Wandering and Wondering

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Throwing up on Mt Kilimanjaro

Mt Kilimanjaro

At the end of my overland adventure, I met up with my friend Jeromy in Nairobi to climb Mt Kilmanjaro, Africa's highest mountain. I didn't really think about how hard it would be until we had our pre-trip briefing in Moshi the night before we were scheduled to start our climb. Our guide mentioned that the temperature could reach as low as minus 20 degrees celcius, and that on the final day we would need to get up at midnight to make the climb to the summit, and I began to realize that this wouldn't be a walk in the park.

Then of course there was the threat of altitude sickness. Unless you've climbed before, it is impossible to know how it will affect you. From the accounts of other people we met, it seems to strike people down randomly with disregard for fitness levels. The best advice is probably to take things day by day, step by step. With that in mind, here is a day by day summary of our climb:

Day 1

After filling up our stomachs as much as possible from the buffet breakfast and hiring some extra cold weather gear such as gloves and balaclavas, Jeromy and I pilled into a mini-bus together with a Canadian couple, David and Annette (who would be our hut-mates for the next 5 nights), for the drive to the Marangu park entrance gate. Amusingly, our mini-bus stalled about 50 metres from the gate so we had to get out and walk (TIA). Not to worry - we would be doing a lot more walking over the next 6 days.

For the very underprepared climber, there were people at the gate trying to sell us everything from hats to walking sticks and even shoes. Personally, I think that if you get to the gate and realize you've forgotton your shoes, you probably aren't ready to climb Kilimanjaro.

We had to wait at the gate for at least an hour or so while all the necessary papers were signed. We finally entered through the gate and into the national park at around 12pm. The first day's walk was only a relatively short 3 hours through tropical rainforest to reach the Mandara hut. At 2700 metres above sea level, it was 700 metres above the park entrance gate.

Rain Forest

At the end of the day's walk, we were served afternoon tea consisting of popcorn, biscuits and a nice hot cup of tea:

Afternoon tea

In the evening, I went exploring around the campsite, and watched dinner being prepared:

Preparing dinner

Preparing dinner

Dinner itself was quite tasty. By day 6 the meals would start to become a little repetitive, but the important thing was that there was always plenty of food so you certainly didn't go hungry. Our guide encouraged us to eat as much as possible to stock up on energy for the days ahead.

After dinner we played cards for a couple of hours before heading to bed at 9pm for an early night. I was pleasantly surprised at how nice the huts were for sleeping in (they even had solar powered lights). Then again, when you've been sleeping in a tent for the last 8 weeks, any accomodation where you can stand up inside seems luxurious.

Day 2

Today we began walking at around 8am. While it was a bit tougher than the first day's walk, it was still pretty easy going. We passed quite a few people who were heading down the mountain, and most of them had big smiles on their faces suggesting that they had reached the top. The weather was beautiful, and we got some good glimpses of our target which was still a long way off:

Traffic jam on the mountain

We arrived at Horombo hut at around 3pm in the afternoon. At 3720 metres above sea level, it is situated in a picturesque location above the clouds.

Welcome to Horombo

Relaxing above the clouds

Horombo is the biggest campsite on the whole mountain, and it was buzzing with people the whole time we were there. Dinner time was particularly chaotic, and we were rushed through our meals in half an hour in order to make room for the next group of people:

Dinner time

Day 3

Today was our acclimatisation day, so in the morning we had a fairly relaxing walk a short distance up the mountain before returning back to Horombo. In the afternoon we had nothing much to do, so we got in some extra sleep knowing that we probably wouldn't get much over the next couple of days. In the evening, fog rolled in over the campsite, highlighting just how quickly the weather can change while you're up here:

Huts at Horombo campsite

Looking back, I'm glad we had the extra day at Horombo to give our body extra time to adjust to the altitude. The only disadvantage was the extra waiting around which added to the anxiety about reaching the summit.

Day 4

Most of the walk was pretty easy going. We were travelling across an alpine desert landscape, and the road was quite smooth and not very steep:

Alpine Desert

The last hour or so, however, was quite tough and I arrived at Kibo Hut with a bit of a headache. When my strongest pain medication didn't seem to have any effect I was a bit worried that I wouldn't be able to make it to the summit. Luckily, Annette gave me some Diamox pills for altitude sickness and they seemed to do the trick.

We slept for a couple of hours in the afternoon before an early dinner and then back to bed again at 7pm. I'm glad I packed an extra blanket, because the temperature inside the hut is freezing.

