Wednesday, February 10, 2016

To the Top of Africa: Kilimanjaro

Dear Readers, this post will not cover urban or rural decay. Instead, it is about a trek over a fantastic geological terrain, a volcano that has been weathered and eroded for millennia. Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the great topographic wonders of the African continent. The highest part of the summit cone rises to 19,341 ft above sea level, or about 16,000 ft above the surrounding plains.
It must be profoundly rewarding to stand on the highest point on each continent. I will never achieve this in North America, South America, Asia, or Antarctica. But Africa - that is possible for a normal mortal, even one with creaky knees. Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain on earth that can be summited without needing technical equipment or special mountaineering skills. It is a hard trek, but achievable for anyone with altitude acclimation and stamina. I had thought about it for many years and decided I better go before I became too decrepit to make the journey. (The photograph above is from the National Archives, UK).
Climbing Kilimanjaro is different than hiking in many other countries. Unlike USA or Europe, you can't just strap on your backpack and start walking. In Kilimanjaro National Park, you must be accompanied by at least one authorized mountain guide. Most foreign visitors hire a trekking company to make arrangements for a team of guides, porters, and cooks. The porters carry the tents, food, and other equipment, including the foreigners' duffel bags. The visitor walks with just a day pack, and, when he reaches the evening camp site, he is met with a dining tent, food, and hot water. Water is sometimes a long distance from the camp sites, and the porters work hard to carry bottles up and down the trails. The water issue may be one major reason to not try Kilimanjaro on your own without a professional crew. The ratio of Tanzanian workers to foreigners is about 5:1, so our team of four Americans had 26 support staff.
Another interesting note: most trails are one way to reduce congestion. So you ascend on an uphill trail and descend on a downhill trail. Porters can go against the traffic direction as needed, but the main groups all walk in tandem. My three friends and I took the Lemoscho Route, which starts on the western edge of Kilimanjaro National Park. This is one of the longer routes, meaning the foreigners have more days to get acclimated to altitude. Our trip was eight days on the trail, 6½ up and 1½ down. The longer the group spends ascending, the higher success rate. The outfitters who promise to get you up and down in 4 or 5 days have a high failure rate because most tourists suffer altitude sickness. Our bodies simply can't be rushed when adjusting to altitude.
On Day 1, we drove in a minibus from Arusha to the western border of the National Park. The trail starts at the Lemoscho gate, where you check in and the park authorities inspect your permits. These gents were our guides. The fellow on the left was Godlisten Moshi, the chief guide who has summited Kilimanjaro over 100  times. In the center was Dennis, and on the right, Morris. They were unfailingly helpful, polite, and cheerful. Morris was my guide in Arusha for a couple of days prior to the climb.
Then we ascended gently through dense, lush forest to Mti Mkubwa (big tree) camp at 9,000 ft elevation. The porters also check in with the rangers at each camp and have their packs weighed to ensure that they are not being forced to carry dangerous loads. The camp was crowded and noisy, and some obnoxious guys from New Hampshire stayed up much of the night laughing at their own jokes. I yelled at them, and then Godlisten yelled at them. Poor night's sleep.
Day 2, we gained the Shira Ridge and entered the great Shira Plateau, an ancient eroded volcanic lava flow and caldera complex. The vegetation was moorland, with shrubs and cacti. Now the trail was dry and powdery, and every footstep kicked up clouds of ground-up volcanic rock powder. Before long, the dust was everywhere - in your eyes, nose, socks, clothing. You blow your nose and volcanic snot comes out.
Shira 1 camp is at about 11,500 ft elevation. This was a long day and the camp was welcome. The big peak loomed above us, still a long way off. We were tired but glad to be able to see our destination. There is a road on the Shira Plateau but is only for emergency use by rangers or ambulances. The porters must carry all supplies up here. The tall tent in the photograph is the toilet tent, containing a chemical toilet. Some of the camps have latrines, but they are pretty grim.
Day 3 was a nice trek across the plateau to Shira 2 camp, at about 12,300 ft altitude. This was a good day for acclimatization. The camp itself is spread among almost-barren rocks, a bit bleak. None of our team had any altitude issues. But we were advised to drink 4 liters of water a day to help speed altitude adjustment. Four liters means getting up often at night to pee.The Diamox tablets just make it worse.
Day 4 took us up to Lava Tower Camp at 15,200 ft altitude. We still all felt well and walked strong. Consider, this is higher then Mount Rainer in Washington (14,400 ft) or Mt. Whitney in the California Sierras (14,500 ft). The tower is an eroded volcanic plug that looms above the camp. The camp was crowded with, I guess, at least 200 people total. Night was below freeing, and my thick down sleeping bag and thick socks were welcome.
