Thursday, October 19, 2006

Rowing as Religion

It was one of those mornings where you question what you are doing but it's too early to think clearly. Dark and rainy, we all had hoped the rain would taper off before we launched but it only increased as we put the boat in the water. It was late in the season and hopelessly dark. When the starboards went to get the oars, someone shook their head and said, "I don't think they're coming back."

When our boat rounded the corner and went under the bridge, the rain picked up to torrential. We were all siting shivering in the dark, hardly anyone else out or even up yet. It occurred to me that something like this, eight fit guys and one little coxswain sitting in a boat in the pouring rain at an ungodly hour isn't something that happens by accident.

I realized it was a minor miracle every time a boat launched. There seemed an infinite number of obstacles to be surpassed just to get it in the water. Get a boat and access to the water. Find eight guys who will pull on an oar until they feel like they are going to die and arrange for them to meet at a certain hour (with the caveat being, if one of them doesn't show up, the whole boat is screwed). Find a small authoritative person who is a morning person, likes to steer things, bark commands, and preferably knows how to steer through the Weeks Bridge. Get a coach, plan workouts, pay the coach, et cetera et cetera. Getting a boat in the water was a minor miracle. Competing in a regatta was a series of miracles.

I had a teammate who rowed for our club for 19 years. He was the founding member and they named a boat after him. Once, when I heard he bought a home within walking distance of the boathouse, I told him he was "hardcore." He said, "Some people buy a home to be close to their church," he pointed to the boathouse floor, "This is my church."

This allusion to religion was one I'd heard before. You have to have a fanatical semi-religious zeal to excel at this sport. Like I said before, none of it happens by accident. It is a complete and total test of your willpower. Every day before practice I would think, "I don't want to go to practice today." The temptation was always there to give in and do the easiest thing. You have to overcome this temptation every single day.

And just as zealous religious converts have difficulty relating their fervor to non-believers, so do rowers have difficulty explaining to non-rowers why knocking two seconds off their split is a big deal. And like most small religious sects, because rowing is almost never covered on television or other media, most people don't even realize it exists until they (somehow) stumble upon it. Yes, there really are groups of people who get up very early to compete and train for these events. They practice their craft while you are sleeping.

The distance, both literally and figuratively, between viewers and rowers make the sport look effortless and most viewers look at the beautiful, perfectly synchronized rowers and think, "Oh, that must be so fun." I've been in a good amount of races and I can tell you the only time they are ever fun is when they are over. And if you came in last place, they are not fun at all. Belying the calm exterior appearance, it's a state of frenzied chaos inside the boat and the rowers' minds, almost an out-of-body experience. That's not to say they are not emotional affairs. Last year, when we hit the course at the Head of the Charles (a goal of mine since 1996) I got a chill and thought "THIS! IS! IT!"

I'm biased but I'd say rowing is the perfect sport. No other does a better job of balancing grace with power and aerobic endurance with brute strength.

But why do we do it? What is the underlying motivation to take on this workload? I suppose it is different for everyone. It certainly isn't for monetary gain. I do know when we are rowing as one synchronized team, taking broad sweeping strokes and I can hear the hiss of the water along the boat, I feel like it is my Sabbath.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Hiking the Presidential Trail in One Day

Last weekend Mark Lotterhand and I set out to hike the entire Presidential Trail - 21 miles, crossing seven summmits, gaining 9,000 vertical feet - in one day. Normally this hike is done over 2-3 moderately dificult days instead of one incredibly difficult one. It's estimated there is a 60% dropout rate on this new extreme route.

I may have mentioned this hike in a previous post. What I did not mention in that post was how much I was dreading this hike. I spent the week before trying to think of ways I could back out. It sounded miserable.

But in the end, I couldn't back on Mark, mostly because he would hate me forever. He had already rescheduled it so I could go and he was counting on me for my car. So I went along with it and I dreaded it. Secretly I hoped that Mark's knee would give out (it had been giving him problems) and I could say, "Too bad" and our failure wouldn't be my fault. This is the first time I have ever wished injury on a friend.

We started out in the dark, before the dawn. In the photo above, I am standing at the trailhead with my headlamp. It was 4:30 am and I was already wishing this trip was over.

Here's a view of the Presidential Trail from the bottom, it runs along this ridge. On a clear day it gives some of the best views in all of New England. It goes over some of the tallest peaks on the east coast. The best thing is it is almost entirely above the treeline and gives sweeping views of the surrounding countryside.

