Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Canadian Tree Planter Climbs Kilimanjaro, part 3 of 3

(This is part 3 of a 3-part series. Click here to go back to part 1, or here to go back to part 2, if you haven't read them yet).

My Own Background

I just realized that I've covered the basic background of the others in my trek group, but many of the people reading this may not know anything about me. I'm Canadian, and I spent seven months of each year on Canada's west coast working in the reforestation industry. For part of that time, I supervise a mobile tent camp of about sixty tree planters. For other parts of the year, I'm a professional tree planter myself, climbing around the wet cliffs on Vancouver Island. So for part of the year, I consider myself to be in very, very good physical condition. Click on THIS LINK to see some of my photos that will give you an idea of the beautiful but rugged conditions that I work in. For the five months that I'm not working in reforestation, I spend some time travelling, and the rest of the time working on music/video projects for fun. If you're curious to learn more, there are a bunch of links to my various sites at the bottom of this post.

Medical and Physical Challenges

One of the biggest problems about Kilimanjaro is that many, many people underestimate the difficulty of climbing it. True, it is essentially “just a hike.” But there are two problems. First, there is the physical challenge. The hike is fairly lengthy, and covers a great deal of variation in altitude with periods of inclement weather. Let me try to put it into perspective. Many residents of western Canada are familiar with the “West Coast Trail,” which is a 75km hike along the western edge of Vancouver Island. The West Coast Trail has a total elevation gain from lowest point to highest of 110m. Hikers generally take between six and ten days to do the complete trail. In comparison, a climb up Kili is longer - our G Adventures travel itinerary came to 95km total. More significantly, the elevation difference on Kili is more than 4000m from the gate to the peak. Also, we started on Tuesday at lunch and were back to the gate on Saturday afternoon, just slightly over four days total time elapsed.

The second problem of course is the physiological, ie. the effect of the altitude on your body. There is a saying that the healthiest person in the world can be affected by AMS (acute mountain sickness) just as easily as someone who is not in top condition; it hits people completely randomly. So before you climb Kili, be aware that you might be one of those people who are affected by altitude sickness. Essentially, almost everybody gets it to a small extent, although some people are severely affected. There's no way to know how you’ll react until you’re there, and there's not really any easy way to train your body for the altitude, other than being at altitude.

The statistics on the success rate of reaching the summit vary widely from source to source. I have seen stats saying that over 25,000 per year attempt to reach the summit, and other stats that give lower numbers. If you look at the advertised success rates of various tour companies, they often say that between 80% and 99% of their participants make it to the top. Don’t believe those numbers. The Kilimanjaro National Park Service (probably one of the more reliable sources of information) currently says that only 41% of climbers make it to Uhuru Peak.

Here is one of the reasons why the trip for me was a lot different than for almost everybody else that goes to Kilimanjaro. My interest was to be ON Kilimanjaro, and to see what it was like. I was especially interested in the biological aspects of the area, ie. the flora and fauna (although there obviously wasn’t a lot of diversity compared to other parts of Africa that I travelled). I’ve been on top of lots of mountains before, so reaching the actual summit of Kilimanjaro didn’t really hold any significant appeal for me other than maybe a nice photo or two. On the other hand, for 98% of the other people that were there, reaching the summit was the all-consuming goal. The intensity and single-mindedness was something that I really found quite astonishing. There were people there who had attempted the summit on past trips and failed, and it seemed like getting to the top had become a consuming obsession, or a lifelong goal. There were a few people who I met that went into long discussions about how they were going to make it, and who talked about the months/years of intense preparations that they’d been making to maximize their success. When I said, “Ah, it’s just a mountain; if I go to the top, that’s cool, but if I don’t, that’s fine too,” one climber actually got a crazy look in his eyes and recoiled as if in horror. And that was the end of our conversation.

As Hemingway said, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Think about it this way: if your whole trip revolves around going to the peak and you are one of the 59% of people who don’t do it, you’ll feel that your entire trip was a failure. But if you go with the mindset that you’re there to experience the mountain, you’ll be far less disappointed if you don’t reach Uhuru Peak.

