BARRANCO CAMP 12,959 ft / 3,950 km
Nature wins. The altitude takes its toll.
Status: Rome has a slight headache, but it's probably because he has refused to drink the boiled water from the mountain. He readily admits it's not logical.
Wallace is fairing very well; he had a headache yesterday at Lava Tower, but it went away once we descended. In fact, he has an unusual problem on the mountain, getting too much sleep. He's waking up every night at 3 or 4 am unable to go back to sleep. I think he is meant for the ambitious teams who are leaving at 4 am. Alas, he is stuck with us. (Sorry, Wallace.)
I have the opposite problem. If I am sleeping, it's really lightly. Last night, we got our bottles refilled with boiled stream water. They were still warm, so I slept with all of my bottles in the bag with me. Let me tell you, there is nothing as nice as wrapping yourself around a big jug of hot water. I've been drinking water by the liter load, watching lots of buffalo and avoiding headaches. Not a trace of a headache yet, no nausea, reporting in at peak condition. Rome was accusing me of being smug this morning.
Meanwhile, Olga has had it with the Diamox. The tingling spread to her face so that she feels like she's drooling. Last night she said her toes were out of control with the feeling of pin needles. She was fed up at the breakfast table.
James has been feeling slightly better; we think. He might just be putting on a good face for the guides. Tonight we summit, so if he's not feeling well at the half-way point today, they will send him back down. The half-way camp is Karranga, and it is like the last gas station in Nevada. Last place to get water, the last camp before basecamp, the last place to head directly down the mountain. The sick go down, the healthy proceed. Our destination is proper basecamp at 15300 ft called Barafu meaning Ice. Ice Camp, how bad is that?
Last night I was trying to figure out where we would be exiting camp today. This site is like a fish bowl. We came down one side yesterday, but the other side is a gigantic cliff. I asked Hashim how we were going to get out. He pointed to the cliff.
"We go up that?" he said.
The wall was a couple hundred feet tall. I was wondering, how on earth we'd get up it. This morning the entire camp found out. We did what they call “scramble” on what they call the “Breakfast Wall.” Scramble is like class 5 (5.4?) rock climbing and Breakfast Wall because after you finish it, your breakfast is gone. That's true by the way.
I actually got to pretend like I was climbing, grabbing the slopers and crimps and showing off climbing form ala Sasha DiGiulian. Despite how easy it was, we were at an altitude that made physical activity difficult. I thought James, my rock climbing mate, would be having as much fun, but looking back, he was in pain. The crunching was tearing up his stomach. We had to stop several times for him. And after an hour or two, when we reached the top, he was a mess.
Olga had spotted some guy in the hordes of people who had brazenly taken his shirt off. That entertained us for a while. It was a ridiculous display of machismo, made mildly sad by the fact that he wasn't even carrying his own day pack. We were joking about his perfect physic and tan, and that he was having someone photograph him climbing for his modeling profile. Then she overheard that he was in fact a male model. Sometimes things are what they seem.
We made it up Breakfast Wall. Rome carrying the James pack as well as his own.
You can almost see the shirtless nut with the bandanna on the right.
for real this time
and wallace too
You can almost see the shirtless nut with the bandanna on the right.
for real this time
and wallace too
The clearing at the top of the wall was the best view of Kilimanjaro that we encountered. We were close enough to see the path up, although we would be circling to approach it from a full 90 degrees away.
The plateau was a nice break spot, so many groups took advantage. It was like picnic time, tons of foreigners and every language with every variety of power bar.
James was crouched down along the wall. He was feeling terrible after the strenuous climb; Hashim was ready to make the call and send him down. It was a very tense situation. I felt so so bad for him. I knew how badly he wanted to make it to the top, but the guides were becoming convinced that he needed to descend. They were concerned about his health and still not sure whether his sickness was a stomach bug or altitude. If it was altitude, carrying him further up the mountain would be misconduct on their part and if the rangers found that they were bringing a sick climber to Barafu Camp they could lose their license to operate on the mountain. (That would be the second time their license was in jeopardy with us.) We all wanted to get James to the top but not at the risk of his own health. We pressed on to Karranga knowing that the decision was going to be a hard one to make.
