I woke up a bit chilly in the rain forest zone. Albert saw me hurting in the cold and told me that the next camp would be even colder. Everyone was in disbelief that I was so sensitive to the cold. Moving from the warm sleeping tent, we all assembled in the dining tent for a hot chocolate, tea, and crepes for breakfast. Then we started what would be in an 8-hour hike across two campgrounds. This would be the day when we would traverse the most distance in order to make up for our trek being scheduled for seven days instead of eight. Before departing Faza mentioned ominously, “Every group has its challenge”. The hike began in the fresh and misty air of the forest waking up. We passed over tree gnarled roots, through green lusher-y, and over small creeks. We were feeling good to be in the mountain air and refreshed from a good night’s sleep.
After an hour of ascending through the rainforest, we enter into the Moorland region. Here the landscape was gravel-y, steep, and covered with ever-shorter shrubs. The higher we climbed the shorter the shrubs grew. The shorty shrubs demonstrated that the air was gradually getting thinner and thinner. As we left the tree cover of the rainforest zone, I stopped to put on sunscreen, sunglasses and a Friendly’s Banana Split sundae, my jokes show my age. I looked like a cross between a Japanese salaryman on vacation and a divorced father who took to paintball to recover his damaged masculinity.
The steep rocks we climbed up made it hard for me to breathe. I can’t really blame the rocks, the ever-thinner air was the real culprit. After today, I wouldn’t breathe easy for five more days until we decided into the rainforest again. The trees of the rainforest contributing to a virtuous cycle of both having and producing oxygen. We stopped on the a bolder to take a few photos and take in the mountainous scenery that was finally visible amongst the low shrubbery.
While moving up a particularly steep set of rocks and gravel, Mikyung fainted, hit the ground, and completely blacked out. Mikyung is my former coworker from UNESCO Bangkok and Jonas’ girlfriend When she came to, cradled in Jonas’ arms, she had no memory of collapse on the trail. Surprised by the unexpected, Faza shared that we were not high enough for altitude sickness to set in. He checked her oxygen levels with a finger scanner and report that she was getting enough oxygen. It would remain a mystery for the entire trip why exactly she passed out, but physical exhaustion and a personal history of fainting seemed to blame. I write this in retrospect, at the time it was very threatening as some people do get life-threatening complications because of Kilimanjaro’s altitude. There are no indicators that you can measure at sea level to predict how your body will handle altitude changes. This is why Kilimanjaro is both easy and difficult and each person’s own experience.
Mikyung is amazing for continuing another 6 hours hiking that day despite feeling horrible. While Mikyung, Jonas, and Faza sat with Mikyung as she regained her strength, Joakim and I hiked up a bit further and stopped on a rocky slope and discussed what we would do if Jonas and Mikyung turned back – go on together for five more days? Eventually, Mikyung and Jonas caught up to us and we stopped for lunch on a sunny hillside. I dried my sweater by hanging it on a bush in the sunshine and ate the lunch I carried of a banana, boiled egg, chicken leg, muffin, and PB&J sandwich. Re-energized by the meal, we continue to push on for six more hours.
We finally came to the point where we could see the snow-covered top of Kilimanjaro. It was beautiful to walk and gaze across the flatlands as we approached the mountain. For the remaining days, we would circle around the mountain gradually going higher in the daytime and sleeping at a lower altitude. These baby steps into the higher altitude regions would let our guides gauge our readiness for the summit.
Seven hours into the hike Mikyung vomited the content of her stomach. This was a troubling sign and we started worrying that she would have to take a car down the mountain. Today was her last day to take a car. If she continued on after today a helicopter would be her only option to descend the mountain rapidly.
It was quite an accomplishment for us to arrive at the camp and the porters were surprised that we arrived so much later than expected. Huddled in the should tent, Mikyung decided to sleep tonight on the mountain and see if she felt better in the morning. If she hadn’t recovered by the morning she would descend. We are all taking altitude sickness prevention medicine, my beloved Acetazolamide, and according to our darling finger scanner, our blood oxygen levels were all fine.
Ironically, my major fear on the mountain was not the altitude but the cold. I have an experienced hatred of cold – and all its synonyms. Throughout the climb, I learned about different fabrics and techniques using fabrics and layers to stay as warm as possible. That night, when I quickly left the dining tent at our camp, 3,800 meters above sea level, the sudden rush of cold gave me bout of temperature shock. Like a pig hiding from the Big Bad Wolf, dove into the tent and curled into my sleeping bag. Closing myself off from the cold damp world around me. I feel bad for Joakim, who was accidentally stuck outside the tent and calling for me to open the tent flap for him. Instead of braving the cold, I selfishly shivered in my sleeping bag and he froze to death like a bearded hipster icicle.