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Kilimanjaro

Climbing Kilimanjaro: What Goes Up…

Kilimanjaro Summit_18

We started back down.

Back down.

It was done. Everything from this point forward would quite literally be downhill.

The walk back to Stella Point was torturous. There was no more adrenaline. All I wanted was my cocoon of warmth and happiness. There was no amazing goal, only impatience and exhaustion. These two emotional elements mix about as well as absinthe and LSD. From Stella Point back to camp is supposed to be about a three hour trek. I was devastatingly thirsty and the sun was now rising fast into the sky.

Martin led Glenn and I.  Mike and Julianne quickly trailed with Dixon. The good news about going downhill: gravity is on your side. The bad news about going downhill: gravity is on your side.

The scree that we had been walking up through the last little bit of the trek was now warmed and loose. We started “scree surfing”, or sliding down with the rocks. I would take a big step or two and then slide with the rocks before kicking over to my other leg and sliding with that foot. It was a bit like slalom skiing without the skis, or the snow for that matter.

Almost immediately the burning in my thighs was unbearable. I slid onto my back, sprawling out on the scree, I laid still for a minute trying to catch my breath. This wasn’t going to be as easy as I had hoped. I summoned up my strength and we started again. Jump. Slide. Jump. Slide.

I was using my hiking poles as I would use ski poles to initiate the turns as though I was in deep powder. I’ve skied in high altitudes plenty, but never at 19,000 feet. Every slide stirred up a hurricane of dust, making breathing all the more difficult.

I tried to trick myself into believing it was fun, and had there been anything at all left in my tank it probably would have been. But my mind was well over tricks, I just wanted to get off this gargantuan equatorial rock.

We pushed on, or rather down, for about a half hour and then I sat. Martin looked back at us.

“Glenn, I’m going to sit here for a bit. I feel like I’m going to die.”

“I think I can deal with that,” Glenn said.

And we sat. And Martin stared back at us from about 100 feet downhill. We had veered off the main trail and were now in a river of scree. The sun was high enough in the sky to heat the rocks and us. I was sweating, I unzipped the top three layers I had on. Steam poured from my chest. I could feel rivers of sweat pouring down my back.

Martin emphatically waved for us to continue.

“I think he’s on orders from Dixon to keep us moving,” Glenn said.

“I don’t care, I f*&%ing hate him right now. I’m not moving until I’m ready,” I said, my inner princess unleashed.

“I’m staying here! I’m going to be sick, I need a minute!” I shouted down to Martin.

He just stared blankly back at me and waved for us to keep moving. He had no idea what I was saying.

After a few minutes, we started moving again. In the daylight nothing was recognizable. I could see that the main trail was to our right on a ridge about thirty feet above us. In the light I realized just how dangerous that trail was, there were pretty sizable dropoffs within just steps of the trail at regular intervals. Our path down began to separate more and more until there was no longer any sign of the trail. The topography returned to its Mohave-esque feel, minus the plant life. This could be trail among the ridges of Nevada.

We slid downhill for another half hour and Martin stopped. He looked uphill and downhill and started scratching his head.

“I think he’s lost,” I said to Glenn.

“No, I think he’s fine. It looks like he’s just trying to get his bearings,” Glenn said.

I didn’t believe him. I thought that we were way off track. The possibility of being lost was overwhelming. My brain was too tired to control my emotions and I could feel a wave of panic wash over my body.

Martin started forward again.

“How can we be sure he’s going the right way? We haven’t seen anyone for over an hour. I think we were supposed to stick to the trail,” I said to Glenn.

“I’m sure he’s fine. He’s done this a few times give him some credit.”

We followed behind him for another few minutes, my anxiety growing. And then we saw two people surfing down the scree above us. They were moving at a pretty quick pace. It was Michael and another of the assistant guides. Given how beaten he looked the last time we saw him I was shocked to see him moving so quickly.

“I guess I got another wind,” Michael said as we welcomed him into our little group. He said that Julianne was fine, just moving slower with Dixon a little behind us. I was happy to see Michael, and in good spirits. It fueled me with a little more motivation to keep on going.

Even so, I was overheating. The sun was beating down on us, combined with 18 layers of clothing and a constant cloud of dust in low orbit, the whole scene was very Dantesque. There was no water, my camelback (in spite of the sun) was still frozen. Had I been smart I would have put the reservoir on the inside of my jacket to keep me cool and warm it up. I’ll have to save that tip for the next time I climb Kilimanjaro (ha!).

This was probably the thirstiest I’ve ever felt in my life, and it just seemed that camp would never arrive. The alpine mountain of a few hours prior had become instead a sweltering desert. It didn’t make sense.

Nor did our route back. Nothing looked even vaguely familiar, but everything looked the same. I became convinced that I was in an old western where they recycled the desert scene behind the actors to make it seem as though they were moving on set.

The trail spun before us, clear now. We had left the scree field and thousands of boots before us had etched a human signature into the mountain.

My boots had performed wonderfully, they kept my feet warm and they kept the rocks out…until this last little bit. We sat down and I took my boots off, pouring out enough rock to make a land bridge across the Chesapeake. I took off the outer layer of wool socks and put my boots back on. It was a delight, it was like when you move from a cramped college dorm to a wonderful four bedroom house. There was space, and my feet were cool again.

We continued on. It felt like an eternity since the tent shook me awake to start the summit hike. That wasn’t the same day, hell that wasn’t the same decade as far as my mind was concerned. Right now I just wanted to get back to that tent. I wanted to crash on my sleeping pad and not wake up for a week. I could feel that sensation of lying flat on a comfortable surface, letting gravity pull my limbs into submission, laying my head on a balled up sweatshirt and disappearing from conscious reality.

Instead, I’m still hiking through the middle of nowhere. My attitude sucked, and I realized it. But this was just one of those moments where I didn’t have anything to say to myself to cheer me up. I didn’t even care that I had just summited the world’s highest freestanding mountain…I wanted my bed!

And I was thirsty.

We spotted two men sitting on rocks ahead trail on the trail. It seemed funny that these guys would just be sitting there, alone. They looked like porters and as we got closer they walked up to us. They had juice! They were just offering up little sips of juice. I took some oversized gulps, and we walked on. Just about fifteen minutes later the trail met back with the main trail that took us up the previous night.

Even though it had been dark there were key aspects of the trail that stuck out in my mind. It’s remarkable how human senses work sometimes. Robbed of full light I had been paying closer attention to the feel of the trail, the pattern of the switchbacks and the outline of the rocks we encountered. I knew this to be the same trail only in daylight.

Still though, it looked considerably different than I had imagined it. For whatever reason, in my mind I envisioned a wide gently inclining plain leading to the summit. In reality, it was a sharp spine only 15 or 20 feet wide at points. The grade was steep, with huge “steps” marking a jump in elevation. Basically my eyes saw something radically different from my mind, but I still knew it was the same.

The switchbacks were steep now. My legs shook with every big step down a switchback. I detested every step I took larger than my foot. I just wanted to jump and roll to the bottom. As in all the way to the bottom, all the way to Moshi and my little twin bed and my trap of a mosquito net and a bar stocked with warm Tusker.

I sat down at every switchback. Mike and Glenn moved ahead, camp was now visible and they took that as motivation. I wanted to be motivated, but I was too pissed off at the twenty or so switchbacks in my way. Small fries compared to the few hundred I had just gone up, but now significantly more important and difficult.