The path to Karranga was desert. We kicked up dust clouds behind us and I almost expected to see some coyotes pop out from behind the rocks. The trail stretched on forever, over plateaus, across stretches of barren dirt, down slippery bald rock. We were starting to get tired and finally a tiny headache planted itself in my frontal lobe. I was not happy about that. I drank liters of water trying to wash it away, but it wouldn't budge. I was starting to get anxious like is this the beginning of a brain explosion, will I start to go slowly insane.
We finally reached the bottom of a ravine. A small stream crossed our path and on the other side another vertical climb with some lovely switchbacks. There was also one lone path from the stream straight up the grade where porters trudged carrying buckets and jugs on their backs. “This is the last place to get water,” Hashim turned around and said to us. "The porters have to take the water from here to the next two camps." It was still another three miles to Barafu. Once again these porters are powerhouses. I noticed that it's wearing on them though. In the beginning, they were all smiles and yelled what's up to everyone and kili aaaaaoooooo, but now their faces are solemn. They traipse by with a tired expression.
Also becoming heartbreakingly evident is the insufficiency of their clothing. Most everything that they are wearing are hand-me-downs from climbers, so its just old t-shirts with out-of-place sayings, ill-fitting pants, shoes with holes worn through, and bags with rips. For anyone planning to trek Kilimanjaro, I would suggest bringing extra warm clothing to give away to porters. You could even collect donations from family and friends before you leave. If you can fit it on the plane, bring as much as you can, because each climbing group has about 10 – 20 porters. That's a lot of under-clothed guys on the mountain. I wish I had known that beforehand.
When we got up to Karranga Camp, suddenly we were on an exposed plateau; the wind picked up, clouds sifted in and the sun completely vanished. The air was moist. It grew cold, the coldest yet; we all added an extra layer and tried to find a protected place to stuff some food before heading out again.
We ducked behind a rock to find a Maasi porter. He was crouched down lying against the rock, painfully under-dressed for the weather, only a shirt and his traditional red-checked shuka. He stared unabashed at us. We tried to communicate with him, but my Swahili four days in was only a few words, so we just shared some lunch. He had the traditional face scars in the shape of coins on his cheeks and forehead. I'm not sure exactly what they symbolize or what function they perform in this case. I have heard that it is a rite of passage. If one can endure such painful scars, then they gather respect from others.“To strengthen your identity," which I thought was an interesting way of putting it. I've also heard that in the past when there were fighting tribes, warriors used to scar their faces to scare off their opponents and even to scare off death.
We bid our friend farewell as he got up to help his team who had arrived in the camp. They were going to stay at Karranga for the night; in fact everyone around was relaxing and unloading for the day. We found that most people split up the hike we had just done, and the one we were about to do, into two days.
We were jealous as we suited up again. It was blistering cold and windy and rainy and pretty much every cell of my body wanted to hunker down with some popcorn and a hot water bottle, but we had another 3 miles of rough terrain. At 13,000 feet, we were on the slow rise back up to 15,000. My head was aching and despite the tank of water, it was just getting worse, so I finally broke down and took half a Diamox pill.
James had refused to go down despite the guide's advice. They could only object so much. He left with us as we made way to bascamp.
The terrain was undeniably boring. In the fog and at that altitude, there was no vegetation, no definition in the land, just a steady slope of dirt and scree as far as the eye could see. The wind blasted our faces; the rain seeped into my shoes, and the altitude change made it hard to walk. We were all visibly wearing down. I could tell we were getting to a critical mass.
