Sunday, January 26, 2014

Kili Day 5 and 6: When I Get Low I Get High

I've put off writing about the summit push because I've had a lot of difficulty putting my feelings/thoughts into digestible bits.

The idea was to sleep from 7pm until 1am. Most groups would be leaving at midnight but Baraka felt that if we left at midnight, we'd arrive at the summit before sunrise. I didn't sleep much before the summit push. The headache I'd been fighting since noon wasn't going anywhere. I knew that the porters had carried all of our water to this camp and that knowledge made me reluctant to drink much. The problem was that the Diamox still made me pee all the time so without drinking at least a gallon each day, it was impossible to stave off dehydration. I'm sure the altitude was playing a role too. I did feel weaker than usual.

 If you ever hike Kili, bring ear plugs. At 11p I heard the other groups get up, pack, and go to "breakfast." An hour later, we did the same. It was quite cold at night at 15,000'. I put on all the cold weather gear I had*, grabbed the lightest pack I'd ever carried and headed into the mess tent.

Up until this point, breakfasts on Kili had been awesome. We'd always had meat, fruit, and some carbs. Also their was typically a lot of it. As anyone who has been around me knows, I must must must eat a big breakfast. Before I ran the Bolder Boulder for the first time, I ate two strips of bacon and three scrambled eggs. The midnight breakfast that greeted us today though left a lot to be desired. In front of us was a bowl of millet porridge. That was it. I started freaking out and Baraka said, "In my experience, most people can't handle a big breakfast at this altitude." I have no choice, I thought. What I should have done is headed back to the tent and started devouring food. I had brought a lot of extra food on the hike but for some reason I didn't do that. I drank two cups of coffee, ate some of the porridge and then it was time to go.

Don't get hurt on Kili.
The summit party consisted of Walker, my dad Jeff, our head guide Baraka, the assistant guide Richard, a porter, and myself. We headed up into the darkness, climbing by headlamp. For most of the summit push, there isn't much to see except the rocks in front of you and somewhere up higher, a few strings of Christmas lights as the various trains of tourists ploded up the mountain. It seemed to me as we meandered around rocks and up and over others, that Baraka was leading us on a drunken stumble but it turns out that's the way the trail goes. 

The key to climbing mountains is to never ever think about getting to the top. I wouldn't recommend bringing this metaphor up in Tanzania but we're safe in blogland: Want to know how to eat an elephant? One bite at a time. That really is the secret to making it. The times below are rough estimates because I deliberately tried not to think about time at all.

We had only been hiking for about 30 minutes when we saw two headlights bobbing toward us. Someone's summit bid was over almost before it started. I didn't want to judge but I couldn't help but think about how much money and time it had taken to get that person to the high camp. I know that I would have had to have been dying to turn around that quickly into a summit push. 

Shortly after that we started passing people who had left before us. I felt like we were walking slowly although I could not have gone any faster. However, speed is relative. My dad said we were a bunch of 80 year-olds passing a bunch of 90 year-olds. At one point he pulled out his phone and started playing AC/DC on speaker. In the ghostly quiet darkness and with the phone struggling through the cold, the music sounded distorted. I don't know what song it was and it turns out they are all pretty appropriately titled for a tough climb, but it helped a little. 

Taken later, while Walker was in the crater
After 90 minutes or so, I started feeling really sick. It felt like a wire coat hanger was slowly slicing through my temples. My body had burned through that millet porridge in no time and I'd eaten a protein bar early but I felt so nauseous now that even contemplating food made me feel like vomiting. Walker helped me immensely. He forcefed me bits of a carrot sandwich until I started crying. After that, he poured pure glucose into a water bottle and I was able to drink that. I was shocked that my dad and my brother were kicking so much ass. They are both in excellent shape and I had expected them to do well but I had trained more than either of them. Simply put, both of them absolutely crushed this hike. When it became clear that I was struggling Baraka tried repeatedly to get me to relinquish my backpack but I felt that if I gave that up, I would actually have a harder time making it to the top. I wanted to climb it my way and that meant carrying my own pack, light though it was. We fought it out for a while and I pointed out that we had passed at least forty people and no one had yet passed us. Although I felt like shit, I couldn't be doing that badly.

