Clinic Stories

Mount Kilimanjaro (Part II)

I had trained hard for the climb including six weeks with an elevation training mask. Day three was a challenge for many. One of our porters went down with acute altitude sickness and had to be taken off the mountain. One of our hikers also got altitude sickness and our pace became glacial. It started to snow, lightly at first, then heavily, mixed at times with rain. All waterproof gear I had was sitting in an airport. I also had gotten prescriptions for altitude sickness and for malaria prevention but they were also left behind. I was able to borrow some medication to help with altitude sickness.

The affected hiker was taken through a shortcut used by the porters while the rest of us climbed to a higher elevation then back to a lower altitude to promote acclimatization. Because the day was mostly snow, my gear had gotten damp but was bearable. For much of the rest of the group it was not so tolerable. The sick hiker was clearly unable to go to a higher altitude; the only question was if his wife would go on without him. Another hiker who had spent ten years planning for what was to be the “trip of a lifetime” was completely dispirited – cold, wet and tired. He resolved to see how he felt in the morning. I, on the other hand, was finally getting adjusted to being eight time zones ahead, had two nights of decent sleep on the mountain and felt the best since the start of the climb.

Our head guide, with over 600 summits and 30 years on the mountain claimed that the Ranger at out site expected 3 to 4 more days of rain and snow. When the sun goes down on the mountain, at least above 10,000 feet elevation, everything is instantly covered in frost. My personal concern was that a combination of cold and rain with no rainproof gear and inadequate warm weather clothing would present a dangerous situation.

In the morning, four of our group dropped out - the sick hiker and his wife, and the dispirited hiker and his 21 year old daughter. That left me, a twenty nine year old who had completed an Ironman Triathlon two months earlier and the organizer, an ultramarathoner (who I shared a tent with). I was able to borrow a poncho to keep me and my pack dry, and since the switch on my head lamp had stopped working, I borrowed a functional head lamp from one of the departing hikers.

We started day four at 5 AM, well before sunrise, climbing a vertical wall. We were able to cover an expected 8 hour climb in less than 5 hours, so we decided to proceed to a little used camp site higher up the mountain. This brought us nearly two hours closer to the summit, making the final push easier. As it was Friday, we set up for our Shabbos rest.

Most people start the final assent at 11 PM to reach the peak at sunrise. That was not our intention. We left from a higher starting point at 4 AM and got to see climbers coming off the summit. It is a painful sight. Many are exhausted, some are being supported by the guides, a few declare it to be their worst day ever, the bulk are just soldiering on. We reached the rim of the volcano, Stella's Point at about 9:15 AM then moved on to Uhuru Peak by 10:00 AM. We had the peak to the three of us plus two guides, took pictures on a beautiful, cloudless morning and started back down. We passed the father and son from Cleveland on the descent who were the last people to summit that day.

You may hear that the descent is harder than the climb. I will confirm that. The six hour climb was a 2 hour descent on unstable lava rock. It started to hail and continued for six hours. We had lunch, broke camp and descended another two hours to a lower camp, a vertical drop of about 1 1/3 miles for the day.

The final day was a steep four hour descent to the gate, then, for me, to the lodge for my first night in a bed in Tanzania. Still without a change of clothes, socks or underwear I rinsed my clothes in the sink and dried them by rolling them in towels. My colleagues who left early still complained that I smelled, though the two who I summitted with did not comment.

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