Thursday, January 9, 2014

Kili Killed Me. Ngorongoro Revived Me.

Day 2 on Kili: Shira Rock - Amazing sunset, even more amazing stars

A year ago, I was at my parent's house, celebrating Christmas with the Wagoner side of the family (my mom's side from Fort Wayne) and talk turned to my cousins Owen and Colson wanting to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. At the time I was planning on spending 3 months or so in Africa (which later became 3 months in Nepal) and so I thought I would join them and we could do a Wagoner/Weaver cousin climbing adventure!  Luke was in. Zack was out. Olivia was on the fence.

One year later, I set out to climb Kili without any family members but had two great trekking friends in Annette and her friend from Washington D.C., Laura. I had only exchanged a few emails with Laura prior to the trip, but when I met her at the Doha airport on New Year's Eve, I knew she would make great company.

We arrived at the Kilimanjaro airport near Moshi at 10am on New Year's Day, "bright eyed and bushy tailed" after a red-eye from Doha, Qatar.
View from the plane. Kili is behind the clouds 
We were greeted at the airport by Honest with a sign that said "Ashley, Annette +3". We were hoping the "+ 3" just included the 3 of us. We didn't know who Honest was but with a name like that and a sign with our names, we got in the van that drove us to our hotel. We were in Africa!  What?!? (It turns out Honest was the owner of the company we trekked with... but we didn't figure that out until we got back from our trek.  Which brings me to the point that traveling for months on end makes you way more laid back about traveling in general. You know you are going to have a place to lay your head. You know you can figure out a way to get there. So I've planned way less and gone with the flow way more. This may come back to bite me in the butt later, but for now... it's working.)  We got cleaned up and rested up and then ventured out into Moshi. We quickly learned there is not much to "do" in Moshi. We also learned that Tanzanians want to teach you Swahili. Honest taught us "Karibu" means "welcome" as soon as we got in the car. And then our impromptu tour guide / enterprising young man looking to earn "something small" by taking us to the Masai market taught us "Mambo" means "How's it going?" and one replies with "Poa" which means "cool". This became invaluable knowledge over the next 8 days as we used this exchange with virtually everyone we encountered.  

Back at the hotel, we met our guide for the trek, Dismas.  He asked what gear  we had, what we might need for the trek (just a couple of sleeping pads for camping) and we made arrangements to meet him the next morning at 9. We also clarified how many would be in our crew. He estimated that we would have 9 porters depending on our stuff. This was in addition to our guide, an assistant guide and a cook. This would mean that we would be employing at least 12 Tanzanians for the next 6 days to attempt to get 3 girls to the top of the highest point in Africa. Somehow, I found this embarrassing.  I guess it seemed excessive or ridiculous or ... I don't know what. I think I was comparing this experience to our Everest Base Camp trek which only required a guide and one porter for an 11 day trek. But then again, on this trek, there would be no tea houses for food and beds. So this crew would be carrying our food for 6 days and tents for ourselves, and themselves as well.  

On the morning of January 2, I crawled into the middle of the van where 7 porters were crammed in the back. 
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I gave them a round of knuckles and tried out my "Mambo/Poa" skills.  Soon Rafael joined the crew.  When we took off for the park gate we made a quick stop at a shop with a few carcasses hanging in the window. Rafael asked if we ate meat.  "Yes" was the answer all around but we may have all been wishing we were vegetarians at the moment, especially considering eating meat after it's been carried on the backs of men for 4, 5 or 6 days. But we ate it without incident, even on night 4 before our summit attempt...even though a serious discussion took place about the chances of this hindering our ability to accomplish our goal in the morning. 

When we arrived at the Machame Gate we were directed towards the "Tourist Shelter" where we sized up the other trekkers and tried to figure out their stories. 
We were in the company of some Canadians, Aussies, French, Israelis, Chinese and Russians... and others. Although we saw the same people many times throughout the week on the trail and at camp, we found that tents didn't quite lend themselves to creating the social atmosphere I had experienced on my base camp and Annapurna tea house treks.  This was slightly disappointing but our crew did enjoy countless games of "Cow/Bull" and "Whist" (both games taught to me by Ash on the Annapurna Circuit).  

We seemed to be slightly delayed in starting our trek for reasons we never fully understood but finally took off around 2pm after the porters bags were weighed.  None could be more than 20kg... a great attempt to ensure they were not given ridiculous loads to carry... the likes of which we did see in Nepal. We did chuckle though as once we were out of sight of the park rangers at the gate, many porters redistributed their loads.  Dismas had some paperwork to finish up so he sent us off with Rafael, whom we thought was our cook but turned out to be our assistant guide. This may have been a surprise to Rafael as well.  In the end, Rafael did good work, despite many things being lost in translation. Our actual "guide" left much to be desired in terms of guiding.  I'm pretty sure he logged more minutes talking on the phone or texting than he did in talking to us...but we made the most of it. 

