Finishing (Or Getting Finished By) Our Trek on the Mounain
09.03.2013 - 11.03.2013 25 °F
"Whaddya think?" I asked, in between breaths.
"Yes." replied Tosha looking back down the mountain. " I think going back would be best."
I had the last two days to prepare myself for this moment, so I felt a sense of relief rather than disappointment.
I woke up that morning knowing that no matter what happened, I would be off the mountain within two and half days. I had decided that our guides didn't need to know that I had been vomiting quite a bit the day before. Of course, I'm sure they probably already knew. However, I don't think they would have sent me down the mountain anyway. They were under the mistaken assumption that The Wife and I knew how to take care of ourselves since we are both physicians. What they don't realize is that healthcare providers are some of the worst patients. I can't count how many doctors smoke, weigh too much, or ignore all the symptoms of sickness and disease.
Kibo peak looms over the Karinga campsite.
As usual, the early morning hours were freezing cold, but warmed up quickly once the sun came out. After breakfast, we began the slow hike up to the Barafu Hut camp.
The first hill overlooking the Karinga campsite was pretty steep making progress slow.
Once the first ridge was reached, the terrain turned into a more gentle upwards slope. Along the way we passed or were passed by other hikers who would be summiting the mountain later that night as well. It was good to see that The Happy German was making the trek up to Barafu Hut, albeit still with one arm in a sling. We continued for over an hour until we reached an altitude of 4,500 meters. In the far distance, we could see the motley colors of tents already being set up at the Barafu Hut campsite. But, I groaned when I saw the upcoming terrain. The path dropped into a valley and then sharply ascended up the face of a steep rock wall. It's demoralizing enough when you lose altitude. But it's worse when you have to make it back up on a really steep incline. A gentle slope is so much less taxing on the body.
Throughout much of that morning's hike, I actually felt pretty good considering the problems I had been having for the past two days. However, the last 100 meters climb was absolutely miserable. It was as if a switch had been flipped that turned off all power to my muscles. It took a tremendous amount of effort just to walk a couple of yards. I was frustrated having to pass tent after tent until we finally reached our campsite.
The Wife insisted that we take a photograph at the Barafu Hut sign as she correctly surmised that this would be the highest checkpoint that I would reach.
Although lower than Kibo, the Mawenzi peak on our eastern side is a technical climb that requires special permission.
Although the Barafu Hut campsite is the launching point to reach the summit, the top of Mt Kilimanjaro still looks so very far away.
A loo with a view.
After we got fully settled into our tent, lunch was ready in the mess tent. My headache was already returning, but I still managed some bites of an interesting concoction of an omelet made with French fries. I don't know if it was because I hadn't eaten anything in more than a day, but I thought it was really good. The Wife still had no ill effects from the altitude. In fact she even remarked how she was finally starting to get used to sleeping in the tent. As our trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro went longer, she became stronger, and I became weaker. I had to check my neck to make sure she wasn't sucking my blood while I slept at night.
As bad as my head hurt the last two days, nothing could compare to the pain that afternoon. All of the Aleve or Tylenol I had couldn't touch that headache. The pressure was so severe, that I wouldn't have been surprised if an alien suddenly burst out of my forehead. I was paralyzed by the excruciating pain. It got so bad that, even though I was extremely thirsty, I didn't have the will to open my eyes and drink from my camelbak spigot lying only 10 inches away from my face. Needless to say, when The Wife asked me later if I wanted any dinner, I just let out an angry groan.
Once the sun went down, most of the ambient noise from the crowded campsite began to abate. Most people were smart enough to turn in for some rest for the midnight scramble up the mountain. The Wife was no exception. A half-hour before our wake-up call, the invisible vise around my head was loosened. I was still feeling dizzy, but I could at least stand up without feeling like I needed to throw up.
At that point I knew I had to suit up. After countless hours of preparation, six days of trekking, and five nights spent freezing in a sleeping bag, I would forever regret it if I didn't at least make an attempt to reach the summit. After a quick cup of tea, we geared up. The Wife decided to put on two pairs of Smartwool shirts, a fleece coat, an outer rainproof parka shell, two pairs of thermal underwear, hiking pants, rainproof pants, a balaclava, wool hat, ski gloves over two pairs of undergloves, and two pairs of thick wool socks. She was like the little brother Randy from A Christmas Story. Bowing to peer pressure, I threw on a similar number of layers, never-minding that my internal thermostat runs much hotter than hers. Unlike The Wife, I decided to put on my gaiters. For some reason, that simple act took five minutes and left me exhausted and hyperventilating afterwards.
