Kilimanjaro, my last great mountain: Part Three

Morning on the Shira Plateau

At 0400 I went to the biffy and saw a magical sky bursting with stars and a crescent moon that provided just enough light to make out the outline of the mountain.  The melodic trills of an alpine chat welcomed the dawn, reminding me of the song of the winter wren.  Sun blessed the early morning, drying my damp hiking clothes in minutes.   I’m going to gain weight on this climb if I keep eating at my current rate: mango, banana, avocado, cheese, bread, jam, omelet, sausage, cucumber and tomato slices for breakfast.  Stalking around the mess tent was a large black bird with a white patch on the back of the neck.  One croak confirmed that it was a raven.

Moorland of the Shira Plateau

We leave at 0845, heading across the Moorland with its low vegetation, different from any we have seen.

For two hours the trail is mostly flat, but I have trouble coordinating my breathing with my pace.  I’m worried, because I really shouldn’t have a problem at this elevation, but once we start to climb, all is well.

We pause from time to time to rest and drink as the sky gradually clouds over, threatening another afternoon of rain.

Soon we are in a mist that swirls around the grey-green shrubs and hanging lichens.  It is a landscape of fantasy: soft, mysterious, quiet.

Tobias on way to Moir Camp

Tobias in rain gear

Then we enter the Alpine Desert zone, a land of rock and scattered tufts of green.

Alpine desert zone

Lunch is on a ridge – chicken, banana fritters, fries, a veggie concoction – needed to give us strength for the steady rain that accompanies us all the way to camp and continues through the night.

Arrival at Moir Camp

The “desert” seems to be getting its annual quota of moisture on our watch.

In an attempt to get a good night’s sleep, I decide to drink nothing after 1700.  Bad idea.  I snuggle into my sleeping bag but cannot get my breathing down to the slow breaths needed for slumber. At 2300 I give up and start to drink, feeling better with every swallow and finally falling into a deep sleep.  Of course, two hours later I’m wide awake after the inevitable nature call.

Moir Camp is at 4160 m.  It is a barren site, nestled between ridges, with limited views, and little life beyond the ravens.  So what was an elephant doing up here?  Its bleached bones offer only questions.

Elephant skeleton at Moir Camp

Was it madness that drove it to such heights?  Was it lost?  Was it searching for something?  Did it realize before it died that it had made a mistake or did it find some satisfaction in its wild venture?  I feel sadness, but also a little admiration for its daring.

Kilimanjaro, my last great mountain: Part Two


Morning at Big Tree Camp

Day two dawns clear, and I wake to the sound of someone cleaning my biffy.  This poor fellow must be at the bottom of the pecking order!  Breakfast is a feast of fresh fruit, bread, jam and cheese, scrambled eggs and sausage; I dig in as if it will be my last meal.


Tobias is in no hurry to get on the trail, so I wander around the camp, fascinated by the strange flowers.  I know that I must enjoy them here, because today we will climb out of the rain forest.  Kilimanjaro offers a bewildering variety of vegetation zones, from tropical to arctic.  I almost wish that I could spend two weeks in the lower elevations just studying the flora.

The juniper trees are stunningly beautiful, draped in lichens.

At last, Tobias is ready to leave, while the porters are still breaking camp.  One porter leaves with us, however.  His name is Ernest, and he will walk behind me the entire way.  He carries most of the emergency gear as well as his own few belongings.  He has partnered with Tobias many times.

Ernest and I at camp one

For about an hour and a half we walk up through dense forest; the porters soon dash by us carrying their heavy loads on their heads.

Strange plants of the Heath Zone

A sudden transition brings us into the Heath Zone; one minute we are surrounded by tall trees, the next the trees give way to shrubs.  And what strange shrubs!  Heather, its branches encased in bark, reaches above our heads.  But the flowers are the brilliant stars of this zone.


The weird Protea, which looks like part of an artichoke.


The spectacular Gladiolus, almost a familiar face.


A splash of canary yellow overhead.  Tobias pulls it down to my level.  I believe it is Hypericum.

Up and down, steep and gentle, but always “pole, pole,” the mantra of Kili, which means “go slowly!”  I’m cruising along thinking that it must be time for a break, when Tobias points to a ridge far above us.  “Lunch is up there,” he says.  “Up there” involves a strenuous battle with large rocks, and my knees don’t enjoy big steps.   Pushing down hard on the trekking poles makes me glad I’ve been working on my triceps, but I’m pretty tired when we finally top the ridge.

Now lunch on the trail for me is usually a five-minute stop to ingest some calories while sitting on a rock. Not here!  The first thing I see is the mess tent, then my biffy, then the cook tent.  Richard, our cook, trots out hot soup, boiled eggs, cucumbers and tomatoes, a concoction of tough-as-leather beef, and a huge plate of fresh fruit, plus juice boxes and tea.  I could get used to this!

