When we woke up that morning to my new favorite ritual. At 6:30 AM, our guides would gently knock on the tent flap and offer us hot tea – the cure for a cold and miserable night. After washing up in freshly delivered boiling water, we went to have breakfast, we each assumed that our night was the worst. Surely my night of no warm clothing in below freezing weather as the worst! Or maybe everyone who was taking Diamox, a drug that thins your blood to help you get used to the higher altitude but also has the side effect of a diuretic – they had to get up anywhere from 4 to 6 times to pee that first night – braving the freezing cold every time. Helen, a human resources manager from London barely slept, Geetha, a young occupational therapist from Texas was feeling queasy all morning, but none did as poorly as Andy. His altitude sickness from the day before became worse, and he could barely get his way through breakfast (which was delicious!).
Our route was going to be one of our longest on the hike. We were taking a 5-6 hour detour to the rim of the Shira Plateau (i.e. the big flat easy walking) to quickly scale the Shira Cathedral, a 3,800 meter rock mound on the horizon. We buckled in for the walk, leaving Andy to take the shortcut straight to the second camp. The walk was relatively easy and flat for the first couple of hours, with more of the desert brush that I had come to expect. We stopped to take pictures as every morning offered stunning cloudless views of the summit, never leaving our eyesight. Our pace was a little faster than the “pole – pole” shuffle of the first day, but only for a little while. Our group made near constant pee-breaks, and Geetha was still feeling nauseous. I didn’t mind that we were going slowly. I was paying to walking and I figured I might as well get the most out of it. Take my time. Enjoy the surroundings. And, it was a lot easier than rushing through (even walking at that high of an altitude can knock the wind out of you).
When we got to the base of the cathedral, the afternoon fog started to roll in. Within minutes, we were entirely surrounded by clouds, giving the whole mountain an eerie feeling. We trudged up the steep rock path and after a few breaks, made it to the top of the cathedral. It was named the cathedral because it was once a holy place for the local Chagga tribe. On top of the mount were some ominous bones and no view to speak of because of the thick clouds, but we were proud of making it there and took our pictures anyway.
We still had another 2 or 3 hours of walking before us (and until lunch!) so we kept trudging along. The walk became a little less fun as we got more tired. James, the son of the pair, and Richard, a British trader, seemed to have an endless catalog of exciting soccer football matches to relive together so I got a quick primer on the web of British teams. I also got to know Byeron pretty well. He was a fit 62 year old Vietnam vet who did ballroom dancing in his free time. He was living in San Jose so we bonded over good hiking and our connections to the Bay Area. On our walk to camp we passed a helicopter pad which we prayed we would never have to use and a service road, equally foreboding. When we arrived to camp we found that Andy, James’ father had turned back down and our 9 was down to 8 already. This mountain was serious.
Our second camp was nicer than the first, with a beautiful view of the plateau we had just skirted around on one side, and our old friend Kili on the other. After lunch, we did a brief 45-minute acclimatization walk up the path a little and then straight back down. I spent the evening just walking around camp and taking pictures. It was a breathtakingly beautiful evening. It seemed that golden hour of perfect light would last forever as darkness, our new sworn enemy, threatened to inevitably fall.
Nighttime did come, but this time we were ready. We were told it would be colder so we took extra precautions, doubting the possibility of colder but fearing it none the less. Richard and Jen, the other occupational therapist from Arizona, grabbed water bottles to fill up during the night with… um… things besides water (they were on Diamox if you catch my drift). Everyone else just put on an extra layer but it did no good. We still suffered. It was colder and my two trips to the bathroom were as fast as possible. This night, I actually got a full night’s sleep. Even though I couldn’t feel my feet, things were starting to turn for the better.
Our morning ritual of forcing ourselves to eat porridge and complaining about the cold night already seemed stale, but it was truthful. We were cold and not many of us had the appetite for all of the porridge they wanted us to eat. Helen had another sleepless night and could barely eat.
Day 3 of walking took us to our most remote camp, Moir Hut on the far west side of the mountain. We split off from the main path and slowly trudged up the 3 hour walk. We took frequent breaks as people in our group grew sicker and sicker. I still felt fine, besides a headache that would not go away. I knew my body well enough to know that it wasn’t altitude sickness, but just dehydration (caused by the altitude, but let’s not mince words). I vowed that day to never stop drinking water. I finished all 3 liters I had with me and as soon as I went to the bathroom, I would release fluids and the headache would be back.
Byeron quickly adopted a “no man gets left behind” policy and I joined him in cheering on Helen to the next camp. We all made it one piece, but the day was not over. After lunch and a short nap, we were going to be scaling Lent Hill. When they had pointed it out in the distance the day before, it was a tiny little nub next to some big scary cliffs. Surely we could make it to the top. From our third camp, it towered above us, looking almost as menacing as the summit.
We ate our lunch, complained more (we were good at this) about our headaches, stomachs, eating patterns, and peeing habits (we became very close very quick), and we all eventually drifted off to sleep. We were going to be woken up at 3, but at 2:30 something else roused Richard (there were 2 Richards), my Australian tentmate, gently awoke me from my slumber. The porters were singing a Kilimanjaro climbing song that would be stuck in my head for the next week. I didn’t really know the words like I do now, but that never stopped me from making up my own! I embraced the song and started mindlessly singing it constantly, much to the dismay of my hiking companions.
Helen was still feeling under the weather and James wasn’t at his best either, so the 6 remaining of us and a couple of guides went to scale Lent Hill for the acclimatization. We got our first taste of steep on this one as our poles came out for the winding path up the loose rock. After we made it over the first ledge, we entered a valley devoid of all vegetation. It looked like a beautiful day on the moon. We skirted around to the backside of the “hill” and made our way scrambling up the short rock wall to the top. The top of the hill was covered in a rocks stacked by travelers feeing accomplished. We nimbly dodgd these piles and made our way to the edge, overlooking miles of valleys and paths we had crossed over the past three days. We were incredibly proud of ourselves.
The sun set quickly that night and it seemed everyone was feeling better by dinnertime. We had a good time and were told it would not be as cold as the last night and we rejoiced. British Richard and I took advantage of the good news and decided to do some quality stargazing. It was hard not to notice the stars each night, but I was always too cold to do anything except say wow and the run inside my tent. Richard got out his iPad and he had an app that helped us identify some new constellations. We were on the Southern Hemisphere now so almost nothing looked familiar. We saw Orion, but also Scorpio, Cygnus the swan flying along the Milky Way, the bright star Vega, Mars, and maybe even Pegasus and Hercules. The fun was short lived as the cold inevitably forced us into our sleeping bags, our only refuge.