Monday, February 15, 2016

Mt. Killimanjaro, Tanzania (Jan 22-Feb 3, 2016)

BTW, Ocean, I vote for Chimpanzee.

I think it was about July, shortly after Pat summited Denali that he started talking about us climbing Killi. “Climbing” is not really an accurate description, more like “hiking”. Though it is one of the 7 summits (at 19,341 ft or 5895 metres elevation, the 4th highest of the highest peaks on each continent and the world’s highest freestanding mountain), it is a non-technical, well-groomed trail that does not require any technical gear/ skills. It’s been summited by a 7 year old (though national park rules say you have to be at least 10 to summit), and an 85 year old, and the record summit was in 6 hours and 42 minutes. Guess Pat decided it’s a “girl’s mountain”, so may as well take the scenic route with a girl since he has to check it off the list anyway. Still, that kind of altitude is nothing to sneeze at; nearly 7000 ft higher than I’d ever been before. Though >20,000 people attempt it annually, only 2/3 make it to summit, and there were 25 deaths between 1996 and 2003.

Any mountaineer can tell you, not all routes are equal. We decided to take the Grand Traverse, 10 days/ 56 miles of trekking rather than 5-6 days of trek (with midnight summit) + safari afterward; I think I’d had enough sitting for hours in a jeep stalking leopards after Comrades. It was billed as “getting to see more of the mountain” and “less crowded”, which I learned was code for “more days acclimatizing = higher rate of success”. It starts higher up at the Londorossi gate on the western side at 9498 ft, and goes the long way around the northern side of the mountain which has less rain and traffic than the more popular southern Marangu (“coca-cola route”, or easy) or the Machame (“whiskey route”, more difficult) Routes.

Getting ready for this trip was onerous and stressful. We were allowed 33 lbs in our duffel bag (not counting the 15 lb day pack we were to carry daily), which had to include layers of clothes for temps ranging from 15F to 90F, including zero degree sleeping bag, toiletries (sunscreen, bug spray, toothpaste), hand warmers, toilet paper, extra batteries and headlamps, altitude meds, etc. I already hate braving the smug couples at REI but with that massive shopping list I nearly had a heart attack from anxiety. Luckily my friend VVN, an experienced hiker, told me what I really needed and didn’t need, loaned me goretex gaiters, mitts, balaclava, etc. My biggest anxiety was, how was I going to survive 10 days without washing my hair? Luckily they make no-rinse biodegradable shampoo! 

You think you want to exit the tent to pee at night until the temps go below freezing and it’s windy/ raining, so the first thing was getting the go-girl funnel and pee bottle, which you do not want to mistake for a water bottle. 

I spent >6 hours during one of my on-call days packing, then had to re-pack after reading in the booklet that one should carry essentials like rain gear, boots, 2 days of clothes in our backpacks in case luggage is lost (like that would ever happen)…. I had also taken some photography lessons leading up to this, though I probably would have been better off getting my old point-and-shoot fixed, the SLR was bulky and I was too slow.

Was happy to get through the work week to meet Pat at Seatac, only to find our flight was delayed. As the minutes ticked away, we debated what we would do when the inevitability of missing our connection or losing our luggage happened. We landed in Amsterdam less than 8 minutes before the takeoff of the once daily flight to Killimanjaro, sprinted to the gate, grateful to make the plane. Arrived in Killi at 10 pm after 19 hours of flying without our delayed bags, and boarded a jeep with our driver Ojukwu (“call me OJ”) and a 70-71 year old couple from Boston, Lou and Donna, who were the only other trekkers in our group. The driver gave us each a litre of bottled water which seemed like a good idea at the time, but 2 hours into our bumpy backroad drive to the Ndarakwai Ranch, my bladder, which would become my worst enemy on this trip, barely made it to the bathroom.

We were greeted with chilled fruity drinks and moist scented towels to clean our hands before dinner. I ordered a Killimanjaro beer and a double whiskey- it would be the last alcohol for 10 days so better fuel up.

Day 0
The next day was a rest day. Ndarakwai Ranch is an amazing place, completely self-sufficient / solar powered, the tents were like sleeping outdoors in luxury, blue monkeys and warthogs roaming freely. We did a nature walk and saw what might have been the largest antihill in Africa as well as various antelopes. We had another Killimanjaro beer in a treehouse overlooking the property, before another luxurious meal followed by night safari.

