So we learned that mountaineering is a little more challenging than one would anticipate, particularly on a recently injured lower extremity and particularly for one who hates the cold.
So we signed out for our leave after having to redo leave forms because since the forms were submitted early to prevent problems, the Army prompty lost them to create new problems. We milled about in airports and on planes for the better part of two days to arrive in the evening hours at the airport about 45 minutes from the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. Immigration and checks there were… interesting. Get in a line, pay your money, get your visa. If you have nothing to declare, get your bags and leave the airport. That was about it. No, that wasn’t about it. That was it. Coming from the super-stepped-up-security world of the West, we were facinated by this procedure (or lack thereof).
The first view of the mountain was in the dark, an ominous shadow out the window as we ventured to the hotel. Checking in, we got a key and instructions on where to meet in the morning and were sent to bed for our last night in comfort before the quest on the mountain. We also showered. Airports leave a strange smell on the traveler, and 36 hours of flights produces quite an interesting stench.
The following morning we met our two other climbers, an Aussie and a Finnish guy, as well as our guide, and were crammed into a van and driven to the gate to start the climb. It was there we had our first encounter with our collective nemesis: The Adventure Scouts. Some girl scout troop (really a troupe, as they reminded me of bad circus performers) from America had sold an awful lot of cookies over the past three years in their efforts to raise the money to venture to Kili to make the climb. Eight high school girls and each with a parent. They were apparently all in choir, later evidenced by their camp songs, which our guide did not hesitate to tell us he hated. They were apparently also in band, as one girl had brought her trumpet mouthpiece with her for the climb and was tooting Christmas tunes while we all waited for the various guides and porters to start our adventures. She almost didn’t make it past the gate, as sometime around the third verse of Jingle Bells the Australian and I were already devising ways of making her eventual demise look like an accident, even after the mouthpiece was found in very uncomfortable places.
And so we climbed. And climbed. And climbed. For three and a half days, we climbed and camped. Some very beautiful scenery and very interesting times, each night camping further up the mountain and each night plotting the elimination of the Scouts, who we met up with for the first three nights at campsites. Luckily, they were taking an extra day, so we were not to summit with them. We also had lovely meals, made by our non-english-speaking cook, and played the fun guessing game of “what will dinner be” as we saw what was left over from lunch. Cucumbers and oranges at lunch? Orange-peel pancakes and cucumber soup for dinner. It was a lovely time, though my ankle was the size of a small melon by the time we reached our final campsite before the summit.
Summit night was, of course, the most fun. By fun I mean fun for anyone who was not on the mountain, but had some vantage point far away where they could watch us make our way up some of the steepest parts of the mountain in below freezing temperatures while we are thoroughly miserable for six hours or so. I recall in my delerium that someone mentioned to me at the peak, “Wasn’t the moonrise beautiful?” and that I told them I had no idea, because I was staring at my feet wondering how to convince them to continue moving, not staring at some (insert colorful phrase here) moon. The Australian and the Fin, both with longer legs and more windpower than I, made it to the summit about half an hour ahead of me, having broken off because the Aussie didn’t properly pack for the cold so he had to keep moving in order to not freeze. As we passed them on the way to the peak from the summit, we gave them quick hugs and the exchange between myself and my Finnish friend went something like:
(meet and hug)
Me: I just need to make it a little higher. I just want to get to the top.
Him: I just need to make it a little lower. I just want to get off this mountain.
No one took any pictures of the ice glacier or the beautiful views. Quite frankly, at that point, no one cared enough to go rummaging around for a camera or to stand still long enough to take a picture. We got to the peak, with my travel buddy and my guide both working hard to convince me that this wasn’t a whole lot of (insert series of colorful words here), which is what I kept mumbling to them, and that I shouldn’t just turn around and go find myself a good (insert colorful word here) rock to sleep under.
The way down was almost as interesting as the way up, as it turns out. It seems that in the cold, my foot had gone numb, but as the sun rose and I began to make my way from the peak back to camp, I noticed that it was starting to regain feeling and that the feeling it was regaining was feeling I would rather not have. Normal people take between two and three hours to get from the peak back to camp. I took the better part of five and a half, about a quarter of which I spent on my butt trying to slide my way down the steeper parts of scree while the assistant guide looked on from his perch on a rock. He found it most entertaining. I got to camp and informed my friend, who had been napping for about an hour already, that I had no idea how I was going to get off the mountain, because if I took off my boot I didn’t think I would get it back on. I in fact did take off my boot, and both of my feet were a mess. I wrangled some sneakers on after he looked at them and said, “uh oh” and wandered off to find our guide.
Our guide, upon seeing the condition of my ankle, which was blue and the size of a small continent, and my toe, which was multi-colored and not the shape one normally thinks of when they picture the word “toe,” decided that I would not make it the remaining two thirds of the way down in such a condition. He found another guide and the two of them carried me, piggy-back and protesting, half of the way to the next camp, where they met with some porters carrying a stretcher. The stretcher was two sticks with some canvas held on by what appeared to be thumbtacks. The Australian took a picture. I had a few colorful phrases for him.
They got me to the next camp and found a wheeled evacuation stretcher. As I signed into the camp in their medical book, I noted that several entries were for malaria. I scratched my mosquito bites as I continued reading to see that the prognosis for most of them was “not good” and “very bad.” The overseer of the camp wrote next to my entry “not good.” I told him I would rather not have the same prognosis as the malaria people, if it was all the same to him. He shrugged, scribbled it out, and wrote “bad.” I was comforted.
The wheeled stretcher was a contraption devised in the late 1500’s to be used as a torture device. At least, so it appeared. It was a metal grate, which they put a sleeping mat over for me to lay on, with one large wheel at the bottom set on shocks that don’t absorb anything. There are handles at the front and back. They loaded me on and set off at a run. By the time we reached the next camp, I had a headache and they realized that they should probably tie me down (with orange twine acquired from I have no idea where) to prevent me from bouncing off (again). The Australian took more pictures. I taught him a few new colorful phrases.
They only dropped me twice on the remaining trip, running down the mountain bouncing their way over steep steps, logs, and rocks, with my guide looking at the wheel and alternately mumbling something about how the shocks don’t seem to be working and that the metal seemed to be splitting. They got me down the mountain in about four hours, running almost the entire way, and trundled me onto the back of a red cross truck, which I had to convince to just take me and my fellow travelers (who had followed us down at the breakneck pace, more out of concern that they might miss a fun photo opportunity than any real heath concern) back to the hotel instead of to the local hospital, where my images of the malaria-ridden not-good types loomed.
And so new memories have been born, and new colorful phrases passed between the continents. My foot is still colors undescribable to common man, and someone who saw my toe pointedly mentioned that I should “get that looked at.”
A day at the hotel pool before safari should heal everything nicely. And so the adventure continues.