Monday, 7 February 2011

Kenya 2011: Mount Kenya

In the run-up to our trip to Kenya, I had a few moments when I wondered whether I would be able to deal with the physical difficulties of the country. After all, I get car sick, I get migraines, I feel terrible if I don't get a full night of sleep, and I have a sensitive stomach. Over our first week or so, though, I'd managed to avoid any signs of carsickness, I hadn't gotten any bad headaches, my body had adjusted fairly well to our extremely early mornings and long days; my stomach was playing up a little, but not too much. I seemed poised to make it out of the country unscathed. However, there was one hurdle that I had not yet leaped: Mount Kenya.

By the time we made our way to Mount Kenya, the outing had achieved almost mythic proportions. My husband and his students had gone up the mountain on their second day in the country, before they had become acclimated to the high elevation. As a result, their hike was difficult, to say the least. All of their moaning and groaning made our students quite wary, and I will admit that I felt a little nervous, myself. After all, both my back and knees are chronically sore as a result of my track & field days, and my usual form of exercise is a 3-mile walk along a fairly flat track. I wasn't sure how--or even whether--I would endure a 25-km (15 mile) hike up a mountain, carrying a heavy bag along the way. But I am nothing if not stubborn, and a small (masochistic) part of me was looking forward to the challenge.

The outing required a very early morning because we wanted to give ourselves plenty of time to make the long trek. We were up at 5 in order to reach the gates by 7:30, which enabled us to see a lovely view of the distant mountain as the sun was rising:

(The day's first rays hit Mount Kenya, poetically dubbed, by my husband, "the nipple of Kenya.")

Originally, I had intended to play it safe and walk towards the middle or back of the group; I figured if I parceled out my energy throughout the day, I would be less likely to crash and burn. Unfortunately, whether by chance or design, I found myself surrounded by all the other instructors; we obviously needed to redistribute ourselves in order to give all students access to a faculty member. So, I sucked it up and picked up my pace, huffing and puffing up the hills until I got to the front of the pack. As I was walking in overdrive, I did find myself quite out of breath and dreading each turn of the bend, lest it bring me to another ascent. After a while, though, as we settled into a consistent pace, the going became much easier. Just as I used to find a rhythm when I was running a race, I found a nice, calm pattern of breathing and timed it to my footsteps; after a while, I became rather mesmerized by my own percussion. It's just as well that I was distracted, since there weren't really too many animals to see. We could hear them all around us--birds and monkeys and tree frogs, particularly--but only occasionally did we see anything darting amongst the branches.

As we walked, we were constantly avoiding buffalo droppings, some of which were quite fresh. There were a couple times when we encountered much smaller poo. Our guide assured us that these were all leopard deposits, which caused much excitement amongst the students; they were desperate to have a cat sighting, but had hitherto been eluded. Speaking of our guide, he was exactly what you would expect for a person who walks up a mountain on almost a daily basis--terse, wiry, no-nonsense; he almost seemed like a character out of a movie. Like many of our local guides, he was astonishingly good at identifying things after catching only the briefest glimpse or hearing the shortest snippet of vocalization. He was obviously used to dealing with people who tried to hike up the mountain even though it was a little too physically demanding for them; he was constantly waving everyone back behind him so that we couldn't exceed his pace, and he often encouraged people to keep drinking water in order to prevent dehydration.

One of the things I was most worried about was altitude sickness; I'm so sensitive to all sorts of environmental and climatic changes that I figured there was no way I could avoid it. Symptoms of altitude sickness vary, but include dizziness, headache, nausea, and tingling in the extremities (from lack of oxygen). To my surprise, I did not experience any of these problems at any point in the day. It wasn't until our ride home that I heard someone mention that she'd suffered from pins and needles in her fingers; other than that, most of our students seemed to have weathered the elevation quite well.

Our day was split into two parts. The first was the walk up to the Met(eorological) Station, at just over 3000 m, and the second was a post-lunch walk up to the vertical bog at approximately 3500 m. We found ourselves arriving at the Met Station sooner than we expected, and after having suffered much less physical pain than we'd all been anticipating. I think we all felt pretty proud of ourselves for not only surviving the trip, but also doing so in good spirits. Unsurprisingly, we had a long round of photos at the Met Station sign, since everyone wanted evidence of their successful physical exertions:

(The obligatory group photo at the Met Station sign. I am on the far left. You can tell from my posture that I'm feeling pretty proud of myself. Obviously, this was taken before the second part of the hike, after which I was a bit more droopy.)

Even though I was feeling fairly peppy during our hike, I could tell that my tummy troubles were lingering. I had almost no appetite, but because we were doing such strenuous physical exercise, I forced myself to eat a regular lunch--the last thing I wanted was to faint from low blood sugar while I was 7 miles away from the main gate. The best part of lunch was when I sneaked away from the group and did a little birding on my own. I found a huge group of montane white-eyes foraging amongst the branches, as well as some remarkable little wren-like birds called Hunter's cisticolas, darting in and out of the undergrowth and making much more noise than you would think possible for something so small.

The second stage of the hike was immediately more difficult than the first stage, and it probably didn't help that we were all walking with full stomachs. Not only was the climb steeper, but we were also at such a higher elevation that the lower oxygen level was more evident. It was much harder to find that nice breathing rhythm from the first stage, since it was constantly getting faster and more labored.

