As Sure As Kilimanjaro Rises Like Olympus Above the Serengeti


Birmingham photographer and regular B-Metro contributor, Edward Badham, goes on the adventure of a lifetime

My eyes slowly open to the waning darkness, sticky with travel and jet lag. I look at the time. “Thank God, it is 5:15 a.m.” That almost makes for a full nights sleep. I stretch and lay still for a few minutes then I rise and peer out the door. I see the morning sunrise bathing the white dusty sands of the Zanzibar coast. The morning is peaceful, a few dogs  roaming  and no vendors on the beach coercing their wares upon me.

This is my last day at Miramont Retreat before I head to Kilimanjaro. Zanzibar has been good. The essence of spices and fish, from the streets of Stone Town, still saturate my senses. The desperation and despair from the Slave market tour still tugs at my soul. While Touring Stone Town you see the market where humans were sold like animals, stored underground in tiny cells by the hundreds, then you see the mosques and churches where the proprietors worshiped freely feeling no need of forgiveness. It is a dark and rich history, one I knew little about, but related to intimately being from Alabama.

After my brief reflection I begin to look ahead. Kilimanjaro is on my horizon. A mix of excitement and fear cross my radar. Did I train enough? Am I ready for this climb, this trek, this walk to the roof of Africa? Will my physiology adapt to the altitude? It isn’t common on Kili but people die up there. “You are not going to die,” I tell myself. I then I turn to go get coffee and enjoy one last relaxing day before the mountain.

As we fly into Kilimanjaro Airport I see a faint silhouette of the giant gazing at me on our approach. But truthfully I never actually saw the mountain from the ground before we climbed it, nor after. Even though I stood high atop Uhuru peak at 19,386 feet, Killi is still a ghost to me.

The drive to the Londorossi Gate is bumpy (this is an understatement) my ears are popping as the altitude increases and my head is bouncing off the ceiling of the bus, (note to self, sit towards the front on the way back). Day one of the The Lemosho route is a short hike into Camp Shira 1. I’m wishing it was longer, knowing how grueling the days ahead will be. But the mantra on the mountain is pole, pole, pronounced Poh-lay. It is Swahili for slowly slowly, or one step at a time. This is the key to success on the mountain. The climb is all about acclimatization, if you ascend too fast your body cannot adapt to the altitude and Acute Mountain Sickness will set in. The other rule is climb high and sleep low.

Everybody in the group is cheerful. At dinner we check blood oxygen levels, our pulse and a short questionnaire on our overall health at the moment. Our medical checks will later become a center point of conversation as our bodies and minds begin to adjust or mal-adjust to the altitude. Trying to assess yourself on a scale of 1-10 at high altitude requires its own brand of logic. I may feel like a 7 if I was at sea level, but relative to where I am, the lack of oxygen and the excess of dust in my lungs, I say I’m feeling pretty damn good, like around a 9.5.

Day 2 we hike from Shira 1 to Shira 2 ever higher and always “pole, pole,” There are lots of ups and downs, but mostly ups as we move into the moreland climatic zone. The air grows thinner and colder. The vegetation becomes sparse. The nights seem to get longer as sleep becomes more elusive. Still overall spirits remain high. There is plenty of jovial banter along the trail and camaraderie at mealtime. The food provided along the way by Altezza was quite good. I just wish I felt hungry enough to eat it. At this juncture I find myself forcing the food down at each meal. You have to eat, you need energy I remind myself as do the guides.

Day 3, Shira 2 to Baranco I begin to cough. Am I now a 9, 8.5? But the cough is just a nuisance; others were having worse symptoms from the altitude than I was. From here we are climbing Lava Tower, a massive wall. This turns out to be a challenging and fun segment. Actual climbing involved, hands and feet required. I feel re-energized. Then we descend to Baranco camp wiping out almost all our gains for that morning. Climb high sleep low. Still coughing.

The next 2 days as we made our way to Barafu were somewhat of a blur. Pole pole, pole pole. One thing I learned along the way is that the mountain is a liar. We would approach a crest and could see our camp in the distance. Ah, almost there! Two hours later there it is again, looking no closer than before and a deep gorge separating us from our destination. Pole pole. Breathe, cough.

The last day before summiting we hike from Karanga Camp to Barafu our base camp for the summit bid. Barafu is a bustling camp, more like a small village. All routes converge at Barafu. Here we get four or five hours of rest, dinner then two more hours of sleep before waking at 11 p.m. to begin the summit bid. I opted out of the acclimatization hike. I look up towards the peak and  think there is no way in hell I am going part way up, then coming back down only to begin again a few hours later. The walk to the tent is daunting enough at this point. I listen to my body telling me to rest, in between the coughing.

