Itinerary: 8-Day Lemosho via Western Breach and Crater Camp
Company: Destination Tanzania Safaris (www.detasa.com)
Tue (Kili Day 3):
This morning's pattern was similar to last morning's. I woke up well rested with no aches or pains from the previous day's up-downs. It was 40 F before the sun came out. We started on our climb around 8:30A, polé polé. There were almost no trees in the landscape now, just mostly shrubs and low vegetation. October is the dry season, so while I appreciated not having to climb through wet weather, the reduced vegetation and loose earth made it very dusty. I found it prudent to use my face mask for the first several hours. The trail today also involved noticeable natural steps but there was not as much "wasted effort" as yesterday where one gave up some of the altitude climbed by frequent descending sections. I noticed how one's height and the length of one's stride changes the perception of a "hurdle". Ari, who was about 6' tall once wanted us to cross a little stream by stepping on certain rocks. His stride was long so he could casually step on those and walk across. For both LV and me who were about a foot shorter (LV probably not quite 5'), those rocks were not good stepping stones as we'd have to leap from one to the next. The height of the natural steps on the trail also presented a different level of challenge to each of us.
Along the way, we crossed a dirt road that is exclusively used by rescue vehicles in case of emergencies on the mountain. Mhina said there was also a place for a rescue helicopter to land somewhere but did not recommend relying on that service. He said the helicopters came from Kenya (Nairobi), so if there was an emergency on the mountain that required fast evacuation, there was no guarantee that a helicopter would be there quickly. It may be able to come in a few hours, or some time today or some time tomorrow, based on several factors. A local 4WD vehicle would be able to drive up and reach the location relatively faster and more reliably. Not that either of us were anywhere close to being in need of physical or other assistance.
As we climbed through the moorland, the shrubbery also vanished slowly and small clumps of grasses, some lobelias and clusters of groundsels was largely what was left of the vegetation. One could see lichen on the rocks and some moss occasionally that would probably be more widespread in wet weather. After about 3 hours of climbing, we stopped for lunch at the Scott Fischer camp. Today's lunch was a picnic/boxed lunch, eaten sitting/standing around on the rocks in this clearing used as a campsite by some. This camp was named after Scott Fischer after his death near the Everest summit on that disastrous day in 1996. In the 80s, he had started Mountain Madness (MM), a climbing company in Seattle, to guide people up high mountains for high prices. He used to guide climbs up Kili and other high summits on other continents. A little plaque on a rock memorializes him here. It was apparently a favourite seat of his on his Kili climbs where he would allegedly do some ganja to relax and prevent altitude sickness (does it now? ganja is no coca). Mhina told us that the route we were taking for our climb and summit to Kilimanjaro used to be a private route pioneered and used by MM/Scott Fischer back in the day when regulations/laws for climbing Kili were different. This route could not be used by the riffraff who climbed Kili only using the other public routes. There are no private routes to climb Kili anymore and non-Tanzanians cannot guide climbs on Kili. If the latter is true (and enforced), I wonder about all the western/foreign companies offering Kili climbs that list experienced westerners as the Kili guides on their websites.
After a lunch break of about an hour, we climbed on for some time and arrived at Muir Camp around 2P. As they did every time we reached camp, our crew (whoever was standing around) high-fived or fist-bumped us and said "good job", even if it was one of the few things they knew how to say in English. It was kind of them to say that but one of my inner children has a suspicious nature. Unless I am myself convinced that the praise is deserved, I am not sure at such times if I am being patronized or the speaker is offering genuine praise from their side because they are clueless and don't know better. Praise (or criticism) from the clueless is easier to ignore as the problem is not yours. In this case, it was highly unlikely that the crew was clueless. They knew exactly what good or bad climbing performance was. So whenever they said "good job" to me, were they actually thinking, "Ah there she is finally, all huffing and puffing, as if this is tough. At least she did not need to be carried! (so, good job)"? But whatever my misgivings and suspicions, I managed to thank them pleasantly.
We had added another 2K' today to our elevation, walked almost 7 miles and had taken less time to do it than the 5 miles of the previous day for a similar altitude gain. Unlike the sunshine and balmy temperature at Shira Camp the previous afternoon, it was overcast and cold here, around 50 degrees. A thermos of hot water for tea/coffee used to be mostly ready in the dining tent by the time we reached camp, or Adam used to bring it soon. I wasn't inspired to walk around or even stand outside the tent when it was overcast like this and preferred to sit quietly with my Sudoku, tea and popcorn, and jot down some notes like I used to during the post-climb tea time. I had put my tea bags with the other tea bags so that I would not have to go back to my tent to fetch one every time I wanted to drink tea. LV and I used to find it so easy to keep eating the unbuttered popcorn (quite a lot for the two of us) and not feel them fill any void in our stomachs. Still thinking of food after polishing off the popcorn, I remembered the packet of apple filled hard caramel candies I had brought. Not that a candy was going to make a dent but it definitely felt good to suck one. I shared the rest with the crew.
