Camping Among Stray Dogs and Coyotes - Mexico Part 1: Iztaccíhuatl by Naeem Jaffer

highcamp

Mention “Mexico” and images of palm trees, exotic beaches, burritos, tacos, and sombreros start appearing in one’s head.

"What?! There are mountains in Mexico?! With Glaciers?"

That's basically the reaction I get after telling people I went to Mexico to climb. Yes, Mexico has mountains, big ones too.

Having just climbed Rainier, choosing the next climb was a tough choice. It had to be taller, but not too high that it would require a lot of time. That left a few options on the table; Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Russia. Bolivian and Russian mountains are best climbable during the North American summer, but I was too impatient for that. Climbing in Ecuador was my top choice, but it required more time acclimatizing. Mexico was the best remaining option. It's close, relatively affordable, and seemed challenging.

Mexico has a number of peaks higher than 4000m, all volcanic in nature forming the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, or Cordillera Neovolcánica. I was surprised how many did not know this; I guess it's because many have a stereotypical image of Mexico's beaches or the Sonoran desert. In fact, of North America's top 10 major summits, Mexican volcanoes account for 3 of them, and I signed up to climb two of them; Iztaccíhuatl and Pico de Orizaba.

Cordillera Neovolcanica

Cordillera Neovolcanica

At an altitude of 5,636m, Pico De Orizaba is Mexico's tallest mountain, North America's tallest Volcano, and North America's third tallest mountain after Denali and Mount Logan. From my research, climbing Orizaba isn't technically difficult at all. Crevasses are minimal, and if they do exist, they are small. Avalanche risk is negligible. Essentially, climbing Orizaba is like climbing a glaciated Kilimanjaro with skills utilized from Rainier. Orizaba appeared to be a reasonable stepping stone within my ability.

Due to its high altitude, many prelude Orizaba with an acclimatization climb of other smaller volcanoes. La Malinche and Iztaccihuatl are popular choices, and as I was short on time, I chose to prelude with a climb of Izta. It's Mexico's lowest mountain with permanent glaciers and is considered a non-technical walk up similar to that of Kilimanjaro. Two climbs in one trip? Why not?

The Local Guides

Mountaineering isn’t a common activity here in Toronto, so finding climbing partners isn’t easy at all. Without many options, I sought out for a guide. American guide companies do offer guided climbs in Mexico; however, I found them too costly. I received input from climbers who previously climbed in Mexico and was recommended a local guiding service run by Roberto “Oso” Flores (Orizaba Mountain Guides), offering excellent no-nonsense climbing itineraries, including one where you climb Iztaccíhuatl and Orizaba in 7 days. The itinerary included all airport transfers, meals, transportation, and lodging. Unlike group climbs offered by American guides, the service offered by Oso was ad-hoc and could end up being a private climb. Iztaccíhuatl and Orizaba can get busy in-season, I figured I’d meet many other climbers along the way - So, I got in touch with Oso and organized my trip for the middle of February. I will admit that there isn't too much out there as far as reviews go on Oso's guiding operation, especially outside of Mexico, so this post can serve as a synopsis and review of his service (which I can tell you right now has been excellent through and through and I highly recommend!)

Training

Unfortunately, after my Rainier climb, I developed discomfort in my hands and was later diagnosed with moderate bilateral Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. I still do not know the root cause of it all, however having CTS meant I could not use nor train with a strong grip, virtually ruling out lifting heavy or climbing hard grades at the gym. I wasn't going to back down from Mexico, so the only thing I could do to prepare was lots of cardio, which woul dhave proven most useful for Mexico anyway.

I went on winter hikes with heavy packs to further prepare. Hiking also gave me a chance to get break-in my new Mountaineering boots. My biggest downfall in Rainier was the descent when my legs gave out towards the end. So I integrated quad extensions, squats, and calf raises into my regimen. Two weeks before my departure, I climbed Mount Washington with a group of friends, the weather was exceptionally ruthless and we were forced to turn around early, but it served as a great prep for Mexico. My training regimen was far from ideal but I believe I did the best I could given the circumstances.

Equipment

Having already had most of my equipment from Kilimanjaro and Rainier. I finally bought the missing pieces for Mount Washington. A pair of mountaineering boots, a parka, glacier crampons, and a sleeping bag. I couldn't find a clear consensus on which boot I should need for Orizaba, whether it was single or double, plastic or leather. American guides recommend double boots, which I thought was overkill for a single day ascent, especially in Mexico where it doesn't get terribly cold. So with Oso’s advice, I got and brought along a pair of Scarpa Mont Blanc Pro GTX Boot along with Grivel Air-tech new-matic crampons. For a sleeping bag, I settled for a -18C North Face Inferno down sleeping bag which I managed to score on sale, with the temperature rating also recommended by Oso.

While I did pick up an excellent parka for a bargain price (Feathered Friends Frontpoint Parka), I later found out that this was overkill for Mexico, and was told a small down jacket would be more than fine.

CDMX

Logistically, getting to Mexico City was straightforward. One direct flight from YYZ to MEX and I was there. Oso picked me up from the airport and dropped me off at Hotel Maria Cristina in downtown Mexico, one block away from Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico city’s grand avenue. Mexico has a reputation for crime, however, the hotel was located in a fancier part of town among government ministries, courthouses, and foreign embassies, so needless to say I was in the safest part of town. As much as I'd like to say I trotted around the city snapping photos like I normally would, I just ordered pizza and slept.

Hotel Maria Cristina

Hotel Maria Cristina

Izta-Popo

I woke up pretty early the following day, and without much of a plan, I strolled around town exploring the must-see sights; Zocalo (with an impromptu flag-raising ceremony), Monumento a la Independencia, and the Palacio de Bellas Artes. I didn’t spend too much time as I had to make it back to the hotel for an early departure. Back at the hotel, I coincidentally had breakfast a few tables down a man who I later came to know would be my guide - Juan. At 10 am like clockwork, Oso formally introduced me to Juan, and we loaded the jeep to make way for our first objective, Iztaccihuatl. Oso informed me that he’d be picking up two Americans who would be joining me in climbing Izta - I didn’t mind at all, the more company, the merrier.

Monumento a la Independencia

Monumento a la Independencia

Palacio de Bellas Artes

Palacio de Bellas Artes

Flag Raising Ceremony in Zocalo

Flag Raising Ceremony in Zocalo

Iztaccíhuatl is located a couple of hours away from Mexico City. It took more than an hour to escape the City’s notorious traffic and smog, but in time, Izta became visible as it stood tall next to Mexico’s second tallest peak Popocatepetl separated only by a high mountain pass known as “Altzomoni”. Popo is an active volcano that constantly spews smoke, and as such climbing it is no longer allowed (Well.... I'm sure no one will stop you, but do you really want to climb an active volcano?). I have seen photos of Popo from when it was dormant in the past, and it was snow-capped with glaciers looking similar to Ecuador’s Cotopax. But now that it’s active, all traces of ice and snow are gone.

Popocatepetl as seen from the suburbs of Mexico City. Izta (not in photo) is to the left, and the Altzomoni mountain pass is visible just to the left of the Popo.

Popocatepetl as seen from the suburbs of Mexico City. Izta (not in photo) is to the left, and the Altzomoni mountain pass is visible just to the left of the Popo.

Iztaccihuatl means “White woman” in the native Aztec language of Nahuatl. Aside from being a snow-capped mountain, it actually does look like the profile of a woman sleeping, which each of peaks named after a woman’s body parts, like the head, breast, hips, knees, and feet.

Not my image, but this angle best portrays Izta as a sleeping woman.

Not my image, but this angle best portrays Izta as a sleeping woman.

Before entering the park, I met Oso along with Ming and Vlad from NYC at a restaurant in a small town called Amecameca. I don't remember specifically what I ate, but I do remember it being local cuisine, and it was great. After lunch, we went to the town’s center to pick-up last minute supplies and meet our two other assistant guides - Juan Carlos and Teresa. This was effectively the beginning of the climb and we made our way to Izta’s basecamp on Altzomoni sharing the car with Ming (who I also learned went to school in Waterloo - small world!).

Parque Nacional Izta-Popo Zoquiapan Official Entrace. Izta in the background, our jeep transport in the foreground.

Parque Nacional Izta-Popo Zoquiapan Official Entrace. Izta in the background, our jeep transport in the foreground.

Unlike my previous trips which involved a lengthy approach, On Izta, you can drive up all the way to base camp. In the span of a few hours, we went from an elevation of 2600m in Mexico City to basecamp at 3700m in Altzomoni. This was the fastest I've ascended. On the drive up, I noticed similarities with Kilimanjaro. Both Izta & Kili are volcanic in nature, they are roughly the in the same altitude category, and the terrain of the lower slopes, trees, shrubs, even the fine volcanic dust were all starkly similar to Kili.

Perhaps I’m too spoilt by the standards of US and Canadian national parks with their pristine roads and relative ease of access and facilities, but things were different here. Beyond the park’s main entrance, it was a long bumpy ride on rough dusty roads to the trailhead, our de-facto Basecamp - a 4x4 highly recommended but was surprised to see many do the drive on small compact vehicles.

DSC08500.jpg

The original plan was to stay in the Altzomoni huts. But we were climbing on a weekend, which meant it was going to be hoarded with people from Mexico City. We decided that the huts would be a moot effort, and decided to set-up camp at the dirt parking lot instead. We arrived mid afternoon to an empty lot and not much to do, so Ming and Vlad suggested we’d kill some time by going for a short acclimatization hike.

Iztaccíhuatl

Iztaccíhuatl

Vlad and Ming

Vlad and Ming

I was wearing the wrong shoes for the job, gym trainers with worn out soles. It had no traction on the fine dusty trail. Having driven up to this elevation, It didn’t take long for the effects of altitude to kick in with shortness of breath and an elevated heart rate. We ascended leasurely to around 200 vertical meters before turning back. The last thing we’d want is to get altitude sickness this early on.

Camp at Altzomoni

Camp at Altzomoni

Back at camp with our tents were already set-up, and Juan, Juan Carlos, and begun prepping dinner by squatting one of the shacks. We met a group of 4 cool dudes from Iowa; Charlie, Dave, Ryan and Jon setting camp nearby, they had just climbed La Malinche prior to arriving at Izta, and they set up their tents a few feet down. I noticed that the place had a few wild dogs running around, they were friendly, and there was one particular always hanging out with us (photo below - Let's name him Spot). As the sun set, we huddled in the shack devouring a tasty pasta meal that the two Juans and Teresa prepared. It got drastically colder the moment the sun set, and I made my way back to my tent with the last hint of twilight.

One of many stray dogs.

One of many stray dogs.

Dinner

Dinner

Unsurprisingly, with the quick elevation gain, I got a slight headache. I later learned that sleeping at altitude without a proper pillow didn't help the cause. All I had was a 2” inflatable pad which forced my head to rest at an awkward angle, aggravating the headache even more

It was surprisingly colder than I expected. My sleeping bag, even though rated for -18C, felt as though it was on it's operational limit. The remedy to altitude is water, which I was drinking a lot of, it didn't take long till my first piss break. When I came back into the tent, I noticed condensation forming inside the tent. It's not particularly unusual, but but it was a fair bit of water.

Halfway through the night, a brawl broke out between the stray dogs that lived around the camp. The loud barks, growls, and aggressive noises was immediately outside my tents. It sounded viscous. I could hear the dogs running around and in between the tents growling. Perfect timing too, I really had to go take a leak at that very moment, but leave the tent and walk into a pack of angry dogs? No thanks.

That lasted about ten minutes or so before it got quiet again. It was time to head out for that leak. I had a fairly small tent, so as soon as I got up, my head brushed along the tent and noticed the condensation froze. It was really cold outside, If I had to throw a number, I would have guessed perhaps -5C? 

A few hours later, another piss break, and this time the ice inside the tent had thickened. I’d get up, brush my head rattling the tent, and the ice would fall all over my sleeping bag and face, great… Every time I left the tent and returned it would take a good 20 minutes or so to warm up before being able to rest comfortably. This would repeat itself around a few times throughout the night. Between a dull headache, constant piss breaks, cold, and the fact I couldn't sleep, I recall feeling absolutely miserable. Hahaha! Sleep?! What sleep?!

High Camp

I’m naturally an early bird, so I was up and about at the first sign of daylight. Sunrise was on the other side of the mountain, so it was still chilly being in the mountain's shadow. I met up with the Iowans who also didn’t sleep and shared coffee with them as we exchanged stories of the night (I wasn’t alone!). The slight headache was still there that I almost considered taking Diamox, but I didn't.

Juan woke up and I explained the condensation issues I was having, and he remarked the same thing happened to his fancy Hilliberg tent. In fact, he did admit that he’s never experienced Itza's basecamp to be that cold before.

mmmmm

mmmmm

The plan was to make it up to high camp at roughly 4700m located just after “feet”. High camp too also has a hut, but just as with basecamp it would probably packed like sardines and simply not worth the bother, so we planned to set-up camp there too. After breakfast, we caught a mini eruption of Popo, we didn't have a clear view, but we did get the important bit. We left at around 11am after a majestic pancake breakfast, with perhaps the heaviest pack I’ve ever had to carry yet. In an effort to save weight, I only had my mountaineering boots and wore those from the get go, complete overkill for this portion of the climb. We took a couple of breaks and noticed that one of the stray dogs - Spot - also happened to be following us gaining some good ground.

Mini-eruption of Popocatepetl

Mini-eruption of Popocatepetl

The first part of the hike wasn't too bad as it was over a tightly packed scree trail, however things got rather difficult on the second half as we had to haul such heavy backpacks on very loose scree. A grind involving two steps forward, one step back as feet slid down. Trekking poles were a godsend for this part.  Effects of altitude started to take effect as we made our way up to the closer to the  feet.

Juan and I

Juan and I

I will say that the view from the hike was pretty spectacular, it's not every day you get a clear view of a belowing volcano.

Popocatepetl in all it's glory

Popocatepetl in all it's glory

On the way to the feet, some heavy packs there.

On the way to the feet, some heavy packs there.

