Machame Hut to Shira Plateau, Monday Sep 3, 2012
Distance: 10 km, 5-7 hours
Elevation: 840 m climb from 3000 m to 3840 m
Wake-up time is 7:15, with the sun still hiding behind the mountain, and we are greeted with bowls of hot water to start the day. What luxury! We wash and file into the mess tent, the need for which wasn’t quite so apparent the previous day when it was nice and warm, but in the chilly morning it provides welcome shelter.
We are not entirely surprised that omelettes are on the menu, because we saw our guide tote a bag of eggs up the mountain yesterday. What is surprising, though, is that we are to have eggs for breakfast every single day of our hike. What lengths to go through to ensure that we have every possible comfort on the mountain. And yet there are people, Goddy tells us, who will find a way to complain about the food. He has stories about a group who sent the bowl of rice “back to the kitchen,” asking for potatoes instead. Or vice versa. Excuse me – back to the kitchen? What the hell kitchen are they talking about? Do they think there is a mountainside restaurant next door where the food magically appears from? Are they not aware that these cooks are going out of their way to provide a home-cooked meal using less-than-stellar equipment, getting up at the crack of dawn to start boiling water, then feed you, then do the dishes, then race up the mountain carrying your rice (or potatoes, whichever it may be) and everything else on their very backs to get there just in time to start all over again?
Just thinking about all this effort makes me ashamed to ever have complained about the hassles of cooking for my family. I would have eaten anything they served us on the mountain, but as it turns out, the food was delicious. And always exactly what was needed to replenish our exhausted bodies. Starting with a huge pot of steaming soup every single night.
After breakfast it’s time to pack our belongings and get on with the other morning ritual: replenishing our water supplies. If pole pole is the one admonishment you hear from your guides all day long, the other is drink! However much you think you should be drinking, it’s never enough. You need to drink even more. Our guides recommend 3-4 liters per person and it is always a challenge to finish all that. You pretty much need to be drinking constantly. Which gets me to another recommendation of mine, should you contemplate a Kili climb: Get a 2-liter water bladder to stuff into your backpack, and in addition two insulated water bottles for either side of your backpack. Drink from the bladder throughout the hike, and use the bottles when taking a break – that way you have a chance of finishing it, and if there is one thing that can help ward off altitude sickness, it is taking in enough liquids (so finish your soup as well!).
So the morning’s ritual is to distribute all the water into the correct vessels and to add purification tablets as needed. They say the water is boiled, and I’m sure it is, but you can’t be certain it was long enough to kill all the bacteria (and, judging from the crowds who often behave in a less-than-sanitary way, there are a lot of bacteria to go around on this mountain). The chlorination tablets taste awful, like drinking directly from your pool, but you get used to it. Some people recommend the iodine drops. The best way to mask the taste is to bring plenty of Game or some other energy drink powder, which has the dual benefit of rehydrating your body better than water alone. For a very good summary on water purification methods, read this. Or buy the book How to Shit in the Woods, I am not shitting you.
It is almost a pity we have to leave just as the sun is emerging over the crest, radiating warmth. But we have a long day ahead of us. Going from Machame Hut to Shira Plateau is another 10 km hike but a little less elevation than yesterday. Even though it’s too early to celebrate this, because the net elevation can be deceiving – you might have to go both up and down to get there. In fact, if you check out the map for Machame Route, looking at it from a side-view profile, you will see that there are quite a few peaks and valleys (whereas the Marangu or Coca-Cola Route goes uphill at a very steady clip). This has the distinct advantage that it enables you to hike high and sleep low, one of the most important tools to help acclimatize your body to the elevation. But knowing this doesn’t make it any less painful to hike down again, within minutes, what you have so painfully labored up for hours the same day.
In any case, we start out at a fairly steep climb and I’m glad to be using my hiking sticks, which I had packed in my duffel bag yesterday. As I’ve said before, I can highly recommend hiking with poles, as it takes some weight off your weary legs. Except it adds weight to your arms and shoulders which begin to tell you by about 1:00 each day that they’ve done enough hiking. But I won’t bore you with our collective ailments – what do you expect from a group of middle-aged hikers (not counting the boys of course)?