Rome was starting to lag behind with his big pack. They forced him to unload some of his water, but he was dead tired from the enormous burden he'd been carrying all day. Olga was suffering from Diamox side effects and exhaustion. She didn't want to stop, just wanted to make it to camp so she could sleep. I was beginning to get mentally flustered. The headache was just pulsing at my temple in a dull hum as it had been for hours. Diamox had obviously not done anything. So I took the other half. Wallace somehow seemed to be trudging on.
The hours crept by, and we continued to deteriorate. When we finally got to Barafu Camp in the dim fog of dusk, we were a total mess. We gathered for late dinner in the mess tent, perched precariously on a terrible stretch of broken slate.
Final Location: Barafu Camp / Distance: 8.75 miles / 14 km / Elevation gain: 2132 feet / 650 meters
We were all in a terrible mood. Everything was irritating. Everything. The bathroom was up on a hill, and there was no path to it. Why is there no path to the bathroom? Why is it all of the way over there? To get there you had to stumble across a shifting sea of broken slate pieces. Even the few steps up the hill were like running a mile at sea level. I was generally annoyed and then arriving at the bathroom to a room filled with feces on every surface made my blood boil. What's wrong with people! I had a reality check that I was yelling to myself in the outhouse. Coming back, I even started mildly hallucinating, imagining I was walking over a field of broken porcelain plates on a huge dinner table.
Back in the mess tent with everyone, it was apparent that shit was hitting the fan (not just in the outhouse.) Rome was chattering his teeth and talking in one long stream saying the same thing again and again, it's cold, I need water, if I just had good water..... Olga was cranky and exhausted and achy, but seeing the madness coming from Rome started to get concerned. James was hanging on, giving us the real first assurance that it wasn't altitude but a stomach bug.
I had developed a legitimate headache and was cold and damp all over. I just wanted some peace and quiet, and hearing Rome go around and around and around about being cold and tired and dehydrated and cold and tired and dehydrated, while making this insane chattering noise with his teeth, was driving me mad. I just wanted to yell quiet. But I realized that I would probably regret screaming, so I resorted to cowering low in my chair, slurping at the soup and glaring like a miser. Somehow Wallace was the only clear thinking individual in the whole lot.
We were supposed to leave for the summit in a few short hours, at 11pm to be exact. Luckily, Wallace realized that this was unrealistic. That schedule was set just so we would arrive at the summit for the sunrise, but when you are this high-up, the sunrise is peachy no matter where you are. So we would trade sunrise for an hour or two of sleep. Wallace convinced Hashim that it would be better to leave around 2 am, and we all wholeheartedly agreed.
Hashim began his speech with typical solemnity. “We will talk about tonight…..and how to prepare…..FIRST on the bottom…. " He went through the layers, basically four layers on everything and two on the hands and feet, wedged Hot Hand packs in between.
awesome shot courtesy of Wallace
I made one more trip across the shifting slate so I didn't have to get up in the middle of the night. The stars were clear like diamonds, and I staggered in the slate taking in the full arc of the Milky Way. Then below us thousands of tiny man-made stars from the town of Moshi. I imagined all of the miniature people below putting their children to sleep, sitting under a bulb on the porch drinking a beer and swatting at the moths. I felt like a ghost looking down on them. What an anomaly it is to sleep 15000 feet in thin air.
I would be lying if I said I didn't completely relish coming back to my tent to prepare for the summit push. I was a character out of my favorite books. I packed my bag, swabbed down with hand wipes, and put on all of my long johns. I put the second layer of clothes into the sleeping bag with me so they would be warm. I filled up my 1.5 liter jug and my camel and put them into my sleeping bag so they wouldn't freeze, along with my ipod and batteries. Then I added a chemical hand warmer packet like a bouillon cube into the soup and I got in. Laying down felt so good. The exhaustion was enough to relax the nerves, and I fell into a legitimate sleep, the best up to that point. I dreamed about strange things like compartments in storage units.
In a few short hours, we do what some have called "the hardest thing that they've ever done." Could that be true?