Since news of my own humble life cannot possibly holld your interest for very long, I have obtained almost exlusive rights to publish the achievements of a recent graduate student of mine: Alan Huffman. So this post, and some to follow, chronicle Alan's adventures in the wild, dwelling among people who do not yet know Java.
This first eposide finds Alan and his buddy Sean about to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
Jambo (Hello) All,
For those of you concerned in not having heard from us, Sean and I, for a while (weeks) let me assure you all is well. Thanks for your concern.
In this e-mail I am abandoning my usual format of The Good, Bad and Ugly. I will retain The Ugly and consolidate the Good & Bad as that format is more suitable for the tale; I am sure you will enjoy the story no matter the format.
The Good & The Bad (Kilimanjaro):
References to Kilimanjaro are peppered throughout our culture. The mountain has been so popularized that the West pitches it in Ads and sells it as romantic fodder for self-aggrandizing yuppies, which is why I, and I think most people, must climb it.
People may argue the climb is justified by the mountain's superlative merits. It is the largest freestanding mountain in the world, one of the largest volcanoes and at over 5 vertical miles in altitude the highest point in Africa. Even these characteristics fail to enumerate some of its more enchanting qualities such as it having all five climatic zones ranging from rainforest to glaciers, but in the end the majestic mount is but a rock. And as many people as know the name Kilimanjaro few know what country it is located in; most say Kenya while she rises into Tanzanian skies. The reality of Kili is she has a temper that bleeds the life from the lungs and has left many a people cold along side her dwindling glaciers.
An article I read before coming to Africa warned of her rage and was titled "Climb a Mountain, but Not This One. I sunk my teeth into that article and cringed with excitement for such a challenge. In so few words the author had failed his purpose, to dissuade would be climbers, and had galvanized my will to summit. Having now climbed I think the title apt, but I won't tell you not to climb Kili for fear of failing you as this author failed me. I will hope to hold you from her slopes by saying these 6 days, as you will hear, were the hardest, most miserable of my 27 year life. If you favor superlatives, as do most Americans, hold that one to your heart.
Before I start into the tale you must appreciate the mischief altitude causes. In short the higher you go the thinner the atmosphere, which means less oxygen, less atmospheric pressure and less atmospheric protection from the Sun. As a person rises in altitude breathing becomes more difficult and a variety of physiological reactions take place that can result in altitude sickness, a real jewel by most measures.
Altitude sickness comes in several flavors. Loss of appetite and headaches adorn the lesser end of the gamut. Nausea and vomiting take center stage, while the grand finale is pulmonary edema (lungs fill with fluid and you drowned) and Embolism (blood vessel pops in your brain). These things should be avoided.
The best way to avoid altitude sickness is don't go up, don't ascend. Stay below 3000 meters and live it up. Else, drink lots of water, cross your fingers, and pray to the gods. There is one trick of Western Medicine, Diamox, Acetyzolamide. It's a mild diuretic that helps abate altitude sickness, or mask it - that's the problem. You may have altitude sickness, you may be dying but Diamox can mask the effects. Only time bears out the truth. Sean and I took it.
On to the trip
Day 1 : Mud/Diarrhea (climb from 2000 [Gate] to 3000 Meters [Machame Camp])
We began the trip in Marangu Village at the base of Kilimanjaro where most people pick up guides for the Marangu or CocaCola Route, so called because it is as smooth as Coke. We had haphazardly chosen to do the Machame Route or Whiskey Route as Sean had read it has the highest success rate for reasons of acclimatization being built into the Route (you hike at higher altitudes and sleep at lower altitudes every day). Had we paid attention to the nickname, we would've known the hike was going to be rough. In fact it is considered to be the hardest of the `touristy' routes.
We set off at 8:30, stopped by Moshi to pick up some cash at an ATM and headed through the jungle in what looked like an old VW Mini-Bus. Two hours later we arrived at the bottom of the Machame Route via a winding dirt/mud road; frankly I was surprised the bus could make it.
We arrived with our Guide Freddy Solomon, Assistant Guide Hans and our cook Allen, Freddy's third son. Freddie was 50 years old, had been hiking Kili for 32 years and smoked ganja (pot) at every opportunity - we learned this in observation; he never admitted to it, nor did we ask. Hans was 32 and looked exactly like what you would think a Tanzanian mountaineer by the name of Hans would look like: buff. We finished off our group by getting 6 porters.