Next morning, my bag showed up but Pat’s didn’t. I expressed gladness that if one bag were to be lost, I was glad it was his not mine, a sentiment Pat didn’t share. He had to rent a sleeping bag but luckily had packed an incredible amount of gear in his carry-on backpack. We weighed our duffels and even with some of his gear, I made the 33 lb limit. 

On the drive to the trailhead we passed locals hiking long distances on dusty roads carrying ridiculous amounts of weight on their heads, pulling carrots or potatoes by hand from soil, children playing in muddy gutters, shanties with a disproportionate number of coca cola ads, 20 people crammed in tall vans. I regreted sitting in the back/ left of our van which left me little photo opportunity, but we were zooming pretty fast.

At Londorosi gate, it was a chaotic scene with dozens of porters, vans, and just a few pale people who were obviously the tourists. On arrival to the trailhead, we were served the first of many gourmet lunches on a table with Maasai fabric tablecloth and chairs with armrests, with a dozen condiments (including Tabasco!) and warm water with which to wash our hands. The hardboiled eggs had white yolks!

We had an easy 2 hour hike to the first campsite (Shira 1), a couple creek crossings and rock scrambles but a short day. I already felt the altitude, or maybe it was jetlag, or the strong sun, sleepy and fuzzy headed, I’d wake up a few steps beyond where I remembered stepping. We were greeted by song and dance by the 30 porters and 3 guides there solely for the enjoyment of us 4 hikers, but I was too slow to get my camera on in time to catch Pat dancing! It felt ridiculous, like we were colonialists. But I heard there were some treks with only 1 hiker, and others with as many as 13.

We got our first exposure to our amazing stand-up double layer tents with padding and cots that the porters would pack up after us and have ready at next camp each day. Each morning the head waiter Isaya woke us with hot coffee or tea delivered to our tents with a soft, "helloooo?", as well as warm, sterilized handwash water at the dining tent and evening wash basins at tea hour. Each night after supper they checked/ logged our pulse/ oxygen saturation and briefed us on the next day's trek.

5 star hotel in the mountains, indeed. The food was so good it was immediately apparent, that not only was I not going to lose 10 lbs as hoped, but actually gained weight. Mmmm banana stew, lasagna, fried chicken, vegetable fritters, spaghetti, eggs, sausage, porridge, fresh mangoes, vegetable soup.....This was compounded by pretty bad constipation….

Day2: Shira 1 to Moir camp (13,700 ft). We trekked across the Shira Plateau and got our first glimpse of the crazy plants of Killi.

There are 5 zones of Killimanjaro, zone 1 (cultivated zone 2600-6000 ft ), zone 2 (rain forest 6000-9500 ft), zone 3 (heather and moorlands, 9500-13,200 ft), zone 4 (alpine desert, 13,200-16,400 ft), and arctic (16,400+ ft). All are well below the level where people need oxygen (24,000 ft), but at the peak, the O2 level is 50% that of sea level (where Seattle is). Our trek started in zone 3, heather and moorlands.

We got to know our guides, our head guide Msafiri (“M.C.”) who knew every route and had summtted >200 times, and assistant guides Polite (of Chagga tribe) and Loshie (of Maasai Tribe), and Edison (“Eddy”) who carried the emergency medical gear.

There are 120 Tribes in Tanzania, though they are educated in Swahili and English from a young age, many tribes also speak their local language. They are also trained at carrying heavy loads on their heads (water) from age 10, and all the guides were once porters. 

They seemed to be teasing Loshie relentlessly about his being Maasai, and having 15 wives though in fact he only has one. In fact, he is the grandson of a chief, and was soon to become a chief in his clan. One evening he told us about Maasai culture, how they believe all cattle belong to them, and their diet almost completely derives from cattle (they eat raw beef, cow milk and cow blood). They have multiple wives, who used to have female circumcision until it was outlawed just 10 years ago, these wives lived in their own huts with their children and visit the husband on demand, who could loan out their wives to another man of the same age. Oh, and they wear these Shukas without underwear, except of course when they are guiding tourists up to Uhuru peak, then they wear CIM marathon shirts and goretex raingear. He was affectionately called "Kit Kat"

or “Buddha” for his belly but make no mistake, he was super fit like the other guides/ porters. We even saw a female porter! It never got old seeing these porters schlepping 42 lbs of stuff on their heads, packing up behind us, passing us on the trail without poles, and having camp all set up for our arrival each day.

