SHIRA CAMP 12,598 ft / 3,840 km
We started out the day talking about bowels. That's what we have devolved to, conversations that might transpire in a nursing home.
Status: Olga started to take Diamox yesterday which has produced all sorts of annoying side effects: needle sensations in her limb and foggy brain. Constipation has been a fun topic of conversation. Rome was complaining of dehydration, though he has been secretly hording an absurd amount water of bottles in his bag. James said he was at 30%. He still couldn't keep any food down. We were concerned for him, because time to recover was running out. Wallace said he had a little bit of a headache yesterday, but otherwise was doing alright. I felt good too. Despite lack of sleep, I was almost 100%.
Sleeping has been difficult, mostly because of the uber-thin mats and the subsequent bruises on my hip bones. At first I thought I had worked out some new muscles, but it turned out to just be raw from the ground. It felt like I was barely sleeping, but in some ways that was good. For once in my life, I could get up early (6:30 - 7:00.) What I call early was nothing compared to the rest of the camp. I had no idea why everyone was getting up at 4 or 5 am. What's the rush? I was so glad we were not under this kind of regiment. We made it out of camp at least an hour late every day, but who's counting.
Before leaving camp, setting out (sans pants)
Today was all about acclimatization. We would reach up to 15,000 feet before coming back down to camp.
I got a nice surprise when I tried to put on my pants this morning. They had gotten a little wet yesterday so I laid them on some poles to dry, but they fell off and got soaked. I tied them to the back pack, hoped for more sun, and pressed on in the long johns.
As we climbed, the climate changed dramatically yet again. The bushgrass and groundsels disappeared and everything turned to rock. I remember the exact moment when things got “real.” Suddenly, clouds rolled in and the long johns were like tissue paper. My lungs felt like someone sat down on my chest. I hadn't expected the change to be so dramatic, as if we had just crossed into another planet minus oxygen. It took about five minutes, but the lungs came around and breathing went back to normal.
It affected everyone differently. A group of British Muslim climbers that we had become acquainted with were huddled on the trail; one of their mates was ill. Their guide was performing what looked like a sobriety test, having him walk a straight line. He was swerving all over the place. Raymond said he had a brain edema and that he needed to get down fast.
Seeing that alarmed us all. For the first time, I started monitoring everything that was going on in my body. Typically I don't pay much attention to the physical, but I was irrationally paranoid that every tinge in my brow was the onslaught of a brain edema. I felt that it could literally explode if I wasn't careful. The only thing I knew to do was guzzle water and eat everything possible, which I was doing.
Thanks to the camel pack that Shibat gave me a few years ago, I was able to drink non-stop. I'd been able to stave off any headaches by just drinking a little bit every few minutes. I was surprised to find that I was the only one who brought my camel pack. I guess Wallace and James thought it would freeze at the high elevations, so they brought their Nalgene bottles instead. Screwing and unscrewing the bottle with gloves was a pain. I am now convinced the camel is the way to go.
We reached a sign that said Lava Tower. We prematurely celebrated the halfway point and the altitude peak, but then we realized it was just an arrow marking the way. Fizzled sense of accomplishment.
Lunch on the moon
As we huddled for lunch, we realized that we'd lost Rome. We assumed he was probably at the peak by then. The wind and chill were picking up, so we only stopped for a short time. My pants had dried, thank you sun, so I put them on and was immediately warm. The pants turned out to be my best piece of equipment. And they were just dumb luck to begin with; I found them at a thrift store for a couple of dollars in my exact size. They have been cool when it's hot, and super warm when it's cold. A complete fantastic mystery.
There was no vegetation around, but we did see white necked ravens and some little mice who were dying to get at our lunch. I don't blame them, rock lichen was their alternative.
We saw what looked like bleached driftwood strewn about; it seemed natural until I woke up and realized where we were. What tide is drifting wood all of the way up here? Turned out they were little bones! I picked up a couple, and you could see the osteons. They were probably small animals like the little mouse (godspeed little guy) that had been eaten by ravens. Lots of bones = very eerie.
The clouds were not subsiding. We could only see maybe thirty feet ahead. It started to drizzle so on with the rain gear. My friend Mie loaned me her brand new bright pink never worn Gore-tek rain jacket. I was hoping I wouldn't have to use it, so I could keep it hermetically sealed and safe in my pack. But the mountain would not cooperate.
Where am I?
Just balancing 6 dozen eggs on my head while I climb, no big deal
The Lava Tower finally showed itself.
We reached a clearing and a hint of a chimney could be seen through the mist. There was a torn up outhouse in the middle of a field of loose rock. I realized that the cold and wind contained the smell. Could the bathroom situation be improving? The trade off was blistering chills. I had to strip down to a tshirt to put on some more long johns.
As I was making my way back to the group, it started to rain harder. "You need to put on the rain pants," Raymond said. "Aye, aye Captain." James and Wallace were already suited up with their envious North Face rain shell pants. I sheepishly took out my clear poncho pants. I tore a big hole in the leg trying to put them on. They were good fun like a gigantic clear balloon around my pants, you could see through them like a zorb.
Adding a rock to the trail marker. Note: Olga's rock in mid-air and my sandwich bag pants
One porter gave me a look of sympathy and bewilderment when he saw them. As I was crossing a stream, I heard the middle rip, and as I walked on it grew until I was wearing two separate legs. I asked around for some tape. Wallace had a boy scout amount wrapped around his pole, but that wouldn't put a dent in what I had going on. The rip had increased to the point that I was wearing chaps. Hashim comically chastised the quality of my gear and offered an extra pair from his pack. Hashim saved my arse, literally. RIP to the clear chaps. It was too soon, my friend; such a short trail life.