Pico De Orizaba doesn't seem so far.

Pico De Orizaba doesn't seem so far.

We got to our campsite just above the feet, we huddled to set up the tents and immediately took a rest from that haul. The campsite was pretty isolated from where the hut was, in fact, it was just us and a group of 2 other guys from New York.

highcamp

The view from high camp was spectacular watching the sunset with Nevado de Toluca, another Mexican stratovolcano directly ahead of us, directly over the pollution of Mexico City’s suburbia below. Popo bellowing to our left. The trail we had just taken visible with base camp far down below at the end of the trail.

The view from High camp with the trail and base camp visible as the parking on the far right. What a view.

The view from High camp with the trail and base camp visible as the parking on the far right. What a view.

I was expecting my slight headache to get worse by this point, but luckily it didn’t, in fact it completely went away. Ming complained of some stomach pains while it seemed that Vlad got a good dose of a headache, but we were fine for the most part. The plan was to wake up at 2am, and leave at 3am for the summit bid. Everything was covered in volcanic dust, I wanted to leave my pack outside the tent, but Juan insisted I took my food in with me as the animals may nibble at it. Animals? At this elevation? Frankly, there was no sign of life in this alpine environment, but I heeded his advice.

Nevado De Teluca in the distance rising from Mexico City's pollution.

Nevado De Teluca in the distance rising from Mexico City's pollution.

Concerned with how cold it could get now that we were higher, I hit bed just after dinner and well before it got dark. It was tough to sleep as another group set up camp next to us with all the ruckus, noise and lights associated with it. By the time they settled, I could hear a pack of dogs running among the tents again, almost as if they were rummaging for something. I had gotten used to the fact that stray dogs wandered around and ignored it at first.

But they weren't dogs.

I was dosing off until a very loud howl went off not too far from our tents. It was not a wolf's howl nor a dog's howl. It was a high pitched shrieking howl as it echoed against the mountain with no other noise to wash it out. I jumped up asking “what the hell was that?!”. It was a Coyote. The group nearby tried to scare it (or them?) away by imititated growling. They hovered around camp for a bit running in-between and around the tents looking for some sort of food (Juan knows best!). It was an unsettling feeling knowing a pack of coyotes lies just outside your tent, and of course in similar fashion to the previous night, I needed to take a leak then too. Walk into a pack of Coyotes? Most absolutely not. It took a few minutes before they did eventually go away, and it got quiet. I snuck out quick (but not far) for a quick leak and then actually managed to fall asleep for a couple of hours. I must really have been tired from hauling that heavy pack.

It seemed the Coyotes were the talk of the night. While we weren't camped near the hut, it seems that the pack also seemed to have caused some ruckus over there. I wouldn't have guessed that Coyotes hung around this high (~4,700m).

Summit Day

I woke up at 2am like clockwork to find Juan already preparing breakfast. It was surprisingly much warmer than the previous night that I barely needed gloves. Oatmeal was prepared. Vlad and Ming join in with Vlad complaining of a headache, but he was a soldier and pushed through. Juan Carlos wasn't feeling too well and decided to stay at camp. By 3am and on time, Juan, Vlad, Ming, and Teresa were ready and good to go, headlamps on.

We started our climb by first reaching the hut which resembled more like an airstream trailer than a hut, but could somehow fit 20 people like sardines. The area around the hut was a gong show of tents and people. It was crowded, I’m glad we didn’t set up camp there. The first and steepest portion of the climb is getting up to the knees.

Now from a distance and in daylight, the climb up the knees didn't look bad, but this part is apparently notorious for a few deaths on the mountain. First off, it is far steeper than it looks on photos, but also, it was all true loose scree, by far the loosest scree I've come by. I didn't find it too bad as I had trekking poles on hand, but Ming did this part without trekking poles at all, what a trooper. Similar to Kili, the closer we got to the knees, the rockier it got which I enjoyed. I was also thoroughly impressed with my boot’s performance on rock. In under 2 hours, we got to the top of the knees.

Once at the knees, you see the hips in the distance, a false summit for the true summit behind, and you realize the day is far from over. After descending slightly, we make our way up again to the hips. This part wasn't especially memorable as it wasn’t particularly difficult, but I do recall that the winds started to pick-up at this point. At the hips, Juan asks us to take a break while he determines whether we need crampons for the glacier. He confirms that we do. We chuck down water and clif bars, and then donned our crampons.

At the edge of the glacier, we see the summit in the distance, but getting to it involved descending a fair bit before coming back up. We our way on the glacier. The glacier was in poor shape, it was evident it didn't have any growth at all. It was all rock solid ice. There was hardly any depth to it, the underlying moraine was seeping through the crevasses. Like all receding glaciers around the world, the glaciers on Izta was no exception, and it was clear it didn’t have many years of life left, speaking with Oso later, he guesses that at this rate, all glaciers on Izta will disappear within 5 years.

Izta's Shadow

Izta's Shadow

Despite its poor state, the glacier was actually larger than I thought. From a distance it seemed like a dusting of snow. We passed the glacier and took off our crampons as we continued upwards on what may be best described as a volcanic ash ridge. This part was absolutely glorious with the sunrise on our right, casting the mountain’s shadow on our left. It started to get windy, but nothing too wild.

The Ashy Ridge, with the trail leading to the summit. Juan and Vlad in the foreground, and I'm pretty sure Teresa and Ming are in the far distance nearing the summit. The ashy ridge was my favorite part of the whole climb, between the light, the summit in sight, the mountain's shadow, and a nice breeze.

The Ashy Ridge, with the trail leading to the summit. Juan and Vlad in the foreground, and I'm pretty sure Teresa and Ming are in the far distance nearing the summit. The ashy ridge was my favorite part of the whole climb, between the light, the summit in sight, the mountain's shadow, and a nice breeze.

The last stretch to the summit was a grind, but we eventually all summited at 7am at an elevation of 5220m. We congratulated each other and took photos. The view from the summit was spectacular. The route we had taken from the glacier onwards was visible with Popo dominating the background. Pico de Orizaba, my next objective was visible in the distance towards the sun, with La Malinche standing in between. It took us exactly 4 hours to summit. We were the second group on the summit, later finding out that the Iowans were in fact the first to bag the peak that day.

Ming, Vlad, and I, with Popo in the background.

Ming, Vlad, and I, with Popo in the background.

What a priceless sunrise. Pico De Orizaba in the far back with La Malinche ahead rising over Mexico's infamous pollution. As seen from the Summit of Izta.

What a priceless sunrise. Pico De Orizaba in the far back with La Malinche ahead rising over Mexico's infamous pollution. As seen from the Summit of Izta.

Now, the true summit of Izta is not entirely clear, this is because the crater rim is almost perfectly horizontal, and there seemed to be a lot of debate with regards to which side of the crater was higher. Regardless, at the end of the day, the variance was +/- 10m, hardly enough to make a fuss about it.

The other side of the breast, with the disputed summit. The 4 guys from Iowa did make it to the other side, eliminating any doubt of getting to the highest point.

The other side of the breast, with the disputed summit. The 4 guys from Iowa did make it to the other side, eliminating any doubt of getting to the highest point.

The route clearly visible, down the ashy ridge to the bottom left, down onto the glacier, then back up the glacier on the hips. The knees are not visible.

The route clearly visible, down the ashy ridge to the bottom left, down onto the glacier, then back up the glacier on the hips. The knees are not visible.

With the winds getting worse, we didn't stay long and made our way back down the ridge and back to the glacier. Descending was easy and fast. The continuous up-and-downs of Izta certainly made things challenging - psychologically more than physical. Back at the knees, we took a lengthy break before slowly and carefully making our way down the steep scree slopes. It was exhausting. It was actually a really nice view, but I didn’t bother to take any photos.

Crowds at the top of the Hips.

Crowds at the top of the Hips.

Back at high camp, we lied down recovering from that climb. I instantly dosed off despite the winds battering my tent. An hour’s break is all what I needed before we had to pack up and make our way down. With most of the water and food finished, the packs weren’t as heavy as it was on the way up, but we were tired, so it felt just as heavy.

The descent was unpleasant, the heavy pack putting lots of pressure on an already exhausted body. The first half of the descent wasn’t too bad, but about half-way through, I started getting sloppy. I almost rolled an ankle... but fortunately, I managed to recover quickly and well enough to continue. Descent loose scree with a heavy pack wasn’t fun at at all. In an effort to descent after, I skiid down the very loose screen. This proved rather effective until in one instance when my right foot banged against a hidden rock under the scree. BAM, I stubbed my big right toe nail. It was paintful. It was like kicking a concrete wall with full force, a steel shanked mountaineering boot not helping at all. I absorbed the pain for a few minutes shaking it off and then soldiered on continued. A few minutes later, BAM, OUCH, the exact same thing again, this time to my left foot. It hurt so bad, so so bad. Both my right and left big toenails were in throbbing pain and felt as though they were bleeding, but I wasn't in a position to take off my boots.

Now normally, I wouldn’t mention this detail, banging and stubbing toes is normally part of the descent, but this time my toes played a critical role in part 2 of this story, which I shall share later. If there was one thing I learned through that whole ordeal, is to cut your damn toenails. I knew prior to my trip that my nails needed trimming, but things were too hectic and I simply never got the chance to trim them. People learn the hard way I suppose.

My painful toenails made an already tiring descent absolutely miserable. 2/3rd of the way through I ran into Ryan who also happened to have a similar “bloody toe” problem. While taking a small break, we noticed someone carrying Spot down and were amazed how much elevation the dog had gained.  We slowly soldiered our way back to base camp, this time without stopping, realizing that stopping only meant that that relaxation would be delayed. I was pretty happy to get to the parking lot and have a seat in shade. It felt so good to take my boots off. My toenail were super painful to the touch, they looked fine and weren't bleeding, but man they hurt. Juan offered us a cold coca cola as a celebratory drink, It was amazing.

This is where I'll end Izta’s story as the sequence of events playing into Orizaba's story starts here. How was climbing Izta? Fantastic! It doesn’t get the attention of Orizaba and as such not much is known about it general, however, I will admit that it was harder than advertised. Even though it is a relatively short summit day, its multiple false summits made it interesting with many rewarding views. In fact, I would recommend one climbs Izta over Kili any day, not only is it essentially the same terrain and type of mountain, it’s closer to us here in North America, far cheaper, and has a faster rate of ascent. There are also no porters to help you out, making it a far more physical challenge than Kili.

Frozen Thumbs - A Winter attempt on Mount Washington by Naeem Jaffer

The Descent - Photo Cred: Vaspan

It's true. Big mountains in North America are found out west, but mountains do exist out east too! On the northern tip of the Appalachian range lies a subrange of mountains known as the White Mountains, of which Mount Washington is the highest (at 6,288ft) making it the closest "high-point" to home and we went to climb it.

The name is pretty misleading, as it has no relation to Washington State nor Washington D.C. But like those two, this mountain is also named after America's first President. Mount Washington is located in New Hampshire, a state that you can hardly place on a map, but is somehow really relevant on election day. New Hampshire is the home of eastern mountaineering. During the summer months, the Whites are a popular hiking destination drawing many crowds. In fact, you can even drive to the summit of Mt Washington, but in winter it can be a vicious place. 

Despite its short height of 6,288ft, Mount Washington is known for its ruthless weather. The summit recorded the second fastest wind speed in history at 372 km/h! Couple that with a typical New England winter, and you have a challenging mountaineering objective. Altitude and it's associated effects are not an issue at this low elevation, and the peak isn't glaciated, so there are no crevasses to worry about. However the slopes are very susceptible to avalanches, a word not usually synonymous with this part of the world.

Northeast Mountaineering Guided Adventures

I was planning on climbing Mount Washington to prepare myself for my next trip, Mexico's Volcanoes. The climb covers decent elevation (4,000ft gain), cold enough, and challenging enough that I would appreciate the training. I invited a few friends who were interested in climbing, and Eric, Vaspan, and Devon agreed to tag along. I got in touch with Phil who I climbed Rainier with, and he too joined in. Before you knew it, we had a group of 5 ready to tackle this peak.

Like any mountain, there are many ways to summit Mount Washington. The "normal" route is known as the Lion's Head route is what most guide services offer. It's a standard mountaineering route that will require the use of an ice axe, crampons, and mountaineering boots. With 5 people, it was cost effective to simply hire a private guide rather than join a group. After a few phone calls, I booked with Northeast Mountaineering as they came highly recommended online.

On our long drive there, we passed through the hills of Vermont, but peaks of the Green State were no match for those in New Hampshire. Getting to North Conway - the town closest to Mt Washington - meant taking a road through Crawford Notch State Park, with towering mountains on either side of the road.  We knew that Mt Washington was one of the few that had a treeline, so we were shocked to be surrounded by large mountains rising to the clouds all covered in trees. The treeline, wherever it was, was over the clouds. That's when I realized that this mountain was bigger than I had imagined.

Enterring Crawford Notch State Park, Photos don't do the mountains justice at all.

We never got to saw Mount Washington on our drive in as it was cloud covered. We later learned that the mountain is really only visible a handful of times in winter. We arrived at our Airbnb and started packing for the climb the next day.

Being Proactive, I checked the weather, and it wasn't looking good at all. Actually it was pretty horrible, it was calling for an extremely cold day, 0F with medium to high winds (-40F which is equivalent to -40C). To better prepare, we headed out to EMS (similar to MEC or REI) to get more supplies, and left after an interesting conversation with the cashier. We definitely looked like we were from out of town, so the conversation went something like this:

Cashier: "What brings you to North Conway?"
Me: "We're here to climb to Mount Washington"
Cashier: "Oh, when are you guys going up?"
Me: "Tomorrow", and she gave me a slightly concerned look
Cashier: "It's going to be really cold tomorrow, better bundle up" as she confirms with the cashier next to her. She look more concerned as she rings me out. Shortly she said "Are you guys ready to turn around?"
Me: "Err, I guess so" She continued to look worried, she cashes me out
Cashier: "Are you guys going with a guide or on your own?"
Me: "We're getting a guide"
Cashier: "Ahhh okay, the guide will take care of you guys" as she takes big sigh of relief, as if she was legitimately concerned for our safety.