For me, I guess my goal was fairly moderate … I wanted to make it at least to the Lava Tower. It turned out that I didn’t have any problems with altitude sickness up the point where we reached the base camp, and I felt much better than I had expected (other than very sore legs). On summit night, I started to get a headache not long after we passed the 5000m mark, and it got to be pretty nasty within a few hundred more meters. I didn’t bother going right to the summit, but it was a relatively logical and easy decision for me. I had already seen 95% of the mountain, which was more than I had expected. I didn’t really want to push things and have the potential for some sort of medical emergency, considering that the only real option for evacuation was for a porter to pick me up and carry me for thirty-some kilometres down a mountain in the dark, with no advanced medical care at the bottom.

As it turned out, deciding to skip the last few hundred meters turned out to be one of the best decisions I could have made. On the walk up to the summit, every bit of energy was devoted to shuffling slowly up the hill, trying to regulate our breathing, and trying to stay hydrated. I couldn’t look around and enjoy the view of the lights of Tanzania below, or the brilliant stars above, because I immediately got hit with a wave of dizziness. But after I turned around and started back down toward the base camp (which took a few hours), the dizziness went away quickly. And this quickly turned into one of the most memorable nights of my life (in a good way), with just myself and Anton slowly picking our way down a snowy mountain in the middle of Africa, with only a pair of small headlamps to guide us.

At one point on the way back down, despite the cold, we paused for almost half an hour and just sat and enjoyed the views above and below. The constellation Orion was directly above at that point in the night, and I could see a number of constellations that I can’t see from my home in Canada. And the lights below us were even more incredible, kind of like being in an airplane at night, except that we were sitting on the side of the highest mountain in Africa. Commercial airliners were slowly flying far below us. In the crisp night air, with no clouds, I could clearly see what I imagine must have been a significant portion of the entire country. Put it this way, Mount Kenya is 345 kilometers from Kilimanjaro and can easily be seen from Kili on a clear day. The Kenyan coast around Mombasa is closer than that. Moshi and Arusha were very obvious, even though the amount that these cities are lit up at night pales in comparison to North American or European cities. My only regret is that I didn’t bother trying to take any photos, because I wasn’t carrying a tripod and I would have needed a fairly long time exposure to capture the scene well (plus a wide angle lens). I also figured that I'd be able to find similar photos on the internet when I got back, but it appears that almost nobody takes the time to just sit and enjoy the view on summit night (at least very few people who are good at night-time photography). Anyway, sitting there in the middle of the night, taking in the view, was unquestionably one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done. Even more memorable than the night I spent camping in the snow (without a tent) in Antarctica a few years ago.

Altitude Sickness, aka. AMS

There is a drug called acetazolamide (brand name Diamox) which is used to help minimize the chance of getting altitude sickness. I have never seen so many conflicting opinions about the effectiveness of a drug! Some people (including my doctor) say that you must start taking it the day before you start climbing in order for it to be effective, and that it cannot be started part-way through the climb as a reaction to symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) appearing. Other people say that you should hold off from taking it until you absolutely need to, if you find yourself sick, because as you go lower it will help you recover more quickly.

Many people, including my guide, have said that they don’t think it really does anything to help except in a psychological sense. I took it, and I had the same side effect that many other people complain about – extremely tingling in my hands and arms and face. The tingling isn’t as sharp as if your hand has “fallen asleep” but is rather more of a throbbing, pulsating feeling. That didn’t bother me, but it certainly bothered some other people. Another problematic side effect is that it often reduces one’s appetite, which can be bad because you will burn a lot of calories on your climb, and you’ll need to be able to eat as much as possible while on the mountain. A final side effect, and possibly the worst, is that acetazolamide increases urination, which means that it will dehydrate you. This can be a huge problem, because your body loses more fluid than normal when breathing at higher altitudes where the air is dry. You already need to be drinking a minimum of 3-4 litres per day while hiking, on top of what you have to drink with meals, and anything that further dehydrates you is going to make things harder for you.

