Kilimanjaro Part II: Camaraderie and Delirium

Trip Start Sep 02, 2010
Trip End Jun 13, 2011

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

After our porters saved us all from toppling over into a ditch (and this was before we'd even begun to tackle the trail, mind you), we celebrated the first small victory of our big adventure. Thankful that we hadn't been smushed on our sides, but still nervous about the rain and the big trek ahead, we just laughed and realized that all we could do was stay positive and enjoy the ride. Que sera sera.

In the Land Rover, we bumped along the road for another twenty minutes or so until we could go no farther. The mud was just too deep, and the Land Rover still had to make a trip back to pick up some of our gear. It was decided that we'd just have to walk from this point, even though the official Lemosho Route trailhead was still a couple miles down the way. Only a few porters would accompany us that night, so they could bring our tents and gear as well as just enough food to last us for three days. At that point, we'd meet up with the other porters and get the rest of our food.

As we pulled on our rainjackets and pants and snapped our walking poles into place, Bruce and Wilson, our guides, causally asked us if we'd all packed our headlamps in our daypacks. They explained that since we'd gotten held up by the rain and the mud--and since we weren't even at the official trailhead yet--we might have to hike into the evening in order to arrive at our first camp. Once again, all we could do was laugh (due to delirium, I think, at this point) and push forward. We were off!

The first part of the road and trail proved to be relatively challenging: the inclines were steep and muddy, and we had to be careful not to slide down them on our butts into the big fat roots of the trees. We were in a beautiful rainforest setting, and the soil was a bright red. After marching up and down for a few hours, we made it to the first camp, which was at about 8,500 feet.

We were happy to settle into our tents and also to discover that the cook, affectionately nicknamed "Spice," had prepared popcorn and hot water for tea. We loved our new little spaces--the dining tent was cozy and would warm up pretty quickly when our six bodies were inside it. We told stories, joked about our ridiculous first day, and listened to our porters and guides raucously chatting and laughing in their own big tent. The rain had stopped, and we decided that though the day had started off with rain, worries, and a near accident, it had ended well: with friends, food, and an adventure ahead of us.

I won't recall the events of each subsequent day--and I'll admit that they tended to blur into each other--but I'll try to capture some of the highlight moments and stories. I loved every minute with our group. When we weren't making fun of each other for our bizarro physical ailments (we were drinking stream water and iodine, after all) or our funny little routines (taking Wet Wipes-and-Gold Bond "showers" each afternoon in our tents), we were telling stories from the past nine months. My dad mentioned that hiking with all of us reminded him of those good ol' carpooling days, when he would drive me and my friends around and we'd gossip in the back seat, oblivious to his amused eavesdropping. My parents have always told Rhett and me about how much they love having our friends over to the house, and though the setting was different this time around, I know Pops had so much fun getting to know the kiddos, and they loved meeting him. He and Patrick soon became fast friends: sharing a tent for eight days in freezing weather when you use a "pee bottle" as a toilet (have I not mentioned the ingenious pee bottle?) can create such a lasting bond! All jokes aside, it was pretty special for me to be able to mix my worlds--to have my Chadwick friends meet my dad on the mountain.

Not only did we get a kick out of being together, we enjoyed getting to know Bruce and Wilson. They'd both been up to the Kili summit hundreds of times, and Bruce had some crazy stories about summiting some of the other famous peaks, like Aconcagua. We were in awe of them and also--especially--of the porters. These guys managed to carry enormous loads on their backs (sometimes on their heads!) as they charged ahead of us on the mountain, so they could beat us to the campsite and make sure everything was set up for us upon our arrival. When they'd pass us all on the trail, we'd stand off to the side, gaping at the caravan of people: for each of us, there were three porters. That means it required eighteen people to help the six of us get up the mountain. We'd be ordered to move slowly (we were constantly told "pole pole," meaning "be calm and slow" in Swahili), and the porters would fly up the trail, making it look easy. Then, each night, they would STILL manage to stay up way later than any of us could manage. We'd usually have dinner, listen to a podcast or a David Sedaris blip on my iPod speakers, and then crawl into our tents around 9:00. The porters, on the other hand, would clean up our dinner and then hang out until 2:00 or 3:00. A few times, when I awoke around 3:30 to go to the bathroom, I still heard their raucous laughter.