And here's the view we got when we got to the top of Mount Madison, the first of seven summits. The wind was at a sustained 50 mph, with gust of 69 mph which is one mph short of a category I hurricane. It was difficult to stand. We were in a cloudbank and visibility was reduced to 10-20 feet.

There was no way we could continue, at some points we were crawling. I was secretly relieved to not have to go through with the whole thing but I felt bad for Mark. He had been planning this trip for a year. We both agreed conditions made it impossible, so we would only do Mount Madison, Adams, and maybe Jefferson, then bail and find a ride back to our cars.

After we spent an extended period brooding in the Madison lodge, we started out again and got a temporary reprieve. Mark snapped this photo on our way to Mount Adams before the clouds rolled in again. This one little break may have saved the entire trip. For the rest of the hike we thought, "If it happened once, maybe it could happen again."

Here's Mark on the summit of Mount Adams. Strong winds yet again, no visibility. It was hard for us to comprehend how it could be 90 degrees down below. We later found out that all of New England had clear skies except for the Presidential range.

At the summit of Mount Jefferson we met a couple other hikers debating what to do. We had to make a decision - keep going to Mount Washington or bail. A burst of inspiration made me say, "What the hell, let's go for it." So we set out for Mount Washington, home of the worst weather in America.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that. The Presidential range stands at the crossing point of three major stormfronts. The stormfronts from across the nation get amplified here, similar to the way you can put your fingers over a garden hose to shoot out a jet of water.

When we got to the summit of Mount Washington, I developed a bit of an attitude. There's an auto-road to the top of Mount Washington and, as a result, the summit is teeming with overweight tourists. A popular bumper sticker is sold at the top reading "This car climbed Mount Washington" like it is a big accomplishment. Congratulations, car.

We stopped for lunch in the cafeteria which was overflowing with people who were hungry after their arduous drive. When I asked someone if a couple of seats were available and they said no, I thought, "You don't deserve these seats." I had hiked 12 miles at this point. Like I said, attitude. Activity brings it out in me.

On the way down from Washington we got briefly lost. Visibility was so poor we almost didn't realize we were backtracking down the trail we had just come up. After finding our way again, we came across some pure white rocks where we took shelter briefly.

Mark's knee was in constant pain on the descents. He took Advil at regular intervals and wore a brace. But, being Mark, he never complained about it. This was behaviour very unlike myself. If I'm upset about something, you will know about it. Just ask my family, friends, and coworkers. Sometimes I'm surprised I have any friends left.

As we were climbing Mount Monroe, the fifth of the seven, the clouds finally began to break. Here we are looking over the Lake of the Clouds hut. These AMC shelters are beautiful on the inside. They feature a full-service kitchen and bunk beds, reservations are required.

Coming down off Mount Monroe, we finally got some views of the surrounding countryside. You can see Mount Eisenhower in the background. This part reminded me of photos I'd seen of Scotland and Patagonia.

The view from the summit of Mount Eisenhower. From here we could see the clouds which still hung over Adams, Jefferson, and Washington. Despite the view, I was starting to wish this hike was over.

Before this hike, I would have considered a hike up Madison, Adams, and Jefferson in a single day as a long hike. Funny how your perception changes when you extend your goals to beyond what you think possible. It was only here, after 15 or so miles, that I started feeling fatigued at all.

Finally we ended on Mount Pierce, named after the only president elected from New Hampshire, Franklin Pierce. One of the youngest presidents ever elected, he is also remembered as one of the worst. He was also a raging alcoholic. Just some fun facts for you.

The hike down from this point was below treeline and, as it always is with hiking, it went on a little longer than I thought possible. Just when I think I can't take any more, the hike always seems to go another 30 minutes beyond that point. As an added plus, when we finally hit the road, we had to walk another mile to where the car was parked.

We finished the hike at nine o'clock at night, so we started in the dark and ended in the dark. We probably could have gone a little faster but we didn't want Mark's knee to blow out which, despite my earlier wishes, would have been catastrophic. I slept like the dead that night at the hotel.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions about this hike, please leave a message in the comments.

Hiking-related posts: hiking Mount Passaconaway, why I climb, and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Please Don't Do This

Bloggers of the world, I ask of you one thing: Please do not start your posts with an apology. We understand that you have been busy, too busy to post for such a long time. We forgive you.

