Monday, August 29, 2011

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

I made this mountain my bitch.

“Pole pole!”  

I swear to god, the next person I hear say that is going to be run-through by my hiking poles!  Swahili for “very slow,” or “slow down,” every porter, guide, and even hikers begin saying it on the long trek up the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  Soon, “pole pole” starts to become the answer to everything. 

“Can we walk faster?”
“Pole pole.”

“When is dinner?”
“Pole pole.”

“Hurry up and get out of the bathroom, I gotta go!”

They are the only words in English that many of the porters know, so you hear them every time they pass you, and you eventually start hating the phrase.

Your mom is a "pole pole!"

At 19,340 feet high, Kilimanjaro is not a small mountain, and high enough that altitude sickness is common, with many people failing to reach the summit because of it.  Because of this, our guides kept us walking on an easy and slow pace that we jokingly described as “pole polissimo,” ensuring that we didn’t unnecessarily suffer the effect of the extreme height.  It was incredibly frustrating but I understand that it is the safest way up to tackle the hike.

My path up the mountain.

Mt. Kilimanjaro is the largest free-standing mountain in the world, rising solo straight out of the plains of Northern Tanzania as if it has some sort of mountain-superiority-complex, refusing to hang out with any other hills or peaks except of course its main home-skillet, Mt. Meru, far off in the distance.

It truly is a big ass mountain.  Photos of “Kili” can be seen on innumerable safari logos, tourism brochures, bottles of water, and especially on the hangover-inducing Kilimanjaro Beers sold everywhere in Tanzania.  Its snow-covered peaks are always pictured from some far off vantage point, which sometimes makes the mountain appear smaller than it is.  This is a silly impression because this thing is big, rising 16,700 feet above the plains below it, with a footprint of 60 x 40 miles.

Screw you sign, I do what I want!

It takes the average hiker anywhere from four to seven days to finish the climb, although the world record time is a mind boggling 5 hours and 28 minutes ascent by America Sean Burch, who chose a 34 kilometer route for his dash up the mountain.  I would love to know how many times someone yelled “pole pole” at him as he ran past them!

I chose the more relaxed and conservative Machame route for my trek, with a 6-day itinerary (although the sixth day is just a short walk out of the park in the morning), and a total distance of around 60 miles.  “Relaxed” might actually be a bad term for the hike, with only about 30% of people that attempt to climb the mountain actually making it to the top, with most turning around at Stella or Gilman’s point.  My friends and I scoffed at this statistic and wondered how it could be true, since everyone we saw seemed absolutely fine during most of the trek.  This continued to hold up until the morning of our ascent to the summit when we personally saw several people fail, and some being physically carried up to the peak by porters and guides.  It dawned on us that it really is a serious climb that many find very difficult.  Not us though, we are awesome and manly, and laugh at the athletic failings of others. 

This idiot laughs at your weakness. 

This is a general description of our climb.

Day 1 – We began our trek by entering the park at the Machame gate, situated amid the thick jungles of the mountain’s lower slopes.  Here we signed into the park, and did our best to avoid people trying to sell us crap at the gates.  We also stood around and drank from a bottle of vodka, deciding that we were going to do this trek the right way, with as much regard for our health and safety as would be present at a decent sized frat-party.

The hike begins in a very jungly jungle.

We actually ended up carrying the bottle of vodka all the way to the summit with us, along with several Kilimanjaro beers that we drank on the summit.  Don't judge me!

When we all finished our paperwork at the gate, the large group all began climbing at once, with the human train slowly getting longer as the day wore on, stronger hikers leading the pack, and slower ones dragging ass at the back.  It is absolutely imperative to note that the local porters that were commissioned to carry the goods necessary to sustain the large group of climbers, beat everybody up the slope, easily running away from the pack with what were probably 50-60 pound bags on their heads.  This was a recurring theme, with the porters racing past us every day, leaving behind them a strange and pungent smell consisting of body odor and marijuana smoke.  Most of these guys were skinny as rails and strong as oxen (and apparently smoked like chimneys). 

