Editor’s Note: While climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro is still on our calendar for May, Steve and I have been distracted planning for our Southeast Asia trip that starts in just a few days. Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Hong Kong are all part of the itinerary. Before I can begin to write about that trip, I wanted to FINALLY get this post out as I am sure you have all been unable to sleep waiting for the suspense of what happens next!
This is the final chapter in Steve’s saga of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa. To start at the beginning, go to Memories of Kilimanjaro, Chapter One.
The Final Push to the Roof of Africa
Hell Freezes Over!
22-23 February, 2011
For most reasons, having to wake up at midnight generally sucks. Having to wake up at midnight to leave the relative comfort of your sleeping bag and the safety of your tent, and brave the howling winds and freezing temperatures of a 15,584’ mountainside, generally, REALLY sucks!
Only six hours earlier, Idi was briefing us on what would be our final assent to the top of the Mountain, Uhuru Peak. “Your Porter will wake you up at 1130 pm. Put all your warm clothes on. It will be easier to take them off later if you get too warm during the climb. A snack will be served in the dining tent. We will commence the climb to Uhuru Peak at exactly midnight. Get lots of sleep till then.” Riiiight. The temperature was below freezing, the air was so thin at this altitude, that it was the equivalent of walking around with a collapsed lung. And, to make matters worse, the wind was whipping so much, it felt like it would pick up the tent, and blow it, along with everything inside (including us), over a cliff. On the plus side, we had given the “drop toilet” a T-rating of “7.”
The acclimatization hike from School Hut (base camp) went ok. At that altitude, the oxygen content of the air is approximately half that of sea level. Walking on level ground was a chore in itself. It was also apparent that the last 3,779’ would be the toughest part of the journey. It felt like most of the hiking, up to this point, was to get to the mountain. Now that we were at the mountain, the path had taken a decidedly more vertical incline. No more were there trees, bushes, or any other natural obstructions to shield us from the elements. What lay ahead was a steep, barren, rocky mountain, covered in snow and ice at the peak. If she could speak one word, “Welcome” would not be that word. Even though we had a clear and spectacular view of the countryside below us, we had no cell phone signal. “You’re mine,” she was saying. Ok, two words.
At 8:00 pm we climbed into our sleeping bags to try to get some sleep. With the wind whipping our tent at 30mph, feeling every rock and pebble beneath my bag, and shivering in below freezing temperatures, I remember thinking that, if I didn’t take another step up the hill, I would not be disappointed. The journey (for me) was a huge success already and had exceeded all of my expectations. Nevertheless, waking up at midnight, really, really, sucks.
At 11:30 pm, still cold, the wind had died down considerably. We were sitting, shivering, and sipping tea in the mess tent when we learned Debbie had decided to pass on the summit attempt. She had spent the last three hours unable to rest due to chest pain, probably the result of hypoxia. Since the day we left the hotel, Adam, Mirae, and I had been taking Diamox, a prescription medication that aids in the uptake and retention of oxygen in the bloodstream. Two pills a day, we were doing everything to optimize our chances of success on the mountain. Most high altitude mountain climbers commonly use it. Unfortunately, it is a sulfa drug, and Debbie is allergic to sulfa drugs. We (including Iddi and the porters) were all quite confident that she could make it to the top. However, having not been able to sleep earlier, and not having the advantage of the Diamox, would leave her at a definite disadvantage.
It was a sad moment when the three of us left her at base camp. Later, I would receive some “grief” from the porters. “Papa, why you not let Mama climb mountain?,” they would say on the way down. It was clear to them that Debbie was the most fit, most well prepared for the climb than any of us. Unfortunately, there is no rhyme or reason for who is most susceptible to AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). According to the Book “ALTITUDE SICKNESS: Prevention and Treatment,” AMS occurs in 20-70 percent of altitude sojourners. In its mild form, it feels like a hangover. That probably explains why I was totally functional for the majority of the climb. Thirty years of hanging out at Navy O’clubs had finally paid off. Adam, the youngest and strongest in the group, had lost his appetite two days earlier and was having headaches, two classic symptoms of High Altitude Sickness. Me being the oldest and weakest, for whatever reason, didn’t have any issues with the thin air. Not to say that hiking with the equivalent of one lung of oxygen isn’t an issue.