Any journalist will tell you the first two sentences of any article are the hook. This is your first and only opportunity to rope in readers. Make those first few words count.

If you don't believe me, contrast this lead:
Fifteen years ago, Richard Pascall, a professional hunter and safari guide, bought a fifty-two-thousand-acre farm near the village of Turk Mine, in Matabeleland, the western region of Zimbabwe, and began raising a herd of African black rhinoceroses. He went about this in the usual way: fencing in a large patch of bush (eighty per cent of his land), releasing some rhinos onto it, and leaving them to their own devices.

With this one:
So it's been a little while since I last wrote on this thing. Yeah, it's not that I've forgotten, I've just been busy. But don't worry, this update will be quite depressing and cynical. I promise.

The first one, before I know it, I'm dying to read more about rhinoceroses. I can hardly control myself, it's pulling me away from my work. The second one, I can barely make it past the word "thing" before zoning out.

Thank you.

(Yes, I know I haven't posted in a long time)

Friday, May 26, 2006

Kilimanjaro, part seven

Please read part one, two, three, four, five, and six if you haven't already.

Getting up at midnight to summit a mountain was a surreal experience. It was dark and cold, the wind was howling, metal equipment was jangling, almost everyone else was sleeping, and the only light we saw was the ghostly glow of our headlamps. I felt as if I were on the moon.

Before we set out, our guides informed us they would not bring their backpacks, so they could carry ours if necessary. "Pshaw," I thought, "No way am I inflicting this bag on our guides." Oh, how I would later change my mind and be grateful for their offer.

I started out strong. I had no altitude sickness and I was well dressed for the cold. It was a huge surprise to outpace my brother. While we were hiking, I thought, "Today might be the first time I beat Andy at something." Throughout our lives, Andy has always crushed me both academically and in feats of physical endurance.

But, surprising to us both, I felt good while Andy was breathing alarmingly heavy and complained his hands were cold. We exchanged gloves and Tumaini took Andy's pack. I had conflicting feelings of sympathy and triumph about this.

This all changed in one horrible moment only 1,000 feet from the summit. All at once, like some cruel joke, my legs turned to rubber and my pack dragged me to the ground. I fell like a puppet with cut strings. Andy stopped hiking and asked in disbelief, "Are you serious?" It was all hardship for me from that moment forward and Andy only got stronger as I got weaker.

Tom was cold and just wanted to get it done so he raced ahead with Amani while leaving Andy, Tumaini, and I to follow. He made it up first and, as you can see in the photo above, he did it all before the dawn.

Andy took this picture of me as we approached the summit, past Stella's Point, only 300 vertical feet from the peak. You can get a good sense of how cold it was by the amount of clothing I was wearing. For the record - I was wearing fleece pants over my hiking pants, four layers on my upper body and a windproof shell, gloves, wool socks, and a balaclava. We estimated it was around five degrees fahrenheit.

Despite being so close to the summit, I can't tell you how much this part of the trip hurt. I would take ten paces, stop, lean on my trekking poles to catch my breath, and pull myself together for another ten steps. It was agony. At one point, I fell to the ground and had to dig into every energy reserve I had to get back up. It was not glamorous.

The cold added to the unpleasantness but wasn't as big an issue as the altitude. When you are climbing at this elevation, everything in your body wants to give up. It's a huge mental battle. The only thing motivating me was the fact that I had traveled 8,000 miles to get here, and I'd be an idiot if I turned back with only 300 feet to go.

Andy made it to the sign first. The sunrise was blinding, check out our long shadows. I wish we had thought to have the guide take our photo together but we were both not thinking clearly.

Here's the money shot. The moment you've all been waiting for. I wish I could tell you how triumphant I felt, how this shot made it all worth it, and blah blah blah. The truth is, when the big moment finally arrived, I peeled the balaclava off my face, sat down, put on my biggest, fakest smile until the picture was taken. As soon as it was, I stood up and said, "Alright, I'm outta here." This smile, as recorded on film, was the only time I smiled that day.

While I made for the exit as soon as the picture was taken, Andy went to walk around the perimeter of the summit. Kilimanjaro doesn't come to one big point like classic mountains, rather it is like a lopsided tabletop, with Uhuru peak being the highest point, ringing an enormous crater in the center.

