Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Meat and Potatoes

Sorry folks, I didn't get to blog during the climb. Having had a couple of weeks to reflect on our trek, I guess it is time to make a few final posts and shut er down. It is a difficult experience to relate though. A common theme in our post climb discussions with the team is "you won't fully understand it, or appreciate it, unless you were there."  Things that seemed miserable at the time turn into wonderful, endearing and important memories. I am going to do my best to relate the experience as best and as accurately as I can (okay, I am going to add a little poetic license!).

First, let me say that every member of Team WaterCan knew that our Kili climb would be the most physically and mentally challenging experience of our lives. And every single member will tell you that it was far more difficult than we imagined it would be.  At the same time, I don't think I have ever felt better, particularly about myself.  For the first time in my life, I felt like I was meeting, or perhaps even exceeding, the expectations I have of myself.  I was confident, at ease, and completely comfortable in my own skin.  It was like I was firing on all cylinders at all times and I knew it.  There was a tremendous freedom that came with that, which I had never experienced before, and have not experienced since.  I have never known a better version of me than the guy I was on that mountain.

For those of you who were not following our podcasts, tweets and Facebook updates during the climb, Team WaterCan did the Shira route, also known as the Western Approach.  It is a 7 day trek (6 days up and one day down) through 5 different climate zones (from Tropical Rainforest to Arctic).  If you look on the map above, on the way up, we camped at Shira  1, Moir, Baranco, Karanga and Barafu Camps.  We came down Mweka Route and stayed at Millennium Camp.

Shira is one of the longest and most physically demanding routes, but provides the most time to acclimatize to high altitude. Average success rate is 65 percent.  21 of 22 members of Team WaterCan made it to Uhuru Peak (95 percent success rate?).  The one person who did not reach the summit made it to within two hours of the summit.  She was forced to turn back because she started having problems with her vision. In the words of our lead guide Wilfred, "If you lose your eyesight at altitude, there is only a 50 percent chance that you will get it back.  It's not worth the risk."  Now that's it all done, I can tell you that summiting was not the important part.  Starting and finishing together as a team was what was most important.  And thankfully, we were fortunate enough to be able to do just that.

I have been referring to our group as a team, but it is far more profound that.  We arrived in Tanzania as 22 strangers.  We came home a family.  Of all the amazing experiences I had on this adventure, it is the people I cherish most.

Enough of my sappiness.  Let's talk about the climb.  Here are some interesting tidbits about the climb:
  • Our lead guide Wilfred has summited Kilimanjaro over 100 times and is the only Tanzanian to have ever summited Everest.  He is one of only 3 black Africans to have done it.  He did it in the Spring of 2012. 
  • Our route up the mountain covered over 100 kilometres of, sometimes hostile, terrain.
  • We hiked 6-8 hours per day, with the exception of summiting day, where we went for about 15 hours.
  • We were burning between 4,000-6,000 calories on each day's trek.
  • We drank about 4 litres, or 10 lbs., of water while hiking. When you factor in the water, tea, coffee etc. that you drink at camp, you're talking about 6 litres of liquid per day.
  • The food we ate on the mountain, was the best I had during the entire the trip and there was plenty of it.  I always went back for seconds.  Sometimes, I went back for thirds and forths.
  • I lost 15 lbs during three months of training. I lost another 10 lbs on the climb itself.
  • My resting heart rate on the mountain was consistently around 120 bpm.  While summiting it was over 180.  My oxygen rating was a 91, which my means my respiratory and circulatory systems were working very efficiently.
  • You have strange, strange, vivid dreams on the mountain. I won't share the X-rated ones (Lol), but my favourite had Ben Mulroney and I working as sales associates at Staples. We ordered in sushi for lunch and the bill was $1,700.  Ben and I were freaking out because we couldn't figure out how we could pay the bill and we thought the delivery guy was part of the Japanese mafia.
  • We were 22 climbers.  Our support team of lead guides, support guides, porters, cooks etc. was made up of 120 people.  Without them, none of us would have made it.  They are the real heros of the story, especially the porters, who not only carry their own packs, but carry an another 33 lbs of stuff on their heads and navigate difficult terrain the way most of us walk down the sidewalk.
Let me give you a sense what it is like to summit.

You've already hiked 6 hours to get to Barafu Camp, where you summit from.  When you arrive at Barafu, you have lunch, do your summit briefing, and have some leisure time.  After dinner at 7 p.m., you go to bed wearing your summiting clothes (so all your warmest mountain gear) including your boots.  You try to sleep, but you can't. Your mind is racing due to a combination of anticipation, nervous energy and the sound of howling winds.  You get up at 10:30 p.m., have a quick meal and start to summit at 11:30 p.m.  It is cold, really cold.  There are high winds and it is pitch black. The only light comes from the head lamps you are wearing.  You can only go about 45 mintues before complete exhaustion sets in.  You take a couple of minutes to drink some water, eat a granola bar and somehow you find enough energy to do the next 45 minutes. At about 2:30 you enter was is called The Cold Zone.  You know it as soon as you hit it.  It doesn't matter how much you are wearing, your hands and feet freeze and you can feel it in every bone in your body.  You start to think the mountain does not want you to be there, and you are reminded of it every time you see a pair of porters racing past you carrying someone who has been overcome by exhaustion or altitude sickness.