We climb for a couple more hours before the trail makes a gentler contour to the Shira Plateau, our destination for the day.  A series of showers keeps the weather pleasantly cool, and we arrive in camp (fully set up, as usual) completely soaked.  We have gained 705m today and now sit at 3505m.

Camp Two on the Shira Plateau

Before I’m even into some dry clothes, the afternoon sky clears to reveal the summit cone of Kili, so majestic above the Moorland of Shira.  I rush from the tent to take a photo, as I never know when we will see the high snows again.  We have the camp to ourselves, as most parties take the Machame Route, which we will join higher up.  Also, this is low season.

I’m tired and fall asleep as soon as I’m in the sleeping bag, but wake two hours later.  Tobias keeps urging me to drink, 4 litres a day if I can.  The inevitable result is multiple trips to the biffy through the night, and unfortunately I can’t get back to sleep after the first trip.

Kilimanjaro, my last great mountain: Part One

Kilimanjaro from my hotel in Moshi

Okay, it’s not a Himalayan giant, but when you are in your 70s, your knees are shot and your VO2 max is edging toward VO2 zilch, Mt Kilimanjaro, at almost 6000 metres, can be a personal Everest.  I’m not sure just what possessed me, as I hadn’t done any serious climbing in almost 20 years, but since I had already booked a safari in Tanzania, I succumbed easily to the lure of this magnificent volcano.  The recent death of a dear friend gave me the idea to use the climb to raise funds for Dogs With Wings, the agency that had trained a guide dog for her.

The Truck

It’s December, 2009.  The rainy season was supposed to have stopped in November, but it didn’t get the message.  The narrow, rutted track to the Lemoshu trailhead is a sea of mud that the driver navigates by bouncing the vehicle off the banks on either side, providing the porters in the open back with a really fun ride.  Tobias, my guide, proudly informs me that most companies drop their clients off several km from the trailhead.  I decide I like the truck.

Porters at the Lemoshu trailhead

At the trailhead the porters are laughing and singing.  I’m handed a box lunch and look around for a dry hummock to sit on, only to find two arm chairs set out, one for me, one for Tobias.  The hierarchy is pretty clear: I will climb, Tobias will guide and the porters will take care of everything else.  Unbelievably, there are 11 porters just for me.

Tobias at the trailhead

Tobias is a senior guide with Tusker Trail, the company that I chose to take me on this venture.  I liked their emphasis on safety and professional training and their willingness to adapt the itinerary to my needs, not to mention the luxury of having a private biffy!  Our gear includes oxygen, a hyperbaric chamber, a stretcher and an enormous medical kit that Tobias is trained to use.  I figure that if anyone can get me to the summit, this guy can.

Trail through the rain forest

We start our trek in a dense rain forest, where vegetation creeps over the trail and flowers bloom in profusion.  A few short hours see us to our first camp, with only a little elevation gain.

Tea Time

The porters have raced ahead and have the camp all set up.  Freshly popped popcorn and tea await, and dinner will soon  follow.  After dinner Tobias does the first of the twice-daily medical checks, using a questionnaire, pulse oximeter and stethoscope, and I retire to my tent.  Still somewhat in a daze, I realize that the adventure has finally begun.  I drift off to sleep to the sweet sounds of singing from the porters’ tent.

Looking out my tent door at my private biffy

Dogsledding in the Tombstones Part Four

Sunday morning could not have been more beautiful, with warm sun, no wind, a crystal blue sky.  Did we really have to leave?

Reluctantly we pack up and head for the highway.  This being a fine spring weekend, recreational snowmobilers have been all over the valley, making quite a mess of the track.  The sleds sink in soft muck and the dogs flounder, but we now have the skills to deal with difficult conditions.

Looking back on our track from a difficult corner.

Susan topping out on the difficult corner.

Susan looking like a pro.

Not the best mushing, but I’m sorry to see it end.  I don’t know if I will manage to get back here again – certainly not for 2 or 3 years, and by then I may really be too old.

We drive back to Dawson City where Chris has booked us into Bombay Peggy’s, an historic old building once used as a brothel, now lovingly restored and offering 9 guest rooms, each exquisitely decorated.

My room at Bombay Peggy’s

Yes, the hot shower felt good in the old-fashioned tub on 4 legs.  The toilet flushed and the firm bed faced a flat-screen TV.  Sherry and port were set out in the sitting room off the entrance.  Paintings by a pretty talented local artist hung on every wall.  I wished I was back in the Tombstones in my tent.

