Thursday, 6 March 2014

Closing Time

After more than two months, it's come time to conclude.  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make it to Ethiopia.  Right before I left, Marie became very sick with some vile stomach bug.  I could've left her laying sadly on the bathroom floor, but I decided against it.  We had already scheduled other things for the time remaining (about three weeks) after I was to come back, so I couldn't make more room in the schedule to go to Ethiopia.  So remember, if you need to blame someone for me not completing the entire project, blame Marie ;).

I won't lie, I'm not as sad as I would've expected.  Ethiopia is the kind of country that, if you go, you should go for a few weeks.  Being Africa's oldest highly organized society, there's a couple thousand years of important and interesting history there that's left behind ruins across the northern and central parts of the country in addition to the natural beauty of the Ethiopian Plateau and the Simien Mountains.  The southwestern part of the country is an entirely different world, still being one of the most remote, undeveloped, and unexplored parts of Africa.  Some day I'll be back to see all of Ethiopia, rather than just Ras Dashen and its immediate environs.  Also, after four mountains while not exactly in the best shape of my life (...actually, the worst shape I've been in along every metric literally since I was 15), I was drained.  I could've made it, but it would've been more of a trial than it should've been and I wouldn't have been able to enjoy it as much as I should have either.  Also, in a few years, Ethiopia's northern neighbor Eritrea will reopen its borders and thus their own awesome-looking mountains.

On the upside, it's given me some extra time to plan my next project.  I've already put the list of mountains together, but I'll save it as a surprise.  Hint:  It will take me to parts south again.  Though not quite this far south.

At the risk of sounding like an awards show diva, there are a few people that need to be recognized for their contributions to this campaign.  Obviously, Marie deserves some applause for tolerating the project and my time-consuming hobbies.  Al-Karim and Jameel at Beyond Wilderness Expedition out of Nairobi put together the necessary guides and equipment for the mountains and at some of the best prices available in the area.  They also worked hard to clear up any logistical and other snags we ran into while planning and executing the trips.  If you're ever planning an east African mountain or other adventure, give them a call.  The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation itself got pretty excited about the project spent a lot of time promoting it around the internet.  The Been to Africa blog generously opened itself up to my writing to help the campaign get more visibility.  Obviously, all of the donors also deserve a shout out.  You know who you are.  The hugs are coming.

And with that, it's goodbye for now.  I'll be back soon with more mountains.


Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Lonely Meru

After climbing Kilimanjaro, Mt. Meru is... empty.  Even though it's often used as an acclimation climb for Kili and is only about a two-hour drive from its sister mountain, few people actually make it to Meru.  In total, there were about 30 of us on the mountain during the three days I was there, compared with 1,000-2,000 on Kilimanjaro.  It's refreshing, largely because it means the few teams of climbers all sit and talk with each other during the evenings and on the trail when they happen to be walking next to each other, while there are just too many people to do that on Kili.  Also, Meru has the most comfortable huts of all of the mountains in east Africa:  solar electricity and running water and everything.  Also, lots of space, so you can usually get a room to yourself, unless you're there during an exceptionally busy week.

Moshi and Arusha are like the Aspen and Breckenridge of Africa.  They're very well-developed mountain towns where wealthy professionals and businesspeople from the surrounding area and Europe come to relax on safari or to do one of the two big mountains in the area.  Kili has Moshi, Meru has Arusha.  Dar es Salaam may be Tanzania's actual capitol, but in addition to its mountain vacation-town aspects, Arusha is also one of Africa's diplomatic capitols.  Despite his flaws and failed domestic policies, former (and first) Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere made it a point to establish Tanzania as a center for diplomacy and mediation for the country and its neighbors in Sub-Saharan Africa while he held office in the middle of the twentieth century.  Since then, Arusha has continued to be a major hub for diplomacy.  In the 2000s, it hosted some of the peace talks that ended the Congo Wars and continues to house the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which prosecutes people implicated in the 1994 genocide, and other UN functions.  Tanzania and Nyerere have also been instrumental in bringing the East African Community (EAC) together to prevent conflicts; the EAC has been discussing total political unity of its member states for some time.  "Tanzania" itself is a product of Nyerere's diplomacy, being a country made from the two former colonies of Tanganyika and Zanzibar (the word "Tanzania" is a portmanteau of these two names).

Meru's by far the easiest of the Big Five, but I had the hardest time starting out on this mountain.  It wasn't the hike or the guide, it was just tiredness.  After Africa's three tallest and most difficult mountains, I was feeling drained and, having lost three belt sizes over the course of the past several weeks, I was starting to look a little too much like a sunburned version of Christian Bale in "The Machinist" (with more awesome facial hair).  I'm out of er fat reserves, so if I don't eat the energy I need, when I run out of energy on a hike, I'm really out.  Also, having completed Kilimanjaro, some of my drive to push through the list vanished after I'd completed a mountain I'd been thinking about for over ten years.  It took me most of the first day of the hike to get my head back into the game and to resume forcing myself to eat twice what I normally would at meals so I'd have the energy to get through the next day of hiking.

Meru is a short hike, with the normal completion time being three days; four days for people who want extra time to acclimate.  Unfortunately, the weather in east Africa has been very strange the past few weeks.  From Ethiopia through Tanzania, it's been raining heavily every day, even though that sort of weather shouldn't happen here for at least another month.  It um complicates things.  Normally, climbers summit in the early morning on the third day and then walk out of the park later that day after a rest in the late morning/early afternoon.  We did not.

The first day of the hike is a really straightforward 3-4 hour hike after check in.  Mt. Meru is located in Arusha National Park, which is often used for short safaris because of all of the wildlife in the plains around the mountain.  When you're in a car, it makes for a beautiful drive filled with iconic wildlife.  When you're on foot, it means that wildlife might want to... interact with you, and usually not in a friendly way.  Also, as the local buffalo have discovered, the climbers' trail is just as convenient for getting around for them as it is for the climbers.  Because of this, the park requires you to walk with a rifle-toting ranger for the entire hike.  Groups usually get put together with one ranger, so you'll often be walking with a fair amount of people, which makes it a pretty social and friendly climb.  While we were hiking, nothing larger than a baboon got close to our group, but buffalo were all around and their tracks were all over the trail, so hikers do encounter them often enough.  Baboons can hurt you, but they're just the irritable food thief of the savannah, and they're everywhere.  Buffalo are two thousand pounds of seriously vile-tempered beef that gore and trample lions.  They're worth avoiding, if possible.  Sometimes tourists meet the occasional hungry leopard.  It's good to have large groups and a ranger.

The hike itself is gentle, but it took me all day and about a pound of refreshing mangoes to get my head into the climb and back into the project.  If there's one thing I've discovered while hiking in Africa, it's that fresh fruit and juice is magically rejuvenating when you're tired.  I think I'm always going to stuff a pineapple or a mango into my hiking pack from now on.  It's pure simple sugar and nutrition, so it makes you feel great when you're tired.  I wish I'd done that on long hikes before.  The trail was wet the whole way, but thankfully not filled with deep, sucking mud like the Ruwenzoris.  We didn't get rained on during the day, but that night, we had a severe storm that dumped monsoonal levels of rain on the mountain with high winds and lightning.  In the morning, all of the guides and rangers got together and decided that we would summit that afternoon instead of waiting until the night/early morning of the third day.  Apparently, these nighttime storms are becoming normal on the mountain.  We did succeed in avoiding another high-power storm the following night by summitting early, but we also succeeded in finding a different storm to escort us up the mountain.

