Climbing Kilimanjaro 4: Of mice and men

We survived the sloping camp site and we had a late start today – 8.30am. The route was characterised by more dry flood channels and a distinctly different landscape to the Western and Southern slopes we’d been walking on. Now flora was sparse and composed of only the hardiest of species. We were sown the Scottish Thistle, a surprising discovery but, once we’d seen one, a relatively common sight. Low grasses also popped their heads above the volcanic gravel.

After a beautiful sunrise, we walked in the sunshine for a bit before the inevitable mist descended once more. It was colder now and there was a thick frost on the ground. This froze the scree and made it much easier to walk on. The path was rough and once again undulating. It was impossible to tell whether we were climbing because we were crossing little ridges and dropping down again, and passing through more flood channels.

The passage of time was also hard to determine and everything came together to make an unreal few hours of walking. I’d trained in the mists of the Brecon Beacons but I had never felt anything like this. We came across another flood channel and this was was wide and deep. It wasn’t clear how we’d get to the bed to cross it and in the end, we just scrambled and slithered down the side. At the bottom, we heard voices and suddenly, the big blue toilet tent appeared through the mist. We were at Third Cave Camp. We struggled up the loose scree of the other bank and were in camp! It had taken us 3.5 hours instead of the 5-7 hours in the plan. We were getting fitter and more acclimatised.

We had a short break for dinner in the camp before another acclimatisation walk. Again, we took the route we’d be following tomorrow. This time it was a constant ascent up into the hills, heading directly for Kilimanjaro. We were walking in mist but we soon left it behind as we got higher. Eventually, after about an hour of walking we reached a point 300m above the camp site. It had been hard going because we’d pushed the pace a little but I found I recovered quickly. The trip back down took around 25 minutes. Back at camp, I sat out in the sunshine for half an hour, writing my journal, drinking tea and eating hot peanuts. It was probably the best early evening of the whole trek.

During the night, the diamox I was taking to combat altitude sickness resulted in a need to go for a pee. Despite the absolute certainty of needing to go, it took me 20 minutes from waking up to finally deciding to get out of the sleeping bag. By now, ready for this eventuality, I was already wearing trousers and a fleece to bed so the impact wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

The morning came quickly and coldly. To the north east, the sun was rising over the cloud layer again, making a beautiful sight well worth getting up for. To the south of the camp, Kilimanjaro towered above us. But it was definitely closer, and to me it seemed do-able. Once the sun had risen, it warmed the air quickly and by the time we were ready to leave it was quite pleasant.

We retraced our steps up above the camp and the path that had taken us an hour to complete without packs last night took 90 minutes this morning. Still, that was faster than I was expecting and made me feel comfortable about what was to come. Passian, our lead guide, set a good pace which pushed us a little without  tiring us too much. Occasionally we were passed by our porters who raced ahead to get the camp set up for this afternoon.

Today was a straight ascent from Third Cave, at 3900m to School Hut camp at 4770m. School Hut was our base camp for the final day’s push to the summit of Kilimanjaro and that was at the back of all our minds during the walk. Personally, I was waiting for the headache and nausea of altitude sickness to strike, as 4500m was about the time I’d experienced it in Nepal. I hardly dared think about how symptom free I’d been so far. And I was pleased to find I felt physically very fit and mentally ready to take on the long climb later tonight.

We lost track of time again and as the mist descended, of distance too. After a long stretch of walking steeply while weaving between large boulders, I caught a glimpse of several porters resting ahead. Passian saw them too, and they saw him and jumped up to continue onwards. Shortly afterwards, I thought I caught a glimpse of our blue toilet tent in the mist and a quick question to Passian confirmed that we had arrived at School Hut camp.

Years ago, the School Hut was used for trainee guides to stay in while learning how to guide on the mountain but it had long since fallen into disuse. It was now the shelter for the park ranger but still contained communal bunks. We found out later that for the price of a few beers, we could have stayed in there in relative warmth. But for now, although we could see the camp, it was remaining elusive and distant. It seemed that no matter how long we walked, it was no nearer. I adopted my ‘head down’ approach and found that after about 10 minutes, I could see it was noticeably closer. A final, cruel twist was that the last few metres was up and extremely steep and slippery slope. But we were there and after a swift signing in on the register, we were able to find our tents and rest.

We watched Four Stripe mice (large mice with four lighter coloured stripes on their necks) scurrying from rock to rock. The scavenged on scraps from trekkers and later, after we’d had dinner and returned to the tent, we found one inside looking for snacks. It jumped out and ran away but we were careful to check after that.

