Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Mahavura is the big dormant volcano overlooking Kisoro. I stare at it everyday wherever I go. Mahavura means “guide”, so named because it is such a huge landmark everyone uses when traveling in East Africa. So I decided to spend my second and last day off from the hospital climbing Mahavura. The only other person adventurous and crazy enough to go with me was Rebecca the med student who went with me the week before to Lake Mutunda. When we were trying to make arrangements to climb the mountain every step of the way people were like it is too hard, don’t do it. “It is rainy season and will be miserable”. Roland the hotel manager from Traveller’s who set up our hike for us told us that 80% of people don’t make it to the top and tried to convince us not to do it. Sam one of the staff members at the hospital also told us not to do it this time of year. But I didn’t have a choice this was my only day off the rest of the time in Uganda.
The night before we set out I couldn’t fall asleep. I just lay there in bed awake anticipating the hike the next day. Maybe I couldn’t sleep because I was so excited. Maybe I couldn’t sleep because I was nervous thinking about all the warnings. Maybe I couldn’t sleep because I was afraid I would sleep through my alarm since we had to leave so early at 6 am. I was also thinking about the Montefiore resident who had broken her ankle at the top of the mountain and had to be carried down on a stretcher by 6 men just a few months prior. In the end I realized I couldn’t sleep because I had had 3 cokes during dinner that night.
It was Easter Sunday. At 6 am we were ready waiting for our driver who didn’t arrive till 6:15, which was not a big surprise. We set out on a horribly bumpy half hour drive to the base of the mountain. This time I was prepared. I had learned from my gorilla rain blunder and purchased a poncho. It was a cheap one that I could have bought in a dollar store in the US but here they charged me 36,000 schillings about $20 but I didn’t care I was gonna stay dry this time. I also brought a sweater and a jacket to keep warm on the hike. As we pulled up you couldn’t see the top of the mountain due to the clouds.
We paid the entrance fee to the park and set off around 7:52 am. The 2 of us with 1 guide and one rifle carrier dude. The base was 2381m about 7,857 ft. The hike would be a 6 km trail up and the same trail back. The peak was 4137 m (13,652 ft) a vertical gain of about 1756 m (5794 ft). Usually the hike takes 8-10 hrs about 5 hrs up and 3 hours back down. They gave us walking sticks to use for the hike.
The first terrain we encountered was forest that had been farmland until 1990. During the 70’s farmers had encroached upon the mountain and been doing hillside agriculture. But in 1990 the government took the land back and compensated the people living there so a national park and nature conservatory could be established. It was typical tropical forest terrain with big leaves, different trees, tall grass and ferns, and the noises of birds and insects. White butterflies were flying around across our path. The incline was challenging but enjoyable. It was lightly drizzling but the rain was keeping the air cool. I didn’t even need my poncho yet I just had a t-shirt and a long sleeve shirt over it. We hike for about 40 minutes till we reached the next section of terrain: virgin forest.
It was similar difficulty and along the trail there were steps built into the ground made from logs laid horizontally. We were moving at a good pace, not taking any breaks, enjoying nature, and getting a little exercise. I was still wondering when a torrential downpour was gonna start so I could pull out my poncho. We continued in the virgin forest for about an hour till we hit a sign that said Ericaceous zone 3116 m.
The trees changed to shorter spooky trees with low hanging vines and moss. Another change was that the trail was getting a little steeper and instead of the logs being steps in the ground they were ladders every so often scaling a steeper incline. The dirt trail became mostly stone and much narrower as well. If you turned around and looked down the mountain you could see the surrounding valleys far in the distance even though it was pretty foggy. We were starting to get a little tired and a little cold with the higher altitude and the persistent light drizzle. Not poncho time yet though. The parts which weren’t stone were slick mud. If you stepped incorrectly you would slip and fall. We had to take cautious steps to avoid this but everyone slid a little here ad there. I found that putting my foot flat with the heel down gave me more friction even though instinct is to just put your toe down on a steep uphill grade. It was still fun making our way up. But I kinda hoped we would reach the top soon. It had been about 3 1/2 hours and I was getting hungry.
Altitude 3855 m (12,721 ft) sub-alpine belt. Again, a terrain change occured. There were just short shrubs, short bushes and grass. Since there were no trees blocking the light drizzle I started to get wet so I busted out my poncho. There were a few small holes in it. So much for my 20 dollars. I kind of felt like Moses climbing the mountain with the wind blowing rain into my face, cautiously moving step by step using my staff, struggling with the elements, and my poncho flapping in the breeze.
Next, I started to notice that in addition to not enough oxygen being there for larger trees to grow, there also wasn’t enough oxygen for me. I started breathing fast just from walking at a normal pace. Soon, I was totally hyperventilating. Also, the mountain was getting steeper. I started to feel nauseous. I started walking really slowly. Instead of using my walking stick as a walking stick, I was using it as a crutch. I was going really slowly. First I was thinking one two, one two, for every two steps. Then I was thinking one, one, one, for each step. Then I was stopping for a few seconds after each step. We still had to climb ladders and negotiate a steep muddy trail. We stopped cause I was so tired and I realized that I was also freezing cold. At this altitude the temperature had dropped significantly. So I put on my sweater and my jacket underneath my poncho.
We moved on slowly. Again I was breathing so fast and I realized that I must be in respiratory alkalosis. I really wanted to check an ABG to see my pH. The other people with me were breathing a little fast but were definitely handling it better than me. I would take few steps and then stand there for a minute or 2 breathing really fast. I thought we were nearing the top then I saw that the fog blocking the top had fooled me and we still had further to go. I closed my eyes and I almost blacked out. But I didn’t and we kept inching up the mountain. I pushed my limits. I went way beyond what my limits were. Finally, we reached the summit. It had taken 5 hours and 10 minutes since we began. I was feeling so horrible I couldn’t even talk or smile.
At the summit there is a lake in a crater. It is 36 meters across. It was so foggy though you couldn’t even see the water in the lake. We walked around the lake and sat down to eat some food. I had some avocado some chapatti some peanut butter and a passion fruit. Even stopping breathing to chew and swallow put me back into breathing really fast. It was like cheyne-stokes breathing. Sitting still and eating at the top made Rebecca and I freezing despite our layers of gear to keep us warm. We were both shivering and cold and hypoxic. I was glad when we set out to go back down.
As we started to descend I began to feel so much better. It was less cold, more oxygen, less energy expenditure, less oxygen demand. I was actually starting to enjoy myself again. I was appreciating the beautiful views with the clearing fog and tapering drizzle. I was having fun jumping down the muddy slick ledges and rocks. If I was the one who had the most trouble going up, Rebecca had the most trouble getting down. She has bad knees and it was tough on her descending the steep and very slippery mud and rocks. I could see how the Montefiore resident broke her ankle a few months prior on this same mountain. The guides were very good about helping her on the ladders and mud. While they were helping her out I was able to go ahead and just be alone hiking down taking in my surroundings: the smells, the sounds, the colors, the peacefulness. It ended up taking another 5 hours to get back down but I was having much more fun than on the way up. Rebecca made it ok too.
Our boots and pants were plastered with mud ad we were dirty hungry and tired. The locals who we tell about our feat can’t believe we actually made it all the way up and down. It was a tremendous challenge but was definitely worth it even if I have to wear sandals for 3 days while my boots dry and even if I will be sore for the next week. I got some good pictures out of it too.
Here is the link to pictures of the hike: http://picasaweb.google.com/rafiki/UgandaHarMahavura