It was at that moment that I started to wonder what we were going to experience the next day. Between her worrisome look and the poor weather being forecasted, I felt that our chances of summiting the next day was very slim.

Climb Day

We had an early breakfast and then made our way to the bunkhouse to meet the guide at 7am. After a brief introduction, our guide Jordan immediately warns us that it's going to be a brutally cold day with windchills up to -40 to -50 Fahrenheit. Eric and I were the best equipped (or so we thought) as we collected an assortment of gear from my previous trips and Eric's background in rock climbing. Despite that, we were told that our boots were simply not going to be warm enough for the climb. We had to rent double boots (plastic boots urgh...) and crampons to fit them. I had a light glove, a mid-weight glove, and a heavy-weight glove - the biggest glove Black Diamond offers - and apparently that too was insufficient for the forecasted weather. I had to rent a pair of heavy mitts. We didn't bring helmets as we didn't think it was necessary for a non-technical climb such as this, but the guide insisted, and we rented those too. At 8 am, we made our way to the trailhead, Pinkham's notch.

The drive to Pinkham's Notch. The summit of Mount Washington somewhere in the clouds.

Gear check

Avalanche warnings

At Pinkham's notch, we did one last gear check, checked water amounts, and made sure we are all set to go, and at 8:30am we took off. We left pretty late and I felt that made our chances were even slimmer to summit. It takes 5 hours to get to the top on a really good day. We had a horrible forecast ahead of us, and getting to the summit in 5 hours and back down before dark seemed bleak. I think one would need to leave around 7:30am or even earlier to have enough time to get back down. If it were up to me, I'd have left before sunrise.

With trekking poles in hand, we made our way up the ascending trail. It wasn't windy at all at this point, but it was pretty cold that every step squeaked on the hard snow. We only wore two layers and we warmed up in no time. There was nothing really interesting about the trail at all. It was a well-maintained trail about 10 feet wide that sees a lot of foot and ski traffic. An hour later, we took our first break.

I only had my liner gloves on and my thumbs managed to get really cold while idling around at the break. By the time I finished snacking, they got pretty numb and I could barely move them. We got moving again, and I hoped my hands would warm up again and my thumbs would regain sensation, but to no avail. I was forced to put on my mid-weight gloves as I curled my hands into a fist to warm up. It took a really long time to regain sensation, but I eventually got my hands warmER again. Glad that didn't end my climb.

First break

25 mins later we took our second break, and this is where we had to put on our crampons, helmet, hardshell pants, and pull out our ice axe. I struggled to put on my hard shells as the zippers were too small to use with my gloves (note to self: tie some pull knots on all zippers), and it was simply too cold to expose my fingers which were already chilly. Devon helped me zip up the hardshell. I got my crampons on, which were also hard to tighten with cold hands. I started to shiver, and I decided it was time to put on my third layer - my down jacket. It's really in these extreme situations that you learn about your gear. For example, I learned that using a roll-top bag in the cold sucks as you can't undo the buckle with gloves and cold fingers, this is why alpine packs usually have a drawstring top. I also needed to find a better system of mounting my poles to the pack, it works on a beautiful summery day, but in the brutal cold, looping straps and tightening buckles was miserable. All this time while gearing up, my sweat started to evaporate, making me cold, and I started to shiver. Thankfully it didnt last long as we started moving again. 

At this point, the lion's head winter trail diverts from the Main trail, we're taken to steeper terrain within the forest requiring us to sidestep and use our ice axe. This was the best part, the steep terrain warmed us up fast. We were sheltered by the wind from the surrounding forest, I'll go as far as saying it was completely windless. The terrain got steeper and steeper. I was surprised that we got to the steepest part rather quickly. The steep part is perhaps 50-60 degrees requiring front points and using the ice axe like one would use ice tools. It wasn't all that high, perhaps 25ft, but climbing it in uncomfortable plastic boots on fresh snow had a bit of a sketch factor to it.

The steepest part. Photo Cred: Devon

One-by-one we made it up, making our way through the forest. The trees started to thin as we approached the tree line, and while we weren't exposed to much wind, we could almost feel the fierceness of the winds over of us.

Because the trail is pretty thin, and in a dense forest, there's barely any room to sit around and take a break. The route is also busy on weekends which meant we had to deal with inevitable traffic jams, especially near the top. I recall pausing for a good 5-10 minutes while waiting for groups ahead to move, it was slow.

Eric and I pausing for traffic. Photo Cred: Devon

We were immediately below the tree line when we took our final break. People were descending with a priceless "NOPE" expression on their faces. I asked a couple of climbers how far they had gotten, and they responded not very far. In fact, for most, th objective wasn't even the summit, it was "Lion's head" which I assume is a landmark on the trail somewhere between the treeline and the summit. 

The last photo I took before stepping out of the tree line, you can see the thinning of the trees compared to the photos aboce.

It was bone chilling just waiting around during the break, my mid-weight glove was simply not cutting it anymore. I skipped my heavy glove and went straight for the heavy mitt + liners, my warmest combination. The winds really started to pick up, the guides instructed us to put on our hardshells, face masks, and goggles. While idling, I even put on my parka. At that moment, I was actually wearing everything in my pack sans water bottles.

We got out of the treeline and were instantly blasted by cold harsh winds. In single file formation, I was right behind the guide. It was chaos. It was tiring simply to balance against the wind, let alone climb up. I remember telling Jordan "Wow, this is exhausting!". Trekking poles went a long way, without them I felt I'd be blown off the mountain. What a rush, literally! I could barely look around. I looked up to see where we were headed, and visibility was extremely poor, I was simply following Jordan's feet. How Jordan managed to see the way still baffles me. My fingers got cold super fast, within a minute or two above the tree-line. But we kept marching on as the guide would intermittently check back on us.

Only a few minutes up the tree line (maybe 5? 10 minutes tops?), Jordan looks back and noticed frostbite forming on Phil's nose, he stops and immediately rushed to protect his face. Eric too started to show signs of frostbite on his nose/cheeks. With conditions only going to get worse as we ascended, Jordan made the call to turn around. It was simply too cold and too windy to continue. The winds were already a challenge at the treeline, I can't fathom how out-of-this-world the winds must have been at the summit. My thumbs were really cold, they were practically frozen solid with no sensation at all. I was already wearing my warmest combination of glove and mitt for my hands, and there was nothing more I could do to warm them up (Lesson learned: always bring/wear hand warmers). There is no way we could have reached the summit in those conditions on that day, but Alas, that's the name of the game.

We spent a few minutes enjoying where we were. It was a chaotic, yet amazing scene. I haven't seen anything like it. With the sun barely shining through it felt as if we were teleported to the south pole, an absolute wasteland as the winds blasted everything in its path. I really do wish I could have taken a photo of it, but my hands were cold as is, and there was no chance in hell I was going to remove my mitts to operate a camera. Fortunately, and many props to Devon, he was brave enough to get some GoPro footage. This clip was just before we turned around.

I managed to get Devon to snap a photo, and this is only one of two photos that were taken above the treeline.

Descending the steepest section

We quickly made our way back into the shelter of the trees and took a brief break. There was no way we were going to summit that day, I strongly doubt anyone did either. It was too cold, too windy, too extreme. I checked the weather report the following day, and the observatory at the summit reported an average of -6F with a sustained speed of 68mph. For you metric readers, that's -22C with a windchill of -41C. I don't think we spent more than 15-20 mins over the tree-line.

We slowly made our way down the mountain after a short break. The descent was easier. I have large feet and couple that with large double plastic boots - I practically skied down the slope. The steep parts took some careful side-stepping, but it was nothing too crazy. On the steepest part, the guide affixed a fixed line to quasi-rappel down, making it pretty easy in my opinion. I would have affixed an 80m rope around a tree and rappelled all the way down with an ATC, but that's just me. There was a point where Devon slipped and fell towards me with all crampon spikes rushing towards my face. Luckily I managed to shift 2 feet to the right and miss it. Scary at the time, but I do wish we caught it on video to laugh about it, but sadly, no footage.

Photo Cred: Devon

Photo Cred: Devon

Photo Cred: Devon

We got out to flatter ground and took off our crampons. It was still very cold, my guess was -12, or -15C, but it felt like summer compared to what we'd been through. After a longer than usual break, we made the hike all the way back down to Pinkham's Notch. The weather was sunny, windless, and far more favorable. The difference of the weather between the valley floor and above the treeline was stark and impressive. It was 2:30 by the time we made it back to the car, meaning we were on the mountain for a grand total of 6 hours. But it was the 15 minutes of being over the tree line that made the day memorable. Unfortunately, with all the layer swapping throughout the whole ordeal, I accidentally hit "pause" on my GPS watch, and it was not able to record and get statistics on the climb.

The next day, we left the apartment to find Mt Washington clearly visible, one of the rare occasions the summit can be seen. It hurt to know that many would have summited that day to ideal (and warmer) conditions, but we took solace that it would have been slightly more boring than our attempt.

What a tease, how clear it was the following day! Photo Cred: Vaspan

Mt Washington remains unfinished business, and because it's relatively close to home, We hope to give it another try in the future, hopefully under better circumstances. At the very least we got to taste the mountain at it's worst.

Fin.

Featured on Viewbug! by Naeem Jaffer

This is a photography website, and I took this long to share a post actually about photography. I've been invited by Viewbug to be featured on their blog via an interview. I've been sent a list of questions and I answered them as candidly as I could. The interview was posted yesterday on their website and can be found on this link. But since it's my words, I've copied it verbatim here as well :)


How To Take Stunning Pictures Of Your City

ViewBug community member empty_quarter loves shooting architecture and interiors. His images are a great inspiration for those who want to shoot cityscapes and capture the beauty of the architectural highlights in cities.

What inspired you to be a photographer?

I don’t really have a wild story as to how I got drawn into Photography. I guess I was looking for a hobby and simply wanted to be able to capture majestic landscapes and architecture, especially with great light. Seeing epic photos in magazines like National Geographic probably subconsciously played a role in that.

What was your first camera and what do you shoot with today?

My first camera was a Nikon D60 and I slowly moved up the Nikon ranks. I had my camera bag stolen which gave me an opportunity to try another format. I then switched to a Sony A7R for its smaller size which I continue to use to this day. For a compact pocket camera, I use a Sony RX100.

When someone looks at your photos, what do you want them to take away from it?

Aside from the obvious – portraying a great scene – the one thing I try to communicate is the effort and story behind the photo, and that’s not easy to convey. For example, in the photo below, I woke up at an incredibly early hour, to drive to 2 hours on the coldest morning of the year (-30 °C), all for the hope of capturing the ice fog over a Niagara falls sunrise. It was so cold that my fingers were frostnip as I was determined to stay out and capture the photo. I then spent half an hour indoors in pain as my fingers were thawing. Luckily conditions were fantastic and the photo turned out exactly as I hope it would, and that is why I titled the photo “Frostbite”.

Now, I’m not sure viewers would be able to gather all that just by looking at the photo, but at the very least, you can tell it was really damn cold that morning.

When I look at other photographers’ work, I do try and imagine or visualize a story behind it, what the photographer had to do to capture that photo. How long one had to hike, drive, camp, walk, how quiet or chaotic the scene was, or at the very least, how long one had to wait to capture that one moment.

What is it that you love about photography?

My favourite part is the challenge of the hunt. Landscapes in particular have many elements out of the photographer’s control, it requires pre-emptive planning, patience, timing, and in some cases luck. It’s a satisfying feeling capturing a great photo that I visualized. It’s kinda like shooting a moving target.

What has photography done for you?

It’s definitely gotten me out of the house. It’s forced me to travel to new places and explore for new photos and angles, sometimes to great lengths for the sake of a photo. I have been to quite a few photogenic cities and natural wonders, which I don’t think would have been possible if photography wasn’t the motivation behind most of it all.

Do you try to be conceptual or do you prefer to show the feeling behind a photo?

When it comes to landscape photography, a photograph is really a capture of reality. It’s tough to be conceptual but not impossible, long exposures are a great example of this. Drawn out clouds and light trails can give a completely different mood than a frozen image in time. Otherwise, I try to convey a feeling of grandeur and splendor; the wonders of Mother Nature, the energy (or lack thereof) within a metropolis, or the detail, beauty, and thought process behind an architectural element.

How do you describe your style?

I would describe my style as “technical”. Photography is a balance between science and art, and I find myself leaning towards the technical side of it. I like to focus on lines, symmetries, and the play between geometrical shapes. Perhaps it stems from my background in architecture and construction. I always strive to achieve a technically perfect image (composition, exposure, timing, and straight lines) all while looking for a creative angle.

Architect Mies van der Rohe had a saying “God is in the details”, and I feel that I apply that wholeheartedly to Photography. The “details” in my opinion is what separates a mediocre landscape/architectural photograph from a great one. I don’t mean that in the sense of sharpness or megapixels, instead what a photographer decides to include in the frame, or not.

If you had to choose one lens which one would it be and why?

I would choose a standard lens like a 24-70 for its versatility. Others in the genre would pick an ultra-wide, but the reality is that unless you’re in a city with towers surrounding you, or in a majestic place like the Grand Canyon or Niagara falls with grand walls, ultra-wides are otherwise not very useful for instances you need to zoom in, which happens more often than not. Ultrawide lenses definitely have their place in the genre, but If I had to choose just one lens, the 24-70 would it be it. I’d be fine with f/4, as aperture isn’t too important for landscape photography.

What are your 3 tips for others who want to become landscape photographers?

  1. Keep shooting, practice makes perfect. It’s an old adage but it really holds true here.
  2. Timing is absolutely everything in landscape photography. Have a vision, and check the forecast. Frame the photo, and time it accordingly for good light, and wait. For example, if you want to shoot the stars, don’t go when it’s cloudy, and don’t go when there’s a full moon out.
  3. If you already have a capable camera, spend money on travels instead of more gear, it would do more for your photography than an upgraded camera body or lens. Not to mention the experience of traveling and experiencing some place new.

