I hate having to pee in the middle of the night when I’m camping. It’s exponentially more annoying when it’s cold outside. Add altitude and the process becomes theater of the absurd.
Another diamox side-effect: you…always…have…to…piss. I lay, wrapped in the cocoon of warmth that is my sleeping bag, staring at the ceiling of the tent trying to get my bladder to go into sleep mode (it’s disgusting, I know. But this is how it is). I freed my arm from the cocoon to look at the time on my phone. Two in the AM. There was no possibility of holding off until morning. I sucked it up and zipped out of my cocoon of warmth, and then zipped out of the tent and then put my boots on. Sounds easy enough…right??
It probably took about ten minutes to zip out of my bag, and another ten to unzip the tent and another ten to get my boots on. As I stood up outside of my tent I was winded. And I felt drunk. Like St. Patty’s Day magically falling on New Years Eve drunk. I attempted a step forward, but my foot ended up two steps out of line to the left. I stumbled over with my right foot trying to gain my balance and fell flat on the ground. I stood up again, legs shaky, and slowly staggered to the bathroom. Every step required concentration, lest I stumble again. It was a bizarre feeling. My heart was pounding and my breathing was heavy as I walked into the toilet tent.
The toilet tent was interesting. I was amazed that a toilet tent even existed. When I signed up for this trip I was content with defecating while balancing on trees and rocks for a week. But here in front of me was a contraption like one of those toddler trainer toilets. The tent surrounding it was about seven feet tall and sides three feet apart. I took care of business and staggered back to the tent, zipping back into the cocoon of warmth and awesomeness and passed right back out.
Waking didn’t require an alarm. The first rays of sun peering into the tent, alongside a soundtrack of porters scuffling to life, eased me back to consciousness. No pots and pans and no mosquito nets. Even with the overnight pee break this was the best sleep I’d had yet in Africa. I felt invincible. There was no trace of the previous night’s headache, and my lungs had adjusted to the altitude.
Breakfast included crazy things like eggs and pancakes. I had expected three-year-old Cheerios, or the kind of mush they eat in the Matrix. After breakfast we fell into line and started the day’s march. The porters were already disassembling the campsite, it was always a race for them.
The sky was virtually spotless, and the route for the day was visible in the thinning vegetation. This was the best time of year for climbing, in the middle of the short dry season. This is no real secret, and as such the trail was packed with people from around the world. Well almost. The trail was suspiciously absent of Australians.
This day’s hike was immediately different. There was no canopy blocking the increasing efficiency of the equatorial sun. The trail ahead was visible from miles away, we could almost see the end point on the day. Psychologically, this is both helpful and devastating. Helpful because you can gauge your progress. Devastating because the destination never seems any closer, there’s always another obstacle, always another switchback in the way. The individual step becomes as pointless as a penny in Scrooge McDuck’s vault of gold. But the only way to achieve the goal is through the individual step.
The lack of canopy also begs for dramatic vistas over sweeping landscapes. Time and again a rock would jut from the trail offering a front row seat to the beauty of Tanzania beneath.
The first hour of hiking was steep and at a faster pace, my legs burned. It’s not the lack of oxygen, but rather the decreased concentration of oxygen that makes altitude a tricky beast. The previous night was one of only a handful of times that I’ve slept above 10,000 feet. And this was just another bit of tangible evidence that my body was angry with me.
It seemed that every group had left at the same time, making the trail a busy amalgamation of hikers and porters. At times it was frustrating as everyone competed to use the same single track. Our group was also being passed by everyone. This was a combination of our sheer size and our mutual content to take it slow and easy. Around midmorning we reached a broad rock face angled steeply. If God was thinking about creating an ampitheater he would have designed seating like this. We spread about the rock, dumping our gear and coveting the warmth of the rock in reptilian fashion. The view was stunning, as the convection driven clouds radiated from the rainforest into the endless blue sky. We sat atop the spine of a green ridge, a finger of the volcano extending into the featureless plain below. Scattered columns of black smoke rose from the centers of population like beacons of proof that we still existed on a human inhabited Earth.
The view served as a mid-morning jolt of motivation, after letting a few more groups pass we continued uphill. The steps seemed easier, it may have been the little bit of acclimatization that just happened; or maybe, it was the mountain pulling us upwards.
The landscape gradually became more alien. Thick reeds of grass sprouted from the base of trees growing from the thin soil. One of the Canadians, Jayce from British Columbia, darted about the trail like a chipmunk gathering the reeds.
“I’m gonna make a straw hat,” she said. I don’t recall ever seeing the hat, but the display of energy was remarkable.
