On the Mountain

At the morning meeting of instructors, John announced our first expedition. My heart flipped. When he announced this to the students, the room started buzzing with excitement. A few were quiet, though everyone had been told the agenda at the beginning. In any case, being active at the higher altitude of the school had given everyone confidence to deal with the climb.

Preparations. John at right.

John laid out the next few days. He would lead the four patrols and instructors in my half of the camp to climb part way up Mt. Kilimanjaro. The students would do a solo overnight, some rock climbing, spend another night and return to camp. The other half would follow in our steps two days later with George leading.

That afternoon we organized equipment and food and divided up group items like cooking pots, rice and oatmeal, so each wound up with a load proportional to her weight. Picture a dizzying array of old British Army equipment:  boots, jackets, packs, gloves, sleeping bags and canteens, plus pots, skillets and tents. The lawn resembled a giant rummage sale as the girls tried on clothing, boots and packs until they found ones that fit. Having my own boots and sleeping bag, I helped the students, snagging the remaining equipment I needed.

In the morning, I hoisted my thirty-pound pack and waved goodbye to Neila, George and the students who remained behind. As they continued their training, our line of students and instructors spread along the trail that wound through grasses and shrub toward the forest. John was last to leave, but quickly overtook the entire line.

Still early in the day, the first leg was not too hot, but I was glad to reach the shade of the trees. Lichen dripped from the fat limbs, and ferns dotted the thick ground moss, reminding me of Oregon. Among the familiar evergreens were thirty-foot tree ferns. Moss draped the skinny trunks, their tops crowned with a spray of filigreed fronds, not something you would find in Oregon.

Most of the girls walked quietly, which was delightful after the frenzy of our preparations. I remained at the back of the line with one of the other instructors making sure no one was left behind. Our reverie was broken when one of the students dropped back and told us she was just not able to keep up. I reminded her that she should be telling her patrol and letting them help her. She stayed with us until we encountered the others up the trail. The leaders of the day had done the right thing when they realized she was not with them. They stopped to see if she might appear and while waiting, they discussed a Plan B. That was a good sign that the team was gelling.

Rest Stop

They set off at a somewhat slower pace, and a few of the students fell back to encourage her.

Soon we were out of the forest and onto the moorlands. We picked our way up among the exposed rock, isolated clumps of grass and the fat-leaved succulents able to survive above tree line.

By a little stream, we dropped our packs and dug into them for our basic, no-frills lunches. I had never eaten sardines out of a tin, but after the vigorous hike, the first tiny fish was the finest snack I had ever tasted. A sleeve of dry soda crackers filled in the holes and sopped up the olive oil. After the sardines were gone, I poured oil from the tin straight into my mouth. Even that tasted delicious. A carrot, a piece of fruit and a candy bar for dessert. Sated and tired, I lay back on the grass in the warm sun. Just as my eyes were closing for a lovely nap, John called out, “Time to go!”

We stopped for the day around three, shrugged off our packs and waited for the stragglers. The short gray-green succulents cushioned our tired bodies. Rosettes of yellow daisy-like flowers on long stems fascinated my numb brain. I could pull petals or make daisy chains. Conversation among the tired girls was muted with exhaustion.

When the girls had all arrived, John gathered us together. Firmly in command and hands on his hips, he laid out the next event.

“Your next challenge now is to set up a solo camp for yourself. You will be placed in a spot that is isolated from the other girls.” Some of the students glanced around, looking a bit uneasy.

“The first thing you will do is to build a bivouac, a lean-to shelter for protection in case of rain. You must start a fire for warmth and to cook your meals. You will need some warm food in your bellies. It will be cold tonight. You are not to contact any one else or come back to this camp unless you have a serious emergency. Your patrol leader will check on you twice before you go to sleep to make certain you are adequately prepared for the night.”

Tabitha with Mountain Flowers

John gave the instructors a box of wooden matches each, and I handed out four to each student in Faru patrol. The weary girls stood up, helped each other on with their packs and followed me. I placed them close to the path, far enough apart so they could not see or hear each other but close enough that I could find them without trouble.

An hour later, most were doing fine. The available material was easy to work with, bushes with brittle limbs that could be tied in little bundles and lashed onto a simple lean-to frame. Some of the students had stretched the school-issued poncho over the frame, which was allowed. Even I could have passed the bivouac test, after seeing how they managed, but I might have been stumped if I had just been plopped on my solo site as they had. Most of them were feeding bits of fuel to small but lively fires. The African girls just got to work, ate and were soon in bed. The European student was coping, but two of the Asians were having a lot of trouble. Their bivouacs were shaky; they had no fire and looked very sad. I made a few suggestions and left them at their work.

