Friday, February 3, 2017

Christmas on Kilimanjaro - Epilogue

Base of Kilimanjaro - Christmas Eve, 2016

Without a doubt, getting out of bed in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve and climbing to the top of Africa's highest mountain was the hardest physical and mental challenge I ever faced.

I'm no mountaineering expert, but I chuckle when I read that Kilimanjaro is "easy" to summit because there's no specialized equipment involved. Essentially, a person just hikes to the top.

That's true, but there's a major downside to scaling Kilimanjaro that doesn't come into play on other mountains – the rapid ascent subjects climbers to the dangers of altitude sickness.

When I traveled to Everest Base Camp (17,600 feet/5,364 meters), we were told it shouldn't be attempted in under nine days. Yet, hikers on Kilimanjaro can sign up to reach the summit in four days, an altitude 1,741 feet/531 meters higher than the camp on Everest.

I never understood this inconsistency and am still uncomfortable with the fact that climbers on Kilimanjaro are subjected to such extreme altitude gains. I attempted to counteract the problem by electing a six-day route because the rule of thumb is that the longer a hiker spends acclimatizing on the mountain the better. A seven or eight day trip up Kilimanjaro would have been even safer.

According to Jim Duff, a prominent doctor and mountaineer, a conservative recommended rate of ascent for climbers is 1,000 feet per day, with rest every third day.  When climbing above 11,500 feet, the recommendation is 500 feet of ascent per day.

During my hike up Kilimanjaro, I averaged 2,800 feet per day. On summit day, we ascended almost 4,000 feet.

It's no wonder altitude sickness is so common on Kilimanjaro.

Statistics are hard to come by because the park service isn't eager to publish them, but it's estimated that approximately 1,000 climbers a year must be evacuated from the mountain due to medical reasons. In addition, approximately 10 people die annually, mainly due to the altitude, as well as avalanche and the cold.

These aren't just weekend warriors, unprepared for the trials of mountaineering.

2006    –   3 American climbers died from a rockfall

2008    –   Ken Moskow, an ex-CIA agent, died from altitude sickness, just 20 yards from
                 the summit. According to witnesses, his final words were, "Come on, Ken! Come

2011    –   A British businessman, Alistair Cook, arranged a trek to fulfill his lifelong ambition to
                 scale the mountain and celebrate his upcoming 70th birthday. Cook, an experienced
                 climber, made it to the top and sent a text to his wife, saying he was
                 "exhausted but so happy." Minutes later, he suffered a fatal heart attack.

2013    –   Irish mountaineer, Ian Mc Keever, was killed in a lightning storm.

2015    –  Scott Dinsmore, a 33-year-old American entrepreneur/motivational speaker, was
                struck and killed by a tumbling boulder

2016     – A South African race car driver, Gugu Zulu, complained of breathing
                problems during his ascent. A crew rushed him down the mountain, but he died
                in route.

These are the exceptions, not the norm, but it demonstrates that Kilimanjaro is not to be taken lightly.

It's now 10 days since I returned from Kilimanjaro. People have asked me what I learned.

Summiting gave me a profound sense of personal satisfaction at overcoming adversity, but I can't say I experienced a life-changing moment or suddenly gained a new insight, other than a reaffirmation of something I've always believed – we don't realize how much we're capable of achieving because we're seldom pushed.

Day after day, year after year, I hear students and adults say, "I can't do _______ because of _______."

I'm certainly guilty of this mindset.

Most of my six-day hike up Kilimanjaro was fairly uneventful and not overly difficult, with the exception of a 30-hour period, one I'd not choose to relive.

The period began with a six-mile morning hike from Horombo hut to the base of Kilimanjaro. At 5 p.m., I had dinner. At 7 p.m., I went to bed. At 10 p.m., I awoke, after having slept less than an hour. At 11 p.m., I hiked up to the summit, descended, rested for a couple of hours, before hiking the six miles back to Horombo.

On the surface, it doesn't appear to be that bad.

