Sunday, September 25, 2011

Arrival at Kilimanjaro Airport

We left Ethiopia at 10:00 a.m. arriving in Tanzania's JRO - Kilimanjaro airport at 12:40 p.m. Our plane was the only aircraft at the airport. I only remember one runway, but there could have been others out of my line of sight. As we landed, my eyes searched for the mountain we would soon meet. I have never seen a mountain as high as Mt. Kilimanjaro and could only imagine how high 19,340 feet would appear from her south facing flank. I wondered about the approach, would we see snow, would it rain, are there really glaciers on the summit? My only reference to a big mountain is Mt. Rainier whose massive glaciated summit does give you pause at the enormity and expanse of a free standing mountain. The Mountain, as we fondly call Rainier, is only visible during clear skies, othewise hidden behind the mountains own generated cloud layers. When the Mountain is 'Out', traffic around Seattle slows considerably as it is hard to take your eyes off such a beautiful part of nature. I wondered how often Kilimanjaro is 'Out' to mesmerize the people. Unfortunately, her mystery prevails for yet another day as she is hidden within the thick cloud layers that consume all in the distance.  
I was feeling strong as I lifted my backpack out of the overhead luggage stow. It was full of the absolute necessary gear for the trek that I knew I couldn't replace if my boundary bag got lost. I wore my comfortably worn mountaineering boots, carried my medications, cameras, favorite mountain snacks, technical layers and my alpine down coat. I had taken 2 liters of water on board in Washington DC and had managed to drink almost all the water I had carried onboard plus the drinks served every few hours by the airline attendants. Dehydration will greatly limit performance on the mountain and lead to problems with altitude including fatigue, headache and muscle cramps, none of which can be tolerated on the mountain and can mimick acute mountain sickness. I had closely monitored my water intake for a month before the climb drinking more than thirst called for. Once arriving in country for the climb, it would be even more important to make sure enough water is consumed. It would be impossible to get fully hydrated if you start a climb dehydrated since the body needs time to distribute and equilibrate the body's water over several days. 

The workouts had continued up to the day before leaving for Africa yet I wondered if I had trained hard enough. But it was too late now to worry about whether I was fit enough. I thought of the team whom I would meet in a couple more days. I wasn't sure about a lot of things, all I knew once stepping onto the Kilimanjaro tarmack is that Monique and I were there for a bigger purpose than pursuing our own climbing aspirations.

We made it through customs with no problems. We exited the terminal to find our guide and porters waiting for us with a Bushbuck Safari jeep. As the porter and guide loaded the jeep with our boundary bags, we headed back to the washroom. We had to remember, no tap water can be consumed or even splashed into the eyes. This is challenging coming from the States where tap water is never given a second thought. I tipped the porter at JRO and our driver both $5 usa. I later learn this would be a tip for a whole day of service. All six of us piled into the jeep. The interior of the jeep was comfortable, seating enough for 10. We were off and moving closer to our objective. 

The road to Arusha has two lanes. Cars, trucks, motorcycles and bicycles used whatever lane was open. Oncoming traffic was nerve racking. In Kentucky we call this form of driving playing 'chicken'. It was Sunday and many people were out at church gatherings and walking alongside the road in their Sunday attire. I was amazed at the colorful fabrics of red, purple and blue. The women dressed in beautiful layers of flowing color. The color was strikingly beautiful. In the States, clothing styles are driven by the best marketing companies where in Tanzania, the clothing is beautiful and practical. I find most American clothing monochromatic in nature where everyone looks the same. Women were carrying objects on their heads leaving their hands to carry even more. Children were also carried, bundled on the front or back. I could imagine these women could easily climb a mountain. I also thought they could easily outwork any man I know in the States. 

There were many more people walking along the road than driving. The road was lined by small herds of cattle and goats and a few herdsman. We passed small diners along the way with dirt parking lots full of motorcycles. Coca Cola was the predominant advertisement with several red and white awnings and chairs displaying the familiar logo.

It was almost an hour to get to the Arusha Hotel. We were greeted by Ben Johnson, our Alpine Ascents guide. What a nice looking guy and very soft spoken. Ben made sure the check in process went well and told us we would meet tomorrow morning at 9:30am with Eric Murphy, our lead guide for a short meeting before we headed into town for sightseeing. So far, the trip coordination was just as promised by Alpine Ascents.

Our room was very adequate and clean. The hot water pot was a nice addition since it could boil water. Our room overlooked the inner lawn and dinning room. The inner lawn was full of palm trees, flowers, and a manicured lawn with a central walkway leading to the pool. It looked like it would rain at any moment and the air was a cool 65 degrees. Arusha is at just over 4,000 feet elevation. Of course the temperature would be cooler, even though we were close to the equator. I had looked at the projected weather for Kilimanjaro before leaving Seattle. I was surprised to see the weather was very much like Seattle weather and we should have clear skies and a full moon for our climb.
I was anxious to open up the bags to make sure all the gear made it seeing as you can't lock the Sealine Boundary bags. We opened our boundary bags to find they had been searched. Some of my gear was in Monique's bag and some of hers in mine. It's a wonder nothing was taken or lost and thankfully we were traveling together. We unpacked and separated our climbing items from the safari items and repacked the boundary bag for the climb only. The safari bag would remain at the hotel while we were on the mountain. Gear is all there, now time to eat.

