Before the day even started I woke up a billion times to use the bathroom. Allow me to explain how this all works on the mountain. When taking Diamox, the need to pee increases and it doesn’t come on gradually. You literally feel all the water drop into your bladder and suddenly the urge is intense. It’s a bit like this:
In my research for Kilimanjaro, I read that many women take what’s known as a “she-wee” (or something similar. I actually used one call something else) with them. This product allows a woman more convenience and freedom while um…well…peeing. Essentially, it allows you do your business like a man. I bought one because as a seasoned camper/backpacker, I know it really sucks to have to crawl out of a toasty sleeping bag and semi-warm tent and into the darkness just to use the bathroom. Armed with my “she-wee” and a specially marked Nalgene, I did my business in my tent most nights. Well, let me clarify: I did the first round of nightly peeing in my tent. On the second and third times, I had to venture out of the tent. Still, it was nice to have the ability to put those excursions off until I absolutely had to do it.
On the first try, I was very nervous I was going to fill the Nalgene (I apologize if this is too much info. You might want to skip a paragraph if this is too much). Interestingly, night after night I observed that my bladder holds exactly 20 ounces! Good to know! Unfortunately, after my 20 ounce deposit into the Bank of Nalgene, there was no room for additional visits. This meant that when I eventually did venture out into the darkness to locate our chemical toilet, I had to take the Nalgene with me and empty it. Fun! I gotta tell ya, nothing says adventure like stumbling around a gigantic mountain in the middle of the night whilst carrying around a bottle of your own urine! Hardcore, baby!
So on my second night on the mountain (in Shira Camp), I woke up and needed to visit the loo. I began the process of crawling out of my bag and unzipping the 47 zippers on my tent (okay not that many but when you’re about to pee in your pants, three zippers feels like 47) just to escape. I grabbed my head lamp and armed with my 20 ounces of liquid gold, I scampered off to the toilet tent. Holy frost bite! It was cold!!!!! I didn’t care though….I had to pee!!!!!! I darted as quickly as I could into the toilet tent and barely got the layers of clothing off before I unleashed. Something bizarre happened to my bladder on Kilimanjaro. I don’t know if it was the Diamox or if it was the altitude but I peed forever. Do you hear me? FOR. EVER. I took a video of it:
You think I’m kidding?! Whew! So after I emptied my bladder and my Nalgene, I suited up and headed back to my tent but was stopped in my tracks when I noticed how stunning everything looked! Frost covered everything! Oh and the stars! The stars seemed even brighter and closer than before. I looked across the Shira Plateau to Kibo and no kidding, the snows on top glowed. I stood frozen, literally and figuratively. I wanted to stay there forever but the cold was penetrating and the urge to snuggle back into my sleeping bag was greater than the urge to soak in the beauty of it all. Still, I regret not staying a few moments more because it was just THAT beautiful. A word of advice to other climbers: spend a little extra time observing things at night. It will be cold but it will be worth it. The world I briefly saw that night now just seems like a fading dream I had.
Once I settled back into my tent I noticed I had a slight headache. I took one Advil and went to bed. I am not sure if the headache was from altitude or if it was from TMJ (I noticed my jaw felt tight and I was obviously clinching my teeth). I fell into a deep sleep and dreamed of Gary and Devin, two students of mine. That made me happy! 🙂
When I woke up the temperature in my tent was 34 degrees. I still felt really bummed about Dave leaving. I also worried it’s a bad sign of things to come. More than ever I had doubts of my ability to summit. Once again, I had no appetite but felt it was related more to stress and my own food habits (I just don’t eat a lot of food, particularly in the morning) and not because of altitude. A word about breakfast: it generally consisted of porridge (which I thought only existed in fairy tales), eggs, and “sausage”. The sausage was really just red weiners. I joked that “My people call it hot dog”” because essentially, that’s what it was. Just some red hot dogs. During breakfast we asked Dave if we could raid his supplies and take some things. We wanted his hand and feet warmers and I wanted his 250mg Diamox. He was kind enough to oblige.
After breakfast we said our goodbyes to David. It was sad. As the three of us struck off Dave stayed behind and waited for a porter to escort him to a road where a park ranger would pick him up and take him home. The rest of the day was difficult and I think to some degree it was because of the sadness we felt over Dave turning back.