Passian held our summit briefing after lunch, and it had a more serious feel to it. Tonight would be the final climb to the top. It would be cold, hard going and long. We were warned to wear at least four layers of clothing on top, to drink plenty before setting out and to get as much rest as possible. We were not to wait for anyone if they dropped behind; the guides would do that and to avoid the group getting split up and perhaps walking on their own, we should all make our own progress and pace. This was a sensible if hard rule, which meant that the teamwork that had helped everyone at one time or another through the trek so far would be absent. On the other hand, it meant that everyone had the best chance of getting to the top.

After the briefing, we all retired to the tents to try and get the best 4 or 5 hours sleep we could.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro 2: Across the Caldera

By now we were well and truly on the mountain. Ahead, Kilimanjaro reared up out of the plain and when the clouds permitted, we could see the top, where we would be walking in only a few days. Our guides fostered a spirit of positive mental attitude which proved to be the right way to tackle this trek; physical preparation was only part of the challenge ahead.

We left camp ahead of our porters although they swiftly passed us on this flat stretch of plain. We were walking in the collapsed cone of the oldest of the three volcanoes that make up Kilimanjaro, Shira. Where rivers and streams had cut through the rock we could see the strata of lava flow beneath. To the right, south, was the remains of the crater wall, Shira ridge, rising to just under 4000m. The morning was hot and the walking relatively easy. There were few landmarks to break up the landscape but as we passed the most prominent, a large and incongruous boulder, we turned right to head away from the mountain and off towards Shira Cathederal. The Cathederal was a large rock formation which was once part of the Shira cone. The rough volcanic rock had weathered less than it’s surroundings and we would be using it as a small acclimatisation walk .

The pat led over flood channels and dry river beds but remained easy going. We spotted giant lobelia growing off the path and as we had time to spare, we walked over to investigate. They were odd plants, seemingly out of place in this wilderness, but beautiful in their own way. Heading back tot he path, we spotted Malachite Firebirds flying around and watching us from the bushes. Their emerald green feathers stood out and flashed when caught in the sunlight.

It turned out that we were near their nest and we retreated to allow them to return. There were two chicks in the nest and one of our group had seen them, beaks wide open, waiting for food. Not wishing to disturb them any more, we set off towards the rocks, now getting closer.

The path started to ascend and as we were unused to the slope after our walk on the plains, we slowed and felt out of breath. But before long we reached the foot of the cliffs and took a short break before attempting the climb up to the view point. Here we shed packs and started on the scramble up the narrow, rocky path. There were plenty of hand and foot holds, but there was also exposure to quite a drop and I remembered the ‘three points of contact’ mantra I’d been taught when scrambling in Snowdonia. After a few minutes, we were on the narrow ridge that led to the summit.

We’d climbed around 80m in total and although we were at altitude, it wasn’t too taxing. There were magnificent views across the caldera to our camp of this morning, but looking south towards the lower slopes and the route of the Machame path, there were thick dark clouds and they seemed to be approaching.

Back down, after a precarious slippery scramble, we donned back packs and set off over the slightly lower hill that would take us to Shira Hut camp site, our goal for the day. Shortly after we set off, the first rain started to fall. There were the big raindrops of a thundery shower and a few hailstones. I didn’t allow my mind to recall my encounter with a thunder storm during training until I heard the first clap of thunder from the right.

Waterproofs were hastily put on and I noticed the guides weren’t too concerned by the thunder, so I chose not to be. Mind over matter – it seemed the positive mental attitude was working. But no amount of positivity stopped the rain from falling and it quickly became heavy and persistent. To the accompaniment of the odd peal of thunder, we walked in near silence in a world cocooned by our rain gear and the thick rain and mist. In all subsequent conversations, this was deemed to be the worst day of the trek, including the summit day. It was cold, wet and miserable and all we had to look forward to was the dubious shelter of a tent at the end of it.

We straggled into camp after about an hour. Everything was soaked. We were even given dispensation to go straight to the tents rather than registering at the Ranger post first. Wet kit was deposited in the porch of the tents, and we gathered, damp and downhearted, in the mess tent. Hot peanuts and hot drinks helped revive our spirits. The mention of an acclimatisation walk didn’t fill us full of enthusiasm.

After lunch, which was soup and toast, we had some time to gather our thoughts, change out of damp clothes and take a rest before we set off on the short acclimatisation walk. We took the route we’d be following the next day. The plan was to climb another 80m or so and stay for a few minutes, following the acclimatisation rule of climbing high and sleeping low. In the event, we were feeling good enough to ascend higher and we finally stopped at around 150m higher than camp. There we chatted with our guides, who explained the language and tribal system of Tanzania.

