Kilimanjaro. (doing this before Ghana because I don't have the Ghana pictures online yet)
After wrapping up the project in Nairobi with Jane on Friday night, I headed out for dinner with Melissa and some other ex-pats, and then got back to the hotel to pack things up. The next morning I met Louise in the lobby of the Jacaranda, she was waiting for the same bus to Kili as me, an older gal on her first trip to Africa - although she has her own small consulting gig with orgs like the UN, so we were able to talk a bit of turkey.
Our van was late but finally got there and then we were off to Tanz. When we got to the border I had a bit of a back-and-forth with the passport guy who decided to double the price on me mid-transaction when he realized I was about to pay the local price in Kenyan schillings rather than the USD $100 they like to scam mzungus for, the greedy bastard. Fortunately there were two British sweethearts in line behind me who lent me the cash I didn't have until I could get it out of my bag back on the bus. It took about 2 hours for the whole bus-load of us to get through so there was a lot of standing around and getting to know each other before we were back on the road.
The air in Tanz that day wasn't very clear and so we didn't see much of the mountain until we were very close, and even then it was covered in cloud. Louise, the brit girls, and myself were all staying at the same hotel in Moshi, and after getting settled we had a nice dinner and then all crashed pretty early. The next morning they were off (the 3 of them) to hike the Rongai trail with their outfit, and I was off with my guys (when they finally showed up) for a solo-hike up Machame.
The route was freaking crowded, the busiest on the mountain after the Coca-cola route (Marungu, the one with the huts so that porters don't have to carry tents). But we got off in pretty good time and spent the first day hiking through the rain-forest on the bottom quarter of the mountain, just me and my guide, Eugen. I found out a few interesting things about him on the first day - one being that he was one of the most experienced guides on the mountain (at 50 years of age), another being that he liked to smoke and drink. He had a beer that morning before starting the hike and had a couple cigs on the way up. Hmm.
The porters had camp all set up when we got there and cooked up some popcorn and warm groundnuts (like small peanuts, basically). After that and tea, Julius the cook started cooking a massive dinner. Unlike the higher-end outfits where there was a whole tent complete with chairs and tables for the hikers to eat / chill in, I got to eat in the porter tent on the floor with these guys. Eugen did that typical African "Oh man! We forgot to bring the chair and table!" thing when we were already halfway through our first days' hike so there wasn't much I could do about it at that point. I didn't mind, as it gave the whole experience more of a real-hiking feel, but I was paying enough to get what everyone else was. Oh well.
There were 2 other porters - Moses and Omar, both younger guys and really hard workers. Technically for the amount of gear we were carrying there should have been another porter, but Eugen did that thing I read about before the hike where he paid off porter #3 to carry up to first camp, and then go back down, while the load was then split between the cook and porters 1 and 2. He sold it to me like it was a good deal for the porters, but from everything I've read, not much on the mountain ends up being a good deal for them.
On day 2 on the mountain, we went from camp 1 at 3k meters up to 3800m, but the hiking was shorter. I still didn't have much problems with the elevation but I was drinking about 5-6 liters a day. We got to camp early in the afternoon because I was hiking pretty fast (faster than Eugen wanted to, which should have been an early warning sign). So I had most of the afternoon to chill and work on my Swahili while Eugen and the porters gambled, and I got caught up on some reading and journaling. Saw my first clear glimpse of the top that evening in the moonlight. Dinner was big again. And that night I realized that climbing on my own wasn't the best idea - it was a pretty lonely endeavor, but I didn't really have much option to do it any other way.
Day 3 at the next camp the elevation finally hit me. I don't remember how high that camp was at because I felt like crap and didn't do much of anything. We had hiked up to 4600m and then back down to 3950 where the camp was. Finally saw the peak in daylight that afternoon. We camped within view of a massive wall that the next morning we would have to climb - they call that part of the route "breakfast." I couldn't keep up with the amount of food being pushed on me at dinner still, which I realized meant a lot of extra food for them, which apparently seemed to be the point. We were also well above the cloud level at that camp which was kind of cool to see.
