Thursday, February 28, 2013

DAY 2: Machame to Shira

MACHAME CAMP 9,776 ft / 2,980 km 

Climber down!

We expected that some (or all) of us would get sick at some point during this climb - just not so soon! James woke up in the middle of the night (not by Olga or the beauty of the stars), but with nausea. When he told us at breakfast that he had been throwing up all night, it was like a death sentence. He tried to sip porridge, but the look on his face was pitiful.

James started this train; climbing was his idea. Out of all of us, he was the one who wanted to make the summit the most; going so far as to make it clear that if any of us went down along the way, he wasn't stopping. While this is just James variety twisted humor, we knew how frustrating it must be to get all of the way here and then have a little food poisoning stand in the way.

Getting sick at all is like closing the book on Kilimanjaro since it's hard enough to make it up in perfect health. But since we are only on day two, there's hope that James will get better before the critical altitudes.

We set out slower than ever with James practically crawling. Venance carried his pack, and I took his camera, but he was still doubled over most of the time, inching forward and then sitting down, and then running to the bushes.

I don't know about the rest of you, but when they said you have to go to the bathroom along the trail, I went into mild panic. From pictures, it looked like only bare rock, how would you find a decent place to duck, especially with hoards of climbers all around. I was even thinking, can I go a week without using the bathroom, restrict usage to campsites? 

Fortunately, it hasn't been awkward at all really. Hashim and Venance introduced us to some stylish ways of imparting your intentions to the group. They say either, “I need to go send an email or make a call" or "I'm going to go look at the buffalo," which don't exist on the mountain, in case you were wondering.   

The porters streamed past us, along with everyone else. Wallace and Rome took off up the mountain, while Olga and I stayed back and tried to help James. Hashim was concerned that we weren't making any progress. He kept saying: twende pole pole, let's go slowly.

We slowly emerged from the rain forest and entered into thickets of draping lichen, moss and rocks.

Usnea filipendula or Beard Lichen

Venturing off the path was like entering into a world of Hobbits and fairies. On one buffalo viewing, I found a large overhang and despite my clunky gear, climbed it. On top, I had a view of the whole valley. 

I could see the clouds creeping in; I could see the vegetation as it changed up the slope. I could see the mountain crouched like a gigantic sleeping buffalo on the horizon. It seemed alive, and I was compelled to ask for permission to venture into what will be wild arctic territory. It seemed one must have respect for it, after all, humans aren't really meant to be up there. I get irritated when I hear people say they "conquered a mountain," or anything in nature for that matter. You can't conquer nature. In my opinion, Edmund Hillary deserved a face palm after he made it back down from Everest. In reference to a sacred Nepalese monument he said, “Well, we knocked the bastard off!”

In literature they talk about one of the main conflicts of life and in art being Man vs. Nature. From this perspective the struggle is confusing, because man is part of nature, or in a way, man really is nature. The true struggle is not against animals or weather or elements, it is against dying. But unfortunately dying is completely natural; it happens all of the time.

Surviving outside of the urban sprawl lets us know how powerless we really are. Yet nature is not hostile or merciful, though we could perceive it as both. We are not loved, nor hated. I realized this more when we were observing the animals. Dying is not a sad thing in the wild and survival is just temporary anyway. To understand ones place in the physical and spiritual world is to flow with it and not against it.

So I ask myself why I am here? Why am I climbing? I had to think about it. There's much more to it. Conquistadors like George Mallory give climbers a bad reputation by callously saying, "because it's there."

Of course there are a million reasons to climb and I suppose they could change with any given person and any given mood. But as I dangle my feet off of the precipice, I think perhaps we want to climb because there is something special about venturing into places that are hard to get to, somewhere that you have to bring yourself to extreme physical and mental exhaustion to experience. It's as if these places are sacred, because they are not for the masses. We choose to break away from the pack and to venture into this wild terrain for an unparalleled peak at this earth. This unique perspective belongs to the mountain. It is her gift. Her gift to those who are willing to work for it. Up here you have the position to appreciate her beauty and the beauty of all that has been manifested on this earth.

