The Ancient Historian

Ancient history, mountaineering, cycling and other outside adventures

Archive for the day “October 11, 2011”

Reflections on Kilimanjaro

We had a celebratory dinner in the garden of the hotel that night. It was a delightful weather, and a really relaxed atmosphere. We had a huge buffet, exchanged our climbing certificates (we each got to award one of our teammates with theirs). It was a nice way to begin to reflect on the last week. And I say “begin” on purpose because it’s been two weeks since I have returned and I am still thinking about all that happened. It was a packed two weeks. Week one, the climb was over. 6 1/2 days- 27  miles. Sounds short and easy. And afterall, according to Peakware, Kilimanjaro is classed as a “walk up.” But that means it is not technical, i.e. no crampons or ice axes or ropes are required to reach the top and get down. However, the difficulty of the peak should not be underestimated. How hard a mountain is, how much out of your comfort zone you are, really depends on your mountain inventory. What you have done before. Kili is a challenge, it requires consistent hiking on uneven, sometimes rough, terrain. And it requires long days out. On the other hand. you have porters carrying up to half of your gear, setting up camp and cooking for you. The other issue is altitude, Kili is 19,340 feet. That is serious by any standard. How you feel comes down to what kind of shape you are in, and what your physiology is. It’s all rather unpredictable. One thing is for sure, taking 6 1/2 days is much better than  going harder and shorter up the Mweka route for example. The Machame route is much more rugged, and poses more challenges. We spent two days traversing the mountain, lots of scrambling and uneven trail, staying at roughly 13,000 the whole time. Slow going, but effective for acclimation. Many of our team felt the altitude. For whatever reason, I felt great almost the whole time, and never got sick. I got lucky. It was a hard week, full of challeneges, but Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, my “home” mountain, in a bad storm in May had me much further out of my comfort zone than did Kili. Mt. Wash., remarkably I think, punches far above it weight, at a mere 6200 feet.

The journey up Kili began with Alan A’s very kind invitation to come along. It was all in support of Alan’s Seven Summits “memories are Everything” campaign. This is a really important initiative, and it felt great to climb with a purpose. It’s  nasty disease, it’s going to effect a lot of people in the future unless it is solved by the many scientists hard at work on it. One of them came along on the Kili climb, which was another nice feature of it. So thanks go out to Alan–a lot of great memories were created in the space of this week for sure. Doing an activity which you love, seeing a landscape one is privileged to see, meeting great people, learning a lot along the way, and supporting a great cause is an unbeatable combination.

It was a diverse group of people who made up our IMG team, from people in their 30’s to late 60’s, from Everest summitters to mountainteering beginners. We pulled together on the climb though, and we all made it to the summit in back. 100% summit rate, which is fairly rare.

We had an early start the next day, we were set to fly out of Arusha for the Serengeti. It would prove to be a great way to relax and unwind, to be spoiled a bit, seeing an almost indescribable beautiful landscape, and to simple sit motionless for a while. I almost did not opt for the safari but that would have been a huge mistake.

The flight from Arusha was about an hour, and a lot of fun. You fly due West over a prehistoric landscape of volcanoes, craters and gorges. You land on a little dirt airstrip, flying over giraffes and zebras. It was surreal. We were greeted by our safari drivers and began our journey in the Serengeti immediately. Wow.

It is not easy for me to summarize our three days in the Serengeti, or our one day in the Ngorongoro Crater. Northern Tanzania is easily the most remarkable place I have ever visited. It is also the furthest away from “civilization” i have ever been. It is serene, and peaceful, and quiet beyond description. We saw every animal that you would want to see, so regularly that they appeared almost on queue. We were there during the Great Migration, millions of Zebras and Wildebeest were moving as single herds across the vast open spaces of the Serengeti. They became old friends after three days.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro-Part 4. The Descent

