Life and death on Mount Kilimanjaro
See below for a photo gallery from the climb, shot with an iPhone and a BlackBerry, and some of Max's tweets from the trip.
Climbing Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro is like blasting lemon juice in your eye.
My friend coughed that up as we breezed down the last leg of our trek to Africa's highest point.
"It's something you only want to do once," my friend Tyler Anderson, 37, said while marching through the moorland, its rolling hills bidding us farewell.
I agreed; our gruelling ascent was but one day behind us. I was cruising down and out of Tanzania's Kilimanjaro National Park, but I'd done anything but cruise to and up the dormant volcano.
Edmonton is 670 metres above sea level. At 5,895 metres, Kilimanjaro's Uhuru Peak is well into "extreme altitude". There's half as much oxygen in a breath at the summit as at sea level.
It's risky: Fluids can swell the brain or lungs and kill you. The more I prodded Tyler, an Edmonton emergency room doctor, for details, the simpler his explanations got.
"Seizure, coma, death," he warned.
DEATH IN THE AIR
Though forever surrounded by beauty, fear of death hung in the air. I'd feared it in an African hospital. I'd heard tales of death-by-altitude sickness and a Jamaican killing himself on the face of Kilimanjaro.
The mountain had tallied four fatalities by late February, a guide told us.
We wound our way in through potato and maize farms, pine forests and a moonscape of sand and rock. The mountain was disguised as a big hill hiding behind satin clouds.
Though it towers above the Canadian Rockies' highest peak — Mount Robson at 3,954 metres — Kilimanjaro doesn't look as high, even from below 1,000 metres.
"I crap bigger than that mountain," I brazenly claimed. Soon, that mountain would crap me.
- A panoramic picture of the Kilimanjaro's Uhuru Peak
It turns out the mountain had fooled me. It had fooled me by being soooo huge. According to the Satellite Image Atlas of Glaciers of the World, Kilimanjaro "rises from a 95-km-long by 65-km-wide base."
And it has three peaks, not just one — Mawenzi, Shira, and Kibo. I was heading to Uhuru summit on Kibo, the highest point on the mountain.
So, while I was saying the mountain didn't look so big, I was already on it, and was on it the for the entire trek.
Kibo Hut, base camp for our summit attempt, greeted us after a four-day, 35-km hike. At 4,703 metres, the air was razor thin. Climbing from a tent winded me. Though I've hiked a lot, I'd never even scraped such altitudes and my 37-year-old lungs were taxed.
Porters and guides repeatedly told us 'pole, pole' (po-lay po-lay). That means slowly, slowly in Swahili.
I took their advice, not because I wanted to turtle along, but because I couldn't move much faster. I'd noticed a shortness of breath in the nearby city of Moshi, days before the trek.
It likely had something to do with the rash of bug bites that had spawned a purple-red, swelling leg infection.
I'd passed out in a Moshi hospital two days before the trek. I went down while a nurse with a giant needle I was told wasn't giant at all pumped me full of anti-bacterial IV.
I'd slumped unconscious, twitching, just after the second needle spiked me.
Tyler, who'd earlier kidded that this was all very entertaining, caught me and laid me on the floor. Then he slapped me again and again to bring me from the dark.
I didn't know where I was. Then I realized I'd gone down in an African hospital with some weirdness festering on my leg. I've never felt more alone. Was I dying in Africa?
No, but the infection sapped my energy throughout the trek.
Back at base camp, our nine-climber party was greeted by several evacuations... that we knew about.
"Do you guys realize four porters just raced by my tent with a woman on a stretcher?" our danger alarm, my friend Sonu Sharma, wondered. His fear, now ours, was thick.
One young man, mumbling on a stretcher, frothed at the mouth, a sign his lungs were filling with fluid and he was dying.
Another climber was whisked down the mountain, also on a stretcher with one wheel — like it was on a unicycle — and raced through camp to the plains below.
And a porter near the summit had days earlier died of an apparent heart attack.
