Sunday, January 25, 2009

Kilimanjaro, Part 2

The climb starts off easily enough; the first three days are a fairly straightforward, non-technical trail route up to base camp. The longest day was six hours, and we never hiked more than a few miles. The elevation gain was never excessive. And the trail looked something like this:

Pretty cushy, and with no real load on my back, it was all I could do to keep from jogging ahead of the pack. "No, no!" the guides would yell after me. "Pole pole!" Slow down.

Which I did. I was good. I dutifully trudged along, one slow footstep in front of another, the entire time convinced that this was silly and I would be fine if they would just let me rush on ahead.

I was wrong. Oh, so very wrong. I managed about an hour of regular marching pace before I was forced down to a slow trudge. Which was good, I guess. The slower I walked, the more I was able to appreciate the utterly gorgeous scenery surrounding me. The environment changed fast.

One day we were in forest.

Not long thereafter, we were hiking through scrubland.

Then, on our final day before reaching basecamp, we walked through a rocky, plantless wasteland. The only living forms we could find were tiny hardy little plants sheltered under rocks. It was amazing to see the almost completely dead wasteland only scant miles from a verdant, green forest.

And then, all of a sudden, we were above the clouds.

And there it was. That was what we were going to climb. Big, vast, and intimidating. And covered in snow.

A few days ago, I had been walking around drenched in sweat in the back streets of Zanzibar. Being that close to the snow now was weird. Sure, I knew it was going to be there. But still. Weird. This was the first patch of snow we saw.

And then, after a long arduous hike, we made it to base camp. Up to this point, we'd been more or less alone on the mountain. There were one or two other groups that were leapfrogging us the whole way up, but we had the trail essentially to ourselves. But basecamp was crowded. There were dozens upon dozens of hikers (not counting porters and guides) already encamped. And this was the first camp we visited with permanent structures -- huts for those who didn't want the camping experience.

We were at basecamp. The next day, at midnight, we were to start the last, hardest day of hiking. After a short dinner, we crawled into our tents amidst falling snow. In the middle of summer.

I lay there in bed, exhausted and fully aware of the long, hard day ahead of me. And I couldn't sleep. Oh, I wanted to. And I was exhausted. But my heart would not stop pounding. I was perfectly calm, at reast, and my pulse was racing as though I had just finished a mile-long sprint. And it would not stop.

And I couldn't sleep. I lay down, closed my eyes, and rested for 6 sleepless hours.

At 11:30, I was raised from rest for a short snack, and we all geared up.

At midnight, on a beautiful, moonless night, we set off through the snow, ready to attempt the summit.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Kilimanjaro, Part 1

Before I advance too far into this story, let me make a caveat.

Climbing Kilimanjaro is kind of cushy.

Oh, certainly it's hard work -- I don't think I've ever had such an intense workout in my life. But consider:

The entire route up is a trail. The most technical part of the climb is a scramble of about 50 meters or so on the very final approach of the summit (or, rather, the lip of the crater -- the distinction will be elucidated later, when it actually matters). You can make the whole trip with nothing more than a good solid pair of hiking boots, which I did. No crampons, no ropes, no belaying, none of that. Just warm clothes and boots.

More importantly, you get porters. You do not, in fact, have to carry your equipment yourself. Or your clothing. Or much of anything at all, in fact, other than water for the day. For the five people in our party, we had no less than 10 porters and 3 guides. Yes, that's two porters per person. Witness our support crew:

What do porters mean on a trip like this? Well, for starters, they mean that all your gear -- your sleeping bag, your clothes, your Thermarest, your iPod -- goes up on someone else's back. They mean that you have a tent set up when you're done with your long, arduous hike.

They mean that you get a piping hot cup of tea, along with popcorn and biscuits, waiting for you at the end of every day.

So there's that. I admit to being a little more pampered on this trip than expected.


The camp entrance to Kilimanjaro is already at about a mile of altitude and after that it's all uphill. Every day adds another kilometer or so to that number. Sure, it's a kilometer of gradual ascent, but it's there. The altitude and lack of acclimatization are killers. The entire climb up is taken at a pace I would describe as a "sullen mope". One foot ever-so-slowly in front of the other.

Altitude sickness is a very real worry. If you take it too fast or don't drink enough water, you risk experiencing what is colorfully described as "the worst hangover of your life." Some non-trivial percentage of people experience symptoms of altitude sickness on the climb. Every year a couple people die. On our very last day, we saw a woman -- a woman we'd been happily chatting with as we passed each other -- carried down the mountain on a stretcher. (Don't worry: it looked like she was going to be fine).

So, then: slowly up the mountain. Or, as our guides helpfully told us every hour or so in Swahili: "Pole pole".

Prepared, bussed out to the base of the mountain, we suited up and set out on the first day of climbing.

Oh, yeah. It rained the entire first day.

Next post: climbing!


This is just wrong.