Normally, on the second day, hikers will reach camp, drop their packs, and then take a short hike up "Little Meru", a smaller peak on the mountain off to the side of the proper peak.  It's a good way of using your afternoon and it gives you a little extra acclimation to make the actual summit easier.  Instead, after we completed the four-hour hike between camps, we ate lunch and repacked our bags for the summit.  I acclimate slowly on mountains, so I could feel the altitude a bit at the end, but not as badly as the other people who had just flown into Tanzania from low-elevation countries, like the UK and Canada.

We were only about half an hour into our 5-6 hour hike to the summit when the clouds started rolling in and dropping a misty rain on us.  After about two hours, the rain properly started and shortly turned into pea- and then marble-sized hail driven by sustained winds for the rest of the hike.  Even with a thick Gore-Tex hardshell, hail stings a little.  The group from the UK had opted for the four-day version of the hike, so they hadn't joined us on this stretch of the hike.  However, two teams of Germans and most of the Canadians turned around when the weather turned nasty, since they were just using the mountain as an acclimation hike for Kilimanjaro and weren't overly worried about summitting.  Me and two of the Canadians kept going.  A few hours of winter weather is doable when you're used to living in Canada, and failing to summit isn't fun.

Even the summit hike isn't overly steep on Meru, so it's not too difficult to maintain a faster pace.  Also, wanting to just finish and hide from the hail is encouraging.  Miraculously, the clouds broke for about the ten minutes we were actually on the summit, allowing us to take some good pictures of the summit area and the cinder cone in the center of Meru's caldera (it's one of the mountain's more striking and interesting features).  One of the remaining Canadians got sick on the summit and had to start rushing down to a lower altitude to feel better, leaving two of us to enjoy the summit with the two guides who didn't escort everyone bailing off the mountain.  We stayed and enjoyed it for a few minutes, but we could see the next wave of the storm rolling onto the mountain, so we started down.  It hailed the entire way.  Only a few short sections require scrambling over low-angle rock faces, so we didn't have to worry about slick rock too much, which was nice.  We had to keep our hoods pulled low and over most of our faces to protect ourselves from the hail, though every time we had to look up to find our footings meant getting pelted right in the face.  Eye hail is... uncomfortable.  I can't tell you how good seeing the huts after 5-6 hours of hail felt.

We just about ran down the mountain, making it back to the summit and back to the hut in about the time it was supposed to take us to get to the summit.  Like I said, hail is motivating.  We did just about fall asleep into our meals.  It worked out alright, because we had sunlight all the way back to the hut.  We'd originally counted on needing to do the descent in the dark.  We made it back just in time to see the sun go down.  Hot tea feels great after a climb like that.  Also, because there were only a few groups on the mountain, we could all grab a room to ourselves and use the extra bunk beds as drying racks for our drenched gear.  The other teams had underestimated how rainy Meru and Kili can be and didn't bring much rain gear.  I'd brought full rain gear for all of my stuff and with the winds still got fairly wet.  They must've been pretty uncomfortable by the end of the day.  They were visibly dripping.

After our day became more invigorating and adventurous than originally planned, most people opted to skip doing the shorter peak the next day, though that had been everyone's original plan.  Only me and the Canadian who stayed on the summit decided that we'd still get up early and do it, and I barely did because I was feeling pretty depleted after our amazing weather adventure.  Thankfully, it takes less than an hour to get from camp to the shorter peak.  The weather was clear enough to give us a reasonable view, but we could see the clouds building, even though it was still pretty early in the morning.  We could also see white snow/hail capping Meru that was not there before.

We managed to stay ahead of the clouds on the hike down, but by the next morning, half of the mountain had a visible coating of snow on it, so we had apparently just missed even worse weather.  The hike from high camp to the gates was uneventful, though we did see a lot of monkeys, baboons, and warthogs along the lower stretches of the trail.  I was pretty zapped and looking forward to some rest days back in Nairobi filled with fattening foods.  I've been doing my best to eat nothing but fattening and sugary foods since coming back.  I've been eating well on the mountains, but I can still see a vein standing out on my abdomen right now.  It's a good day for high-fructose corn syrup (it converts right to fat!).  Now, I must leave you so that I can enjoy a delicious, greasy quesadilla.


Saturday, 8 February 2014

**The Appendix' Appendix: Lists Are Funny

Like I said, climbers tend to be relatively type-A people (notice the hyphen) who focus on technical details and like ticking climbs and mountains off of checklists.  In addition to doing difficult climbs, mountain lists and completing them are one way we enjoy our sport and measure ourselves against each other.  And we have a lot of them.

What makes a good list depends on a lot of things.  Brutal mountain difficulty and high-level adventurousness factor in, but they're not the most important aspects of a good or popular list.  Most lists are regional and based on a certain height.  The US' biggest and best-known list is its 50-odd 14,000-foot peaks, or Fourteeners.  14,000' is important because, outside of Alaska, the US has no mountains taller than 15,000', making 14,000' plus change the highest mountains the country has to offer.  A lot of regions, like New England have a peak list based on a locally high elevation that contains a reasonable amount of mountains, like its four-peak 5,000-footer list or its 100-and-something-mountain 4,000-footer list.  A good list takes a while to complete, has some (at least locally) iconic and well-known peaks that get climbers interested in the list, but also has some poorly-known ones that will take you to new areas you probably would not have otherwise have gone to, whether the individual peaks are difficult or scenic or not.  The Seven Summits even meets these criteria, because it contains peaks of mixed difficulty and diverse location, including some no one would ever know about if they weren't on the list (e.g. Antarctica's Mt. Vinson).  "Highpointing" or reaching the highest point of a set of political units, like US States or European nations, is becoming a really popular offshoot of this idea because it strongly meets all of the above requirements.  There are a lot of groups dedicated to various forms of this.

I chose Africa's Big Five mountains as the basis of this project because it meets all of those criteria well.  Were I to do it again, I might have swapped out Mt. Meru, Kilimanjaro's very close neighbor, with a different mountain that's more geographically distinct from the others for those reasons, much in the same way that I only summitted Mt. Stanley of the Ruwenzoris instead of doing other peaks within the mountain chain.  Rwanda's Mt. Karsimbi would make a good substitute.  Doing all of the East African Community's five highpoints (so Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi) would also have made a great list, even though Burundi's highest "mountain" is a hill near its border with the DRC.  No list is perfect, but the idea is to have an interesting and challenging adventure that brings you to areas you'd never see otherwise (western Uganda, for instance).

And with that, I've been writing all day and it's dinner time.  Enjoy!


*Kilimanjaro Appendix: Dick Bass and the Casual Climber

I feel like my mention of Dick Bass and the professional-heavy casual climber crowd on Kilimanjaro warrants some further discussion.  The archetypal guided, inexperienced climber with extra money is responsible for the main controversies and discussions within the climbing community, and is why a lot of "serious" climbers speak ill of Kilimanjaro.  Hopefully this'll give you some background on the issue and why it rubs a lot of "serious" climbers the wrong way.