I could give a play by play of the next few days but I'll give you the short story. We trekked through the rainforest, moorland (whatever that is), desert, alpine desert and back to the forest over the course of 6 days.  It was all beautiful in different ways. 
We were well-fed by our cook Jalilu and served by our kind waiter Elinema who saw a Bible sitting out and was excited to tell us he reads his everyday.  We were absolutely enthralled by the stars.  I've never seen a more magnificent night sky in my life.  We were very cold at night. On night one we drew straws to determine the order of who got to sleep in the middle. I only got it one night out of five so I negotiated to ensure I got the middle on the coldest night. We may have only slept for 4 hours that night, but I think it was worth it. 

And then it came to the summit "day" which actually started at 11:30pm. We had gone to sleep at 7 that night wearing almost all the clothes we would be wearing for our 5 hour trek to the top. Earlier that day, I got a bloody nose which I have experienced before at high altitude. It came back again at dinner. This was on top of the cold that I had been fighting since I left Frankfurt. No bueno. I adopted the technique of rolling toilet paper and sticking it between your front teeth and upper lip (a succesful trick taught to me by my Aunt Laurie back in the day... Thanks, Lo!) to stop the bleeding. I also decided to prevent future nose bleeds as I continued to ascend by keeping toilet paper in the same place as I slept that night and trekked in the morning. This is as gross as it sounds.  Sorry.  Just being honest. It really is kind of amazing the things people do at high altitude when you have a clear goal in mind.

We finally got on the trail at 12:20am. Yes...that is 20 minutes after midnight.  Our hike started at 14,927 feet.  Officially it was about 20 degrees but windchill and darkness made it feel colder than I've ever been. I pulled out my bandana about an hour after we started because I didn't think inhaling the cold air would be good for my lungs and I wanted to avoid my cold turning to a cough... especially right now.  The bandana became a frozen snotty mess. There are no other words to describe it. I couldn't believe I let it touch my face. I'm grossed out even now.  

And so there were a mass of headlamps zig-zagging their way towards the summit. As I looked ahead, the summit seemed unattainable. So, I kept my head down, following the boots in front of me, Annette's. Rafael was behind me and was a champ. He was encouraging and understanding.  We stopped often but consistently seemed to be ahead of the pack and even passed several groups.  But if the unofficial national phrase of Tanzania, "pole, pole" (pronounced "po-lay" and means "slowly, slowly") applied at any time during our trek, now was the time.  Despite all that I was experiencing my legs still felt good.  And then at about 4am, I was beginning to doubt. I started to think that if I turned around now I'd be satisfied. I would have to say I made it two hours from the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.  But that's still pretty good, I thought. I plodded on. Then I started to recount the things I was thankful for to change my mindset.  My inner monologue went something like this. "Thank you, Jesus, for your love for me. Thank you, Jesus, for my family. Thank you, Jesus, for giving me this opportunity. Thank you, Jesus, for your provision. Thank you, Jesus, that I have a warm bed.  A warm bed would be really nice right now. Jesus, I am really cold right now.  I can't feel my toes. This bandana is frozen to my face. I don't want to do this anymore."  So thankfulness worked for a few minutes and then I was back to my reality.  But I tried again awhile later.  The monologue was exactly the same as my sleep deprived, high-altitude brain was not quick in recalling other things I was thankful for at the time.  

What I was really holding out hope for was for light in the sky. It happened at about 5. I saw light on the eastern horizon, and I knew I could make it. Unfortunately, the wind began to pick up as well. Then around 5:30 we made it to Stella Point, just 45 minutes from the summit. I knew we could do this. The sun was beginning to rise. Warmth was imminent. I could see the sign at the summit.  And a few trekkers were already beginning their decent.  The peak was not far. We reached the ridge where wind blew across the crater at the top of Kili and looked down at the amazing glacier on our left. The sun was rising at our backs.

Finally we reached our goal of Uhuru Peak,19,340 feet, at 6:18 on January 5th.  A small group cleared away from the sign and we took the stage to snap our pics.  

Although you can't see it very well, my sign says "Baby Drake Leibfried: This summit is for you!"  As I have talked about before, one of my best friends, Gretchen, told me she was pregnant as I was driving out of the Vail Valley last summer. She was due January 3rd. My first thought was that I would welcome Gretchen and Eric's little miracle to the world a few days after he was born by unfurling a sign on the top of Kili. Well, Drake was born on November 22, and he's been fighting ever since. Gretch: You, E and Baby Drake have been in my thoughts and prayers nearly everyday and especially on this trek. I'm so sad I've missed out on this time in your lives. But I can't wait to meet your little man in June!  And so, I'll say that tiny Drake is what got me to the top.

Unfortunately, not all our pics turned out.. As evidenced here. 
Even worse, not one of Annette's solo photos turned out even though the shots she took for me did. (So sorry, girl!) But she took this news like a champ.  

