Monday, June 12, 2006

Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania . . . "Pole Pole"

Climbing Kili is a bit of a production and many decisions had to be made before we even considered setting out. The first was the choice of route as there are several different ways up the mountain. The easiest and most popular is the Marangu route (aka 'Coca Cola' route) where hikers stay in cute little huts and can purchase certain necessities (beer, Coca Cola, snickers bars etc.) en route. This sounded quite appealing to me but was quickly vetoed by Phil. At the other end of the scale there is the Machame route (aka 'Whiskey route') apparently one of the tougher walking routes and with no cabins en route, camping is required. I vetoed Machame. So we were left with few choices and decided on the Rongai route - it required 5 nights of camping but at least gave us fairly easy walking for the first few days.

Route chosen we began walking with our entourage of 9 people. In addition to our guide (Joshua) we had an assistant guide, a cook and 6 porters to carry the camping equipment, food and our bags. Given different circumstances this would have made us feel like royalty but when you are not able to shower or change clothes for almost a week, one does not feel particularly special.

I had the beginnings of a slight cold on day one but we were quite optimistic about our chances of reaching the top. This was largely due to Joshua's genius. The man walked so slowly ('pole pole' in Swahili) that it was impossible to imagine not being able to follow him anywhere at that speed. Walking speed is a bit of a controversial issue for us. I am a slow walker - a stroller in fact - while Phil is a brisk paced walker. As a result we can usually be seen walking the streets of Africa with me at least 10 paces behind him. I have complained that this makes me look like his servant-girl but he has pointed out that, as he is the one usually carrying all the stuff, people are unlikely to make such an assumption.

Joshua's pace was slower even than my slowest walk and he explained to us pretty early on that the only way we would get up the mountain was to go 'pole pole' and Phil managed to get used to the speed eventually.

The pace was purely for our benefit; Joshua could have gone much faster on his own. In fact, he could do our 6 day walk in one day if forced to – although he did admit that he would be “very tired” after such an attempt. The guides and porters are incredibly fit. The porters literally run up the mountain carrying 25 kg and barely break out into a sweat. You get the sense that you are surrounded by several potential Olympians. So it was with a strong sense of physical inferiority that we went “pole pole” up the mountain.

The first day was "a piece of cake" followed by the second day which was "the easiest walking I have ever done". Phil asked me to take note of these comments I made early on, suggesting that they would come back to haunt me. I was not discouraged.

However, my optimism faltered somewhat on day three when I began feeling the effects of the altitude (headache, breathlessness) and my cold. Things got progressively worse as the altitude increased and by the time we got to the camping spot on day four - Kibo (4,700m) - I found myself asking why in the world we were paying good money to make ourselves feel sick.

Kibo is the last stop before you attempt the peak. You arrive in the afternoon have an early dinner and try to sleep, but invariably fail due to the altitude. Your guide then gets you up at 11pm to start the climb to the peak at midnight. Temperatures are low at this height so we set off covered in layers of clothes all hired specially for the occasion.

Despite feeling very average we were still confident we could follow Joshua’s slow steps up the mountain. The plan was to get to the top in about 5 hours. The ‘top’ being Gilman’s Point (5,681 metres above sea level) – the rim of the crater. From there it is normally a one and a half hour walk around the crater rim to the highest point on Kili – Uhuru Peak (5,895 metres above sea level).

Our ascent of the mountain did not quite go as planned. We plodded on at a fairly steady pace until about 5,300 metres. After that the altitude was all a bit much for me and I found myself using my walking poles to drag myself up the mountain. At about 5,600 metres Joshua and his assistant guide grabbed one of my arms each – I thought this assistance was quite unnecessary until I too noticed that my legs were not really working. They very kindly ignored the 25kg weight limit for guides and porters and helped me up to Gilman’s Point where I collapsed in a bit of a heap. The highest point on Kili is apparently the highest point in the world that can be reached without any “technical or life supporting facilities.” Personally, I certainly could have done with a tank or two of oxygen. Without that, it was pretty clear I wasn’t going any further.

Phil managed to make it to Gilman’s Point unassisted but felt terrible and when asked whether he wanted to take one of the guides and continue to Uhuru Peak his unambiguous response was: “No way. I feel like shit.”

We took in the view from Gilman’s Point for a few minutes and made our way back down the mountain and beyond to our camping point for the night.

I was not at all upset about our failure to reach the highest point of Kili. I was somewhat consoled by the self delusional thought that I may have made it had I not been suffering from a cold. Upon leaving the mountain I noticed a sign warning that people with a "sore throat or a cold should not go above 3000 metres”. Ooops.

Phil’s feelings about our failure to reach Uhuru Peak changed quite dramatically from ambivalence to devastation. His devastation increased as we descended the mountain and as the memory of his suffering at Gilman’s Point subsided.

While suffering the effects of altitude sickness he was heard to say:

“Why are we doing this again?”
“I’m coming down with you.”
“I am never doing another altitude climb again. This is it.”

But hours later: “Why didn’t I go to the Peak?”

A day later: “I can’t believe I didn’t go to the Peak.”

And later: “I think I have to do Kili again.”
“We should climb Mount Kenya (5,199 metres) when we are in Kenya.”

While Phil was trying to come to terms with his disappointment, I was struggling more than I should have on the easy (18km down hill) final day of our walk. I lost my breakfast (and I don’t mean I misplaced it) close to the bottom, which was probably an appropriate end to the whole experience.

But while I can’t say I enjoyed the Kili experience, I am pleased I gave it a go.

After Kili we finally said goodbye to Tanzania having spent about twice as much time there as we had planned. We are now in Kenya – where we may or may not climb Mount Kenya, but if we do, it certainly won’t be for a while. We are spending a few days in Nairobi trying to work out what to do next.

Our Tanzanian cell phone number no longer works so please discard it. We have a new number for Kenya so if you want to call or text please use +254 721 921 845.

Next entry will be when there is something else to write about, which maybe a few weeks.

Phil tells me he has posted new photos of Mozambique, Zanzibar and Tanzania so click here to see the latest pictures.


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