If I make it to the top, I think it will be a collective effort; all of the stars aligning, it won't be by my will alone.

and then I fell off the ledge

I pried myself away from the perch and joined the group again. We stopped for lunch a few boulders up. Hashim was getting antsy, unsure if James' problem was stomach or altitude. Nausea is an effect of both. Eating would stymie the effects of altitude, so he wanted James to eat as much as possible. He said again and again, “Mr. James, try to force to eat.” James didn't want to eat, and was tiring of Hashim's persistence. But I couldn't help but love Hashim's turn of the phrase, "try to force to eat."

Raymond came back and told us that everyone else has already made it to camp; we weren't even half way there. They pointed out the route. We could see an almost imperceptible line of dots in the distance, rising over the horizon like lice on the beast. Are kidding me?

When we set out again, the terrain changed completely. We entered what looked like Scottish Highlands, the mysterious Moors. The clouds gathered with us and lay just below the plateau so it seemed like we were on one huge floating rock. It was as if we had just climbed a beanstalk.

Baraka and Bilas to the rescue

At one point Olga and I just looked at each other in disbelief. This is too awesome! In fact, had we been in line with the other climbers marching militantly up the mountain, we wouldn't have enjoyed it nearly as much. Because we kept stopping with James and doubling back for him, we got to really appreciate the scenery. Unfortunately the silver lining of his misery was really only a benefit to us. But he later said that because we were in awe of everything, he was able to come out of the stupor for a little bit and realize where he was.

Baraka and Bilas came down from camp and re-situated everyone's pack, giving Hashim and Venance a break from James' gear. We followed them along the ridge at a faster pace, so we'd make camp before dark. I talked to Baraka and found out he was Hashim's younger brother!

Baraka has a really quiet way about him, he makes a point to call us sister and brother and really likes  it when we call him brother back. He said that he didn't have any real family of his own. Most of the guides had a wife and children. Wallace said that Baraka was freaking him out because he was always hanging around our tents. That became really funny when we found out that B was just doing his job - security guard.

Bilas was practically running to camp, so I did too. We made it in no time.  He disappeared into the cook's tent where it was warm. I was alone in the camp, so I wandered across the plateau to see if I could find Rome and Wallace.

Final Location: Shira Camp / Distance: 5.6 miles / 9 km / Elevation gain: 2764 ft / 860 km  

I secretly relished putting my name into the registrar, but when I got to the hut, all of our names were already in there, blah. I was sitting across from two local guides when some climbers wandered in. They were trying to figure out where to sign their names and took the equipment book by mistake. One of the guides grabbed it back and snapped, "get your own book." That was harsh, I thought, but it turned out that this was their guide, and he just had a really deadpan sense of humor. I laughed, which made them all turn to me like who is this fool laughing at our inside jokes. It happens to the best of us. They all introduced themselves. The climbers were from New York; one was an NYPD cop and the other was his Uncle, an older man with white hair.

It looked as if I was climbing all alone. I told them that I'd lost my climbing mates. The guide proclaimed that he would take me with him, because his name was Noah and the whole mountain was his, like an ark. He was guiding two climbers, just like on the ark. A little bit of a megalomaniac, he went on about how he was saving everyone and this whole thing was going down. We must all follow him. The Uncle turned to me and said, "we love our guides." I don't know why but the tone and possessiveness of his comment got under my skin, like he was talking about a toy.

Holy Noah told me about a local guide from the Chagga tribe named Simon Mtui who set the record for climbing the mountain in 2006. He ran up the whole thing in six hours.
"How did he not get sick from the change in altitude?" I asked.
"Oh no, he threw up all of the way."
"Ah, wow. This whole thing will be a success for me as long as I don't throw up."
The cop was on the same page, and started listing all of the drugs he was taking: anti-nausea, diamox, pain medication. I told him about James, and he kindly offered to open the doors of his pharmacy. We got in a friendly discussion about marijuana legalization. He was in favor and admitted that he doesn't arrest people for possession in NYC, so if you are in NYC, smoke on Jason's block.

Back at camp the light was golden and setting behind us. I took pictures of everyone in the vicinity.

Ebrah, Raymond, Nemes, and Roman

Our camp was on the very edge of the plateau, so we had the feeling of being at the edge of the earth.

The view of the mountain was fairly clear from our position. We would be circling the mountain for the next two days. I asked Hashim why we couldn't just go straight up. Who you calling impatient? He said that the western side is just scree/gravel so it's not solid enough. Also the body needs time to acclimatize so traversing just keeps us busy while our brains adjust.

