Every morning my guide Zachary asks me if I have slept like a baby and every morning I tell him yes, just like a baby.
Whoever invented this expression never had a baby, because most of the babies I’ve known tend to wake up in the middle of the night with some little discomfort or complaint. Although, on second thought, I did wake up last night around midnight, gasping for breath and panicking. I inhaled deeply, exhaled, and kept on breathing until my chest calmed down again. I imagine this is kind of what sleep apnea feels like. It’s not pleasant.
Day 3 on my attempted climb up Kilimanjaro and I have dedicated my efforts to the process of acclimatization.
Don’t ask me to explain the deeper science of it—other than the fact that the human body enjoys its oxygen. While good, strong sea level holds around 21% oxygen, while up here, the O2 becomes scarce after 10,000 ft and continues to deplete the higher you climb. Deprived of oxygen, the human body rebels with headaches, fatigue, aches and pains and nausea—and in bad cases, with acute mountain sickness.
Acclimatizing means giving one’s body some extra time to get used to this new arrangement of deprivation. The hope is that the longer you perform at a higher altitude, the more red blood cells your body makes. I have not looked into my veins or performed a head count of late, but I do believe the principle. I am willing to wait for an extra day to let my blood and body catch up with my upwards travel.
Thus I hiked today—a thousand feet up the mountain, and then a thousand feet back down again. In a way it feels like I am trying to trick my body into panic mode, then backing off before it calls 911. We started at eight, with crystal skies of undisturbed blue and an amazing view of the snowcap on Kilimanjaro. It is the first time I have seen the peak on this walk—the sight gave me hope and weighed me down with another dose of doubt. It seemed so far away and so high.
Already we are high above the clouds. Last night I watched lightning flashes below us, sent down from the skirt of storms that hug the mountain. Meanwhile, above me the sky was pure and black, measured out in vivid constellations. To watch stars and lightning simultaneously was a new sensation—just one of the strange beauties I have encountered on this great African mountain.
The plants that grow on this sweeping moorland are just as curious—the wind carries a a long-lasting sage scent and the alpine shrubbery Erica arborea wears its tiny purple flowers. This is the same plant that grows in the Alps in Europe, and yet here, so far away, it finds a familiar home. My favorite though are the Senecio kilimanjari, which look like prehistoric monsters or mutant houseplants that could eat you. The rough stalks grow taller than me, and their odd succulent heads look practically alien.
As we made our way up to “The Saddle”, I was reminded that this is, in fact, a national park. There seems to be so much focus on the superlative mountain and the game of reaching the summit that we overlook the grand ecology in this place. Kilimanjaro may be the highest free-standing mountain in the world, but it is also an extraordinary ecosystem in the array of colors in Tanzanian national parks.
After an hour or so, we reached the Zebra Rock, so named for the potent zebra pattern—natural black and white streaks that seem spray-painted on the volcanic wall. Across the great slope of The Saddle lie the scattered shrapnel of broken boulders—some of them as big as houses. I am walking through an ancient explosion, I think.
By then, Kilimanjaro had become shy again, shrouding its summit in wisps of fast-moving white cloud. The sun warmed my neck, while cool wind from the storms below cooled my face. Three days in and I have become accustomed to the constant dance between hot and cold. I have stripped off layers while hiking uphill, thinking it the most summery of days—and then an hour later, I have shivered under a too-small roof, wet and cold.
Last night, temperatures dipped to –5° C and the 50 yard walk from my hut to dinner left my teeth chattering. I found warmth in a bowl of hot soup—I also met a Canadian couple returning from the summit. They looked like hell—rather, like characters in a zombie movie, their faces part-drained, part-flushed, their stare resembeling the eyes of a traumatized animal.
“ . . . Kibo is where people start throwing up,” said the husband, and the wife nodded in agreement. I had never heard that part. I knew about the headaches and the dehydration but nobody said anything about vomit. Not cool.
As I acclimatized alongside my guide, I pestered him with questions about altitude sickness. Why do some climbers make it when others don’t?
“Koreans, Chinese, Indians—these people have a hard time reaching the top, they are not used to this kind of thing,” explained Zachary.
“The French, Swiss, Germans, Austrians—even Japanese—they have been climbing mountains since they were little. They can do it,” he added.
He said nothing about Americans—he only asked me my heritage, “Where do your parents come from?”
“New Orleans and Idaho,” I thought, but I know that’s not what he’s asking.
“As in, my people?” I inquired.
“Yes, which country do they come from before America?”
“Scotland,” I said—an easy answer that covers the larger branches of my family tree.
“OK then. Are there mountains in Scotland?” Zachary asked.
“Yes, beautiful mountains!” I exclaimed. “Kind of like this, always covered in strange mist.”
“So then, you will have no problems on this mountain—your body is used to it,” he answered.
I shook my head and did my best to explain ye olde Scoltand in African terms, “A long time ago in Scotland, there were two tribes. The lowlanders lived down in the valleys—they kept cows, like the Masai. And then highlanders lived way up in the mountains, and they hunted deer—like antelope.”
“Which are your people?” Zachary wanted to know.
“I think they were lowlanders,” I confessed.
“So you have a cow?” Zachary asked, utterly serious.
“Hapana. I do not.”
We walked quietly back down the trail, our altitude of 12,000 feet accomplished. We descended slowly and I stopped frequently to drink water. Hyrdration is key—I knew this much about high-altitude hiking. Even the park brochure spelled it out explicitly: Monitor you urine which should be a copious 1.5 liters per day and clear in color.
Pity I forgot to pack a measuring cup. Instead of my output, I have placed my focus on what’s going in—my goal is to drink 5 liters of water a day and so far I have been successful. Zachary is a pusher—literally pushing a thermos of hot water in front of me at meal times and saying, “Chai—drink tea!”
At lunch I asked bluntly about his track record, “Have you ever had clients that don’t make it to the top?”
“Yes, many times,” he answered honestly.
“Sometimes they are too old. Sometimes they are too young. Sometimes they are not fit and sometimes they are too fit and go up too fast. It all depends,” he concluded, matter-of-factly.
“How do you know when someone has mountain sickness?” I went on.
“The color of their face changes—they become very white,” he said as he touched both his cheeks. “Their eyes go strange, too . . . and then their tongues turn blue . . . “ he added.
His explanation was like a ghost story and it frightened me. Every year thousands of people climb Kilimanjaro—but every year some people don’t. It is the uncertainty of this journey—rather, the uncertainty of the success of this journey—that has made me so cautious.
The Marangu Route is perceived as the easiest trail up Kilimanjaro. The base starts at 6,149 ft (1,847 m) and ascends fairly gradually to the summit at 19,340 ft (5,895 m). That leaves me still another 8,000 feet to go. Already I have felt little hints of headaches, but nothing like I have felt before at high altitudes. All I can do is follow Zachary’s instructions: eat, drink, crawl and sleep—much like a day in the life of a baby.
Tomorrow morning we shall head to Kibo, another thousand meter (3,000 ft) climb. Hopefully today’s acclimatization will have helped. Hopefully we can move upwards steadily and hopefully the weather will be kind. Today already I have felt the sun and already, I have felt the thunderstorms blowing in from the east.
Such is the climate of this place, and after three days, I am getting used to it.