Saturday, March 30, 2013

DAY 5: Barafu to the SUMMIT

Going for the summit. It all comes down to this!

Milky Way by W

Our climb yesterday was exhausting. We had no sense of time. I don't know how or when I slept, but I do know that with the heat packs in my bag, I was out like a rock (on a rock).

The other camps started to head out about 11pm, but we laid around for another couple of hours. The anticipation at 2am felt kind of like Christmas morning. I was already awake when Ebrah came around, "Karibu, dada, kaka."

We got ready in a couple of minutes. I had gone over the gear a million times in my head, and anyways there were no choices. I was wearing everything I had. My main concern was clearly the cold, given that I wear a scarf and bomber jacket around my house. But the hot packs were doing a standup job. I shook them all open and placed them strategically all over, like a sock with burrs.

What I wore to stay warm:
Head: balaclava (not to be confused with baklava,) fleece neck wrap, heat pack wedged, my favorite scarf, the heavy wool hat
Torso: two thermal shirts, one zip fleece, heat packs in the pockets, one down vest, one wind/rain shell
Legs: two thermal pants, magic hiking pants, heat packs in the pockets, Hashim's wind/rain pants, wool leg warmers that I got from a Mexican market years ago, just waiting for their day to shine.
Hands: wool liner gloves and Gore-tek gloves. I couldn't fit them both on so I just put a heat pack in the Gore-teks and then later switched to the liner gloves when the sun came up. I was able to regulate temperate quite well by placing the hot packets inside my gloves and taking them out as needed.
Feet: REI wool socks and hiking boots. I had a heat pack in there, but it didn't work, the socks were good enough.

We stumbled with our headlamps to the mess tent. Everyone looked like they'd been run over. There wasn't a whole lot of chit chat, just a couple of groans about being cold or achy or tired. My situation had drastically improved. My headache was gone and aside from the usual morning grog, I felt great. I was surprised and paranoid by my state. You shouldn't be too jolly, because that's when crap happens. But I couldn't help it, I never thought I'd be here. Under my 20 layers of clothes, I was happy as a clam. I felt like a character in a National Geo article or a David Roberts book. The feat we were about to undertake was huge (for amateurs at least.)

Getting up in the middle of the night to climb seemed in and of itself romantic. We were just giving ourselves time to make it back down to a reasonable altitude by nightfall. But on the big guns like Everest and K2, they get up at this hour because late morning and early afternoon is your only window to reach the summit. If you get there too late, the weather will most likely be a blizzard, and you won't make it back alive. So I kind of pretended this was why we were making a “push for the summit” at such an hour. Our window to summit was small, danger imminent, eat your porridge.

For some reason, every other day we had a huge breakfast with more food than we could stuff: soup, eggs, crepes, tomatoes, hot dogs, cucumbers, and fruit, but today it was only porridge which I burned off walking to the bathroom, still on that bloody hill. I told Raymond I would meet the team up there, to save myself some leg work in light of the mound ahead.

Alone at the top of the hill, the headlamps below looked like little stars and with the long exposure of my camera, we were definitely on the moon.

It was a meditative time, waiting at the top of the hill. The stars were an arm's length away and the Milky Way stretched above like a bed canopy. Unfortunately, it's taboo nowadays to talk about God, but I did feel very close to the essence of what is within and what is the heartbeat of the earth. I thought about myself as a little grain of sand blending in to the miles of peddles around me. A spec lost somewhere on the continent of Africa. Africa, such a magnificent place! All was as it should be. I was ecstatic and felt immense gratitude to have made it this far, to be in such good shape, and to be warm of all things.

It was strange to be so happy and so completely daunted at the same time. I 'd heard many people describe the next few hours as the hardest of their life, which made my mind swirl with anticipation. Did I have it in me? Would all of us make it? We couldn't do much to help each other now. (So forgive me for this portion of our story, I can only really report on myself.) We would have to fight the last battle on home turf, in our own head, which was well insulated. I felt like an island up there on the hill, partitioned off from the world with pounds of clothing and gear and in complete dark, save for my little beacon.

