Mikey and the Mountain

  By Michael Rieder

Prelude

As stated previously on this site, ever since the time I attended Central High School I wanted to hike Mt Kilimanjaro. I was captivated by the sheer name and exotic imagery it invoked...Kilimanjaro. Sort of like Xanadu, or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, or Shangri la , or flying carpets and 1001 Arabian Nights, or the alluring Scheherazade. You get the picture. I was a hopeless romantic. And then to discover that this snow capped mountain existed practically on the equator in Africa. Wow! Snow in Africa! I was hooked. But like a lot of things in life, the idea got shoved to the back burner and day-to-day existence intervened. Fortuitously, a confluence of events happened that facilitated my making this trip of a lifetime. The trip was planned to include my sons, Evan and Casey, as well as Casey's girlfriend, Julie Foster. Due to a snafu at the airport in Newark, Evan's passport was judged to be invalid, so he was not allowed to board the plane with us. The passport issue was rectified, but his delay in leaving the US prevented him from climbing Kilimanjaro with us. He did summit a nearby mountain, Mt Meru, the same night we reached the peak of Kilimanjaro. We reunited for a safari that culminated this trip.

 

WARNING: This is a LONG essay. I tried to make it short, but then again I tried to make my speech at the 50th reunion short, too. How did that turn out? So read it if you want, or not. I tried to make this educational, to convey the highlights of this most challenging and exhilarating hike, since most/all of you are not looney enough to give it a go. If you are of that mind-set, I can refer you to my son who recently completed a residency in psychiatry. Seriously, the trip was a grand experience....an adventure to be undertaken...once.

To enhance this tale, you might consider some background music. The first selection is the original Toto recording of "Africa". The second selection is from a live Toto concert in Amsterdam. Here the group is older (who isn't?) , probably not the original group (look at the drummer), and they go into a jazz-like riff(sort of like the Rift Valley) at the end. The third selection is from the movie "Out of Africa" starring Robert Redford and arguably the greatest female actor of all time, Meryl Streep. Another selection from this movie can be found on the IN MEMORY page. 

 

 

 

Introduction

Kilimanjaro is in East Africa, in northern Tanzania, near the border with Kenya. Kilimanjaro is the highest free-standing mountain in the world. That is, it is not part of a chain of mountains. Mt Everest is part of the Himalayas. Pikes Peak is part of the Rocky Mountains. Mt Denali is part of the Alaskan Range.

Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain that one can summit by simply walking..nothing technical about it. One foot in front of the other. No ice picks or crossing glaciers or walking over giant crevices. Just walk...and walk...and walk. Uphill. The whole way. Just below the top, there is some climbing (scrambling) over big rocks, but for most of the trek, one just slogs along, step by step. (Note: Some of the routes up require ascending the Barranco Wall....apparently this involves some hand over hand climbing up steep cliffs. We did not take that route) . Here are some photos of the terrain.

Mikey and Cash, one of our guides.

These last two photos were taken going down from the summit. They show how steep the last several hundred feet are. Now image going UP this rock, in the cold, in the dark, with little ambient oxygen. As will be explained later, this was done in the dark. In the cold. With little ambient oxygen.

 

So if you only have to walk most of the way, what is the big deal? The challenge is getting acclimatized (adapting) to the decreased oxygen concentration at higher altitudes. If you don't adapt to the elevation, you run the risk of developing altitude sickness, which, in the extreme, can be fatal. At sea level, the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere is 21%. With increased altitude, the oxygen concentration decreases. At 12,000 feet, there are roughly 40% fewer oxygen molecules per breath than at sea level. Many of the highest mountains in the western US are about 12,000-14,000 feet. Some physically fit skiers (I know there are guys reading this that fit into that category) have experienced shortness of breath their first several days skiing out there. Consider that the summit of Kilimanjaro is 19,341 feet.

To successfully reach the top, one must take time to become properly acclimatized. Most sources recommend a round trip of 6 or 7 days. There are 6 or 7 routes one can use to climb Kilimanjaro. We chose a route (Rongai) that required 7 days to complete, allowing us enough time for appropriate acclimatization.

