WATER. (subtitle: “Bad choices at high altitudes.”)

Saturday, 8:30am.

It was roughly 60°F, I was wearing three thermal shirts, three pairs of pants, a puffy down jacket and Gore-Tex shell, two hats and ski gloves, and standing about 19,000 feet closer to the sun than the average person.

I was a bit warm.

I was also becoming exceedingly thirsty.

An hour earlier we had reached Uhuru Peak, the uppermost point of East Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro, after trekking six and a half hours through the dead of night up Kili’s jagged, frozen, wind-whipped slope.  At 19,341 ft., Uhuru towered not only above the now-miniature cities of Moshi and Arusha far below, but also well above the cloud lines.  The view was breathtaking (as was the lack of oxygen).

It had not been an easy trip up.  The culmination of 5 days of hiking and acclimatizing, what should be a victorious march to the summit is actually a plodding, laborious trudge at an unrelenting angle over frigid terrain.  It’s a mental battle all the way, as you try to convince yourself that this completely voluntary thing you have undertaken that no one but your crazy stupid self has made you do is not only worth doing, but worth finishing.  (Seriously, I almost lost this argument.  I am pret-ty good at being able to tell when I’m lying to myself.)

But finally, painstakingly, I made it to the top.

That’s when my brain hiccuped.

The pack I was carrying began to feel considerably heavier the closer we got to the summit, so upon reaching the peak I immediately set out to rectify this problem before the trip down.  As I had packed lightly on purpose, I chose to rid myself of the only thing there was to part with in my bag.

Yes, I emptied almost two liters of lemon-lime Gatorade-y water onto the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  I am not proud of this.  (Turns out, I’m a bit of an imbecile at high altitudes.  15,000 ft. was about where I hit the “Rap Line,” as in the point at which I felt comfortable doing my best Kanye performance for the video camera.  Never take advice from me above the Rap Line.)

Not until almost two hours into our descent, when the sub-freezing temps had surrendered to sunshine and we were now roasting in our sweat-wicking thermal layers, did I begin to regret my summit slush dump.  The heat, combined with eight-plus hours of nearly continuous trekking, had depleted our bodies’ water supply and I, in my infinite wisdom, had generously donated my reserves to Uhuru Peak.  We were met halfway back to camp by one of our gazelle-like porters who bounded up the rocks carrying a thermos of mango juice.  Warm mango juice.  Overcoming my system’s strong desire to send it back the wrong way, I drank what he offered and did my best to ignore the foot chorus of Stomp! going on in my head.

When we finally reached base camp we were given two hours to rest and recover before we’d need to pack up and head farther down the mountain.  For an ascent that lasted until sunrise of the 6th day, our peak-to-gate descent would be complete in less than 24 hours.  Like the Tin Man asking for oil, I used the last of my completely sapped energy to rasp for water.  (Okay fine, I groaned and pointed to my SIGG bottle until my friend Katie got the picture and went and inquired for me.)  I was just barely alert enough to hear the reply,

“No wat-ah til rains.”

Uh, pardon?

“Yeah, they said they won’t have any more water until morning probably, after it rains this evening or if they find a spring,” Katie confirmed with pitying eyes and a small grimace, “but you can have the few sips left of mine.”  (It might here be helpful to add that I believe Katie to be part camel.)  Shocked that she had any water left at all, I greedily drank what she offered and laid down on the rocky tent bottom for a fitful hour-long nap.

I descended the rest of the day in a partially-dehydrated fog, as well as a literal one as we passed through several layers of clouds and air just misty enough to tease.  When we got to our final overnight campsite our porters were somehow able to come up with a boil-able amount of water.  It wasn’t the cool refreshing deluge I was hoping for, but it was something.  It had never occurred to me that water was such a precious resource until I suddenly couldn’t get it anywhere.

Not having ample water in the wilderness is certainly not particular to Africa.  All camping, mountaineering, and traveling requires constant attention to your life-giving resources.  But not having ample water was also not particular to Mt. Kilimanjaro.  Kili marked the third time during my month in East Africa that I had been dehydrated to the point of illness.  My western mind couldn’t fathom – how does one survive here on a daily basis?

Of the three places we stayed in Africa – two homes and one hotel – none had tap water that was safe to drink.  Compared to the places we worked – slums and IDP camps – it was a luxury that they had running water at all.  But still our good health depended solely upon the barrel of treated water in the Waraos’ kitchen, the boiling pot on Irene’s stove, the endless supply of liter bottles sold at the local Nakumatt.