Raymond came to get me, the bathroom was not en route, so I followed him quickly back to the group. I always knew who was leading. If we were moving like snails, it was Venance. Hashim was usually in the back. If we were flying up the mountain, it was Raymond. I don't remember him ever saying polepole, (we joked that he should say haraka haraka - faster faster instead.)

Venance took the lead, and we set out at a crawl, which was the only way to go. The first stretch was actually a little bit of rock climbing, which made us all sweat like hot pockets in plastic wrap. ..I take my analogies seriously. Ray said it would get colder, so we stayed zipped up. We had already covered some vertical ground when we reached the switchbacks. And the altitude was working us. Some of us tried to stop. Even though we were actually overheating with the physical exertion of the wall, Hashim said we'd get too cold if we sat down, so we kept moving. We had no way of knowing how cold it actually was. The national park log said it is usually between 0 and -15F. With all of the layers on, I haven't any idea. My head was covered, but I could feel the small sliver of exposed skin on my face tightening. Still despite the inherent conditions, we were actually very lucky: no snow, no rain, no heavy wind, no storms, just cold thin air.

Rome was calling breaks from the back. He was struggling without a substantial breakfast. My stomach was growling and aching too, so I pulled out a food bar. Can I tell you how hard it is to eat a power bar while walking at that height. I'd never thought about it before, but you have to hold your breath to chew. I was chomping like a woodchipper, trying to swallow fast so I could breath again.

Staying hydrated was complicated too. I was drinking a steady stream of water, but to keep the tube from freezing, you have to blow the excess back into the tank. That's not as easy as it sounds. You can't take a deep breath, and you can't go without air for the time it takes to blow. A formidable feat. The mouth piece was full of ice which made a fun crunching sound as I chewed on it.

We moved in slow motion as if we were at the bottom of the ocean. Weighted down with gear and trudging alone in a abyss along the ocean floor. All I could hear was my own muffled breath, and the only evidence of life was the light weaving around in the soupy darkness.

We didn't pass anyone else, but we could see the tiny trail of headlamps far above us. I didn't look at them. The rocks had disappeared, and it was just dirt. So I turned off my lamp, put in my headphones, and followed the light in front of me. It was zen to get lost in the steady plod of my feet.

Olga and I breaking. Thanks Wallace for the photo, at this point I couldn't take out the Goliath camera.

It was getting colder, but the steady activity kept us warm. We weren't out of breath, though. I found that, you can't do anything that might make you out of breath at this altitude. You wouldn't be able to "catch your breath" even if you needed to. Some might think, why on earth would you want to deal with that, but it's an interesting challenge and can be very calming actually, because you have to move slowly even if you have the energy to move quickly. You have to take your time, even if you really want to run. It was alarming at times. At certain points it was as if we met a threshold of thinning oxygen. Breathing got noticeably different. At that point, I would try to get a full breath, and unable to, would go into a slight panic. I'd have to pause and try to force air down into my chest. After a few minutes my lungs adjusted well enough, and I was able to carry on with no problems. It's amazing how fast the body can adapt.

We stopped several times against the urgings of our guides. Olga sat down, "this sucks." That was the first gauge I had on how the others were doing. It was hard to know how they were holding up. We couldn't see each others' faces, or read body language, or even hear very well. So Olga was not happy. Rome was lagging behind. He was adamant about carrying his pack, so when he let Hashim take it, I knew he must be having a rough time. All we could do was give an imperceptible pat on the shoulder, a muffled word of encouragement. And then we were back on the move.

A couple of times, we passed sick climbers accompanied by their guide making their way back down the mountain. The sight was chilling, two faceless forms stumbling in the shadow of a headlamps, one slumped down.

The horizon was bleeding into a purple line. The sun would be coming soon. The thought made me slightly sad, like there was a time constraint. Perhaps because the motion of the earth is barely evident in the night, possibilities seem endless. Time almost doesn't exist. Now that the sun was coming, we had a deadline; we had to make quantifiable progress.