Descending, so the rule goes, is almost always harder than ascending. There are lots of reasons for this, some of them psychological (the big goal always seems to be reaching the summit) and some of them physical (you are pooped). This proved to be true for me. I knew that the descent was going to be a long one, and I was anticipating feeling completely blown by mid-afternoon. We started the descent in small groups soon after eating a small “lunch” at Stella point. We could easily observe people returning from and still going up to Uhuru.A lot of tired looking people.  By 9:30 AM I was ready to start heading down. I was a bit tired, but the main challenge was simply walking upright and keeping good balance on very slippery scree at a steep pitch. It takes some practice, and I was  wobbly at first. I soon got the hang of plunging the heel into the scree and got into a decent rhythm. I reached camp, along with three of my mates, just after noon. We had some trouble finding our camp-Barafu is enormous, and we had to walk a lot of rock to get on the right path to our camp. We finally found it, had to descend on rock, and found a porter waiting with an orange drink (i donno, a victory drink of sorts I guess), and the porters shouting congratulations at us. It was a nice feeling. I was ready for a bite, and a nap. But oh no, we had to eat and pack up in pretty short order. We could see the Mweka trail in front of our camp, as far as the eye could see descending into the rain forest. We knew we had a loooong hike down after lunch. So we ate, rested a little bit, packed up our duffels, and started down about 1. The trail begins at a fairly gentle slope down, and is quite exposed being on a ridge well above tree line. You could look back all the way to Kili’s summit. It seems miles away, in fact just under one vertical mile up. As some of us were walking and chatting, we noticed Alan pull over in front of us and sit down. This happened just after we passed a weird looking unicycle stretcher that looked abandoned. We laughed. But then we got up to Alan and we realized that he was hurt, a bad high ankle sprain it looked like. Commotion ensured. All of the porters began reaching us and circling around. Our guide Eben moved into high gear-we were all mobilized to help, or at least to watch! We tried taping his ankle up to keep the swelling down, but there as no way he could have walked down to camp-the trail was going to be much too rough. We were all bummed. It was a perfect climbing day so far. Alan was rushed down in an impressive way by six porters, with our main guide Eben literally running down behind them. All the way to Mweka gate! Incredible! You can read about it on Alan’s site. After we got down to the gate the next morning, I began to realize what an incredible feat it was to run down that wet, muddy, slippery trail. Anyway, after an hour, we all continued down, and reached once again the rain forest.

The trail got steeper now, it was rocky, and wet. A lot of down stepping, sometimes requiring the use of feet and hands. We had to watch every step. And I was getting tired. At about 4PM, I really wanted to be in my tent. We had two more hours to go! We were all pretty much blown. But then we stopped as one of our guides pointed out to an amazing view through the forest of Kili. Really for the first time one began to realize, and to appreciate, what we had done the last six days. The summit cone is all of its glory

We made it back to Mweka camp, where we were warmly welcomed by some of our porters as we came into another very large campground. Clearly a lot more people were pounding up the Mweka trail, the so called coca cola route, than had gone up via the Machame gate. 18 hours had passed since we started up from high camp. For the first time on the climb, the camp had a real party atmosphere. No doubt many people were celebrating their climb. I was ready for sleep! As usual though, dinner was at 7, and a lot of people still had to come in. It was starting to get dark around 6. Only half the team, as it turned out, came to dinner. We wondered how Alan was doing; we were missing our guide Eben, and the dinosaur (sorry, inside joke). We were really zonked. We still had 5000 feet to descend the next morning. Sleep came quickly. I woke up early the next morning, 12 hours of sleep will do that, and I was feeling great. After breakfast, the descent went quickly, roughly 4 hours or so. Perhaps a little less. This forest appeared different than  the one we walked through from the Machame gate on the other side of the mountain. I was deep in conversation about cycling with someone when two shining faces greeted us on the trail. A clean and bright Eben and one of our Tanzanian guides had walked up from the gate to meet us. What a great thing to do! We were really happy to see them. They looked so fresh. So clean! We reached the main gate around 12 or 12:30. We had to register, so we could get those coveted climbing certificates, and then the best part of the climb began. A thank you and tipping ceremony for all of our porters. Dancing and singing followed the tipping, it was a really nice touch, and a great way to end 6 1/2 days of climbing Kilimanjaro. The local porters and guides were simply fantastic people, and it was nice to see each one face to face and shake their hands. No way to get through the week without them.

We walked to our vehicles and drove through gorgeous countryside. Here were the banana and coffee plantations, and they were extensive. About an hour later, we reached our by now very familiar hotel in Moshi. The best shower of my life was followed by a lunch of an enormous cheeseburger and fries. I had lost 10-15 pounds, so I was not worried about the calories. It was great to be mostly) clean. My clothes were another story. A very good idea to bring industrial strength garbage bags for dirty clothes on such a trip. I had a badly bruised big toe from the down climb, and the 17 hours of walking. But I was otherwise feeling really good, and feeling rather proud of the last week’s adventure. The team had really come together on the climb.

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