When we exited the tent, gentle white snowflakes floated down from the sky. Of course we couldn't feel it since we had about 50 layers of clothes on. We had a quick bite of millet porridge and some biscuit crackers. We donned our trekking poles, camelbaks, and headlamps and followed Tosha's lead.
We got started at 11:45 PM, a bit later than we had planned. Right away, the path led up a high, steep rock face. Already we could see dancing lights far higher, signs that other trekkers were already way ahead of us. The going was difficult having to climb over the rocky terrain. With the ice and snow on the ground, the path was even more slippery and difficult to navigate. I was having a particularly difficult time hauling myself up over the larger rocks. These steep parts completely sapped my strength, causing me to have to pause to catch my breath. The Wife and the guides were nice enough to wait with me.
Within a half-hour, I was overheating. I was so hot and sweaty under all those layers that I wanted to pull a Ricky Bobby, rip off all of my clothes, and scream "I'm on fire!" The lights up the mountain became more distant, and the stream of headlamps behind us got closer and closer. I knew that my pace was slowing our team down immensely. I also knew that I was struggling way too much and way too early on into the hike.
I pushed myself to continue on, but I couldn't make it more than ten feet without having to stop. Finally, it got to the point where my legs were so exhausted that I had to lean on my trekking poles in order to prevent myself from falling over. My head was hurting and I was already exhausted. I knew it was time to tap out, but I just didn't have the courage to end it myself. I let Tosha make the obvious decision for me. Could I have pushed myself to go further? Absolutely. Would I have made it to the top? Most likely not. But most importantly, I wasn't going to risk my health or my life just so I could tell people I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. There's no way I was going to end up being carried down the mountain on a stretcher or in an ambulance. As the popular saying goes, "Getting to the top is optional, but getting to the bottom is mandatory."
Tosha would escort me back down to camp, and Eli would continue with The Wife up to the peak. Tosha took off his headlamp and handed it to Eli. Up to that point, I did not realize that Eli had been using a tiny flashlight. The headlamps that we take for granted are expensive luxuries for the guides and porters. Tosha had to borrow my headlamp to lead me back down. It wasn't much easier climbing back down the slippery rock face than it was going up. Tosha slipped at one point and mildly sprained his ankle. We kept walking down until we encountered The Happy German and his friends. He tried to encourage me to wait a few minutes until I felt better to continue onto the summit. But I had already made up my mind that I was done. Once I made it back to camp, I made a beeline to the bathroom tent to throw up. The vomit had the bitter taste of defeat.
Although it doesn't look very daunting during the daytime, this rocky slope was my downfall during the nighttime attempt at summiting.
The Wife's Story
I was really nervous about the climb that I couldn't fall asleep that night. I laid there worrying about how miserable I would be having to do that six hour hike by myself. I don't know what The Husband was thinking trying to come with us. He was pretty worthless for the last eight hours just laying there in the sleeping bag.
Once we started the climb, the first hour wasn't too bad. The rocks were slippery because of the ice and snow, but we were going slowly since The Husband kept taking so many breaks. He kept complaining about being on fire or something, and kept stopping to take off his gloves and Smartwool shirts. When we got near the top of the first hill, he finally quit. I don't care what he says, there's no way he would have made it any further. The next couple of hours were much harder.
Once The Husband and Tosha went back to camp, I followed Eli's lead up the mountain. The snow-covered hill was so very steep. Despite the headlamp, It was still very dark. After only an hour or so, the headlamp that Tosha gave to Eli stopped working. However, he still had his tiny little flashlight which helped him well enough. I really couldn't see anything more than a few feet away so the walk was very monotonous. I tried to keep my mind preoccupied by counting, but I kept losing count after just 100. The altitude was starting to get to me.
Eli tends to walk faster than Tosha, so he asked if the pace was okay. When we first started, I had no problems keeping up with him. We passed quite a few people who had started before us. However, after the next two hours, my legs were getting so tired, I asked Eli to slow down. He offered to carry my back pack, but I told him I was okay. However, it started to feel heavier and heavier. Finally, with only a quarter of the way to go until we reached the top, I practically begged him to take it.
It was so cold on the slope. I was wearing 2 pairs of thick wool sock but my toes were getting frozen. I wondered if they would have to amputate my toes from frostbite. We were supposed to get to Stella Point to see the sunrise. But we walked there too quickly, so it was still dark when we arrived. We decided to keep walking along to Uhuru Point, the highest part of the mountain. I kept asking Eli when the sunrise was supposed to be because the cold was unbearable. We reached Uhuru Point at 6 AM. There were only three other climbers there already. I was extremely cold and tired, but so happy that I gave Eli a big hug and cried just a tiny bit.
