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Thursday, July 01, 2010

The Kili Diaries: Days 3 and 4

Day Three: Shira 2 Camp to Lava Tower to Barranco Camp
Hike: 6 miles
Altitude: 12,500 feet to 15, 190 feet to 13, 044 feet

The mornings are cold and misty.  And this morning, particularly, I’m worried.  My little friend, Bronchitis, just loves to jump on the open road with me.  Argentina, Vietnam, New Zealand…now, Africa.  Of course, I’m prepared; my lungs are forever a travel headache, but I’m hoping to swig a Z-pack and feel better very quickly.  It’s clear Kili doesn’t stand for shenanigans on her watch.  Case in point: Eric. 

Max’s son is being taken down after two days of hardship.  Besides Eric, the night provided for a chorus of gags and vomits.  Everyone points fingers at the food.  But Oforo, our head guide, takes great offense to such an accusation.  It’s altitude sickness, and he swears by this.  To be fair, the mountainside meal selection has been surprisingly great – porridges, daily soups, stroganoffs, chicken, burgers, and fried bananas for dessert.  It ain’t Blue Ribbon, but it’s worlds better than mere camping grub.  (As if I really know this…)

I decide to take my bronchial issues like a man (or strong camper girl) and grin and bear it.  Even though today’s a long hike day – over six hours – to the highest point outside of summit, I’m convinced I’ll survive.  That logic holds until after lunch… 

About a third of the way through, the altitude begins to wreak havoc on my psyche.  “Be free with the mountain,” says Richard when I break down in hysterics and leave the group.  I’m so tied up in my physical condition, that I’m losing sight of the big picture.  My daypack disentangled from my back, I set back out “pole, pole” for the rest of the way with a gaggle of concerned guides.  I have to reach the Lava Tower, the highest altitude we’ll hit outside of the summit.  Slowly, I move forward.  Two more breakdowns, many more pep talks, and a descent from the Lava Tower later, I arrive at Barranco Camp.  Everyone’s clapping as I stumble in.  I have fever of 101.6 and I can barely breathe; every other gasp for air collapses into a coughing fit.  Richard turns to me sheepishly and says, “Please…do not cry.”

As if on cue, looking at my surroundings, Kili looming in the background, my chest rising and falling, the tears roll.  I’m almost halfway there.

Day Four: Barranco Camp to Karanga Camp
Hike: 3 miles
Altitude: 13, 044 feet to 13, 106 feet

I guess I was hoping for a miracle.  After taking dinner in my tent and sleeping through the night, I was sure I was going to be fine.  So, when Darryl tells me not to look in the mirror, I’m a bit disheartened.  Then, I look.  And, I’m mortified.  My face looks like I had an allergic reaction to living; it’s puffy and bloated beyond recognition.  I have pus-filled bags atop and underneath my eyes, and thick, crust in all facial orifices.  My hands and feet are swollen, and while I’m down to 99.7 temperature, my head is throbbing and I feel completely confused.  After documenting such ugliness on my iPhone for my sister (a very important step in diagnosing altitude sickness, yes), I call the guides.  They insist it’ll pass and I must go on to Karanga – a two-mile hike – rather than be carried back (on a stretcher!)  down yesterday’s route to Shira for descent.  I’m embarrassed to come out of my tent.  I look like a circus freak, and everyone’s curious for a peek. 

All of a sudden, I can’t think straight.  I’m on the ground next to my tent, and all I can remember are the visual of everyone’s shoes.  I’m crying.  Again.  I can feel the tears streaking down my face, but I have no idea why I’m crying, or why I’m climbing, or what’s going to happen next.  I’m holding onto Darryl and I feel blank.  Which makes me frightened.  Sorry, which makes me terrified.

I don’t quite remember who convinced me, but someone advised me to listen to our guides and go forward, not backward.  So, after a bit of downtime to compose, I begin again.  Isn’t it over yet?  The Barranco Wall looms large, and true to their word, it’s good for me.  It’s a steep mountaineering climb that takes my mind off of my blubbery face and my congested chest and on my foot placement and ability to balance.  Before I realize it, three hours have passed and we’re at Karanga Camp.  It’s been an amazing few days, watching my body fail, recover, fail and recover again.  Unsure how I arrived, I’m just happy to be on solid footing again.   Most importantly, when I look in the mirror at sunset, my facial structure has returned to normal. 


Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Kili Diaries: Days 1 and 2

Day One: Machame Gate to Machame Camp
Hike: 7 miles
Altitude: 5, 380 feet – 9,350 feet

It’s raining.  

“Good luck,” says someone within earshot of my complaints.  Tell that to the bride, I sarcastically retort in my head.  (I can’t say it out loud yet; we’re still a new group of traveling partners and all that jazz…)  Before we even set off, it’s raining at Machame Gate.  We spend the first twenty minutes unpacking our parkas and negotiating waterproof backpack covers with our new Maasai Wanderings guides.  In.  The.  Rain.  This is going to be a long seven days. 

