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September 5, 2008

The Western Breach Adventure on Kilimanjaro - August 2008

Sometime in late 2007, we came across an article on the internet where Kilimanjaro was mentioned; apparently someone had called it the "common man's Everest." Really?? Well, I've had a fancy to want to get adventurous and here was a calling; and this time it could be an adventure to experience not alone, but with my loving wife. And so Jen and I started our research into how we could go about this hike.

Jen is not what you would call an "outdoors-woman", she is more a city dweller. A city dweller nevertheless, but one that l-o-v-e-s animals. So we decided that the hike was my adventure and reward; and the safari that was to follow was her reward.

Jen's research led us to uncover the many trails that we could use to get up the mountain including the infamous 4-day Marango route (a.k.a the Coca-cola route). We were to learn it's infamous because of the nearly 30% ratio of people not making it past Gilman's point (a cliff close enough to see the top but still 90 minutes away from the peak) due to the fast ascent and lack in time to acclimatize.

So, we chose the longer, 8-day route, which had a 99% success rate of making the summit (Uhuru Peak). The secret seemed to be that the longer you were on the mountain and the slower your ascent, the more acclimatised your body gets to the lack of air pressure at the high altitude. And so we chose the Lemosho Route via the Western Breach, which is the toughest, but shortest direct ascent on the last day. Short because it's only a 90 minute hike on the last morning at 5am against other routes that require an 11pm to 7am hike to reach the summit and a gruelling 7 hrs walk downhill.

*** from Jen's point of view ***
When Arun first mentioned Kilimanjaro to me, I was intrigued. Not because climbing a mountain or being out in the "wilderness" was appealing to me (there are snakes and spiders out there, you know?); but because he promised me that if we ever went to Africa, we could go on safari and I'd get to see all those animals I regularly obsess over on National Geographic or the Discovery Channel, live and in person.

Then, I began researching Kili and the various routes. I signed up on various blogs and forums, trying to dissect how difficult it would be (physically) and what we'd need to do to be prepared. I emailed various tour companies and spoke to people who had hiked up Kili in the past and finally decided on a company called Destination Tanzania Safaris (aka Detasa). I liked this company for a variety of reasons, but mainly because they were big on safety. They also got good reviews from past customers.

Once we decided on a company, the route and the safari (couldn't forget to plan that part!), it was time to research hiking gear and start our "Kili fitness routine," which included daily (well, almost daily) walks, runs, stair-climbing, yoga or squash (for Arun). We also managed a few hiking trips to higher elevations (Ooty and Masinagudi). I think those trips were helpful, in that we were able to hike for 2-4 hours at a stretch and were able to test our limits.

Aug 15th 2008, Bangalore-Bombay-Nairobi-Kilimanjaro

We had three flights to catch in order to reach our final destination. When we landed in Bombay, it was pouring, the monsoon was in full flow. Our delays started here, the transfer from the domestic terminal to the international terminal, a distance of less than a couple of kilometers, took us just short of 2 hours, usual Bombay chaos.

By 12:30 am we were through security and awaiting our 2:30 am departure. We were asked to board the aircraft only at 4 am, finally taking off at 5 am. The reasons for the delay were due to the torrential monsoon rains and a bomb scare at the airport! Thankfully, we were able to get some much needed shut-eye (lucky for those flat beds on Kenya Airways) during our 6 hour flight.

We landed late into Nairobi and missed our connection to Kilimanjaro, delaying our journey by another 2 hours. We finally headed out on our last flight at 11 am and flew into Tanzania with some fabulous views of Mt.Kilimanjaro on the way! Justin, our lead guide, was at Kilimanjaro airport to meet us and drive us the 45 minutes into the town of Arusha (and the Kibo Palace Hotel).

These are views of Mt. Kilimanjaro as seen from our flight from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro airport.

This is a view of Mt.Meru located near Arusha.

Aug 16th 2008 Saturday, Arusha

So we were finally able to find a store to buy a note pad for me to record the daily happenings on this trip. We are at Bamboo Cafe in Arusha, Tanzania and it's 12.51pm now. It's our first morning here, we arrived last evening. Today we took a walk along the main street here in Arusha and picked up a few items (newspaper, cough syrup and some multivitamin tablets) and then walked along the main market place but didn't bother going in. We could see the vendors frantically waving in our direction hoping to get us into their stalls. No thank you, we've already been hounded enough on the payments by the hawkers.

