The Comfort Zone

The comfort zone can be anything that makes you so comfortable that you don’t want to leave it even briefly: your job, your computer, your circle of friends, your home, your routine, your fixed beliefs.  It’s a tempting place to hang out, even when it’s not very rewarding; I admit to spending the occasional weekend in a cocoon, drinking coffee and watching drivel on TV (so easy, so undemanding).  But then I decide to take riding lessons so I can do a horse trek in Mongolia, or hire a personal trainer so I can climb Kilimanjaro, or sign up for a week of driving a dog team in the Yukon wilderness, or, on a different plane, start a blog or find someone whose views are opposite to mine so we can debate. These aren’t youthful follies, just the latest ventures in a lifetime of stepping out of my comfort zone.

There are people to whom I would like to give a push. I’m not suggesting that they go ride a camel in the Gobi desert, but I hope they can be persuaded to try something that scares them just a little, that makes them feel uncomfortable, so they can understand how much we grow from risk. Herewith my list:

People who ask me, “Aren’t you afraid to do (insert just about any trip or activity I undertake)?”  Yes, I’m afraid of bears, falling off my horse, breaking my neck skiing, getting lost in the wilderness. If I weren’t, I would be crazy to embark on most of my adventures.  Fear keeps me safe, it doesn’t keep me at home.

People who find the digital, virtual world so real they can’t be bothered to learn about the planet on which they live.  If we lose our attachment to nature, which is far more powerful than our best technology, how are we going to deal with the challenges that face us?

People who don’t have a passion; when the children are grown and gone, when you have retired, outlived your friends and /or spouse, will you spend your days watching TV, too bored, scared or bewildered to venture into new territory?

People who never tempt fate, never risk failure.  You either grow by seeking new experiences or you grow old.  I know too many people like that.

People who cannot be happy alone.  I once met a woman who had been solo backpacking for two days.  She said she couldn’t stand her own company any longer.  If she has nothing to offer to herself, what can she offer to others?  But kudos to her for at least trying something new.

If I have a mission (beyond trying to cram as much adventure as possible into the next few years), it is to inspire others to take that first step to a world beyond their borders, to grasp the joy of living boldly.  It took me a while to learn that lesson, but at 75 I am in many ways younger than I was at 25.

The Joy of Short Trips

Sometimes I get so caught up in planning and taking epic journeys I forget how necessary and restorative short ventures into the mountains can be.  So I rolled into Canmore ready for two days of snowshoeing and photography.  Never mind that my snowshoes were still sitting in my living room in Edmonton, along with my liner gloves and cell phone (just a few additions to a life list of forgotten gear).  A local outdoor shop provided snowshoes and gloves, and I decided to drive very carefully with no phone.

Edmonton’s December is wet and brown, but Lake Louise has an abundance of snow.  I set out in solitude along the Great Divide trail, an old road that crosses the Great Divide and ends near the Lake Ohara trail.  It soon intersects a more interesting route through the forest.

Lower Telemark Trail, an offshoot of the Great Divide trail.

The trail is gently rolling and offers an excellent chance to read the night’s Gazette: who was doing what and where?  Tracks were plentiful.

A red squirrel had ventured out.

Snowshoe hares are the party animals. Their tracks are everywhere.

Where the hares go, the lynx is seldom far behind.

The pine martens are also on the prowl.

Winter yields a much greater array of recognizable tracks than summer, but the animals are shy in any season.  Only the cheeky squirrels and martens are happy  to come out and fuss at you, although I  saw neither this day.  After a pause for lunch I made my way up to the Great Divide road and headed back to the parking lot, content with a beautiful outing.

View from the Great Divide road.

I gave the rest of my visit over to photography, stopping twice at the iconic Vermillion Lakes.

Vermillion Lake and Mt Rundle

Professional photographers and point-and-shoot tourists take multiple images of this fortuitous marriage of lakes and mountains.  I keep hoping for that “shot of a lifetime”.  In truth, it’s almost as hard to take a bad photo here as it is to take a great one.

Lake and Mt Rundle

Early morning walk

Daybreak next morning didn’t produce the red clouds I was hoping for, but I enjoyed the sight of this man walking his dog along the ice.

Dawn at the lakes.

Every winter, no matter how cold, I see ducks in Banff and Canmore.