The next few hours were unpleasant. I'd walk behind Baraka for as long as I could and then beg for a break. When granted, I'd immediately sit down and close my eyes until someone told me to get back up. Then I'd start walking again and we'd just repeat the cycle. Although I felt really sick, I knew I'd found a mental space where I believed I could go on forever. I wasn't able to enjoy the climb as much as I would have liked but I knew I could have gone much further if necessary. Honestly for me, the summit was never really in doubt.

The crux of the climb if one exists on Kili is Stella Point. It's more of a shelf that smells of piss but it's here that the grade lessens and if you've timed it right, the sun begins to rise. We took a much needed break here while Baraka passed around a clutch thermos of hot ginger tea. When you aren't hiking very quickly it's easy to get cold. Even with all of gear and heat packs in our gloves, Walker still lost some feeling in his toes for a few months.

The hike from Stella Point to the summit is a very gradual ridge walk. I took my time on this stretch. A beautiful sunrise now gave us a view of gnarled glaciers off to my left. Escorted by Walker and my dad, I did my best to savor the last few minutes of anticipation.

And then we were there! At 6:08, five hours after we'd started, we stood atop all of Africa! We only spent about 15 minutes at the top. It was cold and windy, and we still had to descend 9,000' to our camp spot for the night. Baraka and Walker headed off to the crater and the ash pit for some extra credit while the remaining four of us headed down to high camp. After a brief nap at the high camp, we leisurely made our way down to Mweka Camp for one last night on the mountain. On the way down, I drank tons of water and as we descended, my appetite returned. By the time we reached Mweka camp, I felt fine. Believe it or not, at Mweka camp you could buy beers for $5 a piece. I thought my dad would definitely have a celebratory brew but after a long night/day no one really felt like having a beer. The next morning, we descended back through the jungle to Mweka Gate and the end of our time on Kili.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro I experienced a lot of things, many of them unexpected. I'll remember this trip forever. The beginning three days had been extremely easy. We'd eaten dust, played with obsidion, played countless hours of cards, and eaten our weight in fresh fruit. I'd dealt with the emotions of having really poor people carry my pack, cook my food, and even heat my wash water. Lastly, I'd endured a surprisingly difficult summit push. But all of that fades into the background for me. What I'll remember and treasure forever was getting to spend every hour of every day on the mountain with Walker and my Dad. I am truly grateful.

Day 5: Barafu Camp (15,331') to Uhuru Peak (19,341') to Mweka Camp (10,065'). 10 miles
Day 6: Mweka Camp (10,065') to Mweka Gate (5,380'). 6 miles

*From bottom to top: sock liners, heavy wool socks, my trusty 15 year old Vasque full leather hiking boots, Patagonia capilene 3 long underwear bottoms, fleece lined snowpants, Outdoor Research gators, Patagonia capilene 3 long underwear top, wool sweater, North Face Nuptse Down Jacket, Columbia lined outer shell with hood, Hestra Gore Tex Gloves, wool hat, and a pair of safety glasses that Walker lent me that would stop grenade fragments and, you know, wind.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Kili Day 4: Earning it

The morning broke cold and I was anxious to get on the road. The porters were too. I never grew comfortable setting my back down outside my tent, knowing that someone else would be carrying it for me. Awaiting us was the 800' Barranco wall, better known as The Breakfast Wall. 

I quite enjoyed the Breakfast Wall. Yesterday's acclimatization seemed to have worked. I felt strong and ready to climb. The steep grade warmed me and made the hike interesting. This wall is really the only part of Kili that can be called climbing.