We did stop by the local post office and mail out a few postcards to our family in India and Hawaii. Morning breakfast (standard English breakfast) was at the hotel - The Kibo Palace. At this moment, I'm enjoying my ginger tea (my first ever ginger tea), did not know it came with milk, but nevertheless it's tastier than expected. I'm nursing a sore throat that I'm desperately trying to get rid of within the next 48 hours. Jen as always loves her Sprite (costs 600 Tanzanian Shillings approx 0.60USD) as against a Diet Coke at 2000TS. Today on TV we heard that Michael Phelps won his seventh gold in the butterfly stroke event at the Beijing Olympics. One more event on Sunday for his attempt at record 8 golds.

Yesterday we got in at about 1pm, checked into the room and ordered some room service - chicken club sandwich. Showered and took a much needed nap between 3 and 7pm. Woke up, watched a bit of TV, ate again (another club sandwich, it came with beef !!) and back to bed by 10pm. We needed the rest as the flight to get here was surely the wake up call for an adventure.

Today is also my sister Sita's birthday, Happy Birthday Sis!!

After ginger tea and Sprite, we hear about this photo gallery run by an Australian photographer called Zoom Gallery Studios. We head across town, browsed a bit and ordered a few prints at this place. Not much after this except back to the hotel, a short nap then dinner. Called India to talk to my sister and parents and hit the sack by 11pm.

*** jen's outakes ***
Today, our first full day in Arusha, was spent walking around the town. It's pretty small, but with lots of hawkers and a few beggars on the streets. There are barely any signposts, but the sidewalks are wide and traffic is (surprisingly) very orderly. :) We had an interesting lunch - the Tanzanian take on pasta with veggies and sweet & sour chicken.

As we walked in town, we saw (and heard) a band in the back of a pick-up truck, celebrating a wedding. The line of cars that followed were decorated and we could see the bride and groom (along with their flower girl) in the backseat of one of the cars - I think it was a Toyota Corolla.

Aug 17th 2008 Sunday, Arusha

Up by 8am, Justin (our lead guide from Detasa) came by for a briefing for tomorrow's start. We also met O and M our counterparts from Australia who will also be climbing with us. Justin went through all of our gear, just ensuring we had all the essentials for the climb.

At noon or so we went into town for a stroll, grabbed lunch at Dolly's and went to an art store and bought two Masai paintings ($135).

We can see Mt. Meru from Arusha's main street. It's the fifth highest mountain in Africa at 15,000 ft above sea level. Looks massive from this angle.

Back to the hotel by 3pm, Inocent (he owns and runs the tour company that we are using) came by at 5pm to meet us. All 5 of us had a chat for some time, clarified doubts we had regarding the climb, safety equipment, weather, AMS, diamox etc. Some last minute packing and then early dinner and off to bed.

We plan to leave tomorrow by 8am, it's a 4 hr drive to the national park gate. I think we are prepared, this is the time we've been planning for for all these months. We had all our questions answered; the key seems to be to take our time, hike slowly, drink lots of water, and to force yourself to eat as much as possible to maintain our energy levels. If we can do that, this should be like a hike in the woods!! Our bags are packed and batteries charged. Early night today, its just past 10pm.

This is surely going to be an adventure; quite an adventure. A bit of work and effort for sure but I think it will be a trip that we will never forget. It's quite a long journey and is going to take a lot of courage and strength to accomplish. After my 1600km bicycling expedition of southern India way back in 1990 and my 13,500 ft ascent of the Chandrakani pass in the Himalayas in 1995, this was surely the next big (or bigger) thing . I am looking forward to this, Jen has never ventured out like this before, will be quite a journey for her. She has put a lot of trust and faith in me and has taken up this challenge along with me. Moving to India itself was quite a journey, this surely ranks up there. She got quite a kick in trying the sleeping bags earlier, but tomorrow by this time we will be actually sleeping in one, on our first night on the mountain. May not be too cold yet tomorrow but as we head up higher we expect temperatures well below freezing, along with wind chill to some extent.

This is a journey worth doing, we will bond in ways like never before and bring Jen and me closer. Quite a week ahead of us and will have lots of stories and photos to tell our kids and grand kids one day. Good Night.

Aug 18th 2008 Monday, Arusha >> Forest Camp 8960ft

Up at 6 am, last minute packing and breakfast. We got all our stuff together and checked out by 8 am. It was a 4hr drive to Langrossi gate. The road was a bad winding one with lots of pot holes. Jen got a bit car sick, in addition to starting to develop a stomach bug from last night's food. It's a cloudy day so far and we could not see the mountain as we were heading in its direction. Justin mentioned that on a clear day you should be able to see Kilimanjaro while on the road.

Chatted with our co-hikers, and before we knew it we were at the gate. Had to formally register and sign the waiver forms etc. Our bags were weighed to ensure they weren't too heavy for the porters (20kg limit per porter). Still a bit cloudy and it's starting to get a bit chilly. Jen still under the weather. Tummy ache and the really bad road is not quite helping either.