We were staring at what they call the Western Breach on the southwest side (in the picture). There is a direct trail to the summit this way, but it's filled with falling rocks. Several climbers died in 2006. He said you can climb off route, but you have to get a special back-country permit, and you need equipment, because it's technical rock climbing. No, I didn't think about it; besides I don't have any rock climbing gear with me.

*What's left of the Penck Glaciers and Western breach to the right 
More on glacier depletion later
 Olga enjoying a delicious mug of Instacafe by the ch√Ęteau

It started to get really cold in the evening. I was sitting at the table and trying to pour the hot water and spilled it all over me. Luckily it was cold enough that the water cooled off immediate and it didn't burn, but my fleece and hiking pants were soaked, so I had to lay them out to dry. Meanwhile I was walking around camp in my long johns.

Dinner was again delicious; we had fried eggplant, minced meat, carrots and zucchini, celery soup and really tasty pineapple. Thank you Nemes!

The johns were equally as disgusting here, maybe more-so, if that is even possible. Olga and I spend a good chunk of time trying to work out the logistics of the interior; as in, how is that possible, that angle, the far reaches of the wall... how?

Monday, February 25, 2013

DAY 1: Arusha to Machame Camp

Our crew at the gate ready for Kilimanjaro {Hashim, Wallace, Venance, Ro, me, James, Olga, & Ray}

We begin our first day in the beautiful Oasis hotel in Arusha. To be just a holding station for our adventures, this place is pretty idyllic. 

The breakfast table

Our guides surprised us at breakfast. Hashim came up wearing his mountain uniform: a Union-jack do-rag and a gigantic yellow jacket. Behind him and two feet taller, Venance, our assistant guide.

“On the mountain, we will be like family,” Hashim said. People made some jokes; someone said, “Are we there yet?” Hashim broke out with his belly laugh. He laid out a map between our dirty breakfast dishes and very seriously outlined our route. "For two days we will go up, then two days across and on day five....we go for the summit!”

It was a little nerve-wracking knowing that in four days I would either be sick as a dog or on the summit of that 20,000-foot mountain. Which would it be....?

So with that, it was game time. We packed up the last of our gear. Olga and I went outside the hotel gates and smiled at the locals passing by in the midst of their morning routines. We got our first lesson in Swahili. Every person that passed said something different: Jambo, Mambo, Salaama, Habari, Habari Gani. We turned to Hashim for a little help. He wrote some things in my book, most notably. Tunakwenda mlima Kilimanjaro.

We go to the mountain!

We set out in the Land Cruiser. Beyond the gates, the road was pockmarked and gutted, but the Cruiser took it like a champ. Life in Arusha was bustling. Women were wrapped in colorful fabrics carrying every item imaginable on their heads, sometimes even 5 gallon buckets. Motobikes and minibuses were swerving around each other in a fit of dust. There was so much to see. We stopped in Arusha to meet (and pay) Basecamp’s director. He turned out to be the kind of colorful character you only meet waylaid like a renegade in some developing nation.

He was a British ex-patriot with German roots who found himself in Africa decades ago working on the Trans-African Highway. He'd married a local Muslim woman, converted to Islam and changed his name. We "joked" that he was running from the law. (Uneasy laughter.) He had a good sense of humor and lots of stories, so we promised to share a beer with him when we got back.

The mountain entrance was about an hour away, we picked up two guys along the way, another guide (in training) named Raymond and the cook, Nemes. This was our first look at Africa, so we were all mesmerized especially by the Maasi herding goats on the side of the road, cloaked in red and purple, upright with their staff.

DAY 1 MACHAME GATE 6,200 ft / 1,890 km

The fun begins. Arriving at the gate is like going to the doctor's office; you know that everything will probably be alright, but the dread of wondering is palpable.

Our Cruiser pulled up into a crowd of yelling people, all were local Tanzanians trying to get the guide’s attention, hoping to be hired for the climb. We got herded into a picnic area while the guides weighed gear and distributed it between porters.

Porters are hired depending on the weight of your gear. No porter is allowed to carry more than around 50 lbs. 50lb! Rome's packing earned us an extra porter.

