The Climb Begins!
(February 17-21, 2011)
Kilimanjaro, with its three volcanic cones, Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira, is an inactive stratovolcano in north-eastern Tanzania and the highest mountain in Africa at 5,895 metres or 19,353 ft above sea level (the Uhuru Peak/Kibo Peak). Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest freestanding mountain as well as the 4th most prominent mountain in the world, rising 5,882 metres or 19,298 ft from the base.
We woke, ate breakfast, had our last shower for the week, packed our backpacks, and threw the rest of our gear into our duffle bags. Several porters came to our rooms to gather our duffel bags. We would be responsible for our backpacks; they would carry our duffel bags to each campsite. Magically, as the days went on, our backpacks became lighter and our duffel bags would became heavier.
It was time. Debbie, Adam, Mirae, and I threw on our backpacks and walked the short distance to the trailhead of the Rongai Route that would lead us to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was here that we met the 17 porters who would be accompanying us on our 7-day journey.
Two things had to happen before we could take our first steps into the Park. First, the necessary fees had to be paid. This included a Rescue Fee, Park Entry Fee, Camping Fee, and a Porter/guide Entrance Fee. Since we were using the road less traveled, we had to wait until the fees were paid at the main entrance (on the other side of the mountain) by the head of our travel company, and then phoned in to the park ranger guarding our entrance.
While waiting for the “OK” to begin the hike, all the gear was being weighed. Porters are not allowed to carry more than 15 kgs (33 lbs.) of gear. This is regulated by the park service to prevent abuse by unscrupulous outfitters. Everything necessary to sustain us on our seven-day, 60-kilometer trip would be carried on our backs and the heads of our porters. Everything included: 6 tents (one mess tent), food, stove, propane, dining table, chairs, sleeping bags, pots, pans, plates, clothing, personal gear, silverware, etc. Based on the total weight, we required 14 porters. In addition, we had one guide (Iddi), one assistant guide (Makesh), and a cook (Joe).
Once word came down that the fees were paid, Iddi sent us ahead with Makesh to begin the journey. Iddi would supervise the porters and catch up with us later. Off we went. So young, so eager, so ill prepared. Mirae, our Korean-Australian-British companion, who we had rescued from the bus two days earlier, had packed as if she were going on a two-day sleepover at the zoo. An hour into the hike, I realized I had packed far too little alcohol….none! What was I thinking? An hour later, Iddi had caught up with us. Thirty minutes after that, the porters were passing us, carrying everything on their heads.
For the first five days, we ascended and slept at five camps:
1. First Camp: 8,858.27’
2. 2nd Cave: 11,318.9’
3. Kikelawa Camp: 11,811.02’
4. Mawenzi Tarn Hut: 14,173.23’ (small lake)
5. School Hut: 15,583.99’ (base camp)
By the way, when each step is measured in inches (especially at altitude), one wants to get credit for each step, hence the precise altitude measured to two decimal places.
If you want to know all about the flora and the fauna and the seven thermo-climes that we trekked through, buy the book. For the most part, day one was hot and dusty. Hiking through potato fields, and forests with high canopies, Saying “Jambo” to every passing resident with a bag of potatoes on their head. Yeah, we were cool. We knew one word in Keswahili.
At noon we stopped for lunch by a stream with two picnic tables. Our cook and a couple of porters had already prepared lunch and were waiting to serve us. It was here, that we became acquainted with the drop-toilet. It is an outhouse with a concrete or wooden floor, and a hole in the middle. On each side of the hole is a slightly raised (1”) step the shape of a foot. It was apparent the footsteps had two purposes, to help with your aim where you couldn’t see, and to keep your feet off the ground for those with terrible aim. Some of these outhouses seemed to be perched over open caves, which proved to be an interesting experience when the wind was blowing into the cave and up the hole.
All of the camps had several of these toilets. “Going” anywhere else was discouraged for ecological reasons. Although too much time has been spent on this subject, it was actually a much talked about topic of discussion. So much so, that we developed a “T” (toilet) rating for each building. Going first and returning with a “T” rating would determine whether or not it was wise to search for another on higher ground.
Arriving at First Camp (8 km) we discovered our tents pitched with our duffel bags inside. Tossing our backpacks on the ground and putting on our camp shoes, it was time for Tea. Waziri would bring warm water to our tents to wash up with. Tea and coffee along with peanuts or fresh popcorn was served as an appetizer. All quite civilized.
After approximately one hour of free time to rest or explore, Iddi would gather us up for our acclimatization hike. This involved hiking approximately 1,000’-2,000’ above the campsite and sitting for 30 minutes. Since Mt Kilimanjaro is the tallest free standing mountain in the world, we generally had a clear view of a cell tower outside the protection of the campsite. This acclimatization period was spent texting, talking, or checking our email. Although we didn’t know what the roaming charges were, everyone had a “hakuna matata” (no worries) attitude. I think it was the altitude.
