Wilderness Sports Conditioning
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Kilimanjaro Climb - Narrative
Kilimanjaro via Western Breach 9/29-10/5/01
Kilimanjaro summit, looking due east (Mawenzi, the jagged peak in the background); the Western Breach route we took is the steep scramble shown in lower right corner of photo in clouds. The summit pyramid (Uhuru peak, 19,340') is on the right, about 600 feet above crater floor. (photo by G. Magula)
Wow. What a fantastic experience. Kili is unlike any other climb I've ever done, for five primary reasons:
Pack weight; we were only permitted to carry light day packs while our porters carried everything else (including watermelon, china, camp stools, and thermos).On a six day climb, I'd normally anticipate carrying upwards of 60 pounds. The heaviest pack I carried on this was about 20! Never before have I had hot tea, roasted peanuts, cookies and popcorn served to me shortly after arriving at camp -- an experience every climber must have at least once in their lifetime.
Number of climbers; for every tourist on the mountain, there were probably three or more locals assisting as porter, cook, or guide. We went as a group of two, yet had 3 porters, one cook, a guide, and an assistant guide. And I thought the Muir route up Rainier was crowded!!! I was completely stunned to see the huge number of people at the Machame gate waiting to start up the mountain. However, if it hadn't been for the help of our 6 assistants, we could not have climbed from 6,000' to 19,340' in merely 4 days-- we would have had to do it expedition style over a longer period of time, carrying much more weight.
Altitude -- the highest we'd been prior to climbing Kili, at 19,340', had been Rainier, at 14,411'. Doug had no trouble with the elevation until Lava Camp (camp 3), when he decided to take some Tylenol and a Diamox tablet ; I had a real scare at Shira Camp (camp 2) when I suffered from a horrendous headache, but pressure breathing, Tylenol, and half-dose of Diamox seemed to help.
The runs -- I learned two valuable lessons: don't eat the tomatoes unless you get rid of the skin first, and NO MEAT after day 2! The repeated exposure to warm sun on climbing days, followed by cold nights, can't be a good thing! Whether this was from the food, water, or Diamox, I couldn't be certain, but staying hydrated becomes crucial at that elevation. Fortunately, we had the necessary anti-diarrhea medication -- and even supplied extra for a few of the porters who weren't so fortunate. We also started adding chlorine tablets to all water, even the water our assistants boiled for us.
The foot -- 6 weeks prior to our trek, I'd broken the fourth metatarsal in my right foot. After very aggressive self-rehabilitation, I felt it was ready enough to be able to tackle 60 km of hiking, as long as I had trekking poles for assistance. Going up was not as much of a problem; the scrambling was very straight forward (thanks to much climbing experience over the past years) but coming back down was quite challenging since I couldn't push off the right forefoot. The left knee and hip got the brunt of the load going down. The only time I really lost style points was going across the rock-strewn glacier in the crater -- my foot just did NOT feel ready to tackle ice without crampons or an axe! Fortunately, John and Meck, our guides, were right there to lend a hand.
"pole pole" is by far the most common phrase you'll ever hear on the mountain - it means "slowly" - not to be confused with the single "pole" which means "sorry." We also learned "asante," or thanks, a word we used repeatedly, and "hakuna matata" or "no problem", my favorite. Doug took it upon himself to learn as many Swahili words as possible, amusing and surprising many of the porters and guides with his halting Swahili.
We met many pleasant adventurers from Australia, South Africa, Scotland, England -- but as Americans we were definitely in the minority. We heard time and again that tourism was really suffering due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks against America--many US tourists had cancelled their travel plans. When people heard we were from Washington, they showed overwhelming support and concern, and expressed relief when we told them we were from "the other Washington." Porters listened to portable radios, and even though the broadcasts were in Swahili, when we heard the words "Afghanistan", "George Bush" and "Osama bin Laden," we asked for any new developments and then tried to remember that we were on vacation.
We highly recommend the Western Breach route for anyone who wants a more challenging experience or for anyone who would like to get away from the masses. Literally anyone can climb up the Marangu or Machame routes (the two standards known as the Coca-Cola or Whiskey routes, respectively) but by choosing this more difficult scrambling route, not only did we get to see some spectacular scenery, but we also had a chance to feel like we were, at times, alone on the mountain. Only 10 other tourists were headed for the summit from Camp 4, Arrow Glacier, the same morning we were: a group of 3 South Africans we fondly referred to as the Wonder Boys, and 6 tourists from Scotland who broke into two smaller groups of 4 and 2. By the time we were descending the eastern slopes to Marangu's camp 4, we were extremely pleased with our choice of ascent route -- the east slope had a very long summit walk; below that, the trail was mostly scree, and we found the camps on this side of the mountain to be overcrowded, filthy and quite unpleasant. Fortunately, we only had to have a brief lunch stop there -- our camp 5 was a real treat, opened merely a month before (Rau? Lau? Mweka's alternative), and it was clean, spacious, AND provided "tourist toilets" -- no more tiny holes in the floorboards, we were back to seats!!