These are the guys that carry all the stuff up the mountain. Wazungu, Swahili for white people but more generally meaningful as Westerners, are weak; we can't carry anything up the mountain, so we hire these poor guys to do it. More on that later, but these guys are nothing short of super heros.
I started off in sandals but was told by Freddie that I should switch to my shoes as there was `some mud.' To say there was some mud is like saying Bill Gates has some cash. We tracked through mud for 7 hours. We trudged through so much mud I began to believe in eternity, the river of fire and all that jazz about hell. We were ankle deep in rainforest dank that teemed with parasites and made gaining altitude a chore best left to fiction. No doubt Sean and I had done some awful stuff in previous lives to deserve this mess.
Initially I flew up the mountain. I felt like Lance Armstrong passing Germans, French & Italians along winding slopes. But I'm no Lance and apparently my deeds in previous lives were worse than Sean's. Halfway up I got diarrhea.
I'll go into depth on how bad `trail diarrhea' is in the Ugly Section (see Ugly Defined below), but I'll say this: I found a god on that slope in the form of an Eastern style toilet (an outhouse with a hole in the floor) and a guide with a half roll of toilet paper. I may never be as happy as when I saw that ram shackled building, and I'll probably never be any more miserable than I was fifteen minutes later squatting in the rainforest with flies and insects descending upon my misfortune - I had it bad. Within a period of one hour all the people I had passed on the trail flew past me, some spotting me, a hunched mess, in the forest; I think I heard a few of them utter prayers for mercy. God knows I was begging for it.*
By the time I arrived at the camp I was certain my misfortune had ended. The seven hours of hiking up half a vertical mile (1500M) and my `troubles' had left me drained and exhausted. Sean and I sat down to a dinner of Spaghetti Bolognese - something that will haunt me the rest of my days.
Day 2 : Diarrhea ( 3000 to 3900 Meters [Shira Camp])
I went to sleep and awoke at 10:30 pm with a type of panic that is usually reserved for near death experiences. I went to pay homage to my new god, see Eastern Toilets in the Ugly Section. My faith implored me to pray 3 times that night, and so violent were my prostrations that I thought not only had the Summit evaded me but only a helicopter could save me from Kili. By six in the morning I could not stand up straight and was forced to run, in hunched fashion, between the tent and my church. Our guides woke us at seven.
When I informed Freddie, the only of our team that spoke English, that I had diarrhea, he shifted his eyes from me to the distant horizon like a captain resigned to go down with his ship. My fate seemed sealed, but a minute later he stripped my breakfast down to cornflakes and hot water saying "this will be good for stomach. Two hours later I poured masticated corn flakes upon the slopes of Kili.
To say that I was weak would be an injustice to the English language; I felt nearly dead. I had essentially fasted for two days while hiking longer than I had ever hiked in my life. I tried to eat but ended up fertilizing the mountain each time.
In fact I gave up the climb when I felt I could go no further; I paused thinking "Alright guys this is a wrap, I'm out of here. I was through.
That's when Sean chimed in, "Just make it up to that rock and then you can rest.
I dug in my walking sticks and pushed forward, desperately searching for something to get me up that slope. A solemn idea came to my rescue:
Some day it would all be over. Some day, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, I would be well.
So I collapsed the now and the near future and I focused on that day when all would be well. We never stopped at the rock. I made it through the day, and my diarrhea subsided that night when my fever broke.
Day 3 : Rain (Climb 3900 to 4200 and down to 3500 [Baraque Camp])
By the third day I was able to hold down basic foods, white rice, white toast and broth soup. Having not digested anything for two days I was elated accomplishment and not depressed by the fact we were to hike through 7 hours of rain and sleet up to 4200 Meters (nearly 5 vertical miles) in altitude.
By the time we reached our camp, Barufu, the rain had soaked through Sean and my shoes, socks, waterproof jacket and pants. We were soaked to the bone and had to work for 30 minutes in the rain creating a ravine to shunt water away from our tent. Everything was wet.
The interior of our tent was mud from wall to wall. Our bag, clothes and sleeping bags were wet. Between the two of us, we had 1 partially dry sleeping bag, 1 mostly wet sleeping bag and a few pairs of dry socks - we were not the worst off. Many people didn't have anything dry and resorted to huddling in their wet tents to stave off hypothermia.
Sean and I lay down on our wet jackets, under the two sleeping bags. We had to get close to keep warm and after a few hours the water in the bags and on the tent floor had warmed. I got in my sleeping bag and fell asleep.