Day 5 - Summit Day

We were woken up about half an hour before midnight and had a cup of tea and some dry biscuits so as not to upset the stomach. I was actually feeling pretty good when we started walking at just after midnight. The two things I remember the most about the climb are the amount of clothing I had on and the phrase "pole pole". First, the clothing. Everyone we had passed on their way down the day before had told us to wear every piece of clothing we had because of how cold it was. I didn't quite wear every piece I had, but almost:

  • Feet: 3 pairs of socks, 1 pair of shoes = 4 layers

  • Legs: thermal underwear, jeans, cargo pants, rain pants = 4 layers

  • Torso: 2 singlets, thermal top, ice-breaker long sleeve woolen shirt, thin zip-up jumper, long sleeve button up shirt, ice-breaker woolen vest, light jacket = 8 layers (I also took a rain jacket which I wore at the very top)

  • Head: balaclava, beanie, neck warmer = 3 layers (I also had my beard which I had been growing for 2 weeks)

  • Hands: gloves = 1 layer

In total, I thus had 21 separate pieces of clothing! I did sweat a little on the way up, but overall I think it was the right amount of clothing.

The second thing I remember about the climb is the Swahili phrase "pole pole" (pronounced "poleh, poleh"), which means "slowly, slowly". Whenever I stopped to catch my breath, my guides would tell me "pole, pole". If you stop for too long you freeze, so it is better to keep moving slowly.

Looking up at the stars or back at the line of torches crawling up the mountain also wasn't advisable because it tended to make me feel a bit dizzy. Instead, I just looked at Jeromy's feet in front of me and tried to match my steps with his.

Listening to some tunes on my MP3 player helped keep my thoughts away from how exhausted I was and how much further there was still to go. This is also one of the reasons why we climb up in the dark - you can't see how steep the slope is and become discouraged, and instead you are forced to concentrate on the ground just in front of you in your torchlight.

At the halfway point we stopped for a short breather and I ate some chocolate. Bad idea. 30 seconds after we started moving again I began feeling a bit nauseous, and suddenly threw up. After throwing up, however, I found a second wind of energy and was actually feeling pretty good.

Jeromy, on the other hand, wasn't so well off. When we reached the section where we needed to scramble up some rocks he started feeling dizzy and couldn't maintain his balance very well. With the support of our guides, however, we eventually reached the major milestone of Gillman's point at around 4.30am. After that, we were told, it was only an "easy" hour and a half or so to the summit. Exhausted as we both were, however, it was still pretty tough going.

At around 6am, the sun started to rise and we could finally see our surroundings. At this point, the sheer beauty of where we were and the realization that we had made it hit me, and it was a pretty amazing feeling. Watching the sun rise over the clouds from the top of Kilimanjaro is something I'll never forget. My exhaustion was temporarily forgotten as I got my camera out to take some photos.

Snow and Ice

Mt Meru

We finally reached Uhuru peak, the highest point in Africa at 5895m above sea level, at the official time of 6.40am. We had a group hug and lots of handshakes to celebrate, and then lined up in the queue to get the obligatory photo in front of the sign. Kudos to Jeromy for making it to the top - I'm not sure if I could have made it in his condition.

Uhuru Peak

On top of the world

Our guide estimated that the temperature at the summit was around minus 15 degrees celcius. With all my layers I felt reasonably warm, but my fingers froze when I took them out of my gloves.

We were only allowed to stay on the summit for around 10 minutes before starting our descent. Given that Jeromy still wasn't feeling that good, it was important to get down as fast as possible.

Since the sun was now up, I started sweating profusely in my 21 layers of clothing. The problem was that I couldn't really take much off, because apart from wearing it there was no easy way of carrying it all down.

Once we were half way down, Jeromy was feeling a lot better and could walk on his own again. Strangely, I threw up again at pretty much exactly the same place as I did coming up. Must be something about the altitude of 5300m that my body doesn't like. At that point, I decided that I'd had enough of the mountain and just wanted to get back to Kibo Hut as soon as possible, so I all but ran down the last section. Mainly I just wanted to remove some layers of clothing. When I finally reached Kibo, even my third layer of pants was soaked with sweat.

After a short break at Kibo hut, we started our descent back to Horombo. Looking back towards the mountain, it only now became apparant how steep the slope was that we had ascended in the dark. In the following photo, the light gray line on the right hand side is the path we followed to reach Gillman's point (may need to view the large version of the photo). We then walked along the top to reach the snow covered peak on the left:

We climbed that?

Upon reaching Horombo, it was time for a well deserved sleep.

Day 6

Feeling rather refreshed after one of the best night's sleep I've had in ages, today we descended all the way down from Horombo to the park entrance gate. On the way down, it was now our turn to smile at those people coming up and wish them good luck, with the knowledge of what they are in for.


The morals of the story:

  • Slow and steady wins the race, or "pole pole" as they say in Swahili.

  • To borrow a phrase from U2, "sometimes you can't make it on your own", but with a good team behind you anything is possible. We certainly wouldn't have made it anywhere near the top without the help of our guides and porters, who did a fantastic job of keeping us motivated and lightening our load (I hate to admit it, but they even carried my day-pack for the last section on summit day).

  • Throwing up may not always be a bad thing - it may just give you that second wind of energy you need to reach the summit.

The Kilimanjaro Expedition Team

What's next on my crazy list of adventures? Who knows. But I think I need a bit of a break first.

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adam brown said...
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