Powered by Cannabis. 

The path weaved through thick jungles, with trees often completely covered with vines and moss.  A veritable garden of Eden, one would think that the woods would be teeming with animals. However, this was not the case.  In fact, the only animals we saw on the entire climb were ravens and a cute species of mice that lived on human feces, and garbage discared by hikers. Apparently, the incredible amount of people that climb these slopes every day have scared away all the local animals. 

No flora, but plenty of fauna!

Flowers like these were in abundance.

Manly men like flowers too!

It is no wonder that the animals are gone, either.  When I say that a lot of people climb the mountain, I wish to absolutely impress upon you the fact that climbing Kilimanjaro is not the intimate climb that many hope it will be.  Make no mistake about it; this won’t be you and your group triumphantly scaling the peak alone, or even in a small group.  It will be you and a couple hundred of your closest friends, as well a couple hundred porters churning up the same trail every day. 

I am so happy y'all could join us! SIKE!

As we continued, we found ourselves in a thick cloud forest, with mist permeating every gap between the trees, moss, and vines.  Soon, we were all covered in a thin, cool layer of moisture that began to chill us even though the daily temperature was quite warm.  It is on this first day that I realized how ridiculous climbing Kilimanjaro has become.  It will always be a difficult and trying climb, however, compared to most mountain climbs where one is forced to rough it, on Kilimanjaro you will see people eating lunch at proper tables, complete with tablecloth, plates, and silverware.  The scene is made even more ridiculous when you realize that every one of these items had to be carried on some porter’s back up the mountain.  Depending on the price you are willing to pay, the trek can be quite comfortable, in as far as mountainside luxuries can get.

Our tour company wasn’t quite as accommodating as that, and we sat on a log and enjoyed a sack lunch.  However, when we made it to Macheme camp we were surprised to find that there was a dining tent complete with tea and cookies waiting for us.  Ridiculous much? Absolutely.  The tea ended up being only the first course, with a hot dinner following. 

This was our dining experience every morning and evening of the hike, not exactly roughing it.  We would sit down to a warm breakfast in the morning, leave the dining tent, and then begin our hike.  Then we would hike all day and when we arrived at the next camp, we would be greeted with tea and cookies once again.  What makes it really absurd is that we always dined in the same tent, meaning that a porter had to break down the whole thing, strap it to his back, run up the mountain (passing us along the way), and then set it all up again before we arrived.  Now that is what I call service!

I love service!!!

The first night we camped right at the northern edge of the boundary between the forest and what can be described as a chaparral zone.  The evening was surprisingly cold due to an icy mist that rolled in, but when we woke we were welcomed by beautiful and clear view of the peak high above us, covered in glaciers.  After our morning feast, we all took care of our business and soon began the next leg of our journey

By the way, by “taking care of business” I mean pooping.  Which is no small feat at all, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention it.  The only bathrooms available to you (unless you are using the route with the permanent huts) are crude latrines that stink something horrible after a couple hundred people have used them.  There are no western toilets, only the local hole-in-the-floor variety, which require squatting and no small amount of skill to make sure that everything goes down the shoot (people frequently miss).  I cannot stress enough that every future trekker practices aiming on the lower slopes, because as you ascend the mountain the holes somehow get inexplicably smaller, with the beautiful tiled-bathrooms at the base camp boasting frustratingly small 4 x 4 inch holes. 

Day 2 - The second day of hiking was shorter than the first, and took us through a rocky chaparral habitat that allowed us better views of our surroundings than the jungles of the first day did.  Cairns marked the path (in case anyone was stupid enough to miss the distinct trail created by countless thousands of feet), guiding you back to the trail if you are forced to leave the trail for “emergency business,” something many had to do after their initial exposure to the African trail food on the first day. 

Hiking towards the Shira plateau. 