What were the porters carrying? Tents (two people per tent), thin sleep mats, our sleeping bags and their sleeping bags, tables and chairs and a mess tent, a cook tent, pots and pans, probably 20 or so liters of bottled water, about 12 dozen eggs (we ate a lot of eggs), lots of fruit, meats, vegetables, and a couple of loaves of bread.

What are we carrying? Rain gear (pants and shell), warm weather stuff, camera, 3 liters of water, sunscreen and miscellaneous small things like chapstick and first aid. (yes, it's embarrassing compared to the porters, but it's the way of the mountain.)

I was impressed with the infrastructure and organization of the national park. According to the staff, all of the equipment had to be assigned, so that no porter carries too much. The guides are required to track the equipment and trash all of the way up and down the mountain at checkpoints. If there is waste unaccounted for, they receive a huge fine and can lose their operating license. As a result, the mountain is pretty clean.

We waited a long time for all of these procedures to take place. When we actually left, it felt anticlimactic, like we were just taking a stroll up a gravel road in the late-afternoon sun. Venance told us to walk slowly so we could adjust to the altitude, but that was more like a bet for Wallace and James. We saw them for about two seconds at the gate and not again until we hit camp. Olga was hilariously wearing sneakers and carrying a handbag like she was off to the mall. I had my camera in a manila envelope. We were not quite the picture of seasoned climbers.

Meanwhile, the porters were breezing past us. I'd heard advice from other climbers: don't try to keep up with the porters. I figured we wouldn't see them at all, but they weren't single-minded. I got a laugh watching them take their smoke breaks along the trail. The atmosphere between climbers and crew was really good. The porters and guides would whisper pole pole to you as you passed, a Swahili phrase which literally means slowly slowly. It's the motto on the mountain, and creates a good vibe, like we are all looking out for each other. Maybe it's just protocol, but I don't care; having complete strangers say, be careful, go slow now, made me feel like, hey, thanks for caring.

The climbing was really relaxed. Rome was carrying his enormous bag with enough water and MREs to last until the volcanic meltdown. The porters and guides were trying in vain to persuade him to downsize the bag, but he wouldn't have it, so they tipped their hats. And fellow climbers most certainly mistook him for a porter.

The terrain was cool and damp with hanging trees and soft dirt. I fell in with two other guys from another company, one Spaniard was elated when he heard me explaining to his guide that the Swahili word for brother was a curse word in Spanish. I laughed knowing that a curse word peaked his ears. He came back and tried to converse in Spanish, probably feeling very isolated not knowing English or Swahili (the only languages on the mountain.) Unfortunately aside from curse words, I couldn't provide much conversation. I felt bad when he slumped away. His guide was an amicable Rasta named Charlie, who started explaining Swahili, rattling off phrases as I tried helplessly to memorizes them. I sponged as much as I could. He did give me an interesting intro; he explained that in Swahili you can go right down the alphabet to make common words. For example:

baba = father
bibi = grandmother
dada = sister
kaka = brother
lala = sleep
mama = mother
mimi = me
sisi = us
sasa = now
wewe = you

and some others…

I was alone when I made it to the camp. James and Wallace had been there for an hour already. We were one of the last groups departing, so we were among the last to camp. As a result, our tent was stuck right in the middle of the thoroughfare; people were constantly tripping over our stakes.

Note: Hashim tripping over stakes

Distance: 11.25 miles / 18 kms /  Elevation gain: 3576 ft / 1090 km

The sun was setting. Everyone was catatonically tired. Our mess tent was set up, so we wandered in, surprised and immensely grateful to find some popcorn and tea. We met Ebrah, who was the cook's assistant. He had a really kind gentle presence, but spoke no English, so it was incentive to learn some Swahili. He was always saying karibu dada (welcome sister.)

Karibu at the table we found to be like the Japanese word, douzo. It's sort of like “please enjoy, help yourself, you're welcome,” rolled into one.

Incidentally from my brief experience here, karibu seems to be the most frequently used word in Swahili. You feel at home immediately! If a Tanzanian asks you if you've ever been to Tanzania before, and you say yes or no, they will quickly respond with karibu. If you are on the street, shop owners offer a karibu to invite you into the store, and then follow you around inside the store saying karibu as you look at things. When you are at a restaurant, the waiter says karibu before and after every action. Then of course when you say thank you (asante), the answer is karibu. So there is hard evidence that Tanzania is the most welcoming place on earth.