As the day evolved the temperature remained relatively static. It cooled as we elevated, but as we elevated the day warmed. It seemed to stay in the lower 70s through just past lunch. It was perfect weather. At each rest stop we’d spend a bit more time exploring the territory adjacent to the trail. In one instance we found another bit of rock that demanded to be climbed. Wading through the grass surrounding the rock I scaled the backside of the rock. It offered perfect little footholds designed like a spiral stepladder to the top. The rock commanded a view of the entire trail we had conquered and the still long hike to unfold before us. Hikers and porters followed the trail in single file, marching like a string of ants bearing their labor for the colony. The trail wound its way up a few switchbacks becoming progressively more visible as the vegetation became thinner. Giant heathers standing five feet were now the predominant plant on the trail. Many of them looked naked with only tiny evergreen leaves. All of them were covered in the fur, the moss from the day before. But even the moss was getting thinner, lighter…weaker. It was as though life itself was slowly succumbing to the extremes of what lie ahead. Kibo loomed large over every glance uphill.
Clouds zoomed across the horizon like apparitions attacking the mountain. With every collision I expect something cataclysmic, but instead they peacefully drift along the mountainside, helpless hitchhikers of the powerful updrafts.
Through the morning my steps had grown progressively more difficult. Not because of fatigue, but they just seemed heavier. As I stood atop this rock a few more of the group joined me to enjoy the view. Thomas climbed to an even higher point, I was a bit jealous. I wanted that vista, but time was ticking and the group was regrouping to move on.
This section of the hike was tough, it was the last stretch before lunch and my stomach ruled my thoughts. The ridge, which had seemed impossibly far away in the morning, was now in front of us. From this distance it didn’t seem as big, but it was still a rock wall. A big twenty-foot tall rock wall in our way. The trail was now a scramble of switchbacks with relatively harrowing drops on the downhill side. Finally, a momentary dose of danger.
It was enough to wake me up again, and remind me what I was in the middle of. Hunger wasn’t something to be bothered with. The group pushed up the wall to the waiting reward of the lunch tent. Lunch was amazing again, this time fried chicken and hardboiled eggs and vegetable soup. It presented a conundrum. Eat, but don’t eat too much.
Sure enough we all ate too much. And getting started again was agonizing. Everyone marched in silence, bellies full and now aching. The lethargic aftermath of a full meal took its toll on morale, and for the first few hours of the afternoon nobody wanted to be hiking. Personally, I was cursing myself for overeating. I wanted to sit down every five minutes, and the added weight in my gut had a disproportionate effect on my psyche. I resorted to motivation of the sonic sort, putting in the earphones and retreating from the group to be alone with my own thoughts. The Naked and the Famous were the band of choice for this particular stretch, and almost immediately my mood turned. Music is so vitally important, whether I’m sitting on a beach, writing an entirely too in-depth trip log or climbing Kilimanjaro. I took this seriously, bringing three fully charged iPods. They didn’t add too much weight, but if I had it all to do over again I would have bought a solar charger and only brought one. I’d eventually discover that every gram of weight counts, but for now I was revived.
The heather plants were now gone for the most part. Volcanic rocks jutted out in odd places making odd shapes. Flowers, some colorful but most not, burst forth giving the landscape a fleeting appearance of life.
“This looks like the type of place where you would find a mean-person castle,” said Claire.
The landscape certainly had that appeal. Even with the blue skies it could be the villainous backdrop for a dastardly evil Disney character.
The main ridge marking the Shira plateau was just above us, the trail slicing diagonally along its face. Caves carved into the rock face alongside the trail.
“In the wet season, this is a very heavy waterfall,” Dixson said. “This part of the trail can be very slippery and dangerous.”
I stood in the cave watching a mere trickle of waterfall from its mouth trying to imagine the trickle in full cascade. I was happy to imagine it, doing this climb in the perpetual precipitation of the wet season didn’t appeal to me at all.
I hung back with Dixon and Claire and Emily through the late afternoon. It was nice to be surrounded by people I could relax with. We chatted through the portion of the hike that would otherwise have been difficult mentally. The sun’s light was assuming a more golden appeal as we finally broke through to the top of the ridge. Directly ahead of us was the Shira Camp, to our left Tanzania and the accomplishment of two days worth of hiking…but to our right was a now close Kibo possessing a menacing demeanor enshrouded in fiery clouds.
I let the success get to my head a bit too much. The excitement enraptured me, sending me in a full sprint against my better judgment. I bounded from volcanic rock to volcanic rock until I was ahead of the group. My lungs burned for oxygen and my head became light and then…pop! I nearly fell flat on my face. My right quad screamed in pain. I sat down and rubbed it and stood up again. I could step forward with it, but it hurt like a bitch. But it still worked, I could put weight on it and I could still bring my heel to my butt.
I limped along, feeling like a moron for what I had just done. Fortunately, we were only a few hundred yards away from camp.
The camp was expansive, it looked like an outpost on the moon. With the exception of sporadic tufts of short grasses, it was only rocks and more rocks. And the rocks mostly fit into a monochromatic scheme. It was a moonscape. The tents, blue and green and yellow and orange, lent the only color to the scene aside from the setting sun.
Glenn and I found our tent and unloaded our gear. We had a few minutes before a walk uptrail to sign the logbook. I used the time to rub and wrap my leg. I was nervous, pops are usually really bad signs when it comes to leg muscles. I was praying that it was just a strain.
