Day three was a welcomed respite with a much shorter hike to Lava Tower camp, at 15,180feet. This area felt as if we had left one world and entered another. Lava Tower is a lava plug rising 300 above the surrounding terrain, surrounded by a lava rock field- a reminder that Kilimanjaro is really just a huge, extinct, freestanding volcano. There is very little vegetation at Lava Camp: the elevation is too high to support significant plant life and by this time I was beginning to wonder just how compatible 15,000ft is with human life! The stars from this camp forward were unbelievable. How could there be so many stars? I have seen stars away from light pollution before; in the South Pacific and in the mountains, but stars at 15,000ft are entirely different. So much light, so many galaxies- the universe is so full! I can’t tell you how cold we all were as we enjoyed the night sky but no one complained.
At Lava Camp we had a chance to get to know our porters better: to ask them questions and answer their questions. These 30ish guys are some of the most amazingly fit and interesting people I have met. As we made our slow way up the mountain, they briskly passed us, carrying all their gear on their backs and ours on their heads. By the time we got to camp each day they already had our tents up, tea ready and would greet us with a song. One of the aspects of Roadmonkey that I respect (and there are several more) is that they use outfitters who follow the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP) guidelines. KPAP is a not-for-profit organization that works to improve the working conditions of Kili porters. Too often and for too long these porters were underpaid, forced to carry excessive weight, given insufficient food, did not receive their full share of tips and did not have appropriate clothing for the conditions. KPAP works to change that. And the porters deserve so much. Only a small fraction of Kili trekkers would make it even part way up without the assistance of the porters.
Day four was happily an even shorter hike with an altitude increase of just a few hundred feet to Arrow Glacier camp at 15,796 feet. By this point we were above the majority of the clouds, and beginning to get out of breath doing simple tasks. Add this to the facts that it was getting very cold at night and that our mountain sickness medicine has the unfortunate side effect of increasing ones bladder productivity. It’s not a pretty combination! At Arrow Glacier we had a free afternoon to help with acclimatization. While most of the group spent it going on an additional hike- I chose find a comfy rock, read, and listen to music while watching the ever shifting clouds immediately above me. As an aside, if anyone questions the benefits of a Kindle? Its negligible weight and huge inventory of books is a blessing at 16,000ft where simple walking is an effort!
Day five was another tough day for me but in a more mental than physical way. Don’t get me wrong, climbing 3,360 feet over steep and very rocky terrain was no walk in the park: the Western Breach is not something I will soon forget. That day I found myself wondering -What in the world was I doing? What possessed me to think that I could do this on my own without family or crazy friends from home? I kept repeating a never-ending stream of encouraging words in my head interspersed with “ OK, just one step at a time". Fortunately, our lunch break was one of the most incredible views I have ever enjoyed and did a good job of reminding me why I had undertaken this wild idea.
From day five on I gained a new appreciation for Kajeli and Melchior. Both were determined that I would be on that summit, even if it meant literally holding my hand many steps of the way. Just when some of us were starting to get sick of scrambling from rock to rock, we had Kajeli there to boost our spirits with random shouts of “I LOVE ROCKS!”. As I mentioned earlier, our guides were amazing and committed to our success. We finally made it to Crater camp, our final camp before our summit and we were really, really out of breath. While overnighting it to Crater camp makes for a much easier summit hike, 1.5 hours instead of 7, it is not easy to sleep at 18,796 feet.
Between the headaches, nausea and lack of appetite, we were a pretty sorry bunch at dinner that night. Mild acute mountain sickness was starting to affect some of us. Even the short walk to the mess tent left us all out of breath. And here, a small teaching moment- Mountain medicine recognizes three regions of altitude: high altitude, very high altitude and extreme altitude. The “extreme” is anything over 18,000ft and we were clearly there. Also, did you know that at that altitude: hair essentially stops growing, food doesn’t get absorbed, non-essential body functions shut down and the mind doesn’t function very well! Oh, there is one higher region- around 26,000ft it’s called the death zone. I won’t be going there- ever!
Day six was a long day. We woke up around 4 and began the last leg of our journey to the summit shortly after 5AM. While the hike from Crater camp up to the top was relatively short, even the shortest distances left us completely out of breath. My body had never felt anything like that before. That moment when I stepped from the inclined trail onto the much flatter area just a 15 minute walk away from the peak, was the most exhilarating feeling I have had (in my brief 17 years!). I was greeted with hugs from those ahead of me, and congratulations flew through the air. From there we walked the remaining short distance to the highest point in Africa, Uhuru peak, the Roof of Africa. We all arrived in time for sunrise, and I don’t know of a better place to see a sunrise from than 19,341 feet, looking down on the clouds.
After the mandatory pictures at the sign marking Uhuru peak, we began our decent. It was a moonwalk of sorts through deep skree, and my knees were not happy. After a quick juice break at Barafu camp, we continued down to Millennium camp where we enjoyed a (mostly) headache free lunch, complete with soda and the two kilimanjaro beers that made it to the summit with Diana. We finished our day by continuing down to Mweka camp at 10,139 feet, back in the land of green things and some of the nicest toilets on the mountain, or for that matter, anywhere (it’s all relative isn’t it?).
Day seven, our final day on the mountain consisted of a beautiful 3 hour downhill hike through very damp rainforest. During this part of the hike I was was able to walk with a wide range of people, from one of our porters, to a guide with a different group, to our cook and finally one of our guides, Jerome. I loved getting to learn some new Swahili and hear the different life experiences each had. It was another reminder of how glad I was to speak at least some Swahili and be able to communicate a little more easily with our porters and guides. After reaching Mweka gate we headed back to our hotel for a meal and shower before meeting up with out porters and guides one last time. While we did get the promised meal, our hotel temporarily had no running water so our porters got to see us one last time, smelly and dirty as ever.
We ended this chapter of our journey with an impromptu dance party to a reggae cover of Phill Collins “One More Night”, all thanks to our guide Paul who had found the song and requested the bar play it. The nine Roadmonkeys then went to a delicious Indian/Italian restaurant (after finally showering!) and reminisced about the climb; still a bit in awe that just the morning before we had been on the summit. After Paul gave everyone their awards and Roadmonkey t-shirts (where I won the “I want to hold your hand” award - for holding our guide’s hand up to the summit...and for doing something few 17 year olds even think about), we headed back to the good old Sal Salinero Hotel for an amazing night’s sleep in real beds. We had a day off on Sunday that I spent with some missionary friends I had met at MS-TCDC. I loved seeing them again and partaking of their delicious BBQ!! Monday morning we flew to Zanzibar and began phase 2 of our “adventure voluntourism” trip...but that is an experience for another blog post! Which I promise to try and post soon, but I am at the mercy of the internet.
To see more pictures from the climb, check out my Picasa album! Kilimanjaro