Ducks at Vermillion Lakes

I don’t know what these are, as I had no binoculars.  They are compact, dark, surface feeders with a little white on the side near the tail.

I drove and walked around for the rest of the day, at peace with the land.

In Canmore, only one more task remained – to photograph one of the infamous bunnies that are overrunning the town.  A careless release of a few bunnies in the 1990s produced a nuisance factor of a few thousand as the rabbits did what rabbits naturally do.  Still, they really are cute.

Canmore bunny

So you want to climb Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro from Moshi

Maybe it’s on your bucket list.  Maybe you want to raise money for a good cause. Perhaps you’re a young adult touring the world looking for adventure, or a senior citizen hoping to prove that you’re not over the hill yet.  Whatever your motivation, you have decided to climb Kilimanjaro. Now what?

Kilimanjaro is one of the world’s great mountains; it’s the highest point in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain (not part of a range) on earth.  Happily, its summit is within the reach of anyone in reasonable physical condition; it is technically no more difficult than a rugged mountain hike.  Many people who set out to climb it, however, never reach the summit – I’ve been told that perhaps 50% of attempts fail.

I climbed a lot of mountains in my younger days, went on to gentler pursuits, and then, 20 years later, got to the top of Kilimanjaro at the age of 72, when my knees were shot and my aerobic capacity was limited.  From that perspective, here are a few hints for those who want to attempt this magnificent volcano.

The greatest problem on Kili is acclimatization.  Since most of us don’t live at or above 3000 M, our bodies need to make major adjustments to the rarified atmosphere of the mountain, whose summit is close to 6000 M.  The most popular route on Kili is the Machame route; it’s very scenic but very short, allowing the body little time to acclimatize, but even longer routes, such as Limoshu, push the body to its limits. Acute Mountain Sickness is a deadly condition that can strike without warning and kill quickly.  Make no mistake – this mountain can kill you.

Being physically fit will make the climb more enjoyable, but fitness offers limited protection from altitude sickness.  It can even be a liability if it leads you to push yourself too hard.  The mantra of Kili is “pole, pole” (slowly!).  If you climb with a group, leave your ego behind and aim to be the slowest member of the party.  If your guide or porters are trying to get you to go faster, you have chosen the wrong outfit to lead you (they have your money and they want to get the trip over with).

The ideal way to acclimatize is to climb a neighbouring volcano, Mt Meru, immediately before Kili.  That climb will take you quite high, after which you should be able to waltz up the Machame route with no problems.  If you don’t have time for that, then I advise taking one of the longer routes such as Limoshu.

You are required to climb Kili with a guide and porters. It’s possible to arrive in Moshi or Arusha and hire someone on the spot, but you will have no idea how qualified they are. I strongly advise going with one of the better companies, even though they may be more expensive. The good ones will let you know what percentage of their clients reach the top (it should be more than 90%). There should be a good ratio of guides to clients and the guides should have medical training in high altitude response as well as climbing credentials. I went with Tusker Trail, which is easily one of the best, but there are other good outfits. Do your research on the Internet.

Do not start the climb if you are sick; a common cold will quickly turn into bronchitis under the stress of the climb. Be completely honest with your guide as to how you feel, as hiding symptoms just allows matters to get worse. There are ways to deal with altitude problems, and most people will be able to continue with a little treatment.

Assuming that you cope with the altitude, the main key to success is mental.  How badly do you want to reach the summit? There will be times when the path ahead seems just too daunting, when you are gasping for breath and your legs feel like lead. Those are the times to put your head down and concentrate on just taking the next step.  Don’t look up the mountain – the distance to go will seem impossible.  Instead, look down and take heart from how far you have come.

Kili will cause you to dig deep, perhaps teach you things you did not know about yourself.  The climb may well be the hardest thing you have ever done, but the sense of achievement can be life changing.

Kilimanjaro, my last great mountain: Part Seven

Mt Meru from just above Barafu camp

If one has the time, the best way to prepare for Kilimanjaro is to climb Mt Meru, a neighbouring volcano, first.  Not having done this, I know that the final push to the summit will be very difficult – 1262 m of rock and scree at an elevation where the lungs struggle to extract oxygen from the thin air.

