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Towns of wooden shacks with tin roofs and colourful misspelled signs advertising "Beuty salon", "Coca-Cola," and "Safari" beer dot the way. We circle the mountain, on the border between Tanzania and Kenya. A dishevelled-looking shantytown of odd pieces of wood appears out of the dust. Nalemuru — the jumping off point to the Rongai route on the northeast side of the mountain.
We walk a few steps to the official trailhead where a tall wooden sign warns of the dangers of going to altitude. After a team photo, a trip to the outhouse and lathering on sunscreen, I lead the team up the dusty trail and look over my shoulder frequently as they take their first steps on the mountain. Pole, Pole. Slowly, slowly. I can feel the energy of the person behind me, almost stepping on my heels, willing me to go faster. Martin grins, "You know if Esther and I were hiking on our own, we would be going much faster." They must get used to this pace or they will be more susceptible to altitude sickness higher up. People get symptoms of altitude sickness as low as 2,500 metres. We will be higher than that at our first camp tonight. In fact, we will be 500 metres higher than the peak of Whistler Mountain.
Joseph walks with us and carries two cylinders of oxygen, only to be used on descent in the event of an emergency. Descent is the optimum treatment for Acute Mountain Sickness. Fortunately, the terrain on Kilimanjaro allows for a quick retreat and we have 38 people to help us. Winneford is Martin and Esther's personal guide. He will alternate carrying their daypacks so they get a chance to rest. Three and a half hours later, seven kilometres farther and 638 metres higher, as the sun threatens to disappear behind the massive mountain, we arrive at Simba camp, meaning Lion, almost hidden by giant heather trees. Kilimanjaro represents eight climatic zones ranging from desert to alpine. Today the pine tree forest where we started our hike has morphed into these heather trees that reach up to 30 metres tall.
In the dining tent, while feasting on chicken, a heap of roast potatoes and other carbs that are good for acclimatization, I coach the team about how to stay warm at night. Eat well. Get into your sleeping bag warm. Keep a toque on. Keep an extra layer handy to put on. If you have to go to the bathroom, don't procrastinate because it takes a lot of energy to keep the urine warm in your body. Esther and Martin negotiate the tent guy lines in the dark to get to the outhouse. Most chores take longer for them to do.
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