LV went off to visit her new buddies G&L in their camp. G&L were LV's countryfolk but now settled in the US. A friendly couple, they were doing a 9-day Lemosho itinerary with another company, also attempting the Western Breach summit route. They were the only ones besides us doing WB amongst all the groups that started with us on Day 1 that we knew of. We had seen them first at the start of our climb where LV, after taking one look at them, had confirmed that they were her homies. We had passed one another off and on a few times on the climb thus far. Our guides seemed to know each other, as did some of the other crew. For many of the crew from various companies who knew each other, these climbs were often when they got to see one another after a gap as everybody had different schedules, assignments and opportunities to work along different Kili routes and on different itineraries. So there used to be visitors in our kitchen and porters' tents and ours going off to socialize and catch up with their buddies in other camps. Once when LV was hanging out in the kitchen tent and testing her memory for the names of the porters sitting there, somebody asked her to name a couple of guys and she found herself totally at a loss, only to be told eventually that they were buddies from another company, just visiting.
Today, we also had visitors of another kind. Porters who did not have enough food to eat. There is much exploitation of labour on the Kili climbs as there is elsewhere in the world wherever people feel able and willing to take advantage of someone else's desperation and lack of choices. There are labour laws on paper but many ways to circumvent them. For the Kili climbs specifically, there are regulations about load limits per porter, their daily wage rate etc. Any porter who was climbing Kili would have to carry stuff for his own needs for the entire duration on the mountain in addition to the stuff needed for the clients and other shared things, in whatever manner the total load is distributed among all porters. Some ways for a climbing company to reduce the costs of the operation is to not pay the porters enough, reduce their head count by making each one carry more load than is legally allowed, not take care of them in other ways, etc.. One may not be able to as easily shortchange the paying client by not providing them enough food and other promised services and perks on the mountain (though that too seems to be done, based on some climbers' experiences I've read) but one could reduce or withhold what was due to the porters, even in basic survival needs. Sweatshops are operated that way all over the world even by so-called respectable businesses and people happy to buy goods produced there with an I-see-no-evil so I-believe-no-evil attitude. So, this is no different. Many companies offer Kili climbs at budget rates that would not be sustainable in terms of keeping a business afloat, given the known fixed costs of a climb and other cost estimates, unless corners were being cut on multiple fronts.
These porters were working for a very successful well-connected local company that seems to have a notoriety about unethical business practices, including its treatment of porters. Though we were told who the porters were working for, we sensed a general reluctance from our crew to say much about the company. But heads were often shaken, a thing said here, another there. I was reminded of the measured comments the Reverend (our nickname for our guide in Tibet) made initially about their occupiers till he felt comfortable with us to open up a bit. Mhina said climbing Kili was a hard job and everyone helped everyone else out, i.e., crew of one company would help out the crew of another if the latter were in distress or needed help. It did not matter that they were rivals in business and all angling for a piece of the same pie. Sounded somewhat like the tradition of helping distressed boaters at sea, regardless of their identity and affiliations. He said if somebody needed water or food, those who had it would share theirs. He also said some companies didn't carry enough food for their workers who must then fend for themselves (carry their own food). To me, that meant only that the company did not purchase enough food to feed the crew so it would also not need to hire as many people to carry that food up in order to ensure that everybody was well taken care of. Mhina also pointed out the size of some groups (clients) and their crew size. Crew size does not exactly go up in direct proportion to the number of clients since there are some fixed requirements like the kitchen tent, porters' tent(s), emergency equipment etc. that gets carried up regardless of the group size (not all companies carry emergency equipment). Also, companies that offer more bells and whistles and comforts to the clients would have more stuff to take up. But I was getting a better understanding of what going up the mountain entailed and my initial discomfort with the size of our crew was waning.
The traditional staple dish in TZ is called ugali. It's made with maize flour cooked in water to a thick consistency like halva. Then you ball it up, dip it in a stew/sauce or eat with vegetables, whatever is available and affordable. It is good starch (low glycemic carbs) like most traditional staple grains from which the embrace of "modernity" and convenience (and the oft-associated abandonment of good sense) has not sucked out all goodness. Our crew carried bags and bags of the flour and used to eat the ugali with beef stew. It used to be cooked in a huge pot after our meals were done. I was going to try the ugali one day with my veggies but the plan went the way of my Yak butter tea tasting. Never got past the planning stage. I need to apply myself more diligently to executing all the plans I make and not wear my "thinking" cap so much.
After dinner, our O2 readings were taken as usual and the next day's climb discussed. We both continued to do well. I was not tired after today's longish climb. But I was not particularly happy about it either.
Part 4 to be continued...