the back
This is where the six day hikers will wait an extra day with a side hike up to Zebra rocks and the base of Mawenzi then on to Kibo Hut. We, of course, are not following this plan and get up on the third day to hike to Kibo Hut. At this point we have the option of going the longer route up to Zebra rocks, which we do. It adds about an hour and a half to the hike, but we think it was worth it.
Zebra rocks? Who names this stuff?
Once at Kibo Hut, you prepare for the final ascent which begins at midnight, just like on Meru. Why? Some say it is to see the sunrise, some say the weather is better. I say it is because if you could see what you were doing you would quit and go home.
Cold. It is cold. There is no heat. There is no water. You are sharing a room with nine other nervous people trying to sleep before rising at 11:00pm and hiking straight uphill to the highest point in Africa. Everyone is comparing notes on medication. "Half a pill?" "Twice a day?" "Did you take any steroids?" "Have you had any side effects?" Does enormous amounts of gas constitute a side effect? Whew"! One of the hikers gets a bloody nose. We all know about it. Please don't let it happen to me!
11:00pm the guides come to wake us up. Apparently, we go in shifts because only four of us get up and have our cup of tea and fruit; all we are given. It is very cold. Lights are turned on and we head off. The night before, our guide has approached us and told us there will be a second guide, just in case? They have been watching us all week, gauging our strength, our stamina, our speed. The catch phrase is "Pole pole." Slowly slowly. They say that elite athletes tend to fail because they try to go too fast. Smokers have a higher success rate. All the guides and porters smoke.
The first thirty minutes are pretty simple, then it gets steeper. You can see the headlamps ahead of you. We catch up to, and pass, the first set. Sara lags behind. Now I understand. Ezron, our guide, and I mush on. The next set of lights gets closer; a group of 15 Polish hikers. We pass them. Now a small cluster of four or five lights ahead and above us. We pass the 5000 meter marker. Just 700 more to go. Switchback after switchback. A brief pause to get my heart rate back in the two hundreds. Then twended. The last group of lights stopped for a break. We pass them. Now it is only us and darkness above. We trudge on. More switchbacks. There is a spot of slippery scree which I dread walking over again and again. Another pause for water. I have no idea how long or how far we have gone. At one point we stop so Ezron can have cigarette. He is feeling sleepy, he says. I fear I will have a heart attack. "Please don't let me die on this cold mountain."
A couple of years ago a man with no legs had pedaled a three wheeler bike a third of the way up this slope. He then died. There is a cross marking his passing.  
We now make it to the rocks and boulders. Still switchbacking, but over rocks. You can see the rim of the top, but it never seems to get closer. Kenya is visible to the north; Tanzania to the south. The stars are huge. Venus makes her entrance followed soon by Mars. There is a thunderstorm way to the south. We climb ever up, ever on. Ezron takes a break to go do his business behind some rocks. Geez, how much poop have I stepped in?
4:45am We reach Gilman's Point. This is the entrance on the eastern most edge of the crater. Once here you are assured of reaching Uhuru Peak, they say. I thought there would be picnic tables and port-a-potties and such, but no, just a bunch of rocks and trash, vomit, and poop (none of which belonged to me). Pause for five minutes and we are off. "Two more hours," says Ezron. "Great,"says me.
Crossing around the southern rim of the crater you walk across ice and snow and rocks and gravel. "Watch out, it's slippery. It is a long way down." Really? I can barely see my hand in front of my face. Halfway around we reach Stella Point which is the summit point for another route, the Machame or "whiskey" route. There are already people coming up. A Russian group of 10 or more and a smaller group of four Frenchmen. They are enjoying hot chai and biscuits. We pause and have a swig of...ice. The bottle is mostly frozen. It has been in my coat. We keep going. Just a little longer. The sky is getting lighter. We see our first glacier, then the second. We can see the top. At 6:00am, six hours after leaving camp, we reach Uhuru peak, the rooftop of Africa.
Ezron and I at the summit

Sunrise above Mawenzi, from Uhuru Peak

The Helms Glacier below Uhuru Peak

"We leave in five minutes," says Ezron when we arrive. I certainly understand, the place looks like Central Park in summer and getting more crowded by the minute! Not to mention it is probably -10 degrees. So a few quick snapshots including a great picture of me in warrior pose in front of the sign that Ezron took. Well, was supposed to have taken. Great guide, crappy photographer.
Sara at the top at 7:00. Imagine her with a mustache and goatee and it could be me!
Going down is cake. We pass everyone coming up shouting words of encouragement, high fiving some. There is a huge bottleneck at Gilman's Point. A sixty-five year old man has given up. "My hip joints just can't take it anymore." Everyone cheers a grandmother who finally reaches the point. We keep moving. You would think Ezron was on fire, the speed with which he ran down the mountain. Literally, ran. Jumping in the scree, straight down, no zigzagging. Felt almost like skiing. Took us two hours to get down.
Once back at the camp, I am given juice and told to rest, take a nap, until the others get back and we can pack up and go back down to Horombo Hut. Being the first one down, this gives me a three hour nap. We leave Kibo Hut at about 12:15 for the ten kilometer hike back to the hut. This time we go the shorter route and I am very glad we opted for the longer route going, because there just wasn't a lot of beauty on this hike. Very moonscape-ish. Arriving at Horombo around 3:00, we have a cup of tea, then wait until 5:00 for an early supper then into bed for a twelve hour rest.
Last day. Up at 7:00. Breakfast. Pack. Start down. It's amazing how quickly you want to walk when just days before you were trudging this same path with doubts and pains and anxieties. It goes quickly as you recall the whole experience. We arrive back at the entrance around 12:15. Exhausted. Elated. Ready for a shower.
Some side notes: Abramowitz, the Russian millionaire, brought a party of six hikers, hired two hundred porters, and did not summit. There was a "climb for cancer" which included 77 people and all their guides and porters. They say the average is about 85% success. I felt great the whole time. I don't know if it was the medication, preparedness, or ignorance, but I made it.  

"Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai 'Ngaje Ngai', the House of God. Close to the western summit there is a dried and frozen carcas of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude." 
 Ernest Hemingway

"What I learned [from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro] was this: that I had defined myself as a person who didn't like heights or cold, a person who didn't like to be dirty, a person who didn't like physical exertion or discomfort. And here I had spent five days cold, dirty, and exhausted; I had lost twenty pounds; and I had had a wonderful experience.
I realized then that I had defined myself too narrowly.
...I had always secretly defined myself as a physically weak and somewhat sickly person. After climbing Kilimanjaro, I had to acknowledge that I was mentally and physically tough. I was forced to redefine myself. Climbing the mountain was the hardest thing I had ever done, physically, in my life, but I had done it (p. 168)."
Crichton, M. (1988). Travels. New York: Ballantine Books.

With nothing more to prove (today),

PS Ian, Daris told me that since I failed to get my photo with the Uhuru Peak sign I had to go back up with you.

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