Friday, January 27, 2012

Softly Softly Catchee Mountain

Day 4: 5km, 3 hours, 3900m up to 4200 and back to 3930m. One point of interest from yesterday, by the way, was as we were coming down from the 4600m lunch spot. We (the hoards of porters and trekkers) found a woman who said she had been lost on the mountain for 7 days. She was clearly hungry and thirsty, so various people, myself included, offered water and snacks to give her a boost. She was to be shown back down the mountain by a spare porter, but that night when they stopped in a local hut, she vanished again. My waiter (did I not mention that I had a waiter? he was a porter too, and a trainee guide...) was talking about it on the last night and said she was a wizard (I think he meant witch), as she was clearly lying about having been lost for 7 days (she was not dirty enough apparently) and his theory was that she had been shot out of the air by someone (witches are, of course, bad!) It also explained why she disappeared on the way down the mountain. Abdul the porter was quite superstitious about it, and I think he believed what he was saying. He was a smart guy, a Muslim too, but obviously still held on to some traditional beliefs. Still, it gave us something unusual to talk about.

But I digress. The walking was getting interesting now, with some proper, two hands needed to climb, scaling of the path. The landscape was more barren and rugged, and took us to within just 2 hours of base camp. The 6-day trekkers would be going on to Base camp today as well, then summiting at midnight tonight, but we were keeping all that for tomorrow. At the time, I was feeling pretty good, like I could have done it in 6 days, but when it actually happened, I was glad I had gone for the extra day - it will become clear why later.

After we crossed the 4200m ridge line we had to drop down to the bottom of the Karanga Valley, then climb back out the other side. It was steep in every direction, and the stream at the bottom of the valley was the last water supply before we started the walk off the mountain. This meant that, firstly, all water for tonight would have to be fetched by some poor bugger (not me again) going back down the valley to bring up a 20l bucket of water. It also meant that tomorrow, when we had walked the 2 hours to base camp, someone (not me!) would have to walk back, go down the valley and bring water all the way back to base camp. On the up side (and its only a tiny upside), the porters could do the trail in about an hour, versus my slow 2 hours, but that's small consolation. Incidentally, I asked my guide how long it would take him to do the Machame trail if he didn't have to look after me. He said 3 days, there and back. I tried not to look too impressed.

The problem with such a short day was that once we got to camp, it was a long time until bedtime, and there was not too much to do in camp. I went a-wandering to try and find some of the more familiar faces I'd met on the way up so far, but it was that cold and windy most folks were hiding from the cold and clouds in their anonymous tents, and house calls still seemed a bit 'not on' to me. I mooched about taking some photos, making blog notes and snoozing, breaking all this up with as much food as the crew could provide. The food had been good all the way up, but by now we were off the meat and on to the vegetarian diet - for me anyway. The crew still seemed to have some increasingly smelly meat to tuck into. while the food had been generally excellent, Juma the cook did tend to be a bit heavy handed with the amount of salt he used in the cooking. I found it rather over powering, and was forced to reduce my intake to about half of what he made (this was still a lot, mind you), and he shared out what I left between the other guides. I don't think I offended anyone, and it seemed easier than complaining about the food or giving cooking advice. That wouldn't have been very British of me.

Day 5: 2 1/4 hours, 4km, 3930m up to 4600m. I had to get up in the night at about 3am for a pee. Not an old man pee, you understand (how very dare you!), a diamox induced diuretic pee, and I was glad to see the pattern of the cloud lifting and leaving a crystal clear night once again evident. It was also totally calm and still, so fingers crossed we'd get the same treatment tomorrow night.

Day broke just as still and clear, and we began another short day, this one deliberately so. The plan was to get to camp in time to have an afternoon nap, as we would be up at midnight to tackle the summit. Also, even though I was feeling good with the altitude, I was finding that if I did get out of puff, it was very hard to get it back, so the slow pace was finally paying its dues. We got to camp at about 11am, leaving plenty of time to kick back. This camp site was really a desperate affair this time, with tents being shoved in to any vaguely flat piece of ground. There were so many rocks and boulders it was very hard to find anywhere actually level, so I found myself trying to nap on an incline, which left me sliding down the roll mat into a heap at the bottom of the tent.

I considered my feet for a while - so far so good. No blisters, probably due to the slow pace - they never had a chance to rub up. This was good, because the last big push was to be 11km in the dark to the summit, then 11km back down for a breakfast, then anther 6km to a lower altitude for the last night. I hoped they would hold up for all of that.

As luck would have it, my tent was pitched near the tent of a loud American group. Now, you now how I hate to stereotype and generalise (ha!) but it's a well known fact that Americans like to talk loudly and not listen to what anyone else is saying. These ones also seemed unaware that everybody outside their tent could hear them, as the walls are only made of thin material. It was hardly my fault, then, that I was able to accidentally hear what they were saying (OK, it's a fair cop, I began to deliberately eavesdrop). The first part of the conversation was along the lines of "the wurst leg injury Ah ever had", the winner being the one whose leg was"torn to shreds" and "woodna made it outta there if I hadna had some painkillers". I missed the segue, but the next bit I heard was about "my mammy who came from Alabammy (sic)". I almost had to call out and ask the obvious - did she have a banjo, and was it on her knee? I resisted. The next part of the conversation almost proved too much for my self control, however. They got on to the topic of the poison that is Coca-Cola. Each man had some half remembered stats, and it was, for a moment, quite the stat-off! The first asked "D'you know how many T-spoons of sugar there are in a can?" His friend new it was lots, and was keen to impress. "20?" he hazarded. He'd aimed too high, and burst his friends shock bubble. "Na, it ain't that merch, its, like, 11 or sumpthin". Then we got on to acidity: "If batt'ry acid is, like, a 1 on the pH scale, and water's, like, 7, then coke is, like, 2 or sumpthin. Its pretty acid." I was so tempted to join in with my own stat: "Y'all know what I heard? I heard they use babies' souls to make the bubbles. They put the babies in a press and squeeze that soul right outta there, then they crush it up and chuck it in, and that's the fizzy bit. I dunno how many babies it takes for a can, but I do know they crush the souls right up. That's what I heard. Yup." It was tempting. Maybe it was the altitude playing tricks on my brain...Bloody rednecks.

Day 6: 29km, 4600m up to 5895m and back down to 3100m. So, midnight came, I got up and had popcorn, tea and shortbread biscuits. Breakfast snack of champions, that. We had 11km in the dark to reach the summit, then 11m back down, and a further 6km to the lower camp that night. Best get too it.

When we set off at 1.15am, we were behind most of the other groups, some of whom had set off as early as 11pm. My guide was confident in my ability and speed though, and I had to trust him. He knew I wanted to be at the top for sunrise, and I left it up to him to chose how soon we should go.

I'd not got much sleep before we left - just an hour or so in the afternoon, and not much before midnight, but felt pretty ood. Perhaps the excitement was giving me strength. I focused on my breathing to begin with, as we shuffled our way through the rocks by the light of our head torches. I found, however, that if I thought about my breathing, I soon got out of breath, but if I thought about anything else, my body breathed as much as it needed and I was fine. We plodded on, and it was gratifying to catch and pass most of the people on the way up. My competitive side was kicking in again, and every time we overtook a wheezing, puffing group, I felt a little more pleased with myself. No wussy struggling for me! I had to take a bit of care though, as the overtaking was often slightly off track and required a quick burst of speed to get by, which could easily have left me struggling for air. It was all good though.

It's strange the places your mind goes when all that your eyes have to occupy themselves is a small area of illuminated rock and sand that never seems to change, and your guides legs from the knees down - all that was visible in the cone of light cast by my headtorch. Old demons and new came to visit in turn, as did some great memories of crazy days in South America and Canada. Not all were welcome guests for what they were, but all played a part in distracting me from the monotonous trudging in the dark. The sky had once again cleared for us and was diplaying a stunning array of astral bodies but the wind had decide to howl through with a vengeance, and it was slightly unstable going from time to time, not to mention far colder than it might otherwise have been.