The first part of Day 3’s climb was easy. We just walked across the Shira Plateau which was relatively flat. As is the case every day, we watched dozens of porters race past us with heavy bags perched on their heads. Despite watching this process for 8 days, I never stopped feeling a sense of awe when they passed. Such strength! We didn’t take a break until we reached Simba camp which is an underused camp along the way but is mostly used by people on the Shira route. The underuse is good news because it meant the drop toilets were fairly “clean””. For those that don’t know, drop toilets are in most of the campsites along Kilimanjaro. They are simply wooden outhouses with a hole in the foor. The hope is that all users have NBA quality aim and will be able to hover above the hole with such skill so as to ensure all bodily secretions pass through the hole. Much to everyone’s chagrin, this is not the case. Most of them are filthy, wretched places where feces is splattered, scattered and plastered all over (sounds like how my friend gets his hash browns as Waffle House! ha). During my climb I only used two. Once in Simba Camp (which was clean) and once at Lava Tower (that one made me thankful for my Typhoid vaccination and caused me to swear on my mother’s grave that I’d never use another one again). Oh one other thing: If you’re really lucky there is a stick or pole near the hole that you can grab onto and steady yourself. Simba had one and that was nice! It’s the little things that count, ya know? Oh and before you mention it, yes I paid thousands of dollars to do all of this! Ha! 😉
Eventually we reached a fork in the trail with a sign that said “”Shira ——->””. Instead, we took the left turn at Albuquerque – lol. Fido Dido explained that while most groups would head to Shira 2 camp, we were heading to Moir Camp because it would allow us more of an opportunity to acclimatize. The elevation at Moir Camp is significantly higher than Shira 2 and since we would be heading to Lava Tower the following day, he wanted to ensure we were adequately prepared.
The hike to Moir camp was a tough one and one of my least favorite days on the trail. My mood was already strange with the departure of Dave. I couldn’t shake the feeling his exit was a bad omen. Also, the trail to Moir was desolate and we never saw another human until we got to the camp and saw our porters. We climbed for a very long time and passed through strange landscapes. Fido Dido said we would pass out of the Heath and into the Alpine Desert and he was right. Along the way we saw some caves and we joked that Gollum was going to pop out. We then joked that instead of Gollum calling a ring his precious, he called Diamox his precious! We laughed so hard about this and Arlette joked that we were the Fellowship of the Diamox! HAHAHA! We then spent the next 30 minutes making all sorts of LoTR connections and parallels. She pointed out that Frodo was trying to get to the volcanic Mount Doom and there we were, hiking up an old volcano called Mount Kilimanjaro. Like the ring, you don’t want to keep Diamox for long because of all the problems it causes. Adrienne then joked that the ravens that continued to follow and harrass us were the ringwraiths. Maybe you had to be there but we found all of this exceedingly hilarious and it helped get our mind off the difficult hiking we were doing.
It was sometime during a particularly hard section of the trail that I started to get a headache. Panic filled me. If I was getting headaches at 12K and 13K feet, then what would happen to me at 15K and 19K? I didn’t say anything about my headache and promised myself that when I got to camp I’d take some Advil, drink water, and rest. We finally crested a hill and saw our camp about a half mile in the distance. I felt so happy and encouraged! We continued to trek down the trail and passed animal dung which seemed strange given our elevation. Chichi and Fido Dido said that it was buffalo droppings. I wondered why a buffalo would come this far but just as I thought that we passed a grotto where glacier water was running and green ferns were growing. Maybe they want the water? We stopped for a break and some photos.
After the longest day of hiking, we finally rolled into camp. Words cannot describe how alien this place looked. First of all, it looked like a lunar landscape. Nothing but rocks. Second, there was some odd, delapidated building that used to serve as a porter hut. To me it looked like the crash site for Apollo 13. Third, we were the only people there. Unlike the other camps which bustled with other climbers, we were the sole inhabitants. It was eerie.If it ever turns out that the lunar landing was a hoax and vast government conspiracy, I know where they filmed the whole thing – Moir Camp, Kilimanjaro. 😉 Maybe it was my sullen mood, maybe it was my headache, or maybe it was the lonely landscape but this camp was my least favorite. I couldn’t wait to leave. After lunch our guides told us that they wanted to take us on a hike to acclimate a bit more. We asked if we could sleep for a few hours first and they agreed. My head was still hurting but I hoped that a nap would clear it up. It did not. I remember waking up a few hours later to the raucous noise of porters laughing and talking. I kept hearing “Mzungu” which means white person. Whatever they were saying about white people must have been hilarious because they were going nuts with laughter. It wasn’t helping my headache at all which was now raging! I took some Advil, downed a half litre of water and prayed. Twenty minutes later Fido Dido showed up for our hike. My heart wasn’t in it and I just wanted to stay behind and rest but I knew that wouldn’t help me in the long run. The name of the game was summit and going higher was the only way to prepare for it.
