Climbing Kilimanjaro 4: Of mice and men

We survived the sloping camp site and we had a late start today – 8.30am. