Monday, November 3, 2008

Notes from Tanzania: Kilimanjaro

9/23/08 - Uhuru Hostel, Moshi, Tanzania

My legs still ache from the climb. Or was it the descent? Probably both. Max and I are sitting at a table in the courtyard here, watching a 4.5'-tall maribou stork strut his stuff for the other birds as we write; when he landed, it sounded like a small airplane. A crazy man rants nearby.

Kakasii (our guide) dropped us off here yesterday afternoon, after picking us up from the Marangu Gate at Mt. Kilimanjaro--with three ice-cold Kilimanjaro beers standing by, as promised. It was our first drink in over a week. Not quite as impressive as Adolpho's streak (2 years, broken when we offered him one in Uswaa village), but probably a personal record for the three of us.

As usual, we all had to cram into a small vehicle--me, Max, and Clemence, six days overdue for a shower, wedged into the backseat--but at least all the windows were down and some charming Tanzanian music was blasting. Talk delightfully impossible, we all just enjoyed the scenery and tunes as Kakasii attempted to break his own land speed record.

It was hard not to think back on our recent trek. Day 5--Summit Day--which occurred on Sep.21, was one hell of a test, a true emotional yo-yo of a day, during which we experienced both the high and low points of our six-day trek.

Kibo Hut. 4750 meters. Our day began at midnight. After a few hours of sleep and a few hours of watching time pass in the moonlit darkness, without a clock, thinking about the day to come, breakfast arrived.

The porter with a red bandana--whose name we never got, since we were not allowed to mingle with the porters--brought in a plate of cookies. That was it. That was our sustenance for the longest, most intense leg of our climb. Cookies.

We suited up for the bitter cold (-15 Celsius?), filled Ralph's daypack with our self-purified bottles of water and some trail mix I had on hand, and waited outside for our guide.

Clemence was nowhere to be found--other groups were already departing for the summit, a string of headlamps in the distance, and our guide was AWOL.

Clemence finally showed up, we took a few photos, and headed out. Spirits were high for the first couple hours. As we plodded zig-zag up the endless gravel slope, passing all the players in this comedy, one by one, each briefly illuminated in the moonlit semi-darkness, I could not shake the feeling that we were in some sort of Fellini dream sequence.

First, there was the Spanish couple. She wasn't feeling ‘well in the head’ when we woke up, and the expression on her face now implied matters had only gotten worse. I said "Hola" and we chugged past. I hoped they would make it to the top, since I actually like them--which I couldn't say for most of the other climbers--but I didn't think it likely. [He made it; she didn't - Ed]

We passed the three annoying Polish people I thought were Russian, who kept us awake our first night on the mountain until I pounded on the wall of our hut and shouted “Shut the fuck up!” with conviction, the large group of Austrians...and others I can't remember. Our methodical, 'pole, pole,' style, with only a few short breaks, was proving successful. I was getting excited about being the first ones on top, owning the fabulous view for at least a few exhilarating minutes.

Then the sickness started. Nausea, accompanied by the nearly-overwhelming need to shit, followed by alternating cold/hot sweats, dogged me the rest of the way up. When it got unbearable, I would stop for a quick rest, then press on despite my desire to shoot myself in the face.

I took off my hood and the handkerchief covering my nose/mouth, and tried to breathe in the fresh cold air in giant gusts. I worried about frostbite, especially when my toes went numb and my hands seemed irretrievably frozen in my gloves, but wasn't sure what I could really do about it. I had to press on and I just hoped everything would turn out okay. I hoped I wouldn’t become the next Beck Weathers.

The endless gravel zig-zag finally ended and we were met by a similarly-endless, nearly-vertical pile of boulders. I couldn't believe it--this, too? Clemence started up, choosing his path as he went, and we followed. Slowly.

Our breaks became more frequent, our bodies completely exhausted, barren of energy. I staggered around like a drunk, only my desire to not fail keeping me upright. How do all these old people do this? How do all these overweight people do this? How the hell did Jimmy Carter do this in 2000, at age 76? Why are we struggling so much? When will this end? Should we give up? How can we give up? How can we not do this? We can do this!

By the time we got to Gilman’s Point--5685 meters, atop the crater rim--I was ready to fall over and die. Luckily, the view saved me. An eternity of red, ethereal clouds spread in every direction. As cheesy as it sounds, it really did seem as though all of Africa lay before us, that we were gods looking down on the human comedy. We watched the sun break the horizon. A vast bowl of volcanic dust and snow, topped by the striking profile of a glacier wrapping around the other side of the mountain, awaited us in the other direction. Stunning.

All the hard work, the misery, was redeemed. We sat down for a few minutes to soak it all in, then Clemence said we had to press on--it was still an hour and a half to the actual summit, along the crater rim. Ralph asked me if I thought we should stay there to watch the sun rise, and I said we’d probably be able to see it periodically along the way. I regret not staying there.

