Looking Back II – Looking up.

This time last year I was fast asleep. No big deal, I had an early night. In a tent. Okay, January in a tent isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. At 4700m on the western slope of Kilimanjaro.

I can’t believe that it’s a year ago today I started the long and difficult slog up to the summit of Kibo. We were up at 10.30pm (7.30pm GMT as Tanzania is 3hrs ahead of us) for breakfast of porridge and more porridge and lashings of hot sweet coffee. I remember being fairly sharp the adrenaline was pumping at the thought of what was coming next. It was cold, and I’d worn several layers to bed so that the impact of the cold wouldn’t be too bad. I don’t recall it being a factor at the start.

We didn’t hang around. At 11.30pm we set off on a short but steep scramble over the rocks that surrounded the camp site before settling in to a steady plod along zig zags that led up the scree towards Gilman’s Point.

It got colder and colder. I went into a daze in which only the person in front of me existed. I saw a procession of lights coming up on a different route that looked like something out of Lord of the Rings. The moon sank below the horizon before we’d got half way up but Jupiter kept us company throughout the night. Every time we stopped for a break, I wanted to rest my head on my walking pole and sleep.

And then we got to Gilman’s point around 5.45am. It felt unreal and amazing at the same time. I celebrated with a wee down the drop we’d just walked up as payback for the cold and tiredness (the altitude makes you go much more frequently).

Sunrise was at 6.30am, just as we reached Stella Point. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve experienced – watching the sun rise over Mawenzi Peak and colouring the cloud layer way below us first a pink colour and then orange. It took me another 50 minutes to get to Uhuru Peak – the summit, at about 4.20am GMT. If I’m awake tomorrow morning at that time, I’ll be thinking about how I felt then. My journal, written about two hours later, lists the following to describe how I felt at the top:

“Rush to the head, relief, elation at achievement, happy, tired, a bit fuzzy due to the lack of oxygen, disorientated, in awe of the sunrise above the clouds, cold, aching limbs, pack weightless.”  I wrote that the effects of altitude seemed to disappear for a while.

Then we were descending and I think that is when the effects of altitude came back because the walk back to Stella Point passed in a blurry flash and suddenly I was charging down the slope trying to keep upright, to keep up with our guide and not to fall over. Equally as suddenly, Barafu camp came in to view and suddenly we were sat down in the sun warming up, fuelling up and staring at the top of Kilimanjaro some 1300m above us. The sudden increase in oxygen available made up for the fatigue and the packed 2nd breakfast (it was 9.20am local time) contained a real sausage! We stayed at Barafu for 90 minutes and then took another 90 minutes to descend another 1000m to Millennium Camp, which we reached at around 12.30.

I was fast asleep in my tent shortly afterwards and slept until they started using dynamite to excavate a toilet block some hours later.

 

Climbing Kilimanjaro 6: The bits between the bits

Climbing Kilimanjaro is a serious business. There are months of preparation to be made. Training for physical fitness take as along as you like; the more you do the better the experience when you’re trekking. Mental preparation is harder to plan and do but is equally important to get you through the tough days when it’s raining, or when the slope is never ending.

For some, the gathering of kit is enjoyable. Testing each item and making the final decision about what to take and what to leave behind. I admit to secretly enjoying choosing which cameras to take as it’s where my interests lie.

But however serious and hard it is, ultimately I trek because I enjoy it. So amidst all the serious stuff, there have to be moments of humour, laughter and hysterics, otherwise what is the point? For every “…the ascent was long and hard and the rains lashed down…” there has to be a “…how we laughed…”. The problem with trying to write them down is that often they depend on the moment and knowing the people and places. So while I will try and convey the humour, I apologise if these stories occasionally come over as a bit insular and cliquey. And, of course, if none of them work, I won’t publish this.

Travelling is always stressful. My journey from Home to Heathrow by train and coach was marked by annoying people. On the train, it was the nasally-voiced gentleman two seats over from me. For three hours he talked to his travelling companion and at no time did I understand a word he spoke, but neither was I able to miss a single syllable of his piercing tones.  On the coach, it was the serial complainer who annoyed. But I left both of them behind.

At Nairobi airport, we had two litre bottles of water bought in the transfer lounge, but we weren’t allowed to take them on the plane unless they were sealed in a plastic bag. So we went back to the shop from which they’d been bought and asked them to seal them up. we were then allowed through the check in. Security at it’s tightest.

Our encounter with an Australian trekker on day one was the beginning of a running joke, She turned up while we were having lunch and decided we were her group. She’d missed a flight and arrived late. It eventually dawned on her that we weren’t her group  and she walked on. Her loud voice faded slowly as she went. We met her several more times and each time she was louder, more shrill and a little more annoying. At the next camp one of our guides convinced her he was from Brisbane, although he spoke very little English. Every time we  bumped into her over the next few day, we reminded her that our guide was from Brisbane. We even told him some place names that one of our trekkers knew from the Brisbane area.