Day 4 we did a lot of elevation to get to the summit base camp - Barafu. We got in mid-afternoon and immediately after signing in at the ranger hut, Eugen told me he had a "scratch in his throat" and asked me "as his friend" to buy him some Konyagi (cheap cognac liquor that the ranger huts sell in these little plastic sealed bags). Whatever, it was about $0.75. But he was drinking at summit base camp...oooo k. We had an early dinner so I could "go to bed" around 7pm, in preparation for an 11:30pm wake up to start for the summit before midnight. We were camped right in the middle of camp and so there were porters and people walking around and talking the whole time, so I didn't sleep a wink, it was frustrating.
At 11:30 when they brought me my tea I was already up and ready to go, and was feeling pretty decent, no elevation effects noticeable. We finished tea and biscuits and then Eugen and I set off in the dark, a bit behind a couple lead groups but for the most part ahead of everyone else. Eugen was moving really slow but I figured he was trying to keep my pace manageable so I didn't wear myself out. We didn't need the headlamps until about 3:30 in the morning when the full moon finally set, and I saw a few fabulously bright shooting stars on the way up. Around 2 or 3 I got a really bad bloody nose that took a while to plug up, but thanks to a smart friend I had remembered my handkerchiefs and extra Kleenex.
That was when I first realized that Eugen wasn't completely there. He didn't stop the first time until he was about 20 yards ahead of me, and when I needed to stop a second time to work on it, he stopped but didn't seem very concerned that blood was gushing out of my face. He looked a little glassy-eyed and hadn't asked me how I felt since before I went to bed the last evening.
A little after that, he dropped his hiking pole (which he had been carrying rather than using), and kept walking. I picked it up and gave it to him, but he would have walked off without it if I hadn't made him aware. I started to worry a bit. And then we got to the steepest part of the route, the last 300 or 400 meters of ascent before getting to Stella Point, on the crater rim. Other groups had been passing us one after the other because Eugen's pace had slowed to barely a crawl, and he needed regular breaks.
And then he started losing the trail, stopping, looking around with his headlamp, backtracking. At a couple points he lost his footing and would have fell back on me if I hadn't had a hand ready to keep him on his feet. At that point I stopped him and made him sit down. There were no groups anywhere near us now. All of the capable ones had passed us and all of the slower ones were way behind us, and I knew that seeing the summit at all, let alone for sunrise, was in jeopardy. I stopped and did a personal inventory - breathing was under control, head felt fine, no more nosebleed, had plenty of water and half my power-gel / clif bars left. Eugen was a different story - all of a sudden I was the guide in our 2-person party, and I thought I might have to get him off the mountain. I called the outfit guy back in Moshi who actually answered his phone at 4 in the morning, but the network wasn't very good at that elevation and I lost him. I wasn't sure what to do, but Eugen got coherent enough to realize that I was straight pissed, and started arguing that he was fine. After a while he started walking again, but it was slow. After another agonizing hour and a half, we finally made it to Stella point, but he was completely off the network by that point. I sat him down in a safe spot along the trail and told him not to move til I got back. He just kind of nodded.
Uhuru peak was still a solid 45 minute hike from there and I realized I'd need to book it to make sunrise, so I did. I had plenty of energy left over after the slow pace of our climb to Stella, so I was moving pretty fast and passed a number of the groups on my way around the crater rim. I got to the peak with about 10 minutes to spare for the absolutely spectacular sunrise above the clouds, the only things visible above them being us and the peak, Mt. Meru in the distance, and the sun. Got a few quick video shots, and had a big tall Saffer guy snap a few shots of me with my disposable (he took a few with his digital too but we didn't get to exchange info back at Barafu before I left, frustratingly). At 6k meters you realize that a) there isn't much reason to stay and hang out, and b) the longer you do, the crappier you're going to feel, so after maybe 10 minutes at the peak I turned to start back towards Stella.
