Tuesday, February 24, 2009

My Summit Climb

From Kilimanjaro Climb

Our little group arrived in Kibo hut early in the afternoon. Our guide told us to relax for the afternoon and that we would be fed at about 5 pm. After that we should try to sleep as we would be up again at 10 PM for the summit climb. I don’t remember what we had for supper. I do remember that after supper, the eighteen hikers in our room of the hut, about to embark on the biggest climb of their life, all keyed up and rustling around in nylon sleeping bags in a small room, and early in the evening, attempted to sleep. Speaking for myself, at best, I rested in a horizontal position. Judging by the amount of tossing, turning, whispering in a variety of languages, etc I think I was not alone. If the whole group of us got an hour of sleep in total I would be surprised. At approximately 10 PM our guide entered the room and “woke” us. They brought us hot boiled water to which we added lemon lime Gatorade powder.

He fed us hot tea and sugar cookies, and told us to get ready. Fifteen minutes later the three of us were outside ready to go. Our guide and assistant guide were waiting and we set off almost immediately. The trail leading to the summit from Kibo hut climbs a scree slope in a series of about a thousand switchbacks virtually straight up from the hut. The night was pitch black and the only lights visible were stars and the headlamps we and the other hikers wore. The guides did not use them. I don’t know if this was simply due to a lack of equipment or if it was to save their night vision. They did not seem to get lost! It seemed like every 15 minutes or so our guide Sam would stop and spend a minute studying our faces and asking us how we were doing. For the first couple of hours we all were doing fine. However after a while we stopped for drinks and to adjust our clothing. It was amazing how difficult little tasks like getting something out of your backpack can be on a cold dark night at 18000 ft. After about ten minutes we resumed our climb. By about 3 AM, and I really don’t know how far up we were, I was getting cold. My feet were cold and my hands were cold. I really couldn’t do anything for my feet except for more headwear. I might have already been wearing all the headgear I had. I really don’t remember. My hands were also cold. I was wearing thick fleece gloves that were always warm enough in Canada. The guides were barehanded!!! I changed to a lighter pair of fleece gloves with a large pair of mitts over top. I also dug around in my pack to find my chemical hand warmers and put one of them in each hand. Both Ray and I offered our spare gloves to the guides but were both refused. Diane also put her hand warmers to use. Ray had packed his the previous evening, but on the mountain that night he could not find them in his pack. Off we went again and after about fifteen minutes the hand warmers started to work. Our feet were all still very cold. I remember thinking about both my feet and hands at one point and telling myself that no mountain in the world was worth losing a finger or toe. All along the guides would stop us and look at our faces to see if we were alright. Ray and Diane were both breathing quite hard and Diane was having some dizzy spells. At one point Ray (he is a Doctor) gave Diane a dexamethasone pill. Diane, who is pathologic about not taking medicines, just happily swallowed it. All during the climb we would stop and drink from our Camelbak. We each had a hydration bladder full as well as a 1 litre Nalgene bottle. Eventually the bladder tube froze up so we drank from the Nalgene. The frozen bladder thawed out during the late morning descent to Kibo after summiting so it did not go to waste. It is amazing how good warm Gatorade tastes at 19000 ft. However we never seemed to have enough patience to dig around in our packs for food. This would come back to haunt me!
Suddenly it seemed the sun was coming up and we were at Gilman’s point. There were quite a few climbers here resting and taking in the view. For the last hour as Ray and Diane had struggled with breathing, etc, I had been mulling over what to do at Gilman’s. If the two of them decided to call it a day at Gilman’s point should I go on to the summit alone. I was feeling very strong at that point but had almost decided to go with whatever they decided. At Gilman’s Sam told us it was about a mile walk to the summit and that it would take about an hour. Diane suddenly seemed to come alive and said “let’s go for it then”. Ray and I were game so off we went. Here on the crater rim we were in snow and ice. The trail to the summit itself was not steep by any means. Also it was now daylight so we could see where we were stepping. However we were now in snow. One interesting thing that I experienced was that my feet which had been cold all the way up the scree slope were suddenly quite warm as soon as we reached snow. I might have thought it was a mental issue except that when I commented on it later Ray immediately stated that he had experienced the same thing. The trail at this point became quite icy and slippery. Sam our guide slipped and fell face first onto the trail. Due to the cold however he had his arms inside his coat and his hands in his crotch to keep them warm. When he fell he was not able to get his hands out to break his fall properly. In fact at first it looked like he had broken his wrist and dislocated some of his fingers. Ray, being a doctor immediately began examining him and found that there was no real damage, other than his hands being stiff with cold. At this point we forced our spare gloves on Sam and John, the guide and assistant guide. Sam, Ray and Diane were now all moving very slowly and John and I were moving well. John suggested that we move on ahead to the summit and let the others follow at their own pace. It seemed that the mile or so to the summit went on for ever and the trail was very icy. I wished for crampons of some sort as there were spots where a slip would have meant a long slide off to a hard landing a thousand feet below. As we got nearer to the summit the weather started to deteriorate until we were in a blizzard with about fifteen feet of visibility. As well there seemed to be more people around as the various routes up the mountain merged on the final summit trail.
With about a hundred yards to go I felt as if I had “hit the wall”. At first I did not understand what was happening until I realized that I had been climbing for close to 12 hours and, other than a few sugar cookies at 10 the previous evening, hadn’t eaten since 5:00 the evening before. I staggered my way the final 100 yards or so and had the energy to take the required photos. There was no view whatsoever due to the blizzard. In spite of my state of exhaustion and the lack of view the sense of accomplishment was amazing.
From Kilimanjaro Climb

