March 2007 - Column:

Standing on top of the world

Frank Wright
Day Hikes

By Frank Wright

“What did you do last month?”
“I watched the Super Bowl.  And the Academy Awards.”
“I did my taxes.”
“I followed the Anna Nicole stuff on Fox and CNN.”
“I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.”

Stop!  Are we all feeling slightly diminished?  That is, everyone except Martha Seferian.  In February, she climbed Africa’s tallest mountain.  All 19,341 feet of it. 

Let’s put this feat in perspective.  Georgia’s highest mountain, Brasstown Bald, is 4,784 feet high.  Kilimanjaro, or Uhuru in Swahili, is over four times taller. Those who hike here also don’t have to worry about hypoxia (altitude sickness), glacial ice, or gale force wind chills registering at –8 to –15 degrees. Martha, her sister Eileen, and three other ladies overcame all of this to reach the fabled African summit.  Their expedition took six days to cover the twenty-five miles to the summit, allowing ample time for altitude acclimation, and two days for the precipitous descent.

The trek began at the Machame Gate, at 6,000 feet.  The party consisted of the five hikers, the principal guide, three assistant guides, and fourteen porters.  Martha spent most of the first day hiking in a monsoon as they traversed a rain forest to reach a campsite at 10,000 feet.  The second day she passed through grassland and scrub bushes to a height of 12,600 feet.  From this point on, she traveled absent any vegetation, over rocks and volcanic scree.  The talus gave way to snow and ice near the summit.

Day Four posed the most difficult challenge, a near vertical scramble up the Great Barranco Wall.  This massive stone face rose eight hundred feet high.  Martha at times used all fours to maneuver her way up the rock cliff, and she was amazed at the balance and agility of the porters, who scooted up the narrow incline with their heavy loads balanced on their heads.

Campsite on the volcanic rock on the side of the mountain.

Day Five ended at a campsite at 15,300 feet, four thousand feet below the summit.  The afternoon sun was warm, and Martha was able to catch a nap in her tent.  This was unusual, because all of the hikers were having difficulty sleeping at altitude.  Martha also had very little appetite.  She found herself forcing food down to keep up her energy level (she lost five pounds during the hike).

Her nap was a godsend, because she needed every bit of rest.  Day six, the final approach to the summit, actually began at 11:30 PM on the night of Day 5.  The group began a steady, methodical ascent, seemingly walking in slow motion.  The pace was designed to prevent oxygen debt as they climbed higher and higher.

Blessed with good weather since the monsoon on day one, they now found themselves in a howling windstorm.  The wind was a constant 25 mph, with some gusts up to 40 mph.  Martha feared that the final ascent might have to be called off because of the weather.  The principal guide said it was one of the five worst days he had ever experienced on the mountain.  They persevered.  Mental tenacity and self-discipline became far more important at this point than physical conditioning.  They continued their plodding pace in the darkness.  The only illumination came from the small arc from their headlamps, and they could see nothing to their left or right. They reached Stella Point on the rim of the volcanic crater at 7:30 AM.  From this point, it was another hour’s walk along the crater rim near the glacier to reach the summit at Uhuru Point.

A cold, exhausted, but exhilarated Martha Seferian stands atop Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Martha expected a moment of exhilaration when she finally reached the top.  However, it was a bit chaotic.  Several hikers tried to take pictures and discovered that their cameras were frozen.  They had to take turns with the remaining cameras, making sure that each got a photo underneath the sign at the top.  One hiker wandered off to explore, which did not please the main guide.  Under those conditions there was no tarrying on the summit.  Shortly after they arrived they began a rapid descent.  Martha said that she sustained much more of a physical pounding coming down than she had in climbing up. 

All in all, she held up well.  She took diamox as a prophylactic throughout the expedition, and never had headaches or nausea. Her rigorous training regimen at Big Canoe stood her in good stead.  The only thing she would have done differently was to have made more trips up the steps at Amicalola Falls, to condition her for the long, unrelenting climbs.

I’m sure that all of you Oscar-watchers want to know what the well-dressed hiker was wearing on the Uhuru red carpet.  Martha was attired in boots with heavy expedition socks; capilene long underwear layered with fleece pants under rain pants; an expedition weight long sleeve underwear shirt, topped with another shirt, vest, windproof fleece, and rainjacket.  She topped off with a wool chapeau with a fleece liner, accessorized with a neck gaiter.  And wool mittens in lieu of white gloves.

Martha wanted a challenge, something that would push her to find out just how deep was her reservoir of strength and tenacity.  Obviously she succeeded in finding that reserve, and discovered that it was more than equal to the task.   Her advice to all of us wannabees is, “Do not try this unless you really, really want to do it.”  You will get wet, cold, tired, and drained to numbness by the long hours of inching up the mountain.  But if this is what you want, then prepare.  And go for it.

Martha, we salute you!

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