Burden of hope

Ice, extending behind us as far as we could see, crunched under our crampon laden feet. It had been a long day — 12 km across the glacier – but now the edge was in sight, and just beyond that a boat bobbed in the ocean awaiting our return.

We stripped the crampons off, stowed our ice axes and walked across the dirty glacial edge to the pier, then down to the boat. The wind picked up on the water but we couldn’t tear our eyes from the massive 20m cliff of ice to head belowdecks.

Our guide had disappeared, leaving us to meditate the sight, but soon reappeared bearing a small tray with glasses. Handing one to each of us, he explained: “Argentine Whiskey, the best in the world. That ice – it is 300 years old and taken from the center of the glacer we just crossed.”

As we sipped, Stefanie’s eyes met mine with the same thought: it couldn’t get better than this. The next two weeks would prove us wrong.

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Kilimanjaro

No moon, no stars, only blackness. Freezing, failing headlamps reveal only a couple meters of terrain around me. The 60kmph wind howls, cutting off speech and chilling us through to the core; it supports my weight when I lean into it, threatens to topple me if I don’t. The bitter cold begins to affect me: My fingers, my nose are frozen and it creeps into my arms, threatening my core. One foot in front of the other, I trudge onward.Only a few days ago it was sunny and hot; beautiful flowers, trees, birds, monkeys. Then, I could talk to my friends, chat about inconsequential topics, learn Swahili, point out the landscape and features to one another. It was nice in the rain forest. Now there is only rock: black, pitted and dusty lava rock from this sleeping volcano. Now I can hear nothing but the howling wind; we do not attempt to speak for the effort required. Only a few words at the occasional rest stop, mumbled breathlessly through cracked and frozen lips. We must keep our rhythm, must keep moving to stay warm. We must keep moving.

Day 0

Introduction

Sometimes I think I push my luck. Outside the airport in Kenya, I followed a man who offered me a good deal, hopped into an unmarked vehicle, not an official taxi. The driver spoke little english, the streets were dark and unmarked.

Then onto a neglected but packed shuttle bus. Most of the 270km and nearly 5 hours is spent travelling alongside what may someday, if the corruption lapses, become a great road. For now short stretches of pavement are bookended by a ‘barricade’ of sticks, logs, rocks and anything else the desert can offer, between long sections of what I’ll generously call a jeep trail. The driver takes little notice of the poor road and the bus zooms happily along without slowing.

Town after desolate, extremely poor town passes by my window. People in traditional garb line the streets playing, talking, selling. Everyone has a stick, the Tanzanian trophy of herding. In between those towns scenery rolls by exactly as I had always imagined Africa: big blue sky, flat topped trees, flat ground as far as the eye can see.

We nearly collide with two giraffe but they run out of the way with a grace I had thought impossible for such gawky creatures. As night falls, a glow appears in the distance: we pass another bus, not unlike our own, ablaze and empty, the surrounding darkness hiding any clue to what happened. The heat is intense even through our shuttle’s windows and I have to turn away. Miles on we pass a line of pedestrians — from that bus, I wonder?

I arrive in Arusha and check into my hostel. Small and undecorated, it gets the job done. Tonight I eat at the rooftop restaurant in the shadow of Mt. Meru, reading, writing and ensuring that everything is ready for tomorrow’s trek. I watch a fight break out in the street: this is why it is not recommended to walk at night, I think, but to be honest I see little difference between Arusha and Oakland. I savor my final shower, let the hot water relax my travel-weary body. Slowly and deliberately I pack,  tomorrow it begins.

DAY 1

Rising action

5.66km//1066m elevation gain//3021m camp

Breakfast while watching the sun rise over Arusha. My guide picks me up early this morning and as I climb into the Land Cruiser I meet my fellow climbers basically for the first time. We are all excited, happy, sharing stories of our first days in Africa. JT has run four Ironman triathlons and over 20 marathons, Don has run more than he can count. They are both Kilimanjaro veterans; I am feeling a little intimidated.

We are dropped under the A-Frame of Machame gate with lunch and at least 30 fellow tourist-climbers while the guides and Chagga porters distribute loads and prepare. The Chagga have lived at the base of Kilimanjaro for centuries, accompanying summit attempts since 1890.

Anxious to begin and a little scared, we wait. Vendors howl and yell from the other side of the fence, trying to sell hats and souvenirs, any last minute items you may have forgotten or didn’t even know you needed. In our tourist alcove we are safe and await the signal from our guides. We shoot a quick photo or two to commemorate the start and get proof that, at some point, we were clean.

It begins with a whimper: the hike is gentle, easy, slow. Very slow. No, very slow. “Polepole” the guides call out each time I pull ahead: they are asking me to slow down. Their “leisurely” pace is no doubt designed for out-of-shape tourists to whom altitude sickness is a major threat, but down here at 2000m it is only frustrating.

