Posts Tagged outdoor

Part 5: The Mountain Goat

First sighting of Everest (L) and Lhotse summits outside my window

I woke up this morning with a miraculously warm body. We were supposed to wake up 30 minutes earlier than usual (in my case that translates to 1 hour and 15 minutes) to attend the morning ceremonial in the monastery. I looked out my window. Day was already breaking in and the sky was crystal clear. Out in the distance loomed Ama Dablam, a dramatically steep mountain that rises to 6856 m. It was deemed “unclimbable” until 1961, when it was successfully summited by four brave mountaineers from New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the US. It is now preserved for highly skilled climbers.

And that beautiful piece of nature that dominates the scenery throughout the route to Everest was right outside my window. “What kind of a lucky bitch am I”? I thought with a smile.

Soon there was a knock on my door. I went to open the door thinking it was probably Karma reminding me of the ceremonial, but I found Omar. “I want to show you something,” he said.

“Yes! Ama Dablam!”

“No. Everest.”

“WHAT??”

I led him into the room and, to my embarrassment, he had to find his way around the pile of used tissues that lay near my bed. He cleared the mist off my window and pointed out. Just to the left of Ama Dablam there were two magnificent summits that stood facing each other. There stood Sagarmatha, the Goddess of the Sky, and Lhotse, an 8500 m mountain that reaches up to the sky with a sharp edge, as if performing a ritual of supplication.

I fell silent. I had made it far enough to be finally granted the chance to see Sagarmatha with my bare eyes. The strong wind was blowing snow off its summit like a bridal veil, or a “long silk scarf” as Jon Krakauer had put it in his Into Thin Air book, which lay on my bedside table.

Outside my window was a view worth a lifetime of coughing, panting, and shivering. At that moment everything fell in the right place. I knew I was doing the right thing.

Inside the monastery

At 7 am sharp we were in the monastery, sitting on the floor on one side of the temple, silently watching the ceremonial. Four monks sat opposite each other, wrapped in thick cloaks and reciting Tibetan prayers, stopping briefly for quick sips of warm tea. Their soft voices and synchronized, soothing chants were in perfect harmony with the place. I understood nothing, but I felt peace and calm in my mind and soul. There is something about Buddhist chants that transcends meaning; the sounds and the melodies in themselves work like a hypnotizing wave of calm that spreads through the air. I felt captivated — at least long enough until the cold floor worsened my cough and my toes began to freeze.

We began our trek afterwards and for the first time I felt grateful that it started with a long descent. I normally hate going down on treks but I had just had breakfast and did not want to exert myself so immediately afterwards. I had also developed a new strategy of going down fast and trusting my instincts on where to place my feet. This helped pull a lot of strain off my knees.

As with all my treks, the pride didn’t last for long. Soon we began to go up again to gain further altitude. We were heading to Dingboche at 4260 m. My breathing became labored and I began to secretly long for a break. I was granted one as we reached a spot where a number of trekkers had stood taking pictures of a mountain goat that stood nearby. Mountain goats in the Himalaya are known to be incredibly fit animals that can go up and down the mountain with impressive speed. It stood there near a large rock staring at space, as if it was posing for the enchanted photographers that were gathering before it.

The mountain goat posing for photographers!

A female mountain goat is what my name means in Arabic. The male mountain goat is teis, a funny sounding word that eventually ended up being used by people to ridicule each other. So I pretty much prefer to use “mountain gazelle” whenever someone asked me what my name meant, which happened often; it’s an old Arab name that is least common in Egypt. As I expected, when I first met Hany and Amr they both asked me what Arwa meant, and I said: “Mountain gazelle,” hoping to preserve the graceful effect the sound of my name had. “Wow!” They responded with amazement. Feeling rather guilty, I continued, “which is a pretty way of saying ‘female mountain goat’!” And they burst out laughing.