Once atop the wall, we continued east, gaining and losing elevation as we headed toward the Karanga River

Baraka stopped us at a perfect photo spot. Looking one way we could see Mt. Meru peeking above the clouds (below my Dad's left hand). Behind us, Kili grew ever closer. Spending a week straight with Walker and my Dad was a wonderful gift. I'll never forget this trip.

It being Halloween and the tail end of the dry season, the Karanga River was the last available water source we'd have until we reached our final camp. The porters would have to carry all of our water from here up to the high camp. Knowing this, I began limiting the amount of water I drank. I felt guilty that people were carrying their own water and mine.

Although the porters religiously purified our water they never purified their own. This is disturbing. Over 40,000 tourists attempt Kilimanjaro each year. With a support ratio of at least 3 guides/porters to each client (in our case it was 5:1), that means that a minimum of 160,000 people are repeatedly defecating on this mountain each year. Talk about putting the runs in runoff.

We showed Baraka how to use a Steri-Pen, a nifty device that uses UV rays to scramble the dna of any bacteria in the water. He indulged us but seemed fine just sticking his water bottle into the stream.

After we filled all waterbottles, we made our way to Karanga Camp, a cold, godforsaken camp perched on above the river. Karanga Camp can claim to have the nastiest restroom I have ever used. Incredibly foul. There is no reason for this camp to exist. One day of acclimation is not worth the filth and desolation. Since we were on a 6 day itinerary, we left Karanga Camp and continued up through the clouds toward Barafu camp from where we'd be making the summit push.

Karanga Camp is roughly the same elevation as Barranco Camp, where we'd spent the previous night. But in the wind, cold, and clouds, it felt so much higher. We still had 2,000' to get to our sleeping place. I still felt strong but the 3 or so hours it took us to reach the high camp were tough.

We stopped for lunch about 45 minutes from Barafu aka "Ice" Camp. I was surprised to note that I was feeling quite lethargic while Walker and my Dad seemed fresh as flowers. I had enjoyed the afternoon's conversation but this was a long day and I was ready for ginger tea and a warm sleeping bag. 

We beat a few of the porters to the high camp.The ones who were there seemed stunned at our speedy arrival. Baraka told us that we were his strongest clients ever. He might tell all his clients that, I'll never know. Despite my (I know now) dehydration and just general fatigue, I felt a surge of pride. Then I felt a surge in my bowels. This three hole outhouse was purchased on a small cliff about 50 feet from my tent. 

Baraka had told us that we should try to rest until 6pm at which point we'd get up for dinner. Then we'd sleep until midnight, grab a light breakfast and hike through the night until we (hopefully) reached the tallest point in Africa at dawn.

Sleep before dinner proved to be impossible. Unlike other camps which had room to spread out, this camp had much tighter quarters. With porters and tourists arriving all evening, hammering stakes into hard ground and in general just causing commotion, I tossed and turned in my tent. I've always had difficulty sleeping with earplugs in because it sounds like I might drown in my heart but this was one time when I really wish I'd brought a pair. 

I was really nervous about the push to the top. I have always gotten nervous when there is a physical or mental test coming and I don't know what to expect. (I barely slept at all before my first Bolder Boulder but slept soundly before the 2nd one). Above us, the trail to the stop sank into the twilight. Walker and my Dad were sharing one tent so I had the other tent to myself. I packed my summit gear, popped some Advil and then tried to get some sleep. 

Day 4: Barranco Camp (13,044') to Barafu Camp (15,331). 5 miles

Kili Day 3: Easy Trails and Roads Not Taken

This was taken on Day 2 but it perfectly captures my desire to leave the dust and unrelenting sun of Shira Camp. We again were the first to leave camp. Leaving first means that as long as one hikes quickly, one can maintain the facade of "first discovery," that one is exploring a mountain "just as the first explorers must have done it." (Snark aside, I actually love that feeling of discovery).