Have you received negative feedback from your work? What did you do about it?


I am colorblind (red-green deficient), and so I’m not able to correctly adjust for color. I especially have trouble with purples and browns. When I first started, I noticed that I oversaturated colors in an attempt to make my photos vibrant and pop (to me). While the comments weren’t all that awful, feedback was along the lines of “OMG! So colorful! There’s no way the sunset was that colorful!” Some didn’t mind the strong colors as it looked like a surreal painting, but that’s not what I was going for. I wanted to photography reality, and over time, I toned it down to the point that I don’t even tamper with color saturation anymore.

Where did you learn to take photos?

I was self-taught and learned by trial and error. I live in a city where, fortunately, there many spots to shoot the skyline. I kept shooting the same angles over and over, experimenting with different settings, weather, light of day, and really just found out what works, and what doesn’t. Once I figured out a process, I was able to carry-over those skills to new spots when I travel. It’s an ongoing experience and I’m still learning small tricks along the way.

Raw vs jpg and why?

RAW bar none. You are able to extract a lot of detail within the photo with RAW, which is later easier manipulated in post-processing for better results. Post-processing is half the work in photography these days.

What do you carry in your camera bag?

If I have a shot in mind, I carry my Sony A7R, 24-70, 14mm Samyang, an assortment of filters, and a tripod of some sort – either a table-top, a gorillapod, or a full-sized tripod. Otherwise, my compact RX100 is my daily carry.

If you could have the gift of a great photographer who would it be and why?

One of my favorite photographers is Brian Day. He has a fantastic ability to capture the moods of cityscapes, especially of his hometown of Detroit – and not in the stereotypical “abandoned” and “decay” fashion. Instead, he highlights the present life and struggles of Detroit, as opposed to focusing on the past. The consistency in his image and strong narrative is really inspiring. While I like to think my photos are consistent, I believe I can improve greatly on the story.

What is the most common mistake you see people making when shooting these days?

The desire to have the biggest and baddest camera, along with the biggest and baddest lens in order to take great photos, basically Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS). It seems many shooters, especially new photographers, crave to have the best and latest camera/lens they can afford as that’s the only way to improve their photography. While I will admit that higher tier cameras have their advantages, for example they are easier to handle and use, they are certainly not the end all and be all to capturing great photos.

What is your dream location to shoot?

Not a “location” per se, but I do want to shoot the northern lights in all its glory one day. A neat location would be the fjords of Norway.

How do you decide on where to shoot a photo?

If the opportunity comes to check out a place, I’d scope the place out for potential photos. If it’s easily accessible, I drive around, otherwise I like using google earth as it’s a great way to visualize scenes. I browse the net and magazines for potential ideas, and once I have a series of photos I hope to capture, I schedule them in order to take advantage of a certain light, weather, or in some tourist-prone areas – crowds.

When I travel, I sometimes need the help of local photographs to give me the scoop on great vantages. Some of my better photos were captured when shooting with a local photographer, like the one below.

What is next for you? Any planned adventures with your camera?

I’ve recently taken up an interest in mountaineering, I have a few trips planned next year and I’ll be sure to take my camera with me. I plan to climb the volcanoes of Mexico next.

What is your goal with your photography?

Photography is merely a personal hobby and my only creative outlet, but I do hope that my viewers admire some of the places the world has to offer, and inspire others to go explore the world for themselves.

Angel's Landing and the Narrows - Chronicles from Zion National Park by Naeem Jaffer

DSC00774-2.jpg

Snow capped Zion from my pass-through in Christmas 2014.

One of my travelling pet peeves is visiting a place more than once. Two years ago, a couple of friends and I took a road trip from Toronto down to Los Angeles and back, quickly passing through various natural wonders throughout the southwest US. One of them was Zion National Park. It was one of the most spectacular landscapes I've ever seen (close second to the Canadian Rockies - which I will visit multiple times). Sadly, we were on a tight schedule and spent no more than 3 hours in the park, which was far from enough. Zion felt like unfinished business ever since.

A good friend - Devon - expressed interest in checking out Zion, so we planned a 4-day trip to do exactly that. I was headed out west to Climb Rainier anyway, making a stop in Zion isnt as big of a deal. We booked our flights without really having a plan, nor did we reserve anything besides our rental. Our bare minimum checklist included the hiking the narrows and the vertigo-inducing scramble up Angel's Landing, anything else was at random. Of course, landscape photography was a must on my end. Zion is a place I recommend everyone to check out, simply because there's a lot of things to do, for every type of person. 

Day 1 - Arrival and Angel's Landing

The closest major city to Zion is Las Vegas. We quickly realized that it was going to be hot as we stepped out of the airport. Las Vegas was under a heat wave alert, and temperatures were forecasted above 40C for the following days. We spent the night at a hostel in Vegas, and left early the next day to drive up to Zion, roughly 2 and a half hours away.

The main gate to the park

The original plan was to camp at one of campgrounds within the Park itself. However, without any pre-planning done, we found out that the two campgrounds within the park were full. We had to scour the nearby town, Springdale and other third-party campgrounds for an available spot without much luck. Everything was sold out (Pro-tip: book a campsite well in advance!). We eventually did manage to find a campground at the east entrance of the park. The location wasn't ideal as it was on the other side of the park, and we'd have to maneuver the twisty roads in order to get to camp. Between  traffic, tunnel shutdowns, and finding a parking spot, getting to and from the camp could take up to an hour. On the bright side, the campsite was located in a great "Zion-like" setting, so it would do. it's not like we had a choice.

Camp all set-up

Camp all set-up

During the busy months of April to October, the scenic road that leads down Zion Canyon is shut down to private vehicles and is only accessible by a free shuttle run by the park service. My only complaint is that the shuttle takes too long, an hour to get to the last stop. Additionally, the shuttle does stop operating around 9:00pm, this meant that we were always on a clock to get back. If you were to get stuck in the park after dark, it's a long walk back to Springdale where we parked our car.

The Zion Shuttle Sevice, with some points of reference.

Angel's Landing from the trail head.

The original plan on the first was to hike up to Observation Point. But after we sorted a place to sleep and got a camp all set-up, it was already mid-day. This left roughly 4 to 5 hours to do something and get back before the last shuttle leaves. We quickly decided that we would hike Angel's Landing. A hike that would fit within our timeframe according to the Zion guidebook. Angels Landing is a 1,760m rock that shoots into Zion canyon offering great views. It is most famous for its sheer cliff drops on either side of the trail. The trail was marked as "strenuous", which of course meant we had to do it.

Trail gaining elevation

The trail head to Angel's Landing begins at the Grotto shuttle stop. The trail begins flat, crossing the virgin river, and slowly gains elevation. It was easy at first, but it wasn't long before we went up steep paved switchbacks. This part was a cardio workout, your heart will pump regardless of fitness level. The switchbacks were shaded from the late afternoon sun, thankfully.

A third of the way through, the trail eases into a dark canyon known as Refrigerator Canyon, it was much cooler here as it was an area that rarely received sunlight. The slot canyon was eroded over centuries by rainwater rushing through after storms. It was vegetated with full height trees and ferns growing. Past the refrigerator, the doom of steep switchbacks return, almost as intense as the first set.  We were doing fantastic time, we never stopped throughout. We wanted to stop, but we never did.

Entering Refrigerator Canyon

The view from deep within the canyon. It was much cooler here

The view from deep within the canyon. It was much cooler here

We never stopped... that is... until we got to this sign.

We got to the warning, took a break and re-energized. This is where things got fun. We saw the trail ahead of us morph from a paved path to a thin ridge with cliff drops on either side. The national park service fastened chains in order to ease this part (and prevent people from falling, d'oh). The ridge turned uphill to a false summit, then descends, then ascends again higher onto the end, eventually to the flat portion where one could rest and enjoy the views of Zion canyon.

You're pretty much scrambling with all 4 limbs at certain points on the ridge. Sometimes we'd hold on to rocks, other times we'd hold onto the chains, and it was so much fun. Despite the dangerous cliff drops and it's terrifying reputation, In my opinion, I thought the route was pretty safe. The only way someone would fall is if someone jumped off, or after doing something really reckless (as is usually the case in most accidents)

At the end of the route, we were greeted with fantastic 360 degree views of the canyon glistening in the late afternoon sun, including the ridge that we had just climbed. It took us 1 hour and 10 minutes to reach the end (this is very fast). We took plenty of photos, had snacks, and then made our way back on the same ridge for double the fun.

The view from Angel's Landing

The other way, looking towards the Temple of Sinawava

Chains to hold onto

As we descended, we could see the dreadful switchbacks we used to get up.

The trail becomes pretty evident in this photo with - as advetised - drops on either end of the trail.

In the late afternoon, Zion becomes really photogenic with the low sun bringing out all the colors and creating many shadows. We stopped many times to snap photos.

Google "top things to do in Zion", and Angel's Landing unanimously scores top spot. This is a 5-star trail and i highly recommend it if you happen to be in the area.

Day 2 - Observation Point

For a really hot place, the park gets really cool at night. Our campsite was at a higher elevation than the rest of the park, so i wonder if that had anything to do with it. My guess? It was probably a low of 10 or 15 C at night.

We had much more time during this time around, and the plan was to complete the Observation Point trail in the late afternoon. Until then, we killed the morning by hiking the popular Canyon Overlook trail. The trail was an interesting easy-rated hike that overlooks the east canyon, starting off with steps carved on to rock, then walking along the top edge of a slot canyon and through interesting rock formations until you reach the end of the trail. At the end, hikers were greeted with panoramic views of the canyon (hence, canyon overlook, duh). The hike took no more than an hour to complete round trip.

I don't know the name of the slot canyon at the bottom of the photo, but we could hear the voices of canyoneers echo out.

The view from Canyon Overlook with the Zion-Mount Carmel highway carving through the landscape. It doesn't look all that impressive in the harsh daylight, so I do wish I took this photo at night, but we didn't have the time.

The most strenuous trail in Zion is Observation Point with the highest elevation gain. The National park guide said that it usually takes 5 to 6 hours, so we packed as much water as we could (3L in my case) and set off immediately after lunch. Like Angel's Landing, the shuttle is required to access the trailhead stopping at "Weeping Rock".

Customary Disclaimer

This was the only shade we got on the way up

The observation point trail is 50% taller in height relative to Angel's landing, visible on the other side of the canyon, so I used the landing as a gauge to how far and high into the hike we were. The first thing that became apparent is that the sun would be mercilessly beating down on us the entire time. The trail had no shade cover with few places to hide. Immediately as we started the hike, the trail turned into steep switchbacks similar to that of the day before. It didn't take long for us to sweat profusely. The first stretch took us roughly half an hour to get through before it flattened out into a dark dried-up slot canyon providing some shade from the sun, it was only a few minutes of shade before the trail returned to steep switchbacks under the sun. It was a great cardio workout. I thought it was considerably more work than the angel's landing hike since it was longer in length and height. The sun didn't make things pleasant at all. God damn, it was hot. We've later come to learn that temperatures that day were in the low 40s.  With all the sweat and heat, I was getting concerned that we would run out of water. It was tempting to just chug the cool water, but I had to pace it to make sure I had enough till the end. The bright colored rocks reflected heat back at us making matters worse. But we kept on keeping on.

If you do decide to hike this trail, I recommend doing so in the early morning hours. You'd be protected from the sun by the Canyon's shadows.

The higher we got, the first set of switchbacks at the trailhead can be seen

As we gained altitude approaching the top of Zion canyon, the trail skirts the edge of a flat topped mountain (with a considerable drop).  It was pretty vegetated, almost as if Zion was once upon a time a really flat forest, and rivers and streams simply eroded the sandstone to form gigantic canyons over millions of years down the desert valley. I didn't read up on the history, I'm pretty sure this is exactly what happened.

The flat fields of Zion

The USGS marker at Observation Point

The trail at the top is flat but much longer than I anticipated. Eventually, we got to end; on the edge of a cliff with views down the length of Zion Canyon. It wasn't the hardest hike, but I'll admit the heat made this hike unpleasant. I forgot to mention, I had chili the previous day, which made me feel queezy in the heat. In retrospect, that was a bad idea.

All that effort for this view; the Angel's Landing ridgeline can be seen on the bottom right.

I can't say it enough. It was hot as hell.

What goes up must come down, and the hike down the trail wasn't any better either. We were descending pretty fast, and it was pretty hard on my feet. My feet blistered. Despite the sun getting lower, the heat never eased off. I was pretty happy when I saw the shuttle stop. The heat kicked my ass.

 

This part of the park is known as the east Rim, roughly 

Momentary relief from the sun

Colors of Zion

Getting close to the shuttle

We took the long shuttle ride back to the car, and crossed the park to get to our camp. It took us a while to get the fire going which made it pretty dark (thx to the damp wood). The stars were looking good from camp. I didn't bring an ultra-wide lens with me simply to save weight, so I was hesitant to take a milky way photo without that lens. But Devon convinced me to take a photo of it. Good Call.

The milky way as seen from our campsite.

The milky way as seen from our campsite.

Day 3 - The Narrows

No trip to Zion is complete without a hike through the Narrows. The Narrows is a hike into the deep slot canyon that was and is still being carved by the Virgin river. 2016 was an unusual year in that the area received a lot of snow, and the river was swollen from snow melt. Technically, this was day 4 as we spent our third 3 in Arches National Park, but it was our third day in Zion

There are 3 ways to hike the narrows including; 2-day top-down, 1-day top-down, and bottom-up. The first two requiring backcountry permits. Due to time, we couldn't get a permit, so we resorted the bottom-up method. The quickest way to get the narrowest and most scenic part of the canyon, known as Wall Street (and the part I really wanted to see)

The narrows from the bottom-up is open to the public when river levels drop below 150 CFS. In 2016, this happened mid-may (which is late).  When we arrived at Zion, the water level was 100 CFS. In order to get the lowest water level, we decided to do the narrows last on our trip, when the river level was measured at 89 CFS.

5.10 canyoneers, and double drybags for camera protection.