The higher up we went the harder it became for me, the female mountain goat, to maintain my earlier pace. Everyone within a few feet away from me could hear me breathing with much difficulty. It began to dawn on me that I was not only physically ill-trained, but mentally as well. I began to seriously dread Island Peak. The wind was very strong, we were trekking barely above 4000 m, and I was no longer able to take steady firm steps–I was walking like a drunkard. ‘How are you going to pull yourself up with a rope at 6000 m in the wind when you can barely hold on to your trekking pole right now?’ asked the evil sound in my head.

A mental exercise is not just about believing you can do it, or merely focusing on each step one at a time; it takes a complete mental readjustment to harsh conditions. It is a true challenge to a person’s ego. You have to find a way to survive without any of the luxury details you often take for granted, while being so faraway from home and from loved ones. It is about forgetting that such things – or people – exist. I believe this is an art well-mastered by serious climbers who take up challenges such as Everest, Ama Dablam, or K2. But a little bit of it can also come in handy to those who trek in the same environment.

I arrived in Dingboche with a renewed sense of insecurity. I was tempted several times to ask Omar or Karma whether they thought I really could make it up Island Peak. It would not have been a question as much as it would have been a call out for reassurance. The only answer I would have wanted to hear was “Yes of course you can!” so that I would feel good about myself again. But it’s not something for others to decide for me. And I know that if I don’t change my train of thought and make the evil sound in my head disappear with some magic wand then I sure won’t be able to summit Island Peak. I had to work this out somehow. Alone.

I sat in the dining room sipping my favorite hot lemon drink, staring at the Sherpa who sat engrossed in a book across the room. I could no longer resist the urge, so I turned to Karma and asked him. As I expected, Karma had no answer. He smiled at me and said “We will try.”

So I will try.

 

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Epilogue: Kilimanjaro Wisdom for a First Timer

Kilimanjaro wasn’t the first hike for me, but it was definitely the first time I do outdoor living and climbing to an altitude of more than 3000 m. So I consider myself a first timer, and maybe that is why I think I should share my discoveries, as graphic as they are. Veteran climbers might forget the little details they’ve learned to take for granted.

1. Expect dusty nails, toes, and skin.

My Kilimanjaro skin and nails

That is something you start getting on your first day on Kilimanjaro. The first time you see your nails you’ll think that it’s just the aftermath of the hike and that it will all go away once you wash your hands. Wrong. The tip of your nails will turn grey and black and stay that way throughout the week. You will eventually get used to the look of your hand while you hold your food or pass a piece of bread to a friend. Don’t worry, they’ll get used to that too and take it from you with gratitude.

My skin also became very dry and developed a brownish tone to it. It wasn’t suntan; just a pure layer of dust. So if you are at all concerned about your skin (which I doubt you will be at this phase) make sure you have a moisturizer.

The very fine dust that comprises an overwhelming part of Kilimanjaro’s terrain also ends up flying in the air once you or your climbing buddies step on it. So get yourself a nice buff and make sure you wrap it around your face to cover your nose and mouth. It should filter the air that gets into your lungs. I personally could not do it because it was too suffocating for me, but others did. I just lived with the dust and the coughing.

2. Bring ginger tea bags to drink.

My tent ginger routine every night

I went to Kilimanjaro with a very stubborn cough that started with me the day I decided to cool my sweaty self in front of an AC after a harsh workout. I coughed with each sentence I spoke, and I coughed myself to sleep every night, probably annoying the entire camp. The unimaginable fluctuation of the temperature on the mountain is very likely to give you a cough if you don’t have one. Nothing would soothe me before I went to sleep except hot ginger. I would borrow hot water from the porters before I went to my tent and sip on it to my heart’s delight. Sip, cough, spit, until my throat was clear enough to allow me to breathe again and hence fall asleep.