The slog from Gilman’s Point to Uhuru (the summit) was murder. Slow, painful, roasted-on-a-spit MURDER. Barely able to breathe in the thin air at 19,000 feet, our muscles in surrender mode, our heads swimming in oxygen-deprivation, our stomachs dangerously empty, teetering precipitously over the edge of the crater rim, the 1.5 hours felt like forever.

In the distance, we saw (and heard) countless people in matching orange jackets prancing around jubilantly. They must have come up a different route, since we were the first people up ours, and, from the looks of it, their route was a lot easier. Some of them were even running up and down the outside slope, burning off excess energy. Everybody was smiling, laughing, exuberant; we were miserable and, therefore, immediately hated them. There was no way I could have smiled; no way I could have run.

In fact, ever since we hit Gilman’s Point, I had become unable to stop sobbing uncontrollably. Happy, sad, exhausted, proud, whatever--I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t speak, since my voice would immediately crack into a sob, so I remained silent as much as possible. I thought about shooting a video when I got to the top, a simple one where I would tell Melissa I loved her, and the thought made me cry again. I didn’t think I would even be able to say “I love you” without crying. 'What is wrong with me?' I wondered...and cried...

The last stretch dragged on. I could occasionally see groups of climbers in the distance and their location destroyed me all over again each time. How could it still be that much farther? When will this end? I finally saw the top from a distance; an agonizing distance. I turned to Ralph:

“Don’t fucking tell me we have to go all the way over there. What the fuck?!”

We did have to go all the way over there. Extremely slowly. The incline was minimal, but unrelenting. Ralph seemed to be dealing with it okay, but Max and I could only go 20 meters or so before we would need to rest. We didn’t understand what the hell the rush was, but Clemence kept pushing us along.

People on their way down--full of life, energy, smiles, springs in their feet--made me sick, unfairly filled me with hatred for them. How could they have done this and not be on their deathbeds, as I felt. How?!

By the time we made it to the official summit (5,895 meters)-- a circus of activity dominated by middle-aged American assholes whining about lack of cell reception--I was so pissed off that I didn’t even care. Five days of hiking, five days of eager anticipation, months of planning, much money spent...and I didn’t even care that I was standing atop the roof of Africa.

We three sat on some rocks and rested, totally spaced out. It was 7:30am. Clemence pushed us to hurry over and take our pictures by the summit sign before more people arrived. I didn’t see the point of hurrying--there were already like a hundred people on top, a steady flow on the way up, so what did it matter? There would always be a line, so why couldn’t we just chill the fuck out for twenty minutes?

But we gave into our guide-cum-slave-driver, once again, and posed for two or three photos. Max held out the Terry Plumbing flag in all of them, which annoyed me when I realized it later. In all the commotion--picture bitchy suburban parents fighting about how long somebody’s kid has been sitting on Santa’s lap at a shopping mall, actually saying lines like this: “Oh, so now we’re taking two shots? Hmmph!”--Max and I both totally forgot to pose with the leopard he had been toting around since Zanzibar, expressly for this purpose, so we could give our niece and nephew a toy leopard that had climbed Kilimanjaro with us, along with photos taken along the way to prove it.

I also would have liked a solo photo, but didn’t feel like fighting to make it happen. All I wanted to do was leave this madness behind and sit down somewhere for a while, eat some trail mix, catch my breath, rest, improve my emotional state a bit before the inevitable, grueling descent to Kibo Hut.

But Clemence would have none of it. “We need to go now--the sun is too strong here.” All I could think was: 'What the fuck does it matter? It’s so damn cold I don’t even have any skin exposed!!! Does it burn through down jackets, you asshole?!'

But, once again, we pressed on as instructed. I think we were just too beaten down to argue. The trek back to Gilman’s Point was like a Trail of Tears. We demanded to stop there for a while to rest and eat something. By this point, Ralph, who earlier complained that he was falling asleep while walking, was so devoid of energy that he fell down TWICE while trying to sit on a large boulder.

Gilman’s Point was super crowded at this point, and everybody was in high spirits. They must have had more than a handful of cookies before/during the 20,000-calorie climb/descent. After a brief rest, we continued down, hoping to simply put all this behind us.

Down-climbing the boulder wall was difficult and time-consuming. Our legs were still weak from the climb up, our stamina waning due to continued lack of sustenance. Descending the eternity of gravel beyond the boulders was agonizing.

I literally skied down on my boots, using the walking poles like ski poles, slaloming around large boulders. It easily took over an hour or two--a hell of a ski run, and hell for the knees. After a slow start, Ralph took off and flew down the mountain, passing me at some point and not stopping until he got to Kibo Hut, where we were to rest and eat lunch before continuing another 12km down to Horombo Hut for the night.

