What happens when a baritone climbs too high

Part three of Gerald Finley’s assault on Mount Kilimanjaro:

Day 3

Slept poorly – dreams strange but fleeting. The occasional deep snore from another tent – apparently a sign of altitude acclimatisation. The large group dynamics of similar language groups always throws up the livelier souls – always laughing too loud too often. Sleep is this strange state of lower consciousness. The heart pounds just loud enough to be unsettling… Slurps of water to try and mitigate the altitude, but resulting need for the loo very frustrating. So, up in the night. Moon had set, stars dancing in the darkness above the peak. But chilly enough to make the lingering brief. A gentle “hello” from Thomas, our very gentle Assistant Guide, roused us out of our half sleep – the sun was hiding behind the mountain and the very fresh air filled our now slightly easier breathing lungs. So a dish bowl filled with hot water encouraged us to get ourselves splashed and beginning to pack up.

Thomas suggests “now is a good time for breakfast” and we creek our joints into the mess tent. The odd body positions of the previous night begin to unwind and the next plate of fried egg, toast and sausages is presented. Tea, or hot chocolate or just hot water with honey make delicious drinks. We know that lunch will just be a snack since a hoped-for cooked lunch yesterday was aborted due to National Park surveillance. We eat lots of the porridge and polish off the eggs. We pack up, under the watchful eyes of the Russian trio, one of whom has the most extraordinary gauze trousers in combat colours: against mosquitoes, wind, ultra violet? A mysterious fashion statement. Finally our bags our packed, our water supplies topped up and we head off, now in the full glare of the sun. The plateau means the incline is gradual so the effort is very reduced compared to yesterdays start up the rock outcrops above Machame camp. We are walking above the clouds, which eerily cover the entire area of the valley behind us. The sun is intense, and, covered in long sleeves, sun hat and other parts in 50 plus sunscreen, we feel assured that we are protected.

The very fresh wind comes at us from behind as we trudge slowly, very slowly, up the dusty path. Porters again overtake frequently, and I find myself easing out of their way until it becomes rather a chore to disrupt the regular pace. My mind is slightly hazy and I wonder if the slight wobble in strep is revealing to outside assessment. We climb through ever- increasing tundra, leaving vegetation behind.

The days journey is designed to climb high and sleep low (altitude), so we will climb some 800 metres up to 4600 metres. This is roughly where we will spend at camp on Day 5 before the ascent. We started today at 3800 and there is no doubt that even the regular pace and slight incline are making us feel a bit strange. But from Filex “How are you, Baba?” always gets the reply “OK, thanks”. The boys seem rather jaunty, and Daniel asks one of the porters what the word for “great” is; the reply is “Mzuka!!” This has the porters in hysterics whenever Daniel responds with it to “Mambo?” Another version is “po-a, po-a, ca chisi, ca mandisi” (cool as a banana…!).

We trudge along for some time, the height gain is continuing and Filex encourages us to get to our lunch stop where we will be at maximum altitude and can then enjoy the final push to Lava Tower and the rapid decent thereafter. The stop is just long enough for an attempt at text messaging – which fails – but soon we are on our way again pressing onward toward Lava Tower. Dusty and then boulder-strewn, we see it begin to loom, then there is a very hefty climb up a steep incline but our pace is snail slow and rhythmic. We definitely begin to struggle to the top and we suddenly recognize that we will not climb this high again until summit day. The path out of Lava Tower descends precipitously. The altitude weariness gives way to the tough action on knees and hips as we pound down a tricky boulder section. Again, porters jostle for pace and urgency to reach the camp ahead of the clients. As we descend, the immense rock formations begin to become enveloped by clouds blowing up the side. We begin to lose views and perception and the walking becomes a real chore along with the accompanying headache. And then the cloud begins to condensate on our packs and hats. Finally, not too soon, we find ourselves reaching the Baranco Camp, unaware of the surroundings due to the dense cloud. Our knees and legs are exhausted and our faces from what must be wind and sun. A very tough hike. Soon, however, with rest and food, we begin to revive. The clouds somehow disappear with ice forming on the tents and on the ground and then the mountain begins to shine behind us, the ice shimmering in the moonlight. We are right beside it – as close to touch. Looking the other way, the lights of Moshi twinkle some 12000 feet below. It is magical, the glow of the moon on the terrain and the nearness of the mountain. I am even a little bit excited by the thought of being up there. The stars are vibrant and shed their light dust upon the camp. The crunch underfoot going to the loo in the middle of the night brings on a cascade of Canadian winter memories.

How amazing to be here with this tired body and two amazing sons to taste the beauties of such natural splendour. The silence is immense.

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Day 4

Did I actually sleep? Two brief sessions maybe. Crazy dreams! It feels like morning in no time, but the final half hour sleep is nearly the best. The hot water bottle is still warm, and I finally have found a position that lasts a while. Thomas’ “hello, how are you?” breaks the general early morning murmur and rising hubbub and we are invited to breakfast after a pack up that is much better in planning – camping is all about where to put what, where. There is nearly a system…! Getting out of the tent reveals the supreme majesty of the rock face we will climb today, with the sun just about to illuminate the camp and part of the path up the Baranco Wall. After another delicious breakfast with real crepes (they call them chapattis) we are ready to go.

But the climb is slow, slow, slow. Hundreds of people on a single ascending precipitous path mean that bottlenecks, large porter packs and slow climbers reduce all movement to a half snails’ pace. There are treacherous sections where holding on with both hands in a bear hug to the bolder allow feet to shimmy alongthe narrow rock ledge. Always upwards it allows a few brief conversations with fellow trekkers, but today it feels like there are just too many people on this section.

One step and a domino effect would take out a dozen people. We clamber higher and higher, then sun finds us on the top of the wall. From there, we begin a long descent, testing knees and hips again, eventually arriving at one side of the Karanga Valley. A fiercely sunny day with the ever cool-cold wind. Lots of remarks about sunstroke keep us covered and drinking. We finally reach the camp, tired and hungry. At least sun and mountain are hidden in cloud. Lunch of sandwiches and chapattis, then unpacking and a brief snooze. We got a photo of our whole group, and they sing the “Kilimanjaro song” – a slightly cheesy tradition for the clients but at least performed with cheerfulness and warmth. It was the first encounter with some of the faceless porters who carry anything and seemingly above the fifteen kilogram personal weight limit. Our stuff is always set up ahead of us, and the porters seem to vanish in the camp. Final instructions from Filex about the “big day ahead” involve what to wear, when and what the timing will be. Tomorrow is indeed summit day with all its endurance, strength and exhaustion attached. I have a brief moment of “what are we doing here?!” but stepping out of the mess tent after a dinner of chicken cacciatore with rice, the bright moon and stars again spotlight the mountain. We are underneath the peak. We are actually going up there tomorrow!

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