My secret looms large; I’ve never been on a camping trip before.  But when Darryl asked me to sign onto Kilimanjaro, who was I to say no?  For charity, no less.  So we went to Paragon, and I copied everything she bought.  Sleeping bag liners, a Platypus water bladder (which I mistakenly called a Papyrus), Smart Wool socks, a travel towel, hiking pants that zip off at the knee, carabiners, and a mini-flashlight.  $350 later, I felt hike prepared.

Until now…

Readjusting my walking sticks for the third time, and setting off with Richard, a guide who has spent much of his life making a living off of “Kili,” that first hill was a blatant reminder that I’d never done anything like this.  Machu Picchu, while a checked box on my list, was only an overnight situation.  I was about to scale the highest freestanding mountain in the world.  19,000+ feet.  As a virgin.

I tried to sing “Whistle While You Walk” in my head over and over as we approached the fifth soggy hour in the rainforest – one of five ecosystems on Kilimanjaro.  Jared and Josh, brothers from Rhode Island, tried to make small talk.  I could barely breathe, let alone answer questions about New York City or my work, so I fell to the back of the pack in avoidance.  My boots were muddied beyond personal comfort level; I had sweat through all of my layers and my hair had soaked through my Yankee hat.  I was barely managing the 4,000-foot ascent to 9,350 feet.  Forget 19,000.  And how would I ever clean my new hiking pants? 

When a cramp in my quad struck about 90 minutes outside of camp, I knew I was done for.  How mortifying: day one, quad cramp.  Thomas to the rescue.  One of three 50-somethings on the trip – friends from boarding school – Thomas was Mr. Stretch.  He looked like Lewis (or Clark) with his flyaway white hair and matching moustache.  Thomas bought the Kilimanjaro safari hat from the hawkers at the gate; Thomas was a guy ready for expedition.  Traveling with his son, Sam, his quirky demeanor (and constant limb stretches) kept him at the back of the pack, but when the quad tightening struck, Thomas massaged and stretched me to the point of completion.  “Walk strong into camp,” he pushed me from behind.  And, I did. 

As I entered my damp abode, drenched to the bone, I knew bronchitis was only a campsite away.  But, I made it.  Did Darryl have any idea what she signed up for, I wondered, as I peeled off my many layers.  Remains to be seen.

Day One.  Over.  Praise the Lord.

Day Two: Machame to Shira 2 Camp
Hike: 3 miles
Altitude: 9, 350 feet to 12,500 feet

We wake to another rainy morning, but since we’ll be hiking out of the rainforest ecosystem today, it should clear about midway through our climb.  I’m starting to see why the nickname for our route is “The Whiskey Route” rather than the tourist-friendly “Coca-Cola Route.”  Damn, maybe I drank too much whiskey before enrolling.  The forty-nine porters, four cooks, three tent porters, and six guides, round us up, setting an AM ritual of packing up bags and tents, taking breakfast, filling water bottles, and suiting up for the day’s trek.  Tanzanian park laws stipulate roughly three porters per person to carry food, sleeping supplies, and baggage.  With sixteen hikers, additionally, posse is an understatement.  We’re more like a small, menacing crowd.

Max, one of the other boarding school friends, feeds me electrolytes to help keep the cramping at bay; Jon, the organic Rhode Island bartender, squirts silver into my mouth (a cure-all, I’m told), and I load up on potassium and sodium tablets.  My body is on intake overload but with thirty-seven miles looming large, and a summit simultaneous, I’ll do whatever it takes to get by.

Darryl and I go “pole, pole” (slow, slow) with Matthew and Dennis, two of our guides, today.  The terrain looks like something out of Avatar, a creation of James Cameron’s imagination, and we traverse both rocks and grass to reach Shira Camp.  Matthew has been doing this for fifteen years, he hopes to retire next year and open a supermarket, of all things.  Dennis, a tender 29 they nicknamed "Rasta" for his dredlocks, is just starting out and works to care for his elderly mother and provide his daughter an education.  Porters pass by as we climb, their heads piled high with our belongings, and various items like mess tent benches, water jugs, sleeping mattresses, crates of eggs.  Many listen to the World Cup on transistor radios from the early ‘70’s.  They greet us with “Jambo” (Hi) and “Mambo” (What’s up?).  When you ask them the same questions, they answer “Poa, Poa” (Cool, cool…).  Obviously.

When we finally arrive at camp, way behind the rest of the pack, we hope that our tent occupies prime real estate.  We learned the hard way that slanted ground is not the way you want to attempt sleep.  Moreover, you don’t really want to be around anyone.  There’s a lot of, well, personal sounds happening throughout the night.  Nothing seems off-limits, and it plagues everyone.  Equally.  Luckily Atenas, our tent porter, has taken a shine to us and delivered.  As we set up our life-jacket orange mummy-style sleeping bags for “tent time,” we hope tonight’s rest will treat us better than last’s…