The whole point of this second part of the journey was to see the transition areas between different habitat types. It was amazing how quickly the habitat around us was changing; the lush montane forest was being replaced by the open, rocky bog, and it seemed as though every few steps we took moved us through another zone of plant species that weren't found anywhere else except in that narrow band of elevation around the mountain. All our concentration was required to scramble up the prominent boulders, and conversations slowly started to ebb as everyone focused all their energy on making the difficult climb. Almost all the students decided to participate in the walk from the Met Station to the bog; at that point, a smaller group budded off to really push it to the limit and head up to the next transition zone, between the bog and the alpine habitat. Pretty soon that group splintered, also, until only about a half dozen people were left. Because I am too stubborn to give up in the face of a challenge, I was one of those crazy half dozen people. The physical effort required was immense--it was like walking up an endless staircase, with higher and steeper steps than any you have ever encountered in real life. I could hear nothing else except my own gasping breaths; I was breathing in for every single footstep. I kept my eyes down on my feet, not only because I couldn't bear to see how much more climbing awaited me, but also because I knew that if I slipped I just wouldn't have the energy or the speed to prevent myself from getting hurt.

The whole time we were climbing, I couldn't help but reminisce on my days as a runner, because track and cross country races were the only frame of reference I had for such an intense physical effort. Climbing up through the vertical bog on Mount Kenya was more strenuous than the hardest, longest, worse race I ever ran--harder even than the last 20 m of the half-marathon I ran, when I had to finish the race by forcing my exhausted body up a ramp. The most difficult aspect was definitely the lack of oxygen--I could feel my throat and lungs burning, though I will admit that it was strangely pleasurable to feel my heart beating so sturdily and emphatically (I was glad to find out I am not so out of shape after all!). After a while, though, the muscles in my calves were sore from all the rock climbing. But, just when I thought I couldn't manage another step, we finally arrived at the rocky outcropping we'd selected as our destination. Our reward for the effort was a sense of satisfaction and, of course, the view:

(The few, the proud, the idiots who set the day's elevation record. Also present were one of the other instructors, as well as the person taking this photograph--the only other female who lasted to the top. So, of approximately 50-some people, 8 made it all the way.)

During the last 5-10 minutes of our climb, a light mist had started falling. It felt quite nice given how hot we were, but it was strange to have experienced such a shift in weather--it had been sunny and hot when we left the Met Station, but now that we were farther up the mountain, it was cool and raining. Even higher up the mountain, the precipitation was falling in the form of snow; by the time we left at the end of the day, there were white peaks where previously there had been none. Off in the distance, a serious thunderstorm was brewing, and after we saw two massive forks of lightning streak through the sky and touch down on a neighboring peak (not much higher than our own), we thought it was a good time to head back down.

As physically demanding as the walk up the mountain was, the walk down far exceeded it--for me, at least. My old-lady knees work okay during an ascent, but during a descent they scream in displeasure. In order to try to ease their pain, I started doing strange things with my gait, tiring my calf muscles and leading to quite a bit of shakiness in my lower legs. Luckily, the worst of the downward hike was the initial bit through the boulders of the vertical bog; once we hit the Met Station, it was much gentler and more comfortable for me. There seemed to be a widespread feeling of good cheer after we returned from the bog, with people feeling buoyed by the success of their endeavors. Unfortunately, our celebrations were a bit premature, as we still had several more miles to walk before we reached the park gates. Little by little, it got quieter as people just started focusing on reaching the finish line. I was definitely back in my zone; by the time we arrived at the sign indicating that we only had 3 km left, I was ahead of almost everyone else. I couldn't wait to get back to the buses. I was so ready to stop walking. I didn't even want to sit; I just didn't want to have to keep moving. Little blisters were forming between my big toe and first little toe, and I wanted the pain to end. Even though I was still feeling nauseous, I couldn't stop daydreaming about food--risotto with ham and peas, cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizza, fries, fettucine alfredo...basically, all the unhealthy things I usually never eat. They all sounded delicious. My body was screaming for calories.

At some point, eventually, we crested a rise from which we could see the buildings at the gate, and I felt my heart lift. When I finally walked through the gate, I couldn't resist doing a little arm pump in the air to celebrate my victory. And then I grabbed a seat on the nearest bus so I could hurry up and get back to my tent and collapse.

Actually, I didn't collapse. What I did do was lie on my back for a few minutes, then run to the showers to take advantage of the hot water before everyone else came back and stole it. After that, shockingly enough, I decided to take a bit of a stroll around the campsite and shoot some pictures. I wanted to document the wild poinsettia, which looked very different from the ones on sale at the grocery store during the holiday season:

(Poinsettia originally comes from Mexico, so who knows what it was doing in Kenya.)

I nearly had a heart attack when a large male baboon came bursting out of the bushes in front of me while I was taking photographs. Just when you let your guard down, Kenya throws a little surprise at you to keep you on your toes.

I also wandered over to the lodge to take a picture of their replica of Mount Kenya:

(Non-life-size replica of Mount Kenya in front of the lodge. I couldn't quite pinpoint where I'd climbed to during the day.)

I went back to the lodge later for our pub quiz night. The students broke up into groups and had to answer various biologically-oriented questions. The competition was fierce, even though we had not yet identified the prize (in fact, I still don't know what the winners received). Although there was a lot of boisterousness at the beginning of the evening, the long day eventually caught up with everyone. It wasn't long before we all started limping home for some much-needed rest.

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