Our campsites were pretty good on the whole. On a few occasions, we found that there was a distinct slope; after all we were climbing a mountain. Often there was a ‘low end’ to the mess tent table. After walking through the cold and miserable rain one afternoon, we retired to the mess tent and as I sat down, I all but disappeared. I found the whole thing funny and started to laugh, but it was laughter that you can’t help, that comes from a mix of tiredness and despair and it quickly turned hysterical! In no time, everyone in the tent was laughing. It was a welcome release from the misery of the day.

Early in the trek, we shared a campsite with another group of trekkers with a different company. Every night, their guides and porters would sing. We watched and listened, fascinated, and were even asked to join in. But after about an hour, it was getting a little jaded and during the second hour it began to grate on the nerves. Especially as the songs were chart hits, not traditional tunes. Our guide promised not to put our tents anywhere near them again, and he was true to his word.

The following night we camped on a tiny site where there was barely enough room for our four tents. As a result, they were cramped together and in my tent, a large part of Kilimanjaro formed a pillow under my head when I lay down. With a combination of careful positioning of my kit bag and a slight bend of the knee, I was able to lie reasonably comfortably. But at this site, the tents were placed on a sloping bit of ground and right outside the entrances was a small but significant vertical drop. At night, this would test us if we needed to go to the toilet tent, which was several metres away up the slope. We joked that we’d have to rope up to climb to use the toilet!

On summit night, our tent was invaded by a little four striped mouse. It was looking for morsels to eat, which we had loaded up the back packs with prior to the climb. When we went to the mess tent for dinner, it had scurried out from the rocks and gone all the way in to the tent. When I opened the flap, it rushed deeper in to the tent and only came out again when it realised there was no escape. I have a blurry photo of a seed eater bird perched on my back pack at Moir Hut camp.

At the park gate where we started, the gigantic sign warned of all the hazards that lay ahead, and the precautions to take. Most of the advice was sound and wise, but one point made us worry. “Do not push yourself to go if you have extreme.” We kept a close eye out for signs of extreme in all of us and although we all came close and some point, none of us suffered complete extreme.

Our card games, mainly ‘UNO’ were played in the evenings after food and invariably when we were tired. What shoudl have been a fast, snappy game was played at a sedate pace with slow reactions, missed opportunities and a lot of laughing. In the end, though, everyone won at least one game! The less said about the games of Pontoon, using miniscule portions of popcorn as betting chips, the better.

There were few laughs on the climb to Uhuru Peak, but at one point I offered to roll rocks down the slope to try and silence a bunch of very loud trekkers who seemed to think making a noise – any noise – was cool. At the Uhuru Peak signpost, we were constantly thwarted while trying to get the photo by a bunch of Americans. In the end, we dashed in between their high fiving and managed to get three individual photos without anyone else encroaching.

On the descent, there was little time for humour as I desperately tried to keep my balance. But on the second day, there was a slightly more leisurely pace and there was time to look around and enjoy again. We kept passing and being passed by a group of Canadians, with a friendly ‘hello again, fancy meeting you here’. They were friendly and it became a running joke to break up some of the longer and more demanding sections. Stopping at Mweki camp for a toilet break, I peed down a chute only to find some kind of flying insect down there. it wouldn’t leave and as I tried not to hit it, it flew around to avoid the stream. had I sat down, I expect I would have got a lovely bite.

As we passed through the lower slopes by the park gate, we found what could only be described as ‘The Kilimanjaro Experience’. It seemed like a theme park/visitor centre compete with elephant and buffalo noises (but no elephants or buffaloes), empty farm huts and large palms. It was an odd end to the trek.

It’s impossible to do a trek like this without a sense of humour.  I hope I’ve managed to convey a some of it in this blog entry.

Climbing Kilimanjaro 5: Up the hill

At 10.30pm on 24 January, I was awake and lying wrapped up against the cold in my sleeping bag. I’d gone to bed about 4 hours before wearing thermal long johns, lined trousers, socks, thermal base layer and a fleece. I’d managed a nervous 3 hours of sleep but had woken early. I was resting, and thinking about the climb to come. Reluctantly, I got out of the warm cocoon and donned another fleece, my duvet jacket and boots.

We were greeted in the mess tent with hot, sweet tea and porridge. I was getting fed up of porridge but there was no doubting it’s energy giving properties. I put a large spoonful of sugar in and downed the contents of the bowl. I took my last diamox tablet, drank another cup of tea and was ready.

