Thursday, August 27, 2015

Kilimanjaro Day 1: August 8, 2015


(I'm writing these posts after the climb is done, hence the date discrepancy between the post title and the published date.)

I climbed Kilimanjaro with my friend and colleague Jen. Jen recently finished her dissertation (I was on her PhD committee) and is one of a handful of people out there that basically does the same kind of research I do. She also just got a tenure track job in San Diego, so she was heading back home to pack her things and move after the climb. Jen and I get along very well, and we both know a decent amount of Kiswahili (sometimes just called Swahili), the main language of Tanzania and Kenya from spending several years doing research there. I thought we would make great climb companions, and we did. We had invited several other friends and colleagues we knew to join us, but in the end it was just us.

Jen and I started the day with a delicious breakfast at our hotel at 7:00am – thankfully, it came faster than dinner had the night before, which was more on the “Africa time” end of the spectrum. Still, it was delicious, and clearly prepared from scratch.

We were picked up by a Land Rover which had a few of our climb crew in it. We didn’t know them yet, but I had met our chief guide, Simon, the night before when he came to the hotel to give me a basic briefing about the climb and double check on and collect cash for the gear Jen and I were renting. I rented a summit jacket, hiking poles, gaiters, a head lamp, a sleeping bag, down mittens for the summit day, and a balaclava. Jen rented a summit jacket and walking poles – although there was some confusion initially and they thought she was renting a headlamp rather than hiking poles. That morning we made a quick stop at the Team Kilimanjaro office to pick up hiking poles for Jen – thankfully, because they proved to be an indispensable part of our gear. The other person Simon introduced us to right away was Gideon, who he called our “stomach engineer” – the camp cook.

The before picture at the hotel - the crew is loading gear on top of the the Land Rover behind us.
The Londorossi Gate sign
Porters waiting to have their bags weighed at Londorossi Gate
Packing stuff into waterproof sacks - Noel is in front with the bandanna on, 
our "stomach engineer" (cook) Gideon is in the red shirt, 
and Simon is in back with his ever-present yellow fleece jacket
Loading the bags on top of the vehicle to head towards the Lemosho Gate
Lemosho Gate
#Kilimanjaroselfie - I'm ready to go!

It was about a 2 hour drive to the Londorossi gate where we registered. That consisted of writing down in a notebook the date, our names, what country we lived in, what our professions were, our passport numbers, how many people were in our climbing party, how many days we were climbing, what company we were climbing with, and what our guide’s name was. We had to do this at a few of the camps on the way. As we were driving, we were passing scenes of the Africa I have come to know and love: rural farms (shambas in Kiswahili), bars, shops selling food or basic household items, women carrying enormous loads in baskets or buckets on their heads or firewood on their backs, goats roaming the streets, etc. I breathed in the slightly damp air, and it felt like I was back home somehow.

At the gate, we hung out for a while while the porters weighed their bags. Contrary to some accounts, there are strict limits to the amount that porters can carry up the mountain. A few different groups of porters were weighing their bags, so we had a few minutes to explore. There were some black and white colobus monkeys around, which Jen was excited about, because they are her favorite monkeys and she hadn’t seen them in the wild yet. She got some good photos. Then we drove another 45 minutes or so to the Lemosho gate, where we would start our climb. There are several routes you can take to climb Kili and ours was the Lemosho route, but with a slight variation unique to our climbing company. 

After eating a packed lunch of a boiled egg, a piece of fried chicken, a sandwich with veggies, a box of juice, and a mini chocolate bar, we were off! Well, first Simon helped Jen put on her gaiters. She hadn’t used them before. By the end of the trip, she was a pro at putting them on herself.

5 star gaiter service from Simon!

We each carried a day pack with water, snacks, sunscreen, a med kit, a waterproof jacket and pants in case it rained, and a few other things. The porters carried our duffel bags inside of waterproof sacks. On their heads. And they passed us, all the time. So did the porters of other groups. These guys are amazingly strong and agile. Simon mentioned that he thought my day pack looked too heavy and joked that I didn’t need to keep makeup in it. I laughed too, and told him I don’t even wear makeup at home.


Jen had a very nice SLR camera which she carried in a separate camera bag. I had debated bringing my nice SLR as well, but decided I didn’t want to carry the extra weight, and that it would be a hassle to take it out of my pack every time I wanted to take a picture. Jen had to do that, and sometimes Simon and Noel – who were the only crew members that consistently hiked with us – would get a bit exasperated by Jen having to stop and take our her camera whenever she wanted to take a picture (but in a good-natured way). Simon nicknamed her “the photographer”, as well as “Jennifer Lopez”. I brought a very old point and shoot camera which promptly died; although the battery was fully charged, it took about 2 pictures before turning off. So I ended up using my iPhone to take all my photos. It worked well for me; I had it in my pants pocket and could whip it out to take a quick photo anytime. I brought a portable charger for it, so I recharged it every night.

