Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Summit Story

Hey Internet,*

I'm excited to introduce Zero Degrees South's first-ever guest-blogger: my father, John Hoftiezer. I've referenced him before - he's an old-school story-teller whose most frequent writing advice to me has always been "Don't let the facts interfere with a good story." It's similar in tone to the advice he gave on me when dropping me off at university "Don't let your studies interfere with your college education." From those two wisdom-nuggets alone, I think you can tell that you're in for a good ride here. Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I have: we're posting this in celebration of the start of our journey to Arusha to attempt Kili's summit, 1-year-ago today!
*(Okay... Mom. Hey Mom,)

Dad taking in a view of Kibo Crater from the base of
Mawenzi Peak: acclimatizing and enjoying the sunset!
By now everybody has heard so much about a “bucket list” that it has become a little trite. In fact, some people have other lists, such as somebody who has her “thirty before thirty” list. In my case, the fates conspired to make something which people tend to put on these lists actually occur. The following account will perhaps entertain or possibly inspire. At the very least, I hope it occupies some time contentedly.

So, you may ask, what was it? My daughter Sarah has on her list to climb a mountain, a real mountain. Tanzania has a mountain. What a fortuitous coincidence. The mountain that was climbed is Mount Kilimanjaro. It is a real mountain, a mountain that many people climb and many more have heard about. We did it together. Jambo jambo, Kilimanjaro.

A bit of personnel logistics may help in the understanding. Sarah has run away from home to save the world in Iringa, Tanzania. There is extra energy and desire for attainment in the younger crowd. Now, you cannot necessarily count on best-friend-forever girlfriends, boyfriends, or even husbands. But, as every girl knows (I am told), you can always count on your Dad. Thus, when a girlfriend backed out (she never would have made it), and a husband said he didn't really want to do it twice (we should have suspected something), Dad said yes.

To prepare for this arduous adventure, several parallel efforts were begun, paused, restarted and pursued in many combinations. First off, there was the talk. Talk consisted of questions and answers. Are we really going to do it? How much will this cost? When is a good time to climb? We asked pretty much all of the five W’s and an H questions.

The real commitment came when the airplane tickets were purchased. A flurry of on-again off-again selections occurred. This included a preparation revelation, a plan to spend longer in Africa. It was discovering that Iringa is at high altitude, about 5000 ft. Just being there would help with altitude sickness, the leading cause of failure in climbing. Once the “book now” click was made there was no going back.

While that was going on, the issues of getting in shape were happening. Two activities accomplished this, exercise and dieting. Dieting did a lot of good. Whole books have been written about that topic. Suffice it to say that I figure not carrying an extra twenty pounds up the hill would do just as much good as physical conditioning. Since the folk wisdom says Mt Kilimanjaro is a walk-up, walking seemed a good preparation activity. Beside which, it is enjoyable in its own right. Since a mountain trail goes up, many stairs were climbed. There just aren’t that many trails nearby, or anywhere in Ohio for that matter, that go up hill. The African expression “pole, pole”, meaning “slowly slowly”, covered all of this activity.

Outfitting the expedition was pretty simple. We hired it out. However nobody seemed too keen on sleeping in a used bag or wearing some stranger’s coat. Those were acquired. Shoes are highly recommended. These I splurged on, thinking that good boots might make quite a difference in happiness.

I flew to Das Es Salaam to be met by Sarah holding a hand written sign, like all the cab drivers do. Hers simply said DAD. Treats and treasures escaped through customs to be opened when we got home to Iringa later. Three days passed for me to acclimate, and see just exactly what Sarah was up to. It was (is) chaos. Then too quickly we were on our way again by a puddle jumper plane to Arusha. From there it was another taxi ride to the HoneyBadger Lodge in Moshi. We got there.

The first item of business was to meet our guides. Our gear was reviewed and supplementary items were identified. Everything seemed about as prepared as it could be. We strolled out to the front of the lodge to have a look in the fading light at the peak. For the first time a feeling of foreboding stole into our minds. “What have I gotten into now” is something I have felt before, and now had again. The peak didn’t tower over us, it just sort of lay over the plain looking remote. None-the-less, I slept well. We were up and about early for our approach to the mountain.

