Thursday, March 22, 2007

Machame Memories

As I sit at my desk, looking at my lucky rock*, it's now three weeks since we climbed Kilimanjaro, but it seems much longer, and has acquired something of a dreamlike quality (but not a nightmare, thankfuly!).

* a small rock that James, one of our guides (aka 'Cheeky Monkey', for reasons that became very obvious during the trek), took great delight in putting on my rucksack one day. I kept it as a 'talisman' against his putting much larger rocks on it**, and carried it all the way to the summit and back down again.

** it didn't work!

The Food

I like my food, and I like quite a lot of it, so what we were going to get served, and how much there would be of it, for the 6 days of the trek was something of a concern. I needn't have worried on either count.

The meals were pretty much ideal mountain fare - high in carbs, and plenty of everything. As far as breakfast was concerned, it did rather help if you liked porridge. Luckily I love porridge, so filling up on two or three bowls full, liberally laced with honey, made for a good start to each day. The "cooked breakfast" that followed it was a nice touch, especially when you consider the conditions under which it was provided, although I'm not sure how sustaining a couple of teaspoons of scrambled eggs & a rather cardboardy bit of bacon actually was.

At the end of several hours walking, dinner was always very welcome. It invariably started with soup (thanks to whichever porter carried the innumerable packets of Knorr up the mountain!), and the main course involved a 'staple', such as pasta, rice or potatoes, together with sauces (the vegetable sauce we had with the pasta on the first night was a triumph), and perhaps fried chicken. On one day we were treated to roast potatoes and they were amongst the best I've ever had — crispy on the outside and beautfully fluffy inside. All that was missing was Yorkshire Puddings and gravy!

I think, therefore, our group's cook deserves a name check. Coming, as he does, from the ancient Chagga tribe, which has lived in the foothills of Kilimanjaro for the past several hundred years, he revelled in the wonderful, if not terribly traditional-sounding, name of River Cactus Mario. Inevitably, given his terrific cooking skills, he got called Super Mario.

The People

Your fellow trekkers can make-or-break a trip like this, where you're living at very close quarters for a week, in increasingly challenging conditions, and where tiredness & lack of oxygen can easily lead to short tempers.

Quite what we'd done to deserve the other people on our trek I don't know, but it must have been something very good, as they were a wonderful bunch. The chats with people on the walk, the easy banter at meal times, and the overall camaraderie all positively enhanced this trip for me (even if whoever snored like a battleship being launched rather detracted from the nights. Aren't ear-plugs great?).

The guides, porters and other trek staff were great too. It's now something of a cliché that the porters are near superhuman in their ability to almost run up and down Kili carrying 25kg of assorted kit, much of it on their heads. But it's a cliché grounded in reality. They are up before anyone else, they pack all the tents and kit whilst we enjoy breakfast, and they set off for the next camp so that everything's ready by the time we arrive. And, judging by the chatter that went on late into the night, they're also awake long after most of the group. Superhuman or not, we were all immensely grateful for their exertions.

The Trek

After occupying our minds with months of training, buying gear, suffering injections, and endlessly chewing beef on Ethiopian Airlines, we did actually have to climb Kilimanjaro. The trek, on the Machame route, at least, begins pretty easily, with a very pleasant day walking through the shade of Cloud Forest, creating a somewhat false sense of confidence — until you reach the first night's campsite, that is, which seemed considerably steeper than the walk had been so far. It was also our introduction to the "long-drop toilet", about which the less said the better (NB. you follow that link at your own risk!). On the bright side, Super Mario came up with a mountain of food.

Day two upped the ante a bit, with a fairly strenuous start up a steep ridge. It was somewhere on this bit that I inadvertently got ahead of our group, and fell into step with three porters and someone from a another group. It was only when I reached what was obviously the lunch stop — "obviously" because a) the path reached a plateau and b) people were having lunch there — that I realised no-one from our group was in front of me. The problem was, even though I was able to look down a very long stretch of the ascent, it was impossible to work out where our group was, partly because there were several different groups bunched together, and partly because each group looked much the same from above - mainly a sea of sun-hats. Eventually Meckson, the head guide, appeared, having apparently run (yes, run) after me, to put an end to my impromptu escape bid. After we'd had lunch, the rest of the day went according to plan, and Super Mario treated us to an avalanche of sublime roast potatoes for dinner at Shira camp. There is no truth in the rumour that I managed to eat double-figures of them. Nor that Peter (aka "Pirate Pete")
matched me, roastie for roastie.

Day three was, theoretically, "acclimatisation day", meaning that we ascended several hundred metres, but then dropped back again to around the same height as the previous night to sleep. This approach exposes your body to the stresses of altitude, and then gives it a bit of time to adapt before going back up again. At the start of the day Hellen very sensibly advised us to liberally annoint ourselves with high-factor sun screen, and I am sure this greatly helped when we were pelted by hail a couple of hours later. A few of us diverted up to Lava Tower, which is, well, a tower of lava, jutting over 220 feet into the air.

