Mark's Kilimanjaro Trip

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Chapter 6: 
Horombo to Kibo Hut

The next morning we started for Kibo Hut. Kibo Hut, at about 15000 feet, was our last stop before the summit. Kibo was way above any plant life or water whatsoever, so all cooking fuel and water had to be hand carried up from lower elevations. In addition, unlike the other huts, Kibo Hut was one big cinder block building for eating and sleeping. The guides and porters had separate quarters, but all of the trekkers were in a building together. Instead of 4-person mini-huts, the rooms at Kibo each slept 12 in 6 bunk beds. I heard that the building could hold 60 people, so I guess there were 5 bunk rooms in all.

To get to Kibo you ascend about a 1000 feet from Horombo, then descend a few hundred feet into the Saddle. The Saddle in a desert at 13000 feet. It is the open, windswept area between the main cone of Kibo and the secondary cones of the rest of the mountain. It is several miles across with two parallel trails visible in the sand and gravel. From a distance they look like the tire tracks of a truck, but no vehicles go that high. They are actually two trails which seemed to serve as inbound and outbound lanes to Kibo Hut.

This is a picture of Kibo crater, the main crater of Kilimanjaro, looking across the Saddle. You can see the glacier on the left. If you squint, you can see the trail we're going to follow up the crater itself. It's a light, squiggly line that runs from just to the right of the crater's center top, down and slightly to the right. It actually winds a great deal more than is apparent in this picture.

The funny thing that happened was that one of the guys on the trip decided he wouldn't bother carrying his rain gear that day. He'd been carrying it for three days and it hadn't rained in the lower regions, where it's supposed to, so he figured there was no point in carrying it across a literal desert, where it hadn't rained in over a year. (We checked with the guide and he confirmed. No rain for a year.) Well, naturally, it rained, so he froze his butt off.

I was separated from everyone else, hiking ahead alone, when the cloud rolled up the saddle over us. The land was flat, so you could normally see for miles, but with the cloud I could barely see anyone behind me and no one ahead. There weren't really rain drops, just a heavy freezing mist all around me. There were streamers of cloud that seemed to be coming out of the ground or catching on patches of rock. I was hiking in a rain cloud. It was very surreal.

After awhile the sun came out again and my right hand got sunburned. It was the only part of me that was uncovered or not in the shade of my coat since it was holding my walking stick. I don't think I'd ever gotten a sunburned hand before, so I hadn't put sunscreen on it. At altitude, you're above most of the screening of the atmosphere, so sunburn is a serious danger.

A couple of hours later I begin to get close to the other side of the saddle. There's a rocky area there and Kibo Hut is up in the rocks. From the far side of the saddle I overheard people say they could see the sunlight flash of Kibo's tin roof, but I didn't see it until I walked around an outcropping and there it was.

I walked inside to find some of the others in the group already there. One couple had gone too fast the day before and had vowed to go exceptionally slowly that day to save energy for the summit. Others had taken a slower pace as well. I grabbed a bunk bed and unloaded my stuff. I knew we would be leaving that night for the summit, and I wanted to pack my backpack with everything I thought I would need for a night hike in winter. We had been unable to find out exactly how cold it would get on top. Our guide just kept saying that it would be very cold. I didn't realize until later that a man who had grown up in equatorial Africa would have a different conception of cold than someone who had grown up in northern Indiana.

I was to pay for this mistake later, but at the time I was worried about freezing, so I planned to wear heavy polypro longjohns, fleece pants and jacket, heavy snow pants with a bib, and a GoreTex shell jacket. In addition I had a three-layer glove system, a balaclava, and my heavy boots. I could have gone to the north pole in that getup. In addition, I stuck a down jacket in my pack in case I got cold. Inexperience is a terrible thing.

After dinner, which I didn't eat much of because my stomach was in knots, we all went to bed early. I started coughing. It was a dry, persistent tickle that I couldn't get rid of. Cough drops didn't work. I heard a couple of the people get up and go out, and I thought they were trying to get away from the noise. I decided to go outside and see if I couldn't cough out the tickle deliberately. So I went outside to the outhouses, and it was snowing! Soft white flakes were gently drifting down. I smiled, because it seemed like Christmas.

The outhouses were perched over the edge of a cliff. No running water and you can't really dig a hole in the rock, so I guess they had little choice. Drafty, though. I stood in there coughing as hard as I could, trying to clear my throat, and feeling miserable. Eventually I gave up and headed into the dining area of the hut. There, two of our party members were sitting up with altitude sickness. One of them asked me to get Exhoud, our guide, so I went over to the guides hut. Inside, a group of porters and guides were talking around a fire, which was the only light. It was warm and nice compared with our cold building. I felt awkward, standing there in the middle of the guides' "living room." There was little direct contact between porters and tourists; we really only interacted with Exhoud, the head guide. I assumed that most of the porters didn't speak English, and the Swahili tape I'd purchased in preparation for the trip had gone unlistened to.

Exhoud showed up in a couple of minutes and we went back to the main hut. Exhoud said that the only thing the two sick people could do was wait until morning and walk to a lower elevation. One of them protested, asking if she could ride down on the stretcher that was stored at every hut, but Exhoud said that riding it would be much worse than walking. (The stretcher was a metal stretcher with a signal heavy bicycle wheel mounted below it.) Exhoud said that it was only used when someone literally couldn't walk, like with a broken leg.

He then went back to his hut. I stayed up with them for awhile longer, then tried to go back to bed. This time a was able to relax a little more, so I did snatch a few minutes' sleep before we were all awakened at 1 am to get ready.
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