Walking into The Wave, Coyote Buttes

Every so often along the way, I’d turn around and it’d be like looking at a completely different world.  The tricky thing about hiking through this remote and vast wilderness is that it is easy to lose track of where you are and where you came from.  Everything appears different when you move about and will look different as the sun changes position in the sky.

Ever since I planned my first road trip to Utah, I’ve wanted to hike to The Wave, situated not too far away from the border between Utah and Arizona.  It is frequently photographed and to some degree, its additional claim to fame is scarcity — the fact that only 20 permits are provided each day.  True, it isn’t accessible to everyone but the positive aspect is that this policy not only preserves the area from being overrun with foot traffic — it also really allows you to feel and take in the environment and the feeling of isolation.

Back in November, just as I was gearing up for my hike up Kilimanjaro — I suddenly receive a notice from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that I had was selected from the lottery system for a permit to hike into the Coyote Buttes North area, which is where the Wave is located within.  Since my permit was for a specific day over the Easter long weekend and allowed for two people to hike in, I thought I’d offer it up to my friends first.  My last resort was to walk up to anyone at the ranger’s station and invite them along.  Fortunately, my friend and food blogger Lisa Sit, decided that she’d tag along and see why hiking was such a big deal.  Lisa’s experience with hiking was limited but I assured her that it wouldn’t be crazy.

That morning was a very early start for us.  I think we woke up at 5am and drove from Kanab, Utah to the Wire Pass parking lot.  Just to get to the parking lot was a fairly long drive because of the road conditions.  Although I noticed later in the day that quite a few people drove their sedans and sports cars to the Wire Pass parking lot — I highly recommend using an SUV or some sort of vehicle with higher clearance because the road is pretty rugged.  I was hoping to arrive soon after sunrise but the drive between the highway to the parking lot took longer than expected — we made it sometime between 7am to 8am which was good enough for me.

We had our gear ready to go and I decided for some reason at the last minute to forego my trekking poles.  It was definitely a brisk morning in late-March and the wind made it feel colder.  Once we started hiking and got some exposure to the sun however, it felt a lot warmer.

Still early that morning as we set off from the Wire Pass parking lot and trailhead.
Still early that morning as we set off from the Wire Pass parking lot and trailhead.
Quite windy and cold at this time but the landscape is stunning in the morning light.
Quite windy and cold at this time but the landscape is stunning in the morning light.

Even the initial landscape is amazing to me.  I was totally thrilled to be stepping into this more remote area but what was completely exhilarating for me was the fact that there was no map to follow.  We had a few visual cues that the BLM provided us with but other than that, I had a compass and a GPS.  We simply had to find our own way to the Wave which is the first time I have simply hiked into an area with no established trail.

It doesn't seem like the desert but we found ourselves crossing stretches of sand at times.  Given how windy it is, I imagine sand just builds up in different areas.
It doesn’t seem like the desert but we found ourselves crossing stretches of sand at times.  Given how windy it is, I imagine sand just builds up in different areas.
Our first major climb on the journey towards the Wave.
Our first major climb on the journey towards the Wave.

The initial part of our journey was relatively straightforward.  We followed a route that seemed pretty apparent.  It wasn’t until we had to climb over a rocky section that we continually stopped to survey our surroundings and make sure that we were heading in the right direction.

Being aware of and taking into consideration Lisa’s hiking experience, I would try to find less strenuous (and safer) ways to get to certain waypoints on the map.  This is one of the things that constantly remind me of the way we live, how we set goals, how we plan strategically at work in the office, etc.  We know we need to get somewhere so we know the direction we need to move towards — but how we do that is rarely ever that straightforward.  Often in these situations, just as in hiking in the wilderness — we need to navigate away from the target in order to make progress towards the goal.  In simpler terms, the path is not linear.

I can keep staring at this landscape for hours or days on end.  Simply unreal.
I can keep staring at this landscape for hours or days on end.  Simply unreal.

After trekking up, around and through certain formations -- we are presented with yet another grand view.  We're also directionless.
After trekking up, around and through certain formations — we are presented with yet another grand view.  We’re also directionless.

Every so often along the way, I’d turn around and it’d be like looking at a completely different world.  The tricky thing about hiking through this remote and vast wilderness is that it is easy to lose track of where you are and where you came from.  Everything appears different when you move about and will look different as the sun changes position in the sky.

It is nonetheless as if we are on a mini expedition.  Always something new to see and a new way to look at the world around us.  As we make our way closer to the where we think the Wave is located, we find ourselves thinking about the dinosaurs and how they may have lived in this part of the world.  It also reminded me of the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and how a land once fertile and filled with wildlife — in addition to being the home to some of the early ancestors of the modern human — became dry and arid with a significantly more hostile climate.  I may only imagine a glimpse of what may have been history taking place on this land.

Like a jigsaw puzzle from the dinosaur age.
Like a jigsaw puzzle from the dinosaur age.
Wafer-like formations.  They may seem delicate but these are actually quite tough.
Wafer-like formations.  They may seem delicate but these are actually quite tough.

Wherever we looked, there was always something to be inspired by or to simply be in awe of.  The colours, the rock formations, the flowers, the vastness of the region we were standing in — everything for me just felt so much larger than me.  You can really begin to visualize it when standing close up with a variety of rock formations.

The hike itself was not really tough up to this point — it was primarily about footwork more than expending energy.  In addition, the morning was quite cool and windy so I can’t even say we broke a sweat.  That is, until we hit the sand dunes.  I didn’t expect such steep and large sand dunes but it was a struggle to hike these.  There were moments where for whatever reason, sand just started sinking and pouring inwards through some hole — which sort of freaked me out a little but we just stepped around that.  Don’t really want my leg falling through one of those!

Once we made it past the sand dunes, it was back to footwork.  We encountered some a few hikers who had arrived earlier and were just making their way out.  I was thankful that they pointed us to the entrance of the Wave because we had taken a longer route around.