But looking more closely ...

During that 30-hour period, I hiked 18 hours, covering almost 20 miles.

I gained 7,000 feet in elevation, descended the same amount, and did it on less than an hour's sleep.

For the summit alone, I hiked all night for almost eight hours, ascending 3,800 feet, a distance of more than three miles uphill. I made it to the summit at 19,341 feet, battling single-degree temperatures Fahrenheit, as well as gale-force winds and altitude sickness.

My experience was far from being unique.

My point is before my trip if I had seen all of these facts written down I might not have attempted the climb. At the very least, I would have questioned whether – as a 51 year old with a bad ankle – I had the stamina to pull it off.

We're capable of achieving much more than we realize, but sometimes we've got to pushed.

This is the person who pushed me, my guide Raphael. During the summit attempt, I resented everything he did.

Earlier in the week, Raphael once an hour always gave me a 5-10 minute break – an opportunity to sit down, relax, drink water, and chat.  He praised my efforts. He encouraged me. He made me feel good.

Climbing to the summit, he transformed into a dictator, issuing terse, harsh commands – "Don't sit down!", "Let's go!",  "Dig deeper!", "We've got to move on!"

I don't like to be pushed, and after descending from the summit, I exploded, telling Raphael that he did a lousy job motivating me. To his credit, Raphael took it all in stride.

The next day all was forgotten. The man who I had previously yelled at I now hugged, praising him for his efforts because I realized he honoured our agreement – he got me to the top safely.

After my hike, I did a two-day safari, where I met others who had climbed Kilimanjaro. They all shared similar stories about how their guides, too, were all business on summit night. I also chatted with a former guide, who laughed when I told him how upset I had gotten at Raphael. "That happens all the time," he said. "We don't take it personally."

The reason I had gotten so angry at Raphael was because I felt he was treating me like a child, barking out his orders. Now, I understand that's just what I needed.

On summit night, guides are fighting against the clock. Their job is to get climbers up and off the mountain as quickly as possible to minimize the effects of altitude, temperature, and winds.

Raphael says the longer climbers spend on Kilimanjaro the greater the chances they'll "lose hope and quit" or succumb to the harsh environment.

Had I been allowed to sit down and rest on the ascent my body temperature might have dropped significantly. Had I been allowed to linger at the summit the altitude sickness would have likely intensified.  There wasn't time to negotiate. Under these circumstances, "Let's go" makes perfect sense.

Now that the hike is over people have also asked me if I'd ever want to try to scale another mountain.

When I returned from Everest Base Camp, I swore I'd never do another multi-day, high-altitude climb, and yet, less than two years later, I headed up Kilimanjaro.

This time I think I'm done for good. I'm 51 years old. While I still feel capable of such feats, it takes that much longer to recover physically. It's been 10 days, and I'm still wiped out. It's obvious I'm not a young pup any more.

Still, I must admit that I yearn for a challenge, something to test my limits, something to escape the day-to-day routine we fall into, something that makes me feel alive on all levels.

Maybe, I'm not done yet, or maybe it's time to find a new type of challenge.

Before closing, I want to thank you all for your positive vibes during my climb, as well as your words of encouragement prior to the trip.

When I began to lose hope heading toward the summit, I felt your energy on Christmas inspiring me to keep going. Now that I'm back in Zimbabwe many friends have told me they were sending out cosmic help on Christmas Day, knowing I might need it. When I seriously considered quitting, I thought of my friend Jeff who said he'd "push me upward" with his "secret mind powers"; my school's human relations manager Noleen who said, "I know that you will represent us"; my principal telling me how proud he was of me.

That did the trick, along with a lot of pushing, and a little bit of genetic help.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Day 5 - Summit Attempt on Kilimanjaro

Christmas Day - 2016

My attempt at summiting started on an inauspicious note. While trying to fall asleep for my all-night climb, I suddenly am unable to breathe, the pulse in my neck accelerating faster and faster, like a train racing down a mountain without any brakes.