- A panoramic picture of Mosquito River, Tanzania, near Mount Kilimanjaro
Guide William, an always-smiling, shy man, would later tell me he knew about many fatalities. "We know the places where people die," he said, and grinned, "but it's not good to show clients on the way up."
The plan of attack was simple: Head for the summit at 11:30 p.m. and arrive in time for sunrise.
We were among the first groups to leave. A snake of headlamps slithered below us as we shuffled up the night's 7 km grind.
It wasn't long before one of us hurled as we serpentined up the steep mountainside.
VOMIT ON THE GROUND
My friend, Vicky Wong, who was told in Uganda she was worth six cows in marriage — a fortune — was battling altitude sickness. Make that five cows, Vicky! "I think I'm done," she said, retching. "I can't do this."
She did summit the mountain, though, and left a victory trail of vomit and tears behind her.
It grew colder, the air thinner. I was bundled in seven layers. We were moving slowly and it was hard to keep warm. Champion guide Winford - on his 151st ascent of Kilimanjaro - carried my backpack. William escorted a sickly trekker down, then climbed back up.
Hours later, we reached a packed Gilman's Point at 5,681 metres, 214 metres below the summit. That's where the trail leaves the face of the mountain.
There must have been 30 climbers there. With all the headlamps bouncing around, Gilman's was like an overcrowded nightclub, so I took a dump.
Unknown to most, a "shit cemetery," as Tyler coined it, was just metres away. There are no toilets up there, so you tour behind a shield of massive rocks. Piles of feces and toilet paper litter the tiny landscape. With thousands of people hiking Kilimanjaro each year, the accumulation of crap boggles the mind. A garbage storm raged, too, but our own porters and guides always quickly took our trash.
From there, we skirted the massive Kibo crater — about 2.5 km across — on an icy trail. Most of our party didn't make it to the summit for sunrise, but we crept close.
The sunrise was stunning, but I'd crumpled to the ground, my head aching, dizzy, short of breath, exhausted. I obviously needed a big burger with a lot of bacon, but I had no appetite.
I'd stuffed my iPhone in my underwear. The cold battery had died and it was the only camera I had. The warmth brought it back to life. I didn't want to take pictures. I wanted to lay down and sleep.
But I rose, snapped some pictures, moved on. It took quite awhile to get to Stella Point, about 160 metres below the summit. Victory was in sight. It could have been one-billion miles away.
Sonu asked me if I wanted to stop there. I didn't know if he meant quit, or rest. I grumbled disapproval. I saw two women sitting at the Point's sign, haggard and beaten. Snapping a picture of myself there was like getting a photo of batting practice, but not the game-winning home run.
I'd read that many trekkers — about 30% — don't reach the summit. I was learning why. But there were streams of people this day who were going to beat the hill. It was as a pilgrimage.
I was shuffling up like a 99-year-old man heading for a dreaded prostate exam. Every 50 or 60 steps, I'd crumple over my walking sticks and catch my breath. William told me to grab his backpack so he could pull me along.
"No," I grunted, so he pushed me from behind. I let him. William and the rest of the guides did everything they could to get us to the summit.
At the top, victorious, I fell to one knee and expected the singing of 1,000 angels to shake the thin air. All I heard was wheezing: my wheezing. I felt great about making it. Then I felt awful again. Altitude sickness smacks people in the head differently, some people not at all. Some people will die. I was in the middle.
I was also in the middle of about 30 people. The summit is a bustling, tight place. Romantic, it's not.
Tyler got a great shot of himself standing in front of the summit sign, cigarette hanging from his mouth. I did the necessary photos, felt pain in my ear, and got the hell out of there.
Maybe I could have fought harder and felt better. I don't know. I'd like to go back to find out.
On the long hike down, Winford showed me Jamaica Point. Legend has it a Rastafarian smoked some weed there, thought he could fly to base camp, and launched himself from the rocks, to his death. I got it. He must have been coming down the mountain, too. The huts looked close, but were hours away. For a moment, I wondered if I could fly down.
Winford wouldn't let me try.
- A panoramic picture of Jamaica Point, on Mount Kilimanjaro