There are also a lot of people who suggest that ginkgo biloba is an effective alternative to acetazolamide, and it doesn't dehydrate you as much. I’m not sure what to think of that. However, it should be noted that if you are taking acetazolamide you aren’t supposed to combine it with aspirin or Tylenol (or alcohol), so that limits your access to pain relievers if you have a mild headache. By the way, you shouldn’t be drinking alcohol on the mountain because that also dehydrates you. I love a good stiff drink now and then, but I stayed away from alcohol completely on the climb and I was glad that I did, considering how dehydrated I got anyway. The anticipation will make that first beer back at the hotel taste even better.


Staying Warm & Avoiding Dehydration

You will probably have problems sleeping at altitude. I don’t know why this happens, but everybody did. I think it’s a combination of several factors. First, your body is naturally less comfortable in the low-oxygen environment, so you don’t sleep as deeply. Secondly, if you’re taking certain medications that increase urination, you’ll end up waking up several times in the night to go to the bathroom, which is really annoying. Finally, if you’re cold at night, you’ll keep waking up because you’re trying to figure out how to stay warmer. My only recommendations are that you need to be well rested going into the trip, be aware that you won’t get as much sleep as you expected, and look forward to falling into a virtual coma at the end, when you’re back at the hotel. Do not take any sleeping medications, because almost all of them dehydrate you!

Speaking of staying warm and avoiding dehydration, here’s something that I haven’t covered. And I think it’s something that a lot of people don’t think about. Besides the altitude/oxygen issues, you are going to be fighting two main controllable physiological challenges during your trek: energy loss (burning of calories), and dehydration. If you’re smart, you can sometimes mitigate one of these, but at the expense of the other.

Think about how your body cools itself. It sweats. Sweating uses water, which means that as you sweat, you become more dehydrated. The solution is to drink more water. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough: drink about three times as much water as you think you need, even when you're not thirsty!

Think about how your body warms itself. It burns sugar. Burning sugar means that you’re depleting your body’s energy reserves. The solution is to eat food, and some types of food are more effective than others.

You can help regulate both of these processes through the addition/removal of layers of clothing. When you’re hiking, your muscles are working hard and creating heat as a by-product. So when you’re hiking, you’ll warm up and stay warm. If you stay bundled up too much, you’ll sweat, but the sweat soaks your clothes and doesn’t evaporate. It is the evaporation of sweat that cools you down, not the actual process of sweating. So if your body is getting too warm, because you’re exercising and wearing a lot of clothing, you’ll go through more fluid than necessary because evaporation is hindered by your clothing and not effectively cooling your body. In other words, by wearing a lot of layers, you’re contributing to your own dehydration. If you’re getting warm, consider removing layers, especially before your clothing is soaked in sweat! The more layers that you can get rid of, the more effective sweating becomes, which means that dehydration is minimized (on top of the fact that you probably don’t need to sweat to cool down your body if your body is semi-exposed and naturally cool).

However, if you try to minimize dehydration by removing too many layers in cold weather, then certain parts of your body become cold enough that you need to burn extra energy for warmth, above and beyond the warmth naturally generated when you’re exercising.

Anyway, the point is that if you find yourself getting dehydrated and can’t seem to drink enough water to keep up, consider wearing fewer layers of clothing, within reason. And if you find that you’re not having problems drinking lots of water but you’ve lost your appetite and you’re worried about calories/energy, bundle up and worry less about dehydration. The key things is to dress in multiple thin layers that are easy to remove, rather than just a couple thick layers that limit your options. Don’t be scared to stop repeatedly for short breaks to remove or add layers. Use your brain and common sense to help regulate your body’s temperature externally, instead of forcing your body to regulate it internally through physiological processes.

Travel Insurance

Be aware that getting travel insurance can be tricky. Many insurance providers will not agree to provide travel coverage if you try to arrange your insurance more than 48 hours after you booked your trip. Of course, I forgot to deal with this when I first booked, so I had to do some digging to find an insurance provider. Eventually, one of my friends pointed out Ihi Bupa, an international insurance broker. Ihi Bupa lets you buy a policy long after you've solidified travel plans. In fact, they'll let you buy a policy part-way through your trip. Can I give any feedback on how effective they are if a claim is necessary? No, because I didn't get sick or need their services. But in order to climb Kili, you'll need to provide proof of insurance cover before you leave the hotel.