As we plodded on, the sky grew pinker and pinker and then finally orange. We had been inching up for hours, for the most part without stopping. It was absolutely meditative. I couldn't tell you if we had been moving for half an hour or 7 hours. You could've said either, and I'd believe you. Judging by the hour of sunrise, we were probably 4 hours in.

When the sun finally made its appearance, it was incredible. There was no need to be at the top of the mountain. We could see all of its glory from our post along the slope. The sun instantly gave us warmth and a different perspective. We all relaxed a little bit. Hashim broke out a thermos with some tea and sugar and for the first time, we could see each other.

Checking in with everyone was like a 50th school reunion. Oh hey, it's been so long. Who are you? Oh right, we used to slurp porridge together at basecamp. Are you hanging in there okay? Well, I've got this back pain, and this headache. Yeah, me too, things don't hold up like they used to, but I'm getting by. Well, it's good to see you.

The guides probably knew that sitting down was a bad idea, because getting back up was a monster. It was later reported that most everyone was considering turning back at this point. I consider myself very lucky, because I was still feeling healthy.

Now we could see the top and that made the whole thing a lot harder. I tried to ignore the path above us.

The way the mountain is shaped, we climbed up for about 6 hours and then across for another hour. The up, of course, is the hardest part and ends at a marker called Stella Point. So for six hours or more we were just trying to get to Stella Point. Thinking: Stella. Almost there. From Stella, it's easy. Just get to Stella. Of course that mindset came back to bite, because Stella is 18,600 feet. Walking another hour and ascending another 700 feet is not something you want to forget about.

We started seeing people who had summitted and were coming back down. Some people reached the summit while it was still dark and were coming back down as the sun rose. I don't really get that, you might as well start up the treadmill in your basement and turn the lights off. Some fellow climbers were prodding us on, saying you're almost there. The intentions were good, but I think it's better not to think about it. Just stay in the zone.

One group coming down were making jokes. I guess they could see the strained look on our faces and thought it was funny. “You're not even halfway there... nowhere near the top,” followed by laughter. I was ready to fight on behalf of myself and my friends who were struggling with every cell to continue up. For a long while, I was irrationally consumed with how I should've verbally bashed them, but of course in hindsight, it was harmless and trivial, and I was obviously channeling excess energy.

The sun was beginning to beat down, so we stopped to swab down with some sunscreen. At our stop, we could see Stella. I couldn't believe my eyes. The green sign was within view.

Everyone was elated when we reached it, high fives, and hugs, and pictures with the Stella Sign. We were subjected to a basic health assessment by the guides to make sure we were fit for the last leg. Last leg? Oh you mean we have to keep going? Despite our lethargy, we were all in decent health; they didn't even check me.

The panorama was magnificent. We were standing on the backbone of this gigantic beast, with slopes straight down on either side. We could see into the pit of the mountain and then across to the caldera filled with ashes.

After trying to take in the scope of everything around us, we gathered our things and set out along the rim. This part made me laugh. I had lost much of my mental fortitude and was not nearly as focused. Meanwhile, James limping along the entire climb with food poisoning, was so close to the top, he could taste it. We could see his little hat and poles bobbing way ahead of everyone. It made us laugh. We kind of lazily enjoyed the glacier shelves as we made our way up.

The rim came to an abrupt end, and there it was, the sign at the top of Africa!

Back: Venance, Hashim, James, Wallace, Olga; Front: Ray, me, Rome

Mission Accomplished!

I thought about Shibat. I thought about my Uncle who passed away a few weeks ago. The last thing he said to me was, take a big breath for me when you get up there. Well Hugh, not that you'd "give a sh*t" about this kind of thing, but if for some reason you do on the other side, this lung full is for you.

SUMMIT: 19,340 feet / 5,895 km

Rome could barely stand up, but somehow it didn't look like he was tired; it looked more like he was posing for a Renaissance painting.