I learned this was their first trek of the season, there is a high season in Aug- Oct and a mini season Jan-Feb, and the rest of the year it is rainy and they just hang out in town. It seems they would all rather be on the mountain than security guards, though some trips would take them away from their families up to 10 days at a time

They talked about celebrities they had taken up to the summit, including Jessica Biel who had not one but 2 personal porters, as well as Martha Stewart who apparently trained only for 2 weeks on stairmaster.

We quickly learned common Swahili phrases,
Jambo (hello)
Mambo (how’s it going)
Poa poa (OK)
Pole pole (slowly, slowly)
Asante sana (thank you very much)
Karibu (you’re welcome)
Maji (water)- they tell us to drink 4 L of water a day but that seemed outrageous, especially when it is so difficult to pee
Bibi (grandma) i.e. Donna
Babu (grandpa) i.e. Lou

I got to practice the “rest step”, which Pat had told me about months ago. Basically, you lock your back knee and put your weight on it, then throw you back leg up and lock/ rest on your other bottom leg, which saves about 30% of energy when climbing (just like drafting on a bike!). I also got used to calling for potty breaks, which they called “Look! A Monkey!” breaks. There wasn’t much cover but no one seemed to care. 

Day3: Moir camp to Pofu camp (13,200 ft)- Pat's bag arrived! A porter carried it all the way up in half the time.
Short day to gain some altitude

Day4: Pofu camp to Rongai cave 2 (11, 450 ft)
We got good use of the rain gear this day. Mountain weather is quite changeable- pea soup one minute blazing sun the next.

Day5: Rongai caves to Kikelew Caves (11, 850 ft)
More crazy plants and caves, the mountain seems to be getting closer. It is evident the guides have studied botany. 

It was so clear you could see the constellations and Mars as bright as a flashlight at night, and the twinkling lights of Kenya across the border. But once the sun set, it got cold fast, and we needed sleep.

Day6: Kikelewa Caves to Mawenzi Tarn (14.210 ft)
Last water until summit. 1:20 AM needed to pee, peanut bladder. Could not find headlamp. Scrambled to get pee bottle, which would not stand. Reached for pee funnel and felt/ heard a “pop” followed by sudden, searing/ excrutiating low back pain. I was completely immobilized by pain, and to add insult to injury, I still hadn’t peed. I woke up Pat who had thrown out his back in the past and knew what I was going through. He pretty much had to pull me up like a sack of flour and help me pee, then help me into my sleeping bag. Crap, only 2 days until summit, what was I going to do? I had some decadron that my PMD gave me in case of altitude sickness, due to my sulfa allergy (to Diamox, the water pill usually given to prevent altitude sickness). It’s a powerful steroid, like they use to shrink brain tumors and such. I took 4 mg, and by the next morning, the pain was markedly reduced.

Next morning, I was able to move slowly but my back kept talking to me, so Pat carried my pack. Thankfully I was able to walk, though still unable to sit. I took another 4 mg decadron. Irony of ironies, I did not feel the altitude at all. 

Initially it was pea soup, but in an instant it clears. 
We do a small acclimatization hike after camp and catch some amazing views above the clouds:

Day7: Mawenzi Tarn to Kibo camp (rerouted from Outward Bound, 15, 450 ft)

We could see the porter tent shaking with song, in prayer that we would summit, again I was too slow to capture this on camera.

MC decides to reroute us from Outward Bound, a quiet camp that used to be a German school, to the more crowded Kibo Hut camp which intersects with the Coca-cola route, because well, he had concerns about me and Donna scrambling up rocks and scree the next day and chose an easier route. It was like hiking on the moon,
we could see the plants getting shorter and more sparse, and though we didn’t see any slopes it was clear we were going up. Saw remnants of a plane that had crashed 5 yrs prior.
Apparently they were able to get some survivors down the mountain in 1 wheel stretchers, though they eventually died. It would majorly suck to get sick/ break a leg on the mountain.

