“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How Hard is Climbing Kilimanjaro....Really?

When I talk to people about my Kilimanjaro climb the first thing they invariably ask is: How hard was it?

No surprise there, when I first thought about climbing Mt Kilimanjaro my concern was whether I could make the climb.  I did extensive research but there was so much conflicting information out there that all it did was confuse me.  I would check a dozen blogs and websites and get a dozen different takes on how difficult the climb actually is.

And even more infuriating was that most accounts were on the extreme ends of the spectrum; either “a piece of cake” or “unbelievably demanding”.  I also believe that many people who make the summit tend to make it sound worse than it is to heighten their success story.  I finally threw up my hands in frustration.  Who could you believe?

Granted, everyone brings a different level of skill and fitness to the table so how to determine the true answer?  What I discovered is that most people gave their opinion without any frame of reference.  How old are they?  Did they train?  How long and how hard?  Are they a marathon runner or a step above couch potato?  A little background would be of tremendous help.
So let me do that for you.  Let me tell you about my background, preparation and other details that will hopefully provide you with a baseline to do a comparison of your particular situation and make an intelligent determination of your chances of success.

First of all, you’re probably wondering how many people who actually attempt the summit are successful.  You would think that would be an easy answer to find but unfortunately the web is a veritable storehouse of misinformation, conflicting data and success rates that are skewed to favor certain routes and tour companies.  Many companies boast success rates upwards of 80-90%.  I initially took these to be accurate but the more I checked it became obvious that a lot of tour companies inflate the percentages in order to not discourage potential clients. 
There are actually three points on Kilimanjaro that are loosely and commonly considered to be the summit.  The three points are Gillman’s Point, Stella Point and Uhuru Peak.  Only Uhuru, at 5895 meters, is the true summit but some climbers make it to Gillman’s or Stella and can’t make it further.  If you reach either Gillman’s or Stella you will still be issued a climbing certificate from Kilimanjaro National Park (KINAPA) but these are NOT the true summit.  It is another 300 meters from Gillman’s to Uhuru and 200 meters from Stella—which doesn’t sound like much but is a grueling trek.  However, again to boost their success rates, most tour companies count these as summit successes since a certificate is awarded.

After some digging I found a published success rate from Kilimanjaro National Park of 45%.  I consider this an accurate figure since KINAPA has no reason to pump up the success rate.  In other words, take claimed success rates with a grain of salt—and if you are talking to someone who claims to have summited Kili ask them if they made it all the way to Uhuru Peak.

OK, now we have that out of the way let's get to the original question: How hard is the climb?  To answer that for you let me break my answer down into two areas; personal physical shape and mountain difficulty.
First the personal.  As I said earlier I will give you an idea of my specific situation and hopefully it will give you a starting point to assess your situation vis-a-vis mine.  I was 62 years old when I climbed Kili.  Old for a climber.  I checked the entry logs at the campsites and for the three weeks prior to my climb only one person older than me signed in and he was 78 years old.  Having said that I am in excellent physical shape.  I am very active and have hiked, biked, canoed, backpacked and otherwise been active my entire life.  Six months before my climb I started a dedicated training regime of hiking, running and gym training.  I ran a couple of 5Ks and a half marathon (my first) during that time.  I ran, hiked or hit the gym at least four days per week.  I ran the half marathon four months prior to the climb and after that I did very little running, mostly hiking.  My hikes were 8-, 10- and 12-milers, often while carrying a fifteen pound pack.  I also ran the steps (with full pack) at a nearby high school football stadium.  My gym work was largely treadmill and stairmaster although I did some upper body work on chest and shoulders.  Finally, three weeks before we left for Tanzania, we went to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to do some “altitude” hiking.  We did three consecutive summits of Mt. LeConte (up and down) in three days.  I live in Alabama and Mt. LeConte is only 6500 feet but it was our only option in the Southeast.

As you can see, I prepped well.  I felt good about my physical fitness, the only unknown was what effect the altitude would have.  I was dedicated to getting in shape, part of this was due to my age which caused me to have some doubts as to whether I could summit.  If you are in your 20s or 30s or 40s you have an edge on me and could probably get by with a less dedicated program.  Still, don’t underestimate the mountain.
Which is a nice segue to the second area: the difficulty of the mountain.  We did a six day trek.  I don’t recommend the shorter 5-day trips which give your body less time to acclimate to the altitude.  It is four days to base camp, fifth day to summit, sixth day down.  There is no comparison between the four days to base camp portion and summit day.  I was pleasantly surprised with the four day climb to base camp.  While it was strenuous, it was not as bad as I feared.  I attribute this to my training.   The days are long and constant and unrelentingly upward, upward, upward but definitely achievable by anyone in good shape. 

As you go up each day you will start feeling the effects of altitude.  Two significant side effects are insomnia and lack of appetite.  I took Tylenol PM to help me sleep but still got very little sleep and spent every night tossing and turning.  Worse, even though our tour company provided plentiful and delicious meals we were able to eat hardly anything. 
Although the hike to base camp was easier than I expected summit day was another story.  You will begin your summit assault at midnight after having spent a large part of that day hiking to base camp so you are already tired.  The darkness, altitude (base camp is at 15,400 feet) and cold are all disorienting.  You will set off in total darkness with only the light from your headlamp.  From base camp the mountain flank is steep and consists of loose scree (slippery rocks).  And did I mention it is cold?  You will be wearing heavy gear to further limit your movement.