We split up. I headed back down and hoped I could find the way back to camp while Andy went with Tumaini to investigate the Ash Pit in the center of the mountain. Andy wanted to one-up everyone who has climbed Kilimanjaro. A good amount of westerners climb Kili every season but very few go to the Ash Pit.

In this photo, you can see one of the boulders behind which Andy took a crap. He had no toilet paper.

Here's the Ash Pit that Andy went through hell to see. It actually was pretty cool. The ash pit was not visible from Uhuru peak, so I didn't see the Ash Pit until Andy had his pictures developed.

After struggling so hard to reach the summit, I had given no thought on keeping any energy in reserve for the descent. I have never felt so utterly drained in all my life. I stumbled the whole way down, with barely enough strength to prevent myself from careening out of control down the path. The ground was made of ash, which allowed hikers to slide down with each step, as if skiing. This would have been fun, had I the strength to do it.

I caught up with Tom and Amani, thankfully, so I had company in my misery. Tom was suffering from a terrific migraine and bolted down the mountain in pursuit of some altitude relief. I was so embarrassed when they would have to stop and wait for me stumbling behind. I kept apologizing for being so slow.

I looked ridiculous. It was the only time I've ever been so fatigued that I could barely walk. It wasn't until later that I realized I hadn't eaten or drank anything in nearly eight hours of strenous exertion. If you are climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, let this serve as a cautionary tale. My two word recommendation: EAT. DRINK.

As we approached camp, we saw people who were in worse shape than ourselves. One woman was being led down on the arm of her guide as if she were blind. I've read about people being carried down on stretchers. Everyone in camp was so beaten and tired, we looked like refugees. The atmosphere was restrained and somber, everyone was too broken and exhausted to celebrate.

Andy was a catastrophic mess when he stumbled into camp a full hour behind us. Dust had gotten into his eyes on the trail, making them an angry shade of red. His lips and face was chapped from the wind. He had snot dripping out of his nose and that combined with his non-wiping bathroom break made him a truly disgusting specimen to behold.

When we were getting ready to descend further, after an hour or so of rest, Andy sat up and howled in pain for a full five seconds. He could say that he saw the Ash Pit but I'm not sure it was worth the physical cost.

After a long uneventful hike down, we made it to our last campground. The next morning Andy took this shot of the triumphant team.

We had read about tipping our guides and porters at the end of a trip and, at breakfast, were unsure how to broach the subject. It wasn't much of an issue because Amani came over to us and said, "We'd like the tip now." It's an awkward experience to hand over money and stand there as a group of recipients are receiving it. Tom, Andy, and I were apprehensive as we wondered, "Did we tip enough?"

We were relieved when the porters broke out into applause and smiles. They formed a line to shake our hands and hug us. Their gratitude took me aback and made me wish I had tipped more. Our porters and guides were some of the most hard-working and gracious people I've ever met. I still smile when I think of that moment.

For general reference: The rule is to tip ten percent of the total cost of your trip. We tipped a little more than that. I later did the math and figured our porters had busted their asses for $6-7 a day. Bring plenty of money, when you see how hard these guys work, you'll wish you could give them more.

Also, a note to prospective Kili hikers, I have read reports of porter abuse where porters are given inadequate gear or been otherwise abused by tour group leaders. I did not see any examples of this during our time with Good Earth. But please be on the lookout for it and if you see it, report it.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped in Moshi for one last lunch with our tour group. The restaurant was of questionable quality but I saw a few Westerners (read: whiteys) eating so I figured it was safe. I ordered the fish with tartar sauce. It tasted a little weird, but I finished it off to be polite.

Big mistake.

Afterwards, on the long drive back, I felt gross. My stomach wasn't right and I was dizzy. When we got back to the hotel, I laid down while Andy and Tom went downtown to take some pictures. Before they left, I asked Andy to send an email to my wife from the internet cafe.

The need to puke awoke me from my nap. I threw up a total of ten times, four in the first installment and six in the next. I threw up so hard, I feared for my life and cried out for help. None came.

At around the time I was expelling my guts through every orfice of my body, Andy was posing for the picture above in downtown Arusha.

In Andy's defense, he took good care of me when he got back. Also, our flight did not leave until late the next day so I had some time to recover. Unfortunately, I was not sufficiently recovered to join Tom for a celebratory Kilimanjaro beer in the airport terminal.