Eli was great at clearing people out and keeping them out of the way so that he could take my picture in front of the Uhuru sign. For this trek, we had brought along a Sony Rx100 camera that was supposed to be really good. For some reason the camera wouldn't focus and the pictures kept coming out blurry. [note from The Husband: I think the camera worked fine. I told The Wife to READ THE INSTRUCTIONS on how to use her new camera. Guess what she didn't do...].
Sadly, the best photograph taken at Uhuru Point.
We had planned for the contingency that the camera would not work in the cold. We had brought along an additional disposable camera. I ended up taking several pictures with that cheapo Kodak. [note from The Wife: I almost cried when we got the disposable camera developed. All of the pictures were completely black! None of the photos came out!]
The sun wasn't supposed to come up until around 6:30 AM. I wasn't going to wait around there and freeze for 30 more minutes. We headed back down to Stella Point. I saw the Happy German and his group. I was glad that he made it to the top.
On the way down, the sun finally came out and it warmed up a lot.
(Top and Bottom) The view above the clouds was breathtaking.
Eli pointed out the Arrow Glacier down below us. He kept saying that there was a campsite down there but I couldn't see it. The walk up from the glacier campsite looked a lot less steep than that from Barafu.
We stopped again at Stella Point to take more pictures.
On the way back down, I ran into several others who were struggling to reach the top. I felt badly for them and gave them some encouraging words. The walk down was much easier and faster. It took about 2-2 1/2 hours to make it back down to camp.
While The Wife endured the misery of the summit hike, I slept for six hours allowing me to feel much better. I waited at the base of the initial slope for her to return. As I sat there watching the omnipresent white-necked ravens flying about, I spied an occasional mouse or two scurrying around between the rocks. Apparently, humans are not the only mammals crazy enough to climb to that altitude. At 8 AM, The Wife and Eli reached the top of the last rocky slope. It took her forever to make it down from there. All the while, countless numbers of other climbers and porters passed them. I greeted her with some hugs and high- fives. After a brief rest and a brunch of rice and beans, we were off for a two hour hike to Millenium Camp down at 3,800 meters. Surprisingly, she wasn't very tired at all. But we were both emotionally exhausted having spent the last seven days on the mountain. If it were up to us, we would have kept walking down until we reached the very bottom.
Millenium Camp was terrible. Although we were one of the very first groups to leave the Barafu camp, some of the other groups had sent an advanced porter to reserve campsites on the flatter ground. Our tent ended up being pitched at a horrible angle causing everything inside to slide to one corner. The rains actually came down pretty hard that afternoon, and we had a small stream flowing through our mess tent. For dinner we had the only Tanzanian meal we would eat during our two week trip. It was the best meal we had on the trek. Once again, with the many groups sharing this campsite, it was noisy with radios blasting throughout the night.
Machalari is a Tanzanian stew containing beef, plaintains, potatoes, carrots, zucchinis, onions, eggplant, and pineapples.
The next morning, we had the tipping ceremony. The guides and porters sang a brief song in Swahili, and we gave them envelopes filled with US dollars. The representative from the African Walking Company had given us some guideline ranges for tipping, but we padded the amount a bit. A few extra dollars would go much farther for them, and they had done a good job.
Our final group picture taken during the tipping ceremony.
Eli then proceeded to guide us down to the Mweka Gate to finish our eight day journey. After about an hour, we entered into the cloud forest and the weather became much more hot and humid. Finally, I could go back to wearing a T-shirt and shorts.
(Left and Right) The jungle was very green...
(Left, Middle, and Right)...but there were fewer types of flowers compared to what we had seen along the Inca Trail in Peru.
The park rangers have placed placards along the trail identifying the various trees. Personally, they all looked pretty much the same to me.
If you stop to look around, you can occasional find these black and white Colobus monkeys in the rainforest zone.
With the harder rains the previous day, the trail was extremely muddy.
If doing the trek during the rainy season, be prepared to be bogged down in mud.
With the end being so close, the four-hour hike felt like an eternity. The Wife kept falling down on her bottom so we ended walking at a very slow, deliberate pace. It boggles my mind that she could tackle the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro so easily, yet have such a difficult time walking down a simple hill.
The whole way down, Eli walked behind The Wife to catch her whenever she feel down.
Even these huge white slugs made it down the mountain faster than us.
At the Mweka Gate, there were several trekking company vehicles present, waiting to take their respective clients back to Moshi or Arusha. There was none for us. We were told that we would have another 15-20 minute hike to go. After having trekked for the past 8 days, we felt that the least the African Walking Company could do was pick us up at the gate.
