Waking up in the morning didn’t seem to be as much of an issue as the middle of the night pee breaks.
I was awake before anyone shook the tent. I had to be. It took me forever to pack my stuff back up. Even though I’d only unpack a few choice items each evening the repacking always seemed to take forever. Just sitting on my knees winded me. Every time I reached into my duffle I was winded. Every time I put something into my daypack I was winded. And I always had to piss.
Prioritizing actions always seemed to be a drama. Should I pee first or pack first? Just pack and then pee. But all I’ll be thinking about is peeing. Then pee! But if I pee first then I have to put more clothes on and tie up my boots, and there’s no sense on wearing what I’m not going to wear today, so I should just pack what I’m not wearing. Fine then pack! But I really have to pee!
I was going certifiably insane. This conversation played out in my head every morning on the mountain. And I was always the last one out of my tent, even if I was the first one awake.
Further complicating the morning ritual was the sheer combined size of Glenn and I. He’s a moose of a man, I’m pretty average, but together it was impossible to move while we were both in there. But it was also impossible to avoid. Every action required a disproportionate amount of thought, it was frustrating. Breakfast was the same as the day before, loaded with carbs and warmth. Two amenities that were becoming progressively more important.
Claire was at breakfast, but she wasn’t really at breakfast. Her face was white as a ghost and her eyes looked defeated. She was silent. I felt horrible for her. We all assumed it to be altitude sickness, except for her fever and chills. We all secretly hoped that this wasn’t something that might spread through the group.
We left in the middle of all the other groups leaving that morning. The pace was straightforward to begin with. The grade was even compared to anything we had encountered thus far. I hung in the back of the group with Claire and Emily to see if I could do anything to help, but more realistically the only thing I could lend was moral support.
The trail was a single track through a rock garden stretching to the horizon. The rocks were big, ranging from boulders the size of small homes to cars to footballs. They seemed to sprout from the earth, but they also seemed randomly out of place. We were walking among the ancient guts of Kilimanjaro, that had been flung forth with catastrophic force. Upon meeting the earth these superheated rocks would weld themselves into the landscape.
Wide swaths of the color scale disappeared as brown and beige and gray and black assumed control of the visible spectrum, only a blue sky above departed from the them. There was no plant life.
Our group was moving slow, as per usual, but today the pace was more linked to the sick member of our party. We had all day to get to our next camp and rushing would make little difference apart from lowering our rate of success. The porters passed through us and around us, carrying their exceptional burdens.
Some of them had radios hung about their necks. The radios were portable by 1983 standards and probably added a significant amount of extra weight. But it was a clear morale boost. As each group of porters would pass by we’d be exposed to a new frequency of Tanzanian radio. Several of them had the same morning show blasting out. I didn’t understand a single word, but it may as well have been on American radio.
“Swahili, Swahili, Swahili…raucous laughing…high pitched Swahili…more raucous laughing…cheesy sound effect…more raucous laughter,” the same pattern blared.
As the morning wore on everyone became much quieter. Talk was now work. The elevation demanded that a certain amount of attention allocated to every step and every breath. Sporadic conversations would continue to spring up, for morale’s sake there was always someone who started some chatter along the line. And usually that someone was Glenn. He probably had the most stories, or at least the most interesting stories, out of all of us. And they usually started, “This one time in the army…”
Kris and Jayce were probably in the best overall shape of everyone in the group, showing almost no reactions to the increasing altitude. Emily could easily be mentioned in that category. She was always smiling and positive, it was a good attitude to have around even if it may have been drug induced.
“My face is fuzzy again!” She’d say once every four hours or so, reminding us all of the more interesting side effects of diamox.
We stopped often, today was about pace. An even pace and clear passage by Lava Tower would mean good chances on summit night. At just about every stop Peter would fall asleep on whatever rock his tall frame could stretch out on. He was practically a zombie throughout the morning due to a horrible lack of sleep. He was just an inch too tall for his tent, and sleep was difficult for him to come by. And so we’d stop and he would lay on a rock.
“I’ll get more sleep here,” he’d say laying down.
“Maybe you should go looking for a rock tonight,” Thomas his tentmate would yell back.