Lava Tower was the highest point of our day, at about 4600m, after which we descended back down to Barranco camp, at 3950m to sleep.

Marathon runners, so it's said, hit a wall when they're partway through a run. Our wall was somewhat more literal, towering as it did about 1000 feet over the campsite, and dominating our immediate route up Kili. The Barranco Wall is an apparently sheer wall of rock, rising straight up the side of the valley. It's only when you look hard that you can see porters, who set off early, zig-zagging their way up the steep & narrow path that meanders up the wall. Thankfully the Barranco Wall is far less intimidating close up, as the path becomes more obvious. It's still very steep, with precipitous drops awaiting anyone careless enough to slip, but at least it's not actually vertical!

In fact, it was possibly the single most enjoyable part of the whole trek, combining a pleasantly shaded ascent of the valley, with some nice (if somewhat short) bits of scrambling here-and-there. Gaining the top of the wall brings the reward of some very good views, across to Meru, and up to Kibo, even if cloud closed in fast, completely obscuring the summit of Kili in our group photo. Because the next campsite — Barafu — doesn't have any water nearby we had to fill everything up at a stream en route, and carry it up there. Today also saw our last proper meal before summit night — a hearty, heavily potato-oriented stew, eaten in a mess tent on an otherwise barren mountainside. Arrival at Barafu saw a light snack of popcorn (which was served every day, on arrival at camp, and which was the best popcorn I've had anywhere), before we all turned in for a very early night, at about 7pm.

I don't know quite how much sleep I managed to grab before getting up again at 11.30pm, but it was more than I'd feared, if not as much as I'd hoped. I wouldn't say I was exactly raring to go, but at least I was all packed and ready, and after a quick cup of tea we all set off. Having done a bit in the alps (albeit almost decade ago) setting off in the cold of the wee small hours wasn't too much of a shock. I rather like the strange contradiction that whilst you're part of a group, you also feel almost completely alone in the darkness, and the whole world just shrinks to the few feet you can see in front of you.

Interestingly, modern technology rather spoiled this aspect. I was the only person using an "old school" Petzl headtorch — the type with the halogen bulb, twisty focussing collar, and huge battery pack at the back (on the left, below) — whereas everyone else had shiny new LED ones (on the right).

I am sure the new-fangled LED ones are very lightweight and efficient, probably cause less global-warming, and maybe even make toast — but they don't let you aim a tightly focussed beam at the boots of the person in front of you, so that, from a distance, it looks rather like the Mysterons are walking up the mountain.

The walk up the frozen scree to Stella Point seemed to take forever. Absolutely forever. For the latter part of the ascent I was immediately behind Mringi, our guide, and concentrated entirely on his boots, chanting with each step, "closer... closer still... closer... closer still...", using what über-mountaineer
Andy Kirkpatrick called the "eating the elephant philosophy":

"If anyone asked you to eat an elephant you'd think it was impossible," he says. "But if you just ate a little bit every day, eventually you'd finish it."

Well, that's how I approached the final few hundred metres of Kili - just a step at a time.

Eventually, Mrigini turned round and caught my attenion. "Up there ... the big rock ... Stella Point". It was bizarre, but, tired as I was, I felt that I could have run up to Stella Point. Needless to say, I didn't, but I was defintely revitalised to know that such a landmark was clearly in sight.

When we reached Stella Point, Mrigni performed the best magic trick I've ever seen and pulled a thermos from his backpack. Hot tea! It was also at Stella point that Andy got Mrigni to hold Poohlet & Tiglet for a photo, producing a touchingly bemused look of wonderment

It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that we'd forge onwards and upwards to Uhuru Peak — we weren't likely to come back, so this was "it". The
route from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak was entirely covered with snow — more than for many years, apparently — which really added to the experience. There was just enough ice that crampons would have been handy, but not so much that they were necessary. Still, walking poles came in very useful on more than one occasion.

Knowing that the summit was ~45 minutes away gave enough of a mental edge to make this part of the climb easier than expected. Still, at nearly 6000m, and after almost 7 hours hours of walking, nothing is exactly "easy", and the "rolling" nature of the crater rim provided enough false summits to maintain one's interest.

Mringi, Andy & I finally reached the summit at 8am. It was now that Andy's camera, having worked fine 100m lower, decided to fail. Numerous attempts at warming the camera itself, and three different batteries, failed to revive it. So, sadly, Andy didn't manage to get a photo of himself on the roof of Africa. The real tragedy, though, was that we would now forego the donation riding on a picture of Poohlet & Tiglet on the summit.

When we'd been on the summit for about 20 minute Mringi made it clear that we should start the descent — after all, we faced another 6 or 7 hours hard slog, most of it down scree, before we reached tonight's camp.