I experienced the same sensation on Everest and know what to do.

Calm down. Take nice slow breaths. It's just the altitude.

It's not helping. I feel like I'm drowning.

I've come too far to allow my body to stop me. I pop my first Diamox. The storm passes, but the doubts remain.

It's now 11 p.m. Time to begin.

My guide, Raphael, said it's better to hike at night because it gives climbers a chance to see the sunrise at the summit, but more importantly, he said it prevents them from looking up at the imposing challenge of the seemingly, never-ending trail that appears to get steeper by the minute.

"We don't want you to lose hope," he said.

And so – clad in four bottom layers and four top layers, all covered by a heavy, down jacket – I venture across and up the arctic tundra.

Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano, meaning this section is littered with rocks and scree. At times, it's like trudging through gravel-strewn sand, at others I'm scrambling over boulders.

Virtually nothing lives here. There's little oxygen. There's no protection from the sun. There's minimal surface water.

I peek up and am immediately disheartened by what lies ahead.

"Keep looking at my feet," Raphael snaps. This is a change. Before, my guide has always been so supportive. I resent the tone. "I told you before. Kilimanjaro is steep, then steeper, and then steepest," he says.

O.K., no looking up, but I can't help but notice the numerous exposures seemingly dropping into nothingness in the midnight darkness. I can't ignore the head lamps of the climbers behind me or the tiny, tiny lights from the camp hundreds, if not thousands, of feet below.

For the first time, I'm scared. I know I don't belong here. I feel like an imposter, a fake who managed to finagle his way into the climb.

"I'm intimated by the exposures," I tell Raphael. I'm lying. I'm terrified, terrified that I'll be blown off Kilimanjaro by the gale-force winds.

And now the guilt sets in. Normally, I would be home for Christmas with my family in America. Instead, I insisted on hiking up Kilimanjaro. I think about the phone call that will have to be made to my parents.

"I'm sorry to tell you that your son fell to his death on Christmas."

I'm a lousy son.  How could I have been so selfish. I made a terrible decision.

It's especially traumatic because everyone else seems to be climbing with no problems.

Of course, many others are struggling on the mountain. On another route a few miles away, my friends Brittany and Josh, a 20-something-year-old couple from Florida, are about half-way to the top. Brittany slumps to the ground, breaking down in tears. She can no longer feel her fingers or toes and wants to turn back. Her guide rubs her fingers vigorously, pleading with her to continue. Brittany pushes on, makes it to the summit, then must be assisted back down. At the summit, a thermometer on the outside of Josh's backpack registers 8-degrees Fahrenheit.

We arrive at Hans Meyer Cave, which is really more of an indentation. I'm now at 16,896 feet in elevation (5,150 meters). Normally, once an hour, I take a 5-10 minute break. Instead, Raphael tells me, "Two minutes, and don't sit down."

My anger is building at his insensitivity. Doesn't he realize I'm exhausted after sleeping less than an hour. Doesn't he know I'm freezing. 

"I need more time," I say. "Let's go," he replies.

I consider reducing his tip.

We move forward.

After struggling over a series of boulders, we arrive at the next major milestone – Gillman's Point, situated at 18,638 feet (5,681 meters). This is the highest I've ever been on Earth. The elevation is 1,000 feet above Everest Base Camp, my previous best.

It's at this point that I run into a Swedish exchange student who I've been chatting with at our huts along the way.

Her guide lifts here over a boulder and places her in front of a sign marking Gillman's.

"Hooray, I made it to the top," she says giddily. She's way too happy under the circumstances, especially since we're still an hour and a half from the summit. She appears to be intoxicated. We all look at one another, knowing her trip is over. Her guide fears she's suffering from cerebral edema, swelling of the brain caused by altitude. It's deadly, and she must ascend immediately.

Later, I found out that the exchange student had just succumbed to serious altitude sickness and not cerebral edema. She was fine once she got to a lower altitude. 