Back at the campsite, Waziri provided more warm water to wash up with and called us to dinner. All of the meals were wholesome and included all of the basic food groups and even a couple we hadn’t heard of before. Actually, it was all quite Western: fresh fruit, vegetables, soup, bread, potatoes or rice, and, fried chicken or fried fish. Having burned a zillion calories earlier in the day, I think a cactus sandwich would have tasted good.
It was about Day five, when we were enjoying a meal of fried fish, someone asked the question, “how long will fish keep, unrefrigerated?” I think the answer was, “Who cares, this tastes great! Are you going to eat yours?” During dessert, one of the junior porters would enter our mess tent with Iddi’s cup. He would proceed to make Iddi’s coffee/tea/cocoa concoction to his boss’s exact specifications. We were so good at memorizing exactly how he liked it, that eventually we would grab the cup from the porter’s hands and mix it ourselves. We knew if a different porter showed up the next evening, we’d “f#^ked up” Iddi’s drink the night before.
After dinner, Iddi would enter the tent and brief us for the next day’s mission. It was all pretty much the same: Wake up, eat, pack, climb, eat, climb, eat, sleep. Repeat until the altimeter read 19,353.6’. Then came the safety brief. Since altitude sickness can affect different people at different altitudes in different ways, including cognitive abilities, he would ask us: “How do you feel?” “How is your appetite?” “Do you feel nauseous?” “Are drinking lots of water?” “Who won the MVP award in the 1974 World Series?”
Satisfied that we were fit to climb another day, he would tell us to eat more, drink more, and watch more baseball.
Since the air is thinner and drier at altitude, it was important to stay hydrated. That involved drinking 2 or more liters of water a day. Unfortunately, drinking that much water had unintended consequences at 1:00am, 3:00am and 5:00am. Being warm and cozy in a sleeping bag and going outside in subfreezing weather to pee, is a decision not made lightly. Consequently (speaking for myself), one would hold it till the last possible minute, throw on clothes, trying not to wet yourself because you “held it till the last possible minute,” and then diving out into the cold darkness with your headlamp on so as not to trip and crack your head open on a rock.
It was during these times, when the hands were occupied and the eyes were gazing at the skies, that the most beautiful of sights unfolded. The full moon, spectacular in itself, illuminated the entire mountain as if it were daylight. The clouds that rolled in and out during the day disappeared at night. Perfect silence. Even the fireflies showed brightly. No, wait, those were other headlamps. With the cold threatening to freeze any exposed skin, and my business completed, I would dive into the tent, knowing I would be back, admiring the scenery again in two hours (hopefully standing in a different spot).
So, our daily routine was actually: Wake up, pee, eat, pack, pee, climb, pee some more, eat, climb, more peeing, rate the toilets, go to bed, pee, pee, pee, wake up.
Each day, Iddi, who has a better command of the English language than most Americans, would answer our questions about Tanzania and Africa, giving us a viewpoint of a continent that was foreign to us. Our vocabulary was growing along with our empathy for a country we knew very little about. Now we were “super cool” and enlightened!
Someone (Debbie), asked Iddi who his favorite climbers were? “Americans and Canadians” he responded, (probably lumping us together with the “Canuks” because we all looked the same), followed by the “Germans.” Huh? Ok then, who did he like guiding up the Mountain the least?
“Australians and the British,” he said. Uh-oh! Mirae was born Korean, an Australian citizen, who was living in England. That was two strikes against her.
“Why?” we asked. “Because the Australians and Brits show up with a “plan” and they want to stick to the “plan” and not deviate from the “plan” because they have a “plan” and they paid for the “plan!”
Later, during one of our rest stops, Iddi said: “I forgot, the worst people to lead up the Mountain are the Koreans!” Strike three.
“You can’t be serious,” responded Mirae.
“Yes, I’m very serious. The Koreans are a very stubborn people,” he said. Mirae then headed up the trail with her backpack on with the word “Kenya” printed in large letters on the back. Did I mention that Tanzanians aren’t real fond of Kenyans? Later, Mirae’s stubbornness would prove to be an attribute for the group.
First thing each morning, Iddi would send one porter ahead to stake out our campsite before the other groups, ensuring that we would have the best spot when we arrived. The four of us, being in relatively good shape would arrive in camp before the hikers of other groups. Twice, when the rains hit, we were nestled in our tents, warm and cozy, watching other groups slog, soaking wet, into the campsite. I think they were the Brits, sticking to their “plan.”
The last leg to “School Hut” (base camp-15,583.99’), was a particularly long walk across a saddle. Halfway across, was the remains of a Cessna single-engine aircraft. Apparently, a honeymooning couple had hired the airplane and pilot to get a closer view of the Mountain. Now, I’m not saying this is any kind of statement against marriage, but……………if the groom were single, that airplane would have been a lot lighter and who knows what might have happened.