There are many outfitters for canyoneering rental equipment in Springdale. We checked out one and found the water temperature to be a chilly 11C. Despite the cold temps, they did not recommend a dry suit. They did however suggest neoprene socks along with 5.10 canyoneer shoes. We rented those, a walking stick was included. We later realized that many people do the narrows with regular running shoes and didn't bother renting the boots or neoprene socks Walking in the narrows involves walking over slick rocks, twisting an ankle is possible. I didn't want to chance that, especially with my Rainier climb coming up, so I found the 5.10 canyoneer shoes extremely useful. They have sticky rubber soles that provided a lot of traction and have ankle support.

The bottom-up route starts at the last shuttle stop deep within Zion Canyon, at the Temple of SInawava. The trail starts on a well-paved trail called Riverside walk which lasted about 15 minutes. Eventually, the trail ends, and the river itself becomes the trail.

They said the water would be cold, but it doesn't hit you until you step into the river. As the boots fill with water, it felt like walking in water balloons. The canyon was pretty crowded at the trailhead as families and children enjoyed the river. We saw quite a few people tubing down the river, and with the amount of water in the river, this is actually a great idea (I will do this if i ever do the narrows again).

With every twist of the river, the canyon gets narrower and taller. roughly one hour in, we get to the point where the canyon splits into a Y. The left continues toward the narrows canyon, the right leads towards a smaller slot canyon known as Orderville Canyon. Orderville looked dry, and small, and I was more interested in Wall Street. We veered left, and almost immediately, it became apparent we were in wall street. The canyon was really narrow, water wall-to-wall with no dry ground, the height of the canyon made it dark and gloomy. I'm not sure if it was normal for wall street, but this particular section funneled the wind well, it was windy, making it slightly chilly (on top of cold water), with sand particles hitting your eyeballs.

Map of the "bottom-up" narrows route, showing the canyon split. We went left.

The canyon is actually fairly crowded up until the split.It's not very clear in this photo, but Orderville canyon offshoots to the left (where the beige top hat is)

The water was high enough that you can't see the river bed. It was also murky making every step uncertain. Wall Street - to be honest - was actually far shorter than I expected as we got to dry areas. We made phenomenal time by this point, so we figured we might as well keep going. After crossing a brief patch of the canyon where it opened up, we got to the "boulder", a landmark on the hike, and once again, the canyon got narrow and dark. The stretch after the boulder was also wall-to-wall water with no high ground, this isn't reflected on the map, but perhaps it's seasonal. We were hiking through higher than usual water levels after all.

This is Wall Street. Human for scale

Myself at the boulder (just behind me)

The boulder

The part after the boulder was the best part in my opinion. It wasn't as tall as wall street, but the canyon didnt extend straight up either, so sunlight barely made it through. It was dark, it was cold, and it was a stark contrast to the bright, hot, and sunny days we've seen in zion so far.

Devon continuing up the Narrows. What sun?

The darkest part of the canyon

We had to return our rental gear by 7pm, we felt rushed. After passing the "gurgling" noise (see map above), we continued up further to another relatively open space. We figured we've seen enough of the canyon at this point, and it was time to head back. We were a little surprised by how deep into the canyon we've hiked, we moved fast, and we covered a lot of ground. Regardless we were told by the locals that it takes 8 to 10 hours to complete the bottom-up hike all the way to big springs and back. We did it 4 hours round trip (turning around just before Big springs). 

As we got to our car and drove through park to our campsite, we stopped to get one more photo from the most photographed spot in the park, the Canyon Junction Bridge.

Sunset from Canyon Junction.

Sunset from Canyon Junction.

All in all, the park delivered. While we did the more strenious activites in the park,  Zion has something for everyone; whether you want to hike, swim, climb, camp, photograph, or simply watch the sun change the colors of the canyon.

Ascending Big Tahoma - Mt. Rainier Trip Report by Naeem Jaffer

Mount Rainier, Big Tahoma, or Tacoma as seen from Columbia Center, Downtown Seattle. This was the first photo I took of the mountain with a Lentincular cloud over it, which usually means a storm is incoming.

At 4,392m (14,411 ft), Mount Rainier is the most prominent and glaciated mountain in the lower 48. Climbing Rainier is considered a mountaineering achievement and is the aspiration of many - from experienced climbers who use it as a training ground for larger Himalayan summits (or Denali), to people that never climbed a glaciated peak before. I'm the latter, and I thought I'd share my experiences from my guided climb so that other novices can have an idea what to expect.

I climbed and successfully summited Rainier on June 12, 2016. Aside from sport climbing in Ontario's gyms with a slight dabble outdoors, my climbing experience merely included climbing Kilimanjaro on September 2015 - and let's be honest - Kilimanjaro's hardly considered "climbing". I wanted to do something even higher, harder, and more technical, and with great heights come ice and snow, and that was an avenue I truly have no experience in. Living in a flat land doesn't help. That's why I signed up for Rainier with an experienced guide service. It was a prominent glaciated peak, close to home, many people seem to do it, and many world class guide services are based there offering a crash course in glacial travel and self-arrest - All in all, Rainier was the next best stepping stone. Of course, there are other options in the region, like Baker, or Adams, even Shasta in California, but I have a simple motto, Go big or go home.

The normal "Disappointment Cleaver" route to the summit of Rainier. Credit to RMI Guides for the schematic.

There are many routes up Rainier, ranging in difficulty from easy to hard. The normal and most straightforward route to the summit is via Disappointment cleaver and is used by 90% of climbers attempting Rainier. I tried finding some history as to why it's called Disappointment cleaver, but if I recall, it has to do with a group who got to the top of the cleaver in white-out conditions thinking they summited, only later realizing they were far off. Hence, the disappointment.

There are 3 guide services authorized to guide on Rainier. RMI, Alpine Ascents International, and International Mountain Guides. Each one of them are major reputed guiding services offering expeditions around the world including Himalayan and Antartic peaks. I picked RMI simply because they offer far more climbs than the rest. They also had a huge impact on mountaineering history, which earned some brownie points with me.

Training

The Guides say that "you must be in the best shape of your life", which sadly isn't much advice. I need some sort of a benchmark. Prior to Rainier, the extent of my workouts involved 30-40 minutes of cardio 5 days a week, mixed with medium weight strength training 4-5 times a week. This was fine for Kilimanjaro, but after gathering more from the interwebs, this actually wasn't enough for anything beyond that. The kicker being able to carry heavy backpacks for long periods of time. So as my rainier trip got closer, I shifted my workout routine to include hikes with heavy packs, and I shifted my cardio between boxing and muay thai to get a higher intensity session.

6 to 3 months out: 30-40 minutes of cardio (Stairmaster/elliptical/rower), 4 days of weight training, 3 days Rock Climbing

2 to 1 month out: Alternative between Boxing/Muay Thai (Dynamic and HIIT) and Rock Climbing (Static and Balance) with intermittent weight training, 6-hour hikes with 45lb every few weeks. Closer to my trip, my routine was as follows:

  • Monday: Chest and Back (1 hour)
  • Tuesday: Boxing + Muay Thai (2.5 hours)
  • Wednesday: Rock Climbing (2-3 hours)
  • Thursday: Boxing + Muay Thai (2.5 hours)
  • Friday: Rock Climbing (2-3 Hours)
  • Saturday: Boxing + Shoulders and Arms (2 hours)
  • Sunday: Rock climbing or 6-hour hike with heavy pack

I've never had a training regimen this diversified. If this doesn't take me up Rainier and beyond, I don't know what will. Was it enough? Without reading this entire post, yes it was. I was more than physically able to climb and I had fun doing so. (The last two hours to Paradise destroyed me however...) 

Gear

Tools of the trade

As my first glacial/snow climb, I needed to get a lot of gear. Fortunately, I was able to re-use everything I had for Kilimanjaro. I didn't have technical gear, such as an ice axe, mountaineering boots, and crampons. Buying all these are major expenses, and instead of forking out major cash on the boots (which can run upwards of $1,000), I thought I'd rent a pair. I bought an ice axe since its affordable, and I rented an expedition grade parka, mitts and a winter sleeping bag - Items I could simply not justify buying. It should be noted that the rental equipment was in top notch quality and very clean, in fact almost brand new, carrying the best brands in the business such as Arcteryx and Mountain Hardwear. My rent list is as follows:

  • Down sleeping bag (Rated for 20F) - Because I can't justify the price tag, I liked how this packed really small. The specific model was the North Face Cat's Meow
  • Plastic Double Boots - These were massive, heavy, and have no flexibility. According to the experts, I also had to size these one size larger (I wear 12, but had to pick up a size 13), so they were pretty loose. The exact model was Koflach Degre
  • Crampons - Standard black diamond strap-on sort, I was confused why they didn't opt for clip-on types, but they later explained that the guides do not trust the clip-on types for whichever reason. Pretty sure these were Black Diamond Contacts
  • Avalanche Transceiver - Depending on route conditions and which guide you get, this may be mandatory to climb rainier, it was in my case
  • Expedition Parka - This is only to be used during breaks, a storm or under really cold conditions. Exact model was Mountain Hardwear Nilas. I actually really liked this one, I might get one =D 
  • Expedition Mittens - Used similar to the parka, but also works in case a glove is lost. I don't recall the exact model, but they were Marmot down mittens.

Arrival

When I arrived in Seattle, it was a glorious sunny day. Everyone was complaining that it was hot at 20C. I thought it was chilly, but it just goes to show how grim the weather in the PNW can get. Rainier was visible from the airport, and it looked scary. It was so tall and imposing with steep snow slopes, a lenticular cloud forming over it. I will admit this is where I got a little anxious. What did I sign up for?!

Before heading up to Rainier, I decided to stay in Seattle for 2 days to shoot the city. I love cityscapes after all (if that wasn't already obvious), I met Tosin, a local and great photographer, to show me around and shoot unique vantages (thanks!). I checked into a hostel, and immediately checked the weather on Rainier, and it looked morbid. The forecast called for heavy snows and very cold temperatures for the days of my climb. Now... I do realize that the guides go for a summit attempt regardless of the weather as long as the route is safe, but going up a big, glaciated and crevassed mountain under less-than-ideal circumstances was a little nerveracking.

Rainier looms over Seattle in the background as a storm moves in.

On my second day in seattle, my anxiety forced me to check the weather often, and it improved! The forecast now calls for less snow and slightly warmer temps! I was put a little at ease.

Drive to Ashford

Rainier is about 2 hours away from Seattle. I picked up my car rental, stopped by REI to pick up snacks and energy bars, and headed to Ashford, the home base for RMI Expeditions and our de-facto basecamp. It was well outfitted with a gear shop, a rental shop, an office, a cafe, a bunkhouse, and the basecamp grill where you can have tasty burgers and pizza. Being my anxious self, I check the weather again to find it fantastic for my summit bid! In fact, the best weather conditions of the week! I was thrilled and now excited!

REI, It's like MEC, but better.

Whittaker's Bunkhouse, at Rainier Basecamp.

It was pouring and much cooler when I arrived in Ashford - the car thermometer read 55F (12C). The cloud level seemed really low and light grey, who knew what it was like above the clouds? There wasn't much to do at basecamp other than eat and rest, so I picked up my rental gear.

Wandering around, a team attempting the summit earlier in the day returned, they looked wet and beat-up. They were led by world famous Dave Hahn, the man with the most non-sherpa summits of Mount Everest at 15. They did not summit due to high winds at 12,800ft. If a guy like Dave Hahn had to turn around, the conditions up there must've been brutal. I was optimistic, bad weather can only get better, we only hoped that it got nice for our bid.

Basecamp has a lot of history. In the RMI lounge "mountain haus", trophy flags were hung, Dave Hahn with his trophies, Ed Viesturs, the first and only American to climb all 14 8,000m peaks, and Jim Whittaker (whose twin brother, also a mountaineer, founded RMI), the first American to summit Everest. These are massive names in mountaineering history. Photos of historical feats and old equipment and clothing lined the walls. In the back of the compound was a guide memorial for those that lost their lives. There was no doubt that I was among legends in American mountaineering.

Our orientation started in the afternoon, it was pouring rain. We met two of the main guides, Mike who climbs in the Americas, and Zeb who just returned from a successful summit of Everest via the North Col. We slowly meet the members of the team. There were 16 climbers in total that were split into two groups of 8. Each group had 3 guides. Mike, who just returned from Denali looked after our group. The guides walked through every piece of gear and clothing and made sure they were adequate, from layering to technical gear and we were then shown a slideshow giving a quick synopsis of the climb. They addressed any questions or concerns that we might have had.

Mountaineering School

It stopped raining when I woke up on my second day in Ashford. I had a large breakfast, and we headed up the lower slopes of Rainier for Snow school where we'd be taught techniques for efficient and safe climbing. It was a simple class, but very informative. We were taught how to ascend snow, how to descend, the roles of the axe as a support and self-arrest tool, and the basics of roped glacier travel. We got to practice each and every one of our techniques that would be needed on the mountain. It was a very useful class, and I learnt a lot.

The guides teach us how to climb a mountain.

The weather throughout the class was spotty, clouds were rolling in bringing in whiteout conditions, then we'd have warm sunny breaks. It was a constant change of temperatures, but it didn't really bother me. During class, we got word that for the second time in a row, climbers have not been able to reach the summit. They got a 1000ft higher than the previous day (which is really close to summit), but got turned around due to strong winds.

I checked the weather again for my climbing days - and so far so good. It will be cold, but the skies will be clear, and winds won't be as harsh. Back at camp, I packed my bag with all clothing, gear, water, food, and snacks, and it was really heavy (50lbs?). Based on how much I ate and drank during snow school, I got a little concerned that I may have been a little under prepared for the climb. I took no chances, I went out and bought more (and I finished it all on the climb)

To everyone who thought I was joking about taking Pizza up the mountain, I wasn't. It tastes good, doesnt take up much space, filled with calories, and can be eaten cold. BBQ chicken is the way to go.

My snack pile and believe it or not, I finished all of this on the climb. I didn't do the math, but it's obviously a lot of calories. The energy gels work wonders!