3. Expect black and bloody substance to come out of your nose.

Substance is in fact an understatement. You might as well expect objects. Given that I already had the remains of a cold, the snot used to gather all the dust in the air. And since private access to running water is impossible on the mountain, you rely heavily on nose blowing with tissues. Tissue after tissue until your skin starts to chap and you decide not to blow each time you feel something in your nose. So it gets clogged. Add to that the possibility of getting nose bleeds because of the altitude. I personally did not get actual nose bleeds, but yes, sometimes I ended up blowing blood along with black snot.

At the end of the journey I was the only one in the team who did not get a chance to take a shower before the flight back home. So in the airport, when I finally got to see running water from a tap, I could not hold myself much longer. I announced to other women in the bathroom that I would be grossing them out. A middle-aged woman smiled at me nervously and on I started with my symphony. Forget about privacy, I no longer had a sense of what it meant.

4. Dry sacs, ziplock bags, dry sacs, ziplock bags…

During my morning packing routine

Keep repeating that to yourself once you know you’re headed to a mountain. Then you’ll find yourself packing all of your stuff inside dry sacs and ziplock bags, because this is the bible of outdoor traveling. I’m a messy traveler. I challenge order by scattering all of my little objects anywhere around the bag. If I stuff them in there they’d still arrive, wouldn’t they? Well, yes they would but that is if I’m flying from Cairo to London and unpacking once. But on Kilimanjaro you are packing and unpacking every single day.

Everyday we would wake up at 6 am, start packing our things, which include sleeping bag, foam mat, sleeping mat, plus all clothes, zip our duffle bags, then go out for breakfast and off to the climb. All of that needs to be done in very little time. And if you like to brush your teeth after your breakfast or if you forgot that specific item then prepare to go through the process all over again if you don’t have your things divided into little bags. I used to curse myself every single time I tried to find something. I would uselessly dig my hand in a pool of loose little items and end up emptying the whole bag to find that medicine or that buff.

Also, in most of the camps our tent was placed on an incline. Now imagine yourself with all your little objects scattered around you and sliding along with them to the tip of the tent. It’s a mess and a crowd.

So the sacs act like drawers. You divide your things and know exactly which bag to look for to pick up your stuff.

5. Never ever EVER wipe yourself clean while still squatting on the pile of dump you have just created.

The pile may be still warm and you will not feel it in the back of your hand. You will just suddenly find it there. You will be traumatized for eternity and wish you could chop your very hands off. I finished a whole bottle of sanitizer gel and half a pack of disinfectant wipes just to be able to forget what had just happened to me.

6. Bring strong flavored gum that cleans the teeth.

I had to dress like this to go to the bathroom at night, and I still shivered.

On many nights you will have left your toothbrush at the tent and you will be grateful for crawling into the tent immediately after dinner to get away from all the cold. It takes a lot of pondering and considering to decide to get out of the tent at night just to go to the bathroom tent. The temperature is way below zero and you will find frost all around your tent. You will have to put on layers and layers of clothes just to answer nature’s call. So, brushing your teeth might even become a lesser priority.

Your chewing gum can come in handy to at least give you a clean feeling if you just can’t get yourself to get out of the tent one more time before sleep.

7. Get cotton and ointment for burns.

Normally plasters are enough to protect your feet from blisters. But I burned myself with washing water. The porters gave a small bottle and thought they had cooled it down. I was so cold that I admired the feeling of warmth that came to me from the bottle. The minute I started using it I screamed my lungs out. No ice can be quickly available, unless you count your frozen fingers. I needed an ointment and cotton to cover the affected area in order to be able to continue with my hike the next day. That is something that might be rare, but it could happen. It’s good to be armed.

8. Again and again and again, drink water for as long as you remember what water is and force yourself to eat as long as you have food on your plate.

These are your best weapons against the altitude and the only things you need other than your Diamox. Also, being sleepy in the camp is always a good thing. Altitude sickness is supposed to make it hard for you to sleep and not the other way around.

As long as you’re in the camp, listen to your body. Once you’re in the hike, listen to your mind.