When we got to know Wilson, Bruce, and Freddy (I guess you could call him our waiter) better, they'd start to include us in their jokes. They'd tell us to say certain words in Swahili; we'd have to call someone a "sharu baru," and everyone would freak out with laughter. (We never did find out what that meant, but it's obviously something unsavory.) And we seemed even more inclined to speak all kinds of Swahili nonsense as we moved higher and higher up on the mountain. Around 14,000 feet, delirium started to set in. Such delirium, coupled with various physical ailments or impairments, made for some pretty funny and uncivilzed conversations. I seem to recall us talking at great length--and with apparently great humor--about bathroom breaks and gastrointestinal problems. And though I can't figure out why it was so funny, we seemed to get such a kick out of asking Wilson--who was definitely the more stoic of our two guides--what he was wearing. "What would Wilson wear?" became our religious adage; we'd ask each other this each morning as we crept out of our tents and tried to figure out how cold it would be that day. I remember on a few occasions even asking him about his underwear. I don't blame him for thinking we were pretty lame. "Pole pole" came to represent not just the speed of our movement up the mountain, but also the speed of our brains....

Other proof that we were delirious from the altitude--in addition to that which came from interrogating our guide on his choice of boxers vs. briefs--was that we formed a "TLC-cover band featuring David Sedaris, Ira Glass, and Truman Capote." Summar, Ellie, and I belted out "And I creep, yeah" from the highest peaks and lowest gorges on the Kili trail, and our inner nerds adopted the quirky accents of Sedaris, Glass, and Capote. Dan contributed to this madness by occasionally impersonating various people whom we'd met on this year's travels (such as Leonard from Dusseldorf or Tomas from Slovakia). Patrick added his flavor to the craziness by engaging us all in conversations about the sad state of U.S. economic affairs when we very obviously were not in a position to be having such talks. Of all of us, I think only Dad maintained his sanity. His fun stories about our family were just as accurate as his GPS device, which kept us up-to-date on our altitude and our direction. Dad was our North Star!

It's a good thing Bruce and Wilson were watching out for us because in our states of increasing delirium, we could forget to hydrate or consume those essential electrolytes. When they'd pause us along the trail, we had a chance to eat and also to admire the scenery. We noticed when the rainforest shifted to a thick grove of trees with Spanish moss, and when that forest opened up into expansive green hills with shorter brush on them (the famous "Green Fields of Africa"). A day or two later, we noticed we'd moved into the high desert, and still later, when we were clinging to rock-faces as we went down, across, and up a ravine, we observed that we were in the highest micro-climate: high alpine. As we walked, Bruce pointed out some rare flowers, but apart from pestering chipmunks, there wasn't much fauna to admire. I guess not much lives within the "kill zone." The barren landscape above 14,000 feet didn't do a whole lot to ease our nerves, though I was happy to discover I occasionally had cell service, and when the sun came out every morning, it gave us the energy and hope we needed to push out of our tents and off into the high desert. (A little music helped, too; I'd occasionally play some favorite tunes out of my fancy iPod speakers that strapped to the outside of my pack.)

The route that we took up the mountain, the Lemosho route, was pretty special because we started on Kili's west side and then worked our way across the mountain to the east, which is the side we summited from. This way, we could more gently increase our altitude and see the peak from various angles. Yet such a circular approach also seemed illusory; each day we moved higher, yet the peak appeared to remain far off in the distance. Occasionally, as we'd admire the snow-covered top, we'd catch ourselves talking about it as if it were disconnected from the mountain we were standing on. We'd call each other to crawl out of our tents in the early morning ("Come look at Kili! She's a beautiful pink!") or in the late evening ("Wow! Come look at Kili's bright snow glistening under the stars!"). Then we'd laugh and remember that Kili wasn't just There; she was Here, too. We were already acquainted with her. She was just below our feet.

Though we did enjoy the journey of the climb, we were definitely more focused on the destination. We were always thinking about the Final Push, which we'd do on our sixth evening. Perhaps it was this tunnel-vision that made us refer to the peak as a third-person member of our party whom we were still waiting to meet.
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