However after a couple of minutes I asked John (the asst. guide) whether he thought we should wait for the others or head back down. He must have known what I was feeling as his answer was simple “you go down now!” As I started down I began to realize how little strength I had left in me. I began to think that I was in serious trouble. In fact after about fifteen minutes we met Ray and Diane and apparently I stated something to the effect that ‘They would never get me to climb another mountain again as long as I live’.
The icy stretch proved to be a real challenge. In my weakened state and feeling the effects of exhaustion the process of each step became a major decision. I seemed to take minutes deciding where to put my foot for each and every step. The trip back to Gilman’s point seemed to take forever but probably lasted about forty minutes. When John and I arrived there it was bright sunshine and when you got out of the wind it was quite warm.
The first thing I did was dig around in my pack to find some chocolate bars, one for John and one for me. Then we got into the Powerbars and any other goodies we could stomach. We drank the last of the Gatorade from the Nalgene. I felt better after that little meal but still completely drained. My brain was functioning well enough to know that if I sat here too long I might never get up. The view here was magnificent. We could see far into Kenya and down the mountain past Kibo hut. The descent seemed quite daunting as I started down on rubbery legs. On the way up the scree had been frozen but now it was loose and it was like walking down a sand dune at the beach, a four thousand foot high sand dune! I had to stop and rest about four times on the trip down. At one point while I was stopped I could see Ray and Diane above me but they were a long way up. On another occasion I heard shouting up above me and I looked up to see two guides from a British group running full speed down the mountain with a women draped between them flopping about like a rag doll. When I say running I mean it. At the time my first thought was that they were likely to tumble and break numerous bones at any second. I really don’t know how they did it. They stopped about a hundred feet below me for a breather. I caught up with them then and found the girl slumped against the rock while the guides caught their breath. I tried to talk to her and offered her a drink but got only glassy eyes in return. I really don’t think she was conscious at that point. Within a couple of minutes the guides had hoisted her up again and were resuming their breakneck run down the mountain. Watching them go it took another twenty minutes or so for them to reach Kibo hut while it took me well over an hour to reach the same point. At one point a young couple caught and passed me on the way down. He was a nurse practitioner with the British group and explained that the woman had collapsed unconscious at the summit. He had immediately injected her with Dexamethasone and the guides had carried her off at that pace. I think they got her from the summit to Kibo hut in about an hour, an amazing feat.
John let me go at my own pace and I really don’t remember him on the way down but I know as we neared the hut he went by and then met me with a drink of juice and as I crawled into my bunk brought me a steaming hot bowl of the most delicious stew I have ever experienced. I remember being cold and yet I didn’t have the energy too get properly into my sleeping bag. Every couple of minutes someone else would straggle in and let in the cold wind. Every one was in a state of exhaustion. After a couple of hours I got up to go the washroom and was waiting in line when I realized that the girl standing next to me carrying on a lucid conversation was the girl I had seen carried down a couple of hours previously. She seemed to have made a complete recovery and had no recollection at all of getting from the summit back to Kibo.
Soon the guides had us pack everything up and got us moving down the trail to Horombo hut where we would spend the night. We arrived there in about three hours compared to the four and a half it took us on the way up. Dinner was at about five but none of us had the energy to eat and in fact went to bed by seven and slept straight through till six the next morning Diamox or no Diamox. See the effects of Diamox on sleep in another post.

