Rather than post a day-by-day account of our week on the mountain, I decided to bring you answers to some of the many, many questions our group had before and during our ascent up Mount Kilimanjaro. We, in general, ask a lot of questions. At some point soon, Jen will be posting a full account on her blog -- I'll let you know when that's up in case you're interested in all the gory details. Most importantly: We're all back safe and sound (I mean, the variety of ailments and injuries we heard about and then saw first-hand... I'm really glad I didn't have the chance to fully research before departing), so that's the most important thing. Now, down to business:
Q: Why on earth would you, of all people, decide to climb the highest peak in Africa?
A: That's a really good question, and one I asked myself oh, once or twice while on the mountain. As you know, I'm not exactly the camping/hiking/mountaineering type. The idea first came up when Jen and I were discussing a possible rendez-vous in Africa; she said, and I quote, "Well I'm not going to Africa and not climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro." The rest is pretty much history, with the majority of history consisting of me in total denial about the true nature of the challenge. To be fair, I was also pretty excited (in my own stressed-out way) to take on the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Q: So what does "kujichagulia" mean, anyway?
A: It means self-determination in Swahili, and Lynn's been impressing all our guides with her (previously acquired) knowledge of the phrase. It was a good mantra for us to keep in mind on our way up.
Q: How long does it take to climb the mountain?
A: Well, the fastest its ever been done is nine hours, by a group of Austrians. We, Americans, took seven days to go up and down -- five and a half up, one and a half down, Each day we hiked between five and eight hours, through all sorts of terrain including misty rainforests, dusty deserts, and rocky ridges. The only real safe way to give yourself the best chance of summitting is to go exceedingly slowly ("pole pole," as the guides and porters repeat endlessly), increasing your altitude gradually as you acclimate. We stayed in a different (progressively higher) campsite each night of six.
Q: What do you have to carry?
A: It's kind of insane: For our group of six, we had two guides, a chef, and 15 porters. Fifteen! They go (quickly) ahead of the hikers to each camp, carrying the tents, backpacks, supplies and other equipment. While hiking we only carried our daypacks filled with water and extra clothing.
Q: How did you wash?
A: Not very well or very frequently. The only really washing opportunities came twice a day when a small bowl of water was delivered to each tent, allowing for some quick cleansing of pertinent areas. We also used a lot of baby wipes.
Q: At what point did the brown grease spill on top of your head cease to exist as "hair"?
A: On or about the morning of Day Four.
Q: What do you eat on the trek?
A: We ate inside a small mess tent each morning and night, sitting on tiny backless camping stools. Our chef, Benedict, prepared a similar meal each day: Breakfast usually consisted of porridge, toast, and eggs, and dinner was invariably creamy vegetable soup, a starch, and some sort of vegetable and/or meat stew. The food was just what you need on the climb -- comforting, easy to eat, and warm. (It's imperative to fending off mountain sickness that you eat as much as you possibly can, even -- and especially -- if you're not hungry.) Lunches were boxed and eaten in the middle of the daily hike.
Q: Do you really lose weight on the climb?
A: Most people, apparently, lose an average of 10 pounds. We did not.
Q: Where do you go to the loo?
A: Each campsite comes equipped with a crude litrine -- basically a wood hut with a hole cut into the ground. It was pretty gross. By the end of the climb, we were all pretty comfortable peeing anywhere and everywhere, day or night. Kind of crazy.
Q: Are the rumors true -- did you really buy "gaiters"?
A: Yes! Gaiters are a necessity on Kili. They're nylon tubes that you zip over the tops of your shoes and up your calves, protecting your shoes and pants from the variety of muds, rocks, and dust. That said, I never in my life want to hear the phrase, "Did you put your gaiters on yet?" again. They're kind of a massive pain.
Q: How do you pass the time while walking?
A: Sometimes we played games like the "ba ba ba" name-that-tune game or group haiku creation. Sometimes we chatted in pairs. Most of the time, to be honest, we were quiet. A lot of concentration goes into looking down for eight hours a day and ensuring steady footing. We were lucky though -- enjoying amazing, sunny weather nearly the entire time. So we also spent a good number of hours applying sunscreen and peeling off layers of clothes.
Q: How cold is it on the mountain?
A: During the day it was probably in the 60s. At night it got pretty darn cold, dropping into the 20s in the dark as we shivered in our sleeping bags. On summit night, the coldest part of the mountain measured -15 degrees Celcius, or 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
Q: What did you wear on summit night?
A: It was definitely a hodgepodge of gear, as due to the fact that our box of REI goodness never arrived in Tanzania. Nonetheless, a lot of mooching kept me pretty warm... Top: Base layer long-sleeve (borrowed); second long sleeve; zip lightweight turtleneck (rented); fleece (rented); windbreaker; puffer coat (rented). Bottom: Long underwear (rented); fleece pants; ski pants (rented); wind pants (rented). Four pairs of socks (all borrowed or rented). Size 10 men's waterproof boots (rented). Hat, neck gaiter (rented), and two pairs of gloves (rented).
Q: So did you summit, or what?!
A: It was under a moonlit, star-filled sky that we left the (dis)comfort of Barafu Camp at 11:00 p.m. on the night of July 12. The six of us began the long climb up to 19,000 feet accompanied by our two guides, Elias and John, and three porters (in case any of us needed to descend early). It was cold, but not as cold as it would be soon. (On summit night you leave camp between 11:00 and midnight, with the intent of reaching the peak by sunrise, around 6:30 a.m. Then you descend for three to four hours, rest, and finally travel on to a lower-altitude camp for the night. All in all, it's about 14 hours of hardcore hiking in less than a day.)
We kept to our usual order at the start: Sarah, Jen, me, Drake, Lynn, and Bryan. The six of us donned our headlamps in silence, quietly pondering the liklihood of making it another 4,200 feet in the middle of the night. In silence we began the long trek upwards, focused on our footing, our breathing, and our positive attitudes.
Nine and a half hours later, after some crying, one fall, a few outbursts, a group split and a whole lot of nose-running -- WE ALL MADE IT TO THE SUMMIT. All six of us! (From what I hear, only about 50 percent of those who attempt the summit succeed.) Sarah, Lynn, Drake, Jen, Bryan and I have now been to the very top of Africa; we've seen the sunrise over the world from more than 19,000 feet.
It was pretty damn amazing.
Now, two days later, we're about to board a plane to Zanzibar where we'll rest our weary, weary bones on the beach for five days. I've never been so dirty, so tired, so hurting and so happy all at once. So there you go. Please do let me know if you have any additional questions. There's a lot here to read, I know. And baby -- I am hanging up my hiking shoes for good. Wooooooooo hooooooooooo!
(PS Thanks to everyone for your sweet birthday wishes. We've been super-rushed each transition day so I haven't had much time for e-mail yet, but that should change soon. We miss everyone!)