We were witness to a couple of crafty incidents at the airport. The woman at the airline flight counter charged Andy a $10 "safety fee" when he checked-in. When he came up to us, he asked, "Did you guys get charged a 'safety fee'?" We both laughed and asked what he was talking about. Andy went back to her and asked what it was going on. She, clearly busted, responded, "Oh, it's been waived" and handed him his $10 back. No hard feelings about, you know, trying to rip you off.

Also, there is a very prominent money exchange in the incoming flights terminal and none on the outgoing flights terminal. So it's easy to change your money into schillings and difficult to turn them back into dollars. I am beginning to think this is by deliberate design.

My advice is not to bother exchanging your money for schillings, everyone in Tanzania prefers American dollars anyway. As a result of this trickery, I am still the proud owner of 135,000 Tanzanian schillings. I cannot find an American bank which will exchange the goddamned things.

The overwhelming majority of Tanzanians I met were friendly, hard-working, honest, and kind. But be on the lookout for these shenanigans.

One more thing I discovered about myself on this trip, 25 hours in plane transit makes me go a little crazy. When I landed in Boston, I was completely disoriented. Time seemed like a dimension I had excused myself from for a full day. It took me four days to get over the jet lag.

As trying as it was, I'm happy to say I did it. I made it. I traveled to Africa and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. The instant I saw the picture above of Andy, I knew it was the one I would use for the closing shot of this saga. Thanks for reading.

If you are planning a hike up Kili, please don't heisitate to contact me with any questions. I recommend Good Earth tours for a travel guide, they were excellent and affordable.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Kilimanjaro, part six

Day Five - We Climb the Headwall and Prepare for Summit Day

Please read part one, two, three, four, and five if you haven't already.

The next morning was noticeably cooler. Here you can see me standing in front of the summit. The headwall we would be climbing that day is on the right.

I had spent a little time doing recreational bouldering at the Metro Rock Gym before going on this trip. It actually helped me with the climbing we did that day. The headwall was steep but not vertical, which made me happy. I am a coward when it comes to sheer faces.

Baranco camp stood at the crossroads of two paths up the mountain so we finally met some other hikers, which was a very international group. I talked with a Dane who spoke decent English and gave him some aspirin for his altitude sickness.

He was hiking solo and his determination impressed me. I don't think I'd have the guts to try something like that. Mountain climbing takes a certain amount of willpower and, left to my own devices, I would probably give up. It was only after I had been hiking for awhile that I understood the meaning of the phrase, "There's always an excuse."

Please permit me a moment to lapse into a little piggish-ness. This portion of the trip was remembered by Tom, Andy, and I as "Booty Shorts Mountain" - so named for the woman wearing the very short shorts hiking in front of us. Try to understand, we had been surrounded by men hiking in the African outback for four days. It was a memorable and welcome change in scenery.

Here's Tom and I standing at the top of the headwall. This is one of my favorite photos from the trip. We look so triumphant.

After climbing the headwall, we continued our march to the Karanga Camp which we would be passing through on our way to Barafu, our last campsite before summit day. We stopped briefly in Karanga to eat lunch and refill our water bottles. Andy and Tom agonized over how much water to bring. In the end, they decided they had brought too much.

You can see how the trail got very steep on this portion in the background. Those little dots are people hiking. It was a grind but I felt good, no signs of altitude sickness. Tom was the only one of us who brought along altitude sickness medication, which he took at this point on the trip. For those of you who don't know Tom, he runs in marathons and sometimes wins them.

My brother is a bit of a fitness freak himself. In preparation for this trip, his workouts consisted of loading a backpack with 70 pounds of weight, strapping it to his back, and going on the stair climber for an hour. Once, an acquaintance approached him at the gym and asked, "Andy, what's this about you climbin' rocks?"

Here's a photo from the final stretch before reaching Barafu. This area was rocky and desolate, almost completely lifeless. I saw one giant hawk or vulture but that was the only sign of life I saw while we were here. The rocks underneath our feet were loose jagged shards.

This hike was the first which was fairly draining. When we made it to camp, we collapsed in our tents and slept for a little bit. Tom snapped this picture of the outhouses from the inside of his tent right before he fell asleep.

How come it always seems like the best pictures require the least planning and come out when you least expect it. I really liked this photo, just because it makes the viewer feel like they are actually there, seeing something that is real and not a staged event of people posing in front of something.