Why does it take a half day to get started? Perhaps this is the time to introduce another African phrase. TIA sands for “This is Africa”. The phrase is used in many situations. Most of them have to do with things not going smoothly. It certainly applies when things move at a leisurely pace.

We made it to the park headquarters in a microbus. Our gear was all on top. Inside were the guides, Eric and David (not their real names). Also inside with the two of us were a cook, a cook's helper, four porters and of course a driver. Because they were going to get paid the mood of the locals was high. The trekkers were hiding the fears of the previous evening well. There was a fear of rain that didn’t materialize. Lots of intrepid folks hung around, waiting in line to get permits and pay the climbing fee. We felt a bit happy that they wanted to know we would be on the mountain and happily paid the rescue fee. Otherwise, there seemed to be only a small appreciation of the effort we were about to undertake.

Our chosen path originated on the north side of the mountain. Being who we are, it was chosen because it is the least popular and because we would not retrace our steps on the future decent. The consequence was that there was another drive around the mountain to get to the trail head. I think it was worth it. We saw more of the countryside which got increasingly rural. I believe the TIA term is “off the tarmac”. As noon came and went, we got slightly impatient, not to mention hungry. As always, it worked out fine. We found the trail head, had a box lunch, and began with our first steps up.

Walking was easy at first. There were tilled fields among the forest, which in fact looked a lot like Ohio in certain ways. Pine trees were planted to reclaim land from human activity. David told us that there was a plan to reestablish the rain forest ecosystem after the pine forest had had a chance to work. The conservation effort in the Kilimanjaro region is understood by local citizenry. They also understand their more immediate needs. We bought peanut snacks at the last human outpost where the rain forest began. A nicely maintained gravel path led into the thick trees. Trees meant that there were few views along this section of the trail. Flowers were seen to keep our attention. Suddenly the clearing of camp site number one appeared. Ours was one of only three or four groups at the site. Porters were scurrying about setting up tents, greeting each other and fixing dinner.

We were entertained in the dining tent to a four course meal. The brochures didn’t mention this. Appetizer was high carbohydrate popped corn. Soup followed. We suspect a powdered mix was used. Extra fluids were always encouraged. The entrĂ©e was pasta and meat sauce. Desert consisted of cookies and fruit. Bananas are grown locally along with mangos and papaya. All in all, it was a veritable feast. Appetite is also a great flavor enhancer.

Near the equator the suns sets fast. That combined with increased altitude and exercise sent us into our sleeping bags early. And there was morning and evening, the first day.

No trumpet sounded the dawn. I was awake and aware of the fact that training might have included practice in sleeping on the ground. Plus it was cold. We had scrambled eggs at breakfast. For heaven sake, who carried those up? The bread was not crushed either. The novice trekkers began to learn what could be accomplished. We started to feel a little British, trekking on such a grand scale. To fit the mood, an Englishman popped out of the next tent over. We met Roger, on his second climb, eager to be friendly.

Our plan for success included an extra climbing day. The literature claims that the biggest cause of failure to summit Kilimanjaro is altitude sickness. Time gives your body a chance to make additional red blood cells. We chose a six day tour. The range is 4 to 7 days, with 5 being the most common. Of course, in addition to a desire for success, we wanted a vacation. Time together was part of the agenda. Because of the differing schedules, routes vary. We turned left, to the east, toward a secondary peak named Mawenzi, while the other groups headed in their own directions. By eight o’clock we were back on the trail.

I ought to mention another technique to climb this hill by amateur mountaineers. That is to hike slowly. The phrase employed for this is Swahili, and was mentioned before, “Pole pole”. What I didn’t mention is just how slowly the pace can seem. It is worse than a funeral march! Or maybe it should be compared to the extremely tiring art museum pace that drives people into the gift shop. The guides are trained to set this pace for you. The porters, who broke camp after our departure, blew on by smiling and hardly sweating. We assured ourselves it would be beneficial in the end. And it was. A group consisting of two couples passed us, only to be passed later. One of them was heard to say, “I love vomiting; it is this mountain that I hate”. We wonder if they made it to the top.