There is really nothing in life or on the internet, for that matter, that prepares you for summit day. I wake up to the bitter cold and darkness, weary and out of breath. Deciding what to wear is exhausting; actually putting it on is an impossible task. I finally accomplish the impossible and clumsily egress from my tent layered like an onion, with backpack and headlamp on. We fall in line like a slow motion human centipede zig zagging up the mountain. Pole pole. You don’t think, you just put one foot in front of the other.  And you breathe for what little good it does.

Looking up I see a blizzard of dust reflecting in the beam of my headlamp. No wonder I am coughing. As we ascend into the night the shadows in front of me and the moonlight reflecting off the clouds below begin to cause hallucinations. I feel like I am in some sort of arena, the subject in a Truman Show production or waiting in line to audition for American Idol. I shake it off but it keeps coming back. The line stops suddenly I am thankful for the rest. Trying to breathe, not cough. “Where is the damn oxygen?” every cell in my body keeps asking that.

We begin to move. After hours of basic non-existence I look up and can see the top. The sun is rising as we approach. Moments later I crest and see the sign, people are clapping and congratulating each other. I glance over at the sign and it reads Stella Peak. My elation turns to confusion and I ask the question where is Uhuru Peak? Yet another hour hike. Why on earth are we celebrating now? I wonder.  But the sun is out and some sort of adrenaline is flowing. So after hot tea and biscuits we begin again, pole pole, we are truly moving in slow motion. It’s not a steep hike but dear God will it ever end? As we approach Uhuru my energy level rises and the coughing recedes. I see the ever diminishing glaciers standing stoically below in the moonscape that is the crater, the dormant mouth of the volcano.

My energy is still high as I step toward the sign that marks the highest point in Africa. I feel as if it happened all of a sudden, yet an eternity had passed. My sense of time has been hijacked by the mountain. We take photos, celebrate, savor the moment. Then suddenly it is time to go down.

They warn you about coming down, (90 percent of injuries happen on the way down), but like the summit bid nothing can prepare you for the rigors of the descent. I am excited to be moving towards higher oxygen concentration and I descend quickly. It’s a blend of stumbling, skiing and sliding in the scree. I forgot my mantra, pole pole, and drifted down at a tiresome rate. This was a mistake. I reached base camp okay, but I expended too much energy. I had depleted what little oxygen remained in my blood. I settled in for the short rest before the descent to Millennium Camp. But, I began to notice my breathing and heart rate rising, even though I was barely moving. The simple task of rolling over in my sleeping bag felt as though I had run a marathon. I couldn’t breathe. I could only lie still, desperately trying to catch my breath.

 

Time to go came too soon, but not soon enough either. As I somehow managed to get up and ready, the breathing became worse. Just lifting my foot left me gasping desperately for air. Where is my medical check now? I wondered. I am definitely a 2! I took a few steps forward and was watching the group as they began to descend. Another step; another 20 worthless breaths. My body began to quiver, I thought I was losing control. I felt as if my vital organs were imploding inside me. I’m not going to make it!  The thought of having summited and then having to be carried down the mountain was devastating, humiliating. I looked down the gravelly slope and I saw my friends: Oxygen and gravity beckoning me downward. Step, rest, repeat. At some point my legs went on auto pilot and three hours later I was at Millennium. I’m still struggling for breath but at least each inhalation feels less futile. It was a difficult night even then, but slowly my breath returned and resumed its duty of delivering the much needed O2 molecules to the appropriate places. The next day’s endless descent into the rainforest and eventually the Gate was long, but enjoyable. Reaching Mweka Gate felt almost as momentous as summiting. I did it, nobody had to carry me. And I didn’t die. Yes!

The next morning the journey continued on safari in Ngrongo Crater and The Serengeti plain. Five wonderful days of, endless dust, dirt roads and wildlife in the back of our Toyota Land Cruiser, aka “The Rock Tumbler.” We went on to see all of the big five, lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, and rhino. Yes we saw a Black  Rhino, it was a quarter of a mile away and just a tiny silhouette, but we saw it!

Africa is hard. Every situation is wrought with unusual circumstances and hardship. Whether it is your own or just observations of others. But the beauty and the intensity of the landscape and people left me in awe. Africa is a dichotomy of madness and method. I fell in love. And even after 48 hours of flight delays, cancelations, endless micro naps on dirty floors and cramped seats, I tell myself, as I collect the miracle that is my luggage at BHM, I have to go back.

 

 

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