I cursed every step. I fell twice. My legs shook like a toddler taking his first steps. With each step closer I told myself, You’re one step closer. But there was an inversely proportional relationship between the pain of my steps and proximity to camp. Below I watched as Glenn made it to the tent. I was jealous.

I summoned up one final push and made it down those swtichbacks. I walked into camp, went straight to my tent, laid on my mat and exhaled.

“I don’t know how long they’re gonna let us sleep but I’ll go…” Glenn was talking, but I was already asleep.

 

“Come on buddy, you gotta get up now. We have to move,” Glenn was shaking me awake.

I felt as though I had just emerged from a coma. I was awake but I couldn’t quite get my arms and legs to respond to an order to move. I had no idea how long I had been asleep. I had no idea what time it was when we got back. And I had no idea what time it was now. I was covered in sweat, the sun was beating down on the tent and I still had thirty layers of clothes on.

I rolled off my mat and out of the tent, sitting on my knees relishing the cool breeze outside the tent. I sat there for a minute trying to regain my balance and coordination. Once I stood up I walked down to the toilet tent, an expedition in itself. The tent was downhill, at a steep pitch, and we were camped amongst a field of boulders. There was no easy way there, and the way back took even longer. Looking at my tent before walking back the distance seemed to multiply. It was like a scene from a movie where the perspective changes to reveal a suddenly distorted and elongated path.

Nothing was meant to come easy.

I staggered back up to the tent and sat down outside.

“Well we made it!” I said to Glenn. We talked about the highlights and the lowlights. Glenn admitted that there were a few times he thought about turning around, and I the same. Truthfully, hearing him admit that made me feel a lot better about myself, just knowing I wasn’t alone with those thoughts.

We slowly packed our gear, it was messier than most days thanks to having to dig every bit of gear out. The altitude was still extreme at 4600 meters and our brains were more than a bit fuzzy.

We packed everything and headed down to the mess tent. Amazingly, I was actually a little hungry now. I had managed to keep some bits of food down that I had eaten along the descent, and I was feeling a bit more confident that I was getting better. I ate just a few bites, not wanting to overdo it.

As a group we reassembled and left Barafu behind. I looked back up at Kibo and smiled. I had made it. And that fact was slowly starting to creep in.

Everyone looked exhausted and elated. The faces were windburned, eyes glassy but mouths smiled. The Swedes looked particularly in pain, both of them had nasty blisters on their noses. Peter was wearing a bandana across the middle of his face, while Tomas used a t-shirt to shut out the sun.

At this point everyone seemed to have something out of order. Regardless, the chatter was positive and victorious through the hike down. We talked about the moments we thought about giving up. We talked about what it felt like to reach the summit. We talked about how much we hated the trip back down.

Claire and I straggled a bit. We had become pretty good friends through this ordeal.

“I was so happy when I saw you and Emily near the summit. I didn’t think Emily had made it up,” I said.

“Yeah, she was actually pretty good. We were so happy to see you, we all thought that you had turned around,” Claire said.

“Believe me, I thought a lot about it.”

We kept talking and walking, each step bringing deliverance from the altitude. My tank was still on empty, but the exuberance that comes with victory provided all the energy I’d need.

The trail down is different from the one up. This trail is more direct. The objective of this day was to get back below 10,000 feet and into a safe zone from any form of acute mountain sickness.

After a few hours of walking the sun disappeared behind a vail of clouds. The temperature dropped, but not by much. The trail’s features changed in reverse, seemingly undoing what had been done. Life slowly returned.

More and more oxygen started to fill my lungs. It became a drug. With every step I became more intoxicated with each inhalation. It made me giddy. It filled me with energy. It made me feel invincible. There was a tangible feeling each time my lungs filled, and it felt good. I started to smell the air, it had a scent again. I’ve never noticed the scent of air, but there were elements of life immersed in the thickening atmosphere.

First some sprigs of dried grass, then some small bushes then some groundsels and finally some smaller trees began to grow by the trail. I wanted to hug all of these plants, I wanted to just love them. We stopped less frequently, I think there was an unspoken plan in all of our heads to finish this thing as soon as possible.

We reached Millenium Camp, we all new we wouldn’t be staying here. It served as kind of an emergency camp for people being rushed down the mountain, or for others who had had a very late departure from Barafu.

We apparently must have almost been in the latter group. It was around 3:30 and the original plan called for us arriving into Mweke camp by around 4pm. We also hadn’t seen any other groups on the trail, we had been the last to leave.

We sat for a few minutes at Millenium before moving again. It was clear that Dixon wanted to pick up the pace a bit. Five minutes down the trail we came upon a vista. Dixon pointed down to a building in the distance.

“There is Mweke camp, that is were we stop,” Dixon said to all of us. It seemed close enough.

“How much longer?”

“A little more than an hour,” Dixon replied with the standard answer.

“That’s definitely more than an hour away,” Claire muttered.

I decided to venture from guessing. This mountain was a tricky, fickle beast. And one of her great powers is the bending of space and time. What seemed like a short trek often became epic. I really didn’t want to set a standard in my mind only for it to be shattered. At this point I had given up on trying to figure this mountain out.

The trail merged with a dried streambed. If it were the wet season we’d be walking alongside a running creek. Instead, we darted from boulder to boulder trying not to trip on the last leg of this journey.

The elevation was dropping rapidly, and the oxygen high was started to balance out. My feet throbbed in pain and every muscle in my legs burned. I hit another mini-wall. And almost on cue Emily took out her iPhone and started playing crappy top-40 music out of it’s miniscule speakers. It was exactly what I needed, a little pop music. The three of us trailed behind again, listening to the music sharing more stories and keeping each other’s minds in positive territory.

Rumbles of thunder resonated around the mountainside and the sky looked ominous just off to our east. Magically, those clouds would stay off on our left as the setting sun punctured the clouds again. The moisture in the air smelled sweet.

Dixon caught back up with us. He had gone back to Millenium Camp for some reason. We talked some more as he trailed with us.

“You should be proud, you are very strong. I did not think you would make it,” Dixon said, it was directly honest and unexpected.

“There’s no way I could have made it without you, thank you so much,” I said back to him. I was being as directly honest.

I was surrounded by the two most important elements for a successful climb of Kili, or anywhere else for that matter: good company and an excellent guide. Gear is nice, and it will keep you comfortable, mindset is important and it will keep you motivated, but the fellowship of those with you on the mountain will boost you up when your mind has given in and your gear has hit its limits.

I couldn’t be thankful enough that a week earlier I had randomly sat with Emily and Claire for breakfast. We became a mini-gang devoted to helping each other through this adventure.

Dusk was starting to reign over the sky. The stream bed turned muddy. There were, what appeared to be landscaped steps built into the trail, except they were irregular and torn up.

“They tried to pave this section of the trail a few years ago, but once it rained it only made the water flow faster and it destroyed what was built,” Dixon explained.

And now the trail was littered with the hazards of unintended consequences. As the mud thickened we slipped and fell. Our legs and concentration weren’t there to meet this new hazard.

It got dark enough that I had to pull out my headlamp. We could hear voices through the forest, and it was clear that we were approaching Mweke, but every turn only brought another section of trail. Kili wasn’t giving up without a few more tricks of the mind.