Like the mountains they climb, mountaineers have a lot of powerful things in common, but they still come in a fairly diverse array of backgrounds, personalities, and goals.  Most people like a few sports and playing them casually, like by joining an intramural soccer league when they're adults, but without becoming consumed by the sport.  Climbing's an odd sport in that people who try it either get into it to the point of near-obsession or they do it a few times and enjoy it, but then forget about it.  It's incredibly time- and money-consuming, so it requires lifestyle-level dedication to become good at and accomplished in.  Because of this, it tends to weed out casual participants very quickly.  Even if two long-time climbers have nothing else in common, they can talk about their "hobby" and things they've climbed for hours without having to address the other aspects of their personalities and lifestyle.  This has a pretty unifying effect that's created a small but powerful and intense subculture where a lot of us know each other or have friends in common.  I have friends that I stay in touch with better than most people that I've only met or interacted with while climbing in different parts of North America and the world.  Whatever our backgrounds, we're willing to be snowed and rained on and sleep in our cars for long periods of time to reach our climbing goals.  This is the sort of person that most people are thinking of when they say "climber."

The intensity of dedicated, long-time climbers causes many of us (who are very frequently pathological type-As to begin with) to judge casual climbers and mountaineers and to even sneer at each other when we have disagreements over what's acceptable in climbing and what's good style.  I (surprise) have strong opinions about climbing and climbing ethics, but I'm not a huge fan of that.  Casual climbers are great and getting people who normally aren't deeply into the outdoors to come out and experience it anyways is important for getting support for conservation and the protection of natural areas.  It's not hard to imagine someone seeing a big and interesting-looking mountain and wanting to climb it while not wanting to completely rearrange their lifestyle to become a climbing lifer.

When it comes to technical climbing, you won't find a lot of inexperienced and casual outdoorspeople trying it because of how physically demanding it is.  Except for very easy routes, you need a special and extensive kind of conditioning to be good at it, so it's inherently not casual.  However, a lot of mountains, however tall, are basically just hikes, even if they're strenuous ones.  Kilimanjaro and most of the Seven Summits are like this, which makes them possible for and popular amongst more casual climbers who just want to do a few big, iconic mountains because it's a cool idea and should provide a fun kind of "once in a lifetime" trip for them.  That's cool, there's nothing wrong with that, despite what some "hardcore" mountaineers say.  Unfortunately, casual and inexperienced climbers are the ones that tend to get into trouble and to have a different sense of climbing ethics than long-time climbers, for obvious reasons.

Climbers, in my experience usually being type-A personalities with a thing for technical details and order and so the kind of people that like lists and ticking off items on lists, really like to create lists of mountains/technical climbs and to slowly work through them.  8,000-meter peaks, the Seven, Coloradan 14ers, the national highpoints of an entire continent, New England or Scottish 4,000-footers, it doesn't matter.  Every area has its set of popular lists with list variations for the more intense climbers that have completed the original set of lists.**  Dick Bass is famous for creating and completing the best-known and most popular world list, the Seven Summits, and is equally famous for the controversy it and his personal doing of it engendered.

Dick Bass and Reinhold Messner exemplify this dichotomy within the broader climbing community.  Whenever someone mentions the Seven Summits, or the list of the highest mountains of each continent, they're talking about Dick Bass, whether they realize it or not.  Dick Bass was the first person to do the Seven, which he did in the mid-1980s, thereby creating one of the most well-known and popular mountaineering lists.  Reinhold Messner is one of the best mountaineers in human history, being the first to climb Everest without oxygen and the first to do all of the world's 8,000-meter peaks.  He's a true lifer, having dedicated his entire adult life to climbing extreme peaks and routes.  He's obsessive.  After Bass did the Seven, Messner responded by saying that the hill that forms Australia's highpoint wasn't sufficiently adventurous or mountainous, choosing the highpoint of all of Oceania, New Guinea's tall and technical Carstenz Pyramid (originally climbed by uber-famous mountaineering hardman Heinrich Harrer of Seven Years in Tibet and first to climb the Eiger North Face fame), to be the "Australian" continental peak on his list.  Messner can apparently be abrasive, but basically all climbers really respect him for obvious reasons.  Lots of climbers hate Dick Bass (myself not included).

Dick Bass is an oil millionaire who discovered skiing and climbing later in life.  When he conceived of and set out to do the Seven, he was already in his 50s and had very little climbing or mountaineering experience.  He's often credited with accidentally creating the adventure tourism movement through the Seven and popularizing intense mountain adventures for people who had the extra money to do it, but not the experience to do it on their own or the patience and dedicated lifestyle obsessiveness to take the years to learn to do it on their own.  Basically, he's the archetypal enthusiastic casual climber who really loves the idea of climbing some mountains and has the means to do it, but not the experience to pull it off without significant help from lifestyle climbers.

Bass has come to typify the modern version of this, but the idea's decidedly older.  Before large numbers lower-middle and working class people started deliberately adventuring in the mountains in the post-World War II era, the gentleman adventurer was the normal climber.  The line between the casual gentleman climber and the pathologic lifestyle climber was a little blurrier, in part because 100-200 years ago, going climbing, especially on another continent, was a seriously dangerous and committing adventure.  Truly casual people need not apply, and even experienced adventurers died at a jaw-dropping rate.  Hemingway falls solidly into this class of people, though he was himself more of a casual adventurer who spent most of his time in cities, rather than sweating in the forest on a long approach to a mountain.  This movement amongst people who had the extra wealth to travel extensively but still had the skills to actually do it, I think, is one of the main genesis points of the modern climbing/mountaineering movement and why it's such a cultural touchstone within the middle and professional classes.  Even in America in New England, this is how it pretty much started (Royal Robbins and friends in 1950s California were part of the later working class incarnation of it, but that itself is derived from the Victorian/Lost Generation gentleman climber origin of the sport--mountaineering for sport goes back further, but at that point in history it was almost exclusively aristocratic) Swiss Alps residents were also a big part of the sport's heavily European origin, but they were more about pragmatic concerns about moving around mountains than summitting tough peaks just for the fun and sport of it--techniques and skills come from them, but purpose and attitude not as much.  However, overall, these people were still more of the lifestyle climber variety, though the movement had a reasonable dose of the casual Hemingway type.

After the Second World War, a large movement of climbers from all classes started, especially in New England and California, and that came to define the modern era of the sport.  Enthusiastic, dedicated people exploring increasingly difficult technical terrain and summitting the world's most difficult peaks.  The idea of the gentleman climber was replaced by the hardworking individual who created new techniques, skills, and equipment to surmount increasingly difficult climbs.  Nothing was casual about it, and many if not most of the climbers were people with no particular money of their own, just dedication.

Intentionally or not, Dick Bass started a modern movement of mountain tourism filled with people who can afford big trips, but are casual and inexperienced climbers.  They tend to come from the same sphere as the Hemingway types of the earlier era, but don't have the same skill or dedication.  This engendered some serious friction with the new community and culture that grew up in the 1950s through the 1970s.  As far as Dick Bass goes, a casual climber who used his wealth to pull off a climbing coup with a lot of guide assistance which started a movement of casual climbers doing dangerous mountains without the required experience which often ends disastrously for them and their guides is naturally going to generate some friction.  Some climbers really hate the man and the movement.  Hate is not an overly strong word.  I'm alright with casual people enjoying the mountains.  They and nature are there for everyone to benefit from and enjoy.  I'm also not the most skilled outdoorsman, despite the time I've spent climbing.  I wouldn't have a lot of room to judge, even if I wanted to.  However, I do personally think that some mountains are inappropriate for people who don't have the skill to do them on their own.  Ultra-popular Everest is one of them.  Because of Dick Bass, it's become extremely popular with the casual crowd, even though it's a ridiculously dangerous mountain that requires serious experience to do safely on your own.  It and the Himalayas are entirely inappropriate for casual climbers, simply because of their difficulty and danger.  [Read John Krakauer's Into Thin Air for an excellent discussion of this.  Read Krakauer's other books for an excellent discussion of mountains and the people who climb them and why they do it.]

