Sunday, April 1, 2012

Spring Break Tanzania Style – Climbing Kilimanjaro

Before the Climb
So two weeks ago was our spring break and my friend Marion and I decided to climb Kilimanjaro!  Completely unprepared about what we were getting ourselves into, we booked a trip just a couple days before our break started and after a hectic trip to get our bus tickets, we were ready to head out.

We left on Friday for an 8 hour bus ride to Moshi and were picked up from the bus stop by the tour company.  Then, we went to the “office” which was really just this guy’s house at the end of a dirt road to go over some logistics before the trip. We had to pay for the trip in cash so on the way to the hotel we were staying we had to get money from the ATM.  Climbing Kilimanjaro is ridiculously expensive so when we were just counting out all the money on the beds, it kind of looked like a scene from a drug deal.  

We decided to have a day to relax in between getting into Moshi and the climb so the next day we just went to town and explored. Moshi is a lot smaller, more relaxed and a lot less stressful than Dar so it was a good day just walking around and buying a couple last minute things before we set out for Kili. At the hotel, we also met some Peace Corps volunteers from Botswana that just finished the climb and a French guy working in South Sudan also about to head out to climb Kili the next day.

Starting the Climb – Day 1
The people from the tour company all came in the morning to pick us up. Since we had basically no gear, we were told that everything would be provided and the day we came in we even went through a check list of everything we needed.  However, when they came by my friend Marion and I wanted to double check if we had everything so we requested to see what they brought us. They brought out a garbage bag with only a couple of things that were either ridiculously too small or too big.  We started to stress out a bit and made a little bit of a scene so then the guys took us around to a couple rental shops until we got everything we needed. Afterwards, we drove straight to Machame gate where we started our hike. The car ride there we got to know all our porters and guides that would be helping us out on our trip.

Hiking up Kilimanjaro, you go through four extremely different vegetation zones. Our first day started off in the rainforest. The moss growing on the trees made it seem like we were walking through Dr. Seuss land at points and we got to see some monkeys along the way. Coming into this completely unprepared, the first day mentally shocked me that I’m here, I’m actually climbing Kili and it wasn’t going to be easy. I also realized that the most intense hike I’ve ever been on was maybe 2 hours. Not the great realization to have when I’m on my way to climb the highest mountain in Africa.  By the time we got to our camping site, I was thoroughly exhausted and sore and if I had only paid $20 to hike Kili, I would’ve probably given up after the first day.
That night we ate a big dinner and hung out with the porters just talking and they were trying to teach us a song in Swahili.

 Starting our climb at the Machame Gate

 Crazy trees in the rainforest

Made it to the first camp!

Day 2
After we went to bed the night before, my stomach really started to hurt.  By the time we got up in the morning it was not feeling better and I couldn’t even eat anything which I knew was bad since we had a long day ahead of us.  This day was a lot steeper than the day before but a little shorter. We were mainly walking through a vegetation zone called the moorland. The first hour and a half, I was doing fine but later my energy levels just crashed since I had no food in me.  Since we had 2 guides, Marion went ahead of me with one and I slowly made my way along with the other. We got to the camp pretty early that day so we had time to rest and then visit the Shira Caves close by the camp.  That night, I still couldn’t eat. Even though my stomach stopped hurting for the most part, it was really hard for me to get any food down and eating became just as big of a battle as the hiking on this trip. I was able to get a couple spoonfuls of rice down after having to sing Eye of the Tiger in between bites.

Cavemen in Shira Caves

The campsite

Day 3
This day was a lot longer hike but it was a lot flatter than the day before. We started walking through the alpine desert which is mostly just big rocks everywhere.  Then we continued our climb to the Lava Towers where we ate our lunch.

Alpine desert with Kili in the back

Day 4
We started this day off by climbing up the Barranco wall. I had to whip out those rock climbing skills I never had because for an hour and half we were literally climbing vertically up. At one point we got to this beautiful lookout point of Kilimanjaro where Marion and I spend way too much time perfecting our jumping pictures. This was the first time I started to feel the lack of oxygen because with every jump I was gasping for breath. At times, this day was a bit frustrating.  We’d have a long steep uphill and when we got to the top we would have a steep downhill. All that work just to go back down. By the time we got to our campsite I was pretty beat. I still didn’t get my appetite back since the second day but I knew that in a couple hours we would be starting our summit so I just needed something flavorless to fill my stomach so for the first time in Tanzania, I was craving ugali. 

