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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Christmas on Kilimanjaro


Mountain climbing for Christmas . . . definitely not our usual tradition.  Though being on the move, sleeping outside, being cold and far from home all are probably appropriate ways to remember the reality of the first Christmas.

Our trek started on the 22nd when we went to pick Luke up from the airport.  Of course that in itself was complicated by the random departure times and flight shuffling by Ethiopian Airlines, the nightmare of uncertainty.  He wasn't on his flight, but as we huddled with other expectant and disappointed families we took hope in the rumor that many passengers would be on the next flight only a couple of hours later.  We knew he hadn't checked any bags, so we placed bets on his ability to fly through customs.  Sure enough, he was the first passenger to emerge.

From there we drove south to Amboseli National Park on the Kenya/TZ border.  Our plan was to camp in the wilderness with the views of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance.  In all our years in Uganda, our essential family get-away was Campsite 2 in Queen Elizabeth National Park, nothing but space and sky and scrub and animals.  The Kenya Wildlife Service is a depressing subject for another post, but suffice it to say that they refused our park card, extracted a ton of money from us, then mentioned the public campsite was "flooded", then refused to cancel our payment and let us leave . . . then we drove to the campsite which was actually NOT flooded, so we set up camp, only to be accosted by territorial Massai herders who claimed the land (which by gps and by signage was INSIDE the park) was actually theirs so our park payments didn't count and we needed to pay them . . . so we took down our tents in the gathering dusk and drove back to the gate to camp in the very non-wilderness mosquito-infested park headquarters by the gate.  It was a beautiful sunset drive through the park, with Kili's snow-capped peak peeking through the clouds and wildebeest and elephant meandering by the road, and we grilled tandoori chicken and naan and salvaged a fun evening, but the bureaucracy was draining.

The next morning Julia woke up pale and vomiting, not an auspicious beginning to what was to be a major endurance test for the week. We packed up and braved the border to TZ, the usual hassles of bringing a car across, fees for this and that, and on the TZ side the sinking realization that Julia's yellow-fever vaccination card was missing.  However it was so chaotic that no one noticed.  We finally met up with our climbing contact at the park gate in the early afternoon.  Then it turned out that the park passes for Kili had to be put into our passports, so they needed to travel with them to another gate, meaning that we could not start the climb as anticipated that day but had to camp at the gate.  It was a lovely grassy site and in the end quite helpful to give Julia some recovery time, plus it rained so we could shelter.  Plus there was an endless loop of Christmas music playing, and a lighted disco ball, and a rousing game of hearts, so we made the best of it.  We had chosen to go up the Rongai route and down the Marangu route, a less-traveled alternative from North-East to South-East.

DAY 1:  Rongai gate to Simba Camp (6,000+ to 8,400 ft)  This was a pleasant walk through pine forests, gradually climbing to a campsite by a river.  Colobus monkeys, leisurely conversations, and our guides constantly telling us to slow down before they figured out these kids don't walk slowly.  Again this day was shorter than we expected, but we didn't push to go further since Julia was still struggling with her GI bug.

The daily routine was a wake-up at dawn with ginger tea delivered to our tents (3 little 2-man tents) and warm water to wash face and hands.  Then breakfast in the mess tent, a small structure that covered a folding table and six folding stools.  We would set off while the porters took down the tents and generally arrive about the same time as them at the next campsite.  Lunch on the trail or, if the day was short, at the next site.  Lots of rest and reading time, an early dinner hunched around the table in the mess tent trying not to spill our salty soup in spite of the squeeze and slope.  At the end of the meal the three guides would slip in, hunched in the small space, and give us the briefing for the next day.  Once they realized Luke was fluent in Swahili and the rest of us passably coherent in understanding, they got a kick out of doing all this in Swahili.  Shivering into our sleeping bags shortly after sunset to read and sleep until dawn.  So many cups of hot tea, popcorn and biscuits, carbs galore. Stars.  Latrines.  Iodine pills to purify stream water.

But day one was the 24th, Christmas Eve, so I pulled the fun battery-operated string of lights out (thanks Melissa H!) and hung the kids' stockings in the mess tent, and passed out candy-canes to all our porters and guides and cook.