Plus I shouldn’t veer too far from my favorite topic, the toilet tent. Have I told you how very happy hiring Teetee made me? Well – if one tent is nice, why the hell didn’t we hire two of them? Because one of us might have stepped in some human waste – not a difficult thing to do – and caught giardia in the process, monopolizing Teetee for the next two days. All of a sudden, Teetee is not such a happy place anymore, even if it happens to be available, and you wistfully look at other groups’ Teetees, wondering if anybody might notice if you snuck in there. Or if you just peed somewhere between the tents.
Because by golly you have to pee.
This seems to be one of the side effects of Diamox, which most of us have started taking at various points in time to ward off altitude sickness, also called Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). That, and a tingling in your fingers and toes and perhaps even other body parts that shall remain unnamed. Despite side effects, Diamox has proved a blessing to our group, because it provides a much-needed new topic for endless debate. The only problem is that talking about Diamox invariably leads us back to our favorite topic, the toilet. because have I mentioned that it makes you pee like there is no tomorrow? To the tune of four times a night or more. I won’t even try to calculate how many zipping and unzipping actions that involves.
The big debate is whether to take Diamox or not. And when to start taking it. Some people swear by it, and others disdain its use, saying it might even mask the effects of AMS, putting you in more danger. Or, so another argument goes, by using it as a prophylaxis you might already have used up one possible cure, in case you really do get AMS. Although the only effective “cure” is to get down the mountain as fast as you can (and to acclimatize very slowly before it even gets to that) so I’m not sure this second point holds. Our doctor recommended taking it even before we started, but we have settled on beginning a bit later, on day two. The thing is, some people never get altitude sickness and some people do. Diamox helps by acidifying the blood, which somehow spurs your breathing and gets more oxygen into your bloodstream. By the way, Diamox is really a drug to treat Glaucoma and some other ailments such as epilepsy, and its use to treat or prevent altitude sickness is not officially licensed. Just saying. In case you wonder why your doctor might not be willing to prescribe it, depending on the country you’re coming from. My take is, while Diamox doesn’t guarantee you will escape the effects of climbing to a high altitude, it does seem to increase your chances. So why not take it?
Get Diamox, is my advice. And hire the toilet tent.
Another topic that provides for hours of conversation is the eternal debate about feet versus meters. One of us – the Fat Controller, if you must know – has brought a GPS that can capture altitude and it is set in feet. Every time we take a quick break to catch our breath he rummages in his bag, retrieves the GPS, and takes the necessary measurements. Then he proudly announces our elevation above sea level, which invariably is followed by “how much is that in meters?” and many complicated calculations. Or Goddy will inform us of the altitude we have achieved today, and immediately the debate flares up again how much that might be in feet. It is all very confusing, made harder by the fact that above a certain altitude – in either meters or feet – your brain seems to slow down dramatically, incapable of performing the most rudimentary math problem in less than ten minutes.
Although as I said it is insofar welcome as it distracts from our other favorite topic. You know which one I’m talking about.
I’m not even sure why this is such an issue. The only one in our group with a legitimate claim to feet and inches should be Zax, as the only American-born amongst us, and he has accepted the superiority of the metric system from a young age. I’m happy to say that eventually the Fat Controller came to see the light and by Day Three the GPS was switched to meters once and for all. Because the only number that matters to us is 5895 meters. The highest point in Africa. And the height of the highest free-standing mountain in the world.
That’s where we’re trying to get. If you must know what this is in feet, go Google it.
Shira Plateau, when it finallly arrives, is a welcome sight. By the end of this day we have two guys in our group who are really struggling – one from a combination of jet-lag induced exhaustion combined with altitude, and the other from an intestinal bug.
It’s not at all clear that everyone will be able to carry on tomorrow.
To be continued…
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