And then we finally broke through, we made it to camp. We trudged into the ranger’s cabin and signed the registry. This was proof of success.

And then we all collapsed in exhaustion on the front steps. We sat there, and sat there and sat there. In the darkness there had been some confusion over where we were posted and Dixon was trying to sort it out.

All around us was the air of celebration. All the groups were eating and sharing their stories of success. Dixon came back to lead us to our tents. We walked, and walked and walked some more. It was one last cruel joke. It seemed as though our camp was a mile outside of camp.

But when we got there, we where there! This was the end of nearly 36 hours of hiking. Earlier in the day we had done some crude calculations on how many calories we had burned in 24 hours, and the number was close to 11000 calories. There are weeks when I don’t burn that much energy, much less in a single day.

We had a meal prepared by some of the local women. I’d love to go into great detail about each delicious bite, but as soon as I walked into the mess tent the smell of curry sent a wave of nausea through my body. My appetite fled. Everyone gathered around the table, I wanted to be a part of it, but my stomach couldn’t take it.

“I’m sorry guys, I can’t be in here. I’m going to head to bed,” I said.

I walked back through the lattice-work of trees to my tent. The camp had a very spooky appeal with moss draping all of the branches. We were still at around 10,000 feet, but it felt like sea level to me. I unzipped the tent, stepped in and zipped into my cocoon of warmth for the last time on Kili. Glenn came in just a minute after me.

“Yeah, I can’t do that yet,” he said about the meal.

We talked for a minute, and then there was a ruckus outside the tent. Glenn stuck his head out to see what it was.

“They’re digging a trench around all the tents in case it rains,” Glenn said. I was amazed at how these guys just didn’t stop working.

In seconds I was out. I woke only once to rain pounding onto the tent, I smiled and fell back asleep.

Continue Reading

Climbing Kilimanjaro: Summit Night

Kilimanjaro Summit_8

**EDITORS NOTE: just in case you’re starting the story from here…at this point of the climb I’d been severely ill with gastroenteritis type symptoms, which goes a certain point to explaining the horrible thing that’s about to happen…sorry. That’s also why there’s a lack of photos and video.

 

I drempt of wonderful things.

My girlfriend, the Florida Keys, sitting on my couch, unicorns and rainbows. For three hours on this February day, I was happy. And then the tent started shaking. It was apparently my third wake up call, I’d slept fast through the other two.

Glenn came back in the tent.

“Time to go buddy.”

“That was literally the deepest sleep I’ve ever experienced in my life,” I said, without a hint of exaggeration. It was the best sleep, minute for minute, that I’ve ever had. It’s as though a million little sleep nanos crawled into my brain and started fixing all the horrible things that had happened earlier in the day. I still felt ill, but nowhere near as bad as I had felt the day before. I wish I could say the same for Glenn.

“Well I think I finally got what you guys got. I feel like shit.”

I felt horrible for him. I knew what was in store for him…but with even worse conditions.

“Are you gonna go?” I asked.

“There’s no way I’m not!” and with that he zipped out of the tent and started towards the group.

I dawdled as usual, trying to get dressed, my mind just wasn’t keeping up with the pace of the moment. As I finished stuffing away the last few things into my pack the group started their hike, conveniently walking right past my tent. I zipped up my pack, folded the balaclava over my forehead and put on my goggles before leaving the tent and hopping in line.

All around hikers walked, their headlamps bouncing with each step, towards the trail funneling into a single-file line. It was as though I was watching an army amass before attacking a mighty bulwark. There were cheers and yells and slaps on the back.

I was still in the dream state, my brain reeling to catch up to the reality of consciousness. A condition exacerbated by my attire. It felt as though I was wearing a space suit. I had spent a lot of money on gear, and this was the time for it to shine. And shine it did, amongst this cold darkness I felt insulated and powerful. The wind was blowing beyond the gale of earlier, but I felt nothing. I had created a playlist for this last push, song after song of gargantuan motivation. The sorts of songs that can make you feel as though…well…you can climb mountains.

The nausea and general soreness were still with me, but the adrenaline of the moment pushed me into line on the trail. Dixon pulled me aside.

“Kris, Martin will be with you all night tonight to make sure you are fine. I will be behind you,” Dixon said grabbing my pack and slinging it into Martin’ hands.

Martin slapped me on the back, and gave me a smile. And with that we started the march. I was already among the last hikers before the hike had started. That was fine with me. I didn’t want to be holding anyone up, and I had read that the trail would be single track and steep. As Martin and I started walking we passed Emily. She was sitting on the ground crying, trying to take her coat off. I tried to walk over to her, but Martin just pushed me on. She had been assigned to another of the assistant guides. I felt horrible, I thought that I should be there to help, but I also recognized I was in no condition to help. I wouldn’t see Emily for the rest of the night.

As we walked, the steepness of the trail increased quickly. I took my time with every step. I didn’t care who was trying to pass, I knew I needed to take my time. About an hour into the hike the muscles in my lower abdomen started convulsing again. I grabbed my bag and started digging for the toilet paper. I knew I had packed two rolls, or I thought I knew…I mean I’ve been in crazytown for the last 36 hours. Martin just looked at me as I furiously pulled my pack to pieces the way the Hulk tears at his clothes mid-metamorphosis. No toilet paper.

“Martin, do you have any toilet paper?” he just stared blankly back at me. “Martin, do you speak English?”

“Not good English.”

I stared back at him in the darkness, trying to figure out how to communicate the need for toilet paper.

“Toilet paper!!!” I motioned furiously with my hands, unrolling and wadding and wiping. I squatted simulating defecation with my hand from my ass.

“Ahh, yes.” He smiled and unzipped his jacket to reveal four rolls of toilet paper. I would have laughed out loud if the situation wasn’t so dire. I grabbed a roll and ran off the trail, well not quite ran, but I moved as quickly as the current atmosphere would allow.

In the darkness I tried to find a rock to squat against. I scooted around a car-sized boulder and started to unzip layer number one of four pants when it happened. I let my concentration lapse for just a moment allowing my muscles to relax enough to stop holding back the inevitable.

I just shit myself…as in for real.

I ripped the rest of the layers down and finished what some heinous micro-organism had started. I stared back at the trail as a group of hikers started passing Martin on the trail, each one of them taking the time to look over at me. My middle finger meeting each one of the their headlamp beams. I was humiliated enough. I didn’t need a spotlight.

I leaned against the boulder for another minute, my exposed skin was freezing but I was still coming to terms with what happened. After a quick examination I determined that the damage was limited to my boxer briefs. I took off my boots, and the four layers of pants. I stuffed the boxers into a plastic waste bag, and resuited up. I’d be freeballing it for the rest of the hike.

As I walked back I had to smile, I just pooped myself near the top of the tallest mountain in Africa. This was exactly what I envisioned when I booked this trip.

Martin stood on the trail, kicking up the dirt in boredom as he waited. I handed him the toilet paper, which he stuffed back into his jacket. It was at this point I realized he was using it for extra insulation. As we started walking again I noticed that we were now at the end of the line. There were no headlamps behind us, at least none that I could see.

A wave of anxiety swept over me. If something happens, there’s no one else coming!! I took a minute to compose myself mentally and started forward again. At this point there was nowhere to move except forward. My steps were all deliberate and planned. I paced my breaths to my steps and my walking poles to my steps. I felt like an old broken down machine that just kept plugging along. I was that car that every teenager gets as an old hand-me-down that won’t break down regardless of what it goes through. That engine just keeps on keeping on.