As a photographer, one of the main things I struggled with is whether I was to bring my larger camera or not (Sony A7R). But after packing my bag, I decided to leave it behind and take my trusty point and shoot (Sony RX100) that can fit in my small chest pocket above my harness. In these types of climbs, every ounce matters. The bag was already very heavy as is, and I really didn't want to add any more weight. I also took a GoPro, but those things barely weigh anything anyways.  In fact, every photo on this post was taken with the RX100. It's a fantastic camera for its ultra-compact size.

Hike to Camp Muir

Elevation profile of the climb, credit to RMI expeditions for the graph

Elevation profile of the climb, credit to RMI expeditions for the graph

This is the big day, it's raining outside, with so many things to pack. I double checked my gear and made sure I had enough food and snacks. Gear, clothing, sleeping bag, and food all in my 75L pack. The bag was heavy, but no biggie, that's what I trained for. I headed over to the cafe for breakfast and met Mike. He mentioned that there was snow at Paradise - a parking lot with a large visitor center at the base of the mountain catered to tourists, but is also the starting point of our climb.

The best climbing months are July and August, but these climbs sell out days after releiase. I had a choice to either climb in June or August. I decided to climb Rainier in June purposely as there would be more snow on the mountain. More snow meant it would be harder, and I'd learn more (I don't want it too easy). Albeit, snow at Paradise is extremely unusual at this time of year. In fact, it's been one of the snowiest summers. There has been so much snow that much of the crevasses remained covered, and the guides have yet to install 1 ladder over a crevasse. I'm not sure what's better, walking over a hidden crevasse field, or walking over ladders knowing exactly where they all are - that's part of the experience I suppose. I knew the weather would be a major risk in booking a climb this early, but I thought I'd gamble anyway. 

We packed up the shuttle to take us to Paradise (6,000 ft). The shuttle ride was longer than I expected, taking approximately an hour as the road twists up the forested base of the mountain, but it wasn't long into the drive until we came across a snow-capped landscape. We arrived at Paradise where there was a good 3" of snow cover. We unloaded the bus, pulled out our ski poles, filled our water bottles (which made our heavy packs even heavier) and began our hike to Camp Muir, located at 10,000ft.

The scene at Paradise, the start of the climb at an elevation of 6000 ft

Under normal circumstances, there is actually a paved trail lined with wildflowers that takes you about half way up to Camp Muir, which then later transitions into a snow hike on the Muir snowfield. But there was nothing normal this season, there was no trail at all as it was completely buried under snow. I didn't mind that at all because mountaineering boots are extremely uncomfortable, they have rigid soles and do not flex, so while they work great on snow, they are absolute hell on solid ground. If you haven't worn mountaineering boots, its akin to walking around town in ski-boots.

We started our hike, and things got messy fast. It started snowing with often transitions to sleet. There was a good 6" of snow on the ground making the hike a little tough. But as we've learnt from snow school, walk on footsteps already created by hikers ahead of you, making things easier. The weather was getting worse, the snow was getting heavier. We'd take a break every hour, and by the second break, the weather coupled with our heavy packs started to take a toll. We were told from people descending that the cloud level was at 8,500ft.

What the hike pretty much looked like.

After the second break, everyone was silent as we worked up the snowfield, this was taking more effort than most were expecting, especially with really heavy packs. We passed 8,500ft, and we were still getting snowed on. As the day goes by, clouds warm up and rise. I figure we will probably be in this mess till the bitter end. At the third break, we got word that the team attempting the summit had to turn around really early due to poor route conditions. This would make it 3 consecutive days of unsuccessful attempts.

Our third break. Cold, windy, snowy.

The higher up we went, the more snow we had to plow through. In the last stretch, we were hiking through a foot of snow. It was getting hard, shoulders started to hurt. I didn't complain, in some ways I even enjoyed it.

We could tell that we were nearing the cloud level, sunlight would pierce through teasing us every so often. After about a 4-hour grind, we got to camp Muir, and it was barely over the clouds. The lighting was surreal as the afternoon sun lit clouds brushing over camp with frequent dustings of snow.

Climbers slowly arrive to camp from the snows below

We immediately huddled in the hut that the guides built for their clients. It was a small hut with exactly 18 padded bunks, a table, and a light. Camp had self-composting washrooms, which was a great relief (because if it didn't, we'd have to poop in blue bags, and carry it back with us). Drinking water was made from melting snow, so it was forbidden to urinate on the snow in the vicinity. We hung our clothes to dry and had dinner. Around 7pm, the guides gave us a thorough briefing. They seemed cautiously optimistic that the weather would cooperate for the climb. However, they expressed a little concern that with great weather and warmer temperatures after a snowfall, there was potential for avalanches, which may force us to turn around. Since no one has been able to summit and observe snow conditions for the past few days, they could not make the call until they saw the route for themselves. Around 7pm, we were ready to sleep.

Camp Muir barely over the clouds. the building on the far left is the bunkhouse for guided trips. The crouched man is over the climbing ranger hut. The pyramid structure in the middle is the hut for guides, fitted with solar panels to power the huts.

The Summit Bid

I actually managed to get some sleep. The hut was tiny, and with 16 people, it got warm fast. It was too hot to use the sleeping bag which I had to adandon. I must've passed out around 8pm and I woke up at  11:30pm. I figure 3.5 hours was a decent amount of sleep which is more than most people got. I was excited, there was no way I can go back to sleep. I laid there for another hour before the guides rolled in at 12:30am to wake us up. It was show time.

The guides informed us that it was a clear starry night, it was cold, but no winds. All systems go, we were ready to climb. Within 1 hour, we got up, dressed up, had breakfast, packed our bags, and donned our harnesses and crampons. Avalanche transceivers were turned on and we were set. We started our climb on the glacier to see many climbers already well ahead of us, headlights bobbing far in the distance.

The guides split us into roped teams. My guide was Jenn, and I was partnered with Andrew and Eric from the "Boston crew". We started moving exactly at 1:30am. The first part of the climb involves traversing the Cowlitz glacier crossing the cathedral gap leading onto the Ingraham Glacier. This part was pretty straight forward. There were a few steep bits, but we were well rested and made through this stretch fairly easily.

Our first rest stop was Ingraham Flats. As the name implies, a flat concave portion of the Ingraham glacier that sees little movement, and as such is a safe spot to rest. Our first break was about an hour into the climb.

First things first when you take a rest, "take care of yourselves" the guides instruct. I pull out my parka, and I start eating a snickers bar and some energy gels. I knew altitude will eventually be the name of the game, so I drank half a liter of water and vowed to drink that much at every break. I could make out the faint outline of disappointment cleaver. There were already climbers on there, and wow, it was steep! If I had to guess, it was easily about 60 degrees.

We continue on the Ingraham glacier. It wasn't long before the entire line of climbers were stopped by the sound of a really loud crack. There was a brief moment of silence before a really loud roar of crashing ice and snow. To best describe it, it sounded like the noise a plane makes when it engages the airbrakes immediately after landing. It was an avalanche, and it sounded (and felt) like a massive domino of ice falling, crashing, and then breaking apart. It felt uncomfortably close. All the headlamps focused on the area the sound came from between where we were standing and cleaver. The puny headlamps were too weak to light up the face of the mountain, but It's as if we were all waiting for something to come crashing down on us, but nothing ever did. It went silent for a few moments, and I asked Mike about 5 climbers in front of me "What was that?!", and he responds "Icefall". Everyone stood confused, unsure about what happens next. A moment of silence passes, and mike instructs "Alright, let's keep going!". 

Teams cross under the icefall one at a time, and we were next. We moved under it swiftly. Alpine ascents are made in the early hours of the morning as that's when the snow is most stable and weather is most calm, minimizing any avalanche hazard and making the climb easier. But the fact that an avalanche still occurred at 2am made me question the snow condition on the upper slopes, but I thought I'd let the pros worry about that.

We got to the base of the cleaver, and we moved to a short rope formation, reducing the distance between climbers making things safer. The cleaver is described to be the crux of the route and takes about an hour and 45 minutes to complete. It was covered in a good amount of snow from the previous storm. The rock quality was horrible, it was brittle, and rock fall is a major hazard not only for us but also for climbers below.

A short break on top of the cleaver watching the sunrise

Disappointment cleaver was definitely steep, and even though it's considered the hard part of the climb, I thought it was very manageable. What makes it "hard" in my opinion, it that it's a really sketchy climb with many objective hazards, but the climbing itself isn't difficult - At least I didn't think so. We eventually took a break at the top of the cleaver, with orange outlining the horizon (if I had to guess, it was around 4am?). We no longer needed headlamps. It was really cold, and I couldn't wait for the sun to come out and warm us up a bit. Many in the group started to complain of headaches, a symptom of altitude. I on the other hand, felt great.

Looking up at the mountain there were two teams ahead of us. We still didn't know what the conditions of the snow was, whether it was stable enough for a bid to the summit. The conditions seemed fine up until now, so the guides decided to wait till high camp.

Two groups ahead of us make their summit bids on the Emmons Glacier

The stretch from the clever onward was hard as altitude started taking a toll. The climb was purely on snow over the Emmons glacier. We were not to see another rock until we hit the crater rim. Some slopes were above what we called "man-eating" crevasses. There's no time to react in the event of a slip or fall over these crevasses, so the guides placed snow anchors and we'd clip the rope to the anchor to catch us in the event of a fall.

Mount Adams making it's presence known

It was such a grind, it wasn't the hardest thing I've done, but it was tough as we navigated the switchbacks slowly up the mountain. We couldn't stop, the guide sets the pace, and we were all roped up, making stopping a little dangerous. Taking a break at will was not an option. Step, step, ice axe, step, step, ice axe, and repeat. It was tiring, it made my heart race. Effects of altitude started kicking in, and I'd pressure breathe every so often (it helped a lot). As tough as it was, I handled it really well. A little over an hour, we were relieved to reach our next break - “high break” - and our last stop before our summit bid.

The view from high break. Rainier is also known as Big Tahoma. The peak in the middle of this photo is Little Tahoma

High Break

The sunrise was amazing, and we instantly put on sunglasses and sunscreen. We ate and rehydrated. I was glad I had no altitude symptoms at all. I was doing really well. The last stretch had a lot of snow, in some parts up to 2 feet deep. It was unclear whether the stretch to the summit was safe as we watched teams ahead of us make their attempt. The guides made the call and deemed the snow safe. Soft snow coated the mountain, and while there was still an avalanche hazard, the avalanche would be soft and powdery, versus a hard slab avalanche where large chunks of ice and boulders of snow could come tumbling down. Mike makes the call “Alright guys, we’re going to go for the summit!”. I took my last sips of water.

The final stretch to the summit was really hard. it was such a monotonous grind against altitude. The air was thin, breathing was difficult. Feeling borderline nauseous, we were essentially moving like zombies, barely holding onto the slope and keeping balance. The upper slopes had no sign of any rock; It was all snow. It took an hour and a half non-stop - a purely mental game of putting one foot in front of another. You want to stop and rest, even for 10 seconds, but you can’t. No words can really explain this bit, but believe me, it was hard. We catch a glimpse of some rock, we must be close! Adrenaline pumps, and it wasn’t long before we finally reached the top. We all took cover from the wind in the snow-filled crater. The final 200-300 vertical feet was extremely exhausting, it sucked, and it was fantastic.

The first sign of rock. The crater rim, and the Summit of Rainier

The first sign of rock. The crater rim, and the Summit of Rainier

A round of congratulations

Successful Summit!

Summiting volcanoes means climbing to the crater rim which 14 out of 16 of us did (2 turned around further down). The true summit “Columbia crest” was a walk further up the crater which would take a 40 minute round trip. Now, I’ve viewed photos from the true summit before, and I know it’s nothing impressive at all (actually, the views are rather horrible). So I made the call to not go to the true summit. Descents in mountaineering is the most dangerous part. Gravity is working against you for traction, and many climbers get too tired for the way down, allowing mistakes to happen. Knowing how steep the way up was, I wanted to be refreshed for the way down, and decided to rest, re-energize, and enjoy the better views from the crater rim instead.

From the rim’s edge, you can see most of the major cascade volcanoes, Adams, Baker, Hood, St Helen’s with its blown off top from the 1980 eruption, even Jefferson 250km away was barely visible. It was really cold - based on previous forecasts the summit was -18C. Despite that, we were amazed at how nice the weather was, it wasn’t windy, and we had clear skies throughout. But it was cold, even with parkas we had a tough time keeping warm. We stayed on the summit for 45 minutes before making our way down. I tried to capture some GoPro footage of the ascent. But first it was too dark, then when the sun rose it was simply too cold that the batteries simply gave up.

From left to right, Mount Adams, Mount Hood, with Mount Jefferson barely visible (just to the right of Hood, in the far far distance). Note the slight curvature of the planet.

This was a GPS path of the disappointment cleaver route created by the climbing rangers on the exact day of my climb (June 12, 2016). I added my notes and the route to paradise for context. Xs mark where we took breaks.

The Descent

Guides lead the roped team while ascending, however during the descent; the guides are last on the rope as it’s the best position to catch a fall. Breathing becomes easier the lower you get, yet knees and legs work a lot harder during the descent. It is well known that most people underestimate the energy required to come down.

We applied tips we learnt from class, ensure all crampon points make contact, nose over toes, and use the ice axe for extra support. It wasn’t hard to be honest, but it was definitely a task that needed to be surefooted. We were quick descending the upper slopes, we became masters clipping into the anchors. It was bright, and we finally got to see what we had climbed. All the crevasses became clear, they were huge. In the areas that we had to be careful and clip into anchors, we could see why. Massive crevasses lined the bottom of the slopes; you can’t even see the bottom of the crevasse as it hides beneath the slope of the mountain.

