Mountain Climbing 101

For some reason, I can’t import any of my photos into this article.  Photos are on my Facebook page.

 

Several weeks after I’d signed up for my Africa trip, the travel agency called me.  “Would you like to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro?”

I thought that sounded like  a real adventure.  At my age, this would probably be my only trip to equatorial Africa, so I may as well do as much as possible.  Besides, if they were offering the chance to me, how hard could it be?

Then I did some research.  Mount Kilimanjaro is in Tanzania.  It’s an old volcano, currently topping out at Uhuru Peak at 5895 meters, or just over 19,000 feet.  At that point I stopped reading; I was afraid I’d chicken out if I learned any more.

I did have a tiny amount of experience.  When I lived in California in the 1980s, on a whim I’d hiked atop Mt. Whitney, at 14, 505 feet the highest point in the contiguous 48 states.  I’d just showed up at the Whitney Portal early one Saturday morning with two canteens of water and started walking up the trail.  I felt the altitude immediately; I had a headache the entire time and kept stumbling over small rocks.  On the way down, I’d gotten disoriented, had trouble following the trail, then ran out of water.  Fortunately, there were a lot of people hiking that day.  I latched onto a group that was moving to a lower campsite.  They gave me some water and I was with them long enough to get reoriented.  Consequently, I made it to the top and back to my car in about 12 and a half hours.

Fortunately, this time I would be in the region for the preceding two weeks, so I would be somewhat acclimated.  Plus one of the requirements was to take a prescription medication, diamox, to help prevent altitude sickness.  And I was in marathon shape to begin with.

Part of the preparation was a 55-page manual with two and a half pages of clothing and equipment we would need.   These items included a sleeping bag liner, three-liter water bladder, a headlamp and flashlight, and expected items like insect repellent, sunglasses, and sunscreen.  There were special instructions, too, like don’t bring anything made of cotton (it absorbs too much moisture), bring cash for tips in new bills (apparently counterfeiting is a concern), and stay within a 30-pound weight limit; porters would carry our personal items for us.

Four of us were assaulting the mountain, an add-on to our Kenya trip.  Two of our group had arrived early; another woman and I flew in from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro International Airport the preceding evening.  Our launch point was Moshi, Tanzania.  We had one day to secure our valuables at the hotel (Bristol Cottages), meet our two guides for an orientation, and have our equipment inspected.  Bright and early the next day, we were driven by van to the Machame Gate at Kilimanjaro National Park, one of seven routes that converged on the peak from all directions.  We signed in with our passport numbers and all essential details, and started up the trail.

The first day was hiking in rain forest, on a semi-improved trail.  It would take us about five and a half days total to reach the summit.  Some days were easy, only four hours of hiking.  Each night we stopped at a camp, signed in, and found our tents.  Each camp had rudimentary bathroom facilities (glorified outhouses), although we had a dedicated “bathroom” tent with a seat and a bucket.  The way the system worked, we each had a small tent, our guides had a tent of their own, and there were three large tents — for eating, cooking, and the porters.  Each morning after we left, porters would strike the campsite and carry everything (on their head and necks), including our personal items, past us to set up the next camp; they walked about twice as fast as we did.

Our guides were very professional. They were like mother hens; we accused one of having eyes in the back of his head, because nothing escaped him.  He once admonished me for jumping down two feet from a ledge.  He was right — any serious leg injury, and they would’ve had to carry me out. (It didn’t help my case that I didn’t exactly stick the landing, either.)  We had medical checks twice a day, including checking pulse, lung function, and blood oxygen level.  They were on us every day to eat snacks and drink enough water.

The food was surprisingly Western.  Each morning we had a hot breakfast beginning with porridge.  Lunches could be hot or cold, depending on where we were.  Dinners always started with soup, ranging from cucumber to leek to vegetable.  I think the soup was a sneaky way to make sure we stayed hydrated.  We had macaroni, rice casseroles, even fajitas!  The common denominator was the meals were all balanced, with fruit (mango, papaya, avocado, bananas, oranges), protein, veggies and carbs.  By the way, when I thought I was eating potatoes, it was actually their white variety of sweet potato.