I found Eugen about halfway between Stella and the peak, trying to make it up. He looked better after another break, but I had asked the guides from the Saffer's outfit to help me keep an eye on him during the descent. He ended up doing fine.
The descent was actually pretty cool - what I hadn't realized in the dark of the climb was that the trail was, for the most part, surrounded on most sides by a scree field - loose gravel about 6-10 inches deep, pretty uniformly spread across the mountainside. I started moving through it pretty quickly, but then a girl my age came flying by me, and as I watched her I realized it was a pretty simple combination of running downhill with skiing-turn technique to slow one's self. It was actually more skiing than it was running, and pretty soon I was absolutely flying down the mountain. Probably not the smartest thing to do on tired legs, but I felt fine, was still a little high from making the summit, and it was just a lot of fun - bouncing down the mountain like I was skiing, hitting jumps and dropping small ledges and the whole shebang.
Next thing I knew I was back at Barafu at 8:30am, and Eugen was pointing out that we could descend all the way to the base that same day, if I felt up for it. I was paying for 6 days on the mountain either way, but that would give the porters an extra day off and me one night earlier back in the hotel, with showers and clean clothes and whatnot, so I said fine. We ate, packed up, and were back on the trail down by 10am.
It was a BRUTAL hike down. Eugen was moving a lot faster now, faster than I could keep up on tired legs. And it just went on and on - we hiked almost twice the distance and fully 3 times the elevation that day than we had hiked on any other day, not to mention the fact that we had hiked the summit all night instead of sleeping. The trail down was an access one that hikers don't normally take, so it was poorly maintained and really hard on the knees. The porters seemed to fly up and down it, but I was thanking God repeatedly for the hiking poles. At some point we finally made it to the rain forest but still had about 3 hours of hiking through that to get down to the park gate.
After an agonizing afternoon, we finally got there. I got my certificate from the ranger, and Jackson, the outfit guy who I had called early that morning, met us and I gave him the whole run-down. They took me back to my hotel and I crashed early and hard.
The next day I was feeling a lot better. I bagged up 3 bags of my mountain clothes - one for each of the porters, and walked into town to meet Jackson and Eugen at the bank and give them the tips. Having read about how guides often try to screw porters out of their tips (when they're already paid next to nothing), I wanted Jackson to give them directly to the porters, so I tipped Eugen separately and then gave the rest to Jackson. Spent the rest of the day at the internet cafe, having lunch at the only place with pizza in Moshi, and doing a bit of shopping / post-card sending.
That evening I went for a swim in the pool and found Louise and the brit girls sitting beside the pool - a day earlier than I expected them back. We all had dinner together and exchanged our climbing stories - apparently I had passed them when I was descending back to Stella from the peak, but none of us had recognized each other given all the gear we had on and the rather singular focus one has at that point.
The next morning I was all packed and off to the airport, where Air Tanzania informed me that my flight to Entebbe was cancelled, and it was mostly my fault for not "confirming" the flight during the week prior. That spurred some rather unpleasant hours. They sent me to a hotel and told me I'd be on a flight to Entebbe in the morning. Then they called me at the hotel and said the next one was cancelled too, so I had to fly to Dar Es Salaam that night, stay there, and fly to Entebbe from there in the morning. The real kicker is that the flight to Dar went via a town on the southern side of Lake Victoria, directly south of Entebbe by about an hour (instead of the 3 I had to spend on the plane the next morning flying to EBB).
All in all, it was a good climb (I made the summit). It wasn't nearly as hard as I had expected, which gives me hope for the next climbs I'd like to do. I climbed it comfortably (well except for the massive 1-day descent) in 5 days, pretty much the minimum for any trail, let alone Machame. Pictures from the crap-cams are here on Flickr.
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