Somehow, after 6 and a half hours, you find yourself approaching the plateau.  Arriving at Stella Point (your first destination at the summit) it is not glamorous. You see guides literally dragging exhausted people over the top. There are people vommiting or crying uncontrollably all around.  You gulp down some ginger tea, hoover a granola bar and then trudge the last few kilometres to Uhuru Peak. When the Uhuru Peak sign comes into view, you definitely get an adrelane rush and you start moving faster than you have during the entire trip.

Before I get to what it is actually like to reach Uhuru Peak, let me tell you what I had expected. I thought I would get there, there would be some jubilation, we'd high five, hug, maybe even cry a bit, take some time for celebatory pics, then take in the view and explore the glacier and the crater before leisurely making our way back down.  It was nothing like that.

I should point out that we were lucky. It was a crystal clear morning at Uhuru Peak and we arrived as the sun was coming up. You could see forever. They call Kilimanjaro the Shy Mountain because most of the time the summit is covered in clouds.  Many people that summit never get to see their surroundings.

The main thing running through my head at Uhuru Peak was that I wanted to get the hell out of there. And that's what everyone else was thinking too.  With the wind chill it was minus 35 degrees celsius. You could see the ice crystals growing like snow flakes on peoples clothes. There was snow and sand blowing in our faces.  It hurt!.  We took pictures as fast as we could. There were banners that we had carried up for photo ops.  We only pulled out one.

Approaching Uhuru Peak at Sunrise
Here are a few my summitting highlights.
  • As the sun came over the horizon I could actually see the curvature of the earth.  It was a fleeting thought though. The real significance of it only hit me afterwards.
  • The sight of the glaciers was awe inspiring (it is actually one glacier that has split into two). It is unimaginable to think that they will likely be gone in less than 20 years. I have to thank our photographer Nick Spector for that.  I was already on my way back down when Nick asked me to stop for a photo. I took a few of minutes to soak in the view. If it weren't for Nick, I might not have thought to take in that moment.
  • The absolute high point was on my way back to Stella Point. We had been informed that three team members had not made it. That illicited both anxiety and concern. And then, as I was making my way back, there was Raj and Duncan, still working their ways to Uhuru Peak.  Happy is not the right word to describe how I felt.  I was absolutely elated!  I hugged the guys for all I was worth and offered some encouraging words knowing that they were absolutely going make it.
Looiking Down On The Glacier and Mt. Meru From The Summit
The story of coming down is every bit as interesting and even more taxing than going up. The guides tell you that all the time, but you are so focused on reaching the top, that it doesn't register until you have reached the summit.  You are completely exhausted, and then it hits you, "I have another 8 hours of treking before I get to camp".

That's a story for another day though. Hakuna Matata!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The End of Phase One. Kili, here we come!

Yesterday was a chocker block full day.  We started the day with briefing by KANAPA, one of WaterCan's local partners.  Then we were off into the wilds to meet with a Massai (sp?) village to learn about their water challenges.  WaterCan and others had helped to provide a Health Centre as well as a school.  Unfortunately, their water source is drying up.  The lack of water has deterred teachers and health officials from coming to the community.  We trekked the 15-20 minutes to go see the water source.  It's a well, about 60 feet down a very steep hole.  Women and children have to climb down to the well and fill up jerry can's that then have to be hauled up and back to the village. But since the well is drying up, they often have to walk as much as 30 Kms to find water.  That often means being away overnight.  In the last year, the Village has lost 12 women and children who were attacked by lions, leopards and hyenas while trying find water.

Making Our Way To The Well In Ngobolo
In Canada, there would be a relatively simple solution to the well problem.  You would drill a bore hole into the aquifer below (in this case you might have to go down as much as 90 metres). Then you would use electric pumps to bring the water up to the surface.  In Ngobolo Village, there is no electricity. Even if there was, the village wouldn't have the means to pay for the electricity, or the maintenance. Solar energy is completely not economical for the community.  We thought we could provide easier access to the well  and add rain harvesting to reduce the dependence on the well.  However, the Massai in Ngobolo aren't the only one's in the area in need of water.  There is already conflict over water. Improving access might cause further conflict.  But we are determined to work with everyone here to find a solution.

The people of Ngobolo were, however, incredibly gracious hosts.  They greet us song and dance.  For many in the community, particularly the children, they had never seen a white person.  After a little early apprehension, the kids all wanted to have their pictures taken and started to point out how pasty white we are, which provide a lot of laughter.