However, a lot of mountains, even more adventurous ones, aren't.  Casual climbing is awesome for everyone if the right location is chosen.  Kilimanjaro strikes an excellent balance between adventure and technical accessibility.  This is why I theorize it's so popular amongst casual climbers:  it overlaps with the class of people in which climbing is a powerful cultural object, even amongst members of the class who aren't normally climbers, without coming with the outrageous danger anyone can see in a mountain like Everest.

It's not a conflict you see very often in people my age and slightly older, but climbers who started climbing in the 1970s and 1980s can still really have issues with it.  It still regularly triggers discussions within the community.

And that ends my essay on the evolution of climber culture and why two groups within it often fight with each other.


Kilimanjaro #2: The Ascent!

The climb/hike itself starts very gently.  The first day is only a half day, but you still make it 11 kilometers into the park.  Ruwenzori has the reputation for being the rainiest and messiest, but that wasn't the experience we had.  Ruwenzori rained on me for one afternoon during an entire week.  Kilimanjaro rained on us, and heavily, at least once a day.  We made it about two hours into the trail before the skies opened up on us and dumped on us for the rest of the hike.  I was at least warned by a friend who'd done the mountain before that the single most important thing I could bring on the mountain with me was good rain gear.  She was right.

The first leg of the journey is entirely below the tree line in a fairly dense tropical forest.  The beginning of the hike has similar foliage to Ruwenzori and the same kinds of monkeys crash through the trees above your head as you walk by.  The trail is so well maintained and built it could be considered manicured.  There are steps.  It's a pretty gentle introduction to the mountain.  As you'd expect, campgrounds on Kilimanjaro are huge.  Camp the first night, though, doesn't feel huge because it's still in the tropical forest portion of the hike, so everyone is scattered throughout the forest and separated by dense tree stands.  It doesn't feel crowded, though you can still hear everyone talking and milling around at night.  Like other mountains, there are huts built in the campgrounds.  Unlike other mountains, they're strictly for park ranger use only.  Apparently, there are huge tourist huts on the Marangu route, the easiest and most popular on the mountain.  Tent camping is nice, and it feels a little less... weird when you're doing a mountain.  Wetter, though, and it's more difficult to spread everything that needs to dry at the end of a wet day out.  We managed, though.  We did have to spread out clothing and our bedding every day, though, because it kept getting wet, even with rain covers for our bags and strategic placements of things within our bags to keep the most important the driest.

The second day on the mountain is short, but it's much steeper than the first, with rocky trails and the occasional scramble.  Marie did not enjoy it.  It's still only a Class 2 trail and takes about 4 hours to complete.  Everyone does their best to get up early and get it done by lunch time so that they can avoid the regular afternoon rains.  We made it into camp literally about five minutes before the rain started and piled ourselves and all of our stuff into the tent before the heavens opened.  It gave us a good opportunity to read for a while.  A few hours later, after the rains cleared up, we took a short "acclimation" (time killing) hike up to the Shira Cave and a small, rocky prominence behind it in the late afternoon.  Apparently, until 1977, porters and African guides were forced to sleep in the cave, rather than tents like the climbers.  Now, people boulder the cave.  Another weird colonial holdover:  the nicer toilets are still marked "TOURIST TOILETS", though everyone poops in them a in a free, equal, and uninhibited manner.

When the weather cleared in the morning of the third day, we finally got to see the summit of the mountain.  Being by far the tallest mountain in Africa (2,300' taller than Mt. Kenya), its snow cover is the most striking and impressive.  It's been severely reduced over the past century and is estimated to only have about 30 years of life left because of climate change, but the summit of the mountain is still mostly covered in snow, despite the loss of most of its glacial cover.  It looks like a giant, white beacon glowing under the morning sun.  It also looked impossibly tall and far away, even though we knew we would be standing on it in just over two days.

The second camp is at the edge of the tree line, making most of the third day's hike over scrubby and barren, rocky terrain.  The third day is the main acclimation day, taking you through a pass by a feature called the Lava Tower (which is pretty much what it sounds like--climbers are a lot of things, but we're not creative when it comes to naming things; there's a bouldering spot in Texas that we call The Rocks) at about 15,000' and then back down to an elevation only slightly higher than the start of the day for sleep.  Like Kenya and Ruwenzori, Kilimanjaro also has giant lobelias, the unusual and huge plants unique to these high African mountains.  Ruwenzori has by far the most impressive and striking forest of them, but Kilimanjaro has the largest ones.  On Kilimanjaro, they got up to twenty feet tall and had five bushy hydra heads leaning over the trail.  Otherwise, it's a pretty rocky and open climb.  This one takes all day and requires you to hike through the rain and sleet all afternoon, which makes you pretty excited about reaching camp and enjoying some hot tea, despite the stunning scenery.  The camp at the end of the day is the largest, because another trail converges with the Machame route, depositing its hikers into the camp, as well.

After this, people's itineraries really vary.  Many people, especially those coming from low-elevation areas far away, stop at the Karanga camp, only a 3-hour hike from the third camp.  Others walk six hours to Barafu, the high camp that summit bids are generally launched from at 15,000'.  Some groups stay at Barafu for more than one night before attempting the summit, taking short hikes partially up the mountain to acclimate.  A few will camp higher on the mountain by themselves to acclimate.   We'd chosen the short itinerary, so we walked directly to Barafu the following day and the summit the "next" day.  The hike to Barafu starts out by scaling the Barranco Wall, which is a steep wall covered in technical climbing, but has a couple of hikeable, Class 3/4 seams splitting it up, making it accessible to everyone.  For me, it was one of the most fun parts of the hike because it was steep and required a few exposed, scrambling moves over rock, which always puts a smile on my face.  After the wall, it's an up-and-down hike through several valleys to reach whichever camp you're going to.  We had lunch at Karanga camp and waited out the heaviest portion of the afternoon sleet before continuing on to Barafu.

Barafu is perched on a rocky spine standing over a small valley, making it an awkwardly spread out camp where people have crammed tents wherever there's room.  The outhouses are tiny and precariously perched on the edge of a cliff, making for an interesting restroom approach in the middle of the night.  However......  Some of the groups that have sunk a lot of money into the mountain and making it as comfortable as possible have porters carry portable, private, sit-down toilets (as opposed to the squat toilets/holes in the floor that the outhouses have--tourists unaccustomed to them have erm poor aim) with them.  At night, no one's paying attention to their toilets' private sanctity anymore, so you can poach on them.  Which we totally didn't.  Not once.  (Well, only once.)