A big sigh as we confront and tackle yet another sand dune.
A big sigh as we confront and tackle yet another sand dune.

Finally arriving at the Wave and just taking in the colours, textures, and yes ... a lot of wind.
Finally arriving at the Wave and just taking in the colours, textures, and yes … a lot of wind.

Our arriving into the Wave was a pretty momentous occasion.  I’ve tried to obtain permits for quite sometime and it was beautiful to have this rare opportunity to stand amidst such a peculiar rock formation.  We just walked around quietly taking it in and obviously, taking photos.  It was really really windy too — the Wave was practically like a funnel for the wind.

Funny enough, as I walked through and around the Wave — I finally had the opportunity to see what the colours were really like.  With the Internet and all the photographs showing up of the Wave, I’ve found that many photographers over saturate the colours in photographs which tends to exaggerate the intensity of the colours.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with artistic impressions and such, and I also acknowledge differences in lighting too — but I know the degree to which lighting can influence colours so it is simply interesting to compare what it really looks like for me in person.

An Obligatory Photograph of the Wave
An Obligatory Photograph of the Wave
A closer look at what the Wave really is.  A really fascinating geological rock formation.
A closer look at what the Wave really is.  A really fascinating geological rock formation.

Oddly enough, the most fascinating aspect of the Wave for me was what the formation resembled itself rather than the contrast and colours.  I loved the fact that I could “walk on the Wave” by walking on the ridge of each layer of the formation.  For me, it was a perfect place to clamor and jump around to see what sort of interesting vantage points I could take in while I was spending time in this special place.

Lisa, however, decided to take a nap.  Not what I expected but I think that is an achievement in itself too!  If only they gave our achievement badges for experiencing wilderness and hiking, like they do in video games.

We probably spent about 45 minutes to an hour in the Wave until an older couple arrived at the entrance.  It was good timing because there was still the hike back and I didn’t really want to hang around to share the Wave with more people.  I’ve gotnothing against them but the Wave isn’t really that large to begin with and I think beyond 3 or 4 people, it begins to feel crowded.

With that, we set off from the Wave — hoping to follow the path we had used to head back.

Photographed on our way back, one of my favourite photographs from the trek. We are so small relative to the world around us!
Photographed on our way back, one of my favourite photographs from the trek. We are so small relative to the world around us!
Some more stunning formations on the way back.
Some more stunning formations on the way back.

The way back felt completely different than our experience earlier in the morning.  It was hotter with the sun blazing down on us, but with the wind — it was still relatively cool.  That said, I can’t imagine hiking this in the middle of late spring or any time during the summer.  It’d be ridiculously hot.  Not my style.

In addition, with the exception of some notable visual cues or landmarks — everything looked different to us.  I think we took some detours on the way back but I continued to be blown away by what we saw.

I also didn’t realize in the morning how much sand there was to hike through.  I wish there were enough sand to sandboard down but the sand dunes here tend to be have some ruggedness and rocks to them.  On the way back, we noticed quite a few groups heading in so I was happy that we were out there earlier than most folks.  We knew who were actually heading to the Wave because they would have permits latched on to their backpack and a map provided by BLM in their hands.  Regardless, it just wouldn’t have been as pleasant and thrilling of a hike if we simply followed other people or had others following us to the Wave.

More sand on the way back.  Unfortunately.
More sand on the way back.  Unfortunately.
A very full parking lot!
A very full parking lot!

When we finally made it back to the parking lot — it was busy and full.  Very surprising but apparently this may also be due to the fact that it was a long weekend and spring break with many families either taking time off to visit or travel together.

So looking back, would I do this trek again?  Definitely, but I would try a different route and explore more of what was out there.  I’d also start even earlier in the day to really take advantage of the time given to us with the permit.  It’s not everyday we get to hike into this area so we might as well make the most of it!

As much as I thought the Wave was amazing, I think the journey and the experience along the way made the most impact on me — even more so than stepping into the Wave.

Yes, my own obligatory photograph.
Yes, my own obligatory photograph.

Climbing Kilimanjaro – Lemosho Trek Day 8

It felt weird waking up today on January 2nd, 2016. Not only was I now officially in the New Year (the past couple of days just felt like one very long day) — the realization that I had completed one of my goals that I had set out to tackle two years ago was just dawning on me.  I was too exhausted and tired from the summit hike to really think about it. It all felt bittersweet to me as I reminisced fondly of the days that we had spent on Kilimanjaro.  I loved waking up seeing the snow-capped summit and today would be my last day on this beautiful mountain.

It felt weird waking up today on January 2nd, 2016. Not only was I now officially in the New Year (the past couple of days just felt like one very long day) — the realization that I had completed one of my goals that I had set out to tackle two years ago was just dawning on me.  I was too exhausted and tired from the summit hike to really think about it. It all felt bittersweet to me as I reminisced fondly of the days that we had spent on Kilimanjaro.  I loved waking up seeing the snow-capped summit and today would be my last day on this beautiful mountain.

Waking up to our final view of the summit at Millennium Camp. It was nice to see green again too. Waking up to our final view of the summit at Millennium Camp. It was nice to see green again too. After breakfast and sorting out the details concerning tips -- we were privileged to a participate in a thank you ceremony with the porters and guides. After breakfast and sorting out the details concerning tips — we were privileged to a participate in a thank you ceremony with the porters and guides.

The descent back to an elevation where there were trees made for a great setting to enjoy our final breakfast of this trek.  They were also a reminder that we were breathing much easier than before.  We could move around without feeling shortness of breath — one might even notice that there was a hop and skip in between when everyone walked around now.