We also stopped to let faster groups pass us by. The German Bono impersonators had started well after us, but were already pushing past us. The smaller groups also zoomed ahead. Still though we found ourselves somewhere near the middle of the pack. As we started walking again we would pass the Germans, who were now resting for extended lengths to build their strength back up. We would stop and they would pass us again.
This is where we meet the Italians, marching in line at a quick pace chattering in their native tongue. They walk on our heels for a half hour before finally taking the initiative to pass us…rudely and without etiquette. They passed, all wearing the same desert hats making it look as though they were going to invade Ethiopia again after the trek. Throughout the day the pattern would be one of leapfrogging. The Germans and Italians would take their extended breaks and then march ahead at a fast pace. We would pass them as they rested, and they would push us off the trail as they caught up again.
We continued along the spine of a ridge slowly ascending into gray clouds. The trail was dusty. The black volcanic rocks were streaked with the bright olive green of moss growing off the atmospheric moisture. The temperature dropped quickly as the sun disappeared. And blue would be another casualty of the imaginary vacuum devouring the color scale. For the first time on the trek, rain–maybe even snow–became a real possibility.
With this being the third consecutive day of hard hiking it was becoming evident that legs were starting to wear. The pain in my thigh from the previous day ebbed and flowed, but nothing near the level of pain as before. I have a chronic hip problem that inflames anytime I walk more than a few miles a day. No damage, just pain. And so I just kept walking. But under the haze of general exhaustion. My eyes grew heavy, and every step became a nuisance. I had to shake this attitude, a mindset like this would be devastating with another six hours of hiking ahead.
I retreated to the solace of my iPod. Again I found myself instantly revived. I had created a playlist while skiing in Tahoe a few weeks prior and I settled on that. It was easy enough to close my eyes and remember skimming atop the powder of Heavenly surrounded by the tall stands of evergreens, a wide-open blue sky a deep blue lake and untold amounts of fresh white snow. It was a nice scene playing in my head compared to the nuclear winteresque scene surrounding me.
I let the music guide my steps to along the trail. We followed yet another spine, on yet another ridge for what had already been hours. If this were a Hollywood movie this woud be the time for a flyover shot of the group trudging uphill to a foreboding soundtrack. The earth played tricks with us, sprouting grand walls of igneous rock forcing the trail to bend. The landscape became something out of the darkest scenes of a Tim Burton film. Towers of rock sprouted like mushrooms, the erosive forces of lava and water and wind had carved this petrified mushroom farm into the mountain. It was trippy and enthralling and confusing. Moreover, the scene lacked any real depth. There was no sun, so there were no shadows. The dust stirred from the trail suspended softening the spaces between. I took some photos, but the photos look nothing like what has been etched into my memory.
Getting to my camera was labor enough, and it was something that I’d avoid altogether in the coming days. Regardless I still carried it and an extra lens and a video camera and a pocket camera. This made my daypack excessively heavy. But I wasn’t about to be without the camera. Walking along later in the day I would see a woman with a special chest strap for her daypack that allowed her to fix her DSLR directly to her chest. It seemed an ideal way to carry a camera if I were to ever do something like this again.
As the spine met with a rather large escarpment the trail became momentarily steep. Throughout the day it had seemed that we were not really gaining altitude, but a quick check on the GPS would show a heft gain of 1000 feet before lunch. And as we powered up these switchbacks we were met with a welcome sight: the lunch tent set up in the middle of a long, wide plateau.
We were all starving, and a few in the group looked beaten. Mike and his wife looked completely exhausted. They had been moving slowly through the second half of the morning. Peter’s zombie-like state was only growing more undead with every hour. And Claire was easily in the worst shape.
I felt fine and, a little bit, I felt bad for feeling fine.
I walked away from the group along the broad plain of nothingness. Although level, the steps were difficult, the footing was all scree and so it was like walking on a gravel road with extra gravel. The edge of the plain looked over our accomplishment of the day. Clouds swept up the mountainside, but not in the bueatiful fashion of the day before. In fact, we couldn’t be further from the day before. It seemed light years away. And Moshi seemed like a different dimension. And America seemed like a lost mythical epic never witnessed by mankind. I collected my thoughts and headed back to eat.
We were all far more careful about how we ate. We didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the previous day. And so, although we were starving, we ate slowly. Focusing only on the foods that would maximize energy.