At precisely 12:00 am, we left camp: six of us, divided into three teams of two. Makesh would be with Mirae, Iddi with me, and Zena, a qualified “summit” porter, with Adam. If any of us had to abort, our team member would guide us down safely, while the others would continue. In single file, headlamps on, we left base camp. Taking baby steps, one foot barely in front of the other, we trudged up the mountain. Our remaining team of porters would break camp in the morning and hike around the Mountain to “Kibu Huts” (15,466’) camp to meet up with us on the way down. Our planned route down the Mountain was via the Marangu (Coca Cola) Route. This would be the easiest and quickest route down. And, the same route for those unfortunate few who had to be carried down (think unicycle, with a stretcher centered on top).
The Marangu route and our Rongai route merged halfway up the mountain and became one trail to the summit. Up ahead we could see the lights from the headlamps of other teams that had woken up earlier and gotten a head start in front of us. Like glowing ants climbing an anthill. A “ginormous” anthill!
It wasn’t long before the muscles started to ache….all of them. We were still carrying our backpacks with food, extra clothes, water, hiking sticks, gators, cameras, and other gear inside. Wearing four layers of clothes above the waist (base layer, fleece pullover, down jacket, waterproof jacket) and three layers below the waist (underwear, long underwear, waterproof pants), it took a real effort just to move.
Following switchbacks, we matched Iddi’s footsteps. Ten baby steps, one foot barely clearing the toe of the other foot, pause for rest, then ten more baby steps. Then it was six baby steps, then three, and then it was time to stop and rest. Although we would get hot and sweaty while walking, as soon as we stopped, the chill would start to set in. Sitting was ok, lying down would be great. But, as soon as anyone tried to get horizontal, Iddi would snap at him to sit up. If we lay down, we might fall asleep. That would be very bad. Sleep didn’t sound too bad to us at the time.
At every rest stop, Adam would announce our altitude and remaining altitude to climb; “15,920 feet. Only 3,443 feet left to go.” What? It felt like we had been hiking for hours and we had only climbed 336’, “You’ve got to be shitting me,” I thought. After the fifth time he had done this, and we still had most of the mountain above us, I politely suggested he put the altimeter away, lest the altimeter, and him attached to it, gets accidentally thrown over the ledge. I was only looking out for Adam’s best interests. Clearly the altitude hadn’t affected me, but was making everybody else crazy!
Aching, sore, and tired, it was time to keep moving, because if we sat too long, we would start freezing. The time between breaks was shortening, along with the stride of our footsteps. Any shorter and I think we would have been going backwards. One foot after another, switchback after switchback: it was agonizing, monotonous, boredom. Later, I found out that Adam was remodeling his future home in his mind to distract him from the pain. I was running airplane checklists and procedures in mine. What Mirae was thinking, we had no idea. She was starting to fall back with her Summit Guide, Makesh. She had smaller feet.
Our pace was apparently faster than the hikers in front of us. Stuck behind a group of eight or ten climbers, we would follow them until they took a break. Then we would slowly trudge past them, trying to appear that we weren’t as tired as they were. This probably happened eight times Before long, Adam and I, with our guides, were leading the pack.
Early on, Iddi had informed us that if our packs became too heavy, our guides would carry them for us. I think it was at the first rest stop that Mirae gladly gave up her backpack, the one that had “Kenya” printed on the back, to her Tanzanian guide. Many have told me that I am stubborn person. Well, I would be damned before I gave up my backpack before Adam. Finally, Adam relinquished his backpack to his guide. It was probably five steps later that I relinquished mine to Iddi.
At one point, Iddi missed a turn and we walked another 30 steps before he realized his mistake. To this date, I have not forgiven him for those extra 30 steps. Eventually we reached Gillman’s point. At 18,635 feet, we had just walked the equivalent of nine Empire State Buildings on one lung. At Gillman’s point we had finally reached the rim of the highest point in Africa. Unfortunately, we still had 728 feet, or, one hour left to go to get to the actual highest point, Uhuru Peak. Some people actually turn around at Gillman’s Point, thinking they had reached the top.