Breakfast was excellent as I had the opportunity to enjoy more chapati pancakes (I still have a craving for them).  All of us hikers got to sorting out our tipping for the porters and guides and once that was settled with the chief mountain guide and everything was calculated out — we stepped out of the mess tent to meet with all of our porters and guides.  Here, for full transparency — the dollar value of all the tips were announced based on the role that each person had on the team.  I was happy to see that as the tips were being declared — all of the porters and guides were all smiles.  I had read that much of the livelihood of the porters and their families are heavily dependent on tipping.  It is unfortunate that this is the case and I hope that in the future — some sort of living wage or salary is simply built into the cost of a trek.

The tipping ceremony eventually lead to the overall farewell ceremony.  Mweka camp would be the last time we would see all of the porters.  They would descend the mountain faster than us and then take a separate van home.

The ceremony started with a number of the porters and guides singing local traditional songs and eventually lead to the famous Kilimanjaro Song.  It wasn’t just our group so we’d hear voice and song across the camp.  It was pretty amazing.  Even after hearing the Kilimanjaro Song over and over again, I didn’t get sick of it.  Search for it on Google and you’ll find plenty of YouTube videos.

Jambo! Jambo bwana!
Habari gani? Mzuri sana!
Wageni, mwakaribishwa!
Kilimanjaro? Hakuna matata!

Tembea pole pole. Hakuna matata!
Utafika salama. Hakuna matata!
Kunywa maji mengi. Hakuna matata!

Kilimanjaro, Kilimanjaro,
Kilimanjaro, mlima mrefu sana.

Na Mawenzi, na Mawenzi,
Na Mawenzi, mlima mrefu sana.

Ewe nyoka, ewe nyoka!
Ewe nyoka, mbona waninzunguka.

Wanizunguka, wanizunguka
Wanizunguka wataka kunila nyama

After we said our farewells to each and every porter, we parted ways and set off on the last stretch of this journey.

As we make our way down Kilimanjaro, we begin to see and enjoy views of the tree canopy of the rain forest. As we make our way down Kilimanjaro, we begin to see and enjoy views of the tree canopy of the rain forest. Another look off to the side of the trail. Another look off to the side of the trail. The trail is quite steep along the way down is covered with loose rocks and gravel. The trail is quite steep along the way down is covered with loose rocks and gravel.

The descent was long and steep.  Some parts of the trail were full of loose gravel and it made it very slippery at times.  I would highly recommend that everyone make use of trekking poles on the descent.  It saves your knees from all the impact, reduces the energy your legs consume to slow yourself down, and helps stabilize yourself on the way down — which is very important because after a very long descent, your ability to maintain stability and balance diminishes.

The important thing is not to feel rushed.  I think members of my group felt like they had to keep up with the rest of the group but it is crucial to pace yourself.  Descents often stress people out and many find it more challenging than climbing up (myself included) so moving faster doesn’t actually help.  Besides, I really enjoyed the earlier areas of the descent when we were just reaching the alpine forest area.  The trees and the greens seem to always have so much character.

Descending from the higher elevation alpine forest. Descending from the higher elevation alpine forest. Taking a break after hiking down countless steps. Taking a break after hiking down countless steps.

The trekking poles really come in handy later into the descent.  When we eventually make our way into the rain forest — the trail is actually quite nice, but unfortunately it is made up of countless number of steps.  It is literally like walking down a never-ending staircase.  At some point, I tried counting the number of steps but lost count because I eventually got bored.  I also think at this point, most people just wanted to get back to the lodge and have a shower — something we haven’t had for the past 7 days!

After we make it to the end of the stairs — we arrive at the furthest point of the trail where supply trucks or ambulances can drive up to in the rain forest before everything has to be carried up or down by porters.  Alas, we still had a ways to go.

We finally make it to the furthest point where an ambulance or truck can drive up into the rain forest area. We finally make it to the furthest point where an ambulance or truck can drive up into the rain forest area. Spotting a glimpse of civilization ahead. Spotting a glimpse of civilization ahead. Finally arriving at the site of the Mweka Gate.  This is it, we're practically finished! Finally arriving at the site of the Mweka Gate.  This is it, we’re practically finished!

I think by the time we were just walking on a dirt road towards Mweka Gate — no one was really talking anymore.  Everyone was tired.  I guess it didn’t help that with the descent, we also were returning to a warmer and more humid climate which zapped a lot of energy out of many of us.  Once we spotted the vans and buses carrying trekkers away though, it was as if everyone had a final burst of energy!  We powered our way to the end.

Of course there needs to be some token photograph of signage at the end.  This time, I definitely didn’t care enough to take a photograph with the sign so I simply just snapped a picture of it with everyone around.  It was a busy place with everyone happily (but wearily) having their photograph taken.

Where our trail finally ends.  Way too many people are trying to take photos so I just end up photographing them. Where our trail finally ends.  Way too many people are trying to take photos so I just end up photographing them. Some groups preparing to leave while others just arriving to sign into the last ranger's office.  We sat down afterwards for a last lunch. Some groups preparing to leave while others just arriving to sign into the last ranger’s office.  We sat down afterwards for a last lunch.

After taking care of that photograph, we made our way to the ranger’s station to leave our final signature.  It was a long line up and my knees were aching from the descent.  It was past noon and we had a long drive back to the lodge — but before we would depart, we’d have a last lunch with our guides.  It was good to have a hot lunch in the sun.  Some folks in the group ordered beer while others like myself just settled for a warm soda.  It felt like it had been decades since I last had a soda.

A local joint we stopped at to taste test some mbege (banana beer). A local joint we stopped at to taste test some mbege (banana beer).

On the way back to the lodge, our guides who had spoken with us about the local Chaga people and the local drink mbege, took us to a local bar or restaurant to celebrate our accomplishment with a drink.  Mbege is referred to as banana beer because it is made from a type of banana and is often consumed in groups.  Apparently, everyone would share a container full of mbege (imagine a large yogurt-sized container) and each person would drink from it and pass it on to the next.  It was amusing to watch everyone’s faces as they drank it.  Some people said that it was very sweet — I thought it tasted just like beer with a hint of banana to it.  I definitely couldn’t consume much of it but I think even the hardiest of people in the group mentioned that it had gotten pretty quickly to their head a little.