"Spending one night" at Barafu means getting to the camp in the early evening, eating dinner, and sleeping for 2-3 hours before departing for the summit at midnight.  It reduces how much time you have to acclimate to the mountain, and that's why I recommend selecting an itinerary that lets you spend at least one full night at Barafu and/or one night further up the mountain before attempting the summit.  We got up bright and late at 11:30 PM, had a snack, and started walking.  This final stretch of the ascent is by far the steepest.  Between that and the oxygen deprivation at altitude, it's pretty grueling.  We maintained an alright pace, but we had to take a lot of short stops and our footsteps got increasingly small and timid as the hike wore on.  It takes about six hours on average (took us seven) to reach the rim of the volcano's caldera, and another 45 minutes to reach the rim's highest point.  The last stretch had us taking slow, six-inch steps all the way, transforming what would've been a 10-minute walk at sea level into one that took nearly an hour.  We were feeling pretty rancid and sluggish, but we made it.

The most maddening thing about the hike is that, at night when you can't see very far, you see what looks like one final rock corner that you have to just get over before the land flattens out about a dozen times.  Approaching and pulling over each only to find yet another again and again is pretty frustrating sometimes, but on the way down, you can see the actual end of the hike pretty much from the beginning.

The summit scenery is hard to beat.  A hanging glacier, the most impressive of all the mountain glaciers I've seen in Africa, leans off of one side of the summit, with the big, blocky remnants of others littering the caldera.  The sunrise and the ice turn the whole area into a mix of pink and light aquamarine.  The sun rises behind Mawenzi peak, a jagged and technical subsidiary peak several kilometers off of Kibo (considered to have sufficient separation from Kibo to be Africa's Third Seven Summit peak, rather than Ruwenzori), the main summit of the mountain (with Uhuru Peak being its highest point and Kilimanjaro's summit). Honestly, after we reached the sign congratulating us on our summit, we took a couple of pictures and started trudging back to a lower altitude to feel better.  Every time I had to stop and rest, someone would encourage me by slapping me on the shoulder and saying "Good job!"  It seemed to be what everyone who was feeling alright did for everyone who wasn't so much to encourage them to finish and to start getting down to an elevation where they would feel better.

The descent doesn't take nearly as long as the ascent, since you're going downhill in daylight.  We were amazingly tired by the time we returned to camp during the last part of the morning.  We ate lunch and slept for an hour.  It was amazingly revitalizing, which was good, because we needed to hike another four hours down the mountain to a low camp so we could exit on time to make the bus back to Nairobi in the morning.  It was at least a gentle, downhill hike all the way, so it wasn't too difficult, even though we were still kind of tired from summitting.  We slept like babies and got up at 5 the next morning to make the bus.  We did.  We got home.  We showered.  We slept.


Kilimanjaro #1: The Mountain, the Legend!

Possibly aside from Mt. Everest in the Himalayas, Kilimanjaro is the most iconic mountain on Earth.  Europeans can recognize Mont Blanc and Americans have Denali, but everyone recognizes Kilimanjaro's name and importance.  It's the tallest mountain in Tanzania and all of Africa, making it one of the Seven Summits, or the highest mountains of each continent.  Aside from being written about by Ernest Hemingway and other important Africa travelers, it's popular because most people are physically capable of doing it.  Though not the shortest of the Seven, it's considered to be the easiest*.

Don't let that description fool you.  Relative to the world's very tall mountains, it's easy, but it's still objectively reasonably difficult.  A lot of "serious" mountaineers will put the mountain down as an easy, overrated hill for wealthy tourists, rather than "serious" climbers.  While I was climbing both Ruwenzori and Mt. Kenya, every guide or experienced Africa climber told me that after I'd done those two mountains, I'd find Kilimanjaro boring.

I didn't.

Generally, itineraries proposed by guiding companies are short, ranging from four to six days to the summit, depending on the trail you take.  We completed the mountain with the Machame route, which is considered to be more scenic than the more popular, standard Marangu route.  Most of the trail is just a straightforward hike, with only one middle section and the summit attempt being physically difficult.  How long it takes to complete depends on the hikers.  The standard time is four days with the summit bid during the night after the fourth day followed by one more day of hiking out of the park.  However, you can add in extra days for acclimation to increase your chances of success.  I strongly, strongly recommend that anyone considering a Kilimanjaro climb do this.  We had an advantage in that we had been living in Nairobi, whose elevation is around 6,000' above sea level.  Unless you live in central Colorado or the Alps, you'll be coming from a decidedly lower elevation, which makes acclimation a lot more difficult.  The hike itself is never overly strenuous, but acclimating in the time you have to climb it can be quite difficult.

Because the entrance fees to the park are very expensive (it's over $100/day), most people try to complete the mountain in the shortest time possible, which is why guiding companies usually advertize short itineraries.  If you're going to do it, it's worth the extra money for another 2-3 days.  Any solid guiding company will be happy to oblige and they can help you pick good camping elevations to help you to acclimate.  The failure rate for people coming to the mountain from low elevations in other countries is really high.  Depending on who you ask, it can be as much as 75% for people attempting to complete the mountain in four days.  On average, it's around 40-50% and plenty of people who summit don't feel great when they do.  We made it, but we were feeling too sluggish and gross to enjoy the really amazing summit caldera and the view it provides as much as we should have.

Getting to Kilimanjaro is easier than any other mountain in Africa because of its popularity.  There's an airport right in Moshi, the town next to Kilimanjaro (it's like the Aspen of Africa), named after the mountain and the sole purpose of its creation was to shuttle in Kilimanjaro tourists.  If you're trying to save money, it's much cheaper just to fly to Nairobi and to hop on the special bus line that delivers you right to Moshi.  However, you will need a visa for each country.  If you're an American, right now that's $150, and Tanzania will only issue a $100 multiple entry visa instead of the standard African $50 single entry visa.  Visas:  You'll need them everywhere you want to be!  At least in Africa.  Only South Africa and Rwanda will let an American enter without one.  Tanzania's capitol, Dar es Salaam, is actually a lot farther than Nairobi.  Dar is one of those magical cities that you would go to only to go to somewhere else.  Anywhere else in Tanzania is a good choice.

The shuttle from Nairobi leaves mid-morning.  It's packed with tourists from across the globe, most of whom are heading to northern Tanzania to go on safaris in the Serengeti, rather than Kilimanjaro.  Our bus had several British, Canadians, another American, a group of Slovenian climbers, and a guy who'd just flow in from Fujian, China exclusively to go on a short safari before returning home.  The drive itself takes you through the heart of Masai territory, so you'll see a lot of traditionally dressed people herding cattle and donkeys alongside the road.  If you haven't already seen the countryside of Kenya and Tanzania, it offers you a pretty great view of the area.  Flat savannah with volcanic mountains sticking out of it the whole way, each with great relief from its surroundings.  It's hot and dry, but with amazingly clear skies and long views of the area.

The drive to Kenya's border with Tanzania takes about two hours.  The border town that contains the crossing itself (Namanga) isn't too bad.  Because there are so many tourists piling down to northern Tanzania, it can take 1-2 hours to cross.  Everyone gets out of their bus, stands in line on the Kenyan side of the border to get stamped out of the country, walks across the invisible line separating the two countries, and stands in line to get stamped into Tanzania.  Throughout the process, Masai women will aggressively try to sell you jewelry.  The border guards try to keep them away from the lines of tourists, but the minute you break away from the herd you'll be swarmed with them.  Keep your arms close to your chest or they'll start putting bracelets on them which they'll refuse to take back.  Otherwise, it's an amazingly straightforward border crossing, and one of the few land borders in Africa where you can get a visa on the spot if you need one.

