Posts Tagged hiking

Day 3: #WTF??!!@$%#

Uhuru Peak at night (Photo by Amr Marei)

I don’t normally use foul language, so please forgive me this time.

Today the altitude took its first toll on me. I can’t begin to explain how demotivating that can be, even though I know that all the symptoms I’m facing are still within normal range.

We were supposed to begin our acclimatization hikes today. Today’s hike was from Shira camp, 3800 m, to Lava Tower at 4600 m, where we were to have lunch, and then hike down to Barranco camp at 3950 m to spend the night. This was our first serious test of endurance in thin air. The only positive thing about it was that it was not steep and the terrain was not very challenging. It was our first entrance into the Alpine Desert.

I was aware of the challenge that lay ahead in that hike but I did not fully grasp what it would mean to me. It was like how we see people dying yet feel so distant from it, like it only happens to others. So on that morning I decided that I was a light person and hence had to begin the hike feeling light. I looked around at the breakfast table and I saw sausages, beef bacon, eggs… I thought to myself, “Oh my God! How can these people hike after eating all that fatty food? No way. I’m having my porridge.” So I took some porridge, added a bit of honey, and a single piece of bread just to fulfill my carb intake requirement. I felt so proud and satisfied with this breakfast and on I went to begin the climb.

I immediately put on the Pole Pole act. I began crawling out of the camp and intended to crawl all the way up to Lava Tower. But that wasn’t enough. As we progressed I began to feel lightheaded. I began to sense some pressure over my eyes that kept getting stronger. I felt as if my eyes were bulging and I expected them to pop out any minute. I kept taking as deep breaths as the altitude would allow me, but soon that lightheaded sensation gave way to dizziness and drowsiness.

Dead woman walking. With a smile.

I recalled all the tips I had taken from Nadia and Omar Samra, our expedition leader, about “quietening” my mind. So the minute it started threatening me with altitude fatality (yes, that’s how dramatic my mind can get) I decided that it must be the sun. We were going higher up under the sun’s burning UV rays, so that’s what was happening. I just needed to tighten my hat around my head a bit more and shed some layers.

It still didn’t work.

I was on the verge of a total crash so I had to shout out for a break. I was lucky to have Baraka and Joseph, two leader guides, with me. “How are you feeling?” asked me Joseph. “I feel dizzy and tired. It must be the strong sun.”

“I would say it’s the altitude,” he replied.

Thank you Joseph. That was very helpful.

I reached into my backpack and, to my miserable surprise, could not find any of the power gels I had brought with me. It was my travel-light-and-feel-light crap day.

I kept drinking water and chewing on some chocolate and resumed the hike.

Soon my dizziness turned into imagery. I started seeing people talking who weren’t even there. It was like a semi-conscious experience. So my body decided to put on a denial act and fall asleep. There were times when I didn’t know if it was my body or me, but I tried to grab the opportunity that the guides weren’t looking and close my eyes and pretend that I was in my bed in Cairo, fast asleep. It was the only technique that relieved some of the misery I was in.

And remember my theory that dry weather would relieve my cough? Not true. My cough became wilder than ever that Ian told me he could hear it almost a mile away. The spitting got more intense and much thicker that I simply decided not to use up all of my tissues on it. So I started spitting on the ground like an annoying cab driver in Cairo. Spit was, after all, organic material that could be left on the mountain. So sorry Kili, but it was a question of survival for me. I either spat on the ground, saved up tissue for my bathroom needs, and breathed my way up Kilimanjaro, or packed my things and went home to sip soup, watch TV and run away from it all. So I preferred the first option.

Yet as the hike continued to what seemed like an eternity my muscles started to feel weaker. I began to pant at the normal step so I had to break it down further.

Ian and Coucla in the mist. Only visible with the camera's flashlight.

Diamox began to realize that it had more work to do, so I was answering nature’s call almost behind every rock I ran into. I shamelessly announced it to my climbing buddies and threatened them not to come near my rock, all the while trying to deal with the mess I put myself in as an inexperienced outdoor pooper with diarrhea, while the guide patiently waited in the distance.