When people ask about climbing Kili, this is a picture that often comes to my mind. Kili is bright, much drier than I expected, and the landscape above treeline feels a bit like I imagine Mars might. 

Things go better when I have protein available. This is not a lesson for the mountains but one for life.

Baraka was a wonderful guide. He knew when to push us, when to hold us back, but most importantly he helped facilitate a wonderful trip for my father, Walker, and I. 

It was on day three that we glimpsed the Western Breach, a route I had briefly considered taking. However, this otherwise fantastic guidebook described The Breach as a dangerous and technical route. Given the costs of this trip and the likelihood we'd never be back, my family and I decided to play it safe. Once on the mountain and with the route in front of us, we felt otherwise. Feeling stronger than we all had expected to feel, the three of us boldly proclaimed that we'd made a big mistake and that we should have "made a go of it." In hindsight, I think we could have crushed the WB but given the information we had before we left, I don't regret our decision to take the route with the highest rate of successful summits.  

The goal for the day was the Lava Tower. At 15,190', this was the highest I'd ever been. We spent 30 minutes eating lunch, avoiding hungry daring mice, and acclimatizing. Walker wanted to climb the tower and although I was definitely feeling the altitude, I wish I had gone up there. Baraka was not keen on us going up the tower. He had his method of getting clients to the top and Walker's zeal seemed to surprise our guide and possibly even make him nervous. I wasn't about to admit that the altitude made me feel a bit weak so I "deferred" to our guide.

Following the "climb high sleep low" rule of climbing, we left Lava Tower and made our way down to Barranco Camp. At this point, the porters who had taken a shortcut passed us at a breakneck pace. It made my knees hurt to see them all but run down the trail. Portering is a young man's endeavor. Shortly before camp we came across the Kili version of the Saguaro Cactus, a giant Groundsel. According to Baraka, it takes groundsels 75 years to grow an arm.

Barranco Camp was wonderful. With my father resting in his tent, and the other tourists and porters somewhat subdued, Walker and I walked to this promontory overlooking the Barranco Valley. We were joined by one of the crew members, a Masai chef acting as our server on this trip (work is harder to find in the low season so sometimes cooks will take a serving job). After a while, the three of us stood in the cold and faced a beautiful sunset down valley.

Day 3: Shira Camp (12,500') to Lava Tower (15,190') to Barranco Camp (13,044'). 6 miles

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Kili Day 2: Hitting the Dusty Trail

We were the first to depart Machame Camp on what would prove to be both the shortest, and in my opinion the crappiest day on the mountain. Kili is like all of Northern Tanzania in the dry season in that dust covers absolutely everything. The hike to Shira Caves took only 4 hours but damn did we eat the dust. The dark dust filled up my nose and made it look like big black ants had died in there.

On the way to the second camp we hiked past large chunks of obsidian. Here Walker is demonstrating how to use a piece of wood to flake off sharp slivers.

We arrived at the camp before lunch. I was looking forward to lounging around and playing cards. What I realized though is that the sun, at 12,500 feet, is unrelenting. It turned our tents into sweat lodges. Sitting outside wasn't much of an option though because the dust threatened to bury us alive. Mercifully, we took a short hike away from the exposed camp and out of the wind.

This is the cooking tent and also the tent where five porters slept. Yes, they backpacked up that monstrous canister of gas. We on the other hand had two equally large tents to split between the three of us. 

Every afternoon we had thermos-fuls of freshly made ginger tea. It was awesome and a great way to stay warm and hydrated. The cooking tent in the first picture above came stocked with glass mugs (which made me cringe) and multiple kinds of hot sauce.

At this camp we met a couple from Los Angeles. They had been traveling for a very long time and the woman had a stomach bacterial issue. In a fit of madness generosity, Walker gave all of his antibiotics to this woman, who without them would have been very unlikely to summit. Thanks to Walker's drugs, she made it to the top 2.5 days later.