We hiked on exposed bluffs and rocky trails, weaving through large boulders and strange trees.  The day was dry and cool, enabling us to walk at a brisker pace without needlessly sweating.  The path took us over large ridges and offered up some great views of the cloud-covered valley below us.  Lunch was another sack of prepared food, with several ravens greedily coveting our meals, coming close in hopes of furtively theming some choice portion.  After eating we continued on a thin, worn trail and after only a couple hours arrived at Shira camp, where we would pass our second night.

These birds weren't messing around.

The second camp was situated on a semi-flat portion of the mountain with incredible views of the surrounding landscape. Jagged peaks were visible on one side, and the beautiful Shira plateau off in the distance.  Some clouds decided to make the setting more dramatic by beautifully framing the mountains, making the whole scene so pleasant that I could puke.  Mt. Meru also put in an appearance, peaking its head out of the clouds in the distance, taunting me with its higher altitude.  I began to have a love-hate relationship with that peak as we ascended higher than it, then descended below it, and then once again ascended higher than it over the course of the climb.  Standing nearly 15,000 feet tall, it was a constant geographical reference point to our progress up the slope.

Damn you, Meru.

Shira Camp.

Since we arrived at our camp early, our guide led us further up the slope on an acclimating hike, with hopes that the added altitude and subsequent descent would greater prepare us for our next leg.  That night we celebrated one of our group member’s birthdays, with the vodka of course making its customary appearance.  Sleep soon followed, with us being better prepared for the night temperatures this time around than we were on night one.


Pressing on.

This beauty makes me want to vomit.

Day 3 - The third day we reached a height of about 15,300 feet after a long uphill trek, followed by a quick climb up the impressive Lava Tower rock formation that towers above the aptly named Lava Camp.  A natural tower composed of volcanic rock, it ended up not being the easiest of formations to climb.  It only took about 20 minutes to make it to the top, but there were a few hairy portions that required you to actually climb over large boulders and cling to slippery rock walls.  Climbing Lava Tower is an optional trek that most of the hikers don’t do, but is absolutely worth it because of the great view from the top, and the powerful sense of vertigo it provides as you inevitably lie down to peek over the edge, viewing the people hundreds of feet below you. 

Lava Camp

Lava Tower.

Cairn on the top of Lava Tower.

Some idiots on top of the Lava Tower

After a brief lunch at Lava Camp, we continued on, descending a couple thousand feet through heavy mists to the valley where we would spend our next night.  It wasn't actually constant descent, with us traversing a series of beautiful valleys, before we finally reached the trail down to the camp.

Mist, mist, and more mist.

Barranco Camp

Situated beneath a series of glaciers on the peak above, a steep hill leading to a cliff, and a large cliff face affectionately termed the “breakfast wall,” the setting for Barranco camp was equally as beautiful that of Shira camp.  It was also very cold, with the wind blowing down from the glaciers high above, to where we were sleeping down below in the valley.  We went to sleep slightly anxious, knowing that our next day was going to include the most difficult stretch of mountain thus far.

Cold mountain, hot female.

Day 4 - The “breakfast wall” is so named because it is the first thing that trekkers on the Machame route face after breakfast when they set out from camp.  The ascent of the breakfast wall is the most technically difficult you face on the whole hike.  It is the only portion where you actually have to scramble over large rocks and edge along some small ledges.  I don't want to scare you, because although it is the most technical bit of the ascent, it really is not really that difficult, but does require a bit of care while ascending.

More like "indigestion wall." 

They are practically mountain goats.

The breakfast wall includes a serious of false summits, with several ridges appearing to be the top before you actually reach it.  Once there, you walk for a while on a level slope, and then on a downward sloping trail, until you reached the Karanga camp, where you eat lunch. We were served a hot lunch consisting of chicken and French fires (of course in the nifty dining tent), with coffee and juice to drink.  After lunch, we began the long and challenging hike straight up the mountain, then across a valley, and finally up another long hill, before finally reaching Barafu Camp, the base camp for those that will go on to summit the mountain.

