Kilimanjaro, Day Four (Continued)

The porters were setting up our tents when we arrived at Camp 30 Caves.  They staked Betty’s and Kay’s tent that had flooded for the past two days on higher ground and dug small trenches around it to divert any water cascading down the mountain.  Fortunately, the weather overnight cooperated and spared the ladies another night of traumatic moisture.

I spent the afternoon resting up for the next day’s challenging acclimatization climb half way to the top of Kilimanjaro.  I’d been told that at this height we might experience headaches, lightheadness and loss of appetite.  Fortunately, I’d been spared any side effects of altitude sickness thus far.  Perhaps my prior experience in the highlands of Bolivia and Peru had helped me adjust to the height quickly.  Then again, maybe not!  I got sick when I was La Paz, Bolivia after flying in from the near-sea level city of Asuncion, Paraguay.  Living at 1,280 meters (4,200 feet) in Lusaka, Zambia could have helped me better adjust to the higher altitude.  Who knows.  I was thankful not to be sick.

After a short nap interspersed with meditation and jamming out to some great music, I joined Kay and Tom for a quick jaunt in the afternoon.  At first I wasn’t sure what I was getting into heading out in the light rain and put on my rain poncho as a precaution.  Would it turn into a downpour on the trail? I wondered.  Another climber at camp mentioned that we had missed the rain making the lower elevations miserable.  Was it coincidence or just luck that we miraculously missed the rain? I don’t think so.  Something greater than even the mighty Kilimanjaro had blessed us with ethereal weather.

At 4,000 meters I felt for the first time heavy air putting pressure on my lungs and hampering my breathing.  I could feel the air’s reduced oxygen content and felt more winded doing moderately strenuous exercises than I normally would have been.  The difference was noticeable but did not impede my climb or leave me in discomfort.  It did, however, keep me mindful of the need to prepare for climbing at higher altitudes when I would be even more starved of oxygen.

During our hike the rain stopped and the clouds dissipated.  The freakishly barren glacial gorge we had entered was absolutely stunning.  Kibo Peak materialized before us to the right, and to the left the majestically jagged snow-capped peak, Mawenzi, soared above an imposing volcanic ridge. The gorge spilled down into the plain behind us as far as the eye could see.  We could see the twinkle of lights from towns dotting the Serengeti dozens of kilometers away.  It was a fantastic sight that could have provided the ideal backdrop for the Misty Mountains and Mines of Moria in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.  It’s hard to believe that this Nordic-like tundra with edelweiss lay in the heart of Africa.

We hiked over an hour to a prominent vista point high above camp. Surveying the landscape, Kay and I scanned dozens of manmade rock piles dotting the horizon.  Some were simple; others intricate and artistic.  Our guide, August, informed us that they were markers to point out the trail, although I’m certain that some may have had a more meaningful purpose for other climbers intent on immortalizing a memory.

We returned to camp before dark and ate a meal much like ones we had eaten before ad nausea. Try as he might, our cook could only prepare a limited number of variations of soup and sauce with pasta to please our palettes.  We ended our meal after sunset had robbed us of all vestiges of heat and frost had begun to blanket all exposed surfaces. For the first time on our journey, the cold came with a vengeance.  Shivering for a while, I finally warmed up my tent with body heat and insulated gear.  I wrapped myself in several layers of clothing and hugged my sleeping bag.  Extra clothing insulated me from the frozen ground under the tent.  I spent the rest of the evening alone listening to music on my iPod and writing this journal entry with a rudimentary notepad program I had downloaded to my Amazon Kindle. Thanks to technological innovations such as these, climbers can now enjoy entertaining diversions as they subject their bodies to extreme activities.  It’s hard to imagine having as rewarding an experience without music and e-books by my side.  I may very well be the first person to use a Kindle to write a journal on Kilimanjaro.  It did an excellent job keeping me company.

Lesson learned:  When packing for a climb, be sure to bring a warm blanket to cover your sleeping bag in the cold.  A tent, mattress pad, and sleeping bag aren’t enough. A warm thermo blanket would have made a world of difference.

Kilimanjaro, Day Four

December 29, 2010

After another night of downpour, waking to warm sunshine and clear skies was a real treat.  The sunlight painted the terrain in surreal colors; the rocks seemed a bit more brilliant and the shadows deep and etched this morning.  The unobstructed view of Kibo Peak, Kilimanjaro’s highest point, was indescribably beautiful.  It seemed so close yet so unattainable.  I feel immensely fortunate to have had three straight days of climbing without rain whilst my wife hiked last year in almost nonstop rain.  It’s almost as if the stars aligned on this trek; maybe my prayers had been heard after all.  Then again, maybe it was simply wishful thinking and my luck was about to change.  One never knows what can happen in an unpredictable environment such as this where fate moves like the wind.

We climbed another 500 meters today to over 4,000 meters (about 12,000 feet).  The hike was easier than yesterday’s and to our pleasant surprise shorter than expected.  We arrived 2.5 hours later at the third camp known as “Camp 30 Caves” – so called because of the small, porous caves that puncture the mystical red and brown lava outcroppings that ringed the camp.

The vertical rise above Camp 2 was steep and wet enough that our guide August advised us to use hiking poles in order to prevent slippage and to help us hoist ourselves up tricky outcroppings.  We crested the ridge without incident.  The remainder of the climb meandered gradually uphill.  We hiked through desolate ravines carved by mountain runoff surrounded by rock sentries warped by millennia of erosion.  The temperature fell precipitously, prompting me to don the inner liner of my North Face jacket, light gloves and stocking cap.  The mist descended and shrouded the land in ethereal shadows.  The cloud cover ebbed and flowed as if it were breathing, occasionally pulling back to reveal the path ahead of us before exhaling and obscuring it again.  

