Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Ceiling of Africa

Disclaimer: This is a very long post with day by day descriptions of our climb up Kilimanjaro. If you want to just check out the pictures, we understand. If you're going to read any one section of it though, we advise you to scroll down and check out "Day 5 - Part 1".

Day 1:

Day one provided a deceiving start to the climb. We hauled our gear down the street to the Keys Hotel at 8:00 am to receive a quick briefing from our guide Raymond, after which we packed up the landcruiser and headed off to the park entrance. Upon reaching the park entrance around 10 am, we registered, handed off our bags to the porters and picked up our second guide, Patrick. In total our team included us, 4 porters, 1 cook, and 2 guides.
We started hiking by 11 am. The first day takes you on a dirt and gravel trail from the Marangu gate at 1860m (6102ft) to the first set of huts, the Mandara huts, at 2700m (8858ft). This trail winds through a dense rainforest. The temperature during the day was very comfortable in the mid 60s to low 70s. The hike was 8km long and took about three and a half hours including a decently long lunch break.
Our lunch consisted of chicken, an egg, a banana, cookies, cake, a roll, a cheese sandwich and juice. They provided no shortage of calories and see to it that you consume them, as this energy becomes increasingly important throughout the climb. We each drank about three liters of water a day, which combined with our altitude meds, a diaretic, made for pee breaks every 30 minutes or so.
At 2:30ish we arrived at the Mandara huts. We rinsed off with a bowl of warm water and relaxed over tea and popcorn. For dinner we had another huge meal which we ate under Raymond's watchful eye. On full bellies we packed it in for the night, along with our hutmate Tim, who was attempting to film a scene of the summit for a Kilimanjaro beer commercial.

Day 2:

Day two began at just before 6 am, as we both woke up to pee (thanks diamox). This turned into a wonderful little bathroom trip as we were able to see the sunrise over a sea of fluffy cotton-ball clouds.
An hour later we were served a full sunday brunch style breakfast (eggs, bacon, porridge, toast, tomato, cucumber, and mango). We left just after 8 am, ready to tackle the 11.7km trek to the Horombo huts, 3700m (12,139ft) above sea level.
Minutes into our walk we crossed the abrupt border from the forest to the moorland, a region with completely different vegetation made primarily of tall golden grasses and funny looking trees straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. On a clear day we would have had a view of both Kibo and Mwenzi peaks, the former being the taller, however both were shrouded in clouds (as they would be for the entire climb).
Slowly we ascended into fog and by lunch we were as surrounded by the clouds as the peaks. Substantial cooling accompanied this transition as the temperature dropped to the low 50s.
After another huge lunch, our path took us even higher into the clouds and by 1:15ish we abandoned our polepole pace as it began to rain. We reached Horombo the huts by 2:00 where we were dried off and recovered with some tea and snacks. After another huge dinner, we hit the sack shortly after sunset.

Day 3:

We spent the day at Horombo camp acclimatizing. We went for a quick hike in the morning up to Zebra rock, an outcrop of dark volcanic rocks with streaks of white calcium carbonate that leeched down from overlying rocks, creating a stripped effect, at 4000m (13,123ft). We also saw various igneous rocks that Zahra excitingly pocketed.
We spent the remainder of the day eating, drinking water, resting and preparing for the long days ahead. I also started to feel the effects of the altitude this day with a slight headache.

Day 4:

The day started off well. After an early breakfast, we set off on a 13km hike up to the last hut, Kibo. This final hut serves as base camp for the summit and sits at an elevation of 4700m (15,420ft).
The five hour hike took us out of the moorland and into the alpine desert as we crossed the long, gradual, Martian-like landscape known as the saddle. During the last couple of hours the temperatures dipped down to freezing and we were pelted by hail. The final km of the day took us up a fairly steep ascent where we began to really feel the effects of the thin air as some slight dizziness set in. Fortunately, after an hour at Kibo drinking some tea, we both began to clear up a little bit.
We ate dinner at 5 o'clock and then turned in at around 6, attempting to catch a few hours of sleep before 10:45pm, when we would be woken up to prepare for the final ascent of 1195 vertical meters (3921ft).

