Wednesday, June 21, 2006


So I am sitting my little office in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. I am supposed to be working on a document for the World Bank, but it is downloading rather slowly, so I will take this opportunity to run out a few words on the latest stupid thing that I have done.

I arrived last Sunday in Dar, took a cursory look at the city out the taxi window, slept the night at the YMCA, stashed my bags and headed out towards that crazy overgrown hill, Kilimanjaro. Standing at just shy of 20,000 ft , it is the tallest peak in Africa and the tallest free-standing peak in the world (it was apparently a particularly bad-ass volcano a few millenia ago.) And I was going to endeavor to climb it. Kristen Anne Markers-Mark-on-the-rocks-and-can-you-toss-another-of-those-cigarettes Himelein was going to climb a mountain. I figured that I was in pretty good shape from spending a measurable portion of last semester at the gym, and really, at 26, I am not getting any younger, so now is the time.

I arrived at the Nija Panda junction just short of Moshi after harrowing bus ride. The drivers here go way too fast and pedestrians walk on the road to avoid the knee deep mud of the rainy season on either side of the road. The bus following mine from the same bus company hit and killed a 15 year old girl while making the same trip. And buses here have that distinctive third world characteristic of passing on blind hills. Which makes for really gruesome traffic accidents, though I only saw 3 on the 9 hour journey. But I lived and, as this story's protagonist, that really is what is important here.

Upon arrival at the hotel, I learned that I would be climbing with another, some English guy. I met my fellow climber over dinner. Young, cherubic head of blond curls, and the thickest lambchop sideburns this side of the disco era. After about three days, I was able to decipher his accent enough to ascertain that his name was Michael and he was a builder from southwestern England.

The first day was easy enough. It was only a three hour walk (though we ascended quite a bit) though thick rain forest. The most exciting bit was when I stopped to drink some water a little too close to a red ant colony. They were less than amused and I spent the next 2 kilometers on the trail bouncing around like an epileptic cheerleader trying to kill them all. Bastards bite you know.

The first night was at the Mandara Hut (9,000 feet). The huts were built by some Norwegian NGO a couple years ago, so they are these little A frame deals made out of something only slightly more sturdy that posterboard. The beds were straw (only maybe not, but it sure felt that way) mattress on the board floor. It was the first of many nights that Michael and I would spend staring at each other across the 2 meters of board that was our little house. Dinner was excellent because we were on the first night, soup and vegetables and fried chicken.

The next day was a bit more of a slog. We were out of the rainforest and into the "alpine" terrain, which meant coniferous trees of diminishing size as we progressed. By lunchtime the clouds were far below and I was quite a bit taller than any of the remaining "trees." We spent the night at the Horombo Hut (12,500 feet). The air was thinner here and it was cold. I slept in flannel pants, tee shirt, heavy sweater, two pairs of socks, two sleeping bags and a knit cap. Midnight trips to the outhouse were an adventure. You wanted to run as fast as you could because it was freezing, but running more than three or four steps left you gasping for air. In the morning, when I went to brush my teeth in the community water spigot, it had frozen.

That days walk wasn't particularly difficult, but it was slow. You plodded along with one foot barely coming in front of the other, making sure that you didn't do anything to get winded because it could be a long time gasping before you were ready to go on again. The only "vegetation" around were lichens and a few confused wildflowers growing very very close to the ground. By the time we reached Kibo Hut (15,500 feet), the flowers were gone and there wasn't even much in the way of lichen. There weren't even ants up this high. The air was really thin. I spent most of the rest of the day sleeping and trying to force myself to eat (altitude kills your appetite).

At 11 pm, the guides woke us up. We layered on literally every article of clothing we had to start the summit push. You have to start that early to get across the glaciers on the crater rim before
the sun melts the upper layer of ice to water. You are pretty much guaranteed a gruesome fall to your death if you are up there when that happens. From 11 pm to 5:30 am, I climbed very very slowly up the switchbacks through the volcanic ash towards Gillman's Point (18,635 feet). The four mile climb takes over six hours. Gillman's Point is the top of the crater. To reach there you are considered to have reached the top of the mountain. You earn a green colored certificate and a pat on the back. I never thought I would make it. I was huffing and puffing the whole way through the ash. Glacial patches glowed in the moonlight to the sides of the trail. In my oxygen deprived mind, I thought they must be halogen lights being used to light up Gillman's Point. (Don't worry, I get crazier as the hours progress.) The last hour is way way above anything that could be growing, so there is nothing to break up the large boulders. You pull yourself up and over until, finally Gillman's Point. I curled up in a little ball and drank a cup of hot tea. I had made it.

Then the guide asks me if I am ready to go on to Uhuru Peak. Uhuru Peak is on the other side of the crater and the highest point on the mountain, and in African in general. It is the ultimate goal of most climbers. (You get a gold certificate for that one.) Although it is only 600 feet or some higher (and when you are around 20,000 this is trivial), but it is up and down over the crater rim, and across the glaciers, to get there, about another two hours. I haul myself up. It took me nearly the full two hours, but at 7:20 am, I made Uhuru Peak. It was a glorious scene. I panted on my hands and knees for a few minutes, pulled myself up to take a picture (in which I look like I am about to be executed) and headed back. I was there no more than five minutes. Then back down.

And then I saw my salvation. There, not 100 meters in front of me, was a donkey. He was nibbling at the grass. Oh happy day! The DONKEY will take me back down. This is perfect. Wait. We are 100 meters about the lichen line. There is no grass here. What could the donkey be eating? Oh. I am seeing things that aren't really there. (It is really common to hallucinate that high up.) The donkey turned back into a rock and I trudged on.

The trip down, once you get to Gillman's Point, was quite a bit faster. You "ski" down the volcanic ash, using your climbing stick as a brake as you go. Unfortunately you end up inhaling a bunch of ash, which your already strapped respiratory system doesn't appreciate. I made it back to Kibo Hut and collapsed. I had an hour before I had to eat dinner and then walk back down to Horomo Hut where we would spend the night. I was hurting when I got back up, pulled on my pack, and started down. The night at Horomo was cold, but I slept like a rock through most of it so I didn't notice until the morning.

The next day it was up at 6 am and back down the rest of the way to the gate. I was never so happy in all my life to see a motorized vehicle than when I walked into that parking lot. I signed the log attesting that I had reached the peak, bought a phone card to tell me mother, and went back to the hotel. After my first shower in nearly a week, and a few icy cold Tuskers at the bar, I was feeling pretty damned good about me and my gold certificate. I had walked 60 miles and ascended (and descended) 15,000 feet in the last five days.

The next day it was back on the bus and back to Dar. Currently I am living in a cold water YMCA, looking for housing that I can afford in this god forsaken city. I have looked at a number of things that I either cannot afford, or are brothels. Other than that, and the fact that the city is basically under water from massive late season rains (can you say cholera anyone?), I am having a good time. Work is fine and I am trying to pick up a bit of Swahili.

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