9. Make sure to rehabilitate yourself to non-mountain life before you head back.

While standing in the passport line at Cairo airport I got carried away with a friend comparing notes on our snot and whether or not we blew our noses properly that day, only to discover that we were conversing across a poor Egyptian who stood between us in bewilderment and disgust. “I’m still blowing blood.” “So am I! Today I blew the weirdest stuff out of my nose, and it was mostly black and very bloody!”

Not good.

In the end, all the annoyances I’ve written about, as disgusting as they might sound, will be taken as a given once you’re up there. It feels different once you’re in the middle of it all. They also guarantee you an unforgettable cleansing experience for your mind and your soul. It’s good to let go of the little luxuries we sometimes take for granted. I came back to Cairo appreciating all the little things such as food of any kind, bed, shower, soap… And most importantly, I had peace of mind.

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Day 5: Mind Over Body

At the top of the Barranco Wall. He was a source of inspiration to all of us.

Last night was funny, almost like each night. The tent was on an incline and it was so very cold I kept coughing and spitting so loudly I pitied the rest of the camp, especially in this thin air where sound travels so fast. I decided that the best thing to do to manage the incline was to place my duffle bag at my feet. I kept waking up in the middle of the night trying to find extra layers to put on. Each time I would wake up and look at Nora her head would be in the middle of the tent with lots of space behind her. I tried to look for things inside my bag and felt agitated at the crowded mess that is my things. Why am I so close to the bag? Why is everything all over me? When I looked behind me there was the rest of the empty tent. We kept sliding all night.

Today was a rather short hike compared to all previous times. 3 hours. It was still steep, though. I was breathing quite heavily I almost freaked out the people in front of me, but it was probably because of my continuous cough. This time we all moved as one group and arrived together at Barafu camp – the base camp for the summit – at 4800 m altitude. Now we’re almost completely acclimatized to this altitude. We feel fine.

Barafu camp sits on a very rocky cliff. I went with Nora and Lubna to do our rock formation on a spot we decided would be best because it was a bit isolated and relatively high. It was still foggy and the temperature, although in day time, was probably below zero because of the wind. By the time we struggled with the incline and the temperature and reached our chosen spot I discovered that right underneath us was a bottomless rocky cliff covered in clouds and mist. There was no telling how far down it went. I hesitated for a moment. Standing at the edge of a cliff was always one of my biggest fears. When I stand in a balcony I make sure that I have something high to hold on to for support. Otherwise I feel dizzy, as if some force was pulling me down.

But Nadia and Omar’s voices were still in my head: “What you can’t do is something you can’t do because your mind tells you that you can’t. You have to believe you can.”

I have seen a one legged man at the top of the Barranco wall, and today he is with us in the base camp. I have seen an old woman over 70 laughing and cheering with her peers in this camp and she’s two tents away from mine.

Leaving our rock formation. I can't believe I stood there. PS: My toes were freezing.

I came thus far despite the illness I felt. My body has come to a fine state after struggling with the altitude. In fact, it was doing much better than the ointment tube I borrowed from Marwa. When she gave me the tube I was surprised by how bloated it was. The minute I opened the cap the ointment burst out! That was one so unacclimatized tube.

I’ve seen other cliffs, so why is this one particularly scary? I am on a mountain, aren’t I? And cliffs are what makes a mountain beautifully intimidating.

I don’t know how all these thought processes flipped around my head in less than a minute. I just walked on to the spot we chose and we started picking up the rocks to make our own little tower.

It’s time for me to try to get some rest before dinner. Tonight is the big night. There’s no sleeping after dinner. We will begin our ascent in three groups. I will be with the first group, the slow one, and we will be moving around 10:45 pm. The middle group will follow at 12 am. And the third fast group will start at 1:30 am. We’re hoping that this way all of us can make it to the summit at sunrise.

I couldn’t be happier with my slow pace, it’s what’s keeping me going on this mountain. Why would I be fast on a mountain? I have to savor each moment and take in as much of the experience and beauty that surrounds me as I can. If I want to go fast I’d do it on my treadmill. And besides, I was heading up to the summit with Baraka! What more could I ask for?