Start of hike. Caspar(chief guide), Casey, Julie, Mikey

On the above diagram, north is up, south is down, etc.

On this sort of 3D perspective rendering, we are looking east to west. We took the red path, starting at Rongai Gate, trekked up to Uhuru Peak (highest point), and returned via the green route. So we trekked both the north and south sides of the mountain.

It took about 5 days to reach the top, and only 2 days to get down. As far as I know, the only variable that correlates with summitting success is taking the proper time to acclimatize...not age, not level of physical fitness, not gender, not previous experience at high altitude, not anything but sufficient time. Of note, the demographic with the highest failure rate is young men. Kind of reminds me of when WE were young, impatient, foolhearty, knew all the answers, and were invincible, too.(For the fitness addicts out there, after completing the hike I read articles stating that VO2 max is also a good predictor. Note: Feed back from physiologists and/or pulmonologists is welcomed).

The Mountain

Kilimanjaro is a complex of three volcanos--from East to West-Mawenzi, Kibo, and Shira. (See above 3D-ish picture. Note Mawenzi in the foreground on the left, Kibo in the middle, and Shira the snowcapped mountain far to the west.) The highest peak is on Kibo . When one speaks of Kilimanjaro, one is usually thinking of Kibo.

There are five distinct climate/ecological/vegetation zones from the base to the top of Kilimanjaro. It is said that hiking the mountain is similar, climate wise, to hiking from the equator to the North Pole. So you have to prepare with the proper clothing, especially for the summit, where the temperature can be below zero degrees Farenheit. (Let alone factoring in the wind chill!) Luckily for us, when we reached the top, the temperature was probably above zero, around 5 or so I guess. Not real windy either. We got lucky. Honestly I was more concerned with breathing than I was with being cold. I think those who believe that breathing is overrated are woefully misinformed.

As one ascends, the scenery changes from tropical rain forest, to temperate climate, to alpine desert to stark barren volcanic plains.

[For those so inclined, you can read more at:http://www.4thsummit.com/mount-kilimanjaro-zones.aspx]

 

The Trek..background

We hiked for 7 days and slept in small two person tents 6 nights. (Actually 5 nights, as will be explained later.)You had to crawl in and out of the tents on your hands and knees. Ouch.The tents closed with zippers, which seemed to be constantly jamming...at least mine were. We slept in sleeping bags on a mat about 1.5-2 inches thick. Not exactly Michelin 5 star ratings. Oh, and the toilet was in a nearby tent. It's zipper also jammed quite frequently. It was really fun to empty your bladder at 2:00 AM in pitch black, freezing cold, the path being illuminated by the headlamp whose batteries you hoped would not give out. It could have been worst. At least it didn't rain...or snow.

Tents. Michelin rating = 0.7 stars

Joseph fixing a jammed zipper. Mawenzi in the background.

The toilet tent aka Pop Up Utility tent

Toilet tent unzipped.

It's hard to appreciate the size here since no one is visiting the facility. Let's just say it's not overly large, and standing upright without bending was limited to those 5'8" or less. This made performing usual hygiene a challenge to say the least. Unable to stand upright, I thought I would topple the tent on several occasions. Did I mention that the toilet seat was about 12" above the uneven ground? Try getting up from that position in a confined space at 2 in the morning with freezing temperatures caressing your butt. Thank goodness for all those extra leg presses I did at the gym in preparation for this trip.

Speaking of hygiene, how about no shower for 7 days, washing your face and hands every AM in a bowl of luke warm water, deodorant optional (what's the point?) ,brushing your teeth outside in the cold, and, WHAT, flossing? Are you crazy?  But we all survived. No one suffered a severe GI problem.

With respect to safety, every day, Caspar and Cash would ask how we were functioning, and recorded our heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, and temperature. They'd also ascult our heart and lungs. This established a baseline to know if we ran into problems during the hike.