By the time we went down to Barranco camp at the end of the hike, I was greeted by a beautiful cloud of mist and, once again, trees. But I felt like all my defensors were shutting down. I went into my tent and tried to pick up some clothes from my bag, but my head was throbbing and my hand was too weak to reach into the bag. I was looking at the clothes unable to identify any of the items. All it took was for Joseph to come to my tent and ask me if I was alright. I broke down into hysterical sobs. It suddenly hit me that I might not actually make it to the summit. I reached out with my finger to him the way a 5 year-old shows his mother a finger cut and asked him to check my pulse and oxygen. My oxygen level was 95, still way above the dangerous 70 mark, and my heart rate was 85, still good at this altitude.

“So why are you crying?” he asked. I think I just needed a shoulder to cry on.

Right now I’m writing this at 11:45 PM. The thick fog that blurred vision in the camp has subsided, and Uhuru Peak, that beautiful monstrous summit of Kilimanjaro is looming before me with its glaciers. The stars are so low I can almost touch them, and the walls of the mountain are so high, so black, and they’re engulfing the camp like it was giving us a warm, rewarding hug after an unforgettable, curse-evoking 10 hour hike.

Despite all of the sickness I felt, I was consoled by the scenery. We were going higher above the clouds and slowly rising to Mount Meru’s summit level. I felt like I was going through a mind and body cleansing experience. I began to fall in love even more with the mountain. I loved every sensation of altitude that put me on the verge of a black out. I loved the unspoken conversation between me and the mountain as I began to feel tired yet so excited to reach my destination as it began to appear in the distance. I felt humbled by the difficulty I was facing and so touched when the weather starts turning in my favor. I loved Kilimanjaro, and something told me that as it watched me get sick and still want to make it, it began to love me too.

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Day 2: Your God is Mine

Getting into the portable bathroom tent. Sheer joy!

Our first stop was Machame camp, at 3000 m altitude. Upon arrival there I had already switched on my outdoor mode. I had been preparing myself to outdoor life and teaching myself mechanisms of coping with outdoor living. The minute I arrived in the camp I needed to go to the bathroom so I was ready to go find myself a nice tree somewhere. My friend Nadia had blogged about her own Kilimanjaro experience and said that the toilets were absolutely impossible. I looked around and there were tents everywhere. Puzzled, I decided to speak to the head guide and ask him, maybe he knew a popular spot. He was puzzled himself and pointed towards a little blue tent and said, “That’s your portable toilet!” I could not believe my happiness when I actually found a place I could zip myself into and enjoy a decent seating. These portable toilets became my best friends throughout the trip.

I shared my tent with my friend Nora. It was so cold when we arrived that we decided the best technique was to stick our sleeping bags together so we’d be using each other’s body warmth. The tents were very small but not too small for two people. There was no such thing as standing up in there, and no such thing as getting in or out on two feet no matter how much you bend. You had to go down on your knees and crawl in and out on all four. And to avoid dust getting into your hands on your way out, it was always best to get out backwards, a technique we called “The Butt Exit.”

The terrain was very dusty. Within one hour of our arrival dust and dirt had accumulated around our nails, my nose blowing and spitting became more intense, and the snotty tissues, which became a natural extension to my pockets, all had a blackish substance inside. My first lessons of harsh living were already beginning.

What a Night!

Inside the tent

Going by the book, altitude sickness was expected to start showing, if at all, at 3000 m altitude. I was especially conscious of my bodily functions. I was aware that my breathing was becoming more rapid, especially at night, and the cold began to kick in from all directions into the tent. I curled up further into my sleeping bag and zipped it as tightly as I could and managed to sleep a little until I woke up to loud screams and a scary sound of suffocation from a tent nearby. One of the climbers was throwing up violently and I could hear voices of people trying to soothe her and talk her into taking deep breaths. I immediately panicked and could just picture her being evacuated on a stretcher. I decided that that was how bad altitude can suddenly attack a person. I got quickly into my jacket and wrapped something around my head and barged out of the tent. I ran to her tent and found three of the men climbers standing outside and they told me to go in. On all four once again, I crawled inside but had to remain halfway out of the tent. Just then I realized that I was in my thermal underwear, but what the heck! I was saving someone’s life! I ended up doing nothing of course but repeating more of the same: take a deep breath, Lubna, you’ll be alright!

