I thought it was the best cup of tea I’d ever had. The blue plastic mug filled with a highly potent brew of ginger burned the back of my throat as I drank but I didn’t really mind.
“Asante sana,” I said to the porter who walked to each tent offering the morning brew.
The thick tea was hot, perfect for the bone cold chill running through my body now exposed to its first morning in the elements following a long sleepless night.
Just before retiring the night before, Jon (Yahn) had noticed a brazen rat running around our tent entrance. I had an open zip lock bag with protein bars sitting on top of my day pack and the rat was standing on its hind legs, whiskers shaking, calculating how to climb up and investigate the smell. I shooed him away.
All night I heard, felt (maybe imagined) a persistent scurrying around my head on the other side of the tent material. My thoughts went immediately to the rat and I imagined he was circling the tent, perhaps calling friends, and plotting how best to overtake us and gain access to those luxury bars that had traveled half way around the world. I decided to sleep with a hat on.
All that imagining kept me up, tossing, rolling, adjusting in the confines of the sleeping bag in hopes of discovering the perfect positioning. One helpful thought was that if it were rats - a thriving community of them let's say, then there couldn’t be anything larger out there lurking in the darkness - unless that larger something was taking a vow of abstinence from predation.
Before breakfast, one must repack their gear, refill water containers and purify the contents and then with fingers crossed, have a diplomatic conversation with your bowels about how much you would appreciate cooperation from them while here at the camp. Granted, the bathroom situation was still primitive - a choice between the “how low can you go” squatting hole or the elevated bowl which you still can not sit on because the rim is molded out of jagged concrete. For added athleticism, there is the fact that you are wearing multiple layers of clothing which must be mathematically maneuvered for effective results.
My windbreaker was covered in frost as well as the rag provided for me to wash my hands every morning and evening at camp. I learned quickly that you can’t leave “laundry” hanging on the tent lines overnight.
After a breakfast of porridge, toast and orange slices, we were suited up and ready to begin the days ascent.
This second day continued through increasingly sparse trees and bushes into what is known as the moorlands. Remnants of permafrozen tundra mixed with patches of thawed scree were the most common terrain. I remember overhearing that the Machame route was definitely the most scenic but you would not have gathered that from today’s view. Still walking through low lying mist, the lack of sleep from the night before seemed to make today’s trek feel far more arduous than day one.
For more than 7 hours we climbed, stopping only for water, a brief lunch and some more psychological coaching from Harold. It was a tough, monotonous day that delivered us to Shira Camp and more majestic views above the clouds. We were now at approximately 12, 500 feet above sea level. Even though none of us felt like it, we were encouraged to drop our gear inside our already arrived tents and walk another 30 minutes up to the Shira Caves. The last thing you want to do is climb more after arriving at camp, but this little mini hike ritual is designed to help the climbers internally acclimatize even more, having you go up and then come down before sleeping.
From Shira Camp we have a direct view of Mount Meru, the topographic centerpiece of Arusha National Park. For a brief time before sunset, the view is clear and the evening colors once again seem like an impressionistic painting. My gaze is broken by the arrival of my basin of hot water. Face and hands are washed, dinner of stew meat and boiled pasta is served and the four of us eat in quiet.
We all look at each other, silently questioning our sanity.
Still trusting I will find my rhythm in the hiking, the yawning starts, both from altitude and fatigue. I remove my mud and dust covered boots, crawl into the tent and collapse onto the sleeping bag.
And the prospect of rats - I’m thankfully too tired to care.