Each day we walked between 4 and 6 hours. Each of us only carried a day pack for water (we were instructed to drink 3-4 liters of water a day to keep hydrated to minimize the chance of developing altitude sickness), a snack or two, sunscreen, camera, etc. Most of the schlepping was done by the porters who carried the tents, sleeping gear, food, supplies, our extra clothing, their clothing, etc. These guys were limited to a maximum of 20 kilograms of stuff. Even with that load, they would zip past us like they were walking unemcumbered at sea level. What a physically challenging job!

Porters.

Even though there were only 3 of us, we had a team consisting of a chief guide (Caspar), assistant guide(Cash), tent master/guide (Joseph), cook, server, toilet specialist, and 8 porters. There was at least one group that had 8 to 10 hikers. This group had an entourage of 30 or so people helping them up the mountain.

View from tent. Note clouds BELOW horizon.

Eagles fan peering into tent. Is facial expression a foreboding of the upcoming season?

Food was plentiful, with a heavy emphasis on carbohyrdates. The mantra was "eat as much as you can and drink as much water as you can." I ate as much as I could and still lost 5-7 pounds on the hike.

Dining tent.

Casey chowing down. Note: Peanut butter and Nutella were available at every meal. However, these items are difficult to spread when the temperature dips below 40 degrees or so.

There were sign-in logs at almost every camp site. I think that was the Tanzanian way of taking roll, making sure everyone was accounted for.

Note the ages of the hikers. Also note the "occupation" of Wes Osbourn, 4th from the bottom in the second list. I actually think he was suffering from altitude sickness. I checked the ages of the hikers in these sign-in logs. I only found one other guy older than me...age 72. Don't know if he made it to the top or not. Our guides said the week before our trip they had a man aged 68 make it to the top.

[Note: I believe the oldest people to successfully summit were a husband and wife team from Austria...85 or so years young. That's what you get for yodeling in the Alps your entire life.]

Campsites were simple, but functional. Hell, all you really needed was a relatively flat plot of ground to sleep on.

Early morning sun casting a shadow over camp . Kibo in background. In this photo the mountain appears to be close, but it took two days of hiking just to reach the base of the cone.

Campsite with Mawenzi in background.

Porters in camp

There were large signs at most campsites indicating altitude and distance to and from Uhuru peak (our goal, the zenith).

Note obligatory nerd hat I am wearing. Also note gut that will disappear during the hike.

Similar photo with Kilimanjaro in background.

Last campsite before summiting.

The actual hike

As mentioned before, we hiked between 4 and 6 hours a day. The first several days were fairly easy. The weather was pleasant...not hot, not cold...and the sun was out for most of the day.The only caveat was you had to walk s...l...o...w..l...y, especially as you got higher in elevation. In Swahili the term is "pole pole" , pronounced "pole-a pole-a", meaning slowly slowly. For most people, if you didn't follow this guideline, you became rapidly short of breath, forcing you to stop until breathing returned to normal. However, this did not apply to the porters, who proceeded(with fullpacks) as if it were a simple walk in the park, which to them, it was. After completing our day's hike, we would arrive in camp ( already set up by the porters) and relax in our tents for an hour or so. We'd eat a quick snack, then take an acclimatzation hike, climbing an additional 20-30 minutes to experience even lower oxygen levels. The concept is to "hike high and sleep low" to facilitate acclimatization. Not only were these short hikes important to our physical goal, they also deeply enriched our experience of Africa. We walked with the 3 guides that would ultimately help us summit, learning more about them as people, and the lives they lead in Africa. Really remarkable men. It's easy to take everthing we have in the US (and more generally in the developed world) for granted. These men really had difficult lives. But they were really strong men. Caspar, our chief guide had been to the top of Kilimanjaro over 200 times. Makes one stop and think how very lucky we in the US really are.  Guides. Caspar, Joseph, Cash

During acclimatization hike. Casey, Julie, Cash, Joseph.

At top of another acclimatization hike.