That night, Donna was a little anxious, though she had been doing well. I gave her a couple of my decadron, and we watched a demonstration of the hyperbaric oxygen chamber, automated defibrillator, and oxygen tanks that Eddy had been carrying around with us the entire time, all for our benefit.

Day8: summit day/ Crater camp. We are awakened at 3;30 and ready to go by 5AM. It is cold but we all feel good, “pole pole”. Early on I realized, that my bowels which had been constipated all week suddenly decided to let loose. There was this whole thing about no solid waste on the mountain, but I could not wait. Actually there was a fair amount of litter on the mountain, enough that I stopped picking it up after awhile (lots of Red Bull cans?). I found a big rock but my back was too weak to squat. I needed to pee but Ididn’t want to spray my patns. The crew was probably wondering why I was holding up the group for so long, but I was 2 lbs lighter. I had to do it again the next stop. At least I got a fantastic view of Mawenzi peak at sunrise....

We reach Gilman’s point and the porters are there with a lunch tray and hot soup.
There is still a little ways to get to the true summit at Uhuru Peak (“Freedom peak”, amazing views of glaciers.

It seemed like we hung out there for ages, but it was only 20 minutes. 

Afterward, they decide we can take a shortcut down to crater camp since trail conditions are good. I had to hang on to Polite for the long snowy descent. For the first time, I feel the altitude. My SaO2 is 73, pulse is 106, and I just can’t get warm. We saw some amazing glaciers....

Day9- descent 1, arctic to rainforest (Mweka Millennium Camp 12,500 ft). I had hoped to see the Ash pit/ crater but chief decided there wasn’t enough time to add the 90 minute hike to ash pit L well at least we got to sleep in the crater.

So we start right away descending. 7000+ ft of descent in an hour probably killed a couple toenails. 

I was more short of breath than at any other time, though I basically was leaning on Loshie the entire time, my right hand in his, a pole in my left hand. He descended so fast we passed several other groups, and I got a taste of what it must be like to be a good descender. The scree was loose and pretty scary, but he kept saying, “you will not fall, I am a Maasai warrior”. We passed Barafu camp where we unloaded a bunch of layers, then on to Millenium Camp. There we had the “tipping ceremony” which was a slight source of stress.
Lou decides to raise the tip 50+% and we have barely enough cash to meet the pool, but I was very glad to be able to do it, after seeing how hard working everyone on the crew had been. Was my life so hard? Try carrying 42 lbs on your head up to 19,340 ft elevation.

Day10- celebration (Mweka gate 5423 ft)
We left early, for 6-7 hour hike (another 7000+ ft of descending!) to the gate, got our first taste of the rain forest.
Met some other hikers who had done a shorter, southern route who had been hit with horrible weather. Like most of the short itinerary climbers, they had started summit day at midnight, reached summit in morning, stayed there 5 minutes and descended all the way to Millenium on the same day.

It was deceptively slippery and I hung on to the guides who continued to point out interesting plants. We reached the gate and I washed at a sink and saw my scary reflection for the first time in 10 daysl We got our certificates and had a bottle of champagne.

No one really cared the certificates listed our summit date as “march 1”. Then back in the van for a brief stop in Moshi for souvenirs, then 90 minute drive to Rivertrees Inn. We only had 90 minutes to shower, pack, and get to dinner before returning to airport. First shower in 10 days sure felt good! Too bad I didn’t get to try out the bath, which was decked out in rose petals, in contrast to the farmers working the fields and children walking from school in the Tanzanian-flag patterned uniforms.
Flew into Orange County for the Surf City Marathon in Huntington Beach CA. Leg/ body pretty swollen and brain still in mountain mode + jet lag. 

Hot showers! Bathroom anytime day or night! We stopped for fish tacos and margaritas at a restaurant on HB pier , where the cost of one drink could probably buy a week’s worth of groceries for a Tanzanian family. Got email from Nelvin, the porter who carried my duffel, who used the tip money to help pay for his brother's stomach operation. I hope some of the mountain sticks to me.

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