It turns out that that small walk would be some of the best scenery we would see. We ended up passing through a small neighborhood of houses with several banana trees and corn stalks growing in their yards. By no means were these people very well-off. However, they were extremely friendly. Cute little children would run out and start smiling and waving at us. Some guys even came up to us and asked if we climbed the mountain. They congratulated The Wife and gave her the thumbs up when I told them she had made it to the top. Nobody stared at us like we were complete outsiders. And best of all, we weren't met by a deluge of beggars or hawkers trying to sell us junk (okay, maybe just one or two of them).
Their houses were more like shacks and shanties.
The local Piggly Wiggly.
(Left, Middle, and Right) Beautiful flowers grow with ease in the fertile soil at the base of the mountain.
One thing I have learned from the Travel Channel show "Dangerous Grounds" is that wherever there are bananas...
...There is coffee!
We eventually arrived at the small restaurant to met up with our driver who would take us back to Arusha. Tosha, "Doctor," and Frank #2 were all there as well. Although they had departed camp after us, they had made it down hours before us. They had already showered and fully cleaned up. We ate a boxed lunch containing roasted chicken and a really good meat patty sausage. Even after getting their tips, they still remembered that The Wife was not eating gluten products. They provided an appropriate substitute for her. We said our last goodbyes to them and rode for two hours to Arusha.
Once we were back at the Onsea House, we immediately hit the showers. It's unbelievable how much dirt, grime, and nasty bodily fluids can collect in one's hair, under fingernails, and in body parts unexposed to sunlight in years. Thankfully, the hotel was still doing laundry service. I had worn the SAME pair of pants for eight straight days on the trek. It was a miracle that they could get those clothes fully cleaned.
We had enough time to lounge by the pool later that afternoon where we met the Belgian owner of the hotel. He explained that his wife's job working for the UN for the Rwanda genocide tribunal brought them to Tanzania. Since they were going to be there for several years, they decided to open up this hotel in this little nook of paradise. In the process, their children were getting a great experience growing up in a completely different land exposed to a whole new culture. We were a bit envious that we couldn't give our kids this kind of unique opportunity.
Dinner was, once again, superb.
(Left) Crab salad with cocktail sauce. (Right) Fish fingers with tartar sauce.
(Left) Zucchini soup. (Right) Cannelloni stuffed with spinach and tomato and ricotta.
(Left) Leek quiche with smoked salmon. (Right) Pork cutlet with roasted potatoes, broccoli, and cauliflower in a mustard sauce.
(Left) Tuna saltimbocca, mashed potatoes, and Roquefort salad. (Right) Banana crepe with a chocolate sauce.
After spending seven nights in a tent, we decided that was the most comfortable bed we have ever slept in.
Final Thoughts About Our Kilimanjaro Trek
We left a lot of us back on that mountain--mainly sweat, urine, poop, and vomit. But, in the process, we also gained some good and bad memories. The Wife insists that if she had known in advance what the experience would entail, she would not have done the trek. And this is even after knowing that she would successfully make it to the top. In fact this trek sealed the deal for her. She has vowed never to spend another day camping in a basic tent or doing any hiking or trekking adventures. She donated all of her outdoor clothes and equipment including her parka, fleece pants, camelbak backpack, and hiking boots to the guides and porters.
Altitude sickness aside, the trek was not as enjoyable as I thought it would be. The scenery was a bit disappointing. Unlike the Inca Trail where there are several ruins that dot the landscape, there is nothing historical to see or learn on Kilimanjaro. Maybe it's because we had climbed outside of the peak season. But the gorgeous views of the mountain were limited to the few hours in the early morning before the clouds came in and obscured everything. Finally, unlike Peru where there is a magnificent reward called Machu Picchu waiting at the end of the hike, all that there is at the peak of Kilimanjaro is a simple sign. No lost mines of King Solomon nor fabled kingdom of Prester John await climbers at the top.
Nevertheless, I think that the journey is still worth taking for the simple fact that the mental and physical challenges can help people understand their limitations. Although I couldn't make it to the peak, I don't regret making the attempt. This trek isn't for everyone, but for those looking to push themselves, then I think that this is as good of an endeavor as any other.
In retrospect, though, I would have done a few things differently:
Eight days was way too long. We did this to help with acclimation. Unfortunately, this ended up backfiring on us as the lengthy amount of time with altitude sickness just left me too weak and demoralized to have any chance at summiting. If we had only done a five or six day hike, the results may as well had been the same, but it would have at least freed up more time and money for extra days on a safari or an excursion to Zanzibar.
I would have considered staying at Arrow Glacier camp. Heck, if I'm going to get altitude sickness, I'd might as well puke on a glacier.
Otherwise from that, we were happy with our trekking company and the equipment we had brought along.
So the question arises. Since I didn't make it to the summit, would I ever reattempt this climb? Well, to quote those ubiquitous ravens ...