Spending a lot of time at this camp, I began to feel the altitude. Previously, my highest night was spent at 11,200' at the Hidden Treasure Yurts above Leadville. At 12,500', I just felt lazy. Although I would feel much worse on the summit push, this camp was the low point for me on Kili. Knowing what i know now, i would have blown by Shira Camp altogether and headed either straight to Lava Tower (and then up via the Western Breach) or at a minimum, would have skipped this camp and headed to Barranco Camp, tomorrow's destination.

Day 2: Machame Camp (9,350') to Shira Camp (12,500'). 3 miles + another mile to visit Shira Cave

Kili Day 1: Up All Night To Go Pole Pole

Shortly before we went to bed after our first real day in Tanzania, Walker, my Dad and I popped our first Diamox pill. Interestingly, my dad and Walker's doctors prescribed them twice the pills and double the dose that mine did. Diamox is a drug used for a bunch of things but it has the effect of making one's blood acidic and increasing respiration, allowing the body's blood cells to take in more oxygen. It has the side effect of making one piss all the time. So that night we each took turns getting up to pee. All night long. It was the worst night of sleep I can remember having in a very long time.

I had only briefly thought about whether to use doping Diamox or not on the mountain and I decided that I would. Three reasons: One, I didn't want to get altitude sickness. Two, I knew that this trip cost a ton of money and that I probably wouldn't be in Tanzania again so I might as well give myself the best chance to summit. Three, I honestly thought everyone else was probably taking it so why not keep up with the Joneses. I have no idea how much it helped. I did find the majority of the hiking to be quite easy.

The other side effect, which is buried quite deep in the literature the pharmacist gives you, is that often parts of one's feet tingle and feel as if they are asleep. This is a bit disconcerting when hiking but if you know about it, it's fine.

Kili Day 1. Machame Gate (5,380') to Machame Camp (9,350'). 7 miles. 5.5 hours. 

We left Planet Lodge at 7a and spent the next 4 hours driving to Kili, stopping multiple times for supplies, and then waiting while the porters (as yet unseen) divied our gear. I had and still have very mixed feelings about having someone else carry my pack. On the one hand, I think it's absurd and gross to pay poor people to carry all of their crap and some of my crap in order that I can brag to my friends that I "climbed" a mountain that the porters have been up many times. On the other hand, Tanzania ranks in the bottom 20 in countries in per capita GDP. With shallow soil, deforestation, climate change, rape from colonialism, and staggering national debt, this country is literally dirt poor. Tourism is big business and porters comprise the largest number of jobs on the mountain. It's complicated but I enjoyed having them along and I guarantee they were glad for the work.

Finally, after each porter's pack had been weighed by the Park Rangers to ensure it wasn't heavier than their limit (I think it's 20 kilos), we hit the trail. When I asked our guide about the weight limit he said that in the past, too many porters died on the mountain so now they have a weight limit.

Our guide for the trip was Baraka. If we were to summit, it would be his 206th time atop the highest point in Africa. I liked Baraka immediately. He was confident without being arrogant. He made decisions and it was clear that he was in charge but he wasn't overbearing.

We started up through wonderfully lush jungle. In the distance I could see large black and white furry Colobus Monkees. They sort of look like the Shetland Ponies of the monkey
world. Initially Baraka walked incredibly slowly. He said that if anyone passed him they would have to carry his pack. He made us walk so slowly that I seriously considered it for the first mile. After the first mile he mercifully picked up the pace.  No mizungus caught us on the way to our first campsite, Machame Camp

I could spend hours talking about this but we were waited on hand and foot while on this mountain. It was a new experience and definitely a complicated one as it was both incredibly nice and at the same time very uncomfortable. Example A: After the porters carried our packs up to camp, they set up our tents and heated water for us to wash our hands. Then they served us hot popcorn while we played cards until dinner. Awfully nice but damn it felt a lot like slavery.

Day 1: Machame Gate ( 5,380') to Machame Camp (9,350'). 7 very easy miles.