We rise at 0500, depart at 0600.  Only a skeleton crew will go to the crater while the rest of the porters enjoy a leisurely day in camp.  Tobias designates Frank, a porter, to carry my day pack. The first part of the trail traverses smooth rock, after which we begin an endless series of switchbacks in scree.

Switchbacks on way to summit ridge

Thanks to Tobias, who took these photos, I can view the scenery that I completely ignored on the way up; all I saw was the path in front of my feet.  I’m so slow that Ernest has to ease the load on his back, repeatedly racing ahead to sit and wait.  We begin to meet climbers from other parties who are descending with the help of porters; they have failed to make the summit.  I put my head down and keep going.

As we approach Stella Point on the summit ridge, a huge glacier comes into view.

Glacier on summit ridge

After ten hours and 1000 m of one foot in front of the other, I reach Stella Point, with Frank and Ernest singing and clapping encouragement.  I collapse on a boulder and Tobias sticks the oxymeter on my finger: 68!  I didn’t think one could live with that level of O2 saturation, let alone walk.  Tobias wants to go on to the summit, about two hours away.  I refuse; I want to enjoy the summit.  So we drop down into the crater and reach camp in an hour.

Summit crater and glacier

Crater Camp

While I rest in my tent Tobias walks over to photograph the glacier.  These fragile spires of ice rising directly from the crater floor will sadly be gone in a few years.

Glacial remnant

Glacial remnant

Tonight I sleep like a baby and wake fully rested.  We watch the sun round the higher slopes, glisten off the ice and gradually warm the valley.  Our route remains in shade, however, winding steeply up rock,then snow.

Looking down on Crater Camp from trail to ridge

The only snow we walked through on trip

Frank walks ahead of me with my pack in  his arms.  Ernest follows with his enormous load.

Pause to rest

Summit ridge at last, Mt Meru in background

Two hours after leaving camp we sight the ugly sign that marks the roof of Africa.  As an emotional moment, it would be hard to equal.  I thought of my friend in whose memory I had made the climb.  I thought of all the joy that climbing had brought me over a career that saw me on summits from Denali and Logan, to Huascaran in Peru, to Nepal, and to countless peaks in the Alps and in Canada from the BC coast to Baffin Island.  I knew that this would be my last great mountain.  Overwhelmed, I wept.

We took the obligatory photos, happy to have the summit to ourselves, at least for a few minutes.  Then we turned away and started down.

Summit of Kilimanjaro, 5895 m

Kilimanjaro, my last great mountain: Part Six

Porters before the trip to Barufu Camp

The trail to Barafu high camp (4633 m) is not difficult, but it is relentlessly steep.  We will ascend 600 m, leaving the Alpine Desert for the Arctic Zone, although Arctic has to be read in an African, not Canadian context.  For once, the sun is shining and the air is warm.

On the way to Barafu

Vegetation all but disappears, as only the sturdy lichen and a few ground-hugging flowers seem able to prosper.  Among the birds only ravens like it here, and we see no animals.  The ever-adaptable spiders keep us company, however.

Trail to Barafu

Flower of the Arctic zone

Tobias on the trail to Barafu

Barafu camp sprawls over two hillsides.  The Tusker site is right at the entrance to the camp.

View from the Tusker site, showing the trail and one of the horrible outhouses.


Barafu high camp

Most parties come directly here from Baranco, not stopping at Karanga.  They rest here a few hours, then depart for the summit at midnight in order to see sunrise from the top.  I’m glad that my schedule includes a full night in camp.   I’m also more thankful than ever for my private biffy, as the thought of staggering around among the rocks in the dark trying to locate one of the filthy public outhouses turns my stomach. That stomach, of course, is still in rebellion, refusing to accept most of  the huge variety of dishes the cook keeps trying to tempt me with.

There is no water at Barafu, so the porters must haul it up from Karanga.  Normally this is not too onerous a task, because after a night here they break camp and descend 600 m to Millenium camp.  Unlike the other groups, that climb all night and then go all the way down to Millenium after summiting,  I will spend a night in the Crater camp just below the summit, and then return here for a night.  I feel sorry for the porters, but they are laughing and singing as usual.

Sunset bathes the mountain in a glorious orange.

Sunset at Barafu

The beauty of the evening is completely lost on a pair of white-necked ravens scrounging around my tent.