It was a long drive back to the lodge and everyone carried smiles or a peaceful look on their face.  I thought it was pretty awesome that we had all made it to the summit and even more fascinating to me — how we all came together from different parts of the world to tackle Kilimanjaro, for completely different reasons. I was happy to have accomplished what I had set out to do two years ago when I started hiking the Bruce Trail — and to have had the opportunity to do this with people who were complete strangers to me in the beginning, and all of whom I consider a friend at the end.  Was it harder than I thought it’d be?  Yes.  Much of it was psychological.  I’ll discuss this in another time.

Most importantly, this whole journey would not have been possible without the mountain guides and porters.  I am forever grateful to them for their support.  Simply put, their spirit inspires me.

Climbing Kilimanjaro – Lemosho Trek Day 6 and 7

I’m confident that most people — if asked their favourite moment on Kilimanjaro — will indicate the time of summiting the mountain.  I would say mine is the moment we finished our early dinner and stepped out of the tent to see one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve encountered.  One that I’m sure I will rarely ever have the opportunity to see; and that is to see it above the clouds from my tent.  At this point, we’re told to prepare all our layers and wear them before set off for the summit tonight.  I have about 5 top layers and 3 bottom layers.

It felt somewhat surreal to be waking up on Mt. Kilimanjaro on New Year’s Eve (December 31st, 2015).  A part of me wished I was back home, and another part of me wished that my friends and family were here with me.  It was pretty cold this morning as I stepped out of my tent and greeted my fellow trekkers who were up as early as I was.  I had wanted to make the most of the morning daylight and charge up my solar powered battery pack — and I was just not feeling sleepy.

After so many days on Kilimanjaro, it was odd to become to familiar with stepping out of my tent every day to see the summit — getting closer and closer.  Today we would be hiking a short distance of about 4km to Barafu camp — also known as summit base camp for the mountain.  Apparently, there is no water up at Barafu camp so the porters help carry water for us all.  I’m feeling extremely grateful for all their help at this point — let alone what they had already done for us over the past 5 days.

This would also be a very long day for us because we’d be going to sleep after a much earlier dinner and then waking up near 11pm to begin our summit hike.

Waking up to the cold fact that we were getting much closer to the summit. Waking up to the cold fact that we were getting much closer to the summit.

A porter sets off towards the summit base camp (Barafu) early in the morning. A porter sets off towards the summit base camp (Barafu) early in the morning.

While eating breakfast and pre-arranging my backpack for tonight — many porters had set off earlier towards Barafu camp.  It was pretty amazing to see the long stream of hikers against the backdrop of the summit of Kilimanjaro.  Being out here truly reshapes your perspective of the world.

Despite the fact that it was only a 4km hike to Barafu, it would end up feeling like a very long haul uphill.

I couldn’t really visualize how many people would be on Kilimanjaro for New Years Day until this part of the trail.  All the different routes and the people hiking on them would not only converge at Barranco camp — but also be hiking on this very route towards Barafu camp.  I had thoughtBarranco camp was bad in terms of traffic and temporary population — well, Barafu camp would be quite the surprise but I’ll touch on that later.

Packing up and getting ready for a very long day and night. Packing up and getting ready for a very long day and night. The long train of hikers and porters ahead of us. The long train of hikers and porters ahead of us.

The long trail ahead of us. The long trail ahead of us.

Despite the traffic on the trail, everyone was moving pretty smoothly.  It was a long slog up from Karanga camp where we had stayed last night but the trail with the exception of a couple of points were pretty straight forward and had no tricky footwork requirements.  To see the arid and stark alpine desert was quite the experience — we were so far up in altitude that there was practically nothing on this part of the mountain.  There is pretty much no flora here, just some lichen on some rocks and even that is pretty rare to see. It was nonetheless a beautiful sight to trek through.

By the time we crossed this alpine desert valley and hauled ourselves up to Barafu camp — we were all really feeling the altitude.  I hadn’t been feeling the altitude much other than some lightheadedness now and then but even at this point — I was now feeling weakened and breathing heavily.  I had hoped we’d be better acclimatized.

From a distance, it looks like a pilgrimage of tiny people slowly making their way down and up the valley towards Barafu camp, which is just over the visible area at the top of the valley. From a distance, it looks like a pilgrimage of tiny people slowly making their way down and up the valley towards Barafu camp, which is just over the visible area at the top of the valley. Silent and tired. Waiting in line for registration in a very busy area. Silent and tired. Waiting in line for registration in a very busy area. A porter reading a book on his own amidst the clouds. A porter reading a book on his own amidst the clouds. A beautiful sight but also a very inconvenient location for answering nature's call. A beautiful sight but also a very inconvenient location for answering nature’s call.

The arrival at Barafu camp was both crazy and amazing.  Never have I encountered so many people on a mountain before — and camping too.  As we lined up for registration at the ranger’s office, I spotted people looking dispirited, tired, and worn out.  I hoped that they were just returning feeling tired rather than folks just like us who had just arrived into camp.  Most of us seemed okay but were pretty tired from the climb up to Barafu and so many of us spoke very little.  Our guides were amazing as usual and acquired us a bench for all of us to sit down on.  We were relieved to have a place to rest — even for a moment and everyone smiled … even those who were really feeling the altitude.

Now as much as being in Barafu summit base camp is exciting — it is actually more of a pain.  It is practically like trekking through a metropolis with different districts of tent sites.  We groaned as we had to continue hiking from the ranger’s office back the path we came from and back down to a less central area where our porters set up camp for us.  The important thing to understand about Barafu camp is that there are very few flat areas available for camping and rocks are everywhere.  It becomes a matter of fitting tents wherever possible — the porters are practically geniuses in my eyes because they have to work this out while keeping everyone together in the vicinity.