And then I feel it coming on. It's similar to the tickling I get in the back of my throat before a cold hits. There's no stopping it. It's going to happen, no matter what I do.

My nemesis has returned. It begins with a sharp pain at the base of my skull and quickly envelopes my brain, turning into a full-blown, altitude-induced headache.

Step 1.

As if on cue, the nausea builds, leaving me with the sensation of having to vomit with each step.

Step 2.

My legs feel like rubber, and I'm staggering up and all over the trail.

Step 3.

Altitude sickness occurs when a person can't get enough oxygen. At higher altitudes, there's less atmospheric pressure, so oxygen molecules are more spread out.  That means there's less oxygen available to breathe, when a climber needs it most. At Kilimanjaro's summit, the body takes in 51% less oxygen.

The only bright side is that the boulders are behind me. All that lies ahead is a gradual incline to the summit.

Even though Raphael says it's normal, I worry that I have serious altitude sickness and, for the first time, consider turning back.

I expect a positive pep talk.

"Do you think I have serious altitude sickness?" I ask. "Only you know your body," he replies.

I'm furious.

Then, Raphael calls my bluff.

"Do you want to go back?" he asks.

Of course, I don't. I can't go back, but the option is officially out there.

"It's your choice," he says, but then quickly adds, "Maybe, you'll need to dig deeper."

Are you serious? Did he just say that? 

Instead, I dig into my pack for another Diamox, which has no effect.

However, now I've got the motivation to continue, my hatred toward Raphael. He disappeared on me during my summit attempt, but I'll show him by succeeding without his help.

Onward I push. I look like a staggering drunk, and I'm fighting back the vomit, but I know I'll make it.

And then I finally arrive at Uhuru Peak – seven hours and 34 minutes after I began.

At 19,341 feet (5,895 meters), it's the highest point on the continent of Africa. I don't feel elation. I don't feel pride at my accomplishment. I just feel relief that I've made it here safely. Really, I'm just wiped out.

And I'm not alone.

There's not much energy to go around at nearly 20,000 feet.

Still, the view is breathtaking.

Unfortunately, scientists worry that these glaciers will one day disappear because of global warming.

Anything above 18,000 feet is considered to be extreme altitude. The longer one stays at the summit the more the body deteriorates. There's time for a few pictures, but then it's necessary to leave, both to get to a lower altitude and to get away from the icy temperatures.

Also, there's still work to be done. The majority of deaths on Mount Everest are while climbers are descending because they're exhausted and tend to make a lot more mistakes. I'm still not down, and Raphael isn't letting up.

"Let's go," he yells.

It took me a little over three hours to descend from the summit and another two hours to hike back to Horombo hut.

The next day, I faced another 12-mile hike (19.7 kilometres) to the main gate, but that was downhill, and I was energized, knowing I already reached my goal of summiting.

Just how dangerous is the climb and what did I learn from the experience? I'll discuss that next in my final entry of Christmas on Kilimanjaro.



Start:     Kibo Hut                                      -   15,518 feet in elevation (4,730 meters)
Finish:  Uhuru Peak                                  -   19,341 feet in elevation (5,895meters)
Distance Covered  =  3.4 miles (5.4 kilometres)
Elevation Gain       =  3,823 feet (1,165 meters)
Time of Hike          =  7 hours, 36 minutes

Start:       Uhuru Peak                                   - 19,341 feet in elevation (5,895 meters)
Finish:     Horombo Hut                                - 12,155 feet in elevation (3,705 meters)
Distance Covered    = 9.36 miles (15 kilometers)
Elevation Drop        = 7,186 feet 
Time of Hike           = 5 hours, 27 minutes

Results of nightly health screening:   Pulse = 85   Oxygen level in the blood = 92% out of 100 (Note: An oxygen saturation reading of 95% or better is considered to be normal. If my level drops below 50%, it's serious, and I'll be asked to discontinue my trip.)  