Day 4 : Dry (Climb from 3500 to 4500 M [Barafu])
We awoke to the bliss of dry weather. The campsite, which had been an ocean of mud the night before, was now a dry bed of dirt beneath the `foot of god.' Kili's glaciated peaks stood above our tents like a god about to stamp us into oblivion. That's what we were climbing, a peak that stretched into the cold blue sky like a tombstone.
We shook out our damp clothes and started laying everything on rocks in wait for the Sun. The previous night we had agreed that if it rained today there would be no hope of making the summit; we would have no dry equipment.
The sun rose behind the peaks of Kili and illuminated the clouds that stretched a thousand meters below us. The rays crept over the campsite and began drying everyone's equipment.
Day 4 is supposed to start early in order to accommodate a 7 hour hike up and down the steep faces approaching the final campsite before attempting the summit. Most important is the time hikers arrive at the campsite; the summit is attempted at 12 midnight.
We had to let our things dry and didn't get to leave until 10 AM, roughly an hour and a half to two hours after we should've left. We were going to be exhausted for the kili trek, but we'd also be dry. Given that temperatures can drop to minus 30 degrees F, including the wind, being dry is a must.
The hike was long beneath a relentless Sun. I was being burned to a crisp as we had forgotten to bring sunscreen. By the time we reached the campsite I had a headache that I mistook for a embolism. I couldn't think straight, so I crawled into the tent and started drinking as much water as we had available. As it turns out I was suffering Africa's white man disease. I had succumbed to the Sun.
Sean and I were lucky. We didn't get nausea and were able to eat dinner before nodding off at 8 pm. Others we talked to later had tried to eat and ended up purging it minutes later. Hiking the mountain on an empty stomach is no easy feat.
We awoke at 11 PM to begin our 7 hour climb to the summit.
Day 5 : Summit (Climb 4500 to 5985 [Uhuru Peak, Summit] to 1800 M [Mweka Alt Camp])
At midnight a strand of lights ran up the side of Kili like Christmas lights a tree. The moon was half full and bright enough to outline the horizon, which it slid behind thirty minutes later.
In the beginning everything went well. We were out pacing most people and the climb wasn't too steep. But after an hour or two Sean began to have trouble getting up the Scree - gravel that covers the slopes; it's notoriously difficult to go up Scree and very easy to come down. We slowed our ascent in hopes of him finding more solid footing.
An hour later his footing was getting worse; he was feeling tired and was having trouble with his balance. I thought he was succumbing to altitude sickness. I checked his lips - if they turn blue you're done as it indicates you're body doesn't have enough oxygen carrying capacity; you have to descend immediately. But his lips were pink; he didn't have a headache and felt fine except for being fatigued.
We slowed our descent a little more but his condition deteriorated. I checked him over a few more times and then advised him to turn back.
"It's a rock cat; it's a big rock. That's all. It's not worth it. You should turn back. I'm not comfortable with Hans helping you up the mountain.
Hans by this time was literally holding Sean to help him balance; Sean's effort was relegated to charging him up the mountain. His equilibrium was shot.
I repeated my concern and advice for him to return to the camp, to descend. I repeated myself 3 times, saying he would have to make the final call but that's the way I felt about it.
Sean, Freddie and Hans assured me he was fine to continue up the mountain. We were going very slowly on account of his balance, and a crosswind was tearing into us. I was freezing and needed to warm up. Hans and Freddie advised and persuaded me to break off from Sean. Freddie and I were to ascend at a faster speed, allowing me to warm up, while Sean and Hans would go Pole Pole, Swahili for slow. I tentatively agreed and started up the mountain. I ascended maybe 20 or 30 vertical meters before I decided I wouldn't abandon Sean.
I told Freddie that it didn't matter if I made it if I weren't with my buddy. Freddy persuaded me to continue up, but I persisted saying that I didn't care about the summit. I wanted to go back down and stay together - Sean and I had made a pact to stay together on the mountain. My father had begged me to keep to the promise, and I had failed.
We returned to find Sean in worse condition but still moving up the mountain. About the time we met on the slopes the Sun rose over the horizon. I don't think I'll ever forget that sight. It looked like the hand of god; his fingers lit the slopes, and we turned off our headlamps.
We were several hours from the summit; at sunrise we were supposed to be at Uhuru peak. We had fallen well behind schedule, and we weren't making up ground. Worse than that I had only brought enough food and water for a 7 hour hike. We were approaching 6 and, as it turns out, had another 7 hours to go.