A sprinkling of rain keeps the forest cool and green. I occupy myself with my camera: walk 100m, take a dozen photos as the others catch up. Here in the rain forest, surrounded by lush vegetation there is no shortage of subjects for me to focus on. Birds caw and I see explosions of bright red and blue feathers as our passage disturbs them. I hear blue monkey all around but never catch sight.

After a gentle 5.66km we arrive to a fully prepared camp: sleeping tents pitched, our stuff stashed inside, and a dining tent with washwater, fresh popcorn and hot drinks. Such luxury! A few hours rest and a surprisingly ornate and delicious dinner is served. Afterward we are invited to stay in the dining tent for hot drinks and chat with the guide who answers our many questions. At last, “lala salama”: sleep safely. Tomorrow we will wake early and have a long day.

DAY 2

3.36km//800m gain//3822m camp

We wake to a brisk, sunny morning with warm washwater, hot drinks served bag-side and a tasty breakfast. The sun is shining warmly  as I stash my gear for the porters to pack and prepare my daypack for the hike.

“Twende, twende” begins our hike. In contrast to yesterday, uphill is the unvarying theme of the day. We leave the rainforest suddenly and enter the contrasting stubby trees of the heath zone. Shortly after we are rewarded with our first grand view of Mount Kilimanjaro as we pass into the moorland – almost a sharp line separates the trees and knee-high brush. Now there is little shelter from the sun’s heat, fortunately the clouds roll in to protect us as the day progresses.

We get our first glimpse of Uhuru peak, Kilimanjaro’s summit and our ultimate destination. “Uhuru” means “Freedom” in Swahili, so named when Tanzania achieved independence from the British in 1961. “Nzuri sana!” – it is very beautiful. Without the thick forest today’s hike is suffused with panoramic vistas over the Shira Plateau, Kibo, Meru and everywhere in between. The latter half of the day is marked by an occasional scramble up boulders. Obsidian rock is scattered along the ground, occupying my mind in a kind of treasure hunt as we slowly hike upward.

We camp near Shira Cave. This sooty indentation is a cave in name only, but the surrounding rock makes for excellent bouldering and I play a little before dinner. The short day ends similarly to the last and I crawl into my bag hungering for a little more challenge.

Day 3

9.92km (?) // 800m ascent, 150m gained // 3970m camp

Today was long and spectacular. An easy but lengthy 10km and 7 hours of walking through vast fields of scattered lava rock in an otherworldly landscape, it felt as if we were walking on the moon. Massive clouds would approach, enveloping us with enchanting effect: visibility would drop to nothing, but the crowds of other hikers and porters would melt into obscurity giving us the entire mountain to ourselves.

Up, up, up we went until we reached the Lava Tower: a 50′ monolith of lava rock, sadly almost totally obscured by the cloud. Only a vague outline could be seen even as I stood at its base after scrambling over some lesser rocks the size of volkswagons.

Then down, down down, moving at double time to stay warm and dry as this afternoon’s cloud pelted us with hail. As we ran down the ravine the fog occasionally opened up, revealing a vast green garden growing directly from the rock. Feeder streams crossed the mountain, at least a half dozen small waterfalls followed our path down.

As we approached camp, tall vegetation again sprung up from the rock, the first green we’d seen in a day or two. These peculiar trees were perhaps taken straight from a Dr. Seuss novel or a scene from Alice in Wonderland. 10m tall, with leaves only at the tips of massive, 1m diameter branches. It takes 25 years to grow one branch, our guide tells us.

Noise.

That night, the cloud that followed us throughout the day passed us by and the stars shone with the brilliance of diamonds. Pao.

Day 4

Another climb high, camp low day.

4.39km // 266m gain // 4018 camp

Every morning begins with a cup of tea delivered to my door and the shining sun to warm up the body and dry our camp. Yes, I could get used to this. The clouds always roll in as afternoon approaches, but the sunny spirits of the morning are never diminished. The first half of the day was a fun scramble, hands and feet, up the Barranco wall. True, these parts were slow as we waited for porters to haul gear, from duffels to stacks of plastic chairs, up over the mountain, but the fun of climbing outweighed any impatience.

Rolling hills dominated the rest of the day’s short trek: up, down, up, down. The Karangu (peanut) huts welcomed us after only 4 hours of walking, and our whole afternoon was dedicated to food and relaxation. Relax, our guides tell us: the next two days will be a test of our bodies and endurance.

Day 5

4.1km

Today is the eve of the summit attempt. It is short and uneventful and after the brief hike we nap the afternoon away. My mind wanders and the elevation begins to take effect: the notes I take are nothing but a few sentences of nonsense like “in the mornings, faint but omnipresent murmering of porters is like the background radiation of the Universe.” Nausea prevents me from eating the night’s dinner and excitement prevents much sleep. We conserve our energy and attempt to nap in preparation for nightfall’s big push.