At 6:30 p.m. Chris led us to Jack London’s Bar and Grill.  Not much doing on a Sunday night in Dawson, with at least half the town closed for the season, but Chris had a “treat” planned: the “Sour Toe Cocktail”.    In a wooden chest the bar keeps a real, pickled human toe.

You gotta be kidding, right?

The thing is quite disgusting.  You order a drink, the toe is dropped into it, and the rules are read to you: the toe must touch your lips for it to count.  Our 3 guides take the challenge, Chris having done it several times before, while Melissa backed out the year before, and Paul is new to the crew but is game for just about anything.

Melissa, trying to work up her courage, and The Toe

None of the other guests are interested, but spurred on perhaps by a second glass of port at the hotel, I also take the challenge.  I don’t know which was worse – the toe or the damn vodka I had it in (vodka in preparation for Mongolia).  Anyway, I now have a certificate numbered 39,743.  The world is full of idiots.

Growing Old (or not): an adventurer’s thoughts

You might find me riding a horse in the Altai mountains of Mongolia (2011),

or a camel in the Gobi Desert (2011)

driving a dog team in the Yukon (2011)

or climbing Kilimanjaro (2010).

But if you met me in the grocery store you would see grey hair, wrinkles and a bit of a limp.  I’m old.  I have to get a doctor’s signature in order to renew my driver’s license.  No one asks to see my ID any more when offering a senior discount.

When I got my flu shot the other day the nurse said that I looked pretty spry.  Spry?  Spry is for old ladies who can cross a street without help.  I had just come from an hour-long workout with my personal trainer and was on my way to a riding lesson in preparation for a horse trek in Mexico this winter.  I’m a few years short of “spry”.

The years passed so quickly I never caught up.  Inside I’m  the young woman with the fresh face and lively step who paused and let me get ahead of her at the check-out line today.  Like her, I let seniors get ahead of me, open doors for them, give up my seat on the bus.  Because I can’t be a senior yet, can I?  I have friends who are seniors; they say the world is moving too fast for them. They don’t own computers or smart phones, don’t use digital cameras or iPods, don’t ride horses in Mongolia or blog about it.  And yet, I suspect that they, like me, have a self image that is far younger than what the world sees.

I’d like to think that aging is all in the mind.  As long as I’m planning and undertaking new adventures, learning new skills, studying new subjects, keeping up (more or less) with technology I’ll stay young.  But of course I won’t.  My body can’t do the things it did ten years ago, and ten years from now it will do even less.  And active as my mind is, I know that I will not produce the next great invention, start a revolution or solve any of the world’s great problems. That’s the role of youth, of those who do not yet know that not all things are possible.

When people say that youth is wasted on the young, I’m tempted to agree.  How wonderful it would be, I think, if my knowledge, experience and dreams could take root in a 20-year old body.  Then I reconsider; why should I dampen the enthusiasm, hubris and restless energy of youth with the “wisdom” of my years?  As an old woman I’m at ease with the world and myself.  I don’t suffer the pangs of unrequited love, don’t much care what others think of me, don’t wonder if I will succeed in a career, don’t feel like running for political office.  I’m comfortable.  Am I useless?  No, the world needs its elders just as much as it needs its young people.  I really don’t want to live in a society governed entirely by 20-year olds, but the world that’s now being run mostly by the “over 50s” isn’t doing very well either.

I know that my adventuring days are limited; one illness, one accident could end them even before the debilitation of age takes its inevitable toll.  So I make the most of the time I have, living in the moment, relishing every adventure, not worrying about the future.  I don’t see myself pushing a walker down the long dark corridors of a nursing home. With luck, I’ll keep going until I collapse on some high mountain trail, with sun on my face and the sounds of nature all around me.

Dogsledding in the Tombstones Part Three

Our dog teams wait impatiently as sleds are taken one at a time into our camping site in the Tombstones.

The personalities of these dogs are as individual as their looks.  My wheel dogs (nearest the sled) are brothers, Whiskey and Mac, who are totally devoted to each other and are very calm, serious pullers.  My swing dogs (behind the leaders) are Ali and Hudson.  Ali is the mother of many of the dogs on our trip – sort of a queen bee, she goes about her business without fuss and doesn’t tolerate any nonsense.  Hudson is a goof ball, always barking and looking around, not the brightest bulb in the sky but good natured and hard working.  The two lead dogs are responsible for obeying my commands and getting the other dogs to follow them.  Blue, unfortunately, is a space cadet; gazing around, wandering off trail, she shows only occasional interest in working, leaving Strider very much on his own.

Since we will spend 3 nights here, we have to dig good tent pads.  My back is too sore to shovel snow, so Paul generously takes over the job.

This is a magical camp site, surrounded by mountains and animal tracks.


