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Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro!

TANZANIA | Sunday, 10 January 2010 | Views [1157]

Dear readers, I am pleased to announce that I have returned from the Kili climb completely intact.  Furthermore, I would like to share the fabulous news with you that I MADE IT TO THE TOP!!!   Seven days of grueling hiking, six nights of soggy camping, and 6000 meters of the tallest freestanding mountain in the world and I totally made it!  But I am getting ahead of myself.

Starting Monday, January 4, 21 HBS students and a team of more than 60 guides, porters, and cooks began a 7-day trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, which officially stands at 5895 meters (19,340 feet) at Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa.  Over the next six days we hiked nearly 100 kilometers (about 62 miles), starting in rainforest and ascending above the treeline into moorland and then semi-desert (not quite a desert… it rained every day we were on Kili) before reaching frozen scree and glaciers.  We hiked on dirt trails, through dried-up creek beds, among vegetation that looked more fitting for a Dr. Seuss film set, and over boulder walls (which required a bit of fancy rock climbing skill and was quite fun!). 

Some days were easier than others, though that was usually determined more by altitude than intensity of the climb.  As we ascended a host of high altitude symptoms arrived and were attacked one-by-one by our very own doctor, Dr. Diane McNally (conveniently, the wife of our leader James and a Section B partner!).  We pooled resources and brought out the Pepto Bismol, the Sudafed, the Tylenol, the Diamox, the Cipro, you name it.  Probably 2/3 of our group felt less than 100% at one point or another, but none of us really went down for the count.  With some meds and a bit of team support we all got back on our feet. 

The weather was temperamental, as the weather on most mountains is, and we were always prepared with extra layers and a full set of rain gear in our daypacks, along with 3-4 liters of water, sunscreen, water purification tablets, hats and gloves, Purell, and a stash of toilet paper.  Don’t forget the stash of toilet paper!  While we did have “outhouses” at our campsites, they were rudimentary to say the least and quite disgusting.  In fact, we preferred the great outdoors to most of the lavatories and made use of the many rocks and bushes along the trails and at camp.   

The real meat of our work was in our morning and afternoon hikes each day, but the fun was in the meals and evenings around the campsites.  Our porters were rockstars and they set up/tore down camp every day as well as carried our larger backpacks to each site.  They always started after us and beat us to the next site by hours, impressively navigating the trails quickly and with loads of up to 30 kilograms each.  They prepared hot tea for us in the morning and basins of warm water to bathe with.  The cooks made hot meals three times a day, including delicious porridge every morning and a variety of vegetable soups every afternoon.  Plus we never missed afternoon tea, though our version was with Cadbury’s hot cocoa and either popcorn or roasted peanuts.  It almost seems plush for a camping trip, and yes, it was nicer than doing these tasks on our own, but make no mistake: this was no easy trek.  It was a real slog and the help from the porters made it possible to get up every morning and trudge onward despite the cold, the squat-peeing, the altitude, and the headaches/nausea/sniffles/swollen joints. 

Finally on Day 6 we set out for the summit.  Base camp the night before was at 4600 meters and we had six hours to reach the summit at 5895, a hike of some 7km.  Easy enough right?  But we started at midnight, on little sleep and even less food, with headlamps to guide our way, and the high altitude quickly setting in.  Within an hour I was miserable with a throbbing headache and the same dizziness I experienced on Mount Bisoke, and I quickly fell behind the rest of the group. 

Luckily we had six guides with us for summit day so we were able to fracture off into groups with similar paces and my guide, Antipus, held steady with me until the top.  We climbed together, and every hundred steps or so I sat on a rock with my head between my knees for a few seconds before gulping down some water and starting again.  He kept the pace slow and steady and made me shout “I can do this!” every hour.  To keep my mind off of the summit I chanted everything from the Greek alphabet to the US Presidents, from the Preamble to the Constitution to the books of the Bible.  I even counted my steps in French and Spanish from time to time, each time starting over once I hit 100.  And it always helped for about fifteen minutes, and then I needed to sit for a few moments.  The closest I can describe the misery of altitude sickness is this: imagine you haven’t eaten for a week (the hunger pains are gone but you have absolutely no energy whatsoever) and add the headache after crying for days on end.  Then start hiking in zero-degree weather around 3am or so.  That’s what this felt like.

And yet, somehow, miraculously, I made it.  Sometime around 6am I reached Stella’s Point, the second highest peak on Kili and as the sun rose over Tanzania I finished the final twenty minutes up to Uhuru where the rest of the HBS group was waiting.  Nearly all of us made it.  Unfortunately Diane’s altitude sickness was much worse than mine or anyone else’s and somewhere around 5000 meters she had to turn back (acute altitude sickness can be deadly).  Another girl, Justine, made it to Stella’s Point when she realized she had frostbite on her fingers and also went down to base camp.  But the remaining 19 of us were all there – including a very brave Suzie, who had been sick for several days, and my tentmate Meghan J, who had been fighting food poisoning and was a bit unsteady when we set out that morning. 

It was exhilarating and emotional (I am the first to admit to crying when I reached the top) and an experience I will never forget.  It was the hardest thing I have ever done, physically, yes, but also mentally and emotionally.  The focus and stamina and perseverance required to succeed is mind-blowing.  I still can’t believe I decided to attempt it.  But I made it.  So “I just can’t do it” isn’t really an option for me anymore.  I climbed Kili.  I can do it.

Tags: camping, hbs, hiking, kilimanjaro, stinky, tanzania

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