Renaissance, gangster style.

I had to get a shot for Shibat’s birthday! He would've been proud of us right now. I was happy to be carrying his pack and poles and camel and.. well, pretty much everything. I can't say how special and serendipitous it is to make the top on his birthday.

We all got our limelight with the sign

We couldn't stay on top off too long. The headache had returned, and we had lounged and photographed, and lounged some more, so we gathered up and took off back down to Stella. The sun was scorching our faces and with the ice facial earlier in the morning, it felt like we had been sandblasted.

I was dreading the downhill more than anything. My knees had completely given out on a training hike in the Sierra Madres a few months back. Rome had to carry me down, because I couldn't even stand up. I'd never had that happen before. He wanted to cancel this whole trip, because he thought I wouldn't be able to climb. So I thought about the miles and miles of steep switchbacks awaiting with a lot of trepidation. I had some knee braces in my pack on standby.

Most of the climbers were following the switchbacks down the mountain. We followed haraka Raymond off path into a river of loose rock flanked on each side by heavy formations. It was beautiful; on the left a gigantic cliff towered over us. The footing was really slippery. Raymond was sliding a little bit, so I took his cue and started sliding too. Pretty soon, we weren't walking anymore. You could jump and plow for a meter or more. With the poles, it was just like skiing, except a lot messier. We could barely see in front of us, there was so much dust and dirt flying everywhere. The verdict was clear: Screw the switchbacks, this is the way to get down a mountain. We covered over a thousand feet in less than an hour. The only drawback was that it took a lot of energy. My headache was terrible, but trying not to fall was all I could think about. Seven hours up, one and a half down.

The crunching of the downhill again wrecked James' stomach, and Olga was dehydrated and beyond exhausted. You could see it in her face; she wanted to lie down on a rock and go to sleep.

And she did!

We were met by several of our porters about half-an-hour outside of camp. Ebrah came running to us like a mom at graduation with his arms wide open. “Hongera, dada!” Congratulations, Sister. He said hugging me. I'm going to miss this nut. He and Baraka brought biscuits and juice.

Everyone laughed about the morning, our angst, and the mental apocalypse that had now blown over. We waited for the others to appear. I had no idea what time it was. It felt like 3pm, but in reality it was more like 11am. The most work I'd ever done before noon.
Ebrah in his mountain uniform with Rome and og
Kicking on the dirt like it's a plush couch

On the way back, we crawled over boulders that looked totally different in sunlight. Raymond and Hashim gave us another Swahili lesson. Most importantly: choka sana (very tired)… mimi taka lala (I want to sleep)… totaonana baadaye (see you later.)

We made it back to camp and beelined to our tents. I just collapsed on top of everything. It was a peaceful delightful nap and could've gone on for hours, but we were rallied for a bite of lunch and an order to pack up. No one wanted to go, but Hashim told us that we were only allowed to stay one night at 15000 feet. There was some hemming, but eventually we gathered our things.

It was colder now that our heart rate was back down, so I put on the rain pants again. That was not a good idea. Ray escorted Wallace and me out to a shortcut. We found ourselves behind the camp where a few emergency wheelbarrow stretchers were lying around like waste in the ditches. Who could've known they were so vital to the mountain. With Ray in the lead, we were cruising. I was trying to wait for the others, but he was on a mission. The afternoon clouds were moving in and making a pretty dramatic sky as we crossed a long plain of pebbles and rocks.

My mind kept shifting to a wistful now what? I realized I didn't really want to leave the mountain. I knew that this was possibly an insane sentiment, and definitely not held by my fellow climbers. But I felt like the mountain suited me. I suppose climbing is in my blood. My headache was gone, and I felt great.