Lubna had food poisoning from the fish she ate the night before at the hotel. So the mountain had nothing to do with it. But right then I became so fearful of the adventure ahead. I went back to my tent and it took at least 2 hours for me to warm my body again and go back to sleep. All along I kept trying to soothe myself by trying to gather all the respect I ever gave to anyone and offer it to Kilimanjaro. I whispered to it softly in my mummy bag before I closed my eyes, “Your God is mine.”

And What a Day!

Shira camp. My view as I write.

Right now I’m sitting under a tree in Shira camp at an altitude of 3800 m. I see the Mount Meru summit floating in from of me on a sea of clouds. I feel so blessed by the beauty that surrounds me. Today I made my way into the clouds and above them until I began to see nothing underneath but pure white. I came so closely to appreciate outdoor life and how it has the magical capacity to bring people together. We’re beginning to bond as a team and I can feel the bond getting stronger with time. In today’s hike the group was mostly together, all 26 climbers. We hiked on the steepest incline – so far – continuously for four hours, rested for lunch, and then resumed for another two hours. I was coughing and spitting my way throughout the hike, but I was entertained by the group singing Stand By Me almost throughout the climb.

I don’t know what excitement took me over when the song began to rise from all directions. I brought out my camera and decided to film the singing. That’s when Baraka, the guide, spoke to me firmly, “Concentrate!” I looked in front of my and there was a massive rock that required my hands as well.

Baraka was in my view the most professional guide in the team. Hiking behind him I did not feel like I was just being shown the way up the mountain. I was in fact taking a full course on how to make it through. He gave me detailed instructions on how to find my steps up rocks as if creating my own stairs to climb, how to feel the rock for the right spot to put my hands and rest my weight as I went up, and all the time insisting on a slow pace, no matter how energized I felt.

Because I followed Baraka’s instructions I was able to enjoy the hike to the fullest. I did not feel tired despite the fact that my backpack was considerably heavy, I did not get dizzy as I looked around and behind me to take in as much of the scenery as I could, and my breathing was quite deep and steady despite all the coughing.

I really enjoyed everything today. I’m coughing like mad right now and I have a pile of tissue full of dusty spit next to me, but the sunset behind the clouds that I’m looking at and the pretty birds on my left that are keeping me company tell me that it was and will continue to be all worth it.

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Day 1: Karibo Tanzania

On our first night in the hotel we were briefed on what to expect during the climb and we were given tips on dealing with altitude.

We were to spend our first night in Arusha to recover from the long flight and begin our climb the following morning. On that first night I began to take Diamox, a drug meant to decrease or prevent the symptoms of altitude sickness. It intensifies kidney functions and causes the heart to beat faster than normal, hence allowing more oxygen intake by the blood cells.

Diamox Says Hi

A natural result of such effects is frequent urination. Now that is not good news for someone like me who suffers from FPO (Fear of Peeing Outdoors) syndrome who was embarking on a week expedition on a mountain.

I had also chosen not to take the Malaria pills since there’s normally no mosquitos to worry about at high altitude. So with my recently intensified cough, I spent the first night in the hotel coughing, spitting, and going to the bathroom. My mind decided to unleash itself and began to wander off with intensifying speed. “Why did I take a full tablet? Maybe I should have taken only half and another half in the morning.” “Did I fully spray myself with the mosquito repellent?” ”I can’t breath with that darn repellent so close to my nose!” “Is the mosquito net covering all of my bed?” “Wait a minute! What is that cold feeling in my leg? Is my leg out of the mosquito net??” “Perfect. Just perfect. Now I have a week of climbing to do and the only decent chance for rest is slipping away from me. Now I’m going up that mountain tired, sick, and with a constantly full bladder.”