I could use some of Baraka’s soothing words of support. We will be climbing to an altitude of 5895 m in the dead of night at -15 ºC. Yikes!!

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Day 4: No Food, No Summit!

With Nora at the top of the Barranco Wall. A view worth all the trouble in the world!

I’m the opposite person today! I woke up feeling so refreshed and energetic, and looking so much forward to some real breakfast this time. I learned my lesson the hard way.

There is the breakfast that I’m supposed to have in order to lead a healthy lifestyle and maintain my shape in busy Cairo life, and there is definitely the breakfast a person is supposed to have in order to  hike up a mountain for 6-10 hours against all odds of weather and altitude. So the things I ate for breakfast on that day I would never have thought I would ever eat first thing in the morning. I had sausage, sausage, and lots of sausage. I had beef bacon. I had eggs and white toast with peanut butter and strawberry jam.

This time I took our cooks’ threat more seriously than ever. Everyday at dining time they would put huge portions in our plates and whenever we tried to object they would say “No food, no summit!”

I walked out of the breakfast tent feeling empowered. I had my weapons this time! I couldn’t be more ready for our second acclimatization hike. So I burst out of the camp and wanted to hit the road, but ever so wise Baraka would not let me continue on that pace. He insisted that I stay behind him and follow his slow, small steps. “What you’re feeling is very nice, but after 30 minutes you could crash again. Keep this pace to keep the feeling,” he said.

Our hike today was up the Barranco Wall, at 4600 m altitude. And yes it is a wall; you have to scramble your way up on the rocks. We were to then hike back down to Karanga Hut at 3930 m and spend the night. The altitude numbers are similar to those of yesterday, but this time at steeper terrain. It was an excellent way to acclimatize our bodies to the altitude with a variety of terrain over two days.

Baraka was exceptional with his detailed instructions. I was taking a full course on how to find the right spot in the rock to hold on to and where to place my feet. I was calculating my every step with care and making decisions with each step up.

Scrambling up the Barranco Wall. I slipped after that shot was taken, but never mind the price as long as I end up looking like an expert. I hope I did!

As we went higher each new rock became a bigger challenge. It was like solving puzzles that kept advancing as I progressed. That’s what I love the most about the mountains. They are a metaphor for life and its challenges as we grow older. Each new rock is a new bigger challenge you have to face. You have to get over it with careful consideration and calculation of your steps. Where you place your feet, when and where to rest your weight, and which part of the rock you choose as your support could mean either your road to the top or your painful, sometimes lethal, fall.

Scrambling is always my favorite part up any mountain. I gave my camera to Ian to take a picture of me and he decided to do it at the highest, most difficult rock thus far. Baraka tried to offer me his hand but I confidently refused. My picture was being taken. “I want to look like an expert!“ I said. After the shot my feet slipped and the weight of my backpack pulled me back so I almost lost balance. That’s what happens when you lose your focus. So I had to give in to Baraka’s hand. He rolled his eyes and said “Of course! You weren’t concentrating. All you were thinking of was that photo because you wanted to ‘look like an expert!’”

But he still sensed my special interest in the rocks, so he decided to take me on a more challenging route usually taken by the porters because it’s shorter. The rocks were so much bigger and more complicated. I listened obediently to his instructions this time and I was absolutely euphoric when I reached the top of the wall, and with my heavy backpack.

I’m feeling a mild lack of appetite now, which I hear is normal on altitudes. I should always force myself to eat. My problem at the dinner tonight was that I felt so full yet I couldn’t tell if it was the altitude or simply that I really was full! I just kept shoving the food down my throat as much as I could. The cooks were eyeing me and repeating their threats. “No food, no summit!” Yeah yeah… Keep chewing on those potatoes rolling in your mouth girl. You need to make it to the top, so take it from the experts!

Hoping for a nice relaxed day tomorrow. It will be our last before the summit hike.

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