Kilimanjaro: Day 6
Wednesday, September 29
Last night I fixed my "personal urination receptacle" problem by cutting the top off a 1.5 liter water bottle the cook found for me. It was a dilemma: aiming through the itty-bitty hole the cap screwed onto and then be able to screw the cap back on (I figure this is a non-starter, kneeling in the dark) or solving this problem by cutting the top off but then leaving myself with the risks of an open container. It is a clear sign of the effect that altitude was already having on my thought processes that I figured the cut off top could be pressed into service as an excellent funnel, and it was not until I dropped the funnel into my new "PUR" that I realized that since it was the same diameter as the PUR, it was completely useless for this purpose. In the middle of the night I attempted to use the new device, and having taken all the necessary precautions to make sure all the apparatus was lined up I was horrified to find that almost immediately it felt exactly like it was overflowing. Then I remembered the funnel, which was still perched in the top. Since the top was still screwed on (to what was now the spout of the funnel), it was worse than ineffective, it was totally obstructive.
Mr Spot-a-Sparrow-Blink-at-1000-Yards hasn't even blinked his eyes open in the morning before he says "F%$k! The tent is leaking."
I let Danken know, and showed him that I had scratched my initials in the bottom of my mat, so we could make sure that I got the damp one again. While we are talking, Danken attempted to help me with my gaiters. I allowed extra time this morning, but it still took two of us more than 5 irritating minutes to wrestle the zippers into submission.
This morning there is a choice: the direct route to the Shira 2 camp site, which will get us there by lunchtime, or a longer route via The Cathedral, one of the high points on the Shira Ridge—back on the rim. This will take an extra couple of hours, but will also push our systems a little harder. Climb high, sleep low. Not for the last time, this means that the elevation gains charted in the left nav bar stats are not worth the paper they are (not) written on. We probably did twice that.
My notes show that for some reason folks started to have problems today. CHI-D was rock hopping with his latrine trowel and others complained of mild head aches and nausea. No one wants it to be connected to the fresh fruit and vegetables we ate, but we're all conscious of the coincidence.
Heath and Moorland - These two zones overlap, and together occupy the area immediately above the forest from around 9,000 - 13,000 ft (2,800m to 4,000m) - known as the low alpine zone. Temperatures can drop below 0°C up here and most of the precipitation that does fall here comes from the mist that is an almost permanent fixture at this height.
It was definitely getting colder, and you'll see plenty of evidence of the mists in the photographs.
Jambo. Hello. My ability to learn foreign languages, or indeed anything where it is simply a question of remembering a word from one day to the next, is appalling. Nevertheless even I managed to learn a few important phrases, or at least to be able to enjoy knowing what it meant when someone said it. Practically every porter said jambo! on his way passed, so that one came fairly easily, followed by asante or asante-sana. Thank you. Mental and physical health were never far from people's minds, so mambo (how are you, wassup?) and the response poa was important. The guides' frequent response if you asked mambo? was "Poa. Poa kichizi kama ndazi!" (cool like a crazy banana) which I liked a lot, but was beyond my capacity to con by rote.
My all-time favorite phrase though, because it has become so well-known in the west, but somehow completely without context, was when Andrew looked carefully into your face and asked "mambo?" your best possible response was an emphatic "hakuna matata!" (no problem!) That might be the most famous Swahili phrase on the planet, but the most famous phrase on the mountain, mentioned in all the books and blogs, was without doubt pole, pole (pronounced po-li po-li) which we would hear more and more often as we gained height. "Slow slow", "take it easy".
Gradually we're getting to know the other team too. And they us. NYC-D is known to them as F-Doug because of his fondness for the F-bomb. This is too good a monica to waste, and instantly and henceforth he became F-Doug to us too.
There is reasonably fresh evidence of buffalo and hyena. Wilson said hyena, but corroboration all says jackal. However as an expert scatologist I would have to agree with Wilson: jackals are not big enough to produce the evidence I observed.
There are salts up here that make the journey worthwhile for the buffalo, so they come up for a few days to get their fill of the minerals, and then make their way back down to the plains again. So it is always a quick (non-grazing) visit. This is smart, because there clearly is not much grazing to be had, no matter what the time of year.
Like the guides, Antoine had a weather-eye out for how we were holding up. After he followed me over or round some obstacle or other he said to me "You are going to make it—you are strong." I was fit, yes, and so far healthy, but was by no means as confident as he. "Today yes. Let us see what happens tomorrow."
One of Nick's favorite expressions "real man coming through" (i.e. make room for the porter) got so old that even the guides were tired of it. Of course Nick knew that, it was part of the point. Antoine was the only porter on hand to hear this, and the repetition meant that even Antoine's rudimentary English was able to understand me when I told him he was "a real man amongst pussies." For his part Nick started to change the tune every few days.
Meanwhile, of course, this is Calvin not Antoine. Calvin taught us this ritual: bump fists (peace); hand on heart (love); thumb in the air (happiness).
Full-day exploration of the Shira plateau. Trek east toward Kibo’s glaciated peak. Arrive at Shira 2 camp (Fischers’s Camp). Shira is one of the highest plateaus on earth, averaging 12,500 feet.