I’m not sure if it was excitement or the little chances I had to dose off every couple of hours that made me feel so energized the next morning. I packed my things again and off we went to the mountain.

It was especially hard to see the mountain near the end of our two-hour drive to Machame Gate, which sat on 1800 m altitude and marked the beginning of the Machame route. The sky was overcast and the clouds were very low. I could not wait to get above them because I knew that the drier the weather got the better my cough would get.

Machame to the Rescue

Remembering to drink water. Always.

Machame is one of the most popular routes up Kilimanjaro. It is one of the longest, and it allows for acclimatization of the body to the increasing altitude. Although it is normally classified as medium to difficult in terms of terrain intensity, it had a very welcoming start for us just past the gate. It was a nice stroll in the forest with flat ground and hardly any steepness. Compared to the terrain I’d previously had to endure in St. Katherine’s, the highest peak in Egypt with 2600 m altitude, Machame seemed to be a stroll in the park. The excitement made me take long strides and many times ignore what the guides were telling us about taking it slow. Pole pole.

Our first hike was bound to Machame Hut at 3000 m altitude. As 26 climbers, we ended up with more than 20 guides and around 80 porters. We were an army moving up the mountain, but the atmosphere was very welcoming. Everyone seemed to get along quite well with everyone else, and the guides introduced themselves to us one by one with warm smiles and kind eyes beaming with hospitality. Whenever the group would split because of a difference in pace there would always be at least one guide with each group. No one was left alone on the mountain. Ever. I was constantly treated into words of encouragement and support. “Find your pace and keep it,” they would say. “Are you drinking enough water?” And of course, “Pole pole!”

Almost each porter that would pass us by, whether or not he’s in our group, he would always greet us with the famous “Jambo!” of East Africa. Many times it was even followed with “Karibo Tanzania,” which I assumed meant “Welcome to Tanzania.”

Coming from ever so concrete Cairo, this hike was a delicious treat to my senses. My eyes were no longer looking at incoherent blocks of cement that always gave me a sense of claustrophobia. I was looking at endless fields of green, smelling the fresh mist that carried the scent of the trees, and listening to an overwhelming variety sounds of birds that were busy conversing along the way.

It must have been the relaxing atmosphere that allowed me to answer the call of nature with so much ease! I went with three of my co-climbers into the woods and found myself passing on to them all the instructions I got from my expert friend Nadia on how to avoid sprinkling as much as you can. I found the right spot for the job and I was even surprised at my own fluency in the act that I began to feel more optimistic about the coming week. When you gotta go you gotta go no matter where or how. So you end up dealing with it. And what would be better than to do it in the middle of a forest to the tune of singing birds?

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A Beautiful Monster

Kilimanjaro summit from the plane window. The full mass of what appeared from the mountain was impossible to see through just one window.

The flight to Nairobi was a long one so rich with Egyptian stewardess’ “hosbitality”: “Would dju like tchea?”, “I am sorry za blankets are finished.” My excitement still overrode everything because all I could ever think of was the fact that it was finally happening. All those months of anticipation and training are about to be put to the test.

After a long wait in Nairobi airport waiting for the connecting flight to Arusha, the sun was already out as we began to board the little Precision Air plane. I didn’t know then that sunrise would continue to be my sign of hope throughout the week. It meant I was getting closer to my target.

The plane was so small and almost everyone on it seemed to be set to climb Kilimanjaro. My backpack was so wide because of the foaming mat and the inflating mat that I had to walk sideways along the aisle. I definitely did not look like someone traveling light. I ended up seeking help from a cool looking British climber who himself had great trouble putting my bag in the compartment at the top of the seat. I immediately began to feel self-conscious.

But as the plane took off I sat with so much excitement looking out the window with my bag sitting on the ground in front of the empty seat next to me. I could not hide my ongoing grin as I kept looking out the window. A thick condense layer of clouds was underneath us, but I knew I would still be able to see the top of Kilimanjaro. It did end above the clouds, didn’t it? It was a high mountain.