Whoa!  Where did that cold snap come from?  When we woke up this morning the thermometer registered -28 C.  I had begged Susan before we went to sleep to wake me if she was cold.  She didn’t and consequently shivered all night while I was comfy in my bag (rated to –30).  I remember thinking at one point that the night seemed unusually cold, but I just snugged up the bag around my nose and went back to sleep.  By morning my 3 fellow campers were thoroughly traumatized.

Today the dogs have to rest, so we get up late and do little. For breakfast, Chris cooks hash browns with bacon, cheese and salsa, and we drink coffee for a couple of hours.

Paul takes the lads snowshoeing, an outing which seems to exhaust them.  They are now talking mostly about multiple hot showers and flush toilets.

Susan and I walk along the trail for a while looking for tracks, laughing a bit about the New York city guys.

The afternoon is spend reading…

and sleeping.

When we go to bed I give Susan my down parka to wear in her bag.  Not wanting to have to breathe through a tiny opening to keep warm, I put on extra clothing.  Of course, the night is not very cold, and I wake up in a sweat at midnight.

Saturday is a halcyon day: sun, blue sky, a firm trail and the joy of driving 6 happy dogs through paradise.  Well, 6 happy dogs eventually.  Blue the day dreamer has been traded to another sled for Esker, a young but very competent animal, well able to take over a lead role.  Unfortunately Strider doesn’t like her, snapping and snarling at every stop, and finally just lying down in the snow and refusing to move.  So he is demoted to swing and goofy Hudson gets to partner with Esker.  Surprisingly he does quite well; at last I have 6 dogs working together!

We run for 11 miles, turn around with some confusion and stuck sleds, have a long stop for lunch and return to camp in a state of bliss.  There are few pleasures to rival this historic form of transportation when conditions are good and the feeling of wilderness is profound.  I know that I have left a part of myself in this valley.

We have daiquiris and snacks before dinner.   Chris asks us what we have missed most on the trip.  The 3 Americans speak of soft beds, hot showers and flush toilets.  I say simply, “my dog”.  I belong in this wilderness – the others are visitors.

Dogsledding in the Tombstones, Part Two

The Yukon River, where we spent our first 3 days mushing and camping.

Tuesday, we go for a day trip up the river (easier than moving camp).  We have to deal with a lot of jumbled ice and places where snow has avalanched off the river bank, covering the trail;  as well, warm weather has made the track soft and sled handling difficult.  Somehow I pick the one bit of flat ice to go flying off my sled, landing hard on my tailbone.  For a few moments I’m afraid that I may have compressed a disc, but soon realize that it’s just the muscles in my lower back seizing.  I stretch as best I can and continue, but the rest of the week will be too strenuous to allow much recovery.

We don’t go as far as hoped because the heat is too much for the dogs.  Back in camp Chris (wonder woman!) produces well-laced margaritas and snacks before dinner.  The boys re-evaluate their camping technique and decide to use both sleeping bags.  I ask Susan to let me know if she is cold, as I have extra clothing, but  she toughs it out, sleeping poorly and shivering a lot.

On Wednesday we drive back to the campground in Dawson, all of us showing much improvement in our mushing skills.  We decide not to put up the tents because there is a cook shelter in the campground with plastic over the windows and doors.  We gather wood for the stove and turn the shelter into a drying room for gear and a warm refuge for us.

To get to the Tombstones on Thursday we have to drive up the Dempster Highway.  This means loading dogs. sled and skimmers into the trucks.  Loading the dogs into their individual compartments on the trucks creates almost as much chaos as hitching them to the sleds.

Alaskan huskies are basically mutts, the result of breeding huskies to other breeds.  Smaller than you would expect (the odd one reaches 100 lbs, but most weigh a lot less), some with short hair, some long, thick coats, thin coats, blue eyes, brown eyes, mixed eyes, all different colours, most with semi-floppy ears – they are a motley lot.  They know and want to do only one thing: pull.

As we drive up the highway we gain elevation and finally enter Tombstones Park.  It’s a beautiful area where snow-wrapped mountains cast a magical spell without overpowering the valley visitor.

It takes more than an hour after we pull into a parking area to unload dogs, sleds, skimmers and snow machines, get packed, harnessed, hitched and ready to travel.  Nothing happens quickly on a sledding trip.

Susan controls her team as she waits for the final dog to be hitched up.

The West Hart River valley is broad, showing the typical U shape of glacial carving.  Mushing here is much easier than on the Yukon River, the trail going up and down gentle slopes, with few trees to worry about.

We go in about 11 miles to the first stand of trees – needed for tying out the dogs as well as offering some shelter for us.  We will camp here 3 nights.