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Today is the last blogging day before Memorial Day on Monday, so as is now traditional, I go off-topic. Today, high points of my life. As in high points in the world that I have been to.
The highest point in the UK is Ben Nevis in Scotland, at 4,413', and I have been there. If you live in the US, Ben Nevis, at less than 5,000' seems comically low. If you drive to pretty much anywhere in the Sierra such as Yosemite, you pass this point on a routine road surrounded by trees. But Ben Nevis is 57° North (almost the same as Juneau, AK) and the tree line is something like 2,500'. Days are short, and the weather is harsh in winter.
The highest point in the lower 48 states of the US is Mount Whitney in Southern California, at 14,505'. This is also the end of the John Muir Trail (JMT). The JMT starts in Yosemite Valley and goes about 220 miles to the top of Mount Whitney, which is how I got there. Of course, although the trail officially ends there, in practice it actually ends much lower down at Whitney Portal where the parking lot is. We started our last day from Guitar Lake (see the pic) and got to the summit before the park service closed the whole mountain down due to an incoming thunderstorm. Amazingly, for the highest point in the main part of the nation, there is a building on the summit (see the pic).
The highest point in Africa is Uhuru Peak of Kilimanjaro at 19,341', which I have also been to. That's me in the picture below. You have to go a long way to get to somewhere higher—Kuh-e Shashgal, which is 3,456 miles away in Afghanistan.
So how do you get to the top of a nearly 20,000’ mountain? Slowly.
Slowly on two different levels. The first level is giving your body time to acclimatize to the altitude. And the second is to go so slowly that you minimize the demand for oxygen as you ascend.
We took five days to acclimatize. Each day we would go higher to a new camp. But more importantly, we would be higher still during the day and then come back down again, or take an acclimatization hike out of the camp to a high point nearby. “Climb high, sleep low.” With weight training, it is the rest days when your body rebuilds your muscles stronger. In the same way, it is at low level that your body adjusts to the altitude stress you just endured.
The second slow is going up the mountain. “Pole, pole” the guides say the whole time. “Pole” is the Swahili for slow (pronounced like “pawley”). You move your feet very small steps, not very fast, but you are still making progress. On a steep slope, the speed might be only be half-a-mile per hour but by going so slowly you are not demanding more than your body can deliver with the limited oxygen and you don’t find yourself panting with your heart racing, which happens if you try and go too fast.
From our base camp at about 15,000’, we went for the summit leaving at 11:30pm in the dark. It was a full moon so head-lamps were barely needed. The first part is not too hard since your body is already used to heights like that. Plus you are walking on smooth gravel underfoot, so it is easy to set up a rhythm and stick to it. The last 500m (1/4 mile) to the crater rim (Gilman’s Point) are really tough. You are already up at about 18,000’ and you can’t really go “pole, pole” since you are clambering over big rocks and stepping up. You can't get from beside a big rock to on top of it in small steps, you have to step up all the way. Your body is telling you to stop, you are short of breath, and needing to stop and rest every minute or so. Eventually, you make it to Gilman’s point, which is on the crater rim. Kilimanjaro is a volcano (or a volcono as the spelling error on the carved sign on the summit has it). You want to rest but it is sub-zero centigrade, maybe 10F. The water bottles are a mixture of ice and water, the camelback hoses have frozen up. It is comparatively flat to go around the rim to the real summit, just a few hundred feet of ascent, but it is still about an hour and a half to get there. “Pole, pole”.
In reality, the last part around the crater is a three-hour round trip for a photo in front of the sign on the summit. But what a photo. As the sun comes up it starts to get warmer. Then it is down again. Lunch. Then an eight-mile hike to the next camp further down towards the entrance. That day is about 15 miles of hiking over about 18 hours with one meal.
Here are the snows of Kilimanjaro, made famous by the Hemingway short story. They used to be much more extensive. People who have never thought much about it mutter about global warming, but actually the temperature there never gets close to freezing (thawing) point, so the temperature has nothing to do with it. The snows actually evaporate without turning to water (sublimation), due to changes in the wind patterns over many decades.
This was the first trip I have done with porters carrying gear. Our party was 28 people. The seven of us. Harold, the lead guide, Nelson and Emmanuel, the other guides, and 18 other people, mostly porters but also a chef and a cook. We ate our meals in a big tent sitting in canvas chairs with a table covered with a cloth. It felt a little bit Hemingway colonial, back in the era when a safari meant shooting animals with guns not cameras. The porters carried everything we didn’t need to keep in our day-packs: tents, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, extra clothes, all the other stuff apart from waterproofs (it can rain at any time), something warm, sunscreen etc. Plus all the food, the mess tent, propane, stoves, and who knows what.
So if you’re thinking of doing Kilimanjaro what would be my advice?
Bottom line: it is a wonderful experience but don’t underestimate it.
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