Sunday, October 2, 2011

Kilimanjaro pictures and prose

Just wanna see pictures?  Cut to the chase at my Kilimanjaro photo album on PicasaWeb

We got back home in Jackson on Friday afternoon. The laundry is all done, some of the gear is put away, we've read some of the mail, and I've been able to organize all the pictures we took. Whew! Click on any of the pictures below to see larger versions...
In the beginning... There we are looking fit and well-rested at the trailhead. We started planning this trip last November, when our friend Karla invited us to join her and some friends. Jill has long had Kilimanjaro on her wish list, so she said yes immediately, and told Karla that I'll go too. No problem! We ended up with a group of eight people.

Kilimanjaro hikers are required to use a guide service; we picked Team Kilimanjaro, a UK-based company. There are many guiding companies to choose from, ranging from high-end hyperexpensive to bare-bones just-the-basics, and many in between. Kilimanjaro is a non-technical peak, an easy "walk-up" in climbers' parlance. The main issue is the altitude, as most Kilimanjaro trips gain altitude far faster than the human body can normally acclimate. What we particularly liked about TK was their route customization to try to leverage what few opportunities exist for altitude acclimation. During the trip planning stages we had a few communications hiccups involving transatlantic time zone differences and such. But once we arrived in Tanzania, TK's operations ran like clockwork; I was very impressed, and would definitely recommend Team Kilimanjaro to other climbers.

In addition to choosing a guide service, the other big decision is which climbing route to take up the mountain. There are four main routes (Marangu, Machame, Lemosho, and Rongai) along with a few other lesser-used routes and variations. Each route has advantages and disadvantages. We decided on the Rongai route, partly because it is a less heavily-used route and partly because Team Kilimanjaro has their own variation on this route that offers some improved altitude acclimatization options. It took our group about two months of research and email exchanges and Skype discussions to settle on Team Kilimanjaro and their 7-day Rongai route. Then came the decisions about which hotel(s) to stay at in Arusha before and after the climb, where to go on safari while we there, etc. It was early July by the time we had all the arrangements in place and we finally paid our deposits to TK.

All eight of us arrived in Tanzania on the same flight via Amsterdam. Jill and I from Jackson; Karla, Lisa, and Mary from Salt Lake City; Lisa's sister Patty and husband Frank from Los Angeles; Frank's son David from San Francisco. Our itinerary included three nights in Arusha before the climb, so that we could adjust to the jet lag, let any lost baggage catch up, etc. David was the only one who was missing bags; he had a funky departure screw-up when he left San Francisco, and his bags were still at SFO when we got to Tanzania. We stayed at the Kibo Palace Hotel in Arusha. The Kibo Palace is a very classy place, on a par with a Marriott in the US, we were all pleased with the accommodations and service. I found it a very pleasant oasis amid the crowds and grime of Arusha itself.

Day 1: Arusha to Rongai Gate to Simba Camp. The adventure began with six hours in a bus; first, from Arusha to the Marangu Gate where our guide must register our group with the park service, then on to the Rongai Gate where we will start the trek. It is Sunday, and many of the villages we drive through are lined with people walking along the road in their Sunday-best clothes going to or from church. We left the hotel at 8:30 AM; by the time we reached Rongai, unloaded the bus, had lunch, and shouldered our packs, it was 3:30 PM when we started walking. Three hours later we got to Simba Camp, and it was overflowing due to an unusually large group; our guides and porters had to hack some new tentsites out of the undergrowth.
Day 2: Simba Camp to Kikelelwa Camp. There weren't many expansive views on the first day, but today the vistas really opened up. A recurring theme while hiking Kilimanjaro is "pole, pole" (po-lay) which is Swahili for "slowly, slowly". Our chief guide, John Naiman, has done over 400 ascents of Kilimanjaro; he set a hiking pace that is even slower than most other groups. This took some adjustment for me, but I eventually got the hang of it and even led for a while. It took about eight hours to reach Kikelelwa Camp. Kikelelwa Camp is also a very busy place, with perhaps a hundred other hikers and two or three times that many porters and guides, the background hum of conversation is a constant drone like a beehive.

Day 3: Kikelelwa Camp to Mawenzi Tarn Camp. This is a fairly short hike, and we reached Mawenzi Tarn by lunchtime. The clouds had rolled in, there was a light drizzle, and it was damp and chilly. After lunch and some rest time, we went for a short acclimatization hike to get a few hundred feet more altitude before returning down to camp at 14,114 feet. Most of us were feeling at least some minor altitude symptoms; I had a very slight headache that went away after two ibuprofen, others are feeling it a bit more and decide to start taking diamox.

Day 4: Mawenzi Tarn Camp to 4th camp. The normal Rongai route goes from Mawenzi Tarn Camp up to Kibo Huts, and it is a very busy trail. Team Kilimanjaro does a variation on the Rongai route that diverges from the madding crowds today. They don't want the details published, so I won't name the camp but will only say that we mostly descended today, in order to gain a day's worth of the altitude acclimatization advantages of "climb high, sleep low". We had the camp to ourselves, and the silence was a wonderful change from the din of the previous three camps.

Day 5: 4th camp to 5th camp. Our typical day starts at 6:00am, as the porters wake us up by bringing "bed tea" -- your choice of tea, coffee, hot chocolate delivered right to you in your sleeping bag. Ten minutes later they return with bowls of hot water for washing up. Breakfast is ready in the mess tent by 6:45 or so. By 7:30 we are all packed up and ready to hike.