After going down for about half an hour we met some people from our group on their way up — Anne & Eszter, plus their guide, Hery. Eszter expressed the desire that I come back up with them to the summit, so we could have a picture together. What's a man to do? Well, what's a man who wants to keep his relationship to do, anyway?

Bidding adieu to Andy, I turned round and committed myself to going back up to Uhuru Peak, for the second time that morning! Despite being tired, and despite having thought I was on my way down, going back up was much easier than I'd feared — knowing exactly what was ahead, and just how much effort it would take, allowed me to pace myself well.

We reached Uhuru Peak at 9.20am, and thankfully our camera proved fully functional — Poohlet's & Tiglet's triumph would be preserved for posterity! Oh yes, and so would ours.

Unfortunately, reaching Uhuru Peak is far from the end of the day's walk, and the sense of relief at having got there is quickly supplanted by the realisation there are several hours of knee-crippling descent ahead, much of it down thawed-out scree. The only approach really is to just get it over with — there's nowhere to go but down, anyway!

Because we were one of the last groups to reach the summit (we met some decidedly tired-looking people still ascending as we made our way down), we were later than the others in our group in getting back to Barafu camp. Thankfully, however, some hot soup had been left for us, and we were also able to put most of our summit layers into our kit bags, which would then be carried to the final campsite by the porters.

It was at this point it transpired that our guide had been "managing our expectations" on the way down, telling us that the walk from Barafu to Mweka camp was over twice as long as it really was, in order to make us go faster. In his defence, it had worked! So, instead of about 6 more hours walking, it was really only about 3 more to go, and with the lure of being able to finally stop walking, and the encouragement of James, who was our guide for this last part of the descent, we made it to Mweka even faster than that. Although dropping ~3000m in 7 hours is pretty hard going, one really nice aspect of it is that you get to see several of Kili's "climactic regions" in very quick succession — the alpine summit, high desert, heathland, and heather forest. The last part of the descent was especially impressive, with a stunning view across a wide valley that was thickly carpeted in giant heather plants.

For some reason, no-one seemed terribly inclined to stay up after dinner — perhaps it had something to do with the 15 hours of strenuous walking we'd just done, who knows? So it was an early night for all.

The final day saw a short and very pleasant walk back down through Cloud Forest. We were even treated to a sighting of Colobus monkeys just before we arrived at Mweka Gate.

On arrival back at The Mountain Inn, and after nearly a week without being able to wash properly, I made a dash for the showers, which saw an impromtu re-enactment of the Herbal Essences advert as the hot water hit my body — "Yes... YES... OH, YES!"

Altitude & Acute Moutain Sickness (AMS)

For most people, the main problem when climbing Kili is the altitude. The summit, at 5985m, is classed as "extreme altitude", and AMS is a serious threat. Mostly the symptoms are "just" nausea, breathlessness, severe headaches, loss of appetite, dizziness, difficulty sleeping, and lethargy, but in its most severe forms it can lead to death. The fact that we were ascending Kili more than three times as fast as medically advisable (over 1000m a day, as opposed to the 300m advised) only made matters worse. Most people seemed to suffer from one or more of the symptoms, and, very sadly, for one person they were bad enough to force them to go back down after day three. (But he'll go back, I'm sure, and will reach the top next time.)

In the three weeks prior to Kili, Eszter & I did a
course of "Intermittent Hypoxic Training" that, in theory, acclimatised us to about 6500m (9% oxygen). Whether it worked or not, we'll never really know — I have no intention of climbing Kili again without doing IHT just to find out — but I strongly suspect that it did, as neither of us showed any significant symptoms of AMS. The only thing I really suffered from were intermittent and brief headaches on day three. And I definitely didn't have any loss of appetite!


As experiences go, climbing Kilimanjaro tends to fall into the "once in a lifetime" category. It takes a lot of preparation, it's expensive, and it's very hard work to actually do. But, as with most "once in a lifetime experiences" — other than, say, contracting smallpox or being decapitated — it's well worth all the effort, even if it may not always seem so at the time.

I'll close with the words of a song (based on the one written by Kenyan musician Teddy Kalanda Harrison) that we sometimes sang as climbed. Hellen, our trek leader, seemed very fond of it, and the guides were happy to indulge her!

"Jambo! Jambo bwana!
Habari gani? Mzuri sana!
Wageni, mnakaribishwa!
Kilimanjaro, Hakuna Matata!"

which, roughly translated, means:

"Hey! Hey, man!
How's it going? Very Well!
Foreigners, you are welcome!
Kilimanjaro, No Problem!"

(Or, as Meckson told us to tell people - Kilimanjaro is "easy peasy, lemon squeezy!")


Blogger Andrew said...

Wow, Jon....what an accurate, entertaining - and long - summary of our epic Kili "holiday". Definitely a once in a lifetime experience...and I'm incredibly grateful to Eszter for dragging you back to Uhuru for the money-producing Poohlet & Tiglet snap, so that I won't have that nagging feeling at the back of my mind....

9:25 AM  

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