Being at the end of the line gave me a unique vantage point to really observe what was happening. A centipede marched above me stretching a half-mile down the trail. Its body, sections of light bouncing and winding in zigzags up the switchbacks. The head of the centipede disappeared over one of the million or so false summits on this mountain. The scene was surreal, like some sort of solemn religious procession. Believers marching undaunted through the darkness carrying but a small light up to the summit.

I stopped to absorb the moment. The silhouette of the mountain was visible against a backdrop of more stars than I ever imagined existed. I lifted my head to really look at the night sky, and it brought of flood of tears to my eyes. It was the most beautiful sky I’ve seen in my life. The Milky Way swept across the sky in high-definition clarity, putting Hubble to shame. Billions of specks of light, except they were more than light. They had color, blues and reds and whites sprayed against a perfectly black background. Shooting stars zoomed across the scene on demand, and upon each one I wished to make it to the top without dying.

I turned to survey the whole scene, and I could see Martin looking bewildered as to why I had stopped.

“This is gorgeous!” I said pointing skyward.

“Yessss,” he said looking up and smiling. He didn’t need to understand English to understand what I was saying.

As I looked down on the sporadic lights of Moshi, so far below, I noticed flashes of lightning on the horizon. We were above the evening thunderstorms of equatorial Africa. The clouds were alive with electricity, flashing to brilliance ever thirty seconds or so.

I wished so dearly for a way to truly capture this scene. If I could bottle it up and sell it I’d have a the cure for depression and hopelessness. It is a scene that is indelibly marked in the permanent file of my brain. One day when I’m frail and senile, my mind will retreat to this moment, and people around me will wonder where I am…and they’ll worry, not realizing that I’ve just returned to happiness. This was one of the most amazing moments of my life…and the mountain had more to offer.

As I turned to continue the grand task at hand the tears started gushing. I started uncontrollably crying, deep sobbing epiphineous tears of joy and pain and love. I started walking, heel to toe. I’m doing this! Heel to toe. I’m doing this and nothing will stop me! Heel to toe. I’m doing this.

Poor Martin probably thought I was completely bat-shit crazy.

The emotions didn’t make the terrain any flatter. The switchbacks grew closer together, the steps became higher. My quads burned. And my fingers began to freeze. At some point I lost the warmers in my left glove. I didn’t notice that it had happened until my fingers turned to icicles. I had been so warm, and the rest of my body was still so warm, but the only thing that counted in my mind were my frozen fingers.

My exhaustion from the previous day hadn’t disappeared, it had only been displaced by emotion and adrenaline. About two hours into the hike the emotions leveled, and I crashed. I collapsed onto a rock. Martin tried to pick me back up. I made it quite clear that I wanted to rest for a minute. I leaned back against the boulder behind me, pulling my fingers against my palm to warm them up. And then I woke up.

I WOKE up.

This means I had been asleep. In all probability it was only a few seconds, but it scared the hell out of me. I stood up immediately and started walking again.

That would be the last time I’d sit down until the sun came up.

The trail was dark, the caterpillar kept crawling ahead of us. But every 30 or 45 minutes a section of the great caterpillar would stop, turn around and start going downhill. These isolated sections would slowly bounce down the trail toward Martin and I. The sections of light became people–tired people flanked by porters on both sides. They had given up, or succumbed to the elements or illness. The mountain had beaten them. It was discouraging. With this many people peeling away and retreating before the summit I had to start questioning my chances. These people had been in front of me, and therefore presumably healthier.

As they continued past us into the darkness below we plunged ahead. There was no way to know what time it was, and in a way that was good. I didn’t need to know. I just needed to keep pressing ahead until the sun started to break the horizon, and by that time I should be at Stella Point.

We walked in silence, my iPod was doing unbelievably psychic things choosing the perfect tunes from a catalogue of 17,000 songs. It had infiltrated my brain and created its own perfect playlist. I stared at my feet. Heel to toe, heel to toe, heel to toe. I focused on controlling my breathing, and pacing my pole plants. I started counting the switchbacks, I quit after fifty.

Periodically, I’d gaze back upon the heavens looking for a distraction or motivation. Those gazes were always kept short, as they inevitably led to my tripping over a rock. Tripping over rocks is not advisable on pitch black trails flanked by massive dropoffs in the middle of Africa. If only I could have looked up at the sky the entire night, the climb would have been exponentially easier. Instead I was sentenced to staring at my formerly brown and black boots.

Another hour later and Martin started to act a bit crazy. He started to slow down and stagger and stumble. Rounding switchbacks he would stop walking and sway back and forth in place. It seemed almost as though he was falling asleep while standing up.

“Martin! Martin!” I yelled through my balaclava while whacking him in the leg with one of my poles. “You all right? Do you feel OK?”

He nodded. “Sit.” He said while sitting down. He leaned against the rock behind him, and I leaned on my poles planted into the ground.

This was not a good development. Martin was going crazy. He wasn’t as well equipped as he should be, his gloves were simple liners and his hat was a hand-me-down. His fluorescent pink pants surely didn’t provide warmth commensurate with the hotness of the color.

I looked directly at him, my headlamp illuminating his face. He was young, but right now he looked old and worn. There was an emptiness behind his eyes. My concern was quickly transforming to panic. He seemed to be symptomatic of acute mountain sickness, or at least he was getting there. I’m no doctor, but I can tell when a dude is in rough shape.

I didn’t know what to do.

I looked back down the trail, and there was still nothing but darkness. Ahead on the trail the tail of the caterpillar was still about the same distance away a few switchbacks up. If we picked up our pace just a bit we might be able to catch up, and there might be someone there.

“Come on Martin, let’s go.”

Nothing, he just shook his head. I leaned over and grabbed his arm.

“Martin, you have to get up. We have to keep going!” I shouted pointing up. I knew he probably didn’t really understand me, I let the tone of my voice say it all. As I helped him up, he slowly nodded his head.

“Are you OK?” he nodded again. “OK then, pole, pole!”

“Yes, pole pole.” A little smirk lit up his face. I think he realized there was a bit of role reversal going on here.

As we continued, I picked up the pace, just a tiny little bit. I stayed close on Martin’s heels, when he started to stagger I whacked him with my pole. When he stopped in the middle of the trail I gave him a polite nudge forward. When he tried to sit down I held him up. For close to an hour my aches and pains faded into the background. I was more focused on Martin, and getting him to someone who could help.

Then again this entire drama could have only lasted 15 minutes. Time had ceased to exist.

All I know, is the caterpillar was getting closer. If only we could catch up to that tail. This was my immediate goal, and it made me think of how I once trained for a marathon. As my runs got longer and longer, I started to focus on immediate victories throughout the run. Beating split times, or conquering a hill or making it to the next landmark. Focusing on these little victories helped to compartmentalize the broader event. It gave me the temporary exhilaration of momentary success to catapult me onto the next goal.

That training had apparently rubbed off more than I thought. And my most immediate goal would be to making it to the end of that caterpillar. It was my sole focus. And soon enough we were only a few switchbacks behind. And then that section of the caterpillar stopped. They were sitting down, and someone was turning around.

We caught up. It was the Italians. One of them was giving up.