I may have been on the summit for 3 or 5 minutes. Then I hustled down a ways with Dismas to get out of the wind and wait for the girls.  

To get a better idea of the view from the top, check out the movie:

We regathered and began our decent back to Barafu Camp (base camp).  The decent was basically like sand-skiing... or ash-skiing as I think that would be more likely atop an inactive volcano. It took us 2 hours to get down what it took 5 to climb up. When we arrived at camp, Jackson gave me a congratulatory hug and high-5 and took my waiters off for me.  Elinema brought us "hot water for washing" (which we got every morning when we woke up and in the afternoon when we got to camp) and took a brush to my dusty boots. I crawled back into my sleeping bag for an hour nap (the best sleep of my trek) before brunch and our nearly 5000 foot decent to Mweka Camp and our last night on the tallest free standing mountain in the world.

As our heads began to clear, we began to share what we were each thinking during those bleak, early-morning hours. I know I wasn't alone in deciding this was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life... well... 6 of the hardest hours of my life. If it wasn't for summit day, the trek would have been a "walk in the park" ... but maybe that is the Marangu Route which is also known as the "Coca-Cola" route. For reasons I don't totally recall, we chose the Machame Route... also known as the "Whiskey" route. Sweet.  And not to mention... this was Laura's first time camping!  Rockstar status confirmed!  Who decides their first camping experience should be Kilimanjaro?!?  Laura!  Amazing!!

In the end, it was an amazing experience and I'm glad I was able to accomplish what I set out to do. I had read that the summit day of Kili is harder than any single day on the Everest Base Camp trek. I will testify that these accounts would be true.  But I still thought I could kick Kili in the tail. I think the opposite would be a better description. 

Thank you to these 14 men (we thought it was 12 until 5 minutes before this pic was taken at the end of the trek) who made it possible for us to have a successful summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. 
They are a good group of guys. I wish I could have known each of their stories, but language was a pretty significant barrier. I was able to hike the last hour with Elinema after he caught up with me after leaving camp an hour after us. He said "Twenday" which means "Let's Go!"  I said "Twenday pamoja!" which means "Let's go together!"  He is 20, the youngest of 13, has a girlfriend who he will marry after she finishes school but he has never been to school himself because he didn't have money to go. And after the trek he will go to work as a mason until the next trek comes along. This was the extent of what we were able to communicate. But that night as I say down to dinner 30 minutes from the Ngorongoro Crater, I decided I missed Elinema and him peaking into our tent to bring us our food. 

I also missed Jifte. All I knew was that he claimed he was 19 and all he knew was my name but he had a brilliant smile every time I saw him. 

But now we were on to our next adventure.  Yusef, our driver guide for our one day safari in the Ngorongoro Crater picked us up at the gate leaving Kilimanjaro. During our first 5 minutes with Yusef, we learned more about Tanzania than we had from our previous guide during the last 6 days. And we were happy to tell him so.  This was going to be an amazing experience. 

We had a 5 hour drive to our hotel. During our drive, Yusef taught us about Masai culture (fascinating would be an understatement), gave us a pre-safari safari when he pulled over to let us see the zebras Annette had spotted on the side of the road, and taught us the "nia" from "Tanzania" means "together we can do this."  The showers at the hotel were glorious after several days of a little bowl of "hot water for washing."  I maybe washed my hair 3 times. 

We set out for our safari at 6am on January 8th. We knew we only had one day for safari and we wanted to make the most of it. Yusef was more than happy to oblige. He promised "breakfast with the lions" but clarified that the lions would not be eating us for breakfast. He also promised 100% chance to see almost every animal we asked to see. I asked him if he knew what "100%" meant. As we were gazing out ahead of us at 3 male lions, Kings of the Jungle, he mockingly says "Do I know what 100% means"?  

We saw it all: giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, buffalo, gazelles, warthogs, the rare black rhino, hippos, pink flamingos, lions, hyenas, elephants, sable cats... 

And here is the movie version:

Simply amazing. If you have one day to do a safari, go to the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania with Multi-Choice Tours and ask for Yusef to be your guide. You won't be disappointed. (Thank you to Jordan Linscombe for giving me the same advice!  You were right, friend!  I was thinking of you throughout the day. Now I know why.  Praying for you and Mindi.)  

And so, I leave Tanzania feeling like this will be a country on the journey that didn't seem like I was really there. It was all a whirlwind and I'd love to come back again, but outside the "tourist bubble" (being picked up at the airport, taken to hotel, to trek, to hotel, to safari and back to the airport).  I'm thankful for all I learned from Yusef, but wish I'd had a chance to learn more about Tanzania from others as well. It's a beautiful country that is a perfect example to display the creativity of our creator... From unforgettable sunrises on mountain tops to craters where almost any animal you can imagine lives in harmony. 

Thank you, Jesus, for 9 days in Tanzania. 

The next 12 will be a dream come true. I can't wait to share them with you. 

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