Finally, at 6.15am on the dot (Mahamoud knew his business and my speed, that was for sure), we reached the summit in a slow speed foot race against sun as it just began to crest the horizon. We won, just, and I had enough time to snap a few shots, including the obligatory one beside the summit sign, before the bitter, freezing cold proved too much for my camera battery, and I lost power. It was so frustrating watching the sky lighten and reveal more and more of the amazing vista that was the highest place in Africa, and not having a means to capture it other than my memory. Of course, my photos would have totally failed to do it justice, but the option would have been nice. I was blown away by the ice, glaciers, rock formations, a feeling I get all too infrequently since I overloaded on spectacular in South America. It was nice to be wowed once again. Also impressive was the way everything changed over and over as the light grew stronger, shadows shifting, colours going from purples to oranges to regular, genuine brown. Too soon, it was time to begin the descent. I think I managed 20 minutes on the top before my fingers went numb and my face began to freeze.

The way down was a wonderful surprise - instead of a slow, 11km uphill trudge, we had a crazy-fast downhill scree run! Now, I'm usually pretty sensitive to my environment and not harming it, and scree running isn't the kindest of activities to inflict on the sid of a mountain but, on this occasion, I felt like I'd earned a bit of fun. They say you go up Kili like an old man (I did, every shuffly step of it) and come down like a teenager. Well I was up for some of that. I suspect we cut some corners and shortened the actual distance covered - a few less zigs and not so many zags, perhaps, so it took just an hour to make it down and my legs were burning by the time we got there. It was tiring but heaps of fun and the lure of breakfast at the bottom was certainly encouraging our haste. Of course, one false step and I could easily have stuffed an ankle, but you try not to think of these things at the time. that would be the old man agian, and his job was done. Stand aside, and let the teenager out - if only to prove there was still a bit of that attitude left in me!

Unfortunately, when we got back to camp we found the strong winds we'd suffered on the way up had been far worse in camp, and many of the tents had been blown over, including ours - to the point of total destruction! Instead of a rest and a feed, we did a quick pack up and set off straight away to the more sheltered lower levels. With sore, aching knees and feeling the exhaustion and lack of sleep creeping up with every step, we finally made it to the calmer, warmer levels further down, and had a picnic breakfast for half an hour, before continuing down the last bit to the final camp. A long, satisfying day, and it seemed strange to look back and see Kili looming over us once again, so distant and yet, just that morning I'd been standing on the top of her.

Day 7: 2 1/2 hours, 7km, 3100m to about 1800m. The final stretch down to the bottom was to be quick, but jarring to my knees. The descent route was far more direct than the ascent, and after a night spent sleeping soundly (my tent was fine, but my porters had to do a botch job on their tent as it had been so badly broken in the winds - at least they'll get a new one for the next trip...I hope) we set off bright and early. We made it to the exit gate by 10.30am, thanks to the fairly straight forward path. It wound its way through the forest once more, some of the porters were literally running down the hill with their lightened loads, and we saw a family of Colobus monkeys as we neared the end of the trail. What a nice way to end the trek. I was back in Moshi by noon and in the shower about 5 minutes later. I had time in the afternoon to reflect on what my summit trek to the top of Kili had cost me - apart from the financial of course - and figured it was a camera lens cover, and a possible dose of Giardia (false alarm) which provided me with the temporary amusement of attempting various tunes and farmyard animal impressions. My niece would be proud of my efforts, although I only really perfected the "angry duck".

That evening, Mahamoud and Abdul joined me for a celebratory beer or two, and I was flattered when they both said how impressed they'd been with the speed I'd been able to hike the trail, especially the last summit push. I guess they could have been full of it, but as I'd already paid their tip (and it would have been a smaller tip than they'd have been hoping for or would have got if they'd had a larger party to lead) I figured they meant it. Which was nice.not sure whether to credit the altitude simulation or the half-a-diamox-twice-daily-with-food. I suspect they both played their part.

Next up is the safari trip to Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire, starting in the morning at half 8. This is all being written retrospectively though, so I know how it all ends. You'll have to tune in later to find out. Sorry this one has been a bit of a monster. Well done if you stuck with it. See you later, I guess, for the next installment.

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