Note: These are the exact words I wrote while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. After returning from my six-day trip, I transferred my unedited thoughts directly to the blog. In some cases, I added extra information for clarity. You'll find those passages in italics.  

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Day 4 - Christmas on Kilimanjaro

Mt. Kilimanjaro - Christmas Eve, 2016

The hike has become more of a mental challenge, rather than a physical one.

I'm writing from Kibo Hut, base camp for the summit attempt. It's nestled at 15,518 feet. Tonight, I must conquer this foreboding monster to reach my goal.

Base of Mt. Kilimanjaro - Christmas Eve, 2016

During today's six-mile trek, I traversed an

alpine desert.

As I took each agonizing, uphill step, powerful winds slammed

against my body.

During my Everest hike, I made the mistake of looking too far into the distance, worrying how I'd scale each peak, sometimes losing hope I'd ever arrive. Now, my single focus is on the footsteps of my guide, Raphael.

Where he steps, I step. Where he goes, I go. There are no destinations to reach, just follow the leader mile after mile, hour after hour.

Time flows backward and forward. One minute I'm in Nepal, envisioning scaling the Himalayas. The next, I'm fantasizing about summiting Kilimanjaro. The next, I'm reliving Christmases from years past. I miss my family.

Pole, pole

Raphael spots it first – a climber being whisked down the mountain on a one-wheeled stretcher.

"It's your friend," he says.

Without looking, I know who it is, Robert. One of the porters tips up the stretcher, so we can talk.

Robert reminds me of someone who has just awakened from anesthesia – groggy, incoherent, disconnected from reality. He's a victim of the altitude. He'll be fine, as soon as he gets lower on the mountain.  He wishes me luck and is off.

As disappointed as I am by Robert's misfortune, I immediately block it out of my mind. With self-doubt, comes worry. With worry, comes despair. I won't join the 54% who never make it to the top. I'm different. I'm special.

On a brighter note, my medical school friend, Kevin, reached the summit. While I congratulated him on his efforts, he asked my guide to check his oxygen level. Again, 95-100% is normal. His level had plummeted to 62, a reminder that Kilimanjaro always takes a toll on the body.

It's 3 p.m. In about seven hours, I'll wake up in the middle of the night and begin my quest.

I'm praying that I don't succumb to the altitude. I'm still not taking Diamox. "The best medicine of the mountain is water," says Raphael. "It's a lot better than Diamox."

I'm trusting him, but at the first signs of altitude sickness, I'll be popping the pills. I've felt altitude sickness and will do anything I can to avoid being sidetracked from my goal.

Before dinner, Raphael let me know what's potentially in store for this evening, as far as acute altitude sickness.

"Fatigue is normal. Extreme cold is normal. Headaches are normal," he said. I asked for honesty, and he's delivering. "Nausea is normal. Vomiting is normal. Dizziness is normal," he added.

So much for confidence. All I asked is that he tell me immediately if I enter into the realm of severe altitude sickness. Acute altitude sickness is bad enough. Severe altitude sickness – either in the form of pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) or cerebral edema (swelling of the brain) – is deadly.

At 5 p.m., I'll eat dinner, try to sleep, and then push toward the summit.

Hopefully, I'll have positive news to report. If not, I promise I tried my best.



Start:      Horombo Hut  - 12,155 feet in elevation (3,705 meters)
Finish:    Kibo Hut          - 15,518 feet in elevation (4,730 meters)
Distance Covered  =  5.96 miles (9.6 kilometres)
Elevation Gain       =  3,363 feet (1,025 meters)
Time of Hike          =  4 hours, 46 minutes
Results of nightly health screening:   Pulse = 82   Oxygen level in the blood = 87% out of 100 (Note: An oxygen saturation reading of 95% or better is considered to be normal. If my level drops below 50%, it's serious, and I'll be asked to discontinue my trip.)  


Note: These are the exact words I wrote while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. After returning from my six-day trip, I transferred my unedited thoughts directly to the blog. In some cases, I added extra information for clarity. You'll find those passages in italics.