Getting some help up the Barranco Wall

Kili jumping picture win

Day 5
Summit Day. Also known as the most painful day of my life. So after about 2 hours of sleep, we were waken up at 11:30 to start our climb at midnight. Still sore from the night before, we put on a ridiculous amount of layers and after a bit of tea, we were ready to head out. We made our way through the dark with our headlamps to lead the way. It was freezing and ridiculously steep.  For hours, we were slowly making progress. It was probably for the best we summitted in the dark since I lost track of time completely and all my energy was focused on my next step. I think we were one of the last people to leave the camp since there was no one behind us.  At one point, we caught up with this one other group. I was sort of jealous since their guides were keeping them motivated and singing to them but I guess that’s what we miss out by not paying more.  As the sun started rising, we were still not even that close to the top. However, the view was absolutely beautiful.  Seeing the sun rise above the other peak of Kilimanjaro and the fact we were above it was breathtaking. Speaking of breathtaking, the lack of oxygen at that altitude made breathing very difficult.  Marion and I were walking at possible the slowest speed possible. We were started to see some people on their way back down, which gave us a little bit more motivation. Finally, we made it past the steepest part and were at the Stella Point. We continued on another hour and a half to the highest point, Uhuru Peak, past snow and glaciers. When we made it to the peak, I just couldn’t believe I made it. I was so exhausted though, I just wanted to take some pictures as fast as possible and go back down.

The way back down may have just been as painful as up. I was exhausted and the way down was very steep. We sort of had to slide our way down because the ground was sort of like sand. I was just so delirious by that times that our guide had to help me down. My toes were aching like crazy since I had three pairs of socks on making my shoes really tight. Every step downhill hurt. After the 9 hours it took to get up and the 5 it took to get back down, we were finally at the campsite. We were given a couple hours to rest and eat a bit (we hadn’t had food this whole time) which I couldn’t even do. Initially, we were supposed to go another 4 hours to our last camp but since we were so tired our guide thankfully let us go to a camp that was closer. It was only supposed to take an hour and a half but it ended up being nearly three for us. We were walking through the dark, and being so exhausted, I started to hallucinate a bit. When we finally got to the campsite, I was just so happy that the day was over and was ready to go straight to sleep.

On the way up to the summit

 Exhausted - pretty much the definition of our trip

 Sunrise on the way to the top

 Beautiful views from the peak

 You know, just saw some glaciers no big deal

 Uhuru Peak - We made it!

Day 6
It was the last day and we were finishing our descent. We packed up our camps for the last time and headed back down. We made our way back through the moorland and rainforest now with a little more time to appreciate it all since we were going downhill. By the end my toes were aching like crazy again from going downhill. We got a little bit of a shortcut because what would have been the last 45 minutes of hiking, we managed to hitch a ride on an emergency vehicle. At the end, we got our certificates and headed back to the hotel. Our first shower in six days and there was no hot water. Somehow my most looked forward to showers have all been cold but at that point I was just happy to feel clean again.  The rest of the day started our slow road back to recovery where we just spent the day at the hotel in awe that we were just at the top just a day ago.   

Overall, Kilimanjaro was by far the hardest thing I’ve physically and mentally went through. It was long and it was painful. I got windburned so bad my skin off my entire face peeled off. My lips felt like they were cut with mini-razor blades and eating anything citrusy or spicy after the climb burned my entire mouth. Altitude sickness affects people in a lot of ways and for me I completely lost my appetite. It’s one of the weirdest things I’ve felt but even when my stomach wasn’t hurting, it was almost like I was incapable of eating which definitely effecting my energy levels on the way up. At the end of the climb, my feet were two big blisters. Two weeks later and I still haven’t gotten full feeling back into my toes (here’s to hoping I’ll eventually get feeling back).

 But despite all this, am I glad I did it? For sure. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous, even surreal at times. It felt like I was walking in between different mysterious worlds.  The absolute feeling of joy you get when you get to the top is awesome. What’s more awesome is the feeling you have when get down and actually have the energy to be excited. It’s things like these that show you where you limits are and give you no choice but to push way past them. It leaves you a sense of being invincible because whenever I’m about to do something difficult, I just have to think it can’t be as bad as Kili.