Shortly after passing Gillman’s Point, while daydreaming about something or another, a rock jumped out and hit me on my shin. Seeing me go down on one knee, Iddi stopped, and started massaging my knee. I was enjoying the massage and rest, but it was my shin that was in pain. Soon, the cold overtook the pain and I shouted “Twendai!” Let’s go! At about the same time, Adam was analyzing the fact that his glove was hanging on one finger. Oblivious to the cold, he just looked at it. At the same time, his summit guide was frantically trying to push his glove back onto his hand. Later, Adam would tell me that he had no thought about self preservation (frostbite was a real danger) at the moment, or a desire to put his gloves back on, just fascination that his glove was hanging by one finger.
We passed the last of the climbers at Gilman’s Peak. By now, Adam was falling behind and the only thing between me and the Summit, Uhuru Peak, was an hour of agonizing trudging along the rim. Somewhere behind me, Adam was looking down the rim thinking; “it is sure going to hurt when I fall down there.” Since his feet weren’t following his brain commands, it was only a matter of time before he would be tumbling over the side. Apparently, the thought wasn’t bothering Adam, it was just interesting to him.
Somehow, I made it to the top. Shortly, Adam arrived, helped along by his guide. Adam was feeling like crap. Weren’t we all? I suggested that if he “threw up” he would feel a lot better. He did, and he did. We were the first to arrive at the top of the Mountain at 0529, 22 February 2011.
In my backpack were two t-shirts from “Tides Tavern,” a local hangout in Gig Harbor. The plan was: Take our tops off, put the shirts on, take the photos, and get our pictures on the wall at “Tides Tavern.” Then, hang out till the sun came up to enjoy the view. Well, our tolerance for the cold, the altitude, and the wind, was about two minutes. All we wanted to do at that moment in time was, “get the fuck off the mountain!” It was clear to Adam and me: no way were we going to take our tops off to put those stupid t-shirts on. Next best thing, we held the t-shirts up between us for the photo shoot. Later, when reviewing the pictures, we realized that when Makesh pushed down on the shutter release, he pushed down on the camera also. Oh well, guess I’ll just have to go back again for better pictures.
As we turned to retrace our steps, a lone hiker arrived and politely asked if I would take his picture. I politely responded that “we were about to die up here and to get the next group to take your F#@&*g picture!” Then we exchanged contact info and promised to stay in touch.
Soon, we were busting ass to get to a lower altitude and a higher temperature, passing climbers along the way, still going up, looking like the “walking dead.” Descending, I followed Iddi. No longer taking “switchbacks” down, we were literally skiing down the “skree.” With our climbing sticks out we were using them like ski poles. Falling was a real possibility now. Tumbling downhill hurts a lot more than falling uphill, for obvious reasons. The pressure of the toes being jammed against the toe of the boot was a whole new experience in pain. On the upside, I only lost two of ten toenails. Several are still “black and blue.”
Our bodies mostly intact, we arrived at Kibu Huts, the base camp on the Marangu Route. It looked like an oasis: Real buildings with doors and windows, sleeping cottages with electricity and lights from solar panels, a dining hall, running water (out of faucets), “drop toilets” in the “10” rating, and a helicopter pad! What? We could have taken a helicopter to base camp?
As we waited for Debbie and the remaining Porters to meet us from their hike from “School Hut,” and Mirae (missing in action) to come down the mountain, we settled in at the dining hall. Adam quickly fell asleep. I, in my obsessive-compulsive way, took inventory and repacked my gear in my back pack (Iddi relinquished it back to me on the way down). Somewhere at the bottom of my pack was a squished up lunch the cook had prepared the night before. Originally, it was a hardboiled egg, a piece of chicken, some cookies, chocolate, and, hard candy. Now, it looked like one big lump of “food.” And, if Adam wasn’t using his pack for a pillow, his would have tasted great also.