We met up with Dixon and he led us to the Shira Cave. A park ranger held the massive logbook outside the cave’s mouth as we all signed. Signing was required, but it also served to signify that the day was done. Signing became tantamount to relief. It was evident. Eyes weighed down by the labor of the day seemed to brighten and sparkle as the hand signed. I walked into the cave, the ceiling was barely six feet tall at its highest and stained black from campfires. It was about the size of a typical American living room.
“We used to sleep in here a long time ago, there would be maybe twenty people on the floor in here,” Dixon said. “Nobody’s allowed to sleep in here anymore.”
After signing we all continued behind Dixon on an acclimatization walk. Once at camp, the guides routinely lead climbers up another few hundred feet in elevation to expose everyone to the additional altitude. It was optional, but everyone did it. I think our collective philosophy was every little bit counts. This was another reason I liked this group, everyone was careful, there was no competition and we were all focused on one goal: the summit.
The acclimatization walk took us to the intersection of the Shira and Machame trails. A weather station stands, marking the point. We all found a rock, and sat and relaxed. We’d need a few minutes of exposure for the exercise to be worthwhile. I sprawled out on a large flat black rock, letting the heat of the setting sun pump into my body.
Laying there I took stock of what had been accomplished, and worried about my leg. It’ll be fine by the morning! I just kept telling myself.
We took a quick group photo with Kibo in the background before heading back before the sunset. The walk down was considerably more painful on my leg, adding more stress to the prognosis.
Once we reached camp we had about a half hour free before dinner. I walked to an isolated spot of rocks. They sprung up like random lilypads above the abyss below. I had to hop from one to the other until I found the perfect rock to enjoy some solitary reflection.
The sun beamed through the clouds rushing towards the mountain. Kilimanjaro seemed to be under constant attack from the atmosphere with clouds ceaselessly rushing upon her redoubts. From this lilypad seat the mountain seemed less like an isolated protrusion and more like a bona fide chain. To the north a draping ridge stretched with multiple peaks and valleys. A single bending line followed the basin up along to the ridge miles away. It was the Shira trail, the trail that met the Machame here.
The trail stretched across what can only be described as a desert wasteland, reminding me of my dozens of time starting off on the Bright Angel trail in the Grand Canyon looking miles below at the trail leading to Plateau Point. This scene didn’t belong to Kilimanjaro. It belonged in the Great Basin region of the United States.
The rushing clouds hid the sun lending a monochromatic appeal to the sunset. Everything seemed robbed of color in the most dramatically beautiful way. I allowed the scene to sweep over me, washing away pain and impatience and worry. I sat there, alone and in silence, until the call for dinner went out.
Another mountain gourmet meal awaited inside the packed tent. We huddled a bit closer, a symptom of the much cooler temperatures. The dinner conversation was dominated by highlights and adventures of the day. And everyone talked with great animation, it was like a post-production meeting. Everyone except for Claire. Her face was pale and she was noticeably shivering through the meal. She was sick. And as she rushed out of the tent to be sick, we assumed it a symptom of the altitude. The general unsaid statement hung silently in the tent communicated only by shy downward glances, I hope that doesn’t happen to me.
We sat around after the meal until Dixon gave us our briefing for the next day. We would be hiking higher than I’ve been in my life, it would be all alpine desert, the temperatures would be around freezing. Dixon took vitals, starting with Claire, and as we found out our pulse rate and oxygen ratings we’d retire to our tents one at a time. My pulse and oxygen ratings were significantly better than they had been the day before. There’s no explanation, aside from the fact that bodies acclimatize differently. And I went from having the “worst” readings to the “best”. It could just as easily have been the equipment. I could have been more relaxed. I could have adjusted my pace through the day. There really was no right answer…this is Kilimanjaro.
As I walked back to my tent the moon shone off the glaciers of Kibo. I thought I might be able to get it on video, and I grabbed my video camera out of the tent. In testament to Kilimanjaro’s feistiness, a layer of clouds enshrouded the sky in the blink of an eye. Immersed in suspended water I tried to nevertheless get it on video, I mostly failed.
Again, the depth of my sleep was interrupted by the need for pee. Again, I debated with my bladder for a lengthy amount of time. Again, my bladder won the argument and again it took me a ridiculous amount of time to escape from my sleeping bag, unzip the tent and put on my boots. I felt so bad for Glenn.
Taking the first steps outside the tent only brought me to the ground. It happened even faster than the night before. I felt as though I had just gotten off of one of those carnival rides that spins you at an ungodly speed so the centrifugal forces pin you to the wall. The ground seemed to be tilting back and forth at insane angles. I slowly stood, an action that took my breath away. Once standing I recaught my breath and started to walk towards the toilet tent.
None of these sensations made sense. Should I be this disoriented every time I wake up? Should it be this difficult to walk, to breath? The short answer is yes. Every member of our group reported the same thing.
I stumbled back to the tent and spent another hour re-entering my cocoon of warmth and wonderfulness.