Lessons learned

Really this section could be called “what I would do differently if I did it again!” and it really only refers to the summit climb itself. The trip went beautifully as far as I was concerned with a couple of minor “I should have dones!” that will be mentioned in another post.

The first thing I would do differently would be to eat. I am referring to eating before we set off at 10 pm for the summit. I am referring to every couple of hours on the trail. The only real discomfort I felt on my entire climb had to do with “hitting the wall”. I had the feeling of fear that I had got my self into trouble and would not get down in one piece on my own. I really didn’t like the light-headedness and lack of ability to think clearly. This may have been altitude related, but it did not manifest itself until the other effects showed up. So what do I mean? Before you leave home decide on some food such as power bars, chocolate bars, peanuts, whatever you like and pack them as your meal for 10 pm on summit night. This starts your summit climb with a good base. Then before you set off pack a number of snacks such as power bars, peanuts, whatever in your coat pockets, not in your packs. Rooting around in your pack in the dark on a freezing mountainside was a big deterrent to eating. I would even go as far as unwrapping the snacks and putting them in a baggie with no tie so that you don’t even have to take off your gloves to eat. I think eating every few hours on top of a base meal at 10 pm would have made all the difference. You have to plan this in advance, because when you get to Kibo the atmosphere isn’t conducive to planning. There are a hundred keyed up climbers all excited, and planning your menu will fall by the wayside. Do it at home, and do the unwrapping etc, the night before Kibo.

As to drinks definitely take Gatorade or equivalent and have the guides bring you boiled water just before you leave to mix it up in. It is remarkable how appetizing hot lemon lime Gatorade is at 18000 ft and freezing temps. The tubes on your hydration packs will freeze so pack a litre size Nalgene as well for when the tube freezes. What is left in the pack you will drink on the way down after it thaws again.

The next thing I would do slightly differently would be to break out the chemical hand warmers sooner. As soon as my hands started to feel cold I would get them out. They were still working when I got back to Kibo the next day so length of time isn’t an issue and warmer hands would have made me a lot more comfortable.

I would also take something called YakTrax with me for the icy trail at the top. I saw a few people with crampons on, but that seems kind of overkill. Surer footing would have been welcome especially when I was feeling as I was and YakTrax are small, light and cheap.

I wouldn’t do much else different if I was to climb again. I was lucky in that my fitness or genetics helped me avoid altitude sickness. I was well equipped and as a Canadian I was somewhat prepared for the cold. If you are fit and equipped you should enjoy your climb as much as I did.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Mandara to Horombo Huts

From Kilimanjaro Climb

We awoke in the AM having slept quite well although we did feel the effects of the Diamox. We all were up three times last night. During the night the sky had been clear and the stars were "stupendous" to quote my journal. We got up at 6:30 and when we looked outside the sun was rising and we were above the clouds. It was a gorgeous sunrise as the photo shows. At breakfast the occupants of one of the huts were complaining that they had slept terribly as there was a troop of monkeys on the roof of their hut all night. I am not sure what kind of monkeys these would have been.

Breakfast was quite good actually with a thin gruel of porridge, toast and scrambled eggs. We were on the trail by 8:30 am. We were above the forest, in the moorlands with some scubby trees festooned with an Usneoides type of lichen.

Usnea(?) type lichen on trees

The mist would roll in and out and we were constantly putting on and taking off layers. However the scenery now that we were out of the forest was spectacular. You begin to get a sense of scale, and realize how truly massive this mountain is! Behind us we could see cinder cones lower down the mountain. There were deep canyons where the meltwaters had carved into the volcanic rocks.