What was it that filled his sails so suddenly, so vigorously? The overwhelming need to take a shit.

By the time I got down, Ralph was in bed. I borrowed his packet of diaper wipes and raced off to the pit toilets myself, having had to shit since we started the climb 13 hours ago...

Now, I have to tell you these pit toilets were disgusting. As I dirt-skied my way around the final bend, the scent riding the robust wind could have wilted a rainforest. It's no wonder there’s an alpine desert up here...

The unthinkable--using these pit toilets, which were literally just a hole in the ground, surrounded by piss, shit, dirt, and altitude-induced vomit--became reality out of pure, unadulterated necessity.

Nothing lowers standards quite like the need to go to the bathroom. When your choice is between filling your pants or using a disgusting bathroom, it is no longer even a choice. How many days does it take before a new prisoner shits on a filthy, seat-less toilet in the middle of his cell, in full view of his creepy, violent cellmate(s)? many days can the human body hold it in? It is but a matter of time--eventually, everyone gives in and performs.

In case you were wondering, it’s not easy to squat over a hole in the ground, trying to keep your pants clean, after a grueling 12-hour ascent/descent. My legs were quivering, ready to acquiesce to gravity at any second. My lungs frantically huffed and puffed, searching the polluted air for precious oxygen.

All went well, luckily, and I crashed out in my bed after changing into some dry clothes.

A couple hours later, I think--we never had any real concept of time--the porter with the red bandana woke us up for lunch. What do you give three starved mountain climbers after a soul-destroying, energy-sapping, 12-hour climb on a nearly-empty stomach?

Easy one--a plate of cold toast, old fruit, cold fried-eggplant patties, and horrible onion soup. That’s it. That’s the lunch our crew slaved over as we climbed. That was the fuel they thought we needed. I took a few bites and walked away; Max didn’t even touch it.

Clemence walked in shortly after lunch arrived, alarmed that we weren’t ready to leave for Horombo Hut yet. I wanted to punch him in the face so badly. Not only because of the slave-driving climb and the shitty food, but because he never even told us to be ready at a specific time, yet here he was yelling at us for being late.

We took our sweet time packing up and resumed our descent. Surprisingly, I was in a pretty good mood--partly because I had slept a bit, partly because Clemence decided to carry my pack, partly because the hike was relatively flat. I had some good conversation with my brother, as well as with Ralph. It was hard to believe we had stood atop Kilimanjaro not long ago--much like the machete mugging in Arusha, I felt a surreal detachment from the reality of the moment. Was I up there? Really? What did it feel like? I don’t really know...

But what I did know was that we were heading down, down, down--and that was a good thing. Off the mountain. Finish camping, ditch Clemence, move on.

After a shitty dinner of banana stew at Horombo Hut, crammed onto the end of a table full of Japanese climbers bitching in broken English about not having any boiling water, we hit the sack hard.

The next morning, we hiked 12km to Mandara Hut, most of which I did by myself, at a breakneck pace, rocking out to 24 LCD Soundsystem tracks, dodging porters going up and down, staring out into the crazy extraterrestrial landscapes.

At Mandara, we waited easily 45 minutes for our lunch--french-fry omelettes and steamed vegetables. Huh? I wolfed it down. We pumped some water from a nearby faucet and hit the trail again.

Clemence told us he would catch up. We couldn’t tell what he was doing when he said this--it looked like he was either shitting in a ditch or washing his ass or something. As it turned out, we think he was changing his clothes, awkwardly, in semi-public, since he was wearing different clothes when we saw him later on down the trail.

We flew down the last stretch--partly to stay ahead of/away from Clemence, partly to just finish this thing already.

Clemence tried to stop us occasionally to point out things, to make us think he deserved a better tip, due to his bottomless knowledge, and it reminded me of how he had seemed super intense during our first meeting, surprised that we had not prepared any questions about the local plants, as if he was some kind of insane nature expert. I don’t think he pointed out one fucking thing on the way up. We might as well have been led up the mountain by an auto mechanic. Yet, here he was:

“See that thing on that tree?”

Where? What tree? What thing? We’re in a fucking rainforest, Clemence! You can’t be that vague! Can you give me a color? A shape? An adjective? There is a veritable smorgasbord of vegetation here, for Christ’s sake... Oh? The bee’s nest made out of a log? Yeah, already know all about it, Clemence. They’re all over the place. Thanks for filling us in on some insider-secret. There’s an extra five cents in your tip jar, now leave me alone!

Even if his intentions were more innocent, we just didn’t care. We kept going, sweating our way toward those three ice-cold Kilimanjaro beers and a one-way ticket off the mountain.

Do I regret the adventure? No. It was an irreplaceable experience and the highs, if not more abundant than the lows, made it all worthwhile. Would I have done it differently? Hell yeah. Will I ever do it again? Hell no.

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