We initially eat lunch and then spend the remainder of our time in camp resting, preparing our layers for the overnight hike and drinking water before enjoying a very early dinner.  I notice some porters reading in the distance and wonder what they are reading.  I’ve seen some reading the bible while others are reading English primers.  While watching them, I take the opportunity to rest my legs and feet while charging my headlamp with the solar powered battery pack.

I’m confident that most people — if asked their favourite moment on Kilimanjaro — will indicate the time of summiting the mountain.  I would say mine is the moment we finished our early dinner and stepped out of the tent to see one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve encountered.  One that I’m sure I will rarely ever have the opportunity to see; and that is to see it above the clouds from my tent.  At this point, we’re told to prepare all our layers and wear them before set off for the summit tonight.  I have about 5 top layers and 3 bottom layers.

This is it.  One of my favourite moments.  Sunset on Kilimanjaro while camping above the clouds. This is it.  One of my favourite moments.  Sunset on Kilimanjaro while camping above the clouds.

One doesn’t really begin to appreciate the logistics of a metropolis of a mountain until you need to answer nature’s call (use the bathroom) or need to navigate your way around to the mess tent.  This is on the top of the fact that the toilet latrines are on the other side of this rock face.  Here is where I’d recommend (for convenience sake) to have chemical toilets at your camp site.  I’ll explain why:

There is no straight vector line towards your destination.  You must find the right path that leads you safely to where you need to go.  Now, imagine eliminating daylight — you are now left with a headlamp and unfamiliar rugged and steep terrain that you need to step up or down (from or to).  This is where it got tricky.  Fortunately the areas were so packed with tents that I navigated my way by knowing which tents to pass by.  There were times when I wasn’t sure if my headlamp was beaming into pitch black darkness because it was a cliff side so I just carefully followed the ground and tried to identify foot paths that had been created ahead of me.

Because I am feeling lazy at this point, I don’t even bother opening up my sleeping bag.  I just put on all the layers in preparation for tonight’s hike and lay down on my sleeping mat.  I think I got a little bit of sleep but it was hard to get to sleep so early (an I was already on a early schedule!).

By 10:30pm, we were back in the mess tent gearing up, and having a snack with tea.

By 11:00pm we were out heading up the trail to the summit.  It was funny hiking in the dark — besides seeing the feet of the person in front of me — I just saw a long stream of glowing headlamps moving slowly all the way up to the summit.  The porters joke that this makes Kilimanjaro look like a Christmas tree.  I had never thought about it that way but I loved the thought!

January 1st, 2016 – Happy New Year!

As we are moving slowly up the switchbacks that take us gradually up the rim, midnight arrives and the entire mountain erupts in cheer and song.  Above and below us on the trail as well as at the various camp sites, the guides, porters, and probably hikers who weren’t summitting were singing and shouting.  Though I was extremely tired and under the effects of altitude — it was amazing to experience this in person and something I can never forget.  I felt rejuvenated and energized despite the fact that I had hours of trekking ahead of me for the night.

It is hard to recall all the details of the night (not that there are many).  I found myself questioning whether it was safe for me to continue the summit hike.  For every step I took, I forced myself to inhale and exhale faster — I could feel that my body wanted more oxygen.  I also felt really lightheaded at times and I was concerned about my sense of balance.  When I brought this up with the mountain guides, they nodded and simply said, “don’t worry, that’s normal.”  So I kept going.

We’d stop for breaks and I felt like taking a nap at every one of them.  I felt so tired that I couldn’t even open my water bottle but fortunately the guides helped me out.  I looked at everyone else and saw that I wasn’t alone — we were all struggling with the altitude — some more than others.  I didn’t know if I could make it and I wondered if I would make it but eventually I got so tired that I was purely dedicating my energy to following the person in front of me and not slipping anywhere.

Every so often our guides would start singing a local song and I loved those moments.  It drew my attention away from everything.  I knew at that point that the comment our guides made earlier was true.  Physically — we could do it, but at this altitude it isn’t about the physical aspect anymore but the psychological driver inside us.  I set aside my thoughts around failure and focused purely on moving one step at a time.  I don’t know how long it took us but eventually we made it to Stella Point.  We had overcome the rim and the crazy number of switchbacks that took us all night to climb.

After a very long struggle, we make it to Stella Point. End of the tiresome switchbacks.  We cheered and hugged for it was a momentous occasion from each of us individually. After a very long struggle, we make it to Stella Point. End of the tiresome switchbacks.  We cheered and hugged for it was a momentous occasion from each of us individually. The sun is just beginning to light up the horizon.  It is an amazing moment, until we realize we need to keep hiking further. The sun is just beginning to light up the horizon.  It is an amazing moment, until we realize we need to keep hiking further.

I was so happy to have arrived at Stella Point, I just wanted to take some photographs with the sign but my camera didn’t seem to be cooperating — the wasn’t enough light, even with the flash on.  My guide tried to take some photographs of me with the sign but it just didn’t work.  I was too tired to curse but I did get some early photos of the light in the horizon.

Just as I thought we had made it, our guide tells us we have to keep moving forward.  I prayed that there wouldn’t be more switchbacks and was thankful that there weren’t.  At that point, I felt a surge of energy (probably from adrenaline) and found myself trekking faster towards Uhuru Peak, the summit point of Kilimanjaro.  We wouldn’t reach the peak in time to watch the sunrise but we enjoyed the sunrise nonetheless hiking on the summit itself.  I think at this point, it was approximately 6:30am.

This is it.  We've reached the top of Kilimanjaro.  Our adrenaline is pumping and we're wide awake despite an all-night hike. The view is spectacular. This is it.  We’ve reached the top of Kilimanjaro.  Our adrenaline is pumping and we’re wide awake despite an all-night hike. The view is spectacular.