Our fifth camp was also part of TK's special Rongai variation, so will remain unnamed. Once again, we had the camp all to ourselves, this time at about 15,500 feet. It was noticeably colder here, and also damp in the clouds. I had a very slight headache again, but it cleared fine with some ibuprofen.

We had to make one last group decision, what time did we want to be on the summit. We all agreed that we didn't care about summiting ahead of the sunrise, and that gave us an extra hour or more of rest. Our main goal was to summit before the clouds roll in by mid-morning. Tonight we will start for the summit, so we get whatever rest we can: a couple hours nap in the afternoon, an early supper at 5:30 pm, and back to the tent to rest/doze/sleep/worry until the wake-up call at 10:00pm.

Day 6: Summit Day! Summit day began with a very alpine start: Wake up at 10:00 pm, pack our gear, eat a light breakfast of porridge, bread, and chapatis (similar to crepes), and we were ready to start hiking at 11:00 pm. It's dark of course, the skies are clear and starry, and the temperatures are comfortable (25F?) with no winds to speak of.

After 3 hours of hiking by ourselves, we joined back up with the main Rongai route and became part of the steady stream of headlamps zigzagging up the mountain in the darkness. I didn't find the hiking hard, just pole-pole along. After seven hours of hiking uphill in the dark, we reached Gilmans Point (18,763 ft) just before sunrise. Gilmans Point is a big milestone because the rest of the climb is much less steep, just easy walking along the ridge line. We rested for a bit, took some sunrise pictures, high-fived each other.... comments in our group ranged from "wow isn't this amazing!" to "that was the worst fucking night of my life".
I was in the "isn't this amazing" category, myself, feeling strong and no worries other than about the dental crown that pulled off of my tooth in a bite of Shot Block earlier in the night. Oh well... The weather was great, no clouds up high, temperatures in the low 20s, very light winds. And the views were spectacular...
A few people in our group were struggling, having altitude issues, frozen water bottles, a bit dehydrated and/or exhausted... but everybody persevered and we reached the summit of Uhuru Peak at 8:05 AM, Friday 23 September 2011.
The skies were clear, the temperature 20F, the winds about 10mph. Elevation 5895 meters (19,340 feet). Kilimanjaro is actually a very large volcanic mountain composed of three separate volcanic cones: Shira, Mawenzi, and Kibo. Kibo is the one that you see in most pictures as "Kilimanjaro". When Tanganyika gained its independence in 1961, Kibo was renamed as "Uhuru Peak"; uhuru is Swahili for freedom.

What goes up must come down, or as the mountaineer Ed Viesturs says, "summiting is optional, getting down is mandatory". So after 15 minutes at the top of Africa, we started descending. We took a short break at Stella Point for snacks, then on down to Kibo Huts (15,466 ft) for a lunch stop and then further on to Horombo Huts (12,208 ft) where we will camp for the night. The descent below Gilmans Point is mostly fun, almost skiing down in the loose scree and dirt that we had switchbacked so slowly through on our way up. Below Kibo Huts, the hiking becomes much flatter on a wide, well-used trail. By the time we reached Horombo Huts it is 4:15 PM, sixteen hours after we left camp last night. 3900 feet ascended, 7100 feet descended for the day. Just after we arrived in camp, it started to rain, and kept raining fairly heavily.

Day 7: Horombo Huts to Marangu Gate. The rains quit sometime during the night, we of course were all sleeping soundly after yesterday's exertions. We woke up to sunny skies, and a very heavy coating of snow up on Kibo Peak. We were all very glad that we had such good weather for our summit trip, rather than trudging uphill through a snowstorm in the dark!
Today's trail is a 6000 foot descent in 12 miles of walking; just a long, long, easy descent that maintains a fairly steady 500 feet/mile for most of the time. The Marangu Route, that we are following down, is known as the "Coca-Cola" route; partly because it is the easiest route (least steep), and partly because you can purchase a cold Coke at the Mandara Huts camp. I did, and it was tasty and refreshing.  4.5 hours after leaving camp, we arrived at Marangu Gate, the end of this journey.  We signed the park service trail register, our guide collected our summit certificates, and we piled into the bus for the journey home. First stop was in Moshi for a post-trip cheeseburger and a beer, Then it's back to Arusha and the Kibo Palace Hotel, for a long hot shower and a real bed. Yay!!
I was very impressed with our guide, John Naiman. He has done over 400 Kilimanjaro trips, and did an excellent job monitoring our group's health and progress, setting a pace that ensured everybody's success, and working problems when they needed working.

Neither Jill nor I had any particular altitude issues. We had done lots of conditioning hikes this summer, and hiked some 14ers in Colorado, but didn't really know how we'd react to the altitude. We had no problems; although we had prescription Diamox along with us, neither of us took it or felt that we needed it. On summit night we did take 4mg of dexamethasone per our travel doctor's recommendation; its primary use in this regard is as an anti-inflammatory against potential cerebral edema. I guess it worked... All things considered, the climb was a lot easier than I expected. Some of that I can take credit for, having gotten into good physical condition this summer; some of the credit goes to TK's route planning and John Naiman's careful pace-setting, so that we could acclimatize as much as possible.

Are we glad we did it, yes absolutely by all means. Do we want to do it again, no not particularly; there are so many other places to go and things to see.

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