A little while after you've crossed the border, you'll be going along the flat savannah without any mountains in sight.  Then, suddenly, Mt. Meru looms in the distance.  It's about 4,500' shorter than Kilimanjaro, but it still stands impressively high over the surrounding plains.  Meru is still taller than the highest peak in the contiguous US (Mt. Whitney in California--speaking of which, anyone feel like hiking or climbing it this summer?) by about 500', so its appearance isn't deceiving.  The bus stops for a little while in Arusha, the town at the foot of Meru.  Arusha and Moshi are both extremely well-developed for the tourists and offer everything from fleabag backpacker hostels to five-star palaces.  It's a good place to take a half-hour break from the bus ride.

After Arusha, it's only about an hour further to Moshi.  When we arrived mid-afternoon, much of Kilimanjaro was covered by its normal afternoon clouds.  It did pop out from behind its cover for one brief minute.  Only three mountains on Earth stand higher relative to their surroundings than Kilimanjaro, and one of those is Everest.  Kilimanjaro isn't a steep or jagged peak, like Margherita in the Ruwenzoris or Mt. Kenya's summit spire, but it has a powerful presence that no mountain I've been to does.  It is IMPOSING.  It says HELLO not in a shouting and intimidating voice, but an enormous and expansive one.  And then it goes back into hiding.

It's easy to see why so many explorers and travelers in years and centuries past have thought "I NEED TO CLIMB THIS."  There's nothing unimpressive about the mountain.

Because we'd arrived too late in Moshi to check into the park and complete the first day's hike, we stayed at one of the tourist hotels.  Hotels in Moshi, as you would expect, are a lot nicer than they are in most other places.  Also, the little Italian restaurant in the hotel served a "Kilimanjaro Pizza", which was two pizzas stacked face-to-face with the top one pushed into a dome and covered with marinara sauce to look like a volcano.  It was the kind of delicious, high-calorie goodness that all climbs should be started with.

You'll also notice the different culture in unexpected ways.  When we were being shown to our room, the maid didn't realize that we were married and asked us if we would need separate beds, being an unmarried couple.  She stopped pushing the beds apart when we told her that we were in fact married.

Checking into the park takes a while.  The entrance area is a seething mass of climbers and their support teams.  Porters line up a hundred deep to have their bags weighed (one porter can only carry 25kg, a rule imposed because a lot of climbers would save money by forcing single porters to carry grossly excessive loads) and climbers all wait together in a shelter for their entry paperwork to be completed.  It's best to be patient.  If you don't get your permit and your extra copies, which you'll have to leave with rangers at each camp, you can find yourself in a world of trouble.  Enough people try to poach access to the expensive park and enough people get sick or injured that they take keeping track of climbers very seriously.  You have to check in with the ranger station at each camp every night with your permit.

Compared with the other mountains, Kilimanjaro isn't the most social mountain.  Don't get me wrong, people aren't unfriendly on the mountain.  There are just so many of them (think 200-400 at each camp), including a few big groups, that people tend to stay within their own group, rather than reach out to others during down time at the end of the day.  On Ruwenzori, there were around 20-25 people on the entire Central Circuit trail while I was there, and about 15 of us at the first two camps that I stayed at.  We all ate at the same table every night and always talked to each other throughout the evening.  Mt. Kenya probably had 20 people on the route I used and 40-50 on the mountain, so it was about the same.  Kilimanjaro has literally thousands of people on the mountain at any given time during the high season (now) and everyone eats in their own team's mess tent, rather than at the same communal table.  Despite all of the people around, you'll actually talk less.  Over the course of the hike, there still ended up being a few people we kept running into.  The team of Slovenians from the bus ride took the same route at about the same pace as us, so we actually saw them just about every evening.  One day, me and Marie were talking about hiking Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in Scotland and the UK, and the man in front of us (who turned out to be Glaswegian/from Glasgow, Scotland)  turned around and started excitedly telling us about the hike and the joys of visiting Scotland.

Kilimanjaro is filled with Americans.  I personally attribute this to Hemingway and yuppie culture.  In the Ruwenzoris, I was the only American.  On Mt. Kenya, I was one of two.  Even just traveling around other places in Africa, we're a decisive minority amongst the tourist community.  The main reasons there are so many more Europeans and (recently) Chinese in Africa are straightforward and accidental.  Africa's really close to Europe, while an American who wants to get to Africa usually has to fly to Europe and then south to Africa, making it a greatly longer and more expensive trip for Americans than others.  However, a good 50% of the climbers on Kilimanjaro are American.  It's physically beautiful and stunning.  It's an excellent mountain for relatively inexperienced people because the hike is not so difficult that you need to be in peak physical condition to do it and with a guide it's not hard to figure out an acclimation schedule.  But that can't be all that makes it such a popular mountain, since there are a lot of other mountains closer to home that could be described in the same way.

A good proportion of its popularity is caused by Hemingway, who made the mountain an American icon as well as a European one.  Also, one thing that stands out right away is the kind of person climbing the mountain.  There are plenty of people there who are just into mountains, but a huge proportion of the people on the mountain are yuppie professionals, largely from the American East Coast, who are wearing all-new gear (i.e. this is probably the only major mountain they'll ever do).  Don't misunderstand me:  I qualify as nearly all of those things myself, being an attorney who went to school in the east, so I'm not raining judgment down on these people.  Also, I have no problem with casual adventurers.  I like people who, while not very "outdoorsy" or adventurous, will still come out and enjoy nature here and there.  Personally, I think popularizing conservation and making it successful depends on them more than anyone else.  That's a whole discussion for another time, though.

However, Kilimanjaro seems to have become a part of America's professional-class subculture.  It doesn't matter what age--all were represented, from young professionals fresh out of school to aging ones who have always dreamed of climbing the mountain.  Some of it is money--it takes a certain amount to come all the way to Tanzania just to climb one mountain in an expensive national park.  However, it's definitely caused by much more than it being easier for professionals to afford the trip.  It really does appear to be cultural, rather than a pragmatic accident.  I imagine it started with a mixture of the old Hemingway wealthy-professional-scion-turned-adventurer crowd which later melded with the Dick Bass adventure tourist crowd*.  Especially on the start day, there was active professional networking going on, with a surprising amount of people talking shop about their law firm/engineering job/medical practice back at home and what it does and for whom.  Doing Kilimanjaro almost seems to be a handshake within certain parts of the American professional crowd.  Very, very few American climbers on the mountain weren't professionals.  I felt a little like an outsider, because, despite being a professional, I came to the mountain because I'm a climber, something I was for a decade before I became a professional.  I would've never seen it as a club's handshake or a networking opportunity on my own.

It's not something that's good or bad, it's just a quirk of the mountain's climbing subculure.  Every region has one.  Mt. Kenya and the Ruwenzoris definitely have a decidedly German and Polish middle class flavor, with few people that don't match that description climbing the mountains, for instance.  Colorado's Front Range smells like marijuana and lawyers.  The Ozarks and the Alaskan Range are filled with East Coasters who hate the East Coast.  And so on.

Anyways, that's what climbing the mountain feels like qualitatively.  Next comes the actual climb!