On the way here we did see 4 giraffes and a few indigenous Colobus monkeys. Finally at about 12.30pm we come to the end of the road and meet our porters. All 24 of them, that's right - 24 porters, our two assistant guides Frank and Aristudius and our cook Romisha. Lunch was laid out on the table - bread, cheese, tomato, cucumber, chips, cupcakes, tea and coffee and some fruit. After a quick bite, we put on our gaiters and off we go - 1pm at this time. We are carrying 3 liters of water (each), remember water is the key to not succumbing to altitude sickness.

Its a slow climb through the rain forest, reminds me of Masungudi forests. Jen is feeling a bit better after her lunch. We reach our first camp at about 4.30pm aptly called 'Forest Camp', its at 8960 above mean sea level. We started at 7600ft. Lots of water intake along the way and lots of visits to the toilet along the way. Our first climb today and our day packs seem rather heavy, come to think of it there is hardly anything inside it except for our water and some essentials. We did manage to take some photos along the way. It's still a cloudy day.

Once we got to camp we sign in to register, there is some popcorn and tea waiting for us. A porter brings us some warm water to wash up and we settle into out tents. Our new homes for the next 7 nights. The porters who had packed up the lunch spot after we had left, overtook us en route and now have this camp all set up before we get here. We are also shown our portable potty, comes with a flushable contraption too. We are now lazing in the tent, unpacking a little. Jen is napping, tired from her sore tummy. It's bit warmer now, not much wind at the moment. The campsite is noisy with all the porters and their radios playing. There are two other groups here besides us, Tusker and Zara. Its 5.30pm, dinner is in an hour.

I'm quite sure we will sleep well tonight, first night in the camp in the tent and in the sleeping bags.

*** jen's outakes ***
Today was an early day and I got up feeling a bit uneasy. At first, I attributed it to nerves and excitement; but after getting sick on the ride to the starting point at the base of the mountain, I knew it was something a bit more. The highlight of the 4 hour car ride was seeing a family of 4 giraffes along the route. Innocent, the owner of Detasa, told us it was rare to see wildlife in these parts, so I took it as a good sign!

Once we got to our starting point and lunch was served, I still felt a bit sick and could only manage a few bites of bread, cheese, soup and fruit. Justin kept telling me to try and force down some food, because it was going to be a long, 4 hour hike up to our first camp. The pace we walked at was very "pole-pole" (which means "slow-slow" in Swahili, and is the mantra of the guides as you walk up the mountain), but it was also a bit challenging.

As the porters passed us by on the trail, I was amazed by 2 things: 1. the speed at which they walk - sometimes it looked like they were either skipping or running up the mountain and 2. that they did all this with 20kgs either strapped to their backs or balancing on their heads.

We got to camp, laid out our sleeping bags, had some snacks and took a nap before dinner (fish & chips). I was tired and kinda sore from all that walking. It took me some time to get used to sleeping in the confines of a sleeping bag, atop a yoga mat. I'm definitely not used to camping!

Aug 19th 2008 Tuesday, Forest Camp >> Shira Camp One 11400ft

Wow! Today has been incredible. It's 5.18pm now, Jen is resting. I've just finished washing up, changing clothes, filling up water in our bottles and signing in. We had our usual tea and biscuits and popcorn. Today was a long day, 6 hrs of hiking and on to the Shira Plateau, a World heritage site. We are currently at 11400 ft above sea level. We climbed from just short of 9000 ft. Took a few photos of the campsite too.

Today was tiring and long and Jen pulled through incredibly. Fatigue, the cold and the long day didn't help her either. We had a few tough inclines before lunch and ate on a plateau overlooking the valley that we had come across. Lunch was soup, vegetables, avocado salad, oranges, bananas, cheese, biscuits, tea and lots of water. We've had 2l of water before lunch and we are now filling up another 2l for our afternoon sessions of hiking.

Last night was a tough night for Jen. She was up at 3am and 5am and threw up whatever she had eaten at lunch and dinner. She has got to be exhausted. Her stomach bug is still in her and she was uneasy all day today. She hardly ate any breakfast, she did force some dinner in which eventually came out. No food = no energy. Her sleep was a disturbed one too, she did incredibly well to wake me up in the middle of the night and throw up outside the tent. Could have been a whole lot worse if she hadn't managed to get her head out of the tent in time.

Jen was tired due to the lack of food in her and her bad stomach. She was sick a few times before lunch, and after lunch the going was slow. We overtook the group from Tusker on the way. We took lots of breaks en route and finally made it to the campsite by 3.15pm. We left at 8.15 this morning. I've been drinking lots of water today, no sign of altitude sickness or fatigue yet. Lets hope this continues. Hope Jen can digest a bit of food tonight and not throw up again. She did nibble on some biscuits and tea earlier.

