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Whiskey on the Rocks: A Taste of Climbing Kilimanjaro

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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“So, you take the whiskey?” This was one of the first questions, Patrick, my guide for Kilimanjaro asked me over breakfast while going over logistics for the trip. Since it was morning, I thought a Bloody Mary seemed more appropriate. Soon I realized he wasn’t offering a drink–he was confirming the route we’d take up the mountain.

There are two main routes up Kilimanjaro—the Marangu route is the shorter and more direct path. It’s also said to be the easier one, so it’s known as the Coca Cola route. The Machame is steeper and winds throughout the mountain. Due to its reputation as being tougher, it’s called the Whiskey route. I’d opted for the Machame; although it’s thought to be more difficult, factors including the extra acclimatization day give it a higher success rate.

After signing some release forms, my two feet were ready to go up against Kilimanjaro’s 19,340.

The trek began in a lush rainforest. About two hours into the journey, we were reminded exactly why it’s called a rain-forest when a torrential downpour struck.

I (Didn’t) Miss The Rains Down In Africa: Happy campers on Day 1 smiling at the thought of a warm shower--blissfully unaware the only showers we’d have for the next week were the ones involving rain.

After arriving at our camp for the evening, I was excited to learn all about the logistics of cooking. Preparing meals is no easy feat on Kilimanjaro. Everything including the kitchen sink–food, equipment, and just about anything else needed–must be carried up. Add to that the challenge of refrigeration, or lack thereof, along with the additional time necessary to cook at higher altitudes.

These challenges resulted in some pretty basic meals. Breakfast was usually porridge, scrambled eggs and tea, lunches consisted of hard boiled eggs, cookies and juice, and dinners were pasta or rice and stew. Also, there was an unlimited supply of bananas. Bananas, bananas, and more bananas. And did I mention there were bananas?

Even top notch cuisine might not have a fair shot on Kilimanjaro due to the relationship between high altitude and appetite. Contrary to the stereotypes between the correlation of getting high and the urge to eat more, when it comes to mountains, the inverse is often true. Although it isn’t fully understood, appetite loss, known as high altitude anorexia, is a common effect of exposure to higher altitude. In an ironic twist, research has found energy intake decreases by between 17 and 57% at altitudes ranging between 3,600 to 6,000 m. This occurs at a time just when energy is needed the most.

Weight loss and lack of appetite at higher altitudes is also associated with acute mountain sickness (AMS). Those affected by AMS may experience anorexia, nausea, and vomiting, resulting in a decreased appetite and reduced intake of food. Although the actual mechanisms by which acetazolamide reduces symptoms of AMS are unclear, some take acetazolamide To prevent or treat AMS.

Studies have indicated hydration and gradual acclimatization can also reduce the chances of AMS, so I opted to go along with the advice of walking poli poli (slowly, slowly) and drinking ridiculous amounts of water. And there was definitely no shortage of water. Despite daily reassurances that the rain had been an odd occurrence, each following day was met with showers and I began to wonder if Patrick was a mountain guide or a storm chaser.

Over the next few days, a routine developed of drinking water, eating eggs, rice and bananas, and walking poli poli through the rain. From a scenic perspective, though, each day was completely different from the previous; Kilimanjaro is one of the only environments on Earth to span five different ecological zones. When we arrived at our final stop before the summit, the tundra environment was an extreme contrast to the rainforest base we had been at just days before. The Barafu hut (“barafu” means ice in Swahili) had sparse vegetation and some seriously high winds. We were supposed to get a few hours rest but the lack of oxygen, combined with nervousness, gale force winds, and below freezing temperatures made it difficult to get any sleep. The time came to leave for the summit and I had cold feet.

I spent most of the trip rotating two outfits that never had a chance to dry. Knowing how cold it would be, I had saved one dry outfit for the summit but knew that putting my dry socks in my soaking wet boots would only make my cold feet even colder. Looking around our tent, I came up with a solution that had a twist and tie. I scarfed down some trail mix and lined my boots with the bags they had been stored in.

The ascent began in the middle of the night in order to make it to the summit for sunrise. Walking along, the moonlight was so bright there was practically no need for flashlights. Soon, the effects of high altitude started to kick in; the lack of oxygen made it so you could only take a few steps before having to stop and catch your breath. I realized why this was really called The Whiskey Route–because going up it, you feel like you’ve had a bottle of it. Lightheaded, dizzy, and unable to walk a straight line, everyone was just stumbling around and a few people threw up and passed out.

Eventually, we made it to the summit:


With time to catch a sunrise. It’s not just the lack of oxygen that will take your breath away:

It takes five days to get up the mountain and only a day and a half to get back down. The route down was so steep, it was more like skiing so we used our walking poles to schuss along in the mud. This wasn’t whiskey on the rocks–this was a Mudslide! The impact of going down such a steep path made my feet sore and swollen (later leading to the loss of eight toenails). Reaching the end, I slowly hobbled off Kilimanjaro with the aid of my walking pole, probably resembling a geriatric trying to escape a retirement home.

Some whiskey connoisseurs believe it’s best experienced at room temperature, served straight up, and never, ever diluted with water. There was definitely nothing straight up or room temperature about my whiskey experience. And let’s not even discuss the water. But given the opportunity to experience it again, I think I would take my whiskey the same way—on the rocks, with a twist, and followed by a storm chaser.

*******************

Climbing Kilimanjaro can be tough enough to do once, but it’s something porters and guides manage to do year-round. And they need fuel to do it. Ugali, also known as posho or sembe, is a staple food eaten throughout East Africa. This dish, consisting of a dough-like mixture of corn flour and water, gives energy to guides and porters to run up and down the highest freestanding mountain in the world and Kenyan marathoners the ability to run pretty much everywhere.

UGALI

2 cups corn flour

3 cups water

Preparation:

Bring water to a boil.

Slowly add in corn flour, whisking continuously.

Continue to stir and cook for about 3 minutes. The posho should be thick and firm enough to pick up. When it’s finished, ugali is traditionally eaten with hands, to sop up stews or to scoop up meat, beans and vegetables.

Image Credits: Marc van der Chijs, remainder by author.

Layla Eplett About the Author: Layla Eplett writes about the anthropology of food. She has a Masters in Social Anthropology of Development from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies and loves getting a taste of all kinds of culture--gastronomic, traditional, and sometimes accidentally, bacterial. Find her at Fare Trade. Follow on Twitter @LaylaEplett.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 2 Comments

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  1. 1. Kevbonham 7:44 pm 11/21/2013

    Wow… looking at that mountain activates my wanderlust. Too bad I’m stuck in a dark room with a microscope – a different kind of exploration I suppose.

    The high altitude anorexia thing is interesting. I’ve noticed that when hiking I can go for 12 hours just nibbling on some trail mix, but the second we get off the mountain I want to eat like 5 cheeseburgers.

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  2. 2. L_Eplett 11:33 am 11/22/2013

    Kevin–twas an awesome adventure, though in moments where rain was trickling into our tent, I may have happily swapped places for the dark but dry lab. And yes, know what you mean on post-mountain chowing, thinking diners nearby make serious bank!

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