Mt. Kilimanjaro: Day 3
Day three saw our first real taste of life at altitude. Anne felt it almost as soon as we left camp but was generally fine once we slowed our pace a bit. The scenery also transitioned from scattered shrubs, flowers and lichens to almost nothing but rocks. Anne commented that as we got higher and higher, the cover for bathroom breaks on the trail got fewer and smaller. Luckily, this coincided with all of us getting comfortable with each other. This was accompanied by more talk of bodily functions.
I was also starting to feel like the summit was very achievable. Seeing the summit from our first camp made it look distant, stormy and intimidating. This continued on day 2 but by the time we got to Shira Camp on Day 2 it seemed approachable. Like a reasonable day hike... something it probably would be if it were 15,000 fett lower. After lunch we hiked up to Lava Tower at 15,200 feet for an hour of acclimatizing before descending to our next camp at 12,600 feet. Lava Tower is at the base of the summit peak so by the time we got there the summit felt very close. It feels like you could just walk up the last hill and be there by dusk but there was still another 4000 feet above us and with it a dramatic change in how your body feels. But where we were at Lava Tower, we could all feel the altitude but it was very manageable... you just feel slightly off.
After an hour we started down to Baranco Camp. A steep but manageable trail with new sights and vegetation along the way. As we got down into the Baranco Valley, I got my first sight of the Baranco Wall... our starting point for the next day's hike. This was what I was most worried about leading up to the trip. The guidebook described it as very steep and cliff like. I don't mind steep or high but what makes me nervous is being in a situation where one slip up means death. The few times I've been in this situation (Half Dome in Yosemite and a canyon hike in the Grand Canyon come to mind) I've always marveled at how much of it is a mental game. If the physical challenge were 6 inches off the ground you wouldn't give it a second thought. But take that very same challenge and put it 70 feet up and it feels completely different. Fortunately, the majority of Baranco Wall is not like this. As I got my first site of the wall, I could see that although it was steep and high it also had enough of a slant that you would rarely be on the edge of a cliff. My intimidation subsided and I was ready for the next day's challenge.
Anne's nausea had been getting better steadily as we descended and she was now feeling pretty good. There was another trail across the ravine and on it we could see Cyndi and another guide. Cyndi had been throwing up all morning and was having a tough time. After lunch she decided that she couldn't continue and headed directly to camp via another trail. Although we had continued climbing after lunch and had sat around for an hour, we were still getting into camp around the same time as Cyndi. The two keys to a successful Kilimanjaro ascent are water and a slow pace. Lose the benefit of either one and your health diminishes quickly. Being sick makes you lose water and then makes it hard to drink so it quickly becomes a losing battle at altitude. The next morning, Cyndi and Jonas, our lead guide made the decision that she needed to hike out. I don't know if a helicopter rescue is possible at that altitude but short of a life and death situation, you are forced to hike out on your own. She was accompanied by one of our guides and a mountain ranger... one in front of her and one behind her. That morning, as we were doing our scramble up the Baranco Wall, Cyndi was essentially descending it. Going down a steep cliff is usually harder and scarier than going up one. Doing it while you're weak, dizzy and dehydrated must have been really tough!
Sleeping well at 12,600 feet would normally be a problem. But after going up to 15,200 and then descending to camp, your body feels better. So we all slept well that night. Many of us woke up feeling the best we'd felt since we started (except poor Cyndi). We were ready for the Baranco Wall.