Finally, Mirae, Debbie, and the rest of the gang showed up. After a short rest, we left Kibu and headed for the next camp, where we would spend the night. As the temperature rose, it was time to start shedding clothes, since we were still dressed for the top. Stopping along the trail, I removed my outer pants and saw that my long underwear was stuck to my shin with dried blood. Uh-oh. Peeling off the thermals, I got to see something I had never seen before, my shin bone (tibia) in the raw. Apparently, the rock that had hit me was sharper than I had thought. I had about two inches of exposed bone and tendon with the skin peeled away. With no way to clean the wound, I slipped my pants back on and continued down the hill.
Once at our overnight camp, Debbie turned into “Nurse Debbie.” Actually, she really is a nurse. Although an OB/GYN nurse by trade, at that point you really don’t care what kind of nurse she is. It’s like a flight attendant asking the passengers if anyone can fly an airplane because the Captain and Copilot stupidly ordered the fish for dinner. All you want is for them to land the airplane safely. You don’t care if they flew Cesnas or 747’s. All I wanted was to not lose the leg. Fortunately, “Nurse Debbie” had with her the gear that nurses never leave home without.
Exposing the wound, she directed Waziri to boil water. I reminded her that I wasn’t having a baby. She reminded me to keep quiet and let her do her work. With hospital gloves on and boiled water at the ready, she quickly cleaned, sterilized, and closed up the wound, then she handed me a bottle of antibiotics and told me to take one a day till they were gone. Waziri almost passed out watching the whole episode. Nurse Debbie was amazing.
That evening we saw several people being hauled down the trail on stretchers. This would be our last night on the mountain. In the morning, we would pack up our gear and hike the rest of the way, passing two camps, to the bottom. Turning in for the night, I was finally able to reflect on the events of the last week.
You know the feeling you have when your parachute doesn’t open and you barely get your secondary chute to open before you hit the ground? Or, what it felt like to escape a prisoner-of-war camp after being held captive for three years North Vietnam?…..Me neither. But, if I had done those things, I think it would have felt like I could endure any challenge. Of course that feeling fades with time and the only way to get that feeling back, is to come up with another adventure.
In OCS I knew I would succeed because I was too stupid to think I could fail. Climbing Kilimanjaro was like combining all of my Navy swimming and PT tests together. Today, being much older, and hopefully much wiser, I knew the reality and dangers the task at hand. Unlike OCS, which I said I would never do again, I would go back to Kilimanjaro. Hopefully after I have climbed a few more mountains, I can return to the snows of Kilimanjaro.
We woke up for our last breakfast on the mountain. I would like to say that it was a sentimental and melancholy time for all of us, but: we were all badly in need of a shower, beer, and, sleep (in a real bed). I was starting to repeat the same jokes and stories (lies). It was time to leave.
Before breaking camp, there is a little ceremony that happens. It was like an awards ceremony in the military, except, in this case, the award is money. Remember, the Porters are paid a mandatory $1.00 per day by the park Service. Any additional money they make is from tips. Gathered around us in a semi-circle, we called each member to the front to look them in the eye and thank them personally. Shaking their hands, we slipped them their “tip.” Afterwards, they sang, chanted, danced a song in our behalf. It was one of the highlights of the trip.
The Porters would drop the gear at the park entrance and continue home to their families. It would be a rush to the bottom. They won. On the way down, Adam and I took the lead, leaving everyone in our dust. Once packed, the Porters, with all of the gear balanced on their heads would eventually catch up and pass us. We were trying to catch up with one of the stretchers. But with a porter at each end and a bicycle wheel to roll it on, there was no catching up to them.
Stopping to rest at the last camp prior to the Park entrance on the Marangu Route (Coca Cola Route), a man walked up to us as we were sitting/laying on the grass. “Can I get you anything?” Huh? “Would you like something to eat or drink?” We don’t understand what you are talking about? “We have cold beer, coke, vodka, gin, potato chips, chocolate, and cookies available for a small fee.” Suddenly I realized what he was saying. Immediately, I jumped up and hugged him, saying: “I love you man!” and “yes, we’ll have one of each.”
We were home.