Day 6a

Climax

4.5km// 5907m max elevation // 11pm – 9am

We wake at 10:30pm, still technically day 5, after a scant 5 hours of “sleep.” The temperature outside is well below freezing and the wind howls such that I cannot hear a thing. I wrap myself in every piece of warm clothing I have brought. I can’t eat, I’m still queasy from the dinner I skipped. We depart camp early, at 11pm exactly. With wind chill, our guide estimates that the temperature is a -20°F. Ahead of us are the challenges of nearly 7 hours of hiking and 4000ft of elevation gain, the wind and temperature as enemies. The ascent steepens as the wind increases  and the temperature drops with every foot gained. As we approach Hans Meyer Point, the infamous false summit, we face cruel 50mph winds and temperatures below -45°F. Our guide later informs us that winds like these have not been felt on the summit for more than 5 years: we are so lucky. It nearly blows us over as we step up the precarious walkways.

It is pitch black. No moon, no stars. We can only see the few feet ahead in the tiny bubble of light our freezing and failing headlamps illuminate. We cannot see the summit, the path ahead, nor even the path behind save for the broken line of headlamps following us up the mountain.

After three or four hours the cold really begins to penetrate. My lips, chin, fingers: they lost feeling long ago. But now, my hands start to chill. I try hand warmers but I can barely feel the warmth they provide. Then the cold moves up into my wrists, then my arms. It is a weird feeling, like water slowly flowing down through rocks. I do my best, stamping and rubbing but the cold is powerful. If we ever stop walking, even for a moment, the cold creeps into my feet, up my legs and threatens my core. I no longer stop moving: at every pause I pace, stamp and move however I can. My hands are permanently clenched around the luke-warm heaters, fingers long ago pulled from the gloves.

But the pace continues! Around 5am we reach Stella Point, a milestone in itself and stopping point for some. This part is a steep, slow, cold march and a test of our mental and physical endurance. The cold has become nearly intolerable and the elevation steals our intelligence. Don has lost sensibilities: our guide must take him by the arm to guide him up this last section. The wind, taunting us, reaches new levels of gusto. At one point it funnels into a jet through the rocks and attempts to blow us down a sheer rocky cliff, off the mountain and out of existence. We are nearly there, I hope.

Suddenly, there is an odd wooden sign with a dozen people milling about. My brain is oxygen deprived, muddled by the cold and exhaustion but I slowly realize: this is the Summit! In the dark I dig out my camera. Working the zippers requires me to remove my gloves and within seconds both hands are frozen. I can’t work the clasps or zippers on my pack. But eventually, with much awkwardness, the camera is out and set up. The cold has subdued our celebration and caused a hazy confusion over our minds but we snap photos in front of the sign and rapidly shuffle out as more frozen, confused trekkers vie for a photo-op. It is rushed and without ceremony, leaving me rather confused and unfulfilled.

Then I am alone. The others in my group have succumbed to the cold and have moved away to start the descent. I stay. I want a panorama, I think. Some scenery. But it is still pitch-black, only a thin ribbon of pink to the east announcing the coming dawn. I wait. The bitter cold doesn’t threaten me anymore: the promise of the sun is too great.

My reward is rapid. Our guide, Peter, has found me again and understands instantly; he tells me to take my time. The the sun begins to rise over the neighboring peak: just a sliver of bright orange at first. It is beautiful. It is beyond beautiful, it is a savior. The temperature seems to instantly spike to tolerable, or maybe it is just my mood lifting in the presence of light. Suddenly I am back, mentally, physically, everything is recharged. I wander the summit, snapping photos of the horizon, the glacier, the ash pit. There is the world to see, and I am at the top of it!

I am watching the sunrise from the summit of Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa. I am overwhelmed with an emotion I cannot identify or describe: I simultaneously laugh and cry. It is overwhelming, it is powerful. Tears stream down my face and freeze on the tip of my nose.I repeat in my mind: I am watching the sunrise from the summit of Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa. I accomplished it. I did it. And it was beautiful.

It is time. I start down, joining my guide. The sun streams down warmth and light, it is almost hot, even the wind has died. Everything is perfect now. The scenery I just walked through enveloped in darkness finally reveals itself, foreign and gorgeous. The walk back is a miserable slip-and-slide on scree but I’m still riding the emotional high: I summited!

Afterward

Dénouement

Down, down, down. We walk and walk and walk. The walk is rough, destroying my knees. It is long and boring and after nearly 16 hours of walking and thousands of feet we make camp. At this final camp I learn the secret to sleeping well on the hardest ground through the coldest nights: exhaustion.