The summit was absolutely stunning but also annoying.  I actually wasn’t going to take a photograph with the sign — particularly when I saw so many people crowding around the signage trying to get the perfect snapshot — so I was content standing around photographing our surroundings on the summit.  Our mountain guides knew what they were doing because they told us immediately to drop our packs and head to the signage — and they figured out a way to take our photos for us.  I’m really grateful to them for doing so.  I guess they knew we were all too tired to make a fuss over anything but that this would be something important to us in hindsight.

Taking in the view of the glaciers from the summit.  I believe this is the Rebmann Glacier but I could be wrong. Taking in the view of the glaciers from the summit.  I believe this is the Rebmann Glacier but I could be wrong. Another view of the glacier.  I was too tired to do so but if I could, I'd have walked over to touch it. Another view of the glacier.  I was too tired to do so but if I could, I’d have walked over to touch it.

After I had my photos taken with the signage, I had to just stand there and take in everything around me.  It was all so majestic.  The morning light, the glaciers, the rim of the crater and the shadows that were cast across the summit.  I wish I had the energy to touch one of those glaciers but I was much too tired for that.

Instead, one of the porters who also served as a guide on summit night helped take some photographs of me with the glaciers.  What a way to spend the morning of New Years 2016.

Returning back the way we came. Returning back the way we came. None of this would have been possible without our amazing guides and porters who supported us all the way.  Thank you Fred! None of this would have been possible without our amazing guides and porters who supported us all the way.  Thank you Fred!

After spending about 20 to 30 minutes on the summit, our guides led us down from the summit and back towards our camp in Barafu.  I guess they knew that staying up here too long would have implications — which it did.  As we made our way back, I was feeling really nauseous and unwell — the only solution to this was to descend faster and so I did.

I didn’t take any photographs (nor did I feel like it by that point) but the descent was quite an experience in itself.  Descents normally concern me because of my sense of balance and knees but this was actually okay.  I initially thought that we’d be going back the same way we came via the switchbacks but the route was actually very different.  The entire way down is like stepping on rock scree (loose gravel and sand).  It takes a little getting used to — but once familiar, it is like skiing down all the way down with trekking poles.  I thought it was a lot of fun — despite wiping out a couple of times.

The rock scree doesn’t last forever and eventually we make our way on to a sandy path that takes us through another part of Kilimanjaro.  We get to see other parts of Barafu camp and it is seriously like a metropolis with some wild terrain to hike through.  Along the way, we are met by our porters who greet us with cheer and smiles — congratulating us and treating us to some refreshing juice.  A few of them offer to even take our packs for us to relieve us of our loads.  As we trek through Barafu camp (it is a long way), I chat with some of the guides and porters, I had the opportunity to learn about their favourite routes and other areas that are interesting to hike.  We soon find that our camp has moved further down the mountain and my tent is funnily enough, lodged between a number of rocks.  I guess that is some good security from the wind!  We all retire into our tents, clean up and take a nap while waiting for others in the group to return.

As much as our guides wanted everyone to stay together — some people were more affected by the altitude than others so it took them longer.  I am pleased that everyone managed to summit despite all the obstacles and hurdles we were confronted with.  A couple in my group even got engaged on the mountain — how exciting!

Once everyone returned and we had brunch — we recuperated for a bit before setting off for Millennium Camp.  Everyone was in good spirits (albeit, tired) and prepared to descend the mountain from Barafu.  Normally, many groups descend to Mweka camp but given time, distance, and the tired state of the group — the guides agreed that it wasn’t a good idea and that it’d be a better option to stay at a closer camp despite the fact that we’d have a longer hike on our last day.  True to the weather on Kilimanjaro, the clouds set in and it rained on us as we made our way to our next campsite.  What was really surprising was that it poured!

At that point, I didn’t care anymore.  Hey, at least we had accomplished what we set out to do.

Check out the final day 8!

Climbing Kilimanjaro – Lemosho Trek Day 5

As soon as we began the climb up the wall, I noticed that it was slippery.  So did others.  Apparently, it got cold enough that certain parts of the wall becomes icy.  Unfortunately the sun does not shine on the Barranco Wall until a lot later so we had to take our steps carefully and slowly as we trekked along.  In some areas, we had to use both hands to clamor up or steady ourselves.  It also got pretty cramped at times with porters trying to pass us.  Our guides did their best to keep everyone together but there were times when the group ended up getting separated.

It was another cold morning of December 30, 2015 on Kilimanjaro as we got ready to make our way to the Barranco Wall.  There was a mix of excitement and anxiousness in the air as everyone ate their breakfast and sipped their tea or coffee in the mess tent.  Not knowing what to expect other than that it would be a climb where we’d actually pack away our hiking poles because one would actually require both hands — I was a little nervous myself in terms of whether or not I would be able to tackle this climb.  The day was supposed to be relatively short with us only hiking for approximately 5km to Karanga camp.

Lots of hustling early in the morning as groups prepare to pack up and head up the Barranco Wall.  You can see people in the distance going up the Barranco Wall. Lots of hustling early in the morning as groups prepare to pack up and head up the Barranco Wall.  You can see people in the distance going up the Barranco Wall. Watching people climb the Barranco Wall slowly... Watching people climb the Barranco Wall slowly… Waking up to another clear sky and great view, but a little close to other tents. Waking up to another clear sky and great view, but a little close to other tents. Successfully made it past the kissing or hugging rock.  Happy times! Successfully made it past the kissing or hugging rock.  Happy times!

As soon as we began the climb up the wall, I noticed that it was slippery.  So did others.  Apparently, it got cold enough that certain parts of the wall becomes icy.  Unfortunately the sun does not shine on the Barranco Wall until a lot later so we had to take our steps carefully and slowly as we trekked along.  In some areas, we had to use both hands to clamor up or steady ourselves.  It also got pretty cramped at times with porters trying to pass us.  Our guides did their best to keep everyone together but there were times when the group ended up getting separated.