For us the going was good. We were not breathing hard. The peak seemed closer. The sun made us forget our fear of rainy conditions. The long rainy growing season was due in just a couple weeks.

The path gave way quickly to moorland plants. I have read about the English moors, without getting an appreciation of them. At best I would characterize them as dull after only a brief familiarity. There were now rocky prominences affording views of the Kenyan plain. We saw only one small furry rodent on the entire trip, but knew that there were plenty of exotic big game animals far below. Maybe the animals are smarter than humans when it comes to ascending mountains. Pole pole.

Our lunch stop was popular trail crossroad. It seemed that there were extra amenities for the porters and guides, such as washing facilities. There seemed no real hurry to move on. We eat, acclimatized and relaxed. Then we hiked on.

To my surprise, the afternoon included a bit of spelunking. A nice cave going at least 200 meters into the mountainside was presented as an optional side trip. Sarah remained near the entrance cavern, while I pushed in to the end. I am happy to report that my boots got muddy. Stalactites were present, but not large. Does this indicate a young mountain geologically speaking?

Camp two was pretty similar to camp one. It did seem colder. I sort of doubt that could be attributed to increased altitude. There was a moment we both experienced of shivering heavily. That is a symptom of altitude sickness. It is also a symptom of what I would call exposure. Being out in the sun all day might have caused some discomfort no matter where we were. Happily it passed in just a few minutes. We enjoyed a long visit that evening.

Our third day was planned as a shorter hike and rest day. We were aiming for Mawenzi peak, to camp at it’s base. The trail was still not steep. It changed over the course of the day, becoming more and more rocky. We would ascend a ridge, looking at the peak behind it, only to discover it was a false view. There was another ridge, with the peak behind it for us to climb. The camp site was named Tarn Hut. A scales to weigh the porters packs was available to us to check our day packs. We weighed in at 10 kilograms each. This camp site was on the smooth washout area of a local minimum. The beautiful pond did not really impress us.

We ascended the nearest west ridge in order to watch the sunset over Kilimanjaro. Sunsets are a common photographic theme. Looking over the valley between the two peaks a little angst set in. We could see the trail up to Gilman’s point. A stretch of the imagination, we could almost see ant-sized people on that trail. It all looked foreboding in the fading light. But, have confidence team. Tomorrow we head for the base camp at the mountain. Well rested, with our attitude and altitude adjustments, we slept again.

Day four was a desert hike. We had climb slowly but steadily high enough to reach a new environment. The path was gravelly and very dry. Why were we still carrying rain gear? Sarah and I, along with our entourage, arrived at the Kibo Huts camp tired. The day had seemed long. We were ready to be there though. There had been enough hiking. There had been enough camping. It was time to climb. So we moped around resting and waiting for midnight.

Yes, the summit attempt starts at midnight. I still have not figured out exactly why this is the way it is done. Logistically it fits with the time to hike down. I doubt that is the overriding reason. I think we slept well enough to be somewhat refreshed. It was chilly, maybe even cold that night. Multiple layers of clothing, our warmest hats and mittens were anticipated. Turning on our headlamps, we set off. Because of the dark, altitude, cold and steep grade, there isn’t much to report of the climax of assent. We plunged along silently, following like pack animals as the switchbacks became more and more frequent. The stars shone brightly. The familiar Big Dipper pointed to a North Star that could not be seen because of the latitude. I wish I could say that my thoughts were positive. Mostly they were along the lines of not being the one to quit. It got colder. We met several people coming down. That kept me going in a perverse sort of way. It seemed to take forever. Time didn’t seem to pass. There was no moon to watch traverse the sky (Or was there?). At the moment of despair, Eric handed us a cup of hot Ginger tea. Amazingly we revived to discover the crater rim and Gilman's Peak was actually quite close. It started to get light. We hurried a little to be at the crater rim for sunrise. The excitement of success perked up our spirits. And there was dawn atop Kilimanjaro.