I was speechless as I realized that in the U.S., not only can we drink the water we bathe in, but even the water we use to wash our clothes is potable.  Why do we have so much good water when so many people have not a drop?

Clean drinking water should not be a luxury.  In far too many places, it is.

Organizations like charity: water are working hard to change that.  Visit their website and see how easy it is to be a part of their plan.  Next time you take a drink of water, remember how thankful you are you didn’t have to walk five miles to find it.  Remember how thankful you are it’s not full of dirt and parasites.

I will be thankful I don’t have to wait for rain.

And if you ever find yourself thirsty atop Mt. Kilimanjaro (hey, you never know), look for the yellow-tinted frozen patch of water to the left of the Uhuru sign.  I promise it’s clean.

And I swear to you, the yellow is Gatorade.

Mañana!

(That’s “tomorrow,” in Spanish, for all you anglophiles out there.)

Tomorrow is BLOG ACTION DAY 2010!  It’s a day where all participating blogs will write about the same topic to promote conversation around a specific issue.  This year’s topic is very near and dear to my heart:  WATER.

Visit the above link to sign the petition encouraging the UN’s work to improve water projects worldwide, and if you yourself are a blogger, follow the above link to join the cause!

To learn more about clean water initiatives taking place all over the world you can visit the website one of my all-time favorite organizations, charity: water.

Finally, check back tomorrow for my water-related post.  (Teaser:  it’s themed around the time I almost died in Tanzania.*)

 

* Ok that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but what good’s a teaser if it doesn’t tease you?!

THE SUMMIT OF KILIMANJARO.

Elevation begun: 4550 meters – base camp
Highest elevation reached: Uhuru peak, 5895 meters
Distance hiked: 36km
Night 6: Mweka Camp (on the descent) 3100 meters

At midnight (not 11:30pm as planned…the only time on the entire climb we didn’t hear the alarm, figures) we finished layering and gathered in the mess tent for tea and biscuits, and at 12:30, headlamps firmly in place, we set off.

How to describe the hike to the summit?  Let’s see – utter darkness, raging 50+mph winds, sub-zero wind chill, 45 degree+ angles up the mountainside, rocky unstable terrain, less oxygen with every step you take = scariest environment imaginable.  That’s all you had to say, scariest environment imaginable.  (Anyone remember this line from Armageddon? Went through my head loads on summit day.)  I think it’s fair to say that what scares Africans most about climbing Kilimanjaro is the cold, which turned out to be the only aspect of mountain climbing that I could call myself reasonably prepared for, having grown up in Buffalo and now living in Chicago.  The only skin I had exposed was right around my eyes, and occasionally my nose and mouth, though about every 5 breaths I’d feel like I was suffocating in my balaclava and have to pull it down…and then would immediately feel so slashed and torn by wind that I’d take a quick breath and pull it right back up.

Besides that, I was so crazy-layered that I was actually hot for the first 2 hours of the climb:  2 pairs of long underwear, 1 pair fleece leggings, rain pants, 4 shirts, down coat, Gore-tex shell.  The only thing that was not well cared-for were my fingers since my ski gloves are circa 1995.  Somewhere around 18,500 ft. a layer of frost forms on everything.  It’s almost instantaneous – you look down and suddenly you resemble the kid in the Campbell’s Soup commercial who’s been engulfed by a snowman, only there’s no warm soup on the summit, trust me.  I had one of those self-heating warmers in each glove which clearly do not work since they weren’t even warm enough to melt the snow on my gloves.  (I do NOT understand why they say not to put them directly onto skin.  I would have cut open my hand and inserted the thing inside if I had thought it would warm up my fingers.)

I wish I could have taken a picture.  It was a clear night – behind us we could see the lights from the city of Moshi 17,000 feet away at the base of the mountain.  Ahead of us we saw a small intermittent line of headlamps like a string of dying Christmas bulbs from those who had trekked out ahead.  Up we hiked, battling the elements in the inky blackness.  From base camp on, more than anything, it is a mental game.

At about the 5-hour mark, just when you start thinking that even though you are now less than 2 hours from the summit you’re so miserable you almost don’t care if you reach the summit, the sun comes up.  For us it was accompanied by – surprise! – clouds, so it was more of a bright milky aura than the sun, but it was light.  And then I heard some people ahead of us cheer and I thought, “if they are at the summit, and they are close enough that I can hear them cheer, I can make it to the summit.”

Glacier, and view from Uhuru Peak.