We were still miles away from camp when one of our porters came back. Hashim looked grave. He turned to us.
"It is about Jerome."
Oh no! My stomach dropped. Is he okay? What happened? Tell us!
In these instances, Hashim is the slowest talker in the world.
“I have been informed.... that Mr. Jerome…. reached the camp at 3 o'clock today….he was unaccompanied and traveled by way of the porter shortcut.”
To think that he was just following the porters while carrying his gigantic bag full of water made us all shake our heads and laugh. Typical. Remind me to tell you the Half-dome story.
As we descended in elevation back down to the next camp, almost immediately the vegetation came back. The gigantic groundsels appeared. We were happy to see them.
Ubiquitous at the mid-elevations, these Dr Seuss trees have evolved into a separate and unique species called dendrosenecio kilimanjari. Ray said the leaves don't fall off they just shrivel and shrink down into bark.
Also indigenous plant called lobelia deckenii with sweet little flowers that no one ever sees.
James was trucking down the mountain. Hashim looked up to see his pole coordination and said, "good. Yes, he is getting stronger." Olga and I were again mesmerized by the terrain. A river followed us down to camp. I had no idea there would be so many waterfalls.
Another close call
As we got close to the camp, Jerome came up to meet us. He was in a great mood having been bird watching with Frankie (one of the younger porters) all afternoon. He swore that he hadn't taken the porter's route; instead he just hadn't stopped at all and was racing with a group of Belgians.
Final Location: Barranco Camp / Distance: 7.5 m / 12 km / Elevation gain: 2165 ft and back down / 660 km and back
We got situated in Barranco camp. I brought my lunch box into the mess tent to return, poured myself a cup of tea and got out my sketchbook. James came in and sat down. I was happy that Hashim had noticed his improvement earlier. He looked mildly better, but he had a strange expression on his face.
“Want some tea?” I asked.
He didn't answer.
Still no answer. His face was sucked up like a fish. He made one gesture like turning a wheel. It occurred to me that he might be about to throw up.
Whenever I feel nauseous, excessive movement just exacerbates the problem. So I very slowly and discreetly took the items out of my lunch box and then slowly moved it across the table.
He shook his head.
“Okay, I'm going to leave it right here just in case.”
As soon as I set it down next to him, he grabbed it and threw up.
Wallace came in and smartly gave him some hot water. We were just sitting there with the pan of puke on the table, in case he had another round. But just then Ebrah came in with the food. There was a really awkward moment when the food was on the table next to a bowl of puke. Ebrah didn't bat an eye, he just took it without saying anything. And then we felt terrible.
Rome came in and sat in one of the old fold up chairs, it ripped and he fell to the ground. When Hashim told us to eat more, Rome noted that he'd had plenty. Hashim had a really good chuckle.
After dinner, Hashim, Venance and Raymond came into the tent. It was clear that something was wrong. We thought at first it was concerning James' recent episode. Were they going to demand that he head back down the mountain? They had mentioned it already, so it was a serious concern.
When our guides talk matters of business, there is always a solemn air, made dramatic by the slow pace and the way they carefully choose their words. Hashim sat down and Venance and Raymond took official posts behind him.
This looks bad.
“There is a situation…. A big problem... long pause....this afternoon during the climb…. Mr. Jerome… arrived at the camp three hours prior to the group…… he was without a guide….. this is not allowed. He shook his head emphatically.…. You cannot be alone....The rangers have informed us of the situation….. and now we have a problem….."
Slowly the story came out that Jerome arriving unaccompanied to the camp was against park regulation, which was news to us. Apparently, climbers must be with a guide at all times. Raymond took great pains to tell us about a Chinese climber who was lost “to this day” because he ran off without anyone and probably got off trail. It's true the trails are sometimes marked only with a stack of rocks on a boulder, it would be nearly impossible for someone unfamiliar to find their way at the cloudy higher altitudes.
The rangers were threatening to take Basecamp’s license over the matter, but Hashim promised it would not happen again. So they were coming to inform us of the gravity of the situation and how we must, by all means, stick together the next day. We apologized for putting their operating license in danger and agreed to move as a unit tomorrow.
Meanwhile James’ situation was coming to a head also. We only had one more day until the summit. He hadn't eaten anything but porridge for two days, was losing everything he did eat along the trail, and had just thrown up. He was taking an antibiotic that was useless. Hashim gave him another kind of medicine, that we renamed cement. Ro has been trying to give him the Wormwood, which I endorse. It has always worked for me. But western medicine prevailed.
The hours in the mess tent were frigid. Hashim told us to take the Diamox in the morning, because tomorrow we would be making the jump into major altitude. Olga warned me that the side effects were extremely irritating. I had been feeling really good, so I didn't want to feel crappy just to prevent myself from feeling crappy. I decided to hold off as long as possible.
I had my schedule out and realized that I got the dates all wrong. We would have a grueling long day tomorrow, combining the normal two days into one. That also meant that tomorrow night we would be going for the summit. And most importantly we would be reaching the peak on Shibat’s birthday. It seemed like much more than a coincidence.
It is difficult for me to explain in a few sentences who Shibat is for those reading this. He was one of our best friends, a natural healer, an activist, and a thinker. He taught us so much. He was like a father, always incredibly encouraging. Without a doubt one of my favorite people in the world. He passed away suddenly in April. When I went to Cambodia a few years ago, he put together the ultimate survival pack for me, including the camel pack, a backpack, rope, headlamp and tons of first aid stuff. I am carrying all of this stuff right now.
Shibat, it feels good to know that you will be spending your birthday here with us up on the highest peak in Africa.