It was inevitable because there were just so many people hiking up the Barranco Wall.  In particular was this bulge along the trail that the guides referred to as the “Kissing or Hugging rock”.  In order to continue along the trail, you had to literally wrap yourself around the rock and step around it.

What was really impressive was seeing the porters hike around the kissing / hugging rock or even finding a direct route up without dealing with it.  The guides were amazing as well.  There were so many points when we’d end up with a traffic jam so the guides from many different groups were all communicating with one another trying to smooth out the traffic on the wall.

The view from the Barranco wall is stunning as we look down towards the rain forest canopy. The view from the Barranco wall is stunning as we look down towards the rain forest canopy. After a strenuous climb, we all take a break and try to drink more water. After a strenuous climb, we all take a break and try to drink more water.

Just before we reached an area where the trail widened enough for my group to take a short break, we came across an elderly couple who were hiking Kilimanjaro.  It was so inspirational to see them.  Yes, they needed additional help and attention, and they were slowing everyone down but I thought it was a brilliant sight to see the two of them striving to tackle Kilimanjaro for New Years Day 2016, just like the rest of us.

Ideally, that is one of my aspirations in life.  I’d like to still be able to hike mountains when I am in my 80s.  Assuming I make it to that age of course, and I base that off of the average lifespan of a Canadian male.

It continues to amaze me as I watch other hikers and the porters in particular walk up the Barranco wall without any poles while carrying so much. It continues to amaze me as I watch other hikers and the porters in particular walk up the Barranco wall without any poles while carrying so much. One of those ascents up the wall that are literally straight up. One of those ascents up the wall that are literally straight up. More grand views along the ascent. More grand views along the ascent.

Some more clamoring and scrambling with all four limbs were required as we continued up the Barranco Wall.  A few people in my group struggled with the Barranco Wall.  Though I initially had my doubts on whether I might’ve had trouble — I found that my training prior to my trip actually prepared me quite well but it was one of the more physically intense parts of the trek regardless of altitude.

At this point, altitude was not affecting many of us.  Today funny enough, was considered a “rest” day or extra acclimatization day — with the shorter distance that we would cover today.  Nonetheless, we were pretty tired from the climb up the wall and were pretty happy to finally get over that part and take a break at the top.

We finally made it up the wall and happily take a break.  Good time for snacks! We finally made it up the wall and happily take a break.  Good time for snacks!

Peering down from the top of the wall, porters continue to trek upwards. Peering down from the top of the wall, porters continue to trek upwards.

While everyone was sitting down resting, I spent some time peering down the wall where we came from while enjoying some shared snacks.  It was quite inspiring to see everyone continuing to hike up (trekkers and porters).  I wonder what the largest number of people ever on the wall has ever been?

As we moved on after our break, the trail began taking a descent and just as expected — the clouds began moving in.  Back on went the rain gear!

The trail leads through an interesting area with a peculiar pattern but as we got closer, it was simply erosion taking place. The trail leads through an interesting area with a peculiar pattern but as we got closer, it was simply erosion taking place.

As we're getting closer to Karanga camp where we will stay for the night, we must descend into the valley.  Some really interesting-looking flora and lichen. As we’re getting closer to Karanga camp where we will stay for the night, we must descend into the valley.  Some really interesting-looking flora and lichen.

The descent became really steep at certain points as we made our way into the valley.  Trekking poles are very helpful at this point.  Although there was a lot of green and flora as we made our way down, I didn’t see many senecio trees but rather a very different environment.  Even the yellows and greens were different.  Oddly enough, the greens reminded me of different parts of California and the various climates I had encountered on a family road trip many years ago.

I often find descents to be unnerving so I’d much prefer going up than down — others are concerned about their knees or perhaps have ailments that they may need to pay attention to.  I’ve found that although I have improved with my sense of balance and ability to descend mountains — it is still unnerving to trek down a steep trail.

The final climb up to Karanga camp.  This was a long slog up. The final climb up to Karanga camp.  This was a long slog up.

Fortunately for me (but not so fortunate for others), eventually we had to start our long hike back up out of the valley.  It was a beautiful sight with the clouds passing over us.

We very very slowly made our way up and out of the valley to the ranger’s hut for registration into Karanga camp.  Of course, by that point we began to experience some rain.  At this point, we were pretty accustomed to this weather behaviour on Kilimanjaro.  Everyone was just happy to get some time to rest.  Tomorrow would be a big day leading up to the summit night.

Check out Trek Day 6 and 7 on Kilimanjaro!

Climbing Kilimanjaro – Lemosho Trek Day 4

Soon finding ourselves in the clouds, the trail actually got busier and very narrow because we were hiking on a ridge.  Some points only allowing for everyone to be hiking single-file.  This meant porters coming from all directions, mountain guides, and trekkers were all bottle-necked in this part of the trail leading towards Lava Tower.

Waking up at Shira 2 camp on December 29th, 2015 was damn chilly and cold experience.  Some puddles of water from yesterday’s rain had turned into small patches of muddy ice.  I was waking up way earlier than the rest of the group.  Between responding to nature’s call (in the cold!) and the changes in timezone, I found myself operating on less sleep than I had anticipated — but it didn’t seem to bother me like it would have if I walked into the office sleep-deprived.  I felt energized every day we continued trekking on the mountain.

Today’s hike — we were informed ahead of time — would be a tough one.  We’d be pushing up to a much higher altitude by hiking up to Lava Tower and then descending to Barranco Camp for the night which was at a lower altitude to acclimatize.  We didn’t really know what we would be up against but at least the day started out with beautiful weather!

Morning at Shira 2 Camp.  It was pretty cold! Morning at Shira 2 Camp.  It was pretty cold!

It didn't seem that far, until we looked back at the hike up from Shira 2 Camp. It didn’t seem that far, until we looked back at the hike up from Shira 2 Camp.