I will tell you frankly, the summit climb is brutal and was as difficult as I had feared in my worst dreams. The altitude effects can be daunting—headaches and nausea, lack of oxygen.  The goal is to summit by dawn to see the dazzling sunrise over Africa so there is little time to dawdle which means a steady, brisk pace and little time for rest stops. Our first rest stop was Williams Point and I still felt OK but by our second stop at Hans Meyer Cave I was struggling and seriously thought I would have to turn back.  This was only the first of many times I considered giving up and going back to base camp.  I became increasingly tired and we would stop and gasp for breath every few steps.  The scree complicated the climb—for every three steps up it seemed we slid one down.  An area called Jamaica Rocks was particularly difficult, picking traverses back and forth through this steep rocky stretch. Still, just persevere, keep on walking and it is doable.
By the time we made it to Gillman’s Point I was totally exhausted, gasping for air.  It is a mistake to think you have an easy go from Gillman’s to Uhuru—it was another two hours of grueling climbing.  I should mention that we took Diamox, a prescription altitude drug and we felt that it helped us deal with the altitude. Frankly, from Gillman’s to Uhuru, I was on autopilot, my brain fuzzy.

But we made it—and you can too!  Reading back over this it sounds brutal—and it is.  Yes, it is a physical challenge that you need to train for.  You can’t do the climb on a whim.  But it is mostly mental.  Don’t give up, persevere and you will have your picture at Uhuru Peak.  It is the trip of a lifetime and while I would not do it again under any circumstances, it was a huge achievement and I will be proud of it for the rest of my life.



Monday, August 25, 2014

Mt Kilimanjaro Climb

After months of training the time finally arrived to climb Mt Kilimanjaro.  We chose to do the Rongai Trail which departs from the north side of the mountain.  This is the only trail to depart from the northern flank of the mountain, it is a little more difficult to get to but is much less travelled.  We wanted to avoid the crowds and were very happy we used Rongai. 

The Rongai trek involves four days from the Mt Kilimanjaro National Park gate at Rongai to base camp at Kibo Hut.  The 5th day is summit day and begins at midnight and most of the ascent is done in darkness to the summit of Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the African continent at 19,343 feet.  Day six descends to Marangu gate at the national park.

The climb starts at 6000 feet in the rainforest and ascends continually through heather, alpine scrub and finally to high altitude rocky terrain. The trek is 54 miles round trip and in terms of weather and terrain has been described as "hiking from the equator to the North Pole in five days".

Day One: Our porters and guides loading up for the climb

Took a lot of gear to get us up the mountain--and a lot of people. 
We had two guides, one cook and ten porters!

The first day is agricultural area which quickly turns to rainforest.  Beautiful.
We saw Colobus monkeys, blue monkeys and birds everywhere.

First night camp at Simba campsite. We shared this camp with other groups but after this night we did not see any other climbers in camp until we reached base camp on night four at Kibo Huts.

My friend Ed Erway and our lead Guide James Ligelele.
Kilimanjaro in the background, always looming in the distance for the entire trek.

Rainforest turned to heather moorland and clouds closed in on the second day.

Mawenzi peak, one of three peaks on Kilimanjaro and  much smaller that Kilimanjaro's Uhuru Peak.

A short break with Said Mwanzi, our second guide.
 All day long hiking while our guides reminded us in Swahili "pole, pole" (slowly, slowly)

Our porters carrying gear.  Amazing crew.

That's Kili in the background. Me in the foreground becoming apprehensive.

It looks close, still three days away.

And then the weather closed in.

Another break at a small cave. Starting to feel the altitude at this point
We both took Diamox pills which help with altitude.

As we went higher the vegetation became sparser and the terrain rockier and steeper.

Upward, always upward.  Our guide, Said, kept saying "piece of cake."

We're going to climb that mountain???

Said Mwanza, excellent guide

The clouds swirled around Mawenzi Peak, revealing then hiding the top.

James Ligelele, our head guide giving us a pep talk. Great guide, instant friend.

Just as quickly, the weather closed in again.

Point at it while you can see it.

Day four, Mawenzi Tarn camp dawned clear and cold.

This is Mawenzi Tarn, high alpine lake and the last water available on the mountain.
 All water is carried up from this point.

Mawenzi Tarn again, pretty little lake. This was my favorite camp.

Kili in the background, still a day away.

Hiking across "The Saddle" between Mawenzi and Base Camp. A long day of hiking.

This plane crashed in 2008 killing all five aboard.  Too high to remove so the wreckage sits there still.

Kibo Hut, base camp.
 Reached this late afternoon, ate and rested a little before gearing up at midnight for summit attempt.