DAY 2: Simba to Theti (Third Cave) Camp (8,400 to 12,500 ft).  Christmas!  Before breakfast I slipped chocolate and little stuffed animals (a family tradition) into the stockings.  We read a devotion and celebrated with millet porridge before ascending through the alpine zone of scrub pine, red hot poker flowers, gladiolas and black-berry-like vines, sorrel and heather, the stark rocky beauty.  The kids hummed LOTR themes for Riders of Rohan appropriate to the territory of boulders and streams. This day was about 4 hours of hiking and an hour of rest.  Buffalo droppings and hoof prints, swooping enormous pied crows, hidden alpine chats, but mostly not much life this high.  By the time we arrived at the camp, the clouds had precipitated into a chilling misty rain, driving us to huddle in our tents.

DAY 3:  Theti to Kibo camp (12,500 to 15,400 ft).  The tents were crunchy with frost when we peeled back our flaps, and a clear pink sunrise shone on the crater rim to our west.  It was 29 degrees as we ate breakfast.  Today's hike took us across saddle between the eastern craggy secondary peak and the higher volcanic crater rim.  We were above the clouds, which seemed to follow but not catch us as we ascended in sunshine.  Three hours through high cold desert, wind-sculpted rocks, tiny dry everlasting flowers clinging to to the dusty ground.  The Mawenzi peak looked mysterious and intimidating, covered in jagged ice and snow to our left as we skirted around the higher peak to our right.  Our guide pointed out a plane that had crashed on a sightseeing tour a couple years ago. Paths converged towards Kibo, which was our first taste of the Kilimanjaro crowd.  Clusters of tents, the smell of various cooks, climbers in their expensive matching gear, porters laughing and greeting, strong equatorial sunshine unfiltered by much atmosphere, freezing breezes, breathless just walking around.  An early dinner and trying to sleep before darkness, knowing our "night" was over after 11 pm.

DAY 4:  SUMMIT DAY.  Kibo thru Gilman's Point to Uhuru Peak back to Kibo and down to Horombo (15,400 ->19,341->12,327 ft.).  We were awakened and given hot tea as we bundled into every layer we could possibly manage, shuffling in the dark, fitting on gloves and adjusting poles.  Our peak ascent started at 11:45 pm, aiming to be at the peak for sunrise.  We passed a couple of groups that had left earlier and were soon climbing blindly into the pitch dark, only the outline of the crater rim against the stars above us.  Winding ever upwards, back and forth across the steep scree slope.  The Kilimanjaro shuffle, a slow steady pace designed to take us up another 4 thousand feet in thin air, without dying.  Every hour or so we stopped to drink and rest, take time-lapse star photos, rub our freezing fingers together.  Our guides sang, military-like chants and Swahili songs & rap with verses including all our names.  I prayed and recited Bible verses to keep my mind occupied, focusing on Julia's steps ahead of me (I quickly abandoned my hand-held flashlight and depended on the light of her headlamp).  I am glad we couldn't see too far ahead.  Just follow the guides, stay in the line, keep walking in the few feet of light, all else a black void, on and on.  Julia was really flagging.  She was still recovering from her gastroenteritis, and had spent a semester near sea level.  The last thousand feet, Jack started pep talking in a very passable Bane (Batman) voice, then transitioned to an Obama impersonation, telling the story of a girl named Julia who inspired him in her determination to conquer the mountain.  Our guides were in stitches.  He kept up the monologue, step after step, and Julia kept going.  The last bit is a rocky boulder climb to Gilman's Point, on the crater rim.  It was nearly 5 am, so we only rested briefly then began to walk around the crater, now on deep slick snow and rock.  The sky to the east began to lighten as we worked our way up towards Uhuru Peak.  The path was mostly bare rock and scree now, but we could see the wavy jagged walls of the shrinking glaciers down the slope below us.  And then we were there.  The Peak of Africa, high in the sky, 6:06 am.  Only two other male climbers were up there at the same time as us, though we passed dozens later on our way down.  The timing was perfect.  We watched the sun rise.  Mt. Meru rose through clouds to the west.  The inside of the crater came to light, steep slopes and snow.  We were freezing. Pictures. Celebration.  Goal accomplished.  Of the thousands and thousands of hikers, only 40% reach the peak. We were so thankful that we all made it up there together.