The instructors bivouac was a musty semi-permanent structure one degree sturdier than what the girls were building but of the same material, but large enough for the four of us. John, the only man, took the small cozy annex, for which I was glad.

In conversation with the other instructors, we found the same general abilities prevailed among the three ethnic groups, and speculated that the Africans had experience building with available materials, even if they lived in cities now. Most of the European students were children of settlers. Some had grown up on farms, often living close to the African staff and free to wander the bush if they were so inclined. However, the Asian families who lived in East Africa were storekeepers. Traditionally, they kept a close rein on their girls and women, letting hired Africans do the menial work. The shelter building seemed unfamiliar to the Asian girls and sleeping alone for the first time was a challenge as well.

All the girls were selected by their schools for their leadership potential, not necessarily for other skills, but those who accepted the invitation were among the more adventurous.

Two of the instructors, who were physical education majors, mentioned that they were using birth control pills to time their periods. They often continued taking them past the normal number of days to prevent the onset when a big event was approaching. I was stunned. To have such control over a pesky monthly occurrence seemed wonderful.

Dorah from Bwiru Girls SS

At dusk, on my second circuit, I made certain everyone had a fire going because it getting chilly already. Neither of the struggling Asian girls had a fire, so I brought out my box of kitchen matches. Luckily I had lots because I had never had built a campfire using those materials, either, and it took me way too many matches to accomplish the task. Embarrassing, indeed.

Tired after my last check of the girls, I fell asleep quickly and stayed toasty in spite of the mountain chill. On the morning round, all the students had eaten and were packing up. A few confessed their night was not overly restful, but all were cheerful and ready for the day. I ate quickly and we were off, hiking up to the next camp.

At about 11,000 feet, near one p.m., we dropped our packs near volcanic formations in the side of the mountain. We gazed into caves formed from huge flat bubbles of volcanic gases that had solidified before bursting at the surface.

In the two caves where we stopped, rock piles at the edges showed attempts by previous visitors to create comfortable sleeping spots. The larger cave was big enough to hold two patrols overnight. The third patrol took a smaller cave nearby. John assigned my patrol to a cave a short walk down a side trail, past several smaller caves, which all had a lot of immovable lumps. Finding a spot without rocks for the night would be a challenge in our assigned cave, but we had no time for that search.

Our instructions were to drop our packs, eat lunch and return with our water and an extra layer of clothing. He didn’t say anything about a flashlight or poncho, which I discovered later would have been useful. All we knew was that we would be rock climbing that afternoon, something new for all of us. We ate and joined the others.

From the caves, John led us upward for half an hour until we stopped at the base of a wide rock wall perhaps one hundred feet high. Four ropes hung from the top. The sharp dark rocks reminded me of the basalt of Mt. Hood, near my home, where the rock had historically cooled in enormous hexagonal columns that throw enchanting shadows in the right light.

We settled in amidst the scrub brush to hear what would come next.

John planted his feet with his back to the wall, waiting for quiet. A few girls moved in from the edges so they could hear.

The cave for the night.

“The object of the exercise is for every member of the patrol to climb to the top of the cliff. Each patrol will use one of the ropes that will be attached to the climber’s harness, a rope at the waist supplemented by a figure eight loop around the thighs. It is only for safety, and you will not use it while you climb. One of your team will sit at the top, tie herself to a rock and manage the upper end of the safety rope, slowly pulling it in so if the climber falls she will catch her and the climber will not be injured. The person on the top is the belayer. When you get to the top, you will become the belayer and the person you replace will walk down an easier route to the bottom.”

He demonstrated how the belayer should tie herself securely to a rock. She was to wrap the rope from the climber around her waist and brace herself.

John added, “When the belayer is set, she calls out “On belay.”

“If you are the climber, once tied into the harness and ready to climb you yell out, to your belayer. “Climbing”. She will respond with, “Climb on.”

“As the climber moves up the cliff, the belayer pulls in the rope, leaving just a little slack so that if the climber should fall, she can’t fall far. Climbing is not difficult. Use both hands and both feet. There are lots of handholds and steps, just feel around. As you get higher off the ground, look up and not down. The one thing to remember for safety is to anchor your hands and feet well, and move only one at a time. Remember that you’ll make it to the top by yourself, and the rope is only for safety.”