We rented some of our equipment from the company, like a sleeping bag, down mittens, a down jacket, and gaiters, which were coverings for your shins and the tops of your shoes.  I’m not sure how much of a difference they made, but they looked great in photos!  One item I didn’t rent was a pair of trekking poles; I didn’t understand how they were used.  Midway through the third day, one of our guides realized I didn’t have any and he scrounged a pair for me.

My worst moment came toward the end of that third day (if I remember correctly).  My plant foot slipped in sand and I sat down heavily on the trail.  That counted as a fall, and the lead guide insisted he carry my pack for the rest of the day.  I wasn’t happy; it was just a slip and having someone else carry your pack sounded like cheating, but I agreed after some mild protestation.  The guides know best, especially at altitude.

One problem is I’d brought too much stuff.  Since this was my only chance to get to the top of a major mountain, I wanted the full experience, so I had items like extra camera lenses and a pair of binoculars.  These proved unnecessary and after that I slipped them into my bag of personal items for some poor porter to carry.

We’d had a couple of relatively easy days when we arrived at Barafu Camp (Swahili for snow). At 15,000 feet, this would be the starting point for our push to the summit.  We had the option of starting at midnight, but this idea didn’t appeal to four, uh, not-young recreational climbers.  We opted for a 5 am start.  As it was, that still required climbing for about an hour and a half with headlamps.

Summit Day was the most strenuous day of my life.  The climb was steep, at times through rock fields.  An ambitious pace was a step a second; much of the time we were slower than that.  From a distance we must have looked like part of the Zombie Apocalypse.  Soon it was a step at a time.  The last two hours, I swallowed my pride and accepted the guide’s standing offer to carry my pack.  I think our guides had foreseen this; there were a total of five guides and porters supporting four climbers.  Our guide said about ten percent don’t make it to the top on that last day.

I wasn’t the only one needing help.  One in our group didn’t think he was going to make it, but was rejuvenated with oxygen.  Our guides also gave us powdered glucose.

After about seven hours of almost steady climbing, things flattened out.  There was actually a gravel road at the top from the first milestone to the highest point.  My legs were glad to be on relatively level ground and were ready to walk ahead, but we were a group, so for the last thirty meters we formed a line, walked up and touched the summit sign together.  It had taken us seven and a quarter hours.  There was picture-taking and the porters pulled out box lunches.  We spent a half hour at the top, eating and enjoying the view.

Remember that when you summit, you’re really only halfway finished.  Several wanted to see the glacier, which has been receding over the years and now required a detour.  I somehow was paired with a porter and the two of us started down together.  He set an ambitious pace, and I was surprised at how slippery the footing was going down; much of the trail was unstable sand.  But I wanted to get down as badly as he did.  After several slips and another fall (I was carrying my backpack again, which was throwing off my balance), he repossessed my backpack and actually took me by the forearm and supported me the rest of the way back to Barafu Camp.  It took about two and a half hours to return to the day’s starting point.

But we weren’t done yet.  We packed up our gear and, with daylight left, started for the camp where we would overnight.  That took another two hours.

On our final day, we were hoping to sleep in, but no such luck.  We needed to get back to the hotel and finish the expedition.  Fortunately, we were taking a more-direct route down.  After five and a half hours, we were at the entrance to the national park again, this time at the Mweka Gate.

Next was the van ride back to the hotel (interrupted by a flat tire), where we had about two hours to clean up and get organized, then had “lunch” at around 4:30.  During the meal we had our own little post-mortem, then received completion certificates.

It was here that I announced my “retirement” as a mountaineer.  It was a great experience and I’m glad I made the trip.  But it was obvious to me that, at my age, my balance isn’t what it used to be, and this is very serious business.  The experience and professionalism of our guides and staff got me through (one guide said he’d made over 150 climbs), and I now have brothers in Tanzania, but I’ve decided to quit mountaineering while I’m ahead.  I even donated my shoes and some of my equipment to the company.  Marathons, however, that’s another story…

The one conclusion I drew from this trip was “You don’t conquer great mountains.  You just ask permission to visit.”  And it was quite a visit.

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