Well they weren’t at the summit.  They were at Stella Point, the lower point on the summit ridge and still an hour’s hike from Uhuru Peak, our ultimate goal.  But again, at this point you are playing mental games with yourself.  If I had known then that I was still 2 hours from Uhuru Peak, I shudder to think of how dejected I would have felt.  But I didn’t know, and so I kept walking.  Shuffling actually, like my grandpa used to, one or two deep, desperate breaths for every miniature half step I took.  And as we got higher, the sky got brighter and the clouds disappeared, and then you can see it.  You can see a sign in the distance, and a tiny cluster of people who reached it before you.  And as those people turn and pass you on their way back down the mountain they smile encouragingly and say “You’re almost there.  You’re almost there.”

And then I was there.  And I cried, because what else was I going to do?

But then I figured I should stop before my tears froze.

Katie, Jenn, & I at Uhuru Peak: 19,341 ft.

Kili Day 5: I got a feeling…

…that tonight’s gonna be a good good night!

Tonight we summit.

The hike to base camp, Barafu, was relatively short.  We were there in under 3 hours, arriving a little before noon, which is precisely the time that those who had summited that morning were returning to base camp from the peak…looking, shall we say, rather disheveled, and in most cases utterly exhausted.  We had been above some clouds, and in some clouds, and above some more clouds to this point, but base camp is really above the clouds, making it incredibly sunny, terribly cold, and unbelievably windy.

We asked advice of those returning from the summit and the consensus was “Wear everything you own.”

Oh-kay.

Jenn and Katie and I wandered around the campsite while the porters struggled to find rocks heavy enough to keep our tents from blowing away.  We talked endlessly about how many layers we should wear, and we started getting dressed for the summit around 3pm (yep, that’s about 9 hours early), because what else were we going to do?  Jenn had a great thermal set her mom bought and mailed to her, sea foam blue because her mom said the black outfit looked like “Oprah robbing a bank.”  We’re still a bit unclear what she meant by that, but the phrase stuck.  (Jenn:  “So I’m wearing 2 pairs of long underwear, Oprah robs a bank, and my rain pants.”)

At about 5pm we ate a marathoner’s dinner of pasta and bread – heavy on the carbs, easy on the stomach – and at 6pm we went to bed, alarm set for 11:30pm.

our campsite above the clouds

Kili Days 3 & 4: Blame it on the a-a-a-a-a-altitude.

(Did we parody numerous songs with ridiculous mountain-themed lyrics throughout our climb?  Yes, we did.  And we blame that on the altitude too.)

Day 3 Elevation begun: 3840 meters
Highest elevation reached: Lava Tower, 4630 meters
Distance hiked: approx. 15km
Night 3: Barranco Camp, 3950 meters

Chow time.

Day 3 was the most difficult to date.  We hiked a pretty good distance and hit our highest altitude point thus far, Lava Tower, where we ate lunch and spent about an hour total to force our bodies to deal with it.  Jenn, Katie, & I all had headaches by the time we reached the day’s pinnacle.  Stanley assured us this was normal and that he, too, had a headache.  (This made me feel both better and worse.)  But lunch helped, as did Motrin.  The climb back down however was long and cold and, yet again, wet.  By the time we reached Barranco Camp I was done for, and I ate very little that night.  It’s a weird game you play with your body on a mountain – you need more energy than ever, but your stomach is uttering a definite NO when you look at food.  Aside from Day 4’s amazing Tanzanian-American fusion lunch, I stuck to mainly rice, fruit, bread, & peanut butter the remainder of the climb.

For the record, peanut butter may be the best food ever.  It’s just genius.

Lava Tower: 4,650 meters

Day 4  Elevation begun: 3950 meters
Highest elevation reached:  4200 meters
Distance hiked:  7km
Night 4:   Karanga Camp (4200 meters)

Quite honestly, I don’t remember much about day 4.  It was our shortest hike distance-wise and we got into camp fairly early in the afternoon, where we sat in our “mess tent” for hours and sang to Jenn’s iPod because – surprise! – it was raining outside again.  What I do remember is that Day 4 was my favorite meal of the hike – fried chicken and the greasiest french fries I’ve ever seen, plus some watermelon.  It was the only meal on the whole climb we polished off entirely, which figures.  Chicken, fries, and watermelon.  How American are we?!

It’s just hard enough to keep the riff-raff out.

We were so popular on Kili.  (Was nice while it lasted.)