“To demonstrate for yourself this is safe, when you are about ten feet up, call out to your belayer ‘falling.’ At that point, you are to jump away from the cliff. You will see that the belayer really will hold you in a fall. Then you can continue. Belayers, you must assume that the climber could fall at any moment, so be prepared.”

The first belayers followed John up a trail on one side of the climbing wall and settled into their positions. I joined Faru Patrol at the bottom of our rope to cheer on our climbers.

Rock climbing.

Miriam, our most confident member, stepped forward and grabbed the dangling rope. She tied on, called up, got the go-ahead and started climbing. When she called out, “Falling,” she shrieked in surprise when she dropped, but only fell a few feet before the rope caught her. From there she did quite well, as she groped over the face for a handhold. We called up holds we could see from below, and she continued easily to the top.

Some girls walked up as if the cliff was a staircase, and others needed encouragement, which the patrol was ready to give. One by one, the students climbed the face, discovering it was not that difficult. John patrolled the rim, checking the belayers.

Gradually, fog blew in and obscured the sunlight. We pulled out our extra layers, but I could see the students looking around for shelter from the light wind. Only a few bushes were thick enough to help, and some girls began to shiver.

Most students had finished climbing when John came down off the cliff to see how many had not done the climb. I pointed out that it was beginning to get dark, and the girls were getting cold. Perhaps the climbing had taken longer than expected. I couldn’t imagine making them climb in the dark, and I wondered out loud if we should stop.

John said, “No. Every student has to make it to the top.”  As a junior instructor, I bit my lip. I didn’t like the risk of staying too long on the exposed rocks, half an hour from warm food, our gear and our cozy cave. He must have a plan.

The next Faru patrol member was moving well about half way up the cliff when her foot slipped. She screamed and fell, unable to warn her belayer. This was not the planned fall and though she was not seriously hurt she was banged and shaken enough for concern.

“I’m sending Faru patrol back,” John said abruptly. Was it just to get rid of me?  I didn’t know. He gave me directions to our cave by way of a shortcut. Just follow the path back and take the first left. It sounded easy.

The light was fading as we started out, and soon we were unable to see the path. Two girls found tiny keychain flashlights in their pockets. We put one in front and one in the middle, held hands and groped our way toward our cave. Fortunately, the path was deeply worn and lined with thick grasses. At the intersection John had told me to look for, the tiny flashlights were dimming, and the fog had obscured what starlight might have helped. The path we were to take was not well defined. The situation felt dangerous. I was afraid I might not only get lost myself, but take the whole patrol with me. I conferred with the patrol members, and they agreed we should wait for John.

Mountain lobilia. (ip)

When John arrived with three other patrols, it was pitch black. He was angry we had waited. The side path would take us right to the cave, he said, and urged us to go on. By that point, I knew his style of directions and time estimates didn’t match mine, and I feared we could walk right by the cave without knowing it.

“No,” I said.

No one else had a light that might help us, so we all followed John, stumbling in the dark, holding hands for balance.

At the large cave we managed to borrow a few flashlights, and set out for ours. It was 10 p.m. Maybe in the dark distances are deceiving, but as we struggled on, I began to think we were going to have to spend the night in the open. The first cave we encountered was too rocky for an impromptu bivouac. The next one was worse. I didn’t relish the idea of just stopping to wait for daylight. We had none of our equipment; no tents, food or sleeping bags, so we pressed on.

Even with the flashlights, we were lost. We conferred as a group and somehow found our cave at 11 p.m. We all fell into our sleeping bags, exhausted. No one was interested in the hassle of a fire even with the promise of hot food.

I was angry at John for his irresponsible leadership. I knew then we should have taken flashlights and extra layers with us that afternoon, and he should have known about the shifts in weather and light near the climbing wall. Should the safety of the group come second in importance to everyone doing the climb? Perhaps he’d misjudged my ability to lead the patrol when he sent us back early, or perhaps it was my own personal challenge. If so, I hadn’t met it particularly well, which made me feel worse.

The next morning the fears of the night had faded, the challenges seemed less daunting. After a filling breakfast of oatmeal thickly dotted with raisins, we turned downhill.

By 1:30 p.m. we reached the home camp. Ugly blisters had formed on my heels, and my little toes were very sore. I vowed to pay more attention to my feet next time I left camp, and to be careful when dealing with John.

To the top or go to To the Plains