Walking to Barafu Camp.

The going got tough for a while.

At roughly 15,300 feet, summiting from Barafu Camp leaves about 4,000 feet of vertical distance to cover before you reach the summit.  This last portion of the climb is the most difficult, with you covering the most vertical distance, up the steepest grade, over the longest period of time, and in the coldest conditions of the whole journey.

Glaciers are cold, who woulda thunk it?

Thus far the hike has been under fairly warm conditions, with most people not even wearing a jacket most of the time.  The last bit requires wearing every bit of clothing you brought with you, or an insulated jacket and snow pants if you planned ahead and packed properly.  Since I had already been in Tanzania for a while, I didn’t have any proper clothing for the chilling ascent, with all my cold weather gear is still tucked away in a cabin in the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains.  I am one of those people that simply decides to put on all the clothing he has in his pack and wing it.  In short, I am an idiot (in Africa!).

The weather was warm for most of the journey.

Day 5 – When I left my tent in the morning, bone-chilling temperatures immediately assaulted me, and it only got colder as I ascended.  The temperature during the climb hovered around 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 celsius), and that was without taking into account the wind that seemed to blow right through my clothing.  Most of the people I passed looked nicely bundled in their insulated jackets and thick woolen clothing, safely protected form the elements.  I was wearing a fleece, a borrowed rain jacket, a knit hat, and some gloves. 

To make the situation worse, the rain jacket was eventually given to my frozen girlfriend at the summit, along with my gloves, since hers weren’t keeping her hands warm (I ended up stuffing my hands into a pair of women’s gloves many sizes too small).  So when we began the descent, all I was left with was just my fleece.  It was fairly miserable to say the least, but I decided that it wasn’t going to kill me (hopefully) and made the best out of it.

She stole my jacket!

But back to the actual ascent.  After leaving Barafu huts, the hike to the summit was very steep, with most of it entailing switch backs up a slippery slope.  We left at midnight to ensure that we summited around the time the sun came up at 6 am.  It was black as pitch and the stars above where breathtaking.  At first, I was able to cope with the temperatures fairly well.  Then we entered the mists and I began to freeze my balls off. 

Coated with a fine layer of moisture, ice began to form on all my clothing and I started to get real cold.  I couldn't do anything but press on as quickly as possible, covering more ground and keeping my body temperature up.  Not an easy task as the air got thinner, but it worked, and I was soon feeling warmer.  

Maybe it was the excitement of knowing that I was soon to summit the largest mountain in Africa, the successful acclimation during the long ascent, or the double dose of Diamox I took before leaving camp, but the ascent to the summit was physically the easiest part of the whole climb for me.  I felt like I was on top of the world.  Or Africa, at least.  Feeling great, I thoroughly enjoyed every little glimpse of scenery my head lamp afforded in the darkness, and was ecstatic to be finally reaching the top.  

One of our guides up to the summit, with the bone-chilling mist behind him.

Before you walk along the ridge to the summit you have to make one last push up the steep slope, finally arriving at Stella Point.  The last push before reaching the ridge involves a patch of scree that we had heard much about from reading guidebooks, and from fellow hikers.  We were dreading that bit of the hike, hearing about how we would be sliding back down half the distance we covered with each step, and using twice as much energy for the same amount of forward progress. 

This fine honey was frozen right to the core, but happy nonetheless.

To our delight, we soon found that everybody was full of shit, and the scree portion was nothing but a softer variety of the regular switchbacks we had been hiking on for the last several hours, and not very difficult to trudge through.  Once we cleared that section, we found ourselves standing on Stella point, with only a short and relatively flat hike before we reached Uhuru peak. 

Thank you Acetazolamide!

