Climbing to the top of Africa – Part 1
I don’t like bucket lists, it seems too simplistic a way to navigate through life. I prefer the messy, spontaneous, serendipitous view of the future, It’s more alive. Life presents opportunities we would never dream of and tosses them in our path; random act becomes coincidence which compels destiny. Destiny brought me to Mount Kilimanjaro.
In the pursuit of an endorsement for my new book, Off the couch and Out the Door, I contacted Sarah Wiley, Executive Director of Outward Bound (Check them out at www.outwardbound.ca).
I had started my life of adventure with Outward Bound back in the 90’s; I wanted her endorsement for stories of life after that first random act. Within a week, I was sucked back into the vortex of Outward Bound adventure; Sarah invited me to climb Kilimanjaro and raise funds for their programs.
Such is destiny; seventeen years of adventure bookended by Outward Bound. I signed up, raised some money from incredulous friends, some of whom thought it cheaper to give than to have me committed, and started training. On January 13, 2014, in my 65th year, I joined the group in Amsterdam for the flight to Moshie to start the trek to summit Mount Kilimanjaro. We are 13, 10 women and 3 men, ages varying from mid twenties to mid sixties. We’ve raised almost $100,000 for Outward Bound and have paid our own way here.
Summiting Kilimanjaro is simple but not easy. Known as ‘Everyman’s Everest’, it requires no serious climbing experience, no technical mountaineering skills and no special climbing gear. That’s the simple part.
It is not easy. At 5895 meters (19, 340 feet), it is Africa’s tallest peak. It demands a high level of fitness; six to eight hour days of high altitude trekking is demanding. Our well trodden trail, the longer Machame-Mweka route covers 55 kilometers that takes us up a flank of the summit and then traverses slowly across the width of the mountain to the final camp above 4800 meters; from which we strike out for the summit. The longer route allows more time for acclimatization, improving our chances of summiting.
The big unknown is the effect of elevation. At the summit, the air is about one half as dense as at sea level where I live. That means breathing is less efficient, oxygen absorption can fall significantly affecting every aspect of my body’s functions. Each individual reacts differently; a drug, Diamox, can mitigate the effects but my reaction to high altitude can only be answered on the upper slopes of Kilimanjaro. I think that means I have to commit, then deal with the altitude effect on summit day.
Trekking conditions are basic. No showers for six days (wet-wipes are the best we have), sleeping on the ground in tents, rudimentary toilets, food chosen for calorie density and portability rather than taste, and strict limits on personal gear. It rains a lot and it gets cold at night, very cold.
On the positive side, we have 46 porters and guides whose sole responsibility is to get us to the summit. It sounds presumptuous, but it is the norm and makes a valuable contribution to the local economy. Our quixotic quest is their employment lifeline, an irreplaceable source of income. In addition, we drop the regular tourist coin into the local fountain, staying at a local lodge, purchasing gifts, renting buses and sampling the local tourist stops.
For creature comforts, we have a dining tent with tables and stools for our meals, two – yes two – portapotties, the ultimate camp luxury and I have my own tent; two hot meals, bag lunches every day and water, hot and cold, for our every need.
We have six guides; experts who have summited so many times they don’t count anymore. They lead us, ‘Pole, Pole’, slowly, slowly in Swahili; for six days we trust ourselves to their care. Gerard, our lead guide, sets the pace, tells us stories, manages the guides, consults Sarah and keeps the porters sharp.
We are 13; 10 women and 3 men; not uncommon these days. We’re from all over Canada ranging in age from mid sixties to early 20‘s.
We start in early afternoon at the Machame Gate. It isn’t exactly Grand Central Station but is much busier than I expected; we are not alone in our ambition to climb Kibo. By dusk we have arrived at our first camp, Machame at 3026 meters. Our porters, wearing castoff size 12 boots on their size 8 feet, look like Hobbits; their t-shirts and other gear are visually counterintuitive – a black, Swahili-speaking Tanzanian porter sports a Texas A&M t-shirt.
