April 15, 2011

Towards the summit of Kilimanjaro

Chapter 5 – One more breathe in high altitude

Thomas Kieller

Photos – Copyright United Athletes Magazine

On a high mountain, acclimatization is the key for success and this no climber should forget. I must say that for a few minutes on the Kili, I omitted, in a way, to respect this fundamental principal. Let me tell you...

I started well on the matter of acclimatization because I spent the three first days in Tanzania precisely in Arusha, a city which is at 1,387 meters of altitude. Then, I did a two day walk in the surroundings allowing my body to adapt to the environmental conditions. Anyway, an important thing to follow is that at 3,000 meters and above, it is recommend to climb no more than 400 meters by day while taking at a right time a day of rest.

My group of climbers followed this main line under the direction of the guide Simon Mtuy and the assistant-guide Jacksoni Ezekieli Mtui. On the fifth day of the ascent, we took a rest by doing a trek in the desert environment. We climbed until we reach approximately 5,000 meters of altitude then we came back to our camp near Lava Tower in order to spend the night at 4,642 meters. This way, the body can adapt gradually to the changing conditions. The principal was followed to the letter.

We planned to make the final push towards the summit of Kilimanjaro on the seventh day by starting our trek from Arrow Glacier Camp at 4,781 meters of altitude. The night before this last stage was a little bit cold, but it was more the enthusiasm as well as the stress of the end of the adventure that I was truly feeling.

Before the sunrise at 5:30 in the morning, we began the sustained ascent of the Western Breach with our head lamps. It is a well known section of Kilimanjaro and at the same time it is dreaded because in 2006 three climbers died there due to a rock slide. According to experts’ analysis, approximately 40 tons of matter dislodged from the base of a glacier and hit, 150 meters lower, the climbers at a speed of 39 meters per seconds. No chance at all!

You can understand now the reason why we did the ascent in the morning. The risks of fallen rocks are much lower when the temperature is below 0 degrees Celsius, because the ground is frozen and therefore rocks and ice blocks dislodge less.

The six first days of the ascent were for me a pleasant and without difficulty trek. I followed my walking rhythm easily. However, when I passed besides the blocks of rocks of the Western Breach, it was more intense if I compare to previous days mainly because of the altitude, but also due to the inclination of the slope. And, there are some areas that you want to pass quickly because there is risk to be hit by a rock or a mass of some matter.

With the ease and the momentum of the first days, I was continuing my ascent at more than 5,400 meters of altitude. My legs were following the rhythm easily, but my heart which knew that the input of oxygen was not the same adjusted itself by beating much faster. That was my case! I was simply climbing too fast. I can tell you that at a certain point you feel the effects of altitude. Oh yes!

After passing through Western Breach, a porter takes a pause in the crater of Kilimanjaro.

The Tanzanians of the mountain have a saying in Swahili concerning the rhythm to follow. They say: "Pole, pole" which can be translated simply by "Slowly, slowly". When someone talks about taking his time in altitude, it means to progress really slowly. Now, imagine the rhythm to follow. Well, it is possibly even slower than you think. Ha ha ha!

Let’s come back to my case, I was walking on the mountain without holding back, because in a way I was conditioned to follow the rhythm of the previous days. Experienced with more than 400 ascents to the summit, the guide Simon who was 20 meters from me took a look in my direction. Seeing my pace and without saying a word, he raised his right hand and made an evocative sign to go slower. A simple gesture, but which had its signification. I understood well his message; it was quite clear! I’m on Mount Kilimanjaro and I should take my time.

Indeed, the muscles of the legs can follow the rhythm of the ascent, but the heart and the mind must dictate the tempo. I forgot this principle for fifteen minutes. The moment I followed an appropriate pace, I was feeling more in control. Besides, during the ascent, I crossed some people with altitude sickness and I can tell you that it’s pretty serious... No one wants to be in this condition.

However, I did not forget my first motivation which is to live a challenge. After the 60 km walk in two days before the ascent, followed by the seven days of trekking on Kilimanjaro and now the crossing of the Western Breach in high altitude, I was feeling fatigued. On another hand, I knew that I was closer to the summit and I was truly motivated. I felt the pleasure of surpassing myself by doing one step at a time even if my level of oxygenation was not the same as at sea level. This last push, I enjoyed it. It is in this unique effort that I obtained my greatest satisfaction.

I remember when I was at the base of the mountain, I did not know if I was going to reach the summit, but I have to say that I had a positive impression. During this seventh day, I understood all the importance to follow an appropriate pace and to let your body adapt to the altitude. It is so important in order to reach the summit.

The ancient glaciers in the crater of Kilimanjaro.

After passing through Western Breach, I arrived into the huge crater of Kilimanjaro at 5,730 meters of altitude. Seeing for the first time before me the blue-tinted ancient glacier of 80 meters long and of at least seven meters high, I knew that the given effort was worth it. Now, I had only a few hundred meters of altitude to cover in order to reach the highest point of Kilimanjaro.