Sunday, March 21, 2010

Mount Kilimanjaro

Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, Africa

Summit: Uhuru Peak, 5895metres

Tour Company: Kessy Brothers

Hikers: Jess, Tim, Paul (Aussies) and Chris (Sweedish)

Length: 7 days

Day One:

I woke up in the hotel room and felt sick... I immediately had to go to the toilet (the first of many trips this morning) - my stomach was churning, and so was my head - "What the hell was I thinking signing up for this?!" The drive out to Machame Gate at the base of Mt Kilimanjaro did nothing to calm my nerves... as we jerked around in the safari truck, no-one spoke, and all eyes were on the mountain in the distance looming above us. Our arrival at Machame gate kick started our 10 porters into life, they grabbed our belongings and started packing them into hessian sacks they would carry on their heads (12-15kg each!!) - these guys are the fittest of the fittest.

Our assistant guide Jamal advised us it was time to start the walk... "pole-pole" he said (meaning slow slow in Swahilli) - this was to be the best advice they would give us throughout the trip as it allows your body to slowly acclimatise as you ascend. We didn't realise just how slowly we would be walking... at first it was frustrating, but after awhile we fell into the rhythm and it allowed us to actually enjoy the hiking. (Enjoy hiking uphill?!?! Yep, I can tell you now I was actually ENJOYING it... not just thinking "this is hell on earth!")

3.5hrs later we arrived at our first camp - Machame Hut... the rain set in just as the camp was set-up and we spent the evening huddled in our dining tent shivering from the cold mountain wind. I slept well (except for when I had to go to the toilet... it's so cold when you get out of the tent!!)

Day Two:

Today is the 5th March, and my 25th birthday... I awoke feeling excited - I was hiking Mt Killi on my birthday, quite a special celebration! I was treated to an extra Mars Bar for my lunch (I was stoked, I hadn't had a Mars Bar since leaving home!)

The walk today was quite steep, and it had me worried... but the advice "pole-pole" made it a gradual ascent, and I found myself once again enjoying the walking (my legs weren't burning with pain like on previous hikes). We had tremendous views of the valley below us (where we camped the night before), and spectacular views of the snow capped summit.

We have been running into a group of 3 German man... we have nicknamed one of them "Altitude Man" as he has a watch which tells you the altitude you are at and each time we pass him we ask for an update (we pass him quite regularly as he is very overweight, and looks like he may have a heart-attack, plus he wears a bright red jumper so you can spot him miles away).

The main hike today took 4 hours, and we were at Shira Hut with a hot lunch waiting. After a post-lunch rest we started the first of the Acclimatisation walks (you get to camp, and then walk higher to a higher altitude, then descend again - this prepares your body for the new heights it will have to experience). It's all about reducing the chances of Altitude Sickness. We reached 4050m today - a new height for me :) Each step from here will be an achievement!

After dinner, I was presented with a bottle of (non-alcoholic) champagne, a cake, and a chorus of singing from our guides and porters - magical!

Day Three:

This morning was FREEZING... frost everywhere. Paul left his t-shirt out overnight and it has snap-frozen (rock hard!). Today is a longer day... we have to ascend up to 'Lava Tower' - 4600m, and then down to Baranco Hut. I tried hiking with my walking poles today to practice for summit night... I found them hard to use and not so helpful... the terrain was very rocky and the poles kept getting stuck.

Today was the first real experience I had with how altitude can affect your body... as we passed 4,400m I felt myself gasping a little for air, I couldn't muster the strength to speak, and a dull ache was sitting in the back of my skull. As we sat at Lava Tower and had lunch amongst the mountain mice, my body slowly became used to the height.

My favourite part of the day was descending from Lava Tower... it was steep, and I enjoyed jumping from rock to rock like a jack-rabbit. The scenery changed a lot as we came into Baranco Camp... it was as if we were in prehistoric times... there was a huge rock wall above us (we were soon told tomorrow morning we would be climbing this!), and amazing fauna all around. I had some time alone exploring the area, and watching the lights of Moshi appear below us as night fell.

Day Four:

I am starting to have a little trouble sleeping - nerves are kicking in for summit night, and I worry as to whether we will make it. Our guides seem to think we are quite strong and are confident in us, so this gives me a little bit of hope.

The ascent up Baranco Wall was hard-going - 300m straight up - a couple of scrambles we had to make were a little scary for me (I don't like heights, OR feeling like I might plummet to my death!) Altitude Man struggled a little up the wall, and I think we passed him about 3 times... he may be getting a little sick of us asking for the watch readings!! (especially because he is usually bent over his poles hyperventilating when we pass)

I find the weather on the mountain so frustrating.... it changes so quickly... one minute you're so cold you have to put every piece of clothing you have on, and the next it's burning hot and you have to take them all off again!