There was a lot of crying and hugging and back patting. The scene should have been touching to me, but instead I couldn’t help to feel a bit of vindication. This group had terrorized the trail, bullying other groups out of their way while they kept an unsustainable pace. And here they were reaping the penalty of that behavior. I felt bad for these thoughts, but nonetheless they were there.

We walked just past the farewell ceremony, there was another group in rough shape taking a break on a rock. As we got closer I saw it was Glenn, Mike, his wife Juliana and Dixon. Mike was in rough shape, Juliana was trying to pull him back to his feet. I pushed Martin towards Dixon.

“Kris, you are still going! How are you?”

“I’m fine, but I think Martin’s hurting. He’s been staggering all over the trail. He keeps trying to sit down and fall asleep.”

Dixon walked over to Martin and started talking to him in Swahili while shining his headlamp in his face. He pulled a radio out of Martin’s pocket and fiddled with the knobs until sound could be heard coming out. He had a radio!! Of course, he had a radio! 

While they continued talking, presumably about the dynamics of volume control for radios, I saw Glenn doubled over next to Mike.

“How are you feeling?”

“Not good, I think I have what you and Claire had.” His face was pale, and in spite of the sub-zero temperatures and wind there were beads of sweat on his forehead. He looked exactly how I felt the day before.

“We’re almost there buddy, let’s just keep going,” I said mustering up every inspirational cell in my body.

Dixon had left Martin’s side and walked over to Mike.

“Mike, do you want to keep going?”

Julianne didn’t give him a chance to answer.

“Yes, he wants to keep going! Mike get up, we must keep going!” Julianne shouted.

Calmly Dixon stood in between the two.

“Mike, do you want to keep going?”

He looked beaten. This was it, I was about to watch one of our people turn around and head back. I could feel the sadness well up.

“Yes, I will keep going.” He started to stand, helped up by Dixon and Julianne. It was clear that Dixon didn’t believe him. Dixon shouted to Martin in Swahili and he started walking.

“We must continue then, we cannot stop!”

I helped Glenn up and we started as our own little section of the now fragmented centipede. Martin was now in the lead, it was clear that he was feeling better…maybe Dixon had given him a motivational speech in Swahili. Glenn and I walked behind Martin as Dixon walked alongside Mike and Julianne. She seemed to be pushing Mike up the mountain.

I felt better, my anxiety melted away. Martin and I were no longer alone. I was among friends. I looked up the mountain to see the scrappy centipede, happy that I was now a part of this being crawling up the mountain. Shouts from those ahead were now audible, and there was general excitement that grew with every step up and forward.

It seemed that every ridge ahead was the ridge leading to Stella Point. I scanned the horizon for any sign of dawn, but everything was just pitch black. Every time we reached another of these false summits my heart sank a little. They were eternal. I felt trapped in an M.C. Escher painting, this mountain had no ending. Each switchback simply led to another set of switchbacks, which led to yet another set of switchbacks.

The general feeling of well-being from catching up with a portion of the group faded. We started stopping more frequently. As the others collapsed onto rocks I leaned on my poles and looked to the sky. The silhouette of the mountain looked exactly as it had some 1-6 hours ago when we started this midnight trek. My fingers in my left hand continued to freeze, and I balled them up at each stop for a little relief.

I sucked on my Camelback for some water, but nothing came out. I had forgotten to blow the water back into the resevoir the last time I drank it. The bladder was insulated and the water inside the bladder was still liquid, but the drinking tube was now one string of ice. I grabbed the backup bottle of water from the side of my bag. I opened it to see a block of ice. I had no water.

My breathing was now more than labored. There was a discernable wheeze within each of my inhalations. I did little things to test my mental acuity. I was started to get nervous that edema might be setting in. My natural neurosis was now enhancing my paranoia and anxiety.

I worked hard to ignore my problems breathing. I worked hard to ignore my freezing hand. I worked hard to ignore my sore hip, and my burning quad and my swollen feet and my chapped nose.

I tried to put myself into happy places: on the beaches of Puerto Rico, sitting by the fireplace with my girlfriend in a Maine cabin, standing atop Camelback mountain in Phoenix. The relief was momentary.

I would sneak glances at the eastern horizon with every step. More than anything I needed this sun to come up.

But mostly I stared at my feet, at the colorless dirt made more colorless by my headlamp. I watched the dust stir as though I was walking along the floor of the sea. With each shuffle of a step the dust would be momentarily suspended before being whisked away in the wind. It was as though my mind was interpreting everything in a state of retarded animation. Was it possible that my mind was so overwhelmed that my perception of time and events became realigned on a different scale of existence?

But shuffle on we did.

The shouts from above became more frequent and excited. We were close to Stella Point, we had to be. I looked out on the horizon, black was becoming the faintest of purples. We had to be close!

The purple started to mix with deep blues and heavy lavenders. The outline of Mawenzi peak became more concrete as the deep reds became orange and finally yellow. There was a continuous cascade of cheers from above and then Martin started singing in Swahili. There was genuine excitement in his voice, and as he sung Dixon started answering in song. The chorus was happy, it was victorious. Again my goggles were swamped with tears. It wasn’t a little cry, this was a heaving fire hydrant of emotion pouring from my tear ducts.

The first signs of dawn from Stella Point
The first signs of dawn from Stella Point

I was looking at the evolution of the most beautiful scene of my life so far. The star-studded night sky was retreating from the powers of the rising sun. But from this vantage point it wasn’t just another sunrise. It was a sunrise reimagined.

The earth sprawled out far beneath us, the horizon exchanged its sea-level linear qualities for a more parabolic effect. It looked like the pictures of sunrise from the space station. The sun burst forth with such terrific color and presence. I tried to take a picture. I failed.

We rested and watched this spectacle of nature. We were still well below Stella Point, but this was a remarkable view nonetheless.

The sun brought a new determination, much needed because my tank was empty. Each step was an excruciating labor. The last scramble to Stella Point took about thirty minutes, it seemed like three thousand. The path was covered in scree, loose pebbles and rocks. The footing was unstable and each step forward was met with a little backsliding.

Gargantuan glaciers rose to our left bathed in the deep orange glow of a new sun. The last ridge was in view, we turned the final switchback and one at a time found ourselves at the top of Stella Point.

I fell to my knees and cried the deepest cry yet. I MADE IT!!! Everything that had led to this moment started flashing through my brain.

Others were already headed back down from Uhuru Peak and as they passed us in the opposite direction they shouted words of encouragement. Aside from the invading Italians and Bono-impersonating Germans, everyone on the mountain was on the same team. Everyone wanted everyone to succeed.

As we rested atop Stella Point, Martin came up to me with a thermos and poured me a cup of hot water. He had carried this thermos all the way up for exactly this moment. It was a wonderful thing, hot water. I was beyond thirsty.

After slugging that down we had to make the final push to Uhuru Peak, the actual top of Kilimanjaro. After the emotional high of making it to Stella Point it seemed pretty anti-climactic to have to walk another 45 minutes. I knew it was going to happen, but I had assumed that my adrenaline would carry me through this last little bit. Quite the opposite. The trail snaked around the rim of the crater, a steady ascent. Starting from Stella Point the sign atop Uhuru is visible on the other side of the crater. And this is not a small crater. I started with a bit too much excitement, almost taking normal sea-level sized steps. A huge mistake. It wore me out immediately, and I would have collapsed if Martin wasn’t right there to hold me up.