We were hearing birdsong a lot today but the culprits were hard to see. The only bird that I could identify were Malachite sunbirds. I saw quite a few of them. We also saw numerous skink like lizards, and one small gerbil like rodent.

Botanically, it was a very interesting day as not only were there a lot of flowers, we saw our first giant groundsels and giant lobelia, two endemics to the mountain. There will be more posts on the flora. It would be a fantastic trip for botanists, even if they just climbed to Kibo. Eventually we came to the Horombo huts. It seemed quite the little settlement with the huts, washrooms, dining hall, 'office and admin' buildings and a tent city as well. Some climbs that go up to the summit on one route use the Marangu route on the way down, camping at Horombo after summitting. The whole collection sits on a large point and the view in all directions is fantastic. Here we can see Kibo peak as well as Mawenzi peak. As well we can look down for what must be a hundred miles.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Best job in the world

OK, so this is shameless self promotion, but here goes! About a month ago Tourism Queensland in Australia advertised for the "best job in the world". Basically they want someone to go and live on the Great Barrier reef and blog about it. I have entered the competition. Here is the link to the site where my

video application is

Go there and rate me 5 stars

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Saturday, February 7, 2009

Gate to Mandara Hut

Our bags were weighed and they let us get on the van for the ride to the Marangu Gate. It is a nice sunny morning as we arrive at the gate of the Kilimanjaro National park. Everywhere there are people milling about of all nationalities. Our guide leaves us near the office and goes to deal with various issues which seem to take forever. Really it a case of mass chaos and somehow the guides and park staff make order out of it. The gate staff have a huge ledger in which it records details about every visitor in quadruplicate. Then we have to sign it in about 12 places. I never thought I would actually know my passport number offhand but by the time I left Kilimanjaro I could recite it from memory. Once the paperwork is done the porters have to be sorted out. When you consider that about 100 climbers start at Marangu each day, and that there are three guides/assistant/porters/cooks for each climber you can imagine the chaos. Most of 'our' gear is in nylon duffle bags. The porters tents, our food and cook stuff seem to be mostly in orange plastic garbage bags. How they know where anything is, is beyond me. We haven't actually seen our own bags since we arrived in the van and we are beginning to wonder if we ever will again. Somehow, Sam, our guide wades through all the red tape and organizes our porters, and we all set off. It is now 11:40 AM.

It is a sunny day as we enter the forest. The first day is spent entirely in the forest. It is lush and moist with many small stream and little waterfalls and pools. The trees are tall and covered in vines and ferns of many varieties. There are tree ferns 15 ft tall. The trail is good as thousands of hikers use it every year. The first hour we are all gung ho and really not that aware of our surroundings. Then it starts to rain. For the next hour we trudge along in the rain and the mud. We have gore-tex and all sorts of other fabrics. The porters that we see are wearing sandals and have no raingear other than the odd plastic poncho. Sam suggests that we bypass the lunch stop as we would be eating lunch in the open in the rain, so a little farther down the trail we stop under a tree, and eat our lunch standing in the rain. Lunch was some fried chicken, a banana, cookies and a soda pop. At this point everything was tasting good, rain or no rain. After lunch, we resumed our climb. The trail was soggy but it wasn't really muddy, as it is made of a sort of cinder gravel. The roots of the trees were slick. during the climb we heard a lot of bird song but the dense growth made it hard to see much birdlife. We also saw and heard the odd troop of green monkeys. Gradually we climbed out of the forest and out of the rain. As we reached the moorlands we saw Mandara huts, and the rain ceased. We registered at the huts, again a big ledger and passport number, etc. We found our cabin and changed into dry clothes and by the time we came out again the sun was out. For a while we watched groups of porters attempt to set up their sleeping tents. It seemed that none of them knew how to set up the tent, as after an hour or so it still wasn't up. Here there were a lot of White-necked ravens flying about. There were a few other birds around as well but since my bird book weighed about 10 pounds I had chosen to leave it at the Springland hotel. Apparently there are about 170 highland species found on the mountain although really only a few to be seen once you leave the forest zone.

