One word. Polepole (pronounced poh-lay-poh-lay). It means “slowly” in Swahili. Slowly is not just a word in Tanzania – it is a way of life. Everything moves at a slower pace here. Slowly is how things move at the bank when trying to withdraw money – from credit cards – the only way you can access money in Tanzania (sorry to say…). Slowly is how your food arrives at the table when you dine. Slowly is how you climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Slowly. There is no other way.
Kilimanjaro is located at an altitude of 5895 meters (or 19,344 ft for you imperialists). For a prairie girl who grew up among flat plains at sea level, this is freakin’ HIGH. We started our trek bright-eyed as all Kili virgins do – and met the stalwart team who would ensure our survival and success in reaching ‘the roof of Africa’. It is estimated that 80% of those who attempt Kili make it to the summit. Well we think that is crap. Our best guess is that 65% are successful and you will soon learn why.
But first, I need to introduce a few people. Ilya – our ‘comrade’ – hails from Moscow, Russia. A wonderfully earnest guy whose day job is in IT but don’t let that fool you. He is a jovial and generous person. I will say like most techies – he is fascinated by gadgets. He had the coolest toys including a watch that was also a compass combined with an altimeter. And his camera was BEAUTIFUL. Fully loaded SLR with 50mm lens. Be still my heart.
Then there was the team. Our team was just PHENOMENAL. We had John, our chief guide, Freddy, our assistant guide, a cook (who made amazing food – never the same meal twice) and five porters (one of whom also brought us our food). I must tell you about these men. You have NO idea how hard they work – and the pittance (we later discovered) they earn. But that will be in my next post.
First the mountain…
Marangu (a.k.a. the Coca Cola route) begins at the entrance gate already 1800m above sea level. Over the first 3 days we encountered lush rainforest in which a monkey and a possum were sighted, then moorland through to alpine desert in which little vegetation exists and only the white bearded raven inhabits (oh and one mouse and a salamander). The dust devils are killer. How can I describe the sheer amount of dust in this last leg of the trek to the final ascent? Take your vacuum cleaner, remove the full bag or canister and toss the contents up into the air. The dust that rains down is what exists on an ongoing basis in the stretch that leads to Gilman’s Point. You will be coughing up dust for days after. The dirt devils (wind funnels that pick up sand) help increase your intake considerably.
The final ascent. Let me just cut to the chase. The craziness that anyone contemplating Kilimanjaro should know (and that amazingly no one tells you). Your final ascent takes place at midnight on your last day. You trek slowly…starting at 5000+ meters…up a 65 degree incline……of sandy gravel…for 5 hours non-stop…in the dark…at -15degrees Celsius. Eventually you will get to 2 hours worth of boulders to climb up…switch-backing the whole way. The dust is so thick and your footing is uneven and on unstable ground. You are at an altitude that deprives you of 50% of your oxygen so for every one breath you might have taken at sea level you need two now. You are mostly an automaton trudging along until you have to stop to catch your breath…but there isn’t much. By the time you get to Gilman’s Point at 5685m you still have another 200 to go before reaching the summit. You may be sick…tired…weak…cold but you know you want to see that glacier. So you continue on…polepole. And you finally get there. Practically ready to fall over. You smile. Not because you are smug but because you SURVIVED.
*WARNING: A necessary rant follows.
KIDS & KILI
Now having climbed the mountain I feel I have it on good authority to dish out my two-cents on the utterly bizarre practice of parents bringing kids along on the trek. We encountered several families coming down and going up. Those coming down seemed surprised and disappointed that their kids (not much older than 12 years old) were unsuccessful in reaching Gilman’s Point. I am sorry but these parents are clearly on CRACK. Why on earth would you subject your child to this? Only idiotic adults like us should be doing this kind of thing.
Make no mistake climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro is the hardest physical experience of my life and with the exception of child birth, I expect it will always remain so. Even Mike, who has run two marathons, agreed that when you combine the altitude, physical exertion, trekking, 65 degree incline, boulder climbing, dust, darkness, -15degrees celsius temperature, etc… it is very difficult. To make my point further, out of the three of us (Mike, Ilya and I), only two of us made it. Ilya’s body just gave out on him once reaching Gilman’s Point. He knew not to go any farther. Freddy helped him get down the mountain but when asking Ilya how he got down, he couldn’t tell you. He doesn’t remember. That is the kind of effect all of these factors combined can have on a person. Furthermore, for the last two hours of our trek, John held my hand and practically pulled me up the mountain. If not for him, I would have been stuck in the sandy gravel somewhere in the middle of the incline – probably hypothermic. I was so unstable that any minute could tip over and go tumbling down the mountain. Even once reaching Gilman’s, with ledges so narrow, I had to use my hands to claw at rocks and crawl along. If not, I would have plummeted to my death. This is not freakin’ DISNEYWORLD people. That is, NOT a family vacation spot unless the youngest member of your family is 20 years old. I won’t belabour the point. I think you get it.
There is so much more to say about Kili but I would rather tell you about the people – as they make every experience what it is. Check out the next post which will come in a few days. Off to safari tomorrow.