Before independence in 1964,  there were 120 tribes across East Africa and they all had their local languages and dialects. Julius Nyerere legislated that Swahili, already a common tongue, would be the national language. The main effect of this was to unify the various tribes and thus the country. All Tanzanians can speak Swahili and their own tribal tongue. Locals can identify the tribe from the accent of Swahili and while I can’t say I noticed too many differences, the way our porters said ‘jambo’ every time they passed us on the trail varied considerably from long, drawn out version, to short snappy ones. This to me seemed to be based on accent.

The walk also had the benefit of drying off our gear, as by now the rains had stopped and the sun was out. We descended with a wonderful view of the caldera, the path we’d taken this morning and the clouds clearing from the slopes of the Cathedral rocks.

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Thunderbirds are go!

Just got the all clear from the doc to say I can go on the trek.

Because I suffer from asthma brought on by allergies (ironically, I’m allergic to Rufus but he’s very good and tries not to make me sneeze too much) I have to tick the box on the medical questionnaire that says ‘asthma’. And that instantly requires the autograph of a friendly doctor. My doctor is well aware of my adventures and so he understands.

I saw him this afternoon and during the consultation, he had to take a phone call from another doctor. When he’d finished, he said that the doc he’d been talking to had done Kilimanjaro too. After he’d signed the form, we talked about diamox – the medicine that can help with acclimatisation. He said they were using viagra as an aid to acclimatisation now. I mentioned that on my first trek to Everest Base Camp,. I’d taken part in drug trials and I found out later that viagra was being tested (I don’t know what I took and I didn’t have any outstanding problems afterwards!) and I happened to mention the name of the doctor. My doc laughed and said the phone call was from the same doctor! It’s a small world.

So I’m off. All I have to worry about now is the small matter of training. Watch this space for the adventures of Rufus and Dave on as many hills as possible.

 

Dingboche

Of all the places we visited and trekked through, my favourite village was Dingboche. It was our second acclimatisation stop, and our rest day co-incided with my birthday. Surrounded by steep sided hills, Dingboche sits in the Imja Khola valley under the shadow of Ama Dablam at 4410m above sea level. It is the highest permanently settled village on the trail to Everest Base Camp and the last place that crops can be grown. Here, the crops are potatoes and barley and so important is the harvest that the use of any smoky fuels during the growing season is banned to make sure the crop yields are good.

It was a long day’s trek as we arrived at the lower end of the village, and there was still 15 minutes of steady plodding until we reached our lodge – the Peak 38 View – at the far end. The fields and lodges were bordered by drystone walls which were extensive and well maintained. We passed farms and lodges, each proclaiming a slightly different altitude. There were two lodges opposite each other, one asserting that it was 30m higher than the other. I passed between two without having to climb more than a metre and I wondered whether there was some altitude envy that lodge owners suffered from. The ground was hard and dusty but the farmers wives were out digging and planting the potatoes in small mounds of earth.

We were worn out and glad to have reached our next stop. In the dining room, the usual hot drinks were complimented by platefuls of biscuits which went down very well, and very quickly. Outside as we ate and drank, a beige yak calmly watched us through the windows. ‘Kaur’ was the lodge owner’s yak and was very docile and friendly. She had worked for most of her life and was now being rewarded with a home and regular food. She would turn up morning and evening and wait for her meals.

The acclimatisation day allowed us a leisurely climb to the hill behind the lodge the following morning. The afternoon was for us to rest, recuperate and do any housekeeping and laundry and it was the perfect place for me to spend my birthday. After washing my hair, a rare luxury despite the freezing water, I sat in the sun and enjoyed watching the clouds slowly make their way up the valley. I felt I could have stayed here for several days as it was so tranquil and relaxing.

Later some of us walked down the the bakery and I indulged myself with some apple pie and a mug of hot chocolate. It was delicious and so out of place that it felt like cheating. A local woman came in to the bakery and ordered a coffee. We were told later that there was a different pricing structure for the locals, which was fair enough. On offer (although none of us took it up) were several varieties of  roast dinner. It was so out of place to see ‘Roast Chicken, roast potatoes, vegetables and gravy’ for R670 (about £6.00) at 4400m.

We had fried egg and chips for dinner and I was surprised that after food came a cake covered in chocolate, with some candles and a little sign saying ‘Happy birthday, Dave’. It was very touching and after the groups had sung happy birthday, we shared the cake out amongst everyone in the lodge, including some Swiss trekkers on the next table.

That night I was woken by a sharp cracking sound and I automatically thought of an avalanche on Ama Dablam. But the flashes of light told me it was thunder and lightning. The following morning, we woke up to a thick covering of snow and a beautiful, clear and crisp day with stong sunlight and deep blue skies. We set off in these glorious conditions for Lobuche but the clouds soon started gathering and we spent most fo the day walking in falling snow.

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