They are efficient; when we arrive, our tents are up, my bag is ready and both dining and pottie tents are ready for use. We have a hot meal, deliciously above expectations – soup, main course and fruit for dessert. Next morning we have an ample breakfast and many cheerful hellos. Our bag lunch awaits and we set off. Within an hour, the porters have dismantled our camp and passed us on the trail – carrying their gear and 20 kilograms of our stuff.
We leave the rainforest after Machame and head up into heath; by late afternoon we have arrived at Shira Camp – 3766 meters. On day three, we tramp through moorlands with surreal cacti, hiking above 4600 meters only to hike downward into a valley to camp at Baranco – 3983 meters, the tried and true acclimatization method of hike high/sleep low will help us achieve the summit.
On day four we continue a traverse, always in view of the glaciers of the summit, we acclimatize going up and down but end the day at Karanga – 4034 meters – without gaining much elevation.
Finally on Day five, we head for Barafu our final camp before summit; our leader, Gerard, convinces the camp Ranger to allow us to climb a bit higher to Kosovo camp at 4760 meters. Our summit attempt will be that much easier with an hour less hiking and only 1000 meters of elevation to climb to the summit.
On summit day, we rise at 11 PM, we eat a bit – my only serious adverse reaction to the elevation so far has been lethargy and, for the first time in my life, a serious loss of appetite. By midnight, we have donned our many layers of clothing, adjusted our headlamps, hidden our water bottles away from the freezing cold and formed a line. Gerard leads, we follow his headlamp into the dark – pole, pole – a little caterpillar of lights moving towards the summit. Add a few more groups and we have a conga line stretching the length of the trail. We stop every hour; a bit of chocolate, some water, supportive words for those who struggle. The guides are checking us, sometime subtly, sometimes in our face to see how we are holding up.
We are admonished to keep moving, the guides show their experience now and help the faltering while sending the rest of us to Stella Point at the lip of the crater. I follow whoever is in front of me, head down for a few minutes concentrating on matching the progress of the boots in front of me.
I force myself to look up. The stars and the moonlight are spectacular, we walk in the sky; the air is crisp, precious in its lightness. I am enthralled; it is magic. By 5 AM the sky is turning a rosy pink in the east; it warms us. The sunrise is spectacular; we are on the roof of Africa, the view is heart stopping. With wide eyed wonder, we survey the horizon; it’s infinite and I swear I can see the curve of the earth.
We must move on. By 6:30 AM we reach Stella Point on the lip of the crater, at 5685 meters we are deceptively close to the summit, but we’re not done. Uhuru, the top most point is an hour away and 200 meters higher.
I am drained, I haven’t banked energy for the final push, even though I know what we would face. This is the toughest slog, deceptively close but doggedly challenging; I silence the debate team in my head – only Uhuru will do. We finally arrive, we celebrate, we take pictures, we stomp about. Then we go back down.
The descent is a challenge; I am running on empty, my legs are like Gumby and Pokey – plasticine – when I need oak, all I have is willow. I slip slide my way through 1000 meters of skree, it isn’t elegant but, by 11, I’m HOME, back at camp.
We eat, shed a few layers, pack up our gear and start the challenging trek to Millennium camp, 1000 meters below us. Walking downhill with aching knees and complaining muscles requires concentration – something I must dig deep to find; by 4 pm, after 16 hours on trail, I arrive. My tent is here, my gear is here. My sleeping bag is here; the dining tent is up; I say a silent prayer of thanks to the gods for luck, destiny and our porters.
We eat quickly, too fatigued to celebrate and fall into our sleeping bags. By morning, courtesy of the richer atmosphere, a long sleep, and hot coffee, I have stopped twitching and recovered my decorum.
This, our last day, we say goodbye to most of the porters, they will lug the gear to the Mweka gate and head for home. We participate in a goodbye ritual of songs, handshakes, gifts of money and gear and the most sincere expressions of gratitude. We know we are nothing without these porters and guides.
We hike out; six hours later at Mweka gate, we receive our certificate of achievement. It will hang in my man cave, testimony to silliness, serendipity, coincidence, destiny and Outward Bound.
More next week on why I do this…