When I emerged from my tent I admitted to Fido Dido that I had a headache but assured him it wasn’t terrible and I felt fine to hike. As we made our way up a ridge line, I sipped on water and prayed that God would ease my headache. Prayer, water, and Advil worked because as we snaked our way along the trail, my headache eased up. By the time we reached the top of the ridge, I felt good. We hung out at the top for awhile and took in the view. Kili appeared behind us, closer than ever, and just as I grabbed my camera to snap off some pics, she disappeared behind the clouds again. Fickle lady! Arlette, Adrienne and I joked around and took goofy pics with our cameras including ones of us pretending to be dead from cerebral edema (altitude warps your sense of humor, I guess).
As I sat on the top of the ridge, thoughts flooded my mind. Do I have what it takes to summit? Will I also have to turn back? In all my planning and preparation, I never considered NO summiting. I’m such a determined person that NOT summiting didn’t even seem like an option. However, once you’re on the mountain you realize that you’re no longer in control of things. You decide nothing. The mountain decides. The strangest thing about altitude sickness is that there is no rhyme or reason as to who gets it and who doesn’t. Extremely athletic, incredibly fit people attempt to climb Kili every day and yet only 1 out of every 3 people make it to the top. One of the most famous examples that I know of is Martina Navratilova. A few years ago she attempted Kilimanjaro and had to be evacuated from the mountain and flown to a hospital because she was struck down by HAPE – High Altitude Pulmonary Edema. If Martina, a world class athlete, couldn’t do it, what chance do I have? I gotta tell you that the thought of not summiting was soul crushing. I tried not to think about it and focus only on the moment but that was hard. I had spent the past 5 years dreaming of Kilimanjaro and the past six months obsessing over it. I had to summit. I needed to summit. I just hoped God and the mountain agreed.
Before we headed down, I took a few more photos and said a few silent prayers of thanks. Despite the anxiety I felt about my ability to summit, I felt really happy. I was surrounded by some really fun people and we were growing closer and having a great time. Life, when broken down into small moments like this, is extraordinarily good! I actually didn’t want to head back to camp. I wanted to stay there but the light was fading and the thing about life near the equator is this: when the light fades, it fades fast. It’s like someone turns off a light switch.
When we got back to camp, it was almost dark. We had just enough time to wash up and get ready for dinner. During our briefing, Fido Dido suggested I start taking 250mg Diamox since I was struggling with headaches at 13K. Tomorrow we would climb to Lava Tower which is at 15,000 feet. He said Lava Tower pretty much weeds out who will make it to the summit. If you struggle at Lava Tower it’s not a good sign. No pressure! I guess he saw the anxiety on my face because he assured me that the headaches I had were normal and nothing to worry about. He said that as long as they go away and aren’t intense, I didn’t need to worry. That night my oxygen saturation was 87 and my heart rate 86. Once again, I had no appetite but I swear it’s because I was sick of the food and as odd as it may sound, the smell of the tent. I knew my loss of appetite wasn’t related to altitude because the thought of Subway and a Dr. Pepper made me salivate like Pavlov’s dogs! Let me be clear about the food: The food is great! What Mugambo was able to do at 13K feet is impressive! Truly the food is really great for camp food so my loss of appetite was no reflection on the quality or taste of the food. I was just sick of it. I wanted a cheeseburger. HA! The fruit they served was top notch though…and I had no problem gobbling that down. Seriously some of the most delicious mango and pineapple I’ve ever had. Yum!
My journal entry at bedtime: Bedtime- feel good. Nervous about tomorrow. Lava Tower 15,000 feet – Yikes! Tomorrow we camp at Barranco. Not feeling confident. If I do okay tomorrow I will feel better. Thanks to God for health and safety.
Some funny things that I noted in my journal that I want to share:
“The Three Dadas”” – That’s one of the names we were given. Dada means sisters.
Arlette said THE funniest thing I’ve ever heard: “Breathing is taking my breath away”” HAHAHAHAHA
I noted that a porter had a headache. While I felt sorry for him, it made me feel better that a porter also had one. They’re so strong, tough, and used to elevation. Fido Dido said it was because he didn’t drink enough water. Maybe I need to drink more water.