Climbing Mt. Meru
Jul 21, 2004
The morning that I had the bloody diarrhea, I was supposed to start a climb up Mt. Meru. My bags were packed, I was ready to go. Obviously, I postponed the trip. Unfortunately, sometimes my stubbornness overwhelms my common sense. I only postponed the trip for 2 days.
In Tanzania all of the tourists do package tours. Not me. I decided to climb this mountain on my own. I rented a sleeping bag and a down jacket. I stocked up with enough fruits and vegetables, peanut butter and jelly, and snickers to keep me well fed. I took a public bus towards Arusha, and got out at the dirt road leading towards Arusha National Park and Mt. Meru. I stood by the side of the road waiting to hitch a ride. I didn't have to wait to wait long. A pickup truck pulls up.
These are the trucks that you hear horror stories about. 25 people were standing up in the back of the truck. There is a metal cage so that no one will bounce out. The road is as dusty and bumpy as you can imagine - though the bumps are magnified by the truck's flat tire and lack of a suspension. Every 15 minutes, the truck would break down, but with tweaking of the engine and pushing they always managed to get it running again.
The truck route was very scenic... apparently. I didn't see any of it. Occasionally, other passengers would cheerfully point out elephants and giraffes in the distance, but all I could see was the shirt of the guy in front of me. Eventually, the truck limps up to the ranger station. The fees for a 3 day climb were $180. Ouch! $75 in park fees, $40 for two nights in huts, $20 rescue fee, and $45 for an armed guard to chase away stampeding buffalo. They also gave me a hard-sell for a taxi, insisting that I needed to pre-arrange an expensive ride out of the park. I told them that I hitchhiked in. I figured that I could hitchhike out too.
From the very beginning of the walk, I'm struggling. I'm not sure if it is the medication that is knocking me out, or if it's the dysentery, but it is immediately clear that two days after bloody diarrhea I should not be trying to climb a mountain. If I'm struggling at 4500 feet, I can't see any way that I'll summit 15,000 feet. But, I've already paid my $180, so I start slowly trudging up the hill.
I arrived at Mirikamba Hut (8300 feet) after only 3.5 hours of hiking, but the whole way was a struggle. After dinner, I have a touch of altitude sickness. Just a bit of nausea. In the middle of the night, I rush to the toilet 5 times. Night time urination is a sign that your body is adjusting the altitude. It is a good sign at high-altitude. But 8300 feet is not high altitude. My body should not have been struggling that hard to adjust. The drugs or dysentery is leaving me very weak. Things don't look good, I'm not ready to quit yet.
The plan for the 2nd day is to ascend extremely slowly; 20 minutes of walking, followed by 10 minutes of rest. I was hoping that if I went up slowly enough, I would properly adjust to the altitude. But, I was struggling even at the beginning of day #2. I was cheered up however, by an amazing view around the first corner. The trail looked through the jungle, over a sea of clouds, across to Kilimanjaro. By lunchtime, the scenery was even better. I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a deep dark jungle, surrounded by trees dripping in moss. I had finally reached real Africa.
Despite the snail-like pace that I took all day, I found that I was still having serious shortness of breath as I approached Saddle Hut (11,700 feet). That evening, I decide conclusively that I am not even going to try to make it to the summit. There are few reasons to go, and a stack of reasons against it. First of all, I've got nothing to prove. I have nothing to prove to myself - I've been up higher mountains before. I have nothing to prove to anyone else - few people has heard of Mt. Meru, so they few people will be impressed if I make it. I don't have warm enough clothing for the midnight departure. It's a difficult climb in perfect physical condition; attempting it while sick would just be stupid. With a couple of more days to acclimatize, I probably could have made it, but I wasn't willing to pay even more money in park fees. I come up with a new plan. Climbing to Rhino Point seemed like a good, sane, goal. It is an easy, one hour, 800 foot hike from Saddle Camp.
That night I came down with a more serious case altitude sickness. I wake up in the middle of the right, rush to the toilet for yet another piss, and find that I'm very dizzy. Diamox is a drug used to treat altitude sickness. I promised myself that I wouldn't take it. I was already taking metronidazole for the stomach problems, and doxycycline to prevent malaria. Adding diamox to that mix seemed like to much of a lethal combination. The right thing would have been to descend until I was feeling better and then reascend slowly. But the night was too damn cold, and I was too damn tired. I couldn't find the motivation to wake my armed guide (dangerous buffaloes you know) and head down hill. Instead, I took the diamox and 20 minutes later I was feeling better.
I was hoping that if I went slowly I would manage the climb up to Rhino Point without problems. All my food, gear and sleeping bag was left at camp. This was the first day that I wasn't carrying a heavy pack. I was hoping that it would be easier , but it wasn't. From the beginning of the hike, every step was a struggle and I had trouble catching my breath. Diamox didn't kill me the night before, so I figured it was okay to take again. I pop one pill, my fingers start tingling (a harmless side-effect), and quickly I start feeling better. With little more difficulty, I finish the climb up to Rhino point. The view down into the crater was pretty spectacular.
It's hard to look up at a mountain and not climb it. I did want to climb higher, but it was only a slight craving, and this time common sense won out. The only real disappointment was that the view of Kilimanjaro was hidden behind clouds.
Descending was hard. Very hard. Down has been the easy part on every other mountain that I've climbed. With each step you're rewarded with additional oxygen. You get stronger and stronger. After a few thousand feet of descent you start feeling like superman. I wasn't superman this time. The weakness caused by the sickness was just amplified. It was a huge struggle. My knees gave out, my feet blistered and finally my quads gave out too. I barely made it.
I love the challenge of climbing mountains, but think that this is the last time that I will ever attempt a climb when I have a time limit. With a couple of more days I could have acclimated, made the summit and then descended slowly and comfortable. It would have been a much better experience.
During the hard sell for a taxi, they told me that if I wanted to get a ride out of the park, I needed to be at the ranger station before 3pm to catch a truck out of the park. I made it just in time, but was exhausted and didn't know if my beat-up legs would survive another truck ride like the first one.
Instead, I try hitching with tourist vehicles. The first 3 groups are all going the wrong direction. Then a massive orange truck showed up. At the wheel, is a German author who is building a hotel adjacent to the park. I hop on. This time only a park ranger and I share the back of truck. There is even a spare tire which makes a comfortable enough seat. For an unknown reason the driver takes the long way out of the park. I'm treated to a free safari.
We bounce past colobus monkeys, baboon, wild boars, buffalo and giraffes. The black and white colobus monkeys look like flying skunks. The baboons are just glorified monkeys; my nemesis of Indonesia and India. The wild boars are just pigs; I can't imagine getting excited about them. And the buffalos are just cows. However, the giraffes were standing right by the road and they were awesome.
The truck ride was exciting. We were bouncing along, choking on dust, and holding on to keep from getting tossed out of the truck. It was far too dusty and bumpy to even contemplate pulling my camera out of my backpack. But, it gave me an opportunity to contrast my experience against the tourist vehicles we passed. The tourist vehicles sat by the side of the road, often queued up 3 cars deep. The tourist stood with their heads poking out of comfortable Land Rovers clicking away rolls of film at the baboons. Compared to hitching a ride in a huge orange truck it looked dull; barely a hint of adventure. I wonder how much I'm going to enjoy my safari.
And a plug for the Porter Assistance Program: These guys have done good work for years. One of the things they do, is loan warm weather clothing to porters free of charge. They have a lot of donated gear in storage in Oregon, Washington and Colorado where it is not being used. They need couriers. If you plan to be in Nepal, Tanzania, or Peru and can carry an extra bag, contact Ken Stober at firstname.lastname@example.org