Tuesday 26 November 2013

o : Kilimanjaro, Day 3 (Oxygen)

Barranco Camp
About 3940m above sea level
Kilimanjaro National Park

Dear o,

I have finally peed.  There was no good reason for me to hold it in for so long, though of course I only recognise that now after missing however much sleep.  I was restless in my sleeping bag for hours, holding my bladder shut as if pressing my elbows against a dam, pretending that the growing warm sensation of urine trying to get out would subside or simply pause until morning.  I don’t know what finally got me up: maybe my body put its foot down, no, you don’t understand, if you don’t actually get up now, the inside of this tent will get very wet.  It seems I still suffer from cold-weather camping sickness.  It’s a kind of psychological pathogen by which you dream of unzipping the sleeping bag, getting dressed, going outside, peeing, packing, and getting ready to go, only to wake up and realise you are still in your sleeping bag – and then you close your eyes once more to dream the same dream.  I would suggest that it is the repeat behaviour which indicates a sickness. 

Fortunately I am not dreaming now.  I did get up, I did slip out into the cold, and I did pee.  Hopefully now I can sleep all the way until dawn.  After writing to you, of course.  So why do I write to you?  Don’t think I have to.  My fingers are cold and hard, my head is grazing dew from the inside of the fly, and I can see my breath in front of me.  Do you know how easy it would be to slide down on this mat and zip up the fabric to my chin and go on to dream of something other than waterfalls?

But when I went outside to pee, I saw Kilimanjaro’s Kibo Peak up close for the first time.  Today was yet another rainy, grey and cold one, and when we arrived here at Barranco Camp this afternoon the mist covered everything but the rock you were about to step over.  We waited for it to clear and for the rain to stop, but eventually the night got too dark and the prospect of tomorrow’s long day (double-time for those of us doing this route in six days instead of seven) got too close.  Even the endlessly chattering jaws of the porters and guides fell silent underneath the rain.  But by the time my pee finally reached its brim and forced me up, the sky was just as quiet as the campers, and clear.

Standing outside and facing away from the tent’s entrance you gaze at the top of a steep mountain valley which falls abruptly out of view into the long stretching plains.  Kilimanjaro’s toughest and least-attempted route, the [NAME?], ascends this way.  Distant clouds envelop the line where the sky meets the earth, and seem to be pressed into a glacial bunch by the mountain’s edges.  Directly behind is the ridge and valley we descended from this afternoon (we started at 3840m elevation, climbed up for lunch at 4400m underneath the Lava Tower, and came down here to 3940m), gently swooping into this panhandle plateau of rock.  Behind and to the right is a tall, bald hill leading over and away, while behind and to the left is Barranco Wall, which we will climb tomorrow morning.  The Wall leads up, steeper and sheerer, and up, and up some more, to Kibo Peak, for which we will start our ascent in (almost exactly) 48 hours.

The stars twinkle above and the crescent moon illuminates the ancient snow atop the mountain.  The mountain’s ridges and angles are soft, bluish and totally still – eerily still.  So high up you think there should be rushing, freezing, violent winds, but if a pebble fell down Barranco Wall you’d hear every clink against the stone.  There are no waterfalls, no wind tunnels, no rain.  There is such quiet under the moon, stars and Kilimanjaro.

While I was peeing outside and craning my neck to look up I figured out the reason for the silence.  I am not yet on Kilimanjaro, not really.  Kilimanjaro is a mountain on top of another mountain, and I’m about three quarters up the first one.  By this logic I assume we will arrive at the first ‘summit’ tomorrow afternoon, at Barafu Camp (4600m high; barafu means “snow” in Swahili).  And the final day, summit day, is when we climb the real mountain, the one which is visible now high up in the moonlight.

The mountain-on-top-of-another-mountain image makes a whole lot of sense to me, the more I think about it.  And it worries me for the same reasons.  At the true summit of Kilimanjaro (5895m) the air is 50% of its density at sea level – meaning, you only get half of the oxygen on each breath as you should.  We’ve already come quite high, and this route seems to be built on the old climber’s adage, “climb high, sleep low”.  But the headaches started for me on the first night, at only 3000m.  I woke up with a clear head on the second morning (to meet a few most welcome hours of clear blue sky) and marched on to Shira Camp with a blissful smile and a daydreaming mind.  But within minutes of stopping at the end of the day the pressure mounted and the walls slammed in.  I hadn’t felt the sort of pain since I was a prepubescent kid with migraines.

You know, ‘headache’ isn’t the right word.  ‘Cranial explosions’ would be more correct.  Or, ‘ape wielding a sledgehammer’. 

Altitude sickness is the main reason climbers don’t make it to the summit.  Yes, it gets steep and cold and long, but the significantly decreased intake of oxygen exacerbates these obstacles.  Dizziness forces shorter footsteps, the body has a harder time keeping warm (increasing the risk of hypothermia, which on Kilimanjaro is the biggest killer), and physical exertion seems to require double the effort.  However, many climbers, and apparently I am included, have no trouble at all with these effects – but the headaches can stop them cold.

There are three things we can do about altitude sickness.  The first is pole-pole: go slowly.  The body acclimatises better when given the chance, and this is why many climbers give themselves extra time in Moshi (1000m) or even at the starting point (1800m) while taking their time going up.  It is also why the guides can constantly be heard telling their clients to slow down.  It’s the alpha-dogs who rush up, happy-go-lucky, and then come tumbling down with a case of cranial explosions.  Second, drink lots of water.  For me that’s a big check: my urine was so transparent a few minutes ago that if I looked down at it instead of up at the mountain, I wouldn’t think I was peeing at all.  And third, take drugs.  Acetazolamide (trade name: Diamox) is prescribed for exactly this sort of thing.  It acidifies the blood, which tricks the body into believing it has a high carbon-dioxide concentration, which in turn causes the user to breathe faster and more deeply – hence, more oxygen.  I didn’t come with any pills and wasn’t going to take any.  But earlier today my cranial explosions were so awful, and so nearly immobilising, that I gave in to a 125mg pill – and seem capable of writing a letter with a mostly clear (it’s a rubber mallet wielded by a koala bear now) head.

It’s sad, really.  When I look up at this mountain on a mountain I don’t see an inhospitable world or an unwelcoming summit.  I want to get up there to the top and spend a day and a night, just staring below under the sun and then again under the stars.  I think, when I’ve climbed up so far, why go down?  I’ve climbed the stairs to the revolving restaurant, shouldn’t I at least be given the time to eat some free crackers?  The silent, glowing mountain above me seems to promise something other than a headache.  But next time our guide Freddy says that we’ll stay up there for five minutes, maybe ten, because it is “dangerous”, I won’t chortle.  I’m starting to understand that this mountain, on top of another mountain, is dangerous precisely because it doesn’t look like it. 

In that way, altitude sickness is sort of like cold-weather camping sickness: they creep up on you, and the dream is so beautiful that you ignore the truth.  Though, the danger of not getting enough oxygen doesn’t really compare with the danger of wetting my sleeping bag.

Speaking of which, I have to go again.  I told you I was drinking enough water.



Towards Kibo Peak, dawn from Machame Camp 
Mt. Meru, on the clear morning of Day 2
Clouds coming in, Day 2
Clouds breaking at Shira Camp,
end of Day 2
Shira Camp
Shira Camp, with Kibo Peak in the background
Another clear morning, Day 3:
Mt. Meru and its cap
Clouds coming in over the valley,
Day 3
Barranco Camp, Day 3
Barranco Camp, dusk