On Day 5, we walked up to Arrow Glacier Camp at 16,100 ft. The plan was to stay at Arrow for a couple of hours and then descend to Lava Tower for another night, letting our bodies adapt to the altitude. The terrain at Arrow is bleak. Arrow is the last camp before the Western Breach trail, which ascends to the Reutsch Crater at 19,000 ft. The Western Breach is the most technically challenging ascent to the summit area because it is a steep and rocky scramble. This route is usually attempted by experienced hikers/climbers. In 2006, three climbers were killed by a rockfall, and the route was closed for several years.
For Day 6, the plan was to re-ascend to Arrow Glacier Camp, sleep a short night, then start up the Western Breach at 0100 on day 7. But something went very wrong. A young American couple we had met the day before had started up the Breach, and the man was killed by a rockfall (Mr. Scott Dinsmore, a Californian). The guides had already mounted a rescue, and we saw porters carrying out the body. His young wife survived and we saw a porter carrying her out on his back. Two of our porters were loaned out to that group to help with the transport. Needless to say, Western Breach was closed.
Godlisten developed an alternate plan. We did a forced march around the summit along the Southern Circuit, past the Barranco Hut (12,900 ft) and a scramble up over the Great Barranco (Barranco Wall). We continued up and down ridges in the Katanga Valley and finally climbed a ridge to the Barafu Hut (camp) at 15,100 ft. Usually this is done in two days, so we were beat.
Barafu Camp is a bleak and exposed location devoid of vegetation and with water a long way down a valley. The camp site was jammed with trek groups who, like us, had to change their plans as well as groups who had ascended via other trails. 
We awoke at 01:00 on Day 7 for the summit ascent. The temperature was about 20° F - cold but not brutal. Most of us wore all the insulation that we had. It was pitch black, but looking up the trail we could see an almost continuous train of twinkling headlamps slowly plodding upwards. We passed several groups, but it seemed like slow progress. Being in the dark was probably good for the morale because in daylight, the long way up would be intimidating. Godlisten said we walked quickly, but I think he was being diplomatic to make us feel good. Near the rim, I asked Morris to carry my day pack, and that helped. We reached the Stella Point (18,650 ft) at the crater rim exactly at sunrise, 06:30. Our 4,000-ft ascent had taken about 5 hours.
It was a glorious sunrise, with Africa spread below. Immediately the temperature rose and the wind dropped. We rested a few minutes and proceeded along the crater rim to the Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa (19,341 ft), The peak was so crowded, we had to wait our turn for the obligatory dorky group portraits in front of the sign. I estimate there were at least 100 tourists and over 100 Tanzanian guides present, so over 200 people on the summit ridge. One of my companions had not eaten in a couple of days, so Godlisten hustled him down to Barafu Camp quickly. Another, Ed, wanted to see the ash pit, so he dropped down into the crater with Dennis. Morris, Fred, and I lingered about an hour and then started back down to Barafu. Surprisingly, we were breathing and walking well at 19, 000 ft. 
The way down to Barafu in daylight revealed the bleak, dusty trail. Going down was like glissading in a snowfield, except it was in dust. There were still teams trudging up, but I was tired and glad to be heading down. Lunch was ready for us in the dining tent. Then the porters packed up the equipment and we all headed down the Mweka Trail.
By midday, the clouds had formed, as on most days, but we were still above them in the clear. The trail was easy going but still dusty and rubbly. We used walking sticks to help reduce the strain on our knees and provide balance assistance.
We continued down to Millennium Camp at 12,500 ft. We had finally dropped down into the vegetation zone with stunted trees, where the temperature was comfortable. We were exhausted but abruptly felt better. After three days at 15,000 ft, the air at 12,500 felt so thick! Our companion got his appetite back and we all slept well. By now, we were all really rank and grubby, along with our clothing.
Day 8 dawned sunny and brilliantly clear. A tradition on the last morning is for the staff and porters to sing the Jambo-Kili song. They sing this on the trail as well to help pass the time. Afterwards, we gave them tips and all seemed very pleased. Then they packed up quickly and hustled us down the Mweka Trail and on the Mweka Gate. 
As we descended, the vegetation became thicker and more lush. Eventually we entered the spectacular montaine forest, with immense trees. I described the forest (Trees of Kilimanjaro) in a previous post. With the increasing moisture, the trail changed to packed hard mud. I bet it is a slippery slushy mess in the rainy season.
Finally, the Mweka Gate, where we had a box lunch, beer, and received our official certificates. We had descended 7000 ft in about 8.5 miles today, but at least it was downhill. A minibus took us slowly back to Arusha and to our hotel, where the showers got heavy usage.