Day 5 - Part 1:

Day 5 on Kili actually began at 10:45pm on day 4 when we were woken up for tea before the final summit run. The cold, altitude, and anxiety had made for less than ideal sleeping conditions and we had received very little shut eye. After shivering over our tea, with temperatures down into the teens, we geared up for the ascent. At 11:30pm we shuffled out into the darkness with our head lamps and began the long climb.
The first section of the climb takes you to the Hans Meyer Cave at 5200m (17,060ft) and consists of small switchbacks carving up a steep skree-covered slope. Despite our general grogginess, we made it there in good time, arriving at 2am.
Leaving the caves, really just a small rock overhang, we entered a steeper section of the ascent. Here we took larger switchbacks, and dug our poles into the side of the mountain with each step to prevent us from keeling over. This carried on at a drunkenly polepole pace until we reached a final even steeper rocky section before Gilman's Point.
At this time, my dizziness began to recede slightly, while Zahra's started to worsen. We scaled the rocks with the darkened edge of the crater becoming clearer against the still black sky.
Finally at 5:30am we crawled over the ridge and onto Gilman's Point, 5681m (18,638ft) high. For many, this marks the end of their climb. Gilman's Point sits on the caldera rim, and is on the ring of points at Kili's peak. We sat there for a few minutes watching the sun rise over the cloudy horizon, attempting to catch our breath. Within minutes, however, Raymond was goading us to finish the final climb around the crater rim to Uhuru Point, the highest point in Africa. Under normal conditions this would not be a difficult hike as it is only about 1km long and ascends a mere 214m (702ft) in altitude; on no sleep and already 3.5 miles high, however, it becomes significantly more challenging, and takes most climbers around 90 minutes.
At this point, Zahra was in really rough shape and having some balance problems (more than usual). We stopped every 20-50 meters to regroup and for the occasional dry heave. Almost 2 hours later, hand in hand, we arrived at Uhuru. The feeling was a mix of joy and relief, in addition to lightheadedness, shortness of breath, and general shittyness. At 7:15am we stood at the ceiling of Africa, 5895m, 19,340ft, 3.66 miles up.

Day 5 - Part 2:

We spent only a few minutes up at Uhuru - just enough time to snap a few pictures, attempt to catch our breath, and congratulate our fellow climbers. The descent, while not as taxing, cold, or dark as the climb up, was certainly no picnic. We stumbled our way back around the crater ridge to Gillman's, where we refueled on some water and snacks before beginning the steep descent.
Scrambling down the rocks was considerably less challenging on the way down, but the switchbacks were hell. Instead of taking the zigzagging path, we headed straight down a wider skree/dirt path that had earlier been concealed by the darkness. Going down this path was more similar to skiing than walking, where with each step you skidded down several inches.
Because of Zahra's dizziness and the need to get her down swiftly, Patrick took a vice-grip hold on her arm and kept her upright as he whisked Zahra down the skree. Raymond and I weren't far behind as our quads and knees took the brutal pounding of the major incline.
Two and a half hours after leaving Uhuru, and ten and a half hours after departing Kibo hut, we returned.
But wait, there's more! We were given only an hour and a half to rest and have a meal before we jumped back on the trail to cover the 13 km back to Horombo. This journey took 3 hours, and benevolently, even though threatening clouds and fog loomed the entire walk, we were spared any heavy rain. Like zombies we drifted back across the arctic desert and into the moorlands.
Finally, we spotted the huts over a ridge and made it to our hut 14 hours after our "day" began. We had some tea, a quick nap, and dinner, and by 6 we were out of the cold enjoying some well deserved sleep.

Day 6:

Morning came too soon. We were woken up at 5:45 am and served breakfast at 6. Our muscles ached, and our noses were runny. We grudgingly packed up and started our final hike of 20 km back to Marangu Gate at 7 am. We whisked through the moorlands with only a few stops (two of which involved Zahra slipping and falling on her butt in mud, apparently her legs had not quite recovered).
Around 10, we arrived at the Mandara huts. But after only a 10 minute break, we returned to the trail. By now the temperature was steadily rising and we kept shedding layers. The highlight of the walk was a brief monkey sighting.
We stumbled past Marangu gate at approximately 12:30. After receiving certificates for reaching Uhuru, we jumped into the van to head back to Moshi.

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