Along the way other members of our group started to stream down in the opposite direction. First we saw the Canadians and then the Swedes and then I saw Claire and Emily. Somehow Emily had made it up. I was so happy to see them both, and a bit sad that I hadn’t been on the summit with them.

The crater loomed large off to the right, and glaciers shimmered to the left. The scene was so extraterrestrial. I felt like an astronaut walking on the surface of the moon. I looked back and there was no one behind me.

Martin and I struggled over the last little rocks on the trail until we reached the sign. Most everyone had already taken their pictures and left, there were only about a dozen people up there.

The glaciers once covered the entire trail
The glaciers once covered the entire trail

As far as I could tell I was the last person to summit this day, but I did. I let out the best scream my beleagured lungs would allow. Surprisingly, I didn’t break down into another fit of crying again. I’m pretty sure my body was out of tears anyway. I lifted my goggles to survey the scene with my eyes unobstructed. It was desolate and beautiful. There were no clouds below and I could see everything in every direction.

I sat on a rock and watched as people lined up to take their photo in front of the sign. I wanted just a few minutes to savor the victory. It was a hostile environment, the breathing was most difficult and the wind was whipping faster than at any time through the night.

Even so, this was my moment of victory. I soaked in the realization that this was the tangible reward of patience and perseverance. It was a powerful object lesson: sometimes it takes thousands of steady little steps to reach a goal rather than a few big leaps. This would be a lesson I would immediately internalize, this was the meaning of patience.

Sitting on the summit
Sitting on the summit

I dug my camera out and took a few more photos. I had dragged this heavy-ass DSLR all the way to the summit, and now I couldn’t even take proper photos. My brain was too scrambled to focus on anything. Dixon came up to me and grabbed the camera.

“Kris, I will take your picture. We must hurry.”

I jumped in front of the sign and took a few photos with t-shirts and hand signs and victory screams. Only one actually turned out, a fact I didn’t realize until I made it all the way back to the bottom of the mountain. Glenn and Mike and Julianne joined me and we took a few group photos. It all seemed very rushed. There was no time to just stand in front of the sign. Dixon knew that we were all in rough shape and needed to get down from the mountain as soon as possible.

 

We started back down. Back down. It was done. Everything from this point forward would quite literally be downhill.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro: Barranco Wall to Barafu

Kilimanjaro Day 3_29

 

Waking up was impossible.

I had no strength and everything hurt.

But I had to use the toilet. By the time I found my way into the toilet tent I was greeted by an overused toilet full to the brim. I had to go, there was no choice in the matter. And so I walked down from the tents about 100 feet and found a boulder to lean against. It was disgusting and horrible.

I washed up and attempted to eat some breakfast, even though I was nauseous I knew I had to eat. I got down about a bite of pancake before running out of the tent to throw up again.

This was bad, very bad.

I went back to the tent to pack my stuff up, but as soon as I laid down on my sleeping bag I couldn’t move. My body was giving up on me. What dumb luck was this?!? Why was I sick?!? I was in great shape the day before!!

Dixon came over to my tent.

“Kris, what is wrong?”

“I’m not well, I’ve been throwing up, I can’t eat. I feel weak.”

“You are very sick,” he said stating the obvious. “Do you want to stop?”

He looked me in the eyes without saying anything more, and for a moment we silently looked at each other.

“The only way I’m coming down this mountain before getting to the top is on a stretcher. I can make it. I promise.”

“I understand, but if you are sick you will only get worse. I have to make sure that everyone is safe.”

“I’ll be fine, I promise to tell you if I am not,” I lied and finished packing up. It took me forever and then some. By the time I had finished the group had already left with Ramallah to start climbing the Barranco Wall. I walked out of my tent and saw only Claire and Emily. The girls waited for me alongside Dixon, and truthfully I owe them for a big piece of my success. Emily was now sick and Claire was just recovering. I felt exponentially worse than I had on any part of the trip thus far. In fact I can’t remember another time in my life when I felt worse. If I had been at home I would have been covered in a duvet watching trashy daytime television while eating chicken noodle soup and groaning with every movement on the couch. Instead, I was walking up a ridiculous trail, on a ridiculous mountain in the middle of Tanzania more than a days walk from anything that even remotely resembled civilization.

Although the sky was clear, the shadow of the mountain hung over us. And in that shadow it was freezing. I had not dressed for the temperature, so I was freezing. I don’t think things could have gotten much worse.Looking up at the wall with a bone-chilling breeze blowing straight through me I seriously began to doubt my chances…and my decision to continue.

This was the moment I came closest to quitting.

I stood still for a minute, trying to think rationally through the dense fog that shrouded my mind. Every step up would be another step further from help if I needed it. This realization unsettled me. By continuing I was putting my life at risk…was this really worth it?? Every book, every blog, every article I had read said no. I battled. And then I continued. For me this was not simply about saying I made it to the top of Kilimanjaro. This was not a vain exercise to notch off another extreme accomplishment. This was about following through with one of the biggest goals of my life. This was about proving that I would not bend against adversity. This was about proving to myself that I was a better, much improved person than I had been four years prior. I would go until the next step was an impossibility. And with that I took the next step.

And the step was big, as were most of the steps on this portion of the trail. Gaining so much elevation in such a condensed distance of time translates into infinite switchbacks complimented by Shaq-sized steps. Every switchback consumed so much energy. I had to stop every other switchback to catch my breath and build my momentum for another push. Meanwhile, the porters were darting past us carrying their ungodly weight with a fraction of the effort.

“Kris, give me your pack,” Dixon said to me.

“No, no. I got it, I’ll carry it,” I said. In truth I wanted nothing more than to offload it, but my pride had to put up one last defense.

“Kris, you must give me your pack, you are too weak to carry it. I have already sent for a porter, they will carry my pack and I will carry yours.” Dixon said again, this time grabbing my pack to settle the argument. “No wonder, this pack is as heavy as my pack. You carry rocks, no?”

I’m pretty sure he was exaggerating to save my pride a bit, but the pack was heavy. I never thought of my pack as heavy, it just was the weight it was. I’m so accustomed to hiking with my camera gear that it’s become normal. When we started walking again my steps came easier, the loss of weight had given me a momentary boost. It would last all of ten minutes before I was dragging again. The last of the other climbing groups passed us, I was humiliated to have no pack. It was a constant assault on my masculinity. Looking back I find it remarkable in how vanity rears its head in even the most ridiculous of situations. Even so, it was fleeting. I couldn’t really bother with these feelings if I wanted to get to the top of the mountain. We were falling further behind the rest of the group. I looked back at camp to mark our progress. Another poor decision, camp didn’t look that far back.

As I lost energy, Claire seemed to be getting hers back. There was a noticeable bounce in her step, that wonderful feeling one gets after recovering from sickness.

“Scissor sisters!” she said pointing to her earbuds. “Come on now guys, lets perk up.”

She had become the de facto cheerleader for both Emily and I. And it was absolutely necessary. “Now a bit of Bon Jovi, it’s my life!”