Withe little fuss, we gathered outside, little pools of torchlight in a sea of darkness. Passian led us off towards the gap in the rocks that formed the first, steep climb out of School hut camp.  The scramble over, we started off on the path which climbed steeply right from the start. It was the beginning of a mindless, endless trudging that went on with little to show for the effort. The darkness hid any landmarks that could have shown the progress we were making, and that was probably a good thing.

We stopped for a short break after about an hour and I checked my altimeter. We’d climbed 100m. As we set off again, and aching limbs protested, I started to do the calculations. If we’d only done 100m in an hour, it would take us 12hrs to get to the top. It was a depressing thought and only after a few more minutes did I realise that I hadn’t recalibrated the altimeter at School Hut camp. I guessed the readings were wrong, and resolved not to look at the altimeter again.

We carried on along a series of zig zags, climbing steadily but with no idea of how far we’d come. I longed for each break, but when they came, they merely served to make me feel the cold and for my limbs to develop cramp. Starting off again was harder as a result.

Suddenly, ahead, I saw a line of tiny lights stretching down to my left and up to my right. We had reached the junction with the path from Kibo huts, another popular summit route and the lights were the head torches of the other climbers heading towards Uhuru Peak. We turned sharply right and joined the line. Behind, one group was singing but this soon petered out and there was a strange silence despite the number of people on the path. We stood to oe side to allow faster groups to pass, and we passed slower groups including some people clearly in trouble and being tended to by their guides.

We stopped briefly at Hans Meyer Cave, which I knew to be around 5300m. I had no idea how log it had taken and knowing we were about half way didn’t help either. After the cave, the zig zag legs got shorter and steeper. Lights high above gave an indication of the steepness. A chill wind picked up and blew across the face of the slope. This part of the climb was the hardest as by now I was digging deep for reserves of mental strength. The climb was never ending. Although the pace was very good, I began to have some doubts about whether I could get to the top.

But I started to think of the people who had supported me; my friend’s little boy who had drawn a good luck card which I had with me, and friends and colleagues who had helped me get ready. I also had in my head a song that I used to listen to when doing the harder parts of the training on the Brecon Beacons. All of that gave me an extra boost of determination, and I carried on placing one foot in front of the other as we climbed higher.

All of a sudden, the slope got steeper and we climbed over a series of rocks to a flat area and our guides stopped. They pulled out flasks and gave us all a welcome mug of hot sweet tea. It slowly dawned on my fuzzy brain that we had reached Gillman’s Point; the place where the steep path upwards crests the crater rim. Gradually, as the tea warmed me, I remembered that this was the end of the steep section and from now on the going would be much easier. To the North East, a faint glow was in the sky.

We set off from Gillman’s Point around the rim of the volcano towards Stella Point. By the time we reached the large sign, the sun was just below the horizon and the colour in the sky was deep and beautiful. We stopped to watch the sunrise from just beyond Stella Point, and the peak of Mawenzi was silhouetted against the sky and the layer of cloud hundreds of metres below.

Although the path was far less steep, there was still an incline and the altitude meant that it was still hard going. I passed a number of people sat by the side of the path, head in hands. None were alone so I wasn’t worried about leaving them. There were a number of false summits before I finally spotted the big sign that marked the highest point. I reached it at 7.15am local time.

The feeling of actually getting there after all the time spent preparing, the delays caused by injury and the last 8 days trekking, was amazing. It’s hard to put it into words even now. I’d read about this place but until recently I’d never dreamed I’d actually get here. The 45 minutes I spent on the summit went by in a blur and looking back, many of the memories are through the photos I took. Not because I didn’t stop to see with my own eyes, but because I was tired and my mind was trying to take everything in.

The crater of Kibo is still largely intact and had I been able to spend more time on the top, I would have loved to have descended into it to explore. But our time on top was limited, mainly because of the cold and the tiredness. Instead, I was able to look out onto the remains of the glaciers, and the snow lying on the path I’d just walked. The views from the top were magnificent. Beyond the Northern icefields was Mt Meru. Down to the south was our next goal, Barafu Camp.

All too soon Passian was motioning for us to leave and reluctantly, I followed him back down the pathway. We passed more people coming up and many were struggling in the thin air. We reached Stella Point and dropped over the side of the crate rim to begin the descent.

Passian set a fast pace down across the scree. The alternative was a three hour trudge down which would have played hell with my knees. Nevertheless, I was reluctant at first to follow him as I was conscious of the potential erosion. I compromised and sought a firm path down, occasionally skipping past the longer bits with a diversion across the scree. Passian and the others all but disappeared ahead of me but I could see where  we were heading and wasn’t too concerned. In no time we were down at Barafu camp, having descended 1300m in around 85 minutes. After a brief brunch stop, we descended further to Millennium camp, our overnight stop.