The now what feeling led me to think about my next task which was to navigate Arusha tomorrow. I picked Raymond's brain for phrases. I've found you can bargain in a market much better if you do it in the native language. It's tough starting from scratch, but the merchants are usually very happy that you are trying. Raymond was vigilant in giving us phrases. I laughed as he marched in his peppy step and then jolted to a stop to come back and write another phrase on my scrap of paper. Punguza Bei! He declared (make it cheaper!)

The plants slowly started to emerge. We made it down to a hut called Millennium Camp and waited for the others. We saw some of the other climbers, including the guide who taught me Swahili on the first day. It seemed like ages ago.

Now mid-afternoon, some of us were trying to get hard word on how long it would take to get to camp. Sleep was all most of us could think about. Venanace said three hours. Someone said maybe an hour and a half. The discrepancy was causing some stress in the ranks. Wallace and I tracked down Raymond to get a new ETA. He said that we wouldn't make it before dark, unless we go like this, and he started running. Wallace and I looked at each other and then followed him, partly amused and partly trying on his real pace. We flew into a riverbed cobbled with rounded boulders. We didn't have time to look behind us and see if the rest of our crew was following.

I didn't think we would run the whole way. In the beginning, it was a game to dodge holes and bounce from rock to rock. That was in the beginning. We. Did. Not. Stop. This is how fast the porters go, Raymond called back to us. We kept pace and passed a few porters headed uphill. Pole pole, one said. The happy porters were back, yelling Mambo! Poa! Jambo! Unanguvu! Haraka!

Then I started to sweat really badly under the rain pants. They would not breathe. I didn't have time to take them off, though I should’ve made time. We just kept flying downhill with gravity for miles. Could we make it before dark, it was a challenge that began to turn sour. My legs were literally drenched inside the rain pants. It was the nastiest feeling ever. We had been running for an hour and a half when we got to the last hill. Raymond told us that the camp was at the top. So he and I raced up it. After the climb, I don't pretend to know how that was possible. Maybe we were just delirious.

At the hut an older guy was asking about the infamous coca-colas. I'd heard about them at every camp, but hadn't seen one yet. The porters standing nearby said, “oh no, there's no coke here.” Venance told us that it was illegal for companies to sell on the mountain. I don't know if they were selling or not at Mweka, but if they were, apparently you needed to know people.

Obama gets lots of love here.The pen we used for the registrar was a brand called Obama Smoothline. Whenever porters asked where we were from, and we answered America, they would happily come back with, "Obamaland!"

The camp was set up like one long hallway, camps on either side of the road, tucked into the woods. We were at the very end. Raymond was right, we made it to camp at exactly sunset. I went in the tent to peel of the soggy pants, when I came back out, it was dark. The rain pants that I had borrowed from Hashim were white with dirt. I started washing them, but Ebrah and Raymond physically grabbed them out of my hands. I was laughing, like you can't have one clean leg and one dirty one. They were really adamant.

I was in the mess tent early with Ebrah and Baraka. They gave me another Swahili lesson naming everything on the table:

knife= kisu
spoon= kijiko
fork = uma
table = meza
bottle = chupa
plate = sahani

I’m going to miss them when we are gone.

James, Olga and Rome made it to camp about and hour or so later. They were not happy campers, especially Olga. I'm not sure what went down, but they were all in a bad mood. It was the longest day ever. Everyone tried to get Hashim to talk during dinner, rather than in official capacity afterwards. All items were obstacles between us and the sleeping bag.

Tonight will be blissful sleep. Rock ground ain’t a thing.

MWEKA CAMP: 10,065 feet/ 3068 m
Total elevation covered today: 13,286 feet / 4045 m
Total distance covered today: 10 miles / 17 km

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

DAY 4: Barranco to Karanga to Barafu Camp

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 go for the 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 up. Our destination is proper basecamp at 15300 ft called Barafu meaning Ice. Ice Camp, how bad is that?

Barranco Camp

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 hundreds of 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 3 or 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 Lynn Hill. 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

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. I felt some kinship.

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?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

DAY 3: Shira to Barranco Camp

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.

damn groundselhuggers

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.
“You alright?”
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.