Wildlife still ranges at these heights.  White necked black ravens circle the camps scavenging for food discarded by humans.  Small lizards that seem to inhabit the entire African continent dwell even here; it’s unclear how they keep warm enough to survive the cold.  Apparently no one bothered to tell them that better climes lay further down the mountain.  Why any creature would live up here with a more comfortable life in such close reach is beyond me.  One week on the mountain was enough for me!

I strapped on my iPod for the first time and rocked my way to camp. Thank god for Steve Jobs.  Having thousands of songs at your fingertips is such a blessing.  A medley of inspirational songs kept me company; the landscape became my music video.  My boots couldn’t help toe tapping on the rocky path, although I went to great lengths to keep my booty from shaking.  I didn’t want to elicit odd expressions as I sauntered along the way, slipping up a couple of times as my hands turned my hiking poles into a makeshift air guitar.  Music was a nice diversion after three days of casual conversation and the pervasive sounds of Kilimanjaro.

Camp 30 Caves is nestled in an area sheltered by twisted rock outcroppings.  With sparse vegetation, mostly flowering sagebrush and moss, terrain devoid of trees, and rolling mist mixed with rain, the terrain conjured up images of Scottish highlands.  This certainly is a unique part of Africa.  I couldn’t think of a colder, more alien landscape on this continent.  The Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa are a distant second to Kilimanjaro and surrounding peaks in height.  The Sahara and other deserts are just as desolate, but none offer the tundra-like conditions one finds here.  The land here was more akin to the far reaches of the northern and southern hemispheres.

The weather when we arrived at camp was agreeable, so Betty, Kay, Tom and I chatted outside for a while on topics ranging from how to dry damp clothing to whether we managed to pick up a cell phone signal.  I’d been fortunate to pick up a signal at various points along the way and sent my wife daily updates on our progress.  So far we have yet to tire of each other beyond a few annoying personality quirks.  They threatened to toss me down the mountain after I sang an annoying rendition of that classic Billy Ray Cyrus country song “Achy Breaky Heart,” sparing me after I quit during the third stanza.  We’ve generally gotten on as well as can be expected without bathing facilities and are actually quite collegial.  So far there has been no drama fit for a soap opera.  We’ve been a great source of mutual encouragement and commiseration.  

To be continued…

Kilimanjaro, Day Three (Continued)

We occasionally broke for photo ops, rest, and snacks on the way to Camp Rongai 2. Our guide, Minja, guided us with a quiet certainty but was rather unhelpful to us in getting our bearings.  Minja spoke Swahili and a few words in English but was unable to communicate verbally or in hand gestures simple concepts like distance to the camp.  At one moment he had us arriving 12 hours later at 8:00 p.m. and the next in just 25 minutes.  Kay and I elected to take a short break for snacks before our final push to camp despite his reassurance that we were almost there.  We ate a smorgasbord of snacks to give us the energy burst we needed to make one more push. The other climbers, Tom and Betty, and our tour lead August caught up with us as we wrapped up our makeshift picnic.  Not a moment too soon; the weather had begun to put a real chill into us.  We stopped together for a quick photo at Rongai Cave 1 (the second is located at Camp 2) before hauling ourselves to camp.

Camp 2 was nicer than the first one.  The latrines are much nicer and don’t stink as much.  Someone thoughtfully left a bucket of water in front of one for hand washing.  Visibility was also than at Camp 1 because 2 is sheltered by a jagged ridge rimming the camp; the weather was cooler with a slight drizzle. To the north, I could see the downhill slope where we had climbed fade into the plains and wispy cloud cover.  No fear of bugs or snakes at high altitudes.  Time to rest and think and enjoy God’s creation.  I thought about my family and wished they were here with me.  I recalled that my wife camped at this very spot exactly one year ago.  Oh how I wished she could have been with me.  Unfortunately, our son was still too young to leave in someone else’s care for over a week, and it would not have been feasible for us to climb together.  I remember how she bravely summited Kilimanjaro on the same route last year.

Porters pitched our tents and laid out our gear for us.  Betty, Kay, Tom and I washed up and ate a small lunch of carrot soup, curry with fries, cole slaw, and fruit. No gourmet cooking up this high; you eat whatever will power you up the mountain!  August told us that at this altitude you may be beset by headaches and a loss of appetite.  Thankfully, none of had experienced the adverse effects of altitude sickness.  Yet.

I slept most of the afternoon while my dedicated compadres acclimatized further up the trail.  When my tent finally disgorged me I fell into the shadow of Kilimanjaro.  The cloud cover had broken, revealing the flat-topped Kibo Peak in all its glory.  Lacey folds of snow lay gently in crevasses created by long-melted glaciers that had raked the mountainside.  The mountain disappeared behind the clouds 15 minutes later.  It was as if the heavens had opened up for a quick peek.  A brief glimpse of the incredible majesty of Kilimanjaro seems to say that only those who are worthy may behold her full beauty.

The rain returned en force following another hodgepodge dinner of soup, pasta, and something that looked like chunky sauce.  We raced back to our tents and settled in for the night.  Thus far the nights tested our collective patience.  Kay and Betty had to put up with two nights of flooding inside their shared tent.  Although mine was spared the worst of the onslaught, the discomfort of a bone chilling cold tent, hard and wet ground, and tight sleeping bag left me feeling sore and drained by morning.  It makes for a quiet albeit austere sanctuary.

Lessons learned:  Wear plenty of sunscreen at high altitudes and apply it frequently.  Although I put 70-power sunscreen on the trail and the day was mostly overcast, my face burned because my sweat wore it off.  Also, bring some Ben-Gay or another ointment to soothe aching muscles as well as a deck of playing cards to play with other climbers during frequent downtimes.  Playing cards are portable and a nice diversion from climbing and shivering in your tent.