As we registered at the camp site, we were told that they were blasting to clear a site for a new toilet block. But my tired brain misheard and I thought the ranger said they were blasting to clear the toilet. I thought of an explosion in a cess pit and didn’t want to think any further. Shortly afterwards, there was a dull thud and we were allowed to go to the tents. I fell asleep almost as soon as I lay down and after about an hour, I was woken by someone shaking the tent. It turned out they were blasting again. I staggered over to the ranger hut just in time to hear a much louder bang. A huge cloud of smoke and debris rose high in the air and over our part of the camp site. Back at the tents, we saw that one of them had been hit by debris which had torn through the fabric.

The following morning, after we’d distributed the tips and said good by to the crew, I took a last look at Kilimanjaro in the morning light, and then we headed of to begin the 2200m descent to the waiting minibus. By that afternoon, we were back at the poolside of the Ilboru Safari Lodge, showered and rested.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro 3: The northern route

Today would be the start of our northern route diversion. Most groups would be heading up towards the Lava Towers and on to Barranco hut. We were turning off to begin the two day traverse of the northern circuit. This was one of the features of the trek that had attracted me; We would get an extra two days at altitude to aid acclimatisation, but also to enjoy being on an unspoilt and largely deserted stretch of the mountain.

Our route today followed the walk we’d completed yesterday afternoon and we soon reached the 4000m marker stone. Shortly after this our path split off to the left and we said good by to the standard trails. Now we were climbing steadily towards our goal for the day, Moir Hut camp. And as we crested the ridge we could make out the pyramid shaped hut, it’s wood bleached white in the strong sunshine. It was a surprise as we expected to be walking for several more hours but in a little over 2.5 hours, we strolled into camp.

We were in a deep and steep sided valley, bordered on three sides by tall cliffs of solidified lava. Where weathering had worn away the scree, flat sheets of lava could be seen edge on. Above the ruined pyramid hut, the three dramatic humps of the Lent Hills could be seen. This afternoon, we’d be climbing the closest, Little Lent Hill, as part of our acclimatisation programme. For now, we were content to be in camp and to have some time to rest.

After lunch and a sustained assault on the crumbs we’d dropped by bold little Seed Eater birds, we set off to scale the nearby Little Lent Hill. We started off with a scramble over a steep section of smooth lava, followed by a long tramp up the side of the valley, Underfoot, the scree was slippery and in parts it was like climbing up a sand dune, with feet slipping backwards.  But before too long we were on the ridge top and then it was a short but difficult walk over loose stones that clinked like china when they knocked together to the foot of the hill.

The route up to the top of the hill was over steep, sharp and grippy rocks and as we started up, we were passed by another group of trekkers. One woman was using supplementary oxygen, At this relatively low level (4300m) it suggested that she was struggling already. the danger would be if her supply ran out on the final climb, She’d be in trouble and would leave her group with a dilemma on whether to help or go on.

We scrambled to the top and were rewarded by magnificent views over the camp, and up to Kilimanjaro. The top of the hill was covered in delicately balanced stone piles; we’d been seeing them all along the trails so far and would continue to see them right to the top.  Coming back down again was much easier than going up apart from the constant slipping of feet on scree.

The following day, we retraced our steps up to the ridge before bearing left to avoid Little Lent Hill. We were now well on the seldom used northern circuit route and we welcomed the break and the solitude. We walked in near silence in single file. The pacing was good and the grounds, while undulating, was manageable. By late morning the mist and cloud descended and brought the temperature down., This made the walking a little easier but made the rocky, barren landscape an eerie place to be. It felt as if it would be so easy to get lost here and, according to a guidebook, someone had done just that and they were still looking for him!

We crossed several dried river channels which would carry meltwater off the mountain during the rainy seasons. They were bone dry and full of rounded boulders. The vegetation had retreated to a few hardy plants sheltering beside rocks, and lichen. We reached a high point of 4370m before dropping back down again until we arrived at Buffalo Camp site around 5.5 hours after we’d started walking.

This camp site was small and cramped. Fortunately we were the only ones there. Three tents were lined up together on a slop – next to the entrances was a drop of nearly 12 inches. This doesn’t sound like much but in the cold and dark of a midnight toilet break, this could potentially cause chaos. Our toilet tent was several vertical metres above the tents and we joked that we would need climbing rope and a belay to safely use the toilet. Inside my tent, I found that there was a large boulder for a pillow – luckily I’m short enough that I was able to avoid it. The slope, which made bothy of us slide down the tent during the night, helped as well. Nevertheless, we survived the night and were rewarded in the morning with a beautiful site of the sunrise over a layer of clouds onto which we were looking.

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