Pole pole

Joshua was the first Tanzanian we met and the first to give us advice for a successful summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. As he inched the van through the traffic between the airport and our Moshi hotel, he demonstrated positivism, patience, and pace.

Joshua was our meet-and-greet guy at the Kilimanjaro airport.

Joshua was our meet-and-greet guy at the Kilimanjaro airport.

“Pole, pole” is the phrase of the mountain. Pole is Swahili for “slowly.”

He elaborated. “If you rush the mountain, the mountain will descend you.”

While Joshua’s grammar could use some adjustment, his wisdom was spot-on. 19,000+ feet of rock can be pretty persuasive. Statistics are hard to come by, but Kili has repulsed many strong climbers (possibly more than half who attempt it; see statistics here). It was the first time I heard the phrase pole, pole. It would not be the last.

Street market outside Moshi.

Street market outside Moshi.

Climbing an alpine peak has been compared to running three back-to-back marathons. Start out too fast and the legs get wobbly. Then the lungs collapse.

I witnessed this for the first time in our approach to Ağrı Dağı in Turkey. Our guide flew off the line like a moose in low gear. Our troop chomped at his tight reins initially, then settled into rhythm. The man was a human metronome who devoured ten thousand feet of air one inch at a time. Positivism, patience, and pace took us to the top. There are good life-lessons in this pole pole business.

Our Tanzanian driver dropped Tommy and me off at the hotel. There we met Jason, an old friend and a third member of our party. Exhausted from the flight, we all slept well.

Our lodging in Moshi was quiet and comfortable. I bought journal supplies at the ApeBookshop across the street. How could I not?

Our lodging in Moshi was quiet and comfortable. I bought journal supplies at the ApeBookshop across the street. How could I not?

The following day, another driver transferred us to hotel in the village of Mailisita. He too had experience on Kili and dished out two more bits of helpful advice.

The first was good-natured and comforting. He suggested that life at altitude is not any different than life at home. “Small bed and a cold shower. Everything else is the same.” 

We had a good laugh.

His second bit was less descriptive and more prescriptive. “The mountain password is to drink lots of water.”

This was no secret. I knew it to be true from my experience on Mt Rainier in Washington State. There, I had not managed my hydration very well. One of my personal goals for this climb was to do better. I was determined to pound down three liters a water a day. What’s more, I learned from our Rainier friends how to tint that water with a little rehydration powder. 

This was especially critical as I was beginning a cycle of Diamox (Acetazolamide), a drug that helps with altitude sickness. I had not taken it on any previous climb, but, of course, I had never been challenged by the sort of elevation now in front of me. I wasn’t sure how my body would respond. Consider that the base camp for Kili (from which we would launch our summit attempt) was nearly 1,000' higher than the top of the Colorado Rockies!

One of the side effects of Diamox is frequent urination (Might I suggest “constant urination,” as in, will somebody get me a catheter?). I knew if I wasn’t careful I would be reduced to a hunk of jerky in no time.

With the summit shrouded in cloud cover, we had to settle for this welcome sign.

With the summit shrouded in cloud cover, we had to settle for this welcome sign.

Later, on the same day, Tommy, Jason, and I sat in cushioned chairs outside the hotel and witnessed the return of another team of climbers. They fell out of the bus, blistered and footsore, but their chat and swagger communicated a successful summit (either that or they were just excited at the possibility of a real shower).

We sat in awe. We studied the way they wore their hats at an angle, used buffs on their necks and snapped gaiters on their shins. We listened for clues that might give us some practical advantage for the days to come.

Two climbers, obviously Americans, walked by our seats. They eyed us in a way that said, "We're the kings of this playground." 

I couldn't resist.

“Any advice?” I shot sideways.

One shook his head seriously. “Don’t underestimate it."

The other smirked. “Two things: Baby wipes and a pee-bottle.”

They went into the lobby to claim their reward. We waited, pole pole style, until they were out of sight, then we ran to the grocery.

Three hearty climbers.

Three hearty climbers.