The trek up from Shira 2 Camp was like a slow slog up a loose gravel incline.  The pace wasn’t bad and it allowed for us to enjoy the surroundings.  Some groups passed us, just as we passed others.  We kept trekking up for so long that eventually the clouds began to catch-up with us.

Soon finding ourselves in the clouds, the trail actually got busier and very narrow because we were hiking on a ridge.  Some points only allowing for everyone to be hiking single-file.  This meant porters coming from all directions, mountain guides, and trekkers were all bottle-necked in this part of the trail leading towards Lava Tower.

Trudging up to a very busy area.  We end up trekking along the rim where the trail is very narrow. Trudging up to a very busy area.  We end up trekking along the rim where the trail is very narrow.

On the way, the landscape got very stark but beautiful.  It is simply astonishing how this part of the mountain looks in-person.  I won’t say it looks like Mars, but it doesn’t look like any place that most human beings would consider living.

There was a really neat point of the trail where we had to literally squeeze down through a gap.  You can take a look closer at the photograph above.  Not only was it a gap, but it was a steep descent as well making for a challenging but interesting footwork.  Trekking poles make things a lot easier.

We’d take breaks on the side of the trail and find rocks to “leave a message” behind for Mother Nature.  Getting closer to Lava Tower, many of us were beginning to feel the effects of the altitude.  I was getting a bit lightheaded but the landscape fortunately continued to inspire me to take photographs and trek on.

Taking a break after the trail widens up a little. Taking a break after the trail widens up a little. A look at how vast the valley is before the climb up to Lava Tower A look at how vast the valley is before the climb up to Lava Tower

By the time we got to Lava Tower, we were fully under cloud cover and there was a bit of rain drizzle as well.  I did not realize this but apparently there were many groups that also camped at Lava Tower.  I can only imagine what it might look like in the morning when it was sunny.  That said, I didn’t really enjoy the fact that there were so many groups funneling into the Lava Tower area.  Many of us were really feeling the altitude at this point or were pretty tired from the long slog up from the valley — to make things even more challenging, we had to find a spot to it down for lunch and I think we took an unnecessarily difficult route.

Nonetheless, I was happy to sit down and enjoy lunch while treating a water refill (which is I admit, a bit of a hassle at times).  Unlike many others who were struggling with the altitude, I was still hungry — which was surprising.  I think I ate almost everything in my lunch box.

Our mountain guides seemed eager to stick to schedule so we soon set off back on to the trail after a quick break to answer nature’s call.  It would be a very steep descent down.  The altitude mainly affected me in a way that gave me a sense of lightheadedness — so I wasn’t feeling as surefooted as I normally would be.  The way down was full of unevenly set stones, jagged rocks, and loose gravel.  Fortunately, our mountain guides were keeping an eye on us and reassuring us as we went — and our trekking poles were an excellent help once again.

The descent from Lava Tower is very steep. The descent from Lava Tower is very steep. A closer look at the descent. A closer look at the descent.

Once past the steep descent from Lava Tower, it was as if we arrived in another world.  A world filled with senecio trees!  Despite the fog and the rain, it was a very welcome sight after the very stark Lava Tower area.  We also had to take care to avoid slipping on certain sections of the trail.  The descent was definitely helping address the altitude sickness that some members of my group were feeling but the way down was also rough on their knees.

The steep descent takes us into an area full of senecio trees.  It was a beautiful sight with all the mist and fog. The steep descent takes us into an area full of senecio trees.  It was a beautiful sight with all the mist and fog. A very rugged trail on the way down made it quite challenging.  It was amazing watching the porters make their way down. A very rugged trail on the way down made it quite challenging.  It was amazing watching the porters make their way down.

There was a point along the trail when I had to answer nature’s call again (thanks to all the water that I’m being forced to drink) and unfortunately there was no place to go along the trail, so I actually had to climb up some of the rugged areas.  The funny thing is that I thought we were on a break.  I must have either drank way too much or misunderstood because as soon as I found my way back to the trail, I lost track of where the group was and the mountain guide that had my trekking poles.  Oops.

I just kept trekking forwards until I saw someone in my group and inquired.  As soon as they saw it was me, my poles were passed from person to person down to me.  Good thing they have keen enough eyes to spot me through the fog because I definitely was having a hard time!

Once we arrived at Barranco camp, it was a relief to see our porters.  They greeted us with smiles and cheer — helping to relieve us of our packs — which I thought was ridiculous because they were carrying so so much more than we were.

Barranco Camp was unfortunately almost like tent city.  I could not believe how many people and how many tents were set up here.  It was insane.  It also meant that our group tents were closer together.  I kid you not that they were in some cases, inches apart.  In some sense, everyone was growing more intimate than ever before!

The clouds clear up for a brief moment for a view of the Barranco Wall that we will climb tomorrow. The clouds clear up for a brief moment for a view of the Barranco Wall that we will climb tomorrow.

Alas, the public latrine situation here was not nearly as good as it was on Shira 2 camp.  I think due to the number of people including porters — people don’t pay attention to whether some latrines are designated for tourists or porters — they just use whatever is available.  Well, if you’re not fortunate enough to have hired chemical toilets, you just have to make do.  Unfortunately with tent city, it also meant we had to trek half way across numerous tent sites in order to reach the latrines.  Not so great when it is cold and in the middle of the night.

On a lighter note, I think my group was getting tired of millet porridge because when our guides offered the possibility of oatmeal — they all practically cheered themselves hoarse.  Funny how these little things affect mood on the mountain.  Personally, I didn’t mind the millet.  At the end of the night, due to the number of people at the camp, there was a discussion on when to tackle the Barranco Wall — we didn’t want to wait too long (9am) or get stuck with a lot of traffic (8am).  We ended up deciding to tackle it at 8:30am.  I had no idea why it’d make such a difference but I wasn’t a mountain guide.  Once dinner and tomorrow’s briefing wrapped up — we stepped out to enjoy the stars once again.

Check out Day 5!