Now believe it or not, there was a decision to make. Should we go on the actual summit point, Uhuru Peak? The night before Sarah was heard to ask why anybody would turn back after getting that far. At our decision moment it became clear that this could well be considered. What difference would it make if the certificate we would be awarded was gold or silver. It was cold right then and the air was too thin for catching your breath. However, when David posed the question about moving on, I replied we were indeed ready. Sarah did not speak up. She just thought I could have consulted her and come to a different conclusion! I think it was a touch of altitude sickness talking. Gilman’s point did not have very comfortable perches. Rather than rest more, we went on.

The trail here was somewhat scary. For one thing, it was light enough to see. You could see the crater on the right hand side, sloping steeply down, covered with snow. A tumble down might not hurt too much, but the climb out would be awful. To the left, the rim rocks where jagged and close at hand. Single file was the only way to go. Because we followed the ridge, even though we were still going up, it was a gentle rise. Stella’s point broadened out and afforded a nice rest spot. The sun finally began to warm us up slightly. Uhuru Peak could be seen getting closer. Having our final target approach was great.

Actually there isn’t much to do up there. Uhuru peak is broad. The view didn’t give me a feeling of looking down from a peak over all of God’s creation. It was hazy in the distance. No quaint fields or villages show any human presence. Pictures at the sign post meant jostling for position and taking turns with other people. Yes, the top was crowded. After a short hour we began to descend.

I should not diminish the feeling of accomplishment. This contented feeling grew steadily as the realization of success sank into the oxygen deprived brain. Going down is so much easier and that helped too. The worry factor is gone. We did make it. It is all downhill from here as the saying goes. The feeling of accomplishment was huge.

Next, going over the edge at Gilman’s Point, we discovered how steep the climb in the dark had been. You have to climb down too. That means picking your way from rock to rock, and watching your steps. As the slope leveled out, the gravel slide allowed us to skip some switch-backs and charge straight down. Most people did that the whole way, but we felt unsettled by the poor footing. We took some shortcuts and also zig-zagged as needed. Euphoria or not, this turned into work. The slope leveled again. A family history of bad knees worried me slightly before the trip. It is well known, when brought to mind that knees work harder going down. We decided to be easy on them.

A short rest, two hours, was granted for brunch back at our Kibo Huts camp. This was welcome, having awakened at midnight but not eaten yet. The flavor was not enhanced by exercise this time. Nor could I nap. The prospect of walking farther that day to start off the mountain was not at all appealing. Those slave driving guides goaded us onward.

Our route was the Marengo path. This is known as the Coca-Cola route because of its popularity. It looked like a boot packed super highway, six lanes wide. We walked side by side and talked in a satisfied way about the peak. This would have been a very long path indeed without having a successful summit. It was long enough as it was. We talked about others we knew who had made the climb, assuring us we would be fine. We suspected they had been holding back.

We met a family on their way up. It turned out to be the father's sixty fifth birthday present from his two sons. He was so excited! He asked "did you make it, was it hard, how old are you?" Like so many experts since yesterday, we gave out full advice. Yes, we made it. Yes, it was worth it. Yes, it was really hard. It is perhaps the greatest thing I have ever done that I never want to do again.

The walk went on and on. We hiked farther that day than on any day on the way up. No more pole pole now. The pace was definitely faster. We were tired. Camp was just a repeat. It is funny what post summit feelings can be.

Our last day was more of the same. Again it seemed to take forever. Twenty kilometers (check this number) is a long way. How far was this total trip? When we crossed under the arch at the end we were about equally pleased to simply reach the end as we were to have conquered the mountain and finished the tour.

The mini bus ride to the lodge was hot and uneventful. We were awarded our certificates, and toasted the event, but mostly wanted a shower and a cold soft drink. It took a few hours before the feeling of satisfaction set in again, which it surely did. Jambo jambo Kilimanjaro.

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