Thursday, 30 January 2014

Ruwenzori #2: The Wall at the End of the World

It's probably because I watched too many movies and read too many fantasy books as a kid, but the journey to Kasese followed by the journey into the Ruwenzoris themselves does give you the sense that you're entering another world.  As you travel from savannah to increasingly dense forest with increasingly low population densities, you can feel the land losing the characteristics you know one by one until it's transformed into a new earth with a new people.  New plants, new topography, new languages, increasingly few people and everything else create an area that's still attached to east Africa, but is quite different from the rest of it.  At the end of this transformation is the steep, jagged wall of the Ruwenzoris themselves.  You know you've reached a true frontier land.  By the time you've started to hike into them, the plant and animal life have changed entirely, so the mountains themselves almost send out a message that something so different and strange lies beyond and is held back by them that it would be totally unrecognizable.

Of course, what lies beyond them is the truly legendary Congo jungle, which just makes that description even more apt.  Until well into the twentieth century, it was regarded as a land of mystery and darkness that outsiders didn't understand and most feared to travel into.  The tales medieval and even Age of Exploration scholars used to tell of what lay south of the Sahara and beyond the narrow strip of coast on the western side of Africa were pretty fantastic stories of monsters, lost kingdoms, and a host of other fanciful notions.  However, the general characterization of the land as one of magic and mystery that's Completely Different stuck.  Between the DRC's past and its ongoing troubles, this feeling definitely still lingers in many people's minds.

In many ways, the characterization isn't altogether inaccurate.  The Congo jungle is the sort of deep and nearly impenetrable place that people and memories get lost in.  It is Completely Different from its neighbors in terms of geography and culture.  The DRC and Congo-Brazzaville together are almost the size of the contiguous US.  It's a microcontinent at the heart of a large and very diverse continent.  From the east, the Ruwenzoris are an enormous wall that separates this unique world from the Swahili Coast and all of the other exploring cultures of the Middle Ages.  If the speculation about the Ruwenzoris by Aristotle and Ptolemy is any indication, ancient Egyptian and Greek explorers must have made it to the area at some point, but even then they (very probably) would have stayed on the eastern, Lake Victorian side of the mountains, having used the Nile or Swahili Coast trade routes to reach them.  There aren't any extant, concrete records, though.  However, one tribe of people "discovered" by a missionary in the late nineteenth century living in the Congo Basin claimed to have been descended from a long-lost group of Egyptians that had just elected to stay where they'd journeyed.  Apparently, some cultural similarities backed this up.

In the modern era, even though you can (in theory) cross the DRC and reach the Ruwenzoris from the west, the DRC and its jungle are still deep and culturally complex areas rarely visited by outsiders and only studied by a few people with an avid interest in the area.  The Ruwenzoris are still a unique geographic feature that mentally and physically separates east Africa from the DRC.  You can drive around or fly over it now, but it still demarcates the border between Uganda and the DRC.  If you really want to cross over the Other Side of the Ruwenzoris, there's a trail specially made just to take curious people into the DRC and around the back of the range.  Officially, Margherita Peak of Mt. Stanley (referred to as "Ruwenzori" by most travel literature), which is what we set out to climb, is the highest point of both Uganda and the DRC because of its location right on the border between the two countries.

The trek that you use to access the summit is a long loop through the heart of the range.  It takes three to four days to reach high camp and most of the following day to achieve the summit.  It took us three days to reach the high camp.  The first day opened my eyes to how out of shape I'd become over the past few years.  It was only a half-day hike because we had spent most the day just getting through the logistics and hassles of getting into the park.  We still made the first camp, so clearly this is kind of the normal expected itinerary.  The first day and most of the second day were spent in the actual rainforest.  Unfortunately, there don't appear to be any great apes right in this particular area (though they are elsewhere in the Ruwenzoris), but we did see a few blue monkeys hopping through the trees from a distance.  Also, a chameleon.

The first hut was ridiculously comfortable.  I met two other groups, whom I would be spending most of the next several days hiking alongside.  One was a large group (around 10) of Germans.  I learned to speak German in high school, but in the ten years since, for a bunch of different reasons, I'd never actually made it to Germany and gotten to use the skill.  It's become fairly rusty, but I was still able to speak well enough to communicate and to understand.  The Germans spoke perfect English, so when it became obvious (...took less time than I'd like to admit) that my German was fairly patchy, they just switched to English for much of the rest of the journey.  It was a large group gathered from all over the Germany (with one German-speaking Pole), especially Bavaria, where Germany conveniently stores its finest mountains.  The other group was from Spain's Canary Islands, which are often more closely associated with Africa than the country that actually rules them.  The woman I met spoke limited English, which was still a pretty solid improvement over my simple, pidgin-y Spanish.  Somehow, though, we managed to communicate and get to know each other a bit.  Over the next three days, we all kept running into each other on the trails and in the huts, even after we broke away to get a day ahead to stay on our tighter schedule.

Also walking with us was a soldier.  He wasn't an escort, he just happened to be on patrol at the same pace as the rest of us.  He was explaining to me that he was a part of a division of the Ugandan army created just to keep tourists in the major Ugandan parks safe.  He was extremely friendly and constantly made conversation with all of us.  The soldiers who patrolled the gate area seemed to hate their jobs pretty badly, but they're stuck in the rain all the time for long periods.  The tourism soldier apparently just went on patrol, had a few days off, and then went back on patrol.  As far as I can tell, it's been a while since there was an actual Congolese incursion into the park, but I've heard other rumors.  In 1999, interahamwe (the people who carried out the Rwandan genocide), who operated in the eastern DRC at the time, came into the park for the sole purpose of murdering tourists to scare them away and so to hurt Uganda's economy.  Between the assorted armed groups in the Kivus and the LRA's old habit of shooting at great ape tourists in the north, Uganda's had to beef up border park security to preserve its image and keep the tourists safe.  The graffiti in the huts gives you an idea of how the violence affected tourism:  there's a lot of writing from the early 1990s, but nearly nothing between 1993 and 2010.

The second day was basically a longer and steeper version of the first.  Heavy, sweaty rainforest for much of the day.  Mercifully, few mosquitos and (ironically?) no rain.  February is a part of the very brief dry season in the mountains.  It still rains reasonably often, but you can have a week without rain.  We were lucky and had no rain for the first two days.  When it rains a lot in the mountains, the trails turn to sludge.  Even during the dry season, the guides recommend that you complete the hike in rubber boots, rather than normal hiking boots, because of how wet the trails are.  The train the second day had some muddy parts, but nothing extreme.  The final stretch of the hike was boggy, but the mud was avoidable.  The entire stretch of the trail had roots covered in eery, bright green moss with sections of old, broken bridges in between the you stepped and hopped between like hallucinogenic hopscotch where the punishment for missing your rhythm isn't being laughed at by your friends, but falling into the bog.  And then being laughed at by your friends.

The hut the second night was a little smaller, so it was a little cozy with all of us in there.  At least it kept us warm.  We ate a while after the other groups, so one of the Germans actually became concerned that I was not eating and offered me some of their food.  If there's one thing I've discovered over the past decade's travels, it's that your location can be awesome, but the people you spend the time there with can really be what makes a trip excellent or horrible.  I've done plenty of solo traveling, and (like a lot of climbers, I think) sometimes I just need to be alone, but some of the best trips I've taken have been either with good people from the get-go or with fun and interesting people that I've met while I've been away.  Despite the rough start, this became one of those trips.