The Barranco Wall is menacing, a flat wall rising about a thousand feet. Switchbacks scar the face. Unlike other sections of the hike, it’s not simply one foot ahead of the next. It’s scrambling. Climbing with hands and feet. Balance. I was too tired for balance. I only needed one scramble section to find myself sapped of energy. I could see in Emily’s face that she felt every bit as awful as I. It wasn’t that I was winded as much as I simply had no fuel. My muscles couldn’t produce the sustained force necessary to move me uphill for more than a few moments at a time. Every bit of scrambling brought me closer to total defeat.

Everybody was passing us. It was humiliating. We were falling further and further behind the rest of the group.

My hands were numb and my body was freezing. Chills from the illness radiated down my lower back. I was hitting another breaking point just as the sun appeared over the lip of the wall. Suddenly, I felt solar powered. The energy of the direct sunshine motivated me and instantly warmed me up.

(CERTAINLY BY NOW YOU’RE NOTICING A LACK OF PICTURES AND VIDEO…SORRY, I WASN’T FEELING THAT GREAT)

My pace perked up, but it still felt as though we were moving in super slow motion. Porters were hopping around us like frogs leaping up a tree. I just wanted to vampirically steal a tenth of their energy. The switchbacks were unrelenting. I had thoughts that maybe I had died in my sleep, and this was my purgatory, my island of quite literal Sysiphean fate. Emily was looking as fragile as I felt, but Claire just kept cheering us onward.

“Come on, not much longer we get to the top,” Dixon said every time I tried to sit. But on Kilimanjaro “not much longer” is a very long time.

Now I was sweating. Just a few minutes out of the shade, and I was sweating. It was like a scene from a science fiction movie when the dark side of the moon passes into the direct sunlight.

Every ridge brought the promise of an end to this dreaded wall, and every promise was broken. I tried to temper my spirits, but after being denied the accomplishment of defeating this wall a few dozen times it was becoming demoralizing. I started counting my steps. It was the only way I could shut out the pain, and the discomfort and the letdown of another ridge’s promise. 1,743 steps later the wall surrendered.

A ridge broke to a long flat plain. There were hundreds of flat table-faced rocks begging for me to lie flat. And lie I did. I starfished on the first rock I could find, soaking in the warmth of the sun. This was a victory, I was determined to savor it.

I drank some water and tried to get some energy goo down my throat. It was no use, I was beyond nauseous. The idea of food made me wretch, and as I tried my first meager bites I felt the muscles in my stomach push against the swallowing muscles of my throat. I wasn’t going to force it, not yet.

In the distance we could see the rest of our group walking along the trail etched into the side of the massive plateau on which we now stood. It didn’t seem as though we were that far behind, but distances on this mountain are impercievable.

After about ten minutes of rest we stood and started walking again. Claire and I trailed back a bit from Emily and Dixon. As we walked we told each other horrible stories of heartbreak and embarrassment. It passed the time, and for a few minutes I was unaware of being sick, tired and walking. The clouds yielded to the sun, heating everything up. As we walked down the trail into a hidden valley my mind again started with its tricks. The surrounding scene could well have been Arizona. The searing sun, the beige and black rocks, the absence of plantlife. I was in the middle of the desert at 15000 feet.

As we walked through this valley things turned fuzzy again. I ducked behind a rock and vomited. I have no idea how I vomited, there’s no possible way anything could have been left in my stomach.

The rest of the morning is lost in a haze, everything melds together in my memory a cacophonous collage of steps, and rocks and clouds and sun. Even trying to revisit the memory makes me nauseous. From the valley of rocks and sun we worked our way back onto the ridgeline and into the clouds. The temperature sank again as the gray soup blocked the sun. Coming around a bend Dixon pointed down the trail.

“That is where we are stopping for lunch, not so far?” He said.

I felt a bit of excitement well up within me. I wasn’t hungry in the least, but I knew that the lunch camp represented an accomplishment. It was a chance to rest, and maybe try to eat. And there it was, so close.

Easy.

Except for the ravine in between us.

I looked down at the steep descent ahead, followed quite naturally by a steep ascent, and I sat down shaking my head. They call it the Karanga Valley, “they” of course being liars as there is nothing remotely valleyesque about this scene. Canyon, maybe. Valley, definitely not.

“You’re kidding, right? That’s a joke, right? There’s an invisible bridge like the one in Indiana Jones, or a helicopter waiting to pick us up…because I don’t think I can go any further,” I said to Dixon.

“No, it is not a joke. It is not so far, you can do this. Just take your time, we will make it,” Dixon said again in his eternally optimistic tone.

I sat in silence for a minute before cursing and standing up. We found ourselves alongside a private group with only three members. They seemed to be in pretty rough shape too.

The descent was slick and steep and painful. I slipped half a dozen times. At one point the trail hugged the mountainside, which just happened to be spewing gallons of water per second down at us. Just another ridiculous obstacle.

When we finally reached the bottom I was convinced that I was dead and in hell. Everything hurt. The surroundings took on a certain Mount Doomesque appeal. And there was no place to go but up.

The steps up were just as steep as the steps down. I counted again, but lost count somewhere around 3,000. It was left foot, right foot, left foot marching through the apocolypse in search of Twinkies. And an hour later we reached the top.

We walked straight to the mess tent. As soon as the flap opened to the smiling faces of our group the smell of curry flooded my nostrils triggering a wave of nausea that sent me running for the nearest boulder. That breaks my personal record for the most boulders vomited on in a 24-hour period. It was becoming a sport, I expected to be judged on form, consistency and distance.

I spent the rest of the lunch break trying to eat one piece of white bread. Needless to say, it was near impossible to peel myself off the rock I was laying on. Once the group started moving again, they seemed to be doing so at warp speed. Every step I took was worth three of theirs.

This next section was to be the easiest portion of the hike, a slow steady ascent to Barafu Camp. We asked how long this hike would take, the answer: two hours. The answer was always two hours. This was to be the longest two hours of my life.

The trail was only visible a few hundred yards in front of us, disappearing into the thick gray clouds hugging the mountain. The scene had been robbed of color, apart from the apparel of my fellow hikers. The trail again resembled pictures beamed back by the Mars Rover, big black volcanic rocks scattered among the deep brown soil. The atmosphere seemed thick, in spite of its thinness. Breathing was difficult, and talking was pointless as sounds seemed to be immediately muffled by the clouds. This is what nuclear winter must feel like.

I tried counting my steps again, but this trick was getting old and it only lasted up to 4 or 500. I felt worse than I’d felt all day, and now walking with the group I felt the additional pressure of keeping the general pace.

The most psychologically distressing part of this scene was the invisible immensity of the landscape. The clouds hid most, but what they revealed seemed only to be the same thing we saw before. It was like the repeating landscape in Rad Racer, that every so many minutes the mountain would run out of landscape and just repeat.

As we hiked higher and higher in the cloud the sun would tempt us with quick, warm flashes of brilliance. But only momentarily.

We crested a ridge a dropped into a valley (a valley without steep ascents and descents…therefore a valley) and followed the trail as it wound around the base of a massive rock wall. There was nothing here. This stretch has been burned into my memory as one of the most desolate places I’ve ever seen.

Everytime I sat I wanted to sleep, and every time I stood my muscles screamed in protest. My mind played horrible, horrible tricks on me. I’d feel better for a minute, only to be met with another wave of nausea and pain. I started thinking about how just 24 hours earlier I was reviling in the grasp of certain victory, and now I could only contemplate failure. I wanted to quit, and if I wasn’t in the middle of this desolate valley I probably would have. But at this point, Barafu camp was just as close and Karangu…at least I thought so.