The day before our summit things got much more difficult. We had a steady uphill trek of 5 or 6 hours where the weather conditions constantly deteriorated. We were warned of this, but donning extra layers of clothing, hats and gloves made you think that maybe this trip wasn't such a great idea after all. The shit is ready to hit the fan. On top of that, Casey wanted to get this part over with quickly, so he set a faster than usual pace. Forget about pole pole. I was sucking wind big time, and pulled into camp close to exhausted. OK, so you eat, sleep, then go for the summit. This is what I asked for...what I wanted. Just get some sleep. However, one of the problem with living at higher altitudes is insomnia, something I had been experiencing for a few days. Even Ambien didn't help. Just suck it up. Eat dinner and lay down, even if you can't sleep. Get some rest. 

So at about 11PM that night, we were awakened to dress for the final push. That's right , summit in the dark. Start at midnight, and hopefully be on the summit for sunrise over Africa. The concept is great, the reality is challenging, to say the least. So we walked in the cold, in the dark, single file, up the mountain. Our trail was illuminated by our headlamps. Pole pole. Caspar, our chief guide, lead the way. My eyes were glued to his footsteps. I tried to place my feet where he left his mark. He set a wonderful, slow pace. Occasionally, I would glance up or down the pitch black mountain and see additional groups of handlamps lighting the way for other intrepid?/anxious?/scared? hikers. It seemed like the uphill climb would never end. Periodically we stopped for water and a snack. On two occasions, I received a minute or so of supplemental oxygen. I was convinced I was experiencing high altitude pulmonary edema, hallucinations, or even cerebral edema. Hypochondriacal doctor. What could be worse? Thankfully, I was wrong. (BTW, before receiving one of the oxygen blasts, my oxygen saturation was 82%. Not exactly normal. But after the supplemental oxygen, it rebounded to a normal 95% and stayed at that level, essentially excluding the possiblitity of pulmonary edema.)

Just put your head down and keep walking.Just walk. Slowly. Pole pole. Focus. Deep breaths. Several hundred yards from the top we started scrambling over big rocks. (See photos displayed earlier.) That was tough. But we eventually made it to Gilman's Point , on the east side of the plateau that comprises the top of Kibo. The real peak, however, is Uhuru Point , further west on the plateau.

Sunrise over Kilimanjaro

Casey returning from Uhuru Point. Note how high sun has risen and how Casey has shed his layers of clothing.

So we pushed on further west, another grueling 30 minutes or so, climbing another 689 feet, to reach the zenith. On the way we passed Stella Point, the junction where our route meets a path that ascends from the south.

Finally, finally we made it to Uhuru Point...the roof of Africa. Complete with glaciers and clouds and blue sky and mountains far in the distance.

Casey graduated from Dartmouth. Julie graduated from West Virginia. Mikey graduated from Central High School, 224th class.

 

It was by far the most difficult thing I have ever done, physically and mentally. When I told Caspar that the next day, he said, "Everyone says that."

Note people walking on the left toward the zenith. Glaciers in background on right.

View from Mt Meru looking toward Kilimanjaro. This photo was taken by my son Evan, who scaled this mountain.Another view looking east from Mt Meru toward Kilimanjaro.

More of the same.

 

We hiked down and spent one last night on the mountain. (It takes two days to hike out of the park.) The next morning we celebrated the traditional end of adventure party, complete with serenading by,and dancing with, the guides and porters. 

Note Kilimanjaro in background.

We hiked the final 6 hours through varying terrain that included tropical rain forest to reach the exit from the Marangu Route. Downhill.  All the way. How easy was that. Forget about slamming your toes into the front of your boots with each step. The downhill path was a welcome ending to this incredibly challenging adventure.

Some experiences in life are difficult to quantify. This one  wasn't. It was priceless.

 

For those interested in further discussion of treks:

http://bats.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/14/reaching-the-summiy-of-kilimanjaro   Essay by R.A.Dickey Major League Pitcher

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7919100.stm

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/activityandadventure/7050801/Mount-Kilimanjaro-Climb-and-punishment.html  This article gets into the nitty-gritty of what happened each day. Their experience seems to have been much more difficult that ours. Then again, they may have been wuzzies.

 

   POSTED OCTOBER 20, 2015