The end of the second day and the beginning of the third day brought us into the bamboo forest of the mountain, which is pretty much what it sounds like.  Tall bamboo shading the entire trail.  The third day also brings you to the Bigo Bog.  Because all of the hikers would destroy the fragile system of grasses and other plants that live on top of the slushy mud (it's called the "Ruwenzori Mattress"), a wooden footpath has actually been built over much of the Upper and Lower Bigo Bogs.  There's only a brief stretch where you're required to actually slog through the bog mud.  That morning, I'd torn a plastic bag into strips to pack into the tongues of my boots so the bog water wouldn't seem through and make my boots and feet wet for the rest of the journey.  For such an on-the-fly solution, it worked really well.  My feet stayed dry and happy.

Because we'd decided to combine two days into one and reach the high camp on the third day, we diverted onto a different trail towards the end of the normal trail to the next hut and took a shortcut to the high camp.  It was relentlessly steep, muddy, and the rains finally began, which was fairly inconvenient on the Class 3 and 4 scrambles that the shortcut required.  Some were fairly precarious with unpleasant consequences for falling.  I had started the day kind of tired, so by the end of the day, I was zapped and concerned about marshaling enough energy to reach the peak the next day.  It also makes moves with bad falls a little more attention-getting.  However, we also got to hike through an enormous lobelia forest.  Lobelias are basically round-leafed yuccas that grow into big, woody trees.  The forest is an amazing sight that you won't find anywhere else.

One thing about the hike that I thought was amazing were all the large, climbable rock faces and minor peaks around us.  I kept asking the local guide if anyone climbed them and if any of the smaller, rocky peaks had names.  He looked confused as to why anyone would bother, said no, and that they were "just rocks" that didn't warrant names.  These were 14,000' and 15,000' peaks with sustained and difficult rock faces that would've been area classics anywhere in the US.

The third day ends at around 15,000', so the last stretch involved scrambling over bald rock faces because the vegetation finally ran out.  It's impressive, because it takes until nearly 15,000' for that to finally happen, which is far higher than meaningful vegetation reaches on most mountains.  The high camp hut is basically a low, A-framed shack for people to crowd into on the floor and sleep for a few hours before their summit bid.  We had it to ourselves that night because the only other group that had planned to make a summit bid the next day had a member with altitude sickness and left.  I laid down for a pretty serious rest before dinner to recharge as much as I could so my legs wouldn't wear out the next day.  It wasn't difficult to fall asleep after we ate.  The outhouses were kept down in a little valley that you had to use a broken ladder to reach, which made for a pretty interesting 2 AM adventure.

We woke up well before dawn the next day to begin the four-hour trip to the summit.  The journey opens with a Class 4 scramble up a smaller peak on the mountain, which gives you access to the glacier.  A brief crossing of the glacier brings you to another scramble up and around a minor peak.  Whenever a short stretch of easy technical climbing may have been required, a fixed rope is in place that you can hold onto and pull yourself over the stretch with.  The second scramble brings you to a steep and sustained glacier pitch.  Crampons and an axe are required.  We were roped together in case of a slip, but any time a fall was actually possible, we axe belayed each other (rather than using a belay plate to handle the rope and hold a fall, the axe is driven into the ice and the rope is held tightly over the top--not super secure, but better than nothing).  We had acclimated well, but going was still slow because it was so easy to get out of breath.  I could also feel my mind getting sluggish.  The further you go up the glacier, the gentler the incline gets.  It's nice on the way up, but it means it gets progressively more difficult on the way down, which is important when you're tired from getting up.

Finally, we reached an enormous crevasse at the end of the glacier, which we skirted until we came to the base of the peak.  From there, it was a short and easy scramble to the summit.  On a clear day, you get an amazing, panoramic view of western Uganda and the DRC, but it was foggy the entire morning.  We had about 10' of visibility throughout the climb and light snowfall.  Like a lot of summits, it felt good to have reached it, but the good feelings came in far more strongly after I'd safely made it back down the climb to high camp.

We stopped briefly for lunch at high camp (we'd been climbing for about eight hours), where we met up with the other groups that we'd been hiking with.  They were excited to know that I'd made the summit (they'd been concerned that rushing was going to make me ill from the altitude and I'd have to abandon the mountain) and wanted to know what the route was like so they could prepare.  Some of the Germans were pretty serious mountaineers who'd done Africa's other tall peaks and some impressive climbs on other continents, like Aconcagua in Argentina and Annapurna in the Himalayas.  We talked about mountains for quite a while over lunch before I had to head out.  We had to walk to a lower camp so that we could get ready to finish the hike over the next two days.  It was tiring, but it took us through one of the more spectacular valleys on the trip, which is saying something.  It was basically an enormous box canyon filled with boulder fields and lobelias.  The hike terminated at a pleasant mountain lake in this second lobelia forest.

The next day was an exhaustion slog over a pass that takes you to the trail leading to one of Mt. Stanley's tall, glaciated neighbors, Mt. Baker.  We had to climb back up so much it wouldn't've been overly difficult just to have summited Mt. Baker while we were at it.  We kept going.  We slept.

The last day brings you over a steep section that alternated between mud slogging and scrambling down rock faces in your slick boots.  It's unsafe.  The porters wait at the end in case you get injured.  We made it down alright, but it was good to get that behind us.  We passed by the hut we'd first stayed at and repeated the first day's hike.  Tiring, humid.  Good to finish.

After our worries that we'd end up having to pay more fees for staying one day more than the days we'd officially paid for, the ranger at the gate didn't even ask how long we'd been in the park and just waved us out.  It was a welcome relief.

After we'd met up with our ride out of the park itself and gotten down the road to headquarters, we had to square up with the porters.  We'd been able to tell them that we would take care of the tip once we were at headquarters, rather than any of the several times they'd asked earlier, so they couldn't stop working and leave our gear on the mountain to try to get a bigger tip out of us.  We had a feeling that no matter what we gave them, it wouldn't be enough, and we were right.  After they'd gotten the (low) tip that we could afford, they got angry and told us they wanted $100/person plus $150 for the local guide, so $550.  We could've just done the trip again for that much.  We made sure all of our stuff was in the car and we'd gotten our summit certificates from the park before we paid them.  We paid, listened to the complains, and got in the car and left.

Once we'd gotten back on the main road to Kasese, we saw the last bus to Kampala leaving.  We were able to flag it down and pay our fares on board, so we didn't get stuck in Kasese for the night.  We got into Kampala a little after midnight and found a cheap hotel to stay in.  The guide caught the early bus to Nairobi the next day, but I had already booked one of the cheap commuter flights between Entebbe and Nairobi.  The flight is less than an hour, while the bus ride can take 13-18 hours depending conditions and transfer schedules.  I spent the day holed up in my room.  I walked a couple blocks down to a bakery, got a sack of pastries, and then spent the rest of the day in the room resting.

After my flight home the following day, Marie (my wife) had correctly predicted that I would want a huge a protein-filled meal, so she cooked a tray of her awesome lasagna.  She was hoping there would be some left over.  I guess there was a little left.  It was a great post-climb meal.

I had three rest days to enjoy before getting up to Mt. Kenya.  Mostly, they were spent catching up on everything that had piled up while I was away.