Eventually we climbed one last small slope and took a break. It was spectacularly obvious that we had arrived at the ridge. Behind us was the Shira plateau, and in front of us the side of the mountain, the rest of the world, is nearly filled to the brim with cloud.
As we dropped our packs, CHI-D discovered another malfunction: one of his straps was flapping uselessly in the breeze. For a couple of minutes we tried to push and pull it back into the channel from whence it popped, but to no avail. This was a job for "Zip-Tie Man!" CHI-D was as amazed that I was sporting such spares as I was that he would venture out into the world without them. The smallest, lightest, strongest, most versatile accessory since the invention of the hip flask. It took longer to find them than it did to cinch everything together again, and as far as I'm aware that was the end of the issue—that's still how his pack is configured today.
But I digress. Snacked up and rehydrated, it was time to tackle the Cathedral itself. Currently we were just lodged in a small pass. We left our packs at the pass, and carefully followed the guide up the steep path along the rim. Dangerously close to climbing, there were several points where one had to pay close attention to footing, and worse, pull oneself up with ones hands: a total no-no. But these sections were mercifully short, and there was no denying that the view the height was affording was spectacular. Here's a pretty cool picture I took about half way up:
But here's an even cooler shot Brian took of me taking that shot:
After only about fifteen minutes we were face-to-face with the cairn marking the top. It was nice that simba was with us to share the celebration. Any kind of summit is worth celebrating, and much photography was done in a short amount of time. Waldo nearly doomed us all to short and unpleasant destinies by swinging around and in his usual style knocking some of the stones off the cairn. There was a hushed gasp, the Dougs hastily replaced the fallen stones, added a couple more for good measure, and it seems honor was restored.
Lunch beckoned with some vengeance at this point, and we turned back down. Of course if there is one thing that sucks worse than climbing, it is descending. Everyone else laughed and skipped down the trail, so I tried not to whine too loudly. Wilson was a goof and scared the bejaysus out of me by clowning around right on the edge of a precipice, which was a nice distraction (see "Wilson shows bravura..." in left margin).
Back on track
The alpine heath is rapidly replaced by the moorland zone, which tends to have clearer skies but an even cooler climate. Average per annum precipitation is now down to a quarter of what it was in the rain forest.
I think this change happened during the afternoon. Certainly the vegetation at Shira 2 camp was noticeably sparser than that at Shira 1.
The next panic was that my camera battery was already on "low." This is a disaster. I only have two, and the concept of running out before we summit is unthinkable. Worse, I was really hoping that this battery would pretty much last the entire trip, because the possibility exists that in the severe cold at the top, the backup may only last a few hours and then be shot.
There is no question that I became more conservative in my trigger rate after this, which was frustrating but made a damn sight more sense than ignoring the situation and then getting cut short. Meanwhile, of course the landscape continued to be stunning, and how can you not take these shots?
"A picnic, not a pack lunch" Andrew was very emphatic to observe at the morning briefing. And how right he was, though they'd also set up the mess tent in case it was too cold. Had we been inside, I guess it would simply have been "lunch."
A little chilly perhaps, but oh boy, what a view. In the history of lunches, this one was definitely up there.
Strangely, as we came across this helipad, the first sign of a technological world, we also saw, way off in the distance, a Land Cruiser, headed our way.
I'm glad to report that this was the first and last of such sightings, and perhaps better still this was not an emergency trip. Apparently the rangers rotating on and off duty have the luxury of a ride. Presumably this is also a much more practical way to haul up sufficient provisions for their extended stay. And let's not forget the all important Coke and American cigarettes that are on sale while supplies last.
Although we only gained 1000 ft that day, I did not feel nearly so stable that evening. Perhaps the Cathedral had done its work pushing up our altitude totals, but I had waves of nausea and headaches throughout the afternoon and evening. Still they were certainly not debilitating, and I didn't feel the need to take any drugs. Was it a coincidence that the diamox was starting to cause tingling in my fingers?
At first as I started preparing this material, I struggled to remember this camp. It was apparently unspectacular enough that I didn't snap it. No doubt my less-than-100% constitution was contributing to this, and certainly I didn't notice anyone else dragging.
On the contrary for example, Wayne was all charged up that he'd found mammals, in the form of four-stripped grass mice. I went to check them out, and of course saw nothing. Later when we were admiring the sunset together they were out again, and this time with the light too low to capture them on film I saw them all over the place. Still a visual is a visual. Check.
For some reason this seemed to be the camp where folks were just hanging out. Seeing Andrew Isaya and Dixon sitting on a rock together reminded me of how remarkably little we saw of the crew. I suppose, understandably, they were obeying the old army maxim: never stand when you can sit, never sit when you can lie, never just lie when you can sleep.
But the guests were hanging about too, including the Australians who were also in camp. One of the Australians turns out to be a Brit living in Australia for a couple of years. Of course she wanted to get into F-Doug’s drawers and I watched them court and spark for a few minutes before it got boring. And cold. Seriously. I broke out my fleece pants and winter jacket but I was still shivering. I could not wait to get into my bag, having taken up the offer to have tomorrow’s water refill heated up to use as a hot-water bottle overnight. As always I was happy enough in my bag, but this was not good. If I'm this cold already, what is it going to be like another 4000ft up?
Copyright © 2010 Richard Thomson