Kilimanjaro, pole pole till you get there…
Why, oh why – they asked me. Just because. Because I remember this name from my kindergarten years. Because there’s no mountain like this anywhere else in the world – an almost 6 km high cone standing all alone. There’s something extraterrestrial in it, it looks somewhat like Olympus Mons on Mars. What? Expensive you say, huh? You, my friend, paid 3000 eur last month to get the gearbox in your BMW X5 fixed. It’s all about priorities, you have your X5, I have my Kilimanjaro
- Ready, set, go!
Actually, another and a crucial reason why I chose Kilimanjaro was that they are not so many peaks that high in the world which can be just walked on. The climb is actually a very long hike and numerous videos online make you think it´s quite an easy thing – provided you’re in a good shape. So, I was full of self-confidence. Mountain sickness? Oh come on, I parachute-jumped from 4,5 km! Somehow it didn’t cross my mind that few minutes and few days at low pressure are somewhat different things…
Having all trip checklists completed, I realized I lacked the real goal, something I wanted to bring back, apart from the satisfaction by the fact that I was there. Some impulse that I’d get there on the top. The answer came, as many times before, from the gospel of my youth i.e. the Rolling Stones lyrics
I’m the man on the mountain, come on up.
Give me little drink from your loving cup.
Just one drink and I’ll fall down drunk.
Loving cup! An inspiration for my new big drawing! Least I knew it was going to be much more than just that…
2. Start me up
Although there is no big city around, Kilimanjaro has its own international airport – apparently, the tourist traffic is intense enough. There, what I saw first was a 747 by Qatar Airways. Was I about to see and overtake over 500 Arabs on my way to the top?
Cola or whisky? – the tour agent had asked me back in Prague. Huts or tents, beer at camps or… no beer? You care not, really? OK, an easy steady ascend or ups and downs but with magnificent panoramic views? – Views, views! – I screamed promptly and so the Machame aka “Whisky” route was chosen over the “Cola” one i.e. Marangu.
At the hotel, they introduced the team that was about to take care of our climbing group. Actually, the group was comprised of just myself and six others. 6. Six people! A guide, a cook, three porters, and … a waiter. A waiter! You may think they would just stick to the way of travel the German and the British rulers taught them. But I suspect it’s just a manifestation of ineffectiveness and over-employment when they created useless jobs just to hover some more bucks out of your pocket.
Early in the morning I sat at the Machame gate watching a woman lawn mowing with a sword. No kidding, she chopped grass with a machete-looking tool – it can work all right, if time is not a problem.
On the first day we made the largest numbers of elevation meters (1200) and it was the easiest one. It just supported
my illusion of the climb being nothing but a relaxed and pleasant walk…
One of the main attractions to me at Kilimanjaro was passing through several climate zones during the ascent. Having started in a rain-forest at 1800 m ASL, I watched it gradually turn into something subtropical. The Machame camp (3000 m ASL) we stayed for a night in, was already amidst a forest that looked almost European. My guide kept on pointing at various plants and proudly claiming they grew nowhere else on the planet. I even memorized the name of the rarest of them, a small flower called… ehm, never mind.
Anyway, I felt much better there compared to the hot and sticky air down in the jungle. And I also felt safe, thanks to a small but brave man armed with a (probably Chinese) replica of AK-47. He was really excited as I showed him how to take the gun apart for cleaning. It looked quite dirty inside so I hope it won´t get jammed as he tries to put it in use one day.
Although I was formally a group of myself, I quickly made friends with other micro groups, mostly Germans and Taiwanese. One of the former was a semi-pro marathon runner, so he constantly tended to go faster and then enjoying the views when waiting for us.
The path turned rocky, the flora changed first to Lapland-style then to tundra-like. The temperature sank to the pleasant 15 C or so. Mosquitoes were left long behind but I wondered how high we could still meet birds. Theoretically, some eagles can fly over Himalayas but why would they? To my surprise, some creatures looking like a crow-eagle hybrid were not merely present but daring and even somewhat annoying. One of them chased away a hamster (or whatever it was) I was trying to feed and seized the nuts I put for the poor rodent.
The Shira plateau camp (around 3850 m ASL) was the first place to satisfy my obsession with views. I almost ignored my new German friends and spent the entire evening sitting on the ridge staring westwards at the horizon till it vanished as both heaven and earth turned all dark and merged…
I had, however, no chance to go to sleep right after sunset because the moon – the full moon! – just rose in its entire magnificence. And suddenly all clouds were gone, and the summit shone in the moonlight like an Art-decor city, a metropolis at night.
4. Day three, a hard one.
In the morning, the first thing I saw as I got out of my tent was the Temple of the Sun. Its glass roof were set to refract sunbeams so that it looked the sun dwelled in the temple… Well, some people said the building was actually a toilet but we won’t let these primitive minds ruin our romanticism, will we.
It was the day of the goal seemingly close but unreachable, the day of getting very high just to slide down afterwards. So, I called it the Tantalus day.
First, I suddenly felt like I were 20 years older or like after a 15-year-long gamer career. i.e. my legs got lazy and I felt like taking a rest every half an hour – which I certainly couldn’t afford. Yep, it was the onset of high-altitude sickness aka mountain sickness. My smart and experienced guide immediately noticed it and said just “pole pole”. Meaning “slow” in Swahili, this word seems to be always used double (even on traffic signs). It is taken meditatively and even philosophically, something like “the slower you go, the farther you get”. This pole pole together with “we’re almost there” became a motto of my entire Kilimanjaro enterprise.
As we got to a place called the Lava Tower (4,630 m ASL) I was almost fine but totally out of appetite. We on the West are obsessed with eating less. Here, however, I wasn’t to lose weight so I had to force myself to chew and swallow something, just not to run out of fuel.