Tents finally came into view. They were perched in between boulders on a ridge ahead. I could feel sleep, I could feel the cocoon of warmth and happiness otherwise known as my North Face sleeping bag snuggling me to sleep.

As the adage goes, the last bit was the hardest. Every step took more energy than I had. And I was due another visit to the toilet. At this point, I was a bit over squatting against a rock to shit, so I decided to hold out until I could destroy one of the camp’s toilet tents.

These factors came together to make the last little bit of walking torture. As we walked among the first set of tents I could feel my brain and body simultaneously give up. I started to collapse.

“No we are not there yet, almost.” Ramallah said.

“F&%# you I f&%#ing hate you,” I didn’t say it, but I definitely thought it.

We walked through the first camp, then up a switchback, through another set of tents and along a trail following the ridge’s crest. Gale winds snarled through the camps blowing dust and just generally making things a bit more miserable. I started looking for a stick that I could shank Ramallah with, and then something funny happened. The sun came out. And it started snowing.

I was convinced that I had just jumped onto the express train to crazytown.

“Claire, is it snowing?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

The scene was surreal, as the setting equatorial sun beamed across Kibo through snowflakes falling from an invisible cloud. It took my mind away long enough to push me through to the check-in tent. I signed my name and went straight for my tent. The two hour hike had been over four hours. I threw my bag in and headed downhill to the toilet tent, where horrible, horrible things happened.

The only consolation on the day was that my nausea and chills were starting to subside. Barely a half hour after we made it to camp we had to report to the dining tent for a brief on summit night and dinner. Summit night of course being later the very same evening.

I managed to swallow down a few pieces of watermelon as Dixon briefed us on the part of the trip everyone had been waiting for.

“Pack everything before you sleep, but do not sleep in all you hike in. Otherwise your body will get colder faster. You must have layers, and gloves and a hat. It will be very cold. We will be waking you up at 11 and there will be a quick snack before we go, but you will not have very much time,” Dixon went on with a laundry list of do’s and don’ts and I started to fall asleep.

I went back to the tent and got everything organized for later that evening, no small task considering how amazingly comfortable my cocoon of warmth looked. After organizing everything I zipped in and was asleep instantly.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro: Shira Camp to Barranco Wall

Kilimanjaro Day 3_18

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.

Starting day three with a bit of sunshine
Starting day three with a bit of sunshine

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.

Mushroom rocks up close
Mushroom rocks up close

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.

A few more mushroom rocks for good measure
A few more mushroom rocks for good measure

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.

The moonscape
The moonscape

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.

Lunch tent...this is when the wind really starts whipping
Lunch tent…this is when the wind really starts whipping

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.

The trail to Lava Tower...long
The trail to Lava Tower…long

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.

Giant Groundsels sprout again
Giant Groundsels sprout again

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.

A giant groundsel and Kibo
A giant groundsel and Kibo

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.

Porters relax after a day of HARD work.
Porters relax after a day of HARD work.

 

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.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro Day 2-Machame Huts to Shira Camp

Climbing Kilimanjaro_21

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??

No.

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.

Looking out over Tanzania
Looking out over Tanzania

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.

Climbing Kilimanjaro_4
The better…higher perch

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.Climbing Kilimanjaro_11

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.Climbing Kilimanjaro_18

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.Climbing Kilimanjaro_17

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.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro-Machame Gate to Machame Hut

Climbing KilimanjaroME_30

For the third consecutive morning, my alarm was the crashing of pots and pans and shouting Swahili. For the fourth consecutive morning, I was trapped in mosquito netting. There had to be a trick to this, people can’t constantly wake up trapped in a net their entire lives.

After freeing myself in record time I was up and ready. I had packed everything the previous night, so after a cold shower I headed out to breakfast. I took my time, eating half of the buffet, calories were my friend.

I nipped into the Internet lounge to order flowers for my girlfriend on Valentines Day. The card was to read, “Happy Valentines Day from the roof of Africa!” It was a good idea in theory, except for the fact that I screwed up the schedule and I would actually be back down in Moshi on Valentines Day. But this revelation wouldn’t occur to me for a week. As I rushed to order the flowers, Lauren appeared online, and we had a quick chat. I was thankful for that. I had really been missing her, and I needed her last little bit of encouragement.

With about ten minutes to spare, I grabbed my bags and loaded the duffel onto the van taking us to the mountain. I took my other bag to the storage room, which was locked. This meant I had to get someone from the front desk to open the room. It took them a few minutes to open it up. After that I had to check out, which meant I had to pay my bill, but my money was packed in my bag in storage, which meant I had to run back to get my wallet, and get back in line to check out, only to have my card rejected, but my cash is in my bag in the closet, back to the closet, grab the cash, back in line to check out, I still have my wallet, damnit, no time to run back I stuff it in my carry bag next to my passport, passport? why do I have my passport? back out to the driveway, where is the van? Did they leave?!?! No, they moved to outside the gates, they are waiting on me. If Lauren were there I’d never hear the end of this.

I get on the van, which is packed with luggage, climbers and a few porters. It’s still early enough that clouds have yet to hide the mountain. As we drive into Moshi, every set of eyes track the mountain.

The drive to Machame gate was about an hour, including a stop for any last minute necessities. Turning off the main road between Arusha and Moshi we wind up through coffee and banana plantations and villages. The villages swarmed with people, a skinned goat hung from the balcony of a butcher.  The jungle grew thicker around us as we ascended, the plantations melting indiscernibly into the forest.

Close to two hundred men stood on either side of the road outside the Machame Gate, most of them waiting for the chance to be a porter. Others were selling hats, water reservoirs, gloves, poles and pretty much anything else that climbers might have forgotten. A group of German climbers, who all looked like Bono, bought the souvenir Kilimanjaro floppy hats and put them on.

Claire, Emily and I before the climb...we looked just as clean at the end too.
Claire, Emily and I before the climb…we looked just as clean at the end too.

One of the guys outside the gate was waving a little American flag.

“Look at that flag! Can’t you just feel the freedom and liberty?!” I said turning to Claire.

“You’re just pissed because the British flag is so much bigger than the American flag,” on cue the guy unfurled the comparatively massive Union Jack and started waving it around.

A single teardrop trailed down my cheek, falling from my jawline to the soil of Kilimanjaro. ‘Merica.

There were five or six groups checking in at the same time. Each climber has to sign in, providing passport and next of kin info. The guides also have to go through a fairly lengthy check-in process and hire some porters from the group of men standing outside the gates. This translated into a wait time of close to two hours before the trek officially began. The collective impatience was palpable, as nervousness and excitement translated into a lot of pacing and looking at watches. After a few too many cups of African rocket-fuel coffee I was a ball of potential energy. I took some pictures, and then forced myself to sit. I’d be walking for about a week, there was little sense in standing now.

This is Africa…hurry up and wait!

As I sat, I studied the signs advertising the mountain rules and safety regulations.

Dixon came down and led us uphill to a staging area. They handed us sack lunches for later and lined us up single-file. Porters ran around putting bags into bigger bags and those bigger bags into even bigger baskets. They filled water containers. They separated and reorganized the food. It was an impressive show of logistics in action. Once we were on the mountain resupply was tricky, and then impossible. As such it was important that nothing be forgotten. I wished these guys had packed my bags.

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