Here's a photo of the porter we nicknamed Dr Seuss. You gotta admire a guy who is unafraid to wear pink striped gators that look like 80's style leg-warmers. I'm glad we got a picture of him. He was the tallest of the crew, probably the thinnest, but he was a working machine. I never saw him slow down.

This is one of the only pictures we have of Andy and I in the same frame. If we didn't look so grizzled and worn, I'd have it framed. Mawenzi peak is in the background.

That evening we ate dinner and tried to calm the butterflies we were all feeling. It's difficult to not feel a little apprehensive when you are standing on the brink of the unknown. Sure we had read some books about the hike but you never know what it is really going to be like. One man's definition of "difficult" can be wildly different from another man's.

This miscommunication happened to me when I hiked Mt Rainier, my first over 14,000 foot mountain, in 2004. I was under the impression it was an easy hike, fine for someone in good shape. Volcanoes like Rainier and Kilimanjaro are easier technical climbs than regular mountains. That's the reason I hike them.

I asked someone about Mt. Rainier before setting out and they said, "Oh yeah, it's great. You'll love it." This will go down in my personal history as the most inept advice I have ever received. That mountain physically and psychically destroyed me. Afterwards, I was grateful to read, "Denali notwithstanding, it [Rainier] is probably the most challenging and physically demanding climb in the U.S."

Standing there on Kilimanjaro at that moment, I feared we were again getting in over our heads. We were on the eve of a lot of work. We would be getting up at midnight, gaining over 4,000 vertical feet and descending 7,000 down. We were about to hike for 15 hours straight.

I slept for two hours that night, from 9:30 to 11:30. I spent the last half hour before midnight wide awake and dreading the guide coming to wake us. This was a very vivid memory. It was cold and dark when we got up and set out for the summit.

Last Installment: Summit day and an epic case of food poisoning

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Mount Passaconaway Hike

Two weeks ago, Mark Lotterhand, his dog Sophie, and I hiked Mount Passaconaway in New Hampshire. Snow was a distant memory in Massachusetts but we knew it was still in the mountains up north. To prepare ourselves, we packed lots of winter hiking equipment.

I was excited by the opportunity to break out the hiking boots I had worn to Mount Kilimanjaro. Waterproof, rugged, and comfortable, these things just about walk up mountains by themselves.

I was running late when I dashed out to meet Mark at his house, where we would take his car up to Passaconaway. We arrived at the base of the mountain, popped the trunk, when I had the sudden revelation, "I forgot to pack my boots!"

My brain exploded. I had packed trekking poles, layer upon layer of warm clothes, food, water, everything. I had even brought gators to prevent snow from getting down my boots. My boots, my boots! I can't believe I forgot my damn boots!

I stomped my feet. I cursed. I came short of punching myself in the head. "Maybe your wife can drive up and drop them off," Mark offered as a joke. It was a two hour drive away.

Mark reassured me it wouldn't be that bad, to hike in snow up to our calves in sneakers. When the hike was finished, he confessed he would have told me any lie in the world to convince me to hike that day.

It turned out to not be as bad as I expected, although I learned that hiking in wet cold sneakers through snow is not an ideal situation. My feet are getting cold by the memory of it. I was glad I had worn thick wool socks and brought poles. This hike would not have been possible without them.

We were rewarded with a beautiful clear view of Mount Washington, which towered over the neighboring peaks. Here you can see it from 50 miles away, its rocky summit still covered in snow. There was not a cloud in the sky that day and it never got as cold as we expected.

Passaconaway is one of 4,000 footers of New Hampshire - standing at 4,043 feet. I motivated myself to continue hiking by the thought of being able to put a check mark next to its name on the list and say, "I climbed that one."

Finding the way was sometimes difficult in the snow. We came to two lookouts, giving a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside and Mount Washington. Mark held off on taking any photos on the lookouts, we wanted to wait until we got to the summit. We started a slight descent, which suddenly became a long descent, when we realized we had just been on the summit.

Hiking up in sneakers wasn't too bad but the descent was a painful experience. The snow was melting and slippery, forcing us to descend very slowly. In this photo you can see my mesh sneakers. We had seen some other hikers on the ascent, one of them advised the way up was possible without resorting to the use of crampons. I had asked him, "How about with sneakers?"

Despite the cold I felt, Mark assured me I wouldn't get frostbite. In that situation, the worst danger was coming down with hypothermia, which was a extremely remote possibility. The more likely danger was slipping and hitting something. It was slow going.