The Lava Tower is a circa 100 m high rocky formation that would be surely worth climbing. I didn’t do it and surely the park authorities’ ban are to blame for that, not the fact that I don’t know how to do alpine climbing. There were also some kind of wall looking artificial from a distance, like having been built up of huge stone blocks. But, aliens weren’t involved, a closer inspection proved the thing was totally natural.
Then came the fall! Or rather the descent down to the Barranco camp at 3,900 m ASL. It was quite frustrating to lose 700 m of altitude when you start getting out of breath due to thin air but the marvelous landscapes you meet on your way did make up for it. Extraterrestrial-looking rocky fields changed to a green valley where other Kilimanjaro-only thingies grew… One of them looked like an overgrown pineapple.
The summit seemed so close and it actually was, just a few kilometers as the crow flies. Or that crow-eagle monster. To have it that close but still having to descend, just to climb again in the morning… As I said, a Tantalus day.
At the Barranco camp, I suddenly felt 20 years older so I just fell and slept for at least 10 hours. Much to my surprise, I was again 40-something in the morning, headaches all gone and hungry as a T-rex. My German marathon friend told me they took some magic pills against the mountain sickness, the ones called Cialis. Wait, I said to him, isn’t it actually… Yeah! – he replied triumphantly. But it’s also good here! He was so adamant in his illusion that I decided not to ruin it and let the place do work.
5. Day 4, a steep fun.
My guide waved his hand eastwards, showing the way to go. But all I saw there, was something looking like a vertical wall at least a hundred meter high. Ehm? No worry, he said. There’s a path, do you see the moving points? It’s people!
He was right, as always. Climbing the wall was real fun – if you aren’t acrophobia, of course. Up there, alpine grasslands with crooked dwarf trees and “pineapples” gave way to lifeless stone world. Some rocks were shaped by abrasive sand wind real weird.
We had a lunch stop at the Karanga camp. Up to this moment, I actually disliked the colonial style of eating that is practiced on Kilimanjaro routes. With table, chairs and a full waiter service. I’d rather spare some money by firing the useless waiter and making at least one porter unnecessary. But here at Karanga, I enjoyed it immensely. As I sat lord-like, consuming my good food (no matter its actual quality) above the clouds, with only Ra the Sun above…
Karanga is essentially at the same altitude as Barranco but then we had to get back the 700 m we gave up after the Lava Tower. And here is where the mountain sickness got my Cialis-fueled marathon friend. First, he lost all his agility and got slower and slower. Then he began vomiting every hour. As we reached Barafu (4600 m ASL), our last camp before summit, he was obviously done.
6. The Loving Cup
The D-day… The final ascend was to begin just before midnight so I tried to have some refreshing sleep. It didn’t work though. The only thing I had borrowed (at the hotel in Moshi) was my sleeping bag. I needed one for temperatures as low as -40 C, too bulky to bring along from Europe and also totally useless after the trip. But the guys at the hotel apparently forgot that many Mzungu barbarians are somewhat bigger than an average East African male. As the temperature at Barafu dropped well below zero at night, I had to wear my jacket even when sleeping. And the damn bag was too small to zip! So, half of my poor upper body was cold. I had to tumble from left to right all the time which perfectly prevented me from falling asleep. And that constant headache too.
A line of dozens and dozens of headlights, slowly snaking upwards, to the moon. 23th of February, the moon is close to full and, as usual near the equator at midnight, hanging right above your head. “Moonlight and vodka takes me away…” Low air pressure replaces vodka easily, with immediate hangover. Pulsating headache, thirst that can´t be quenched… I felt myself getting older again, one year with every 30 m of elevation. I passed by some people that couldn’t go any further, they were given oxygen. But a lot more people are overtaking me. I didn’t give a damn, I was far too focused on taking another step and another step.
Get up and fight, soldier! –my internal sergeant called. Yes, sir, just a short rest, please, sir… The “short rests” were getting so frequent that I watched the people pass me by and realized that I might fall victim to the Achilles-tortoise paradox and never reach the top. Alright, go 100 steps soldier. Then 50 more… and 50 more… The landscape looks totally Martian and the atmosphere feels so too. At one moment, I got scared my heart could halt. Should I tell it to the guide? Forget it, man. He´s getting paid the same, whether you summit or not. He’ll just take you down so you better keep your mouth shut and move. Drink! But the water in my camel-back tube had frozen. Never mind then.
An Italian near me is staggering from side to side. He then gives the ends of his trekking poles to his guide and gets kind of towed further up…
The bloody sun raises slowly as we reach what looked like summit. But it is not. We’re standing on the ridge of the Kilimanjaro crater, at the so-called Stella point. The highest one, the Uhuru peak, is less than 2 km away, 170 m higher. Man, it was the longest half an hour in my life…
I did it! Standing at the roof of Africa I felt… Honestly? First I felt nothing! Not my muscles but my brain got swollen and numb. Then I said a prayer, long prepared and very rehearsed. Eventually, my senses were returned to me and I received my loving cup.
As a proper physicist, I’m obliged to finish my article with conclusions I drew out of my new experience.
- Kilimanjaro was actually my first big hike. Should I have trained more? In terms of physical shape, I was totally fit and my muscles did not protest a bit. But as to my tolerance to the mountain sickness, yes, this thing caught me off guard. I dared and I won but I do feel that it was a sort of an advance gods paid to me, in their great mercy.
- The role of mere luck and things which are out of our control should never be underestimated. My marathon friend was a man of a great strength and his will was surely not weaker than mine. But the machine we call our body simply failed in his case. So, Max, be humble, do your job the best you can and don’t be arrogant to the less lucky.
- Aconcagua is Kilimanjaro´s height plus one kilometer…