The other team making their way down to the top of the cleaver

The other team making their way down to the top of the cleaver

We did so well that we managed to get back to the top of the cleaver without stopping for a break; it took us about an hour. The sun started to heat us up, my GoPro batteries came alive! Time to hit the record button. We took a good rest before we descend the cleaver, the hardest part. Like the ascent, we had to short rope on the cleaver for the way down. You really need to be careful descending the cleaver, not only it is steep (on fresh snow), there is plenty of loose rock mixed in with the snow. There is a real slipping, falling, and rock fall hazard on this part. Short roping helped a lot. Just when you’re about to lose your footing and take a slip, the rope tenses with the body weight of the person behind you, giving you a little tug enough to keep your balance and prevent you from falling. For rock climbers, It’s very similar to how toproping can give you just a little tug to complete a move. If the guy in front of me takes a slip, I’d lean back tensioning the rope pulling him back. It was neat, and I learnt something cool that day.

During the descent, we knocked down lots of tiny rocks (it’s unavoidable). So we had to make intermittent stops allowing teams below us to safely pass ensuring a rock doesn't come down flying their way. The stops were a gift and a curse, it was great to not move for a change, but resting while standing on a steep slope actually took more effort than I would have liked. Teams took turns with the stop-and-go routine in order to make sure everyone was in the clear. Once we were past the cleaver, we switched to regular glacial travel formation (with the guide in front), and continued back to the Ingraham flats, our last break.

This is easily one of my favorite photos from the climb. This was taken while we paused at the bottom of the cleaver allowing a team above us to cross a rocky section of the cleaver. A team of climbers navigate the heavily crevassed Ingraham glacier under the Ice Fall. The Ice Fall on the far top right is where the avalanche happened during the ascent. How big was it? I do not know. According to Mike, despite the loud noise, the avalanche was really far. Humans for scale.

Mike gives us our last briefing before we head back to camp

Descending the cleaver not only took way longer than I thought, it was also mentally and physically draining. We were really exhausted at this point, even that being an understatement. I felt great, don’t get me wrong, I was exhausted as much as the next guy, but I thoroughly enjoyed the climb up till now. Our guides let us enjoy a longer-than-usual break. We had one more technical stretch to do, and we were back at camp. Our guides give us a briefing of what should happen when we got back. During the briefing, we reflected just how lucky we got with the weather. 3 days of miserable rains and snow, and being welcomed with the perfect summit day. Looking back at the mountain, a lenticular cloud was already over the summit, and clouds were starting to rise above the mountain. We really lucked out with the weather.

Andrew posing with a lenticular cloud over Rainier

I’ve come to notice this the more I do trips like these; the closer you are to the end, the more your body tends to give out. I’m sure it’s psychological. Your body doesn’t have to work so hard anymore because you know you’re nearing the end, making the last stretch to camp absolutely painful. It was technically easy with a small steep descent at Cathedral Gap (which by the way we had no recollection of doing because we did it in the dark), but the weight of the heavy boots and climbing all day really took it's toll. We were so happy when we saw the huts at camp.

It was 1:30pm when we were back camp, which by this point our climb took exactly 12 hours. We had to spend exactly 1 hour at camp to pack all our items (i.e. sleeping bag, garbage, etc…) and dress down for the hike back to Paradise. We quickly packed our things and removed all technical gear. It was getting warm, especially with the sun reflecting off the snow that we were down to just wearing just 1 layer top and bottom.

On the previous day, we barely got a view from Camp Muir, but on the descent, Adams was clearly visible.

I assumed the last stretch to Paradise would be easy, and I was very, very wrong. Remember the snowstorm from the previous day dumping a foot of snow on the snowfield? Well… now I have to descend through that, my legs as functional as jelly. The hike down to Paradise was brutal. Absolutely brutal. Climbers from the Washington area who got to train on this very same trail every so often flew down the slope. Me? I never got to train 4000ft downhill on a foot of snow. My legs were exhausted hurting trying to take every step down. It hurt if i moved, and if I paused to rest, my legs would shiver like Elvis from sheer exhaustion. My feet were wet, the bottoms of my feet starting to feel raw and blister. The bright sun made it really hot. The lower we got, the sun started melting off the top layers of snow, making it slushy and slippery and even harder. It was an unpleasant grind, and it took me well over 2 hours to get to the very bottom to Paradise from Camp Miur, and it was BY FAR the worst and most miserable part of the trip.

Half-way down to Paradise, this was the last photo I took of Rainier before it got engulfed by clouds.

It was nice sitting on a cushioned bus seat, even if it was tight and a long ride back to base camp.

How did it compare to Kilimanjaro? Even though Rainier is 5000ft shorter, mentally, it was equally challenging. Altitude isn't so much about elevation, but rate of ascent. Getting up to 14,000ft in a matter of 48 hours is not easy. Physically, Rainier is far more demanding. The environment is harsh and hostile with slippery surfaces and legitimate falling hazards, focusing and balancing on the climb is constant. There are also no porters on Rainier, you have to haul everything yourself (the bright side is you don't need a tent). There are no cooks, and your meals wont be ready when you get to camp, no one is going to feed you. The guides are simply there to guide and mitigate risks, they do provide some nice luxuries (like the hut and boiling water), but everything else is on you.

We had one last pow-wow at basecamp where the team and guides shared some anecdotes, exchanged emails and phone numbers, and handed out summit certificates.  Mike reiterated how well the climb played out for us, and it's something that doesn't always happen. He had just returned from unsuccessful attempt on Denali where his team spent 3 weeks battling poor weather and had to forfeit after they ran out of food, fuel, and supplies. The truth is, not everyone gets to summit, as we've seen with attempts on the 3 previous days before ours. It would really have sucked to not make it, especially for me who traveled across the continent to climb this mountain. I've met many like myself at basecamp who came all this way and trained so hard for an unsuccessful attempt.

But that's the reality, and it could have easily been our team that had to deal with horrible conditions. To end the trip (and effectively this blog post), Mike quoted something that his father used to say often, and it applies well to playing in the big mountains:

"Sometimes you eat the bear, but sometimes the bear eats you"

It should go without saying, but I have to, Special thanks to our Guides (and RMI) for the lessons, fun times, great climb, and having our backs.

To the Roof of Africa - Kilimanjaro Trip Report by Naeem Jaffer

kilimanjaro_summit

I've had many ask me about my trip to Kilimanjaro, and I figure the best way to share this is here. I am paying for this blog after all, so I may as well use it. Climbing Kilimanjaro had been in my sights for a long time, and I spontaneously signed-up for it in April of last year without any idea of what I was getting myself into. I booked the climb for the best time of the year, September, when it's cold but precipitation is lowest - ensuring clear skies throughout (I'd much rather brave the cold instead of mud). I could spend an entire blog post typing why Kilimanjaro should be on everyone's bucketlist, but the internet can tell you that. I'll just share my experience to Uhuru.

Unlike most mountains around the world, Kilimanjaro is unique in that a guide is mandatory to climb it. There are countless of guides and outfitters out there from local to foreign, offering different sorts of bells and whistles. I booked with G-adventures after hearing great reviews from friends who have used them before. They just seemed to offer the most hassle-free package for a great price. They are also a local (Canadian) company - bonus points.

Choosing the Route

kilimanjaro_routes

There are many routes up Kilimanjaro, and choosing the route can be a tough choice. Ultimately, I decided on the Rongai Route, here's why:

  • I definitely did not want the popular routes as I hate crowds, this eliminates Machame and Marangu. Rongai is the newest route up the mountain (so it's relatively unknown). It is also the only route from the north. This makes it a very isolated and quiet route.
  • I wanted a back-country experience. The popular routes have well-carved trails and huts complete with power and running water versus tents. I wanted to stay in tents despite my lack of camping experience.
  • The Rongai route descends via the Marangu route, so you get to see more. 
  • The Rongai route is the only route to get really close to Mawenzi, Africa's third tallest mountain at 5,149m
  • The route with the best scenery from what I gather is Lemosho, but takes a day longer than the rest and costs quite a bit more. I found Rongai to be the best compromise.

Prelude - Training and Gear

Prior to Kilimanjaro, I've never spent a night outdoors. I've never camped. I've never slept in a sleeping bag, let alone a tent. I never really went hiking. In fact, I did not own any outdoor gear for the trip. Needless to say, signing up to climb Kilimanjaro without any previous experience was a bold move.After a lot of research on what were the best value items out there, I settled on the following:

Items I had:

  • Goruck GR-1 Backpack: This is a fantastic all-around backpack that's built like a tank. It did the job really well, held all my items, comfortable, and had a hole for a hydration bladder. Two downsides: 1) It didn't have a spot to clip trekking poles onto, and 2) it was heavier than I would have liked. The weight did take a toll towards the end (and summit). In retrospect, I should have gone with a bag that was purpose built for hiking/climbing.
  • TAD sweater: This is a fantastic 100% merino sweater that's warm. The one major downside is that it does not pack small at all. If I were to do it again, I would bring a "performance" fleece that packs really small.

Items I bought:

  • Hard Shell: Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Hybrid
  • Boots: Mammut T-Advance GTX - I bought these a few months in advance and wore them daily to break it in.
  • Hydration Bladder: Platypus 3L
  • Down Jacket: Montbell Frost Smoke Parka - This item seemed to be the best value of any 800 fill down jacket
  • Baselayers - Icebreaker 100% merino
  • Gloves - Outdoor Research Arete - These gloves are insulated, waterproof, and includes a liner, win-win.
  • Underwear: Under Armour Boxerjock, I didn't bother with the fancy merino wool stuff - I can't justify $40 for underwear
  • Pants: Prana Zion Pants
  • Misc Items: Headlamp, snacks, sunhat

Items I rented:

  • Sleeping Bag ($40 USD): This item I really didn't want to buy. I simply do not camp enough to justify the price tag on a -20C-rated down sleeping bag. The bag I rented did the job - it had signs of wear, but it was clean and kept me warm at night. Having said that - another in our party also rented and didn't realize it was torn till the first camp, Porters had to scramble to sew the bag together. I'd suggest inspecting the bag before leaving for the hike.
  • Trekking Poles ($12 USD): I wasn't really sure if I needed these. Many online guides suggested them, and I found them to be pretty useless on the way up, but they helped a lot on the way down. Even then, you can do without these.

Items I borrowed:

  • Hard Shell Pants: Fortunately, it did not rain during my entire trek, so I only wore these on summit day to act as a windbreaker.
  • Gaiters: Many guides/checklists suggested these, and many of the guides/porters wore them all the time. Personally, I found them completely unnecessary and never wore them once. Having said that, I can see these being useful if there was snow on the summit trail.

Training:

I trained for Kilimanjaro with a mixture of weight, cardio, and rock climbing workouts. I would do cardio workouts 4-5 times a week for a period of 30-40 mins, alternating between the elliptical, rower, and the Stairmaster. I'd lift weights 3 days a week, and I'd go rock climbing (indoors and outdoors) roughly 2-3 times a week. I also went on a few 4-6 hour hikes every so often, and in retrospect, I should have done more of that as it's the activity that best prepares for Kilimanjaro.

What makes Kilimanjaro challenging is the altitude, and the idea is to be able to exert the least amount of effort throughout the hike. The fitter you are, the less your body has to work, increasing chances for a summit and having a better time. Cardio is important because your heart compensates for low oxygen by beating harder, even at rest. 

Getting There

The closest airport to Kilimanjaro is Kilimanjaro International Airport (KIA), a small airport with frequent international flights to Kenya, Ethiopia, Qatar, the Netherlands and many more. I flew in with Precision Air via Nairobi.

I've read that losing your baggage in African airports is very common. So it was critical to wear and carry everything I could not do without. I wore my hiking pants, boots, and fleece throughout the flights, and carried jackets, waterproof gear, gloves, and other not-easily-replaceable necessities on my carry-on. Everything else was checked-in.

Kilimanjaro rising well above the Clouds

KIA

Moshi, the closest town to Kilimanjaro, is an hour's taxi ride away from the airport. I checked into my hotel and collapsed on a bed after a long travel, and later slowly met the other members of our group. In turns out there were 9 members in total. 7 Canadians, 1 American, and 1 Brit. There, the G-adventure "CEO" and guide introduced themselves, gave us a thorough synopsis of the climb, and answered any questions that we may have had about the climb. Fun fact; Bug Spray is not needed! The mountain gets chilly even on the first night and mosquitoes/bugs cannot survive. Malaria pills are not needed on the mountain, but they are definitely required on days spent in town.

Day 1 - Rongai

Wake up at 8am, breakfast at the hotel, load the bus, and off we go. Our first stop was to get our climbing permits, we had to drive to the main gate which located at the base of the Marangu Route. Our guide sorts out the paperwork and jump back on the bus to the beginning of the Rongai route, on the other side of the mountain, straddling the Kenya Border (see map above).

The Main Gate to Kilimanjaro National Park

The Main Gate to Kilimanjaro National Park

We arrived the Rongai gate around mid day. We were given our already prepared carb-heavy lunch while the guides and porters assemble, and start carrying our gear.

The first day was easy. It was about a 3-4 hour hike. First, through a forest that resembles a typical Ontario forest (with colobus monkeys and reddish dirt), then a lush rainforest for a brief moment, and then vegetated moorland. It was interesting how quickly we went through the difference ecological zones in just the span of a few hours.

Disclaimers

Lunch

The "Rongai" Forest

Porter hauling through the small section of rainforest

The outling of Kibo peeking through the clouds as we venture through a densly vegetated moorland

Simba camp was the first camp (2,671m), and of course, it was already all set up before we got there. The porters beat us to camp, some carrying as much as 20kg. Every two trekkers share a tent while we congregate and have meals in a larger "mess" tent prepared with chairs and a "dining" table. The mess tent was already prepped with snacks upon arrival. An hour later, meals were prepared. Dinner usually starts with a soup, and then a carb-based meal (spaghetti, rice) with a decent protein serving. After every dinner, the guides give us a briefing for the next day and take our VO2 max and pulse readings to monitor our condition.

The mess tent

The mess tent

Snacks and Hot beverages

Dinner

The temperature throughout the hike was manageable, probably in the mid-20s, however, I was pretty shocked at how cold it got after sunset, even on the first night (probably high single digits). Many guidebooks suggested bringing a pair of flip flops for wandering around camp, but I've found that it is simply too cold to be wearing sandals. The best part of the cold ight however, was the crystal clear night sky!

