Day 3 – Sunday, Jan 20, 2013
DISTANCE: 6 miles
TOTAL HIKING TIME: 3 hours
ALTITUDE CHANGE: 1000 ft (11,500 ft – 12,500 ft)
Kilimanjaro is the largest free-standing (not part of a range) mountain in the world. It was formed by the eruption of three volcanoes: Mawenzi to the east, Shira to the west, and the famous Kibo, our destination, in the center. Kili is dormant, but not extinct.
Today we were crossing the Shira Plateau – a gentler climb than Day 2, but now the altitude was starting to get serious, and so we had to take it nice and slowly (pole pole). The weather was warm enough to hike in just a t-shirt, and we were already well beyond the altitude where we had to worry about Malaria-bearing mosquitoes on our way to the Shira 2 camp on the far side of the crater.
Speaking of altitude, the previous day at Shira 1, our new friend Mandy was holed up in her tent with a touch of altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is the primary reason why people don’t reach the summit. Only 50% of those who attempt the 5-6 day routes on Kili reach the top, while 85% of those who attempt the Lemosho Route (our route) reach the top. Symptoms include headache, light-headedness/dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. (Ask your doctor of Altitude Sickness is right for you.) If left untreated, it can develop into a more serious condition where one gets fluid in the lungs or around the brain. The only cure is a rapid descent. Worst of all, altitude sickness can affect anyone no matter how fit they are – even if they’ve climbed several mountains before and have been previously unaffected by it!
I was worried that altitude sickness would prevent me from getting to the top, which is why we chose one of the longest routes to the summit. As we went through our evening ritual at Shira 2, I developed a headache which got worse and worse. Our guides had me rate it on a scale from 1 to 10, and it progressed from a 3 to a 6 over the course of the evening. There is medication one can take to prevent altitude sickness, but you really need to start in advance. More importantly, the drug (Diamox) is only available to Americans by prescription. Our guide had some on him, and told me if I wasn’t better in the morning, he would start me on it. Fortunately, I woke up feeling perfect and raring to go.
Day 4 – Monday, Jan 21, 2013
DISTANCE: 5 miles
TOTAL HIKING TIME: 6 hours
ALTITUDE CHANGE: 1,800 ft up to the lava tower (12,500 ft – 14,300 ft)
1,300 ft down to Barranco camp
This was our first day of real acclimatization. Our hike for the day took us up to the Lava Tower at 14,300 ft before dropping back down to Barranco camp at 13,000 ft. This time, we stayed covered against the sun, and applied extra sunblock to the backs of our hands which were already pink from the day before. (Who sunblocks their hands?) We were learning quickly that although we were prepared for what it takes to protect oneself from the sun near the equator, being at high altitude in addition adds a whole new element!
As we hiked up, we took a short break to “check the signal.” This was our guide’s code for a bathroom break. The signal is always supposed to be CC: clear and copious. Near our break spot was a large free-standing rock, and Tom scrambled right to the top. Stephanie then amazed him by promptly doing the same thing. Not a fan of precarious heights, I used my breathlessness as an excuse not to duplicate the feat, and acted as photographer instead.
Over the course of our trek, Tom and Goodluck would teach us Swahili words and phrases. Today’s was “Nguvu kama simba:” Strong like a lion. This was certainly applicable to Stephanie.
When we finally reached the lava tower, it was cold, and we were clouded in. We stopped to eat lunch and acclimate for a half hour before descending to Barranco. On the way down – which was steep and rocky, Tom led us much faster than we were comfortable. I was a bit out of breath, and Stephanie took a tumble on the loose rocks even after trying some hiking poles. We talked to Tom about our pace and came to an understanding for the future, but it was definitely an initial sign of the huge challenges to come. Stephanie, especially, realized that getting *up* the mountain wouldn’t be the only hard part.
Barranco was totally fogged in by clouds, and so we had to wait until the morning for the breathtaking views of Kibo peak, the valley below, and the daunting Barranco wall which, unbeknownst to us, we would be climbing the next day.