Ben asked us not to sleep until the evening to help with jet lag. Stay up and go to sleep at your normal bedtime. That would be very difficult considering the 10 hour difference. I was tired but also ready to go downstairs for lunch. We met John in the dining room and had a quick lunch. Martha, Nan and Doug had already eaten and retired to their rooms. The buffet lunch had really good Indian food, one of my favorites. We had pumpkin soup, pasta primavera, rice, potatoes and steamed vegetables. The coffee is the best I have had, ever. I live in the world of Starbucks but have never liked their coffee. People I meet are so surprised that I am not a Starbuck's fan and then they usually admit to disliking the bitterness of Starbucks as well. The coffee in Tanzania is very smooth while maintaining a rich flavor. We were just getting to know John, he is a really funny guy. My persistent yawning was telling me it was time to rest. We bought two three liter bottles of water from the waiter who added 5,000 shillings to our lunch tab. We were very focused on avoiding diarrhea while trying to still drink several liters of water a day. I picked up our bottled water and we were off to the room for a quick nap.

Sierra and John

Porters, John and Martha

John our Bushbuck driver

Monique leaving for Tanzania from Ethiopia

Monique ready to leave for Arusha

Homestead on the way to Arusha

Goat herd and homestead

Small town on the way to Arusha
Children at play on the way to Arusha

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Heading to Africa

July 8, 2011. 
Monique checking in for
Seattle to Washington D.C.

After almost 10 months since my initial contact with Lori and 6 months of focused training, departure day had finally arrived. I had also just finished my comprehensive board exams as a final step to complete a degree in Philosophy. I wouldn't know if I passed my exams for several weeks but what a relief to now just focus on one thing, climbing. The flight from Seattle was delayed a few hours but we did finally leave Seattle at 1:00 a.m. The late departure was fine since Charles Mulvehill, the travel agent that Alpine Ascents recommended had made sure he allowed for delayed flights. I remember asking him back in December why there was so much layover time between flights. He said with confidence, "the time will fly and you will need the extra buffer in case of flight disruptions". Charles was right, why would anyone expect to fly 10,000 miles and not experience a delay some where along the way.

We arrived at 8:30 a.m. I managed to sleep most of the 4.5 hours to Washington Dulles International. I don't take sleep medication due to the hangover, so whether I sleep or not depends on the passengers near my seat. Monique said she didn't get much sleep. We made our way to the Ethiopian air gate for our boarding passes. We confirmed our climbing bag from Seattle was checked to Kilimanjaro airport. What a relief we didn't have to retrieve the 115 liter boundary bags and recheck them to Africa. Our boarding pass had a blue sticker and I wondered if Ethiopian air boards by colored dots. Monique saw another person in line with a red dot so she said they most likely will board by color. I wasn't sure when blue boarded so we would need to stay close to the gate. We ran into Nan and Doug at the gate. I was finishing up some last minute emails and noticed a text message from an unknown number. I texted back, "who is this?" Reply, "John". Oh, John and Martha. I dialed John to see where they were then noticed John walking toward the gate. We were meeting Martha for the first time.

Martha was very friendly and as jovial and engaging as is John. What a great couple. John is one of the PD climbers and Martha is climbing as his support companion. I think he said they had been married for twelve years. I hoped to get to get to know Martha better, she was confident, funny but also serious. I noted a familiar ascent as Martha was talking and learned that she was born in Kentucky. I am also from Kentucky and lived there until I left for New York for physician assistant studies. I left my teaching position at the University of Louisville's laboratory sciences department and was also about half way through an immunology graduate program. At the time, I couldn't have imaged how Parkinson's would be come a big part of my life and focus of my medical career.      

Martha and John had a lot of experience trekking the Rockies and John had experience with search and rescue. I knew I could count on Martha and John during the climb. The climb was unique in that most of our team were not very experienced in climbing at altitude but were very experienced at living life with the daily challenges and struggles of living with MS or PD. These challenges will usually make a person stronger and more resilient, that is when there is adequate support and caring. I tell my patients that climbing a mountain is very much like living with PD or MS. Climbing requires targeted fitness, planning, self-care and generally support from at least one other person, all ingredients to living well with PD and MS. 
Sierra, Martha, John,
Doug, Nan

We ate a quick breakfast in order to take our first dose of Malarone malaria prophylaxis tablets. My nervous energy was subsiding and I hoped I wouldn't have Nan's reaction to Malarone in flight - GI motility! After breakfast, we had some time to talk about the adventure before boarding. Boarding by color was nicely done and orderly. What a treat without the mad rush to the boarding area. Monique and I lucked out that someone wanted to trade seats so we managed to sit together on the long flight to Ethiopia. It's nice to fly with someone who will ask for a water or soda when the attendants come by while you sleep.

Monique, Nan and Doug
Waiting at Washington Dulles
There is no turning back now. Leaving for the climb was exciting and beyond my childhood dreams. I couldn't stop thinking about the MS and PD climbers. Most people I talked to about the climb were shocked at first that anyone with PD or MS would try to climb a mountain and then shocked even more that I would go along. More about this later. It was true, climbing is hard enough without having to contend with a neurological condition. Then I think about Lori, a living example that we should not define a person by their disease. I always encourage my patients and expect a lot for them and from them, but I have no idea what to expect on such a long trek at altitude. The climb will be an adventure in combating fears and working very hard to reach a goal. Ultimately, my thoughts settle that no matter what happens, no one should be denied the chance to try.
Once buckled in, I notice the amenities on the plane. Foot rests, toothpaste, eye shields, head phones, free movies, big cushy seats with lots of leg room. Very comfortable. It's still hard to believe I am going to Africa. As the plane lifts off, I feel a sudden sense of freedom; now time to relax