It was too cold to stay long.  Soon we were heading back down, back around the rim of the crater, this time able to see just how steeply the snow dropped off, how intimidating the boulders below were.  Back to Gilman's point, then down the rocks to the nearly vertical scree.  Instead of carefully winding, we could bound.  Big sliding steps, like skiing, straight down the slope.  Aching muscles.  Down and down.  Beautiful clear views.  At Kibo we rested in our tents for an hour, ate "lunch", and re-packed to descend to Horombo.  Another few hours of walking, first through the desert saddle and then following streams past tussocks and senecia, improbable plants.  The afternoon clouds gathered, the peak disappeared, and soon we were being pelted with hail, tiny icy white crystals.  Mud and cold.  So so tired.  Finally, Horombo camp, our last night in tents.  Yeah.

DAY 5:  Horombo to Mandara (12,327 to 6,500).  The last day started with the obligatory group photo with porters, Uhuru peak just visible in the clear morning behind us.  Perhaps the low point of the trip was being informed that while we paid an all-inclusive package (which was about half the average rate so a good deal, but still expensive), everyone involved expects large tips. We had brought tips on the order of a tip not a salary.  We had what we had.  This was the only day that involved many, many people on the trail.  Porters and hikers, coming up and going down.  Most of the time our little family group moved relatively quickly and alone with our trailing guides, but occasionally we melded into and moved through larger tours.  Germans and Japanese mostly, some cheery and some gasping their "Jambo's".  The path wound around shoulders of the mountain, the peak coming in and out of visibility in the clear morning.  More and more flowers, bridges over gullies splashing with water.  Our last lunch at the Mandara camp, and then through rainforest to the gate.  Burning calves and quads, stepping down, rocky paths, on and on.  I tripped on a rock and skinned my knee, and Scott stopped to duct tape emerging blisters, but we were remarkably injury-free.  Julia brightened with each hundred feet down.  At the final gate, we were given our official certificates for reaching the peak and headed into Moshi for a night in a budget motel, tepid showers, cold drinks, Man U football on the TV, and rest before the drive back to Kenya.  I had planned an extra day to visit friends in TZ but by that time Julia's bug was affecting me, and the kids staged a we-are-ready-to-go-home coup.  So we rose early the next morning for our last Kili views and hit the road north.

This was a highly redemptive week.  Exactly two years ago, on Christmas Eve 2012, Caleb had a serious motorcycle accident that destroyed his left knee, tearing through three of the four ligaments and nearly ending his Air Force dream.  He has worked hard, both with constant physical therapy after two surgeries, and academically, to hang in there.  To be able to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro seemed like an impossible dream back then.  We are so grateful for God's healing.  The number of days the six of us spend together anymore is small, precious, limited.  We are grateful for hours of walking, meandering conversations about classes and friends and the future.  This was also the completion of a quest of sorts, as a family we have now climbed the three highest mountains in Africa (Kili, Mt. Kenya, and Mt. Stanley in the Rwenzoris).  God often calls people to the mountaintop, away from normal life into the bright thin air of glory, to get their attention.  We are listening as we enter 2015.

And we are grateful to our parents whose generous gifts to us helped us to afford this adventure.  We are blessed.

Lastly, if anyone is still reading.  We told you in our Christmas letter that Scott had signed up to go to Liberia.  This was something God laid on his heart back in September when ebola was spiraling out of control.  In the midst of crisis, it turned out to be unexpectedly difficult to organize a way to go.  In fact he went through five organizations before finding one that had the capacity to even answer emails and phone calls and hook him up with an ebola treatment unit.  He was supposed to leave Jan 2, but when we returned yesterday we found the organization asking him to be "on hold" a little longer as they re-assess the situation in light of recent declines in the infection rates.  So he may be leaving a week or so later, or the possibility exists that he may not go at all.  We don't know.  Please pray for clarity.  He still wants to go if there is need.

Merry Christmas to all of you.  We are back at Kijabe, still on leave a few more days, to celebrate the New Year and face goodbyes before school and work and life turn back to normal once more.  Hope your Christmas was equally full of memories.


deborah said...

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all the Myhres from the Fergusons!

Mark Merritt said...

Thank you for sharing such a fascinating adventure! May you receive the clarity you seek and may the Lord bless you and keep you.

Jenni Wiethe Cornell said...

You are seeing some amazing sights. Thank you for sharing them with us. Really amazing pictures. It is interesting to hear about some of the challenges you face there too. God bless you and yours, and watch over you during your work.

lauradodson said...

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

This past Saturday there was a kid's adventure show on TV all about a family hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was so beautiful and interesting. They had much colder/snowy/wet weather than you!