Something else to be aware of is that most insurers don't cover trekking expeditions, or anything deemed remotely unsafe. I was a bit concerned about this. I initially got the coverage for the full month that I was travelling, but the intent was more for the safari portion of my travels. I assumed that I'd have to contact a specialty insurance provider for Kilimanjaro, partially because of these two specific exclusions in the Ihi policy:
Article 23.24: [you are not covered for] active participation in .... mountaineering that requires specialized climbing equipment; and
Article 23.27: [you are not covered for] expeditions, mountaineering, and trekking in Antarctica, the North Pole, and Greenland.

After failing to find a specialty provider, I decided to write to Ihi. I gave them my policy number and explaining that Kilimanjaro was technically a trek/expedition, but it wasn't to the listed exclusions, and I would only be hiking and would not be using any climbing equipment. I said that I'd be willing to pay a premium to be covered for my climb. Two days later, they wrote back and said that I should consider the note to be written confirmation that I would be covered for my Kili climb at no additional cost. Nice! My total premium for a month of travel was $228 including all surcharges. Very reasonable. Of course, who knows how effective the coverage would have been if I had gotten sick or needed to submit a claim, but at least there was some peace of mind that I theoretically might be covered.

By the way, during my insurance search, I learned something interesting. I have a "Blue Cross" policy in my home province of New Brunswick, in Canada. I found out that it is impossible to purchase travel coverage if either my point of departure OR my point of return was outside of my home province. Since I flew out of British Columbia, I was ineligible for coverage (incidentally, I tried getting coverage from Blue Cross in BC and they said that they couldn't cover me because I live in New Brunswick). Also, even more interesting, since I was flying back home into Halifax International Airport (which is located in Nova Scotia, the province beside New Brunswick and only two hours from my New Brunswick home), I was again ineligible for coverage for the simple fact that my journey didn't end in my home province. The same approximate problems were evident with the CAA insurance arm. I'm guessing that a number of Canadians don't know that some Canadian insurance providers will not issue travel insurance if you're flying into or out of an airport in a neighbouring province, so be aware of that potential obstacle. Look into travel insurance at the same time that you book your trip!

Basic Travel Info

When you're flying into Africa, consider arranging to arrive in Moshi a couple days early. First, it lets you start getting slightly accustomed to higher altitudes if your home is in a low elevation area. Well, it's just under a thousand meters, so it's not that helpful, but it can't hurt if, like me, your home is about 22m above sea level. More importantly though, you'll find it nice to get over any jet lag, and to spend a day exploring Moshi and starting to get a feel for the culture. It'll also let you talk to other travellers, on their way to or from the mountain, and find out more details & tips that you haven't heard yet.

Make sure, when making your bookings, that your flights are tied together with the same airline group. For instance, KLM and Kenya Airlines do code-sharing. You need to make sure that if you miss a connecting flight, it's the airline's responsibility to re-book you and get you to your destination at no extra cost. This should be common sense, but I've seen far too many travellers who try to save a hundred dollars by stringing together flights from a series of unrelated airlines, and then wonder why travelling is such hell when the first airline has to make a two-hour diversion because someone just unexpectedly had a baby in first class. You guessed it, that's how I missed my first connection and ended up arriving in Africa a day later than expected, although KLM/KenyaAir made everything work for me.

Let's think about what else can go wrong. If your luggage gets lost, an extra day or two before you start your trek MIGHT allow time for your luggage to show up, or at least give you time to replace everything that's critical to your climb. Now I don't want to worry you about your luggage getting lost, but remember, ANYTHING is possible when you're travelling. For starters, I'd recommend that you get a carry-on that will meet the maximum space allocation that the airlines will allow, and pack it to its full permitted weight. At least you'll have everything in your carry-on even if your checked luggage disappears. Make sure your carry-on has everything critical for the mountain, starting with the smaller and more expensive items, ie. medicines, cameras, headlamp, etc. Try to pack your carry-on with the things that you imagine would be hardest to replace at the last minute in Moshi. For example, I doubt that finding a Balaclava is easy in Moshi, since their climate is so warm year-round. For your checked luggage, include the things that you can probably buy easily (shirts, pants) and include things that you can rent from the hotel if you're in an emergency situation (jackets, sleeping bag, rain gear, etc).