Soon a nice majestic dark summit began to appear piercing the clouds. I stared at it but quickly decided that it was probably too pointed to be Kilimanjaro’s summit. It was rather short above those clouds too. Then soon a much larger one appeared. I almost jumped with excitement and I really wanted to ask everyone on the plane if that was Kilimanjaro, but I hesitated because I didn’t want to ruin all the composure I tried to build after the backpack scene. I had to look like a cool climber so familiar with the mountain and was just going there for the 6th time for fun. But the minute the flight attendant showed up I had to stop him and ask him if that was Kilimanjaro. “No madam. Kilimanjaro is going to be on the other side,” he decently replied.

Soon after that I discovered that none of the climbers around me required all the composure I was trying to hold on to. Everyone suddenly shifted like mad to the windows on the other side and kept staring out there with disbelief.

There it was.

It took me a few minutes of staring out the window with a blank mind for me to realize that my mouth was actually wide open. I could not take my eyes off it. It was a monster. So high with its glaciers it seemed to be all on top of the clouds, floating with such ease. The clouds were like loyal servants surrounding it and caressing its edges. This was a mountain I could not take lightly. It was the most beautiful monster I had ever seen.

I was humbled. I felt so small. So weak. And I was in so much awe and love I immediately felt hooked to Kilimanjaro for life. I was finally there face to face with one of the seven summits and the highest free standing mountain in the world.

I was scared.

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It’s Happening! Kilimanjaro is Just a Few Hours Away

My packing mess: Duffel bag with snacks and obsessive little anti-bacterial gel bottles sticking out

It’s finally here. The moment I’ve  been waiting for for three months is only a few hours away. This is the first time in my entire life that I start packing and feel relaxed as I do. No rush with anything, just put the items that have been lying there since I bought them from Britain, fold them one by one and whisper secret wish to each of them that they work well, and voila, the red duffle bag is all packed and happy. This trip should be a lesson for me in traveling light, I still added some extra items I know I can do without, but you know, it gives a sense of security to feel that you have everything abundantly.

My everlasting FPO (Fear of Peeing Outdoors) syndrome, which was diagnosed and named by my good friend and Kilimanjaro veteran Nadia, continues to rule my life. Being not very well versed in the art of peeing outdoors, today at the supermarket I bought 8 little bottles of anti-bacterial gel and an endless pack of wipes. I might have been able to hold it for 12 hours on St. Katherine in Sinai, but I’m not sure it could work for a week in Kilimanjaro, unless it freezes.

I have a rough idea of what to expect on the hike from others who have already been to the mountain. So I did my homework and got the clothes and the equipment I might need. But I know that no matter how ready I try to get or how ready I think I can get, there will always be room for panic over just what might be missing. So I do believe that a mountain experience is a very personal one. It’s me and that mountain. We’ll figure out the language we speak to each other, and it will tell me how to climb it.

The minute I took the decision to go up Kilimanjaro I stopped sleeping at night. I would toss and turn in bed, forever obsessing about getting ready and having the right equipment. My heart would race just by the thought of me taking my patient steps one by one to the top. It was like I discovered an inner passio

n in me that had always longed to express itself and has finally found its way out. There is something that draws me to that summit. I feel at awe each time I look at mountains, and this was the chance for me to experience the full majesty of the highest peak in Africa.

Kilimanjaro is known to be a kind and friendly mountain. It looks serene in the picture I have on my desktop. You only trek up, no supernatural abilities of climbing are required. But the altitude of 5893 meters above sea level has a tendency to work wonders over people’s brains. The lack of oxygen can disrupt muscle functionality and cause brain damage. I get claustrophobic just by thinking about thin air, and I get dizzy in heights, but I still want to climb mountains. No other experience I have been through has given me the same physical or spiritual rewards. So I’m starting with Kilimanjaro and my mind can’t wait for the journey.

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