Kilimanjaro Diary, Day Three: The First Big Test

Shira Plateau to Barranco via Lava Tower, Tue Sept 4, 2012
Distance: 10 km, 7-8 hours
Elevation: 760 m climb to Lava Tower at 4600 m, then down again to 3950 m 

Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 3
Enroute again on Day Three going up to Lava Tower

Today we make sure to pack all our warm stuff in our day packs, because it is bound to get cold at Lava Tower, one of the highest points we will reach this entire week. It’s already very chilly in the mornings and like yesterday we eagerly await the sunrise. No sunshine, no washing or brushing teeth, seems to have become my mantra. It is simply too cold to get anything wet. So I’m thankful (as are, I’m sure, my fellow climbers) for the beautiful weather so far which has allowed for bouts of personal hygiene.

As you continue to climb Kili, you begin taking a closer interest in the mountain that all of a sudden is such a big part of your life. There are always those who read ahead on their travels and know every last detail about their destination before they’ve ever set foot there, but I’m not one of those people. As I’ve told you before, I had a vague idea where we were flying to, and an even vaguer idea, it turns out, when that would be, so it was really rather a miracle in itself that we showed up at the airport in time for our flights the day previous to the one that had been written into our calendars so long ago but had been incorrect due to some group booking mixup.

Good thing I have a husband who actually looks at e-tickets, even if they’re not his own.

Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 3
Sunrise over Shira Plateau. Photo credit: Martin B.

Anyway, now that we are here, we begin to have more and more questions.

Like, “How many people actually make it to the top?”

This turns out to be a very tricky one, and not one your guides will volunteer the answer for. Everyone is here to make it to the top, is their point of view. If you Google this question, the answers are varied. 40 to 60 percent of Kilimanjaro hikers fail to reach the summit, it seems. This sounds like a staggering number, but apparently the route you choose makes a huge difference. And here we are fortunate – turns out the Fat Controller’s need for control was an asset in this respect: The success rate for the Machame Route is a much more encouraging 80%, perhaps due to the fact that it has the most varied terrain, giving ample “hike high, sleep low” opportunities plus an extra acclimatization day if needed, and perhaps also because it seems to attract more experienced hikers. As opposed to the Coca-Cola or Marangu Route, which has the highest failure rate.

Apparently, the Machame Route also offers the most breathtaking views, so we are very happy to be where we are.

Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 3
Some of the breathtaking views on the Machame Route
Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 3
Ascent to Lava Tower. Photo credit: Martin B.
Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 3
A clear view of Mount Meru, at 4565 m impressive in its own right. Photo credit: Martin B.
Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 3
Godlisten: Guide, friend, language teacher, motivational coach, photographer,  manager, personal trainer, storyteller, singer… I can’t think of a better person we could have entrusted with our safety and well-being for a week.

We pepper Godlisten with many more questions as we set out on our long trek from Shira Plateau up to Lava Tower. And Hillary, aka Sir Edmund. They both know this mountain like the back of their hands and could probably walk all the way to the top with their eyes closed. In fact, they had just come down with the previous group on the very day we arrived and were turning right around to take us up again the next morning. While we were at Springlands Hotel,  there was quite some hoo-hah staged by a somewhat loud American about his impending attempt to set a new record to scale Kili four times in only 28 days. Sounds impressive, until you think about it: That record has probably already been set ages ago by scores of guides, let alone some of the porters who seem to scurry up and down several times a day, they run so fast.

While we’re on records, there is indeed one of them that’s worth noting. Godlisten tells us about Lance from South Africa, who at one time has held the record of reaching the summit in just 9 hours 45 minutes (it has since been broken). Now that really is impressive. Here we are having already walked for almost three days, probably closer to 20 hours total, and that snow-covered peak is as far away as ever. Heck, it’ll probably take us longer than 9 hours to walk down the mountain again. He must have practically jogged up the most direct route there is, and he can’t have taken many breaks.

On the plus side, he didn’t have to worry about many potty breaks either.

And I dare say he also didn’t have a cellphone to charge. Whereas us regular folks, and especially Professor Calculus, have a very strong longing to find a way to charge our phones, which for some of us also double as cameras. Doesn’t the idea of a mini solar panel to strap to your backpack and connect to your phone so it can charge while hiking in the sunshine sound like a wonderful invention?

Well, just like communism, it works better in theory than in practice. That little panel does indeed succeed in producing a charge, which is just powerful enough to wake the phone from sleep and make it chime with a rather loud da-dinggggg sound. But that effort proves to be too much  for the poor phone, so that it immediately falls into an exhausted slumber, only to be woken up again a moment later announcing itself to the world with another da-dinggggg. Whenever we rest, we all soon follow the same pattern. We wearily set down our backpacks, we stretch out on a warm rock and fall into a slumber, and then we’re all woken up again by Professor Calculus’ backpack emitting a veritable morse code conversation of da-dingggg’s.

Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 3
Dare we lay down to rest?
Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 3
No, we shouldn’t have, there is no rest while The-little-solar-panel-that-could is at work

At some point in time during the week, the solar panel went the way of the debate about elevation in feet, meaning it was voted off the island (or, rather, the mountain). Although, ever true to his name, Prof Calculus was able to re-fit it so it could charge Sir Edmund’s camera battery, which thankfully had no ambitions to emit any decibels at all. After that, the good professor’s technical skills were needed in more urgent quarters, namely in masterfully spreading rock-solid peanut butter on soft sandwich bread.

When we finally reach Lava Tower in the afternoon, we are utterly spent. It has been less of a climb than either of the previous days, but the altitude is starting to take its toll. The good news is, our only job up here is to rest for an hour and acclimatize to the 4600 m in altitude as much as we can. We eat from our lunch packs while trying to keep the greedy ravens at bay, and then take our naps, as ordered.

Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 3
Photo credit: Martin B.
Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 3
Lava Tower
Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 3
The picture belies our exhaustion at Lava Tower. Photo credit: Godlisten Mkonyi

When we start our descent again to go down to Barranco, our next camp, I cannot slow myself down. Zax and I practically race down the mountainside. It is such a joy to go downhill for a change. But as the landscape transforms dramatically into a rather eerie sort of forest the likes of which I’ve never seen before, so does my mood. I feel gloomy and tired and have a headache coming on. With each downward step the pounding increases, as if I am descending into a pressure chamber. The last ten minutes are pure agony, as my head feels like it’s going to split. I say a silent prayer when the camp suddenly appears in the fog, and all I manage to do is crawl into the first tent, close my eyes, and let Zax do the rest.

I don’t think my head has ever hurt so much in my life. I also feel like I need to throw up, but the idea of moving even my little finger seems quite insane, so I just lie there trying to will the pain away. It takes me fifteen minutes just to form a plan of how to get to the Ibuprofen in my first aid kit and once I get up the nerve to execute it and swallow some pills, the effort is so taxing that I collapse again, quite sure that nothing and no one will ever rouse me again.

But I’m wrong. Goddy, who has immediately spotted the empty chair at dinner, unceremoniously lets himself in and interrogates me. If he pulled out a stethoscope, I wouldn’t be one bit surprised, he has such an air of doctor around him. And quite doctor-like he delivers his orders for me, which encompass dragging myself to the toilet and then to the mess tent, where I’ll be expected to drink some tea and eat some soup. Getting up is the very last thing I want to do, but from the first day every one of us has done exactly what Goddy has told us to do, and so it is this time.

Apparently, getting a headache after Lava Tower is quite the common occurrence. It’s part of the acclimatization process. Although I would have thought going back down to a lower altitude makes you feel better, not worse. It’s actually rather odd that only one in our group gets it, and it’s rather annoying it has to be me. It’ll be much better after an hour, Goddy assures me, and so it is. Although I still can’t bring myself to force down any food, which is piled onto my plate by well-meaning hands. The mere thought of peanuts, which is the last thing I ate at Lava Tower, is enough to make me ill for the rest of the week. I force down as much tea as I can and crawl back into my sleeping bag, teeth chattering.

I know this has been my first big test. I’m a bit worried about Barafu Camp, which will take us back to the same altitude as Lava Tower.

But tomorrow is going to be a new day.

Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 3
Descent from Lava Tower into a wall of clouds. Photo credit: Martin B.
Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 3
Descent from Lava Tower into a wall of clouds. Photo credit: Martin B.
Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 3
Eerie forest of Senecio trees on the way to Barranco Camp

What, you thought I was going to let you go without any toilet talk today? Not so fast. I want to show you a little video. A video I actually played again and again while I was writing my leading-up-to-Kili blog posts and contemplating the toilet predicament. Especially the female toilet predicament. After three days of squatting behind rocks emptying my overeager bladder while trying to stay out of sight on a mountain which as I’ve told you is crawling with people, I deeply regret not having invested in one of these contraptions.

Although, on second thought, there seems to be an element of good aim required to make it work, reminding me of peeing into a cup at the doctor’s office and my rather poor spill-free record in that department. Plus the whole topic of clean-up before stowing-away (or, alternately, the even more unpleasant topic of stowing-away without cleanup) is nothing I want to explore further.

So perhaps squatting is, after all, the safer if more uncomfortable route.

See for yourself.

To be continued…



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