March 4, 2009

Mountain Climbing (hiking)

I'm feeling puny today (ugh, seems like every other year I get sick right before spring...) so I'm making up for it by talking about something that I couldn't have done on a puny day.
I've never done any technical mountain climbing (while some of the gear may be the same, rock climbing and mountain climbing are totally different sports), I have walked to the top of two mountains. I thought this picture was interesting because it shows these specific two mountains superimposed over Everest (which I never hope to mount).

Ben Nevis is the highest point in the British Isles. I hiked up it one day when I was 16, with my friend Kaelan. When we got to the skree (loose rock), I was sure we were near the top (it was too foggy to see the top). Turns out most of Ben Nevis is skree. As some people came down the mountain, they told us that if we hurried, the cafe up top would still be open and we could enjoy a nice cup of hot chocolate. We were SO EXCITED by that prospect, and kept up the hiking til we got to the icy, foggy, cold, grey top. There was, of course, no cafe--we'd been easily-duped American tourists. So we passed on the joke to some unsuspecting tourists on our way down.
It took us all day to hike up and walk down Ben Nevis. I remember thinking that I would never like to do any more mountaineering because of how cold and boring it was. One step forward, half a step back on the skree. It seemed thankless and totally meaningless.
When the opportunity to hike up Kilimanjaro came 5 years later, I was pretty blase toward the idea. However, my parents convinced me that it would be a great thing to do as a family. So the three of us, plus 5 others from the study abroad semester I'd just finished, tackled it together with our sherpas. We spent 6 days: 3 days up, one day acclimating to the height, one more day to tackle the summit, and a day down. And I was thoroughly impressed with how worthwhile and amazing the experience was. Each day we traveled through another biome, with all sorts of Dr. Seuss-esque creatures and plants. Rainforest, strange fields, mooreland, skree, ice (click on each of those for a picture...). The last push was really really intense: waking up freezing and short of breath at midnight to layer 4 (was it 5?) pairs of pants multitudes of top layers, gaiters, mittens, water bottle inside all the layers so it wouldn't freeze, and then a quick bowl of hot broth and out the door to take painfully slow steps up the switchback to the top. As slow as the steps were (4-5 seconds between each step), we were all still really laboring. When Dad began singing his Kudzu Warrior song out loud in the dark, someone in front of me turned to me and asked how he possibly could have the breath to do it? I remember at one point thinking "I have to sit down, I can't go any further." Just at that moment, our guide shone his flashlight ahead (maybe 15 more vertical feet of scrambling) to show us how close we were to the rim! So I didn't sit down, and instead kept going. Once we were on the rim, we had another 1-2 hrs of hiking along glacier ice til we summited. The sun was rising as we walked along the ice. It was very surreal, being above the clouds, so cold, so tired, so motivated to keep going, but wanting nothing more than to stop. At the summit, we snapped a few quick pictures, lamented the fact that there was cloudcover screwing up our view of Africa below, and started back down. My knees have been forever messed up from that day of descent. We were told "Pole pole" (slowly! Slowly!) the whole way up, but no one admonished my quick running down hill in order to save my knees. (Damn.)
I have no plans to hike/climb another mountain, but sometimes I wonder if I ever will again.
These pictures are from our kili climb:


Tiffanie said...

love the "cafe" dupe.
couldn't have stood knowing i was so close to the edge of a precipice! that kind of thing is one you're glad you did in retrospect, but maybe not at the time.

woo said...

Wow! I so admire the strength of your family! I love that you did it together! I climbed Mount Fuji when I was 17. I can't remember if there was a T-shirt or if I thought there should be a T-shirt boasting "I climbed Fuji once, but never again" or "Fuji, my first and last climb." The hike started at midnight, and you were supposed to be able to reach the summit by sunrise. My friend decided 2 hours into it that it wasn't for her. Two very nice young military men took me in and hiked with me the rest of the way to the top. We made it several hours after sunrise. I remember seeing a torii gate in the distance thinking that we were so close to the top, and then it taking what felt like hours to make it to that spot. And then being pretty far from the summit. I also remember the layers of cold that we rose through and the corresponding layers of clothes that we added....and the glistening crunchy stuff at night that I stepped on~discovering at sunrise that is was icey snow. The top was so windy that it felt like I could tease leaning toward the crater and the wind held me up. I also ran and jumped and let myself be carried by the wind. I remember more looking into the crater (or toward it) than I do looking out toward any kind of amazing view. We were several hours behind schedule and worried that we might miss our bus. There were no guides and we took the unmarked shortcut down the side, the loose rock being much more evident than on the path. Thankfully, my knees were young enough to handle it well. There was one very rickety shack that creaked with the wind that we huddled into for a warm cup of green tea at some point in the very dark hours of the night...but no hot chocolate!