Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Tanzania: the snows of Kilimanjaro

Our journey to the snows of Kilimanjaro began on a bus, as most of our greatest adventures seem to. We had trouble getting tickets out of Kampala, because all the school kids were returning to Nairobi, so we had to fork over for 'Royal' seats on the more expensive bus. So plush! With French Toast! All was splendid until Kathleen noticed a cockroach making the rounds---her worst enemy. The next 12 hours were a bit more tense than necessary. Ha! Switching buses in Nairobi, we were dethroned to smaller seats, more bumps, and an increased cockroach count, as we headed out of Kenya into Tanzania. But the glorious panorama of tea fields, donkeys, nandi trees, and roadside markets more than made up for it. Arriving in Arusha, we were met by our Mount Kilimanjaro guide, and we prepared for an attempt to watch the sun rise at 19,340 feet.

Once again, we found ourselves the only two participants. We thought there would be other climbers, but it appeared that we'd be flying solo. Well, solo except for a guide, an assistant guide, a cook, and seven porters. We were mortified by the huge number of support staff! Never before have we camped where we didn't carry our own stuff and cook our own food, so it was a bit embarrassing and awkward to have so many people attending to us. And we had even gone the relatively cheap route! We felt a tad better, however, when we met a group of four that had FORTY porters and guides traveling with them. Seems ludicrous, but evidently this is how it's done. You're required to have a guide with you and the minimum standard is three porters per camper and guide. We tried to pitch in where we could so that it didn't feel so strange, and in the end, we fell in love with our crew and gleaned as much Swahili slang from them as we could. By the end of the week, we were throwing out mambo vipi (what's up?), bomba buya (it's great!) and poa kichisi kama ndizi (crazy cool like a banana) like locals. Well, sort of.

We had chosen the 7-day Lemosho route, as we wanted to have enough time to enjoy the scenery AND hopefully acclimatize enough to give ourselves a shot at reaching the top. The first three days were a glorious introduction to the beauty of the Kilimanjaro area. We sauntered our way slowly through rainforest, past the skunk-colored (but happily not odored) colobus monkeys, and into the hills with gorgeous views of Mount Meru. The hiking was easy, the food was great, and we were starting to get used to having our tent set up for us (the shame!). We slept at 9,000, 11,500, and 13,000 feet respectively each night, and we were feeling great. The afternoon of Day Three, a thick rainy fog settled in, so our afternoon acclimatization hike was cancelled, and we just napped and read in our tent while listening to the raindrops. We kept trying to convince ourselves that we weren't being lazy, we were simply working hard at adjusting to the altitude. Ha! Up to this point, the most difficult part of the trip was overcoming the cucumber soup-induced flatulence that one of us (no names!) suffered from to a disturbing degree.

Day Four started out under clear skies, but when we reached the Lava Towers (15,000 feet!) for lunch, the mist and rain rolled in and hunkered down for a companiable stay. A tent was set up while we warmed up, told giraffe riddles, learned to tell time in Swahili, had them try on our famous Elly Karl hats, and shared tea with two German medical students who put us to shame by reaching the Lava Towers in just two days. They spoke great Swahili and were working at a hospital in Arusha, making us feel like fat, spoiled, consuming Americans. Alas, at least we knew a couple of good jokes to share. The rain wasn't going anywhere, so we suited up and descended to our next campsite (Barranco, 13,o00 feet). We crawled into our sleeping bags and read what was left of the Harper's Kathleen brought after Eric had stuffed half of it into his shoes to try and dry them. She's hiding her journal from him, though, frostbite or no!

On Day Five things began to feel a little ill-fated. We awoke to a small earthquake, continued rain, and the news that our great guide, Deo, was sick (chest cold) and was going to have to descend. But we were going to continue with our assistant guide, Nico (who we also adored!), so we donned our wet gear and began climbing the Barranco Wall, quickly warmed by our efforts. But when we got up and over the ridge and continued climbing, the rain turned from rain to sleet to snow. Fitting, considering our camp was called Barafu, which means snow in Swahili. Hours of hiking in wet gear to our camp at 15,200 feet left us shivering and miserable, with Kathleen close to tears. But we were doing fantastically compared to many of the porters.

Indeed, what we witnessed that day makes it hard for us to recommend climbing Mount Kilimanjaro without some reservations. For the most part, porters are completely without adequate clothing and footwear. While our team was pretty well outfitted, we saw many others hiking in jeans, converse, and thin cotton sweatshirts with no jackets. In the snow. At altitude. Horrible.

While we were climbing the last 1,000 feet to our camp, we passed a porter standing motionless on the trail in a daze. He had a huge load he was carrying, no jacket or gloves, and it was clear that the initial stages of hypothermia and maybe altitude sickness were setting in. It made us want to cry. Our cook took him by the hand and literally dragged him up the mountain to the ranger's hut to get warm. We later learned that three porters died on the mountain that day from hypothermia. It is ridiculous and unconscionable that lives are being claimed so that people can simply climb a big mountain, and it left a sour taste in our mouths that evening. We had read that you should avoid the cheapest companies, because they don't take care of their porters at all, but even some of our crew didn't have adequate rain gear. Our guide explained that they own it, but they don't always bring it, because they don't want the extra weight. While it's true that the weather was unseasonably bad, we think that companies should require (and check!) that their crew has adequate clothing and adjust the weight requirements accordingly. We would have happily paid more money to ensure everyone's health and safety.

We were to leave for the summit of the mountain at midnight and then continue to another camp in the afternoon. But because our crew was completely out of dry clothing, one guide was sick and at the gate, we decided that we would descend entirely out of the park the following day. So we wrapped ourselves up in sleeping bags (which were a tad wet) and our summit jackets to try and catch a few hours of sleep before we made the attempt.

At midnight, we awoke to snow on the tent and ground but clear skies and stars. Beautiful. We downed some tea and suited up in down jackets and mittens, fleece, and set off with our trekking poles. It was pole pole (slowly, slowly) in the thin air. Eric strode up the mountain without a single symptom of altitude sickness. Kathleen, meanwhile, staggered a bit, threw up at 17,500 feet, and managed to walk as slow as humanly possible. But after five hours, we made it to Stella Point, on the ridge of the peak. We celebrated with Red Bull and candy (funny!) and then continued climbing to see the sun rise on Uhuru Peak over the 'roof of Africa' as they call it. It was an insanely beautiful panorama of glaciers, the vivid red of the sun, and Mount Meru rising above a sea of clouds. We toasted at the top with faux champagne, pringles and chocolate bars. Whooopppeee!

It took us two hours to descend what to took us six hours to climb, and it probably would have been shorter, but the snow made it a bit slippery. Upon returning to our camp, we were greeted by our awesome team and a surprise birthday cake for Kathleen. So sweet! High-altitude celebrations seem to be a Dodge birthday theme (Mt. Whitney for 30, Kilimanjaro for 35), but fear not, Everest is not in the cards for 40.

Once the party was over, the vacation ended. Gone were the days of pole pole and lavish snacks every two hours. Now it was twende sasa (let's go NOW!) for another 6 grueling hours of 12,000 feet of descent. Let's just say you didn't want to be there when we got back to Arusha and Eric took the first shower and accidentally used all the hot water. We resolved the matter with a Kilimanjaro beer, however. Poa kichisi kama ndizi!

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