Climbing Kilimanjaro

After Aaron left for the airport at 2:30 AM this morning, when I walked back into the hotel lobby in Arusha, the security guard seemed confused. I explained that my friend was headed home but I was not. Where was home, he asked. “America”, I said. The man’s face furrowed with concern. “I hope he is safe. Lots of shooting”. I assured him that America was a very safe country and that there was no reason to worry. Then I came back upstairs and checked some stats. We come in at 4.9 homicide deaths for 100,000 people in the population. Better than Somalia, but not as good as Rwanda. Incidentally, we take better care of our mentally ill than those two countries. And play a lot more violent video games than them. Hmmm – I’m so fucking confused…

Back to Kilimanjaro. At 5,895 m (19,341 ft) it is not ranked in the top 200 peaks in the world because all of those are in the Himalayan or Hindu Kush ranges. It is the tallest peak in Africa and the 4th tallest in the world according to an obscure ranking called prominence – which measures how much taller a peak is compared to it’s surroundings. It’s supposed to be the tallest mountain that you can walk up. A seven year girl from Austin and an 89 year old woman have climbed it. The fastest ascent took only 4 hours and 56 minutes, and then the dude sprinted back down in less that 2 hours. Most amazingly, Kyle Maynard – who was born without arms or legs, crawled up unassisted every step of the way to the top of the mountain in 2012. About 30,000 people attempt to climb up to the top of Uhuru peak each year. Two thirds make it. One thousand are evacuated due to acute altitude sickness. Somewhere between 10 and 30 die. Altitude sickness strikes unexpectedly – we saw a porter being evacuated who had made the trip many times before. Putting it in perspective, this may be the hardest thing I have attempted – the hike to Everest base camp / Kalapathar was a walk in the park. But I’ll try not be offended if a seven year old limbless girl passes me on the way to the summit of Kilimanjaro.

On the second morning we wake up at Machame camp with the smell of composting toilets indelibly mixed in with the morning tea and breakfast. Today is a short but steep day. Over 1000 m of elevation gain in about 5 km. We get to Shira camp (3,850 m or 12,631 ft) nice and early. A couple of the guides take two of us on a side hike after lunch. Here’s looking back down towards Shira camp. You can see the registration hut and the colorful clumps of tents in the distance. If you like the stark Martian beauty of alpine landscape, this place rocks.

Day 3 is interesting. We climb from Shira camp in the morning to reach Lava Tower at lunchtime. Lava Tower is at 4,600 m (15,091 ft). It’s getting harder for me to find oxygen in the air. Kibo peak and Arrow glacier rise up like a giant to our north. But after lunch we descend through some stunning scenery into the beautiful Barranco valley all the way to Barranco camp at 3,900 m, ending the day with a paltry net gain to 50 m. It rains the last hour but not too hard. We should have stopped and pulled on our rain gear. We are wet and cold and grumpy by the time we crawl into our tents. The camp is immersed in a thick soupy fog-cloud. A Boy Scout could get lost between the mess tent and the toilet tent. It rains all afternoon and starts getting seriously cold. Ice forms on our tents. In spite of Chef Manasi’s best efforts, the food is beginning to taste like ass. And Aaron says I’m snoring louder each night.

After midnight the clouds clear and the night sky is spectacular. I feel I can reach past the stars to the Magellanic clouds. As the purple light of dawn approaches, it’s obvious that our tents are at the edge of a precipice. The sheer drop into the Barranco valley is balanced by an ominous wall of rock rising straight up on the other side. Shit – it’s the Barranco Wall which is the first item on our to-do list today.

What are you doing, staring at the night sky instead of sleeping, you ask. We have been told to hydrate like sea sponges, and we are taking Diamox – both in efforts to stave off altitude sickness. But the combination makes me want to leak like the Exxon Valdez. So I am cozy and almost warm in my sleeping bag. Then I have the urge to pee. I ignore it. Eventually my urine-soaked brain realizes that the problem isn’t going away. I unzip my bag. Grope for a light. Put on a warm layer, hat and gloves. Unzip several zippers and flaps in the tent which seem maximized for making very loud sounds – all while trying to not wake Aaron. Find my boots. Pull them on. Lace them up (no one wants to drag their laces through the dirt of the toilet tent). Bend down, twist, push head out of tent, do a Turkish get-up, run to the toilet tent. Yell knock-knock. Pull down the toilet tent zipper. Rush in and try to hit the tiny shitter before I piss on everything because my penis feels like an uncorked magnum champagne bottle at the winner’s podium at F-1. Then reverse the process, though with the added benefit of being fully wide awake and cold but in possession of an empty bladder. Finally back in my bag and almost warm. And then I have the urge to pee.

There are six of us. Besides Aaron and me, there is a son and mother pair from Austria. Bernard is a medical student from Salzburg. He’s the kid of the group and at the prime of his life. When he’s cold which is often, he does mini jumping jacks. While I try to find a rock to sit on. Christine is a doctor in Vienna and though she doesn’t start conversations, she’s nice to be around. And she hikes like a robot mountain goat without a hint of tiredness or emotion, her first step as perfect as her last. The other pair are Indian cousins from London. They are funny, especially Nita, who is sinfully easy to joke around with. She’s a banker and is as good at giving verbal shit as she is at getting it. Ajay is young and in pretty good shape though he seems to be coming down with a combination of a stomach bug and mild altitude sickness. It’s a good thing the mess tent has a dirt floor.

One night we celebrated Nita’s birthday. Chef Manasi produced a birthday cake with icing and all – made in a kitchen tent using a gas stove and a saucepan at three miles above sea level. The whole crew comes in and sings Nita happy birthday in every known African dialect. Then they sing her many other songs, eventually serenading her good night (lala salama). These guys are seriously nice. They treat us better than I treat my kids. And I bet I get paid only slightly less for my efforts.

Back to the Barranco Wall. As we wake up and drink our tea and wash our faces on the morning on Day 4, we unwillingly start noticing how small and insignificant and precarious the climbers on the wall look. And how big and inhospitable the wall is. Here’s a great photo Nita took of Bernard standing at the edge of our camp with his camera and taking a photo of the Barranco Wall. We put on our day packs, but we look about as excited as a bunch of wet cats going in for prostate exams. The crew sense we are feeling pretty blue. They burst into catchy camp songs. We get sucked into the tempo and rhythm of the jambo jambos and bomba bombas and join in. Soon everyone is dancing and clapping hands and singing whatever we can. Ten minutes later we leave camp smiling and warm and ready to tackle the Barranco Wall.

Outside of the summit, the Barranco Wall is the media hog of Kilimanjaro. But it’s reputation far exceeds it’s bite. It is an 800 foot climb diagonally up a craggy cliff face with lots of hand and foot holds. The guides help us at exactly the right places while the porters still run up the wall – occasionally having to throw their loads up to a higher point and then climb after them. Looking down isn’t a good idea though. We make it up in less than two hours. Christine later tells me that she is terrified of heights. She was in front of me the whole way and I had no idea. Robot mountain goat.

We cross some deep valleys, the last of which is the Karanga valley, and end Day 4 at Karanga camp, with only a net 60 m gain to show for our efforts. Kibo peak rears up above Karanga valley marbled with ice like a fat rib eye. The summit looks doable.

Day 5 is easy. Short hike from Karanga camp to Barafu camp at 4,680 m (15,354 ft). It starts snowing and then sleeting on us about 30 minutes out of Barafu camp. The air is thin, I force some instant ramen soup down for lunch, skip the early dinner, and am up in the pitch darkness and chilling wind at 11pm to start getting ready for the summit climb. One way or another the shit meets the fan tomorrow.

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