Apparently, most people that fail to reach the summit turn around at Stella Point.  I am not sure how that can be, since the rest of the hike is seriously a cake-walk.  Nearly flat, and with good footing, it is easy going compared to the previous couple hours of the ascent.  The only advise I have to anyone reading this that is contemplating climbing Kilimanjaro is: do not quit at Stella Point unless you are suffering altitude sickness and absolutely can not go on!  The rest of the ascent is very, very easy!  You have already done all the hard work!

We ended up reaching Uhuru Peak and its famous sign just as the sun was coming up.  One second we were walking in cold darkness, and the next moment we were trekking next to a shimmering glacier that we didn’t even know was there.

Look how warm she looks wearing my borrowed jacket.

The whole way up the mountain I had imagined the triumphant moment when I would reach the top, and the obligatory photos I would take with my friends next to the famous sign.  I always pictured it as a happy and relaxed moment, filled with joy and happiness.  Instead, it was an absolute shit-show.
When we arrived there were only a few people at the top, when we were leaving there was a mob. Everyone wanted photos with the sign and people were inevitably getting heated as others began cutting in line, or getting in the way of the photo, or any other type of general ruckus began occuring. 

After getting our photos, we proceeded to open up the beers that we had carried all the way from the plains below.  The wonderfully cold beer was very welcome, especially since our camelbacks and bottles had frozen several hours before, and therefore stopped providing us with water.  One of the guys broke out the bottle of vodka, and we probably made for a pretty strange sight up on the summit, drinking alcohol next to the mob of people desperately trying to get photos with the sign before they froze.

Kilimanjaros and vodka on top of Kilimanjaro.  Don't judge us.

Soon, we began the couple-hour descent back to Barafu huts through deep scree and volcanic rocks, mostly on the side of the trail up.  The trip down went quickly, with the accepted descent technique being a headlong jog down the slope, jumping and sliding your way down a steep grade covered in fine dust and pumice stones.  

The whole way up I had suspected that I was walking through a dark valley and gloom and despair, and my suspicions were confirmed upon descending.  At times it looked like we had gotten lost and somehow ended up on Mars.  The land was a mixture of brown, reds, and grays, and absolutely bone-dry.  It definitely had its own strange beauty but we were anxious to leave it far behind and get back to base camp. 

I expected to stumble on a Mars rover at any moment.

Upon reaching our tents, we packed up our bags and lied down for a short but well needed nap.  A few hours later we continued descending to our next campsite, the last of our journey.  Along the way we walked through the same chaparral and then forest that we walked through on our way up, and then finally slept at Mweka camp for the night, situated right at the beginning of the cloud forest.  The nicest camp yet, it even included a shop that sold beer and had western style toilets.  I am pretty sure that all of us used any excuse to go sit on the John, simply out of a silent joy to not have to squat anymore.  It was glorious!  Sleep came easily, with the total amount of hiking on day 5 tallying about 11 hours, with very little rest the night before.

Day 6 - The next morning we nearly ran (and some of our group actually sprinted) out of the park, reaching the gate after a mere two hours of hiking.  We were thrilled to get off the mountain at this point, very tired of the dust, and the constant state of being dirty that the hike entailed.  Soon, we were back at our hotel, taking warm showers, changing into clean clothes, and drinking cold beers.

Our journey was over, we all made it to the top and back down safely, a wonderful success.  To tell you the truth, I enjoyed my Mount Meru climb more, and highly suggest that anybody that travels all the way to Tanzania to summit Kilimanjaro work it into their itinerary as well.  It is much more of an intimate climb, with much more animals and less people.  It would be a great training mountain before Kilimanjaro, exposing you to a high altitude, and cold conditions before you take on Africa's highest peak.

I hope I don’t sound down about Kili, I think that it is a wonderful mountain and a wonderful climb.  The fact that it is truly "walkable" really adds to the charm of the ascent, providing extreme conditions and high altitude, with little climbing experience actually necessary, just a stubborn conviction to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  However, safety is important and one should never push oneself harder than necessary.

Altitude is all about attitude, and beer, never forget the beer.

Pole pole!

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