We hiked about 2 hours to our first camp, in thick forest. The Lemosho start point is 2424m (7953ft) in elevation, and we gained over 400m (1312ft) during that hike. At first we both felt pretty winded, but we found a good pace and got into a walking groove. I told Simon that I had come right from a prehistory conference in Dar es Salaam, and that I had gotten to see some of the original early human fossils from Tanzania. He asked if I believed that these were the earliest men, and I said yes, that they were some of our ancestors and cousins. Once he realized that Jen was also a scientist, he asked us how Carbon 14 dating works. We told him we’d let him know once we got to camp and had more time to explain it – which Jen did. Noel, our assistant guide, said he’d heard a recent report that elephant ivory had been sourced by DNA, so we explained how it was actually strontium isotopes in teeth which tell you where an animal grew up, essentially.

Simon was great at making sure we started off slow – pole pole in Kiswahili (pronounced poll-ay poll-ay), which means slowly slowly. (Confusingly, a single pole means sorry.) We’d both heard from others who had climbed Kili that you should go slower than you think you need to. He reminded us often to drink our water, or “white wine” as he jokingly called it.

When we got to our home for the night, Forest Camp (elevation 2821m/9255ft), one of the crew (the “waiter”, Samweli) gave us each a small plastic basin of hot water to wash off our face and hands. In the gear list and informatioin we received in advance, it explained that we wouldn't be able to bathe during the climb, but that we would get some hot water for washing. We both had small pack towels to dry off afterwards. This became the post-hike routine. The camp was a little chilly and damp, but overall a pretty nice temperature. 

Forest camp
Our tents with our plastic hot water basins;
the mess tent is in the background on the right


 

Equipment shout-out, day 1: my small (travel) bottle of Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap. Having a squeeze soap turned out to be ideal. Jen brought a small bar of soap which she promptly dropped in the dirt, and shared my squeeze soap after that.

Then we were called to the mess tent – where we ate our meals – for a snack of popcorn and hot water for tea (or coffee or hot chocolate). Yes! Popcorn and tea became the post-washing routine. The popcorn was a great way to get salt back into our systems, and the hot water insured that we continued to rehydrate.

 Popcorn snack inside the mess tent!
Yum.
The crew had set up our tents and put our duffel bags in them, along with a nice sleeping pad – not a thin camping pad, but a thick one. This turned out to be fantastic when it got really cold to help insulate us from the freezing ground. Jen and I opted to have separate tents, which we had to pay a little extra for (it’s usually two people to a tent), so we could have some personal space to spread out. I think that was a very good idea. Before we got settled into our tents, Simon pointed out our private “bathroom”, which was a port-a-potty shaped tent with a wooden toilet seat with a bucket underneath it with water treated with something that smelled like a chemical cleaner. The camps all had public bathrooms in small wooden buildings so at first I thought this was a bit of an unnecessary luxury, but when your tent is far away from the public bathroom and it’s really cold at night, having one close by was really nice.
This was the only camp where we saw “safari ants”, which form amazing lines up and down the paths and forest floor. Simon always told us to move quickly when we saw them. One managed to crawl up my pants and bite me on the thigh… and that was the last act that ant did in its life. It stung a little bit, but the pain went away quickly.

Soon after that, we were called to the mess tent for dinner. The mess tent was quite big; I think a group of 6-8 could have fit inside comfortably. We had opted for 3 hot meals a day; there’s a cheaper option which includes only one hot meal a day (dinner). We had camping chairs and a folding table with a checkered Maasai blanket as a tablecloth. The table was decked out with condiments like salt, ketchup, hot sauce, margarine, honey, tea, coffee, and hot chocolate. Dinner that night started with fresh, homemade cucumber soup flavored with ginger. A soup made out of cucumbers? You’re skeptical. It was AMAZING! It was our favorite soup the entire trip. We also got boiled potatoes and “sauce”, as Samweli always called it; this time it was meat stew. Dessert was slices of avocados. We were happy campers.

We could hear laughing from the tent where the crew was prepping dinner; these guys clearly enjoy the hard work they do and get along well. We also saw other groups at the campsite. You won’t be shocked to know that I was looking forward to meeting other people on the hike (extrovert much?) but it turned out that we hardly socialized with anyone else. By the time we got to each camp, washed our faces and hands, and had our popcorn snack, we were pretty exhausted and wanted to just crawl into our tents to get organized and rest.

After dinner we got ready for bed. We realized that most of the crew slept in the big mess tent after we were done with dinner, and a few others (I think the rest) slept in the kitchen prep tent. We had 13 people in our crew altogether: Simon, the chief guide; Noel, the assistant guide; Gideon, the cook; Samweli, the waiter; and the other guys were all basically porters. According to the Team Kilimanjaro website, our staff was the following - Chief Kilimanjaro Guide: Simon Kaaya, Assistant Guide: Noel Ngoye, Cook: Gideon Daud, Senior Porters: Samwe Balaba & Jacob David, Toilet Porter: Eliakimu David, Crew: Shabani Jumanne, Samora Mathias, Charles Ibrahim, Frank Singo, Fadhili Mollel & Melickzedek Adini.

Simon told us that tomorrow would be a fairly long day, with a 5.5-6 hour hike, and that we would be woken up at 6:30 am. We got settled and both read books before falling asleep.

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