White-necked ravens

After dinner Tobias gives me some oxygen as my saturation is down to 75, a level that would be considered an emergency in a hospital but is not unusual here.  Tomorrow will be a big day, and I need my sleep, but I manage only about 4 hours.

Kilimanjaro, my last great mountain: Part Five

Porter on the Baranco wall

We come to it at last – the much feared Baranco wall, vertical rock with a long drop to the bottom.  Somehow the porter above, who is carrying 50 lbs on his back and a radio in his right hand, puts the wall in a different perspective.  It’s really not that bad.

The weather was so foul at Baranco last night that I didn’t photograph the camp, and this morning Tobias was in a hurry to get away.  I gave him the camera and asked him to take photos of the climb for me.

The trail is crowded with several parties and their porters.

Another party at the start of the wall

Porter with an awkward load

Tobias leads, Ernest follows behind me, and for part of the climb we are joined by another porter, just to make sure the old lady doesn’t fall off the mountain.

Ernest behind me

There’s a lot of high stepping and several stretches of scrambling, as well as a number of places where a fall would be dangerous.  I think the porters are more worried about me than I am, as I know that I will not fall in such terrain.

Narrow ledge

Atop the wall we pause for a snack and a drink, accompanied by an alpine chat.

Alpine chat

Now it begins to rain in earnest, banishing any thoughts of a long rest stop.

The rains of Kilimanjaro

The trail goes steeply down, then crosses a few ridges before dropping way down into the rain-soaked Karanga valley.  Camp is on a ridge far above the valley, so we have one final, very steep stretch to end the day’s travel.  Average time for the trip is 4-5 hours; we took 6.

Karanga Camp

We spend two nights here to allow for acclimatization. During the first night, as I am making my trips to the biffy, I look down on the lights of Moshi, directly below.  How distant that little town seems!

Tobias wants to do a day trip from camp, but I call it off.  My body needs a rest, and I’m tired of the rain which keeps falling.  I don’t know if I will ever see the summit again, as the sky clears only at night.  But on the second morning the sun shines and reveals a wonderful panorama.

Karanga Camp and the summit

The rest day has worked; my oxygen level and pulse rate have returned to normal. We are now only two days from the summit.

Kilimanjaro, my last great mountain: Part Four

Rocky Mountain Senecio (Ragwort)

Kilimanjaro Senecio

You really have to be a botanist to understand this one.  How can a plant that looks like the ill-conceived offspring of a palm tree and a pineapple be cousin to our sweet little yellow mountain flower?  The flora of Kilimanjaro raise wonder to a whole new level.

I’m in the throes of acclimatization.  We came up fairly quickly to Moir Camp at 4160 m.  Today we have to climb another 400 m to Lava Tower, eat lunch there, then descend to Baranco Camp at 3950 m.


A neighbour of mine was unable to make it to Lava Tower and gave up on his attempt to climb the mountain.  I think a fair number of people quit at this point because the air contains very little oxygen.

I’m slow, even for Kili.  My pace puts a long time between breakfast and lunch, and I’m running out of gas on the seemingly endless uphill climb. With nothing very interesting on the slope in front of me, my mind is beginning to listen to sore knees, aching muscles and desperate lungs.  But I have a secret weapon: decades of mountaineering experience.  I’ve been this tired before and kept going.  I know, in the marrow of my bones, that if I just take the next step I will get to the top.  And I can always take one more step.  My body drifts into a resigned funk.

I finally stagger up to the mess tent, a bright yellow vision in a world of cloud and mist below the spectral shape of Lava Tower.  While we eat lunch it begins to rain.  Again!

Lava Tower

The descent to Baranco is steep and wet, the trail doubling for a stream.

Descent through the senecios, Ernest behind me.

The descent seems endless, almost 600 m of mountain nastiness, with no view, no chance to stop and rest in the cold.  Only the vegetation can take my mind off the miserable conditions.



Eventually we climb to a high ridge and join other groups that have come up the Machame route.

En route to Baranco Camp

Camp seems crowded tonight, but the rain keeps everyone inside, and there is no socializing.  I’m tired from the day’s exertions and from lack of sleep, and for the first time I have no appetite.  Kili is proving to be a challenge.