Stars over Simba camp

Stars over Simba camp

Diamox

If you've done any reading about Kilimanjaro, you've come across Diamox. The prescription drug used to aliveate altitude sickness symptoms. Diamox is controversial on the mountain, some took it, some didn't, some had it but didn't take it. I took Diamox throughout. I was prescribed 7 pills by the doc, and was to take half in the morning (125mg), and the other half in the evening for every day of the trek. I was warned by the doctor that the drug is a diuretic, and I mistakenly assumed that it would have the same effect as coffee. I was wrong, it's much worse.

On the first night, Diamox interrupted my sleep 5 times to take a leak - so often that the shortest frequency was as little as half an hour. A sleepless night was unpleasant, let alone the dark and cold walks to the toilet. The next day, our guides advised to take half a pill after breakfast, and the other half immediately after lunch (as opposed to the evening). This schedule works much better and really helped me sleep at night. Many others complained of tingling of fingers and toes as a side effect of diamox. I only felt this once on summit day, and even then it wasn't bad.

Day 2 - Kikelelwa

Our briefing mentioned that day 2 would not be difficult, but it would be long, approximately 7 hours in total. We were all awake by 7 am, our porters bring warm water to the tents to wash our hands and faces while we get ready for the day. After a simple quick breakfast, we began. it became evident that the shrubs were getting smaller the higher we got. It wasn't long before we got to some open ground, and managed to get a clean glimpse of Kibo.

Letincular cloud over Kibo

I appreciated how predictable the weather was in September. Skies are crystal clear in the morning, clouds start to form and rise around mid-day, and by the time the sun sets, it gets really cold and all clouds vanish. It was the same pattern everyday throughout.

Group Photo. From Left to Right: Barbara, Brian, Erick, Jenn, Caitlyn, Ash, Myself, Shelley, and Philip

After 7 hours, as advertised, we arrived at our second camp, Kikelelwa Camp (3,600m). With the exception of the vegetation becoming more scarce, it was a rather uneventful but manageable hike, entirely through the moorlands of Kilimanjaro.

Walking through the clouds

The "facilities" for the curious

Kikelelwa Camp

It becames really evident how high we've gotten as the clouds disappear in the evening, with Kenya visible down below. This is a big mountain.

I was pretty tired from a sleepless night before, so I managed to get a good sleep on the second night.

Day 3 - Mawenzi Tarn Hut

I was one of the first of the group to wake-up - nature's call - slightly before sunrise, and for the first time we were over the clouds. It was a spectacular sight. I got my camera and braved the cold to take photos of the sunrise over the clouds. I could only imagine how it would have looked from the summit.

Before sunrise, over the clouds

Kibo is the highest point in Africa, so it's the first to see the sunrise every morning.

Kibo is the highest point in Africa, so it's the first to see the sunrise every morning.

Steeper terrain as we approach Mawenzi

Day 3 was going to be shorter than the previous day, but steeper and as such, a bit harder. The plan was to head to the base of Mawenzi, where we would set up camp. As with every morning, a quick breakfast, pack our bags, and off we go. The trail was steeper from the get go, and the I noticed that the guides started to pace us slower... "Pole Pole" or "slowly slowly" became the phrase of the day. This was really the first time I got a hint of the altitude, being ever so slightly out of breath. We took plenty of breaks throughout the hike. Vegetation was getting scarce, and the terrain was getting rockier. Roughly 3-4 hours into the hike, I started to feel a mild headache, a symptom of altitude.

The last stretch to Mawenzi

We got to camp in time for lunch. The plan was to take a break or nap for a few hours and then take an acclimatization hike later in the afternoon. My headache was getting worse. Altitude headaches are weird, it feels as though your brain is swelling and pushing against your forehead. To make matters worse, it was incredibly bright. Even covering my eyes with sunglasses and a hat inside my tent felt useless. I simply couldn't relax and rest.

After a couple of hours of lying down, I gave up the idea of resting and headed out to take some photos. By this time, clouds were rising, giving some refreshing bursts of shade. Our guides muster us for an optional acclimatization hike. Every one was good enough to go, and I agreed to push on despite my headache being painful and uncomfortable.

Looking down at camp from the height of the acclimatization hike

Our acclimatization hike was great, we went about 200m higher further up Mawenzi where we appreciated the rocky views around. Our guides give a quick geological history of Kilimanjaro and then we head back down.  

We reached back to camp, and the porters and guides surprised us with chants and dances, we joined in. After a few laughs, we assembled for a group photo with all the guides, porters, and climbers. You don't really realize how much effort goes behind climbing Kilimanjaro until you photograph everyone. In total, we were 38. (plus the cameraman)

Group photo

By the end of the day, I noticed that my headache completely disappeared! Not sure how or why; whether it was the acclimatization hike or the fact the sun went down and was no longer blinding me, but I was relieved. I thoroughly enjoyed my dinner. I got out of the mess tent to a really cold night and I wandered out to capture one more photo of the stars.

Camp at night - Mawenzi Tarn Hut

Camp at night - Mawenzi Tarn Hut

Day 4 - The Saddle

Once again, we woke up over the clouds. Morning were getting colder. It was time to pull out the down jacket as I stroll around for photos. The plan for day 4 involved traversing the mountain from the base of Mawenzi to the base of Kibo via what's known as the "saddle". We were told that it would take about 5-6 hours. At first glance, it was difficult to imagine how it would take so long. The trail was relatively flat on arid desert terrain, but the challenge lies in the altitude. The saddle is completely suspended over the clouds at an elevation of roughly ~4,500m. 

Looking across the saddle with base camp in the yellow circle. Doesn't seem too bad, does it? The clouds are so far down below the mountain, they are outside the frame of the photo.

The first couple of hours was easy due to a slight descent and the relatively low morning sun. We reach a plane wreckage roughly at the lowest point of the saddle. After a small break, we carried on where things got tougher (for me at least). I start to feel the effects of the altitude. The sun was strong with no place to hide. The agonizing headache started to make a comeback.

Moving forward

A small tourist plane crashed on Kilimanjaro in 2008, the wreckage remains.

Kibo Huts, Base Camp

The closer we got to base camp, the steeper the terrain got. And I'll be first to admit the last stretch to base camp was tough. I would take a pause every 30-40 steps. I did eventually make it, but not without a blistering headache. Our tents were ready when we arrived, and I lied down to try and ease it off. We reached camp around 2pm, and the plan was to have dinner around 5 or so.

Throughout the afternoon, my headache was only getting worse. Fortunately, Brian was prepared enough to carry Tylenol Extra Strength and gave me a couple of pills (Thank you!!). It worked wonders, I felt far better by the time dinner was served. After dinner, our guides gave us a thorough briefing of summit day, what to wear, what to expect, and what to pack. They took our pulse/VO2 max readings and my heart rate at rest was 99 bpm (usually 50 bpm for me). The plan was simple. Sleep around 7pm, wake up at 11pm, dress up, eat, and by 12am, we aim for the summit bid.

Base camp is where the Marangu and Rongai routes merge, and so it is a noisy place. Unlike the majority of the Rongai route (where we were only 2 parties throughout), this camp had at least 10. Between the porters of all parties, there was a lot of activity and noise making getting any sleep pretty tough. I did get some shut eye around 8:30pm, only to be woken up by my bladder around 10:45pm. I only had a couple of hours of sleep prior to the summit bid.

Day 5 - Summit Day

Oh my god, it was cold. I did not have a thermometer on me, but I guess that it was around -5C to -10C. I dress up. For tops; a base layer, long sleeve shirt, fleece, and then my jacket. For bottoms; base layer, two hiking pants, and then hard shell pants. I did not wear a hard shell top, but I had it in my pack. Balaclava and headlamp on, and I was set.

I got to the mess tent and met everyone all geared-up. High energy foods and sweets was served, but I noticed that a few in the group completely lost their appetites and barely had anything to eat. I felt great on the other hand. No headache, no loss of appetite. We were warned that our hydration bladder tube would freeze; I had a thermos prepped and asked a porter to fill it with warm water.

Midnight on the dot, we march up. Looking up into darkness, only the headlamps of parties before us and the stars above could be seen, in most cases indistinguishable. The first few hours involved tight switchbacks over loose volcanic scree gradually getting steeper. We stopped for 5-minute breaks every hour. At the third break, I had completely lost my appetite, struggling to even chew one bite from a clif bar. By the forth break, as expected, my hydration tube froze. I pull out my thermos to find water too hot to drink (the thermos did its job!) - I was officially out of water. The trail getting steeper and rockier. By the fifth break, I was starting to feel tired. Looking behind, a faint orange outline starts to appear, sunrise is near! Excitement builds. Barbara gave me a few sips of water (Thank you!!! Saved the day!). Moving on, you look up to see the edge of the mountain and darkness thinking you're close, and once you get there and look up again, only to realize there's so much more to go. That, in my opinion, was the worst part, the feeling that it would just never end. This part is pretty hard to put in words, it's really something that needs to be experienced.

Sunrise from Gilman's Point

The scene at Gilman's point

Eventually, we arrived at Gilman's point (5,681m - the edge of the crater) the instant the sun popped up from the horizon. It was windy as the wind brushed up the ridge. It was cold. Despite my exhaustion, this was also the moment that I realized that I was not at the highest point. It's was far from over. I looked around for the highest point, and I saw the tiny board on the summit in the distance. It was so much further than I expected. My thoughts were along the lines of ... "oh my god?! its so far away!". I was tired, even more so, I was thirsty. I managed to snap one photo before we kept going, and that's I realized we were missing someone. It turns out Jenn was not feeling too well at some point during the ascent, and was forced to turn back (Sorry Jenn :( )

Half way between Gilman's point and the summit is Stella Point (5,756m). There we took a break. I was feeling pretty exhausted and took a seat on a rock. A guide (Mathiya) helps me out by giving me some water and took my backpack off me lightening my load (this is why I should have used a lighter backpack). And we kept pushing on. The last stretch to the summit was hard. The terrain was flatter and manageable, but that's when the altitude took its toll. I would take a pause every 10 small steps, a break every 50, my pulse simply racing the entire stretch. At roughly 7:30am, we made it to the summit, adrenaline kicked in when I saw the infamous board. We looked around in awe  at an otherworldly landscape; The fast receding glaciers, the ice caps, the clouds very far down below, and Mount Meru in the distance. Fun fact; there's actually two "congratulations" boards on the summit!

Victory Photo

The Furtwängler Glacier in the foreground with the Southern Icefield in the back

Mount Meru (4,562m) in the distance.

Looking back from the summit

As soon as everyone got their photo ops, it was time to head back down. The descent was much easier. My legs were so tired from working uphill for 5 days, it felt really refreshing to have the opposing muscles work for a change. The sun rises, and our guides instruct us to put on sunscreen. There is little UV protection at altitude, and its very easy to get sunburnt. On the bright side (pun intended), the sun thawed my frozen tube, and I had water again! In order to avoid the inevitable headache, I also preemtively took a tylenol (which worked like a charm, I did not have a headache that day). Back at Gilman's, we look down and saw just how far up we've climbed overnight - I wish I took a photo of this but even if I did, a photo would not have done any justice. Luckily, we didn't have to use the switchbacks going down, we could simply cut straight through. At 10am we reached back down to Base Camp. Our porters congratulated us and served us juice. By this point, we had been on our feet for 10 hours. I collapse in my tent for a break. But wait, it's not over. We couldn't spend the night at base camp and we had to descend further down to the next camp (I believe this was because base camp has no water supply, and the porters only brought enough for 1 day). After a 2 hour break, we had lunch, and we dragged ourselves further down.

Looking back at Kibo already covered in clouds

The next camp was the Horombo huts, which took another 3 to 4 hours. It was a pleasant and easy decent. It was a popular route so the trail was well trodden. 

Decending down the Marangu Route with porters hauling gear down.

In total, we were on our feet for 14 hours that day. Exhaustion is an understatement. We stuck around for dinner and then immediately went to bed. We slept so well that night, I remember going to the washroom in the middle of the night and chuckled at the sound of everyone's snores (hah!)

Camp in sight! Horombo Huts

Day 6 - The Descent

This was our last day on the mountain, which meant going down roughly 20km in the span of 6 hours to the main gate. Before we departed, we had a tipping ceremony, when we tip our guides and porters for all their great hard work. It should go without saying that our guides and porters really made our trip. Each one of them went out of their way to ensure that we were as comfortable as possible throughout, and if it wasn't for them, not sure if we would have made it up with so much fun.

Group photo after the tipping ceremony

On the descent, you'd think that gravity would have helped, and it did in some way. But, with every downhill step, toes bang against the front of your boots. It was bearable at first as the descent was gradual, but it really started to hurt towards the end. Our guides advised to tie our boots as tight as possible, this minimizes the impact, it helped a bit.

Vegetation thickens and shrubs increase in height. We eventually entered the boundary of the forest on the lower slopes, with dried out trees lining the trails. We stopped for lunch at Mandara Huts. The soreness from the day before started to kick in. Everything hurt; legs, back, and shoulders. This was our last meal on the mountain and it was refreshing to have it indoors for a change. 

Moving on, an arid forest transitions into a lush rain forest which reminded a bit of Tarzan. For the second time, I had the dreadful feeling "when will this never-ending trail end?!".  We were descending at our own pace, and it was an interesting call to make, take multiple breaks and delay the end? Or push through the pain and finish earlier? Philip, Ash and I decided to push on. 6 days of carrying a backpack finally started taking its toll as my shoulders start to give up. Step by step, eventually, finally... after a total of 79km, we see the sign that ends our trek.

We collected our summit certificates, took some photos, jumped back on the bus, and headed back to our hotel. I took a shower twice that day, and it was amazing.

Day 7 - The End

The last day we bid farewell to all the members of our group. As I head to the airport, I got a glimpse of Kilimanjaro for the first time from the ground, all covered in snow from an overnight storm.

The forest thickens

I was so happy when I saw this board!