In the afternoon, we drove to another community to visit a primary school.  The school had been slated for closure due to a lack of access to clean water and sanitation.  Because of Watercan's intervention, the school is thriving. It has a student population of just under 900.  I think every single kid, parent, teacher, administrator and public official in the area came to greet us.  We were welcomed by song and dance.  Ben Mulroney and about 10 of the kids did a Skype chat with students from Kanata, Ontario.  It was wonderful to see the kids finding what they had in common (primarily a disdain for homework and chores) and also how different their lives are.  Afterwards Team Watercan members Kevin and Rynette presented the Principal with several soccer balls as gifts from Canada.  Then another climber, Devin Publicover pulled his guitar and performed a song for the kids that he wrote the day before.  They lyrics consisted of some funny Swahili idioms.  Devin was a total rock star and had the kids in stitches.  Afterwards he donated his guitar to the school.  Then it was time to meet the kids close up.  They wanted to dance, sing and high five with us. It was incredibly incredibly joyous and moving occasion.

High Fives At The School
We finished the day with Team WaterCan playing a soccer match with the teachers and staff.  It ended in a draw 0-0.  I think, however, the Tanzanians planned that.  They could have clobbered us if they wanted to.

In the evening, there was a special dinner held in our honour at Kabaya's community centre, where we treated to more Massai song and dance and presentation of gifts.  I got a personalized hand beaded bracelet! It totally rocks! WaterCan's ED, George Yap and Program Director, Kyla Smith were made honorary Massai and presented with traditional dress, which they wore for the evening. We headed back to our lodgings at midnight and were able to grab 4 hours of sleep before jumping in the Land Cruisers and making the long journey back to Arashu.

Once we arrived, we checked into a our hotel for a little R&R and pampering. Most us spent time by the pool trying to get some rest.  Then it was time for a briefing by our guides about tomorrow's Kili climb. After a quick dinner, it was time to prepare our packs. Everyone got to bed early tonight. Everyone, but me that is.  Lol.

We've managed to overcome our phone casting challenges.  You can catch my audio updates with the team at

Next posts and phone casts will be coming from the mountain folks!

Night, night.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

This Is No Rest Home

It has pretty much been three days of non-stop travel. It took about 27 hours to get from Toronto to Arusha, Tanzania and then 9 hours of driving today to get to Kabaya in Kiteto Region. Here we will see first hand the clean water challenges people face as well as some of the work Watercan is doing help to bring solutions.

A few of the highlights so far were meeting a whole lot of NGO people on the flight. I also had great travel company in a young Ethopian woman, named Lea, and her father. They were just going home after 4 months in the US.  Lea's Dad hasn't been well, so they were in the US to see family and get Dad some medical attention. To see the way Lea cares for her Dad is quite moving.

After arriving in Arusha, fellow climber Mike Wymant and I explored the city and waited for the rest of the team to arrive. In the Massai market, brilliant me knocked over a woman's stack of potatoes. I felt like a complete moron. Then a crazy woman assaulted me. Fortunately, Mike and I had befriended a couple of locals who kept us (I.e. Me) out of harm's way.

Last night, the rest of the team arrived.  We got aquainted over a late dinner and then it was off to bed.

Today was a long,  dusty, bumpy day as we jumped in the Land Cruisers and made the 9 hour trek to Kiteto. For most of the day it was like we were in the middle of nowhere.  We didn't see people or cars, just some antelope and the occasional eagle. It is so dry here that there is dust blowing everywhere and most of the vegetation appears to be dead. When we finally arrived, we were greeted by smiling kids that wanted to play soccer with us and get their pictures taken. We had a traditional Tanzanian dinner with local officials.  

Some of team has decided to grab a pint nearby. I am pooped, so I am off to bed.

Hakuna Matata  

Saturday, October 13, 2012

It has been a terribly eventful 36 hours. I look forward to telling you all about h journey and our first day Tanzania. I have some great stories. I have a new Ethopian friend named Lea who illurstrates the difference between just pretty and beautiful, but will have to tell you all about it tomorrow because I am exhausted and I have t be up in 4 hours. I tell you everything as soon as I canM Hukuna Matata!

Friday, October 12, 2012

And We're Off!

While most of Team WaterCan is enroute to Tanzania via Amsterdam, Michael Wymant and I are travelling via Washington and Ethopia (it's about the Aeroplan points). It's been a great start. Mike and I are getting in some last minute work and getting aquainted over a Starbucks in Dulles International Airport.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

One Last Pre-Climb Post

Before we depart, I should mention that I will be updating this blog as cell reception permits.  I will also be doing daily phonecasts, via satelite phone.  Everyday, I will call in and chat with Team WaterCan members about our trek, so you can get a sense of the people, the experiences and the motivations behind participation in WaterCan's Kilimanjaro Climb for Life.  These audio updates (as well as a link to this blog) can be found at

See you on the other side!!!

We Raised Over A Quarter Of A Million!!!

The WaterCan Kilimanjaro Team just surpassed our fundraising goal of $250,000!!!  My own efforts have contributed over $18,000, and I understand there is a donation or two still to come in.  That means the team has raised enough money to provide clean water and basic santition FOR LIFE to over 10,000 people in East Africa. Congratulations Team WaterCan!!!  As our reward, we get to climb a very big mountain. Lol. And a sincere thank you to everyone that contributed.  To my family and friends, thank you for your incredible support and encouragement.  I love you all.  Hakuna Matata!