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!