I thank Ed, Fred, Zak, Godlisten, Dennis, Morris, and the entire team for being such cheerful companions. This was a hard and rewarding trip. Everything went well - none of us got sick or injured, and we all achieved the summit. All the Tanzanians we met were unfailingly friendly and courteous. I do not know if I have the stamina for another big peak, but Mount Fuji is tempting. Next year...

If you want to take your own trip to Kilimanjaro, I strongly recommend Embark Adventures of Portland, Oregon.


Photographs taken with a Panasonic G3 micro 4/3 camera with Lumix 12-32mm lens. RAW files opened with Photoshop Elements (Adobe Camera Raw 7.4) and processed with DxO Filmpack 5, mostly with the Kodak Tri-X film emulation and yellow filter.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Into the Woods: the Kiln Colored School, Kiln, Mississippi

Before a recent trip to the Mississippi Gulf coast, I checked the Mississippi Heritage Trust's list of most endangered sites. The Jourdan River School, formerly Kiln Colored School, was on the 2015 list and was easy to reach by driving north from Waveland.
The building is in the woods just east of Mississippi 603, north of the junction of 603 and the Kiln-Delisle Road. At first, I did not know where to look, but the town's dispatcher pointed out where to stop the car and look through the trees. According to the Heritage Trust, loggers uncovered the school when they were cutting timber. Although the site was cleared, brambles and weeds are growing rampant. I predict that after one more growing season, you will be unable to reach the school unless someone clears a path with a bush hog.
The building's roof is reasonably intact, but some of the floor has rotted and boards are missing. In the photograph above, the chimney shows flues where a wood or coal stove likely stood.
I hope someone can raise funds to preserve this piece of Mississippi history. The following is from the Heritage Trust:

Mississippi Landmark Information
Designated:07-18-2014 
Recorded:08-13-2014 
Book/Vol. No.:2014/8152
Context/Comments
From Mississippi Landmark Significance Report, June 10, 2014: The Jourdan River School is locally significant for association with Education as the only remaining rural African American school in Hancock County. The only other surviving African American school, Valena C. Jones School in Bay St. Louis is a much larger Equalization-period building and represents a more urban consolidated school than Jourdan River School. Although the 1927 deed to this property refers to the “Trustees of Rosenwald School of Kiln, Mississippi” there is no evidence that this building was ever a Rosenwald school. Only one school in Hancock County (Logtown, 1921--demolished) received Rosenwald funding.

Photographs taken with a Fuji X-E1 digital camera using Fuji 27mm and 14mm lenses. RAW files processed in PhotoNinja software.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Quiet along the tracks, Bentonia and Flora, Mississippi

Bentonia is a small town in Yazoo County off Highway US 49, about 28 miles northwest of Jackson, Mississippi. The community grew up as an agricultural and postal town along the Illinois Central Railway tracks, which are on the main line between Jackson and Yazoo City. On an overcast November day in 2010, while driving from Yazoo City to Flora, I decided to pull off in Bentonia and look around. It was pretty quiet; not much was happening.
These shops on West Railroad Avenue were closed on the late afternoon when I took the photographs.
Across the tracks on East Railroad Avenue is the famous Blue Front Cafe, a juke joint that played an important role in the Blues tradition and the origin of the "Bentonia Blues." A 2006 USA Today article described the cafe.
Next to the Blue Front was a car repair shop occupying a former cotton gin shed.
The next town south (towards Jackson) is Flora. It also has the look of snoozing the decades away.
These two shops looked unused, especially the sports bar with the bush in front of the door.  Jackson is only a few minutes south on 49, and I suppose most local residents of Flora work and shop in the city. Small-town businesses have a hard time competing.