A tasty dinner from Nemes sent us quickly into food/jetlag/hiking comas. Hashim came to give us next day's briefing, but I fell asleep at the table and didn't hear any of it.

The bathrooms at camp are a fun challenge. I might venture to say they are the foulest things I've ever encountered. In addition to the smell, there is the (slightly overlooked) fact that due to altitude and the lack of oxygen, you can't hold your breath for more than two seconds. So you take a huge breath, run inside, and then you are turning blue before you even close the latrine door. There you are suffocating, forced to take a nice gigantic lung full of rank foulness. Yummy.

But this alternative seems cruel and unusual. The expensive outfitters like Zara actually have their porters carry a camping latrine up the mountain. They have little outhouse tents in their campsites with the portable johns inside.

With their private poop tents and brand new nylon equipment, Zara have become a rival like in those old Disney films where the opposing team is rich and wears black and the rag tag motley crew who are carrying handbags and manila envelopes have to beat them up the mountain.. to save the treehouse.

At 4 am Olga wakes up, and in some delirium, assumes everyone else is also awake. She yells, “is anyone awake?”
We jolt up in panic, what's wrong?
Then we hear, “The stars are amazing!...Wallace, are you awake?” Wallace is in the tent next to hers.
He answers in monotone. “I am now.”

We try to protect her identity the next day; there's a manhunt for the nut that woke up the whole camp yelling look at the stars in the middle of the night.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Team Kilimanjaro

There are a gazillion black and white ways to define a person. Are you a cat person or a dog person? A chocolate or vanilla person? Tea or coffee? Beatles or Rolling Stones? Hepburn or Monroe? Mountain or beach person? Which are you?

 To that last one I can confidently answer, mountain. Now more than ever.

For some time, I've had an armchair obsession with high altitude mountain adventure/survival books like Into Thin Air and Miracle in the Andes. I half-heartedly wanted to join in the mix, but thought I probably didn't have the fortitude.

Nevertheless, I thought about trying out Kilimanjaro many years ago in college when someone mentioned that it was doable for laypeople. I hadn't considered it until recently, when my friend and fellow rock climber, said he wanted to climb it. Of course, I was in.

The prep was semi-arduous.  Kilimanjaro is a National Park which mandates that you take a guide with you. There are hundreds of companies that facilitate climbs so picking one can take forever. Fortunately my friends use spreadsheets for fun. The pros and cons were graphed before I even typed Kilimanjaro into Google.

We went with a company called Basecamp, which came recommended of course. They work closely with a hotel in Arusha, which gives a home base at the bottom of the mountain. We arrived there in a fog of sleep late at night, incredulous that after 24 hours of air travel, we would begin the climb early the next morning. Altitude + jetlag!

Our Team:

From: Cincinnati, Ohio
Occupation: software engineer for a debt management company in Orange County
Strengths: seemingly endless supply of energy and jokes
Weakness: over-packing

From: San Francisco, specifically Hayward
Occupation: IT technician for a financial investment company in Century City
Strengths: Experienced hiker, climbed Mount Whitney, insanely goal-oriented
Weakness: He will leave your butt behind

From: Originally from Latvia, grew up in Canada
Occupation: Professor Piano
Strengths: She flies planes, boom. If we are in a plane and the pilot passes out, we have no worries
Weaknesses: She's never been camping before

From: Originally from Taiwan, grew up in East Los Angeles
Occupation: Freelance computer game programmer
Strengths: Avid hiker and Boy Scout, has bobby pins and duck tape at all times
Weaknesses: Is there such a thing as being too organized?

Me / Missy
From: Southern Virginia
Occupation: Artist, costume designer, sometimes art teacher and explorer
Strengths: very adaptable and resourceful
Weaknesses: always cold

From: Arusha, Tanzania
Occupation: Lead guide for Basecamp
Family: Wife and two kids (10 and 7)

From: Lake Victoria, Tanzania
Occupation: Assistant Guide for Basecamp
Family: Wife and baby (Brian, 6mo)

From: Moshi from Chagga Tribe
Occupation: Assistant Guide for Basecamp and in school
Family: Wife and two kids (7 and 5)

From: Arusha from Chagga Tribe
Occupation: Cook for Basecamp

Occupation: Assistant to the cook for Basecamp

From: Arusha
Occupation: Security for Basecamp
Family: Hashim's younger brother