In a best case scenario, if everything goes smoothly and both you and your luggage arrive early, and you're completely prepared and ready to start hiking, the extra time at the start will let you relax by the pool for an afternoon. At $36/night, there are far worse places to spend a day than at the Springlands. And an extra day or two at the tail end might be good insurance in case something unexpected happens on the mountain, and you're suddenly hospitalized for a day or two with a broken leg or pulmonary edema. Mind you, if that happens, rearranging your flights might be the least of your problems, but it would still be a big problem.

When you're flying to Africa, flying into and out of Kilimanjaro International Airport (outside Arusha, Tanzania) is probably the easiest option. Due to a momentary lapse of reason, my departing flights were booked out of JKIA in Nairobi (NBO), so when I left, I had to take public transit from Moshi to Nairobi, which included many adventurous hours on packed buses with all my luggage, and interesting experiences at the Kenyan border (I had to get a transit visa).

Be prepared for every possible ATM and food/lodging establishment to reject your credit cards. My Mastercard worked fine in Kenya, at all lodges and ATM's. However, it didn't work at a single ATM in Tanzania, even though many of them displayed the Mastercard logo. It also didn't work at one of the Mastercard stickered ATM's in the Amsterdam airport, although a different bank's ATM on the other side of the airport didn't give me any problems. I called Mastercard about that to find out what had gone wrong, since I had called them before I left to make sure my account was flagged not to be shut down for transactions in the countries that I'd be travelling in. They said that there was no record of any ATM's attempting to access their system from the places that I listed, and the customer service representative said that ATM's often had Mastercard stickers but weren't actually hooked up to the Mastercard network. I also ran into the problem at the Springlands when the only woman who could apparently work the credit card machine had gone home for the night, so I was forced to pay cash. You'll also be asked to pay a 5% surcharge at most places if you're paying with credit card instead of cash, to cover the fees that the credit card companies charge to merchants (and a little on top). By the way, in addition to needing to carry cash (preferably both the local currency & US dollars), you're probably better carrying a Visa than a Mastercard. They seem to be accepted at a lot more places than Mastercard. Debit cards and other credit cards seem to be essentially useless. Remember, Tanzania is a country where it's often easier to trade your blue jeans for a live goat than it is to find a machine that takes your credit card.

Final Notes

Additional guidance on gear is one of the things that I think most people will benefit from, and I’ve already covered that. To reiterate gear-related suggestions, here are some of the highlights:

- The sleeping bags that you can rent seemed cold compared to what I’m used to. Bring a warmer bag, or sleep with a warm friend who doesn’t mind the fact that you’re going a week without a shower.
- Bring two rolls of toilet paper, not just one, and keep them dry in zip-lock bags. By the way, the toilet facilities on the mountain are rudimentary. They are what’s known as “long drop latrines,” which means a wooden outhouse with a hole in the floor. If you’re not used to this kind of facility, you’ll probably be very nervous the first time you use it, in case you “miss the hole.” More importantly, they’re kind of disgusting compared to most western washrooms that have amenities like, um, toilets. You might want to use these facilities before eating rather than afterwards, especially if you have a weak stomach. And also, your boots will get contaminated with normal African bacteria from the dirt that you walk through all over the mountain, which people from other continents aren’t used to, and your boots will also go through some disgusting areas when accessing the outhouses. In Canada, I often sleep with my boots as a pillow when camping. In Africa, I considered sterilizing them with a flamethrower.
- Make sure you’re in really good shape before your climb. All kinds of people who come back seem to forget to mention the fact that Kilimanjaro is a significant challenge, saying, “Oh yeah, it’s just a hike.” Well, that’s true, but it’s a a very tough hike if you’re not in shape. And people generally don't have to worry about altitude sickness when hiking at home. Remember that on Machame, you'll cover 95km in just over four days, with 4000m of altitude differential. You should spend a few weeks running before your trek, and make sure you climb/descend a few dozen flights of stairs each day before your trip, to get your uphill and downhill leg muscles in shape. Downhill is just as hard on your legs as uphill.
- Even if you’re not climbing in rainy season, be prepared with extra changes of fresh clothing, wrapped in plastic garbage bags so it stays dry in your duffle bag. You’ll stay warm while you’re hiking, but as soon as you get to any of the overnight camps, you need to be prepared to change into dry clothing immediately, to conserve body heat. Write this down: you need to take more changes of dry clothing than you think you'll need!
- Remember the conditions that your guides and porters endure when you're considering leaving a tip at the end of your trek. After a lot of digging, we were told that the porters earn the equivalent of $6 USD per day for carrying all that gear up and down the mountain, and many do not even have warm clothing or footwear. The general consensus from the literature that we read seems to be that if you're considering a tip (which I think you should!), then 10% of the cost of your trip should be a guideline. I can't comment about whether or not this is appropriate. However, if you think that your trip probably costs you around $2000 USD, then that leads to a tip of $200 or slightly more from you to the group. In our case, we had a lead guide, two assistant guides, two cooks, and thirteen porters for the five of us who were officially in the group (counting Curdin and his support staff separately). Even with all five of us contributing to the total tip, that's a lot of people to share the tip. Based on the way that tips are generally split between the different types of support staff, it seems that our tip basically doubled what the porters made per day. And let me say that they deserved that, at a minimum. Remember to budget for a tip when you're planning for your trip. After seeing what the support staff do for you, you'll realize that they deserve every bit of what you give them! And if you're from a country where tipping isn't part of the culture, remember that tipping IS part of the culture for the tour groups. When in Rome ...
- When we were done, we left some gear behind as an extra bonus for Hajji to distribute among his team, things like jackets, gloves, batteries, unused medicines, etc. These aren't left in lieu of a cash tip. These are just some things that you may not want to lug halfway around the world in your luggage on your way home, and if they can be of use in Tanzania, you should considering donating them.
- Nobody seems to agree on the effectiveness of altitude sickness pills. I suspect that the majority of the benefit that they provide is purely psychological.

Incidentally, unrelated to Kilimanjaro, if you want to bring things to hand out as gifts in Moshi or other parts of Africa, I can make a suggestion: we were frequently approached and asked if we had extra pens or note pads. I think these are FAR better gifts than candy, and for my next trip to Africa, I'm going to stuff my luggage with pens and notepads and maybe a few books too. Also, a couple people from my Kenya safari group brought a real Polaroid camera, and it was a HUGE hit. I think that a lot of people had never been photographed short of cell phone photos, and they absolutely loved the polaroids. If you're getting hassled by a couple dozen street vendors to buy their necklaces and beads, there is no easier way to distract them from the hard sell than to say that you will give them a free photograph.

Remember that most of your Kili trek will be challenging. Don’t think of it as being “just a hike.” Despite that, if you’re in good physical condition when you start, almost everyone can do at least 90% of the climb. The only exception is summit night, where the low oxygen levels will mess up many people regardless of how healthy they are.

With all of the qualifications and warnings that I’ve listed here, you might think I’m trying to warn people away from this experience. That couldn’t be further from the truth! I highly recommend it. The only reason I have so many warnings in this information is because if you take them seriously and it makes you more prepared when you start your trek, you’re going to enjoy Kilimanjaro a lot more.

And again, remember that only 41% of people make it to the top. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t reach the summit. Go for the experience of being on the mountain, not for being on the top of the mountain. If you temper your expections before you start, it can mean the difference between coming home thinking “that was awesome even though I didn’t go to the summit” versus being disappointed because you think that the summit was the only reason for going. Enjoy the journey, not the destination.

Click HERE to read part 1, if you missed it before reading this part of the story.

Click HERE to read part 2, if you missed it before reading this part of the story.

(If you're looking for the links to my photos/video, they're at the top of the part 1 post)

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