Photographs taken with a Fujifilm GW690II medium-format rangefinder camera on Kodak Panatomic-X film, developed in Agfa Rodinal developer at 1:50 dilution. I scanned the negatives on a Minolta Scan Multi scanner, cleaned lint and other marks with Faststone, and enhanced contrast and exposure with PhotoNinja software. Click any of the photographs to see a larger version.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Into the Woods: Morgan City, Mississippi

Right after Christmas 2015, my daughter, some friends, and I participated in the Audubon Society's annual Christmas bird count on the Sidon, Mississippi, count circle. I had never been there before and did not know the terrain. South of the nearby town of Morgan City (the town in Mississippi, not the city on the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana) are farm fields and remnant patches of bottomland hardwood forest.
We pulled off into a patch of woods to look for birds. There was a collapsed house there, in itself not too unusual. The former occupant left some vehicles behind. The first was an International Harvester truck. This was one of the Loadster series, which ended production in 1979. International Harvester is now known as Navistar International Corporation.
More interesting was a first generation Ford Bronco (1966-1977). This was Ford's small SUV, intended to compete with the Jeep CJ models and the International Harvester Scout.
This was a fairly rustic, basic utility vehicle, which is still respected by serious off-roaders. Notice this example had automatic transmission. Also look at the three knobs to the right of the steering wheel, of which the rightmost one is pulled out. I assume this was either the choke for the carburetor or to operate a vent damper door. Simple but effective, unlike the ├╝ber-complex electronic nightmares you see in contemporary cars.
There was not much left to the house. This is the fate of wood structures in a humid environment.

Photographs taken with a Fujifilm X-E1 digital camera and the 18mm f/2.0 lens. RAW files processed in PhotoNinja software.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Rest in Peace: Remnants of the "Sprague", Vicksburg, Mississippi

The towboat "Sprague," known as the "Big Mama," was the most powerful and high-capacity sternwheel river boat to ply the Mississippi River. A Mississippi vessel is known as a tow, but really it serves as a pusher, where the powered unit pushes a series of barges up- or down-river. The photograph above, from Mississippi department of Archives and History, shows the massive stern paddle wheel that would push the entire tow.
This is a 1946 photograph from the Standard Oil (NJ) Collection, Photographic Archives, Archives and Special Collections, University of Louisville.

Southern View wrote about the Big Mama. Some statistics from Wikipedia:
Type:Towboat
Length:276 ft (84 m)
Beam:61 ft (19 m)
Draft:7.4 ft (2.3 m)
Installed power:2,079 horsepower (1,550 kW)
Propulsion:coal-fired steam
The "Sprague" was in operation from 1902 to 1948. After it was decommissioned, it served as a museum on the Vicksburg waterfront. For decades, the Mississippi River melodrama, "Gold in the Hills" was performed onboard. The boat burned at dock on 15 April 1974 under the usual mysterious circumstances. There were plans to restore part of it, but they never came to fruition. Because it was a hazard to navigation on the Yazoo Canal, the hulk was dynamited. Some of the metal remains lay in the dirt and woods just west of North Washington Street for decades. Some bollards or capstans were moved to the Catfish Row playground on Levee street. A few more parts and and the rudder are in the parking lot next to the Klondike restaurant on North Washington Street.
But the largest metal bits are still in the thickets next to the Yazoo Canal. It is easy to reach the site, and there are no "no trespassing" signs. These two photographs show stacks and some unknown tubing.
 Some of the pipe joints have crumbling asbestos.
The boilers must have been quite impressive when intact. Note the bee holes in the packed mud.
Most of these parts are hard to see in summer, when the vines engulf everything. I don't understand why they have not been taken to Catfish Row, where tourists could see how mighty the "Sprague" was once.

Photographs taken with a Fujifilm X-E1 digital camera with Fuji 18mm f/2 lens. I processed the RAW files with DxO Filmpack 5 with the Kodak Tri-X or Agra Scala film emulations.