Saturday, 8 February 2014

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.


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