At about that point Sam came around and offered us the opportunity of a short hike "to see a cinder cone". We decided that we would take a pass on his offer as we had all seen cinder cones before, but I kicked myself later. It turns out that one of the things that people who did take the short hike, saw, were Black and White Colubus monkeys. Apparently, this was the only opportunity we would have to see these monkeys. They are a fairly spectacular looking animal. So the moral of the story is to take these opportunities as they come along. I never did see a Colubus.
I might also have taken the opportunity at the Mandara hut to go back down the trail after dark with light to see if you could see Galagos. Galagos,also known as bushbabies are primitive nocturnal primates. They have very large eyes and might well be found by shining a light around in the forest and watching for eyes. Galagos are present in the forest around Kilimanjaro, and this might be a spot you could see them. Of course, you might see other types of eyes as well, such as leopards, snakes, owls, etc. I am not sure whether you could talk your guide into it, as we didn't try. If I ever went back I would definitely try. I don't think I would try walking into the forest at night without my guide.
That evening in the dark we could hear many "jungle noises" including monkey like sounds. I have no real idea what they were although they didn't sound like "crying babies" so I don't think they were Galagos.
Each half of the huts have four bunks so tonight we will be sharing with our half with Anne. She is from England and is the organizer of a group of 39 climbing in support of an Ovarian cancer group. She is the first to admit she has no experience on Kilimanjaro or mountains in general. We wish her well. We are at approximately 9000 ft of elevation and so far we are feeling no efects of altitude. The gate was at 6400 ft so we climbed 2600 ft today.

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Side Effects of Diamox

Diamox is a drug taken by many as a preventative measure against AMS. There is considerable controversy over its effectiveness and whether or not it is for everyone. I am not going to wade into that discussion here. Myself and the two others I climbed with all took it and we all were successful but many climbing at the same time were successful without it. I have included links on various subjects including AMS and Diamox.
The main side effect of Diamox is that it is a diuretic. You are constantly peeing, and drinking and peeing again. This is one thing during the day but something else entirely at night. We climbed using the Marangu route so we had cabins each night. See the photo below. Most of the cabins have two rooms each having four bunks. Every bit of building material on the mountain is carried up by foot, so needless to say not much is wasted. The cabins are A frame styled and they have four bunks. I pity anyone who is over six feet tall as the bunks are tight. When all four of you are in a cabin and all your gear is in there is no extra room. In fact walking from the bunk to the door is a challenge. Even more of a challenge in the dark! There were three of us, so each night we had a roommate that was a stranger to us. Every night it was someone different. It is one thing to wake up a good friend in the night as you are going out to the bathroom, quite another to disturb a total stranger. Anyways this is adapted almost verbatim from my journal on the night at Horombo hut.

Slept like a baby last night with the exception of having to get up to go to the washroom three times, a side effect of Diamox. Going pee in the night is quite a comical operation, especially if you are in the top bunk. Generally you delay getting up until you are just about desperate. When there are three others in your cabin you try very quietly to unzip your nylon sleeping bag. Then in the pitch black you feel around to find the clothes that you so neatly placed somewhere the night before. When you find said clothing you attempt to put it on quietly in a very cramped space in the dark. After having accomplished that quite nicely, you reach for your glasses on the shelf over your bunk. In the process you knock everything off the shelf, find your glasses, put them on, find your headlamp and put it on your head, and find your roll of toilet paper. Now the part about being on the upper bunk comes into play. You then reach up and grab a hold of the rafter with both hands, hang from the rafter for a few seconds and then drop the six or eight inches to the cabin floor, landing awkwardly on someone’s boots and stumble making enough noise so that now everyone in the cabin is wide awake. At this point they all decide that they should go to the bathroom as well, so they turn on the headlamps and get dressed in the light and then we can find the latch on the cabin door and out we go!!
Repeat 3X per night!!!

Those of you who are thinking of going to Kili may find this a bit of an odd journal entry. Those who have been will find it quite apropos.

As promised here are some links on altitude sickness, Diamox and mountain medicine. They will open in a new window.



Altitude.org: A High Altitude Resource

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