We left base camp at midnight, climbed for six hours thru the darkness by headlamp.  The most grueling
thing I've ever done.  Oxygen is thin and climbing is incredibly steep and difficult on loose scree.  I took no pictures during the summit climb because everything is an effort, even unzipping my coat for my camera. Plus all is darkness except the area illuminated at your feet by your headlamp. A dozen times I thought "No way can I take another step, I need to turn around."
It is just one slow step after another, up, up, up with minimal rest stops.  We passed other groups also making the attempt and saw at least one climber who had to be helped down the mountain.
 Only 41% of climbers who attempt the climb make the summit so we were determined to succeed.
We made the summit at 0610, just in time to see this sunrise.

Ed Erway, our guides James Ligelele and Said Manza, and yours truly at the summit.

My friend Ed Erway and myself at the summit, Uhuru Peak, 19,343 feet, the highest point on the African continent.
We only spent 20 minutes or so at the summit due to lack of oxygen.
 Everything was a little fuzzy, including my vision, but it was an incredibly beautiful sight and a very moving experience and a satisfying feeling of accomplishment.

Stella Point, waypoint on the descent.

Despite what Said kept repeating, the climb was no piece of cake--and neither was the descent.
This is what thin air, total exhaustion, and lack of sleep looks like.
The descent was a tiring hike down thru the previous night's vertical rocks followed by "skiing" down the scree, loose rocks.
Leg and knee killer

At Horombo Huts, Day five, last stop before continuing down the mountain the next day.

Our summit team.
A great crew, dedicated, friendly and professional.
Another grand Ed & Tom adventure!
Ed and I at Mt Kilimanjaro National Park exit gate after the descent. 
Post trek refreshment.
Best soft drink ever.

Me with James Ligelele, head guide


Mt LeConte, Three Summits in Three Days

We were set to climb Mt Kilimanjaro in July so we started training in January.  Hiking, running, gym time 3-6 days per week.  I hiked with full pack anywhere from 8 to 12 miles every week plus ran a couple of 5Ks and a half marathon in early 2014. Put in 8-12 mile hikes at local hiking venues including a nearby Rails to Trails and the Walls of Jericho, a steep (for Alabama) canyon area in northern Alabama.

We culminated training three weeks before the Kilimanjaro trek by hiking Mt LeConte in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Only 6500 feet at the summit but the closest thing we could come to altitude in the eastern US.  We were to start our Kilimanjaro climb at 6000 feet so the acclimation was minimal.  But we did try out Diamox, an altitude pill, to make sure we had no reactions and to see if we could tell any difference.  Maybe the placebo effect but it seemed to help.

Day 1 Summit via Alum Cave Bluffs Trail

Didn't take this trail

All supplies and food come into Mt LeConte lodge via llama

Day 2 summit via Rainbow Falls trail

Day 3 summit via Trillium Gap Trail. Three days, 54 miles, 18000 vertical feet up and down.

Ultimate Porsche Driving Experience

A fast, fun day driving the world's premier performance cars at one of America's premier road courses.  The Ultimate Porsche Driving Experience, a one day, high speed driving exercise in the seats of Porsche's newest models, takes place at various race courses around the country.  I drove at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, in my opinion the best and most attractive road course in the United States.

First up for the day were the new Cayenne and Macan Turbo SUVs through the off road outback of the Barber property. Fun, but not what I came for.  I was ready for speed.

I soon got my wish.  We climbed into a bright yellow Cayman S for triple-digit-speed laps around Barber's 2.38 mile road course.  A sweet little 325 horsepower, mid-engine sports car that will amaze you with its cornering and balance.  You can lap Barber as fast as your ability will allow--and in a Cayman that is FAST.  After the Cayman S I stepped up to the 911 Carrera S, a 380 horsepower rear-engined beast.  Definitely a superior level in terms of raw speed and acceleration but in my mind not as balanced or easy to drive.

Next up; the Panamera, a 4-door sports car that is nice but sedate after the Cayman and 911--not my cup of tea.  I then strapped in for a ride-along with a professional race driver.  I thought I had put down some hot lap times but two turns into the ride-along lap and I knew this lap was going to be a lot faster than I had driven.  I was whipped through corners at speed at least 30 MPH faster than I had accomplished and I quickly realized that I would need LOTS more seat time to be competitive with a pro.
Multiple laps got the adrenaline going and we moved to a paved lot for the lane change drill, a (relatively) low speed exercise between lines of traffic cones to test suspension transition abilities. Fun, but a letdown after the race course hot laps.

Next up:  the wet skid pad, a parking-lot-sized plat of tarmac wetted down by sprinklers where we practice driving in wet conditions and recovering from spins. Where else can you deliberately spin $90,000 worth of German metal?  WooHoo!

Finally, the autocross course.  A traffic-coned, twisty layout that provides short straights interlaced with snaking curves and 90-degree turns, the autocross is more fun than I expect, mainly because I am driving a $98,000 Cayman S with carbon ceramic brakes that drag the car down with incomprehensible quickness.  If I weren't securely held in by a shoulder harness I would plant my skull in the windshield every time I hit the brake pedal.   There's only one way to put it--the Cayman S is FAST.

$844,000 Porsche 918 Spyder.  No, I didn't get to drive it.

$83,000 paint job.