As Sean's ascent slowed. Freddie and Hans persuaded me to break off from Sean and ascend else I wouldn't make Uhuru. Being tired I had begun to doubt my ability to summit, so I agreed and broke off.
Five vertical miles in altitude is tough stuff. I had a hard time breathing and reaching Stella point, 200 vertical meters below the Summit, was the hardest thing I've ever done. Once at Stella I spoke with a few friends I had met on the way, threw down some Advil and started up for Uhuru peak. That part was easy.
I reached the summit, 5895M, at 8:30 AM. After a few minutes catching my breath I laughed out loud in a moment of glee for having made the mark these six days were meant for. I took a few shots and headed back to Stella.
That's where I saw Sean. I don't think I'll ever see anyone in as bad of shape as Sean was. He couldn't stand up. Hans was wholly controlling his balance. Sean was iron will and steeled resolve without the structure to hold it all up. He had charged up the mountain against all reason and odds and made it to Stella - I have some pics of it; at the time I thought they might be the last shots of Sean anyone would ever make.
Sean rested and we began our descent. Sean was sleep deprived and fatigued; he had completely lost his balance and required Hans and I to help him down the mountain. It took us 5 hours to get him down the slope. He fell more times than I can count, and at one point we let him sleep for 30 minutes on the slope - a notoriously dangerous thing to do, but we had no choice.
He was telling us that the ground was moving. He couldn't keep his head up. Frankly he looked like human Jello. I don't know how he motivated himself up the mountain; it's more than I would've done. It's certainly more than I recommended, but his judgment was impaired. I'm still working on my excuse for not forcing him down.
When we reached the bottom we met up with some girls from the US whose friend had re-fractured her leg on the Scree. Porters were carrying her down on there back; that's emergency rescue Tanzanian style.
At the campsite we crashed out for 30 minutes before being woken to hike to the next campsite. The terrain was moderate but the hike took 7 hours. Sean had regained his balance, and we were both fine but exhausted. We reached the campsite and slept immediately.
Day 6 : Mud/End
Ten hours of sleep is a lot if you did nothing but sit around the day before, but having hiked for nearly 2 days straight with little sleep ten hours seemed like a short nap. Regardless it was our last day so we packed up, took some final pictures and began the final descent.
With an uncanny air of symmetry the last day was a hike of 8 hours through mud. Like my first day Sean came down with diarrhea halfway down the trail. When we reached the bottom we looked like we'd been to war and lost. And that's the way I see it.
No one beats Kili. There is no winner. You get to the top and feel accomplished, but it's dangerous and painful. Would I do it again? No, but I made the Summit. Sean's toying around with the idea, and I probably would too. Who knows maybe I'm in it for the pain, and I'll return in ten years to see that the snows of Kilimanjaro really have faded with my memory of this trip.
The Ugly Defined
I always talk about the Ugly. What is it? If I had to define the Ugly I'd say it climaxes at `trail diarrhea.' I can't imagine anything more miserable than having to scurry off a trail, drop pants and fan the flies away as misfortune pours forth.
Being in high altitude with this stuff is nearly tantamount to death. You lose water and calories, the two things that you need to combat altitude sickness and hike. Having lost so much water, you have to discontinue Diamox, the medicine that helps fight altitude sickness.
Basically you are left bare to fight the elements. Beyond the cramps, flies and dehydration it's just demoralizing. Several groups watched me wave my muddy, white flag of an ass along the trail. My head was dipped, and my face strained. When I returned to the trail I was beaten. I stepped like a prisoner to his execution and people recognized me for what I was: dead meat.
When I was in Egypt I contracted some nasty bacterial diarrhea; that's bad, but I was able to lay around and sleep it off. With this Sean and I both had to trudge through mud and up & down slopes with the occasional sideshow. Trust me, there are few non-terminal illnesses that I can think of that could be worse than that.
Have you ever had the pleasure? If not I recommend you buy some plywood and construct one of these beauties in the backyard. Make a box of wood and cut a square whole in the middle of the floor. Make a door out of one of the walls and viola, Eastern Toilet.
The trick to the Eastern toilet is holding yourself so as to be over the hole, not fall in it, not soil yourself, and all without letting your clothes touch the filthy floor - people have poor aim.
I'm unhappy to say I'm now an expert at this love pot of a bathroom amenity - Sean, from what he's said, isn't too bad himself. I pray you'll not master this skill.
*I'm agnostic leaning towards atheism; I used the reference to god for the exposition. My friends and family I have not found faith yet.
"Dying is inevitable; living is not."