On the descent, the errors continued when we got lost and had to extend the hike a mile through unpacked snow. The trail we took threaded a path between some of the biggest cliffs I've seen in New England. While working our way down the rocky slope, I bashed my unprotected ankle on a rock which was no fun at all.

We came upon another lookout, standing atop a 600 foot sheer vertical face. I shied away from the edge, envisioning myself accidentally skiing to my doom over the side. Mark has no fear when it comes to heights. He risked his life to get this shot which made the whole hike worthwhile.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Kilimanjaro, part five

Day Five - Shira Two campsite and the Lava Tower

Please read part one, two, three, and four if you haven't already.

The next morning dawned bright and beautiful yet again. The sun in Africa was just unbelievable. I was glad to have brought my sun hat and didn't have to apply suntan lotion every hour.

We were at around 12,000 feet when this picture as taken. In it Tom is sitting with our guides and porters. Not all of them are in the picture, conspicuously absent is the one we affectionately nicknamed Dr. Seuss (more on him later). Our head guide Amani is on the far left. Tumaine, our assistant guide, is seated next to Tom in red, wearing an uncharacteristic scowl.

Our porter/waiter Roderick is dressed in black. He's the one who broke my heart when he told us how he was saving his pay for English lessons. How much money a Tanzanian earns is largely based on how much English they speak. English lessons are expensive in a country with few native speakers. Amani learned most of his English in secondary school, which only 20% of Tanzanians can afford to attend.

I never caught the name of the guy in the background with the raised fist but he was great. He was always smiling and shouting encouragement to us while we were hiking, even as he ran past us on the trail. When we tipped everyone at the end, he gave the three of us hugs. He did not speak much English but his enthusiasm was infectious.

Here Andy and Tumaine took a breather as we hiked to the Lava Tower. We were making our way back up to 14,000 feet and I was pleased by how little the altitude was affecting me. I began to think that maybe summit day wouldn't be so hard. I was later proved to be very wrong.

Here's Tom as we hiked to the Lava Tower. This area was barren and rocky, not terribly welcoming at all. I found it ominous and felt like I was hobbit hiking through Mordor. There was some cloud cover up here, which looked like steam rising from a volcano.

Andy and Tom climbed to the top of the Lava Tower while I stayed at the bottom and took this photo. If you click on the photo, you can see their tiny figures at the top.

I had slept horribly the night before, a constant theme on this trip, and didn't feel like doing extreme climbing while tired. I was happy to rest and take the photo instead.

Here's the view Andy and Tom saw from the top of the Lava Tower. The Lava Tower itself is around 150 feet high putting them at over 15,000 feet elevation. In this photo, Tom is seated at the edge of a sheer drop.

When they came back down, the first thing Andy said to me was, "You would not have enjoyed that." Andy knows I am not fond of heights. When we hiked Mt Rainier, Andy jumped over a crevasse and thought, "Dave's not going to like this hike very much."

After climbing the Lava Tower, we made our way back down to Baranco camp. Here Andy and I are standing in a grove of those weird trees we saw earlier. While at the Lava Tower, a cloud had rolled in making it misty and cold. It's a strange experience to walk through a forest of these trees shrouded in fog.

This photo was taken at one of those moments where I was thinking, "What the hell am I doing here?" The hot tea helped but mostly I felt tired and dirty and longed for home. Moments like these happen the closer you come to summit day.

Baranco camp was an intersection for multiple trails so we were suddenly camping in a large group of hikers. We had hardly seen anyone else previous to this. One of the hikers was an altitude sickness-stricken Dane who I gave some aspirin.

For fun we pressed our guide to name which nationality were the strongest hikers. After much hemming and hawing, he answered the Austrians. Americans were ranked as "okay" which I found surprising. When I travel abroad it's important to me to never conform to the stereotype of the slothful, indulged American.

Here's a view of the glaciers of Kilimanjaro as the sun was setting, Andy standing at the bottom right. Just out of the picture was a view of the Northern Breach trail. That was the trail we had intended to take until it was blocked by a landslide a couple weeks before, killing three American hikers, two of whom were from Massachusetts. This was something we didn't spend a lot of time talking about but I thought about it that night at Baranco before I fell asleep.

Next Installment: We climb a headwall and things start getting more difficult