December 30, 2010
Today was the most difficult day yet. We ascended over 1,300 meters from Camp 30 Caves to School Hut and back again to 30 Caves, a torturous six-hour circuitous route that left us at the end of the day no closer to the Kilimanjaro summit. The day was devoted entirely to acclimatization, a word I have come to dread. I should have known that today’s climb was going to be a challenge when my heart began to flutter as we set out – a nice feeling if you’re in love but not when you’re getting ready to go vertical.
The cheerfully warm morning was a welcome change from last night’s freakish deep freeze. The sunlight evaporated any vestige of frost and dried our damp gear. We enjoyed our breakfast in the fresh air at one of the few picnic tables squatting along the way; it was the first and only time we could escape from the confines of the mess tent. The meal was a repeat of what we had been served for days on end. We rather reluctantly consumed an eclectic meal of fried eggs with toast, fruit, and millet porridge with the flavor of Malt-O-Meal and consistency of gelatinous snot. I treated myself to mocha coffee, a guilty pleasure I learned to indulge when I lived in Korea. The Koreans enjoy a sweet instant coffee known as “Maxim” (pronounced MAYK-shim) served in foil tubes that contain a combination of Nescafe-style instant coffee, powdery sugar, and something that passes as cocoa. “Maxim” tasted much better than the African instant coffee, tea or Milo chocolate drink mix I had been drinking until then on a rotational basis.
Kay and I departed earlier than Tom and Betty and soon left them far behind. Betty’s pace was slower than ours, and Tom thoughtfully lagged behind with her. Kay and I sprinted ahead with our guide, Minja, while group leader August hung with Tom and Betty. While we thought it inspiring to have the stamina to forge ahead of our companions, seasoned porters easily passed us by in loafers and 15 kilograms or more on their heads and backs. Their passing left our egos tattered. We maintained a brisk pace uphill for a couple hours but were still passed by dozens of porters who made us eat dust. Of course, it was undoubtedly because we were so busy taking in the beauty of our environs and snapping memory photos that we need not have kept such a brisk pace.
We initially enjoyed the trek. The surreal scenery surrounded us; vegetation virtually disappeared and gave way to desert. The terrain was simply otherworldly and reminiscent of a lunarscape. Rock formations grew increasingly pronounced, the boulders larger and larger. An extinct volcano, Kilimanjaro reminded me of Mt. St. Helens in Washington State after its eruption in 1981. Unlike St. Helens, Kilimanjaro has long been extinct, although you wouldn’t know it by the terrain.
Kay and I arrived at School Hut about 2.5 hours after leaving Camp 30 Caves. Most of the climb was bearable, but the final hour was immensely grueling as we strained to follow a trail that seemed to wind upward forever through a dismally gray world. We grumbled because our destination always seemed to be “just over the next ridge.” Each ridge became more difficult than the last with the trail sloping ever more vertically and our spirits beaten down. Our bodies forced us to stop frequently to let our breath catch up and our muscles rest. Still, we persevered and inched our way up the mountain step by agonizing step. Footfalls echoed with each inhale or exhale. Hiking poles pointed the way. Step by step. Footfall by footfall. Stop and start.
When School Hut finally appeared above at a distance, it seemed so far away. Deflated, we stopped more frequently, taking a few steps at a time and stopping at each bend. It seemed so far away and impossible to reach. I realized too late that our guide August had made a poor choice bartering our remaining strength away in order to prepare us for a hypothetical illness. It was not worth the effort, and I grew very concerned that the day’s ordeal had diminished the likelihood that I would make it to the top of Kilimanjaro. How could I possibly get to the top without human strength? Only superhuman strength could carry me to the top.
I looked back down from where we had climbed and wished that I could warn Betty and Tom to turn back and avoid our fates. They were nowhere in sight. Kay and I decided to press on to School Hut and hoped that they would have enough sense not to follow us.
At long last, perhaps an hour after we first sighted School Hut, we pulled into camp. The most difficult portion of the day’s hike – and thus far on the trip – was over, but we were utterly exhausted and dreaded the return trip to Camp 30 Caves. We had arrived at a place just below the summit higher than where former tennis star Martina Navratilova had climbed just a few weeks ago before she had succumbed to altitude sickness. My 50something companion proudly proclaimed that she had beaten Martina. Me, I had to settle for not following in Bobby Riggs’ footsteps!
To be continued…