After reaching Karanga Hut, we had another Acclimatisation walk... I found this a little harder as I was tired, and desperately needed to go to the toilet! As we walked back down to camp, the summit came into view and took our breath away... it was bigger and scarier than ever... and tomorrow night we had to tackle it!

Day Five:

We awoke this morning to a scary sight - the whole of the summit was covered in snow, there had been a snow-storm last night... and the hikers who had reached the summit last night had been right in the middle of it!

We hiked upto 4600m again, and then walked towards Barafu Hut 4800m - we realised before getting there we had to descend via a huge valley, and then up again - it was quite difficult, and dangerous and slippery in parts

As we walked into Barafu, we saw the hikers from the previous night... they looked like death... their faces were red with wind-burn, swollen and they were just staring at the ground. We talked to one hiker who basically described it as sheer hell... I was not encouraged! The four of us sat down to warm up in the sun, and our guide Hashim approached us and announced a 'group meeting' - we knew something was happening as we had never had a group meeting before.
Hashim began to tell us what we already knew - that last night a bad storm hit. What I didn't know he was going to tell us was that his advice was that we attempt the summit today (instead of resting, then starting off at midnight that night), that way we can do it in daylight and avoid the storm. I was dumbfounded and completely unprepared mentally... we agreed, as we trusted him and had seen the hikers from the night before.... but we were shocked, and scared. We had an hour to compose ourselves before we attempted the summit.

The summit hike was tough from the word go... the other hikers in camp couldn't believe we were attempting it during the day, and right after we had just hiked from Karanga to Barafu, and the walk through camp was kind of like a death march to your execution point - they were all just watching us... one man even gave me a hug to say good luck... then I really felt I may die! (10 people die on the mountain each year - so I was hoping 2010 had already made its quota!)

We hiked in silence, one-step after another, and tried our best to concentrate at the task at hand. Our advantage at doing this during the day was that we had daylight on our side... we could see where we were going - and we could see the fantastic views (oh, and it wasn't as cold - yet).

As we ascended higher, I felt sick... like I wanted to vomit. I told the guide and he responded with "yes, that's normal, and you will vomit" - I was not looking forward to this. One thing that this mountain taught me is Altitude sickness is a serious thing... Chris was the first to go, he was weak and walking slowly than the rest of us... Tim followed and started struggling - Paul and I did what we could to lift his spirits but it's a mental game that only the person themselves can play. I too was struggling, and had to create mantras in my head to keep me walking... I used the names of my two beautiful nieces as each time I said their name in my head I thought of cute things they do and smiled (rather than thinking of how much discomfort and pain I was in). Paul was the strongest - the ox of the group, bringing up the rear of our single file.

We got closer to Stellar Point and Chris started to lose it... he was singing and laughing like a crazy man, and we were all a little scared for him. Stellar Point was reached, it was cold and I felt like turning back... we stopped - I forced a mars bar down my throat, and then threw up all over the place... whilst throwing up the guide Jamal was slapping my back with his fist shouting "more more more" - I wanted to spew on him. From Stellar Point it was 45m to the summit - we could see it from where we were... I dug deep and was the first to follow Hashim out on the final path of ascent.

The last 45mins of hiking was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life... it was through thick snow, and each step was an effort in itself. Many times I nearly turned back, but I knew I had to reach the top... It was completely surreal... the sun was setting around us, glaciers were in all directions and we were moving slowly, silently to the highest point in Africa. Chris had gone downhill and the guides had to help him to walk. The last 100m I grabbed Tim's hand, as I didn't trust myself not to turn around - it was cold and every part of me was frozen. We reached the summit... as we approached the sign of Uhuru Peak, Tim started tugging on my arm (I was thinking get off me, we are nearly there), I turned around and he was on one knee - it all became clear - his proposal capped off the most incredible experience I have ever had... I will let the pictures of the summit tell the story as I don't know how to describe such a place.

I spent 10mins up the top and then wanted to get down... Jamal said he would take me and started running off into the distance... I wondered why he was running but followed him (thinking we would wait for the others at Stellar Point) - I soon realised he had other ideas in mind (like making the world record time for descent) Jamal said to me "we will ski down" - I looked at him and replied "but there is no snow past this point" - he grabbed my hand and started running full speed down the dirt covered slopes.... and I literally skied/flew down the mountain - I was TERRIFIED and horrified (I was thinking I might have a nice romantic walk down with my new fionsai!) We made it down in 55mins... and I was exhausted, thrilled and excited all at the same time! I couldn't sleep that night... adrenalin was kicking all night long.

Day Six:

Because we ascended the summit on day 5 - our hike would finish a day early - we would descend all the way to Moshi today. I'll cut this short as this blog is far too long! The descent was hard... downhill all the way, and it felt never-ending. We descended via Mweka route - and it ended in a beautiful rainforest with Black and White Colobus monkeys jumping in the trees above us. Celebrations followed :)

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