One of the fun things about Kilimanjaro is the other climbers you meet.  You mostly see the same people at each campsite along the way, and as the only group comprising 3 girls, we made friends quickly and easily.  When you undertake something like Kilimanjaro you automatically have a ton to talk about with otherwise complete strangers.  Likewise, you also meet some crazies.  (Teaser:  Canadians are crazy.  Like you didn’t already know.)

Wish I had a picture of Felix but I don't. He looked a little like this guy, but not really. And no cigarette.

Night 1, we met Felix  (pronounced fay-leeks).  Felix was a nice French man climbing by himself who we met at our first campsite.  Jenn told him I spoke French and we were instantly besties – he seemed pretty thrilled to find someone who spoke his language.  Cross that off my life goals:  find French-speaking friend on mountain in Africa.  Check.

Our next friends were 3 men from San Jose/San Francisco area who were constantly videotaping on their cameras.  We frequently discussed amongst ourselves that they must have brought a ton of memory cards and batteries.  Turned out they work for SanDisk, so…they did.  They also had more wardrobe changes than Rihanna.  On first meeting, we mistakenly took them for novice mountain climbers with an excess of gear (“Hi kettle, you’re black.”), only to find out they hike together every Sunday, run half-marathons twice a month, and have climbed Mt. Whitney and Everest Base Camp, among others.  Our bad.

At some point on day 2, in the middle of a wet, freezing cold cloud, we were passed by 2 Canadian men in hiking shorts and ankle gaiters.  Ankle gaiters cover the tops of your shoes and your ankles.  To be clear, this means they were wearing shorts (above the knee) and ankle coverings.  I don’t know if this is normal hiking attire, but in my mind it’s like wearing an apron with no shirt:  it just looks silly.  Plus, it was COLD.  Their comment as they passed us:  “So balmy here in Africa.  We’re trying to get to the summit as fast as we can – heard it’s colder up there!”  Crazy Canadians.

Let’s see…also met a mean German man who would shove past us in a hurry, but then we ‘d pass him panting by a rock 20 minutes later (happened 3 times)…an American woman living in Ghana who had altitude sickness by day 3…and a Dutch couple who we met separately, as the man would fly past us early in the day and later on the woman would reach us and ask “Have you seen my boyfriend?”  Yes Dutch girl, like 4 hours ago.  Seems like quite the gentleman, why don’t you go ahead and leave him on the mountain.

Good thing I got mine from the library, suckers!

Last but not least was our friend Tim from Atlanta.  We liked Tim immediately because he was the only person on Kilimanjaro who bothered to learn all our names.  (Seriously – even Stanley, our guide, only knew Jenn because her name was on all the documents.  If something had ever happened to me he would have been like “Hey!  American Girl #3 needs help!”)    Tim and I bonded over having the same Swahili phrasebook.  We had also used the same Learn-Swahili-In-Your-Car CDs, and both subsequently found out that nothing we learned from them was actually useful in daily conversation.  Hodi!  Waste of time.

In case any of our Kili friends ever find this blog, a big Jambo! to you.  And remember to take it ‘pole pole.’

…back to our previously scheduled programming. Kili, Day 2.

Elevation begun: 3100 meters
Highest elevation reached: 3840 meters
Distance hiked:  9km
Night 2: Shira Camp, 3840 meters

Day 2 began with sunshine that quickly turned gray and damp. Disappearing weather is a theme on Kilimanjaro. Literally by the time you whip out your camera for the perfect shot, a cloud has either reappeared in front of you or completely engulfed you (frequently the latter). From Day 2 on, I believe the majority of what we would be doing is known, in climbing terms, as “scrambling.”  I officially learned that from Wikipedia.

Kili hike Day 2

Going up!

The path through the rainforest on Day 1 was pretty self-explanatory – you’d have to walk blindfolded to miss it – but all of a sudden on Day 2 we began to realize the necessity of our guide, Stanley.  Post-rainforest the way is not clear.  You are consistently hiking at 45+ degree angles and when you look up it’s incredibly difficult to tell which way to go.

Also from Day 2 on, things don’t dry.  Guess what?  Clouds don’t have a silver lining.  They have a WET lining.  And as you are not allowed to build fires on the mountain, what’s wet on Kilimanjaro stays wet on Kilimanjaro.  We hit a lot of boulders and steep rock faces on Day 2 and found out pretty quickly which were the more difficult ascents based on assistance of our guide, Stanley.  Whenever we reached a harder section of rocks he would grab our trekking poles from us so our hands would be free to help us balance.  Lesson learned.   When your guide offers you help, feel free to allow yourself a moment of circumstantial panic.

Hussein

Our assistant guide, Hussein, in the mist.