From the rain forest yesterday we could see the vegetation change as we got higher. The trees were no longer tall and there were more shrubs around us. Gradually we made our way above parts of the clouds too. They call this the lower Moorlands.

As I leave the tent to go for dinner at 6.30pm, we see the first of many incredible views of the mountain. We can finally see Kilimanjaro, snow capped in the setting sun. It's our first sighting of Kilimanjaro. The last few days we have been behind a few smaller hills and completely hidden from this incredible sight. With the sun setting behind us, it's the best and the most daunting image I've seen in a long time. It's chilly down here, can you just imagine up there at that altitude? These are some of the incredible photos in time, before and during the setting of the sun.

Dinner today is coconut rice, soup, peanut gravy chicken, lots of bread, some vegetables and a sweet. The soup sure is welcome to some of us, but soup everyday eventually does get dull.

Last nights sleep was not too bad for me, but Jen obviously was up on and off. The porters radios eventually were silenced by 9ish so it wasn't too bad. Tonight is a more open camp site. Just the group from Tusker on the other side, no trees as you can see from the photos; last night's camp was in the middle of the forest with trees on all sides. May get windy tonight with such open spaces. Both Jen and I have our merino wool jackets and sweaters on for the evening, they should come in handy. I hope we both get a good nights sleep, tomorrow is another long day but on a more flatter terrain than today, at least for the first half of the day, followed by some steep climbs after lunch. With the altitude gaining on us and the length of the treks, we need to stay fit and not fall sick.

*** jen's outakes ***
Last night was a bad night for me - the stomach bug was buggin' the hell out of me and I had to empty my tummy twice in the night (a first for me!) At least I managed to upchuck outside of the tent.

The hike today was tough on me, because I had no energy from the lack of food. We walked for about 3 and a half hours before lunch and then another 3 hours after lunch to our second camp. I had a tiny dinner (the coconut rice just wasn't going down), but a good night's rest. I'm still hoping tomorrow will be better and I feel more energized.

Aug 20th 2008 Wednesday, Shira Camp One >> Moir Huts / Shira Camp Two 13500 ft

Its 4.03pm and we are just back in the tent. I've put on my thermal pants and tops, a shirt, my 260' merino wool full sleeve sweater and my fleece. We are going to nap, it's cold, very cold and the sun has not even set yet. We are at about 13,500 ft, luckily no wind yet. We just had our Milo (kind of like Horlicks or Nestle hot chocolate) and peanuts earlier in the mess tent.

Some views of the campsite, looking up at the mountain. The other photo is the view looking out from inside the tent. The photo of the conical looking hut is the old huts built many decades ago for the original hikers in these mountains, hence the name 'Moir Huts Camp'.

Today's hike in the morning started at 8.20am. Jen felt much better this morning, did not get sick last night at all. It was just a cold night with multiple bathroom breaks. She did manage to eat some oatmeal porridge for breakfast along with some eggs, bread and tea. We had a 3 hr gradual walk till lunch, the one hour before lunch was steep. Lunch was avocado tuna salad, fruit salad, bread, soup and cashew nuts. Lunch was on a plateau and a pretty location with the tents etc. It was cloudy around us and so we could not see too much into the valley below.

After lunch we had a good 2 hr climb on a ridge, we could easily tell that we were gaining in altitude quickly. The scenery around us was amazing, the vegetation was getting sparse as we kept going. Clouds were rolling in, a bit chilly too at times even when the sun was shinning. Last night we had some great views of Kili, but from this location and during today's walk Kili was completely hidden by the clouds and the hills around us. Chilly as we walk into our campsite, I can tell its going to be a cold night, not a tree in sight.

First signs of a headache for me, could be part dehydration, part fatigue and surely part of it is the altitude sickness. Not too bad yet but lets see. Jen is thankfully feeling so much better. Too cold and tired now to write any more. As the sun is setting, the clouds are clearing a little and the snow line on the mountain behind us is visible. Looking outside our tent we can see a bit of the valley and a pretty sunset is upon us.

*** jen's outakes ***
Today, I had a good start to the trek, which was about 3 hours or so to begin with. After another small lunch (I had no appetite), we walked for another 2 hours to the third camp. The hike wasn't at all fun for me in the afternoon - as my tummy was giving me problems; and I had to do what I thought was the one thing I'd never have to do outside of the privacy of my bathroom at home (and this is why I don't camp!).

I managed to have a bit of spaghetti for dinner, but the cold is starting to set into my bones. It's about 45'F and both Arun and I have a loss of appetite and small headaches.

While we were walking back to our tent from dinner, I looked up at the sky and just stared in awe. The sky was gloriously lit up and the stars looked close enough to touch. It was a very beautiful sight.