Very quickly again they had us moving. Dixon didn’t want us sleeping, falling slave to the lethargy of the seated position. Like a flash everyone had their gear back on…except for me. Clair was moving slowly, but she had managed to get some food down. Even in her weakened state she was well ahead of me with Emily marching behind the rest of the group. I started to extend my stride to catch up when Dixon shouted back at me.
“Kris, Supa Pole Pole!” I looked back up at him and gave him the thumbs up. And then I waved him and the girls to march on ahead.
I put my earbuds back in and returned to the playlist that had revived me before lunch. I looked ahead at Lava Tower, the trail zigged it’s way up the mountain to the base of this gargantuan feature. We had just eaten lunch above 14,000 feet and by the time we made it to the top of the trail on Lava Tower we’d be above 15,000 feet. The topography looked like the images beamed back by the Mars Rover.
I was on a wide inclining plain curving around the bottom of Kibo. The peak would come in and out of site as the clouds would momentarily thin out. Every so often I would catch a glimmer of reflected sunlight beaming off Arrow Glacier through a break in the clouds. But the peak seemed touchable, it seemed now tangible and more real than I could have ever imagined. I could reach out and hug the mountain. The single brown track cut through the gray alpine desert, I was in the middle of a bow in the trail. The group had rounded the bend ahead and the lunch camp was invisible to my rear.
Looking downslope the plain dropped off into a wide chasm invisible through the clouds. Waves of mist boiled up the mountain sweeping randomly across the trail. As one of these waves approached me I held my arms out welcome it, a smile breached my cold face. This was it. Me and the mountain. This is why I was here…in this very moment, for this very moment. The entire experience became very real and salient. Kibo was within reach and my health was good—I was on pace to crossing over Lava Tower without a single sign of mountain sickness. This was now reality, not mere conjecture or possibility or conversation.
I was killing this!
“Death” by the White Lies come on the iPod. With no one looking I flipped one of my walking poles into an air guitar and let loose on the guitar riff at the end of the song. I had this, and nothing would stop me.
I walked with great care, paying attention to pace and breathing. The Kilimanjaro sized smile on my face made it all the easier to breath. I matched my steps to breaths and pole placement. The idea was to regulate everything and maximize every step.
I caught up with Claire and Emily at a creek of muddy brownish gray water, I stopped for photos, and they kept walking. I was fine with this, I wanted to be on my own for this stretch. I wanted to make it to Lava Tower with no headache and no breathing problems. If I could do that I knew I’d make it to the top.
As I started walking again I returned to my regulated pattern. Fairly quickly, I noticed I was being gained upon. It was the Bono Germans. I hadn’t seen them for a few hours since the last time they passed us before lunch. There was no sign of them at lunch, I had no idea where they were coming from. Regardless, they were moving at a pace double mine. They passed me breathing heavily enough for me to notice with my iPod in. It was clear they were in the midst of a testosterone overdose, and I wasn’t about to get swept into the wake of that. I stopped walking and stood aside while they all huffed by.
I returned to the trail. Step. Breath. Pole. Step. Breath. Pole. It was the sort of monotonous activity that stimulates the brain to great thought. My mind escaped to far off destinations, dreams of standing atop the mountain, thoughts of being with my girlfriend. Step. Breath. Pole. All the way to the top of Lava Tower, a menacing monolith outcropping which marked the high point of the day. Massive boulders sat beneath the tower, shaken off during the last great violent awakening of this dead giant. The trail led around a two-story boulder, and there the rest of my group lay. Some were walking around, climbing the boulders. Others were sprawled out on the ground.
Team Bono Germany was collectively scattered on the ground breathing heavily. One member of their party was vomiting behind a boulder. They all looked sick and done for the day.
I felt fine, I felt better than fine. I felt amazing. This was among the most truly alive moments in my life. I was conquering a dream. I was ecstatic. It had been almost two hours since lunch and I decided to have a snack. And as I was finishing up our group was getting up to move again. I hadn’t had as much time to rest, but that was of my own doing for dropping so far back. I didn’t need the rest. From here it was all downhill.
We walked along the base of Lava Tower to where the trail met a series of switchbacks leading down the mountain. We walked by Team Italian Invasion, sprawled about at the top of the switchbacks.
The dropoffs on the downhill side of the trail were pretty steep as the trail lost a lot of altitude quickly. To complicate the footing everything was damp, the product of being continuously immersed in this gray soup. The Lava Tower was now more like Lava Wall, looking back it was a mammoth black wall stretching into the clouds. Even though we were walking downhill it was still a lot of work and it required a lot of patience. It worked a completely different set of muscles and it would be easy enough to yield to slippery footing and gravity to take the express lane down. The penalty of the express lane was a lot of pain and probably a few broken bones.
I was in the rear again, chatting with Dixon about the climb so far and what to expect. Almost as soon as we started talking the Italians caught back up with us. They pushed their way through us and continued on ahead cutting off the switchbacks and walking off the trail. One of them slipped and fell, only to get up and walk at the same pace and slip and fall again. I couldn’t help to laugh, it was ridiculous at this point. Laughter is universal across the language barrier and it was clear I was laughing at this guy, not with him.
Dixon shook his head at the gravity impaired Italian.
The landscape now looked like something from the set of the original Star Trek series. Craggy rocks were now punctuated by bizarre-looking trees. We had lost close to 500 meters since Lava Tower and plant life was beginning to show up again. These particular plants were giant groundsels. They could have been some obscure relative of the Joshua Tree with their bizarre shape and seemingly yucca-like fronds. The trees became larger with every bit of elevation lost.
An afternoon rainshower would require that we don our rain gear for the first time on this entire trek. The rain would pass by within twenty minutes, and in its wake was a pleasant surprise: the sun. We hadn’t seen sunlight since earlier in the morning, and that seemed like days ago. With only a few hours in the hike it gave us the extra motivation to keep pressing forward.
The trail followed along the rim of a fault canyon, with a creek rushing several hundred feet below on the left hand side. The goundsels became less novel, now grouping in thick forested stands. The tallest of them reached 40 feet into the air. It was just another in a growing list of bizarre and incongruent scenes on the day. Dixon reached out with his pole and tapped my arm while pointing with his other pole.
“You see the trail over there on the opposite side?” he asked.
I didn’t see anything. I saw a huge rock face that was easily 1000 feet high. But I kept looking, until like little scratches on a chalkboard I saw a trail zigzag up the wall. It was impossibly distant and faint.
“That is the Barranco Wall, we climb that tomorrow,” he said.
I had heard and read enough about the wall to know is was among the most challenging bits of the trek. A near verticle scramble that ascends some 350 meters. It was a separation point, where many climbers finally succumb to the mountain and quit.
This was not something I faced with trepidation, but excitement—I looked forward to the challenge. I had conquered today, and with style points in the bank. I understood that this would be an altogether different challenge, but I was up to it.
As we walked through the groundsel forest into camp I couldn’t have felt better. We had dropped back below 4000 meters and breathing came easy again. Energy coursed through my veins.
While we waited for dinner I joined the porters who were playing soccer in the middle of camp. I’m an American. I suck at soccer. They played effortlessly at 3900 meters, some of them with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. I’d run in short bursts, only to be completely winded. Every time I kicked the ball it would end up in a place that was nowhere near my intent. I decided to give up for fear of kicking their only soccer ball off the side of Kilimanjaro.
We gathered in the dining tent for the evening ritual of eating and briefing. I ate a king’s meal. I was starving and I new I’d need as many carbs as possible for the next day. Claire’s condition improved significantly as we descended from Lava Tower. She nibbled on food again, and the color had returned to her face. She started smiling again.
Dixon took everyone’s readings again and mine turned out to be even better than the night before. If it was really possible, I was getting into better shape as we climbed. Feeling beyond confident I retired to the tent with a feeling of invulnerability. Sleep came easy again. I was ready for tomorrow.
At 1:30 in the morning a violent sneeze woke me up, followed by wave of nausea. My stomach convulsed as I zipped out of my sleeping bag, zip out of the tent, zip out of the rainfly…three steps to a boulder before the contents of my stomach came pouring out for the next ten minutes as I hugged the rock. I crawled back into the tent.
“You alright buddy?” Glenn asked.
“No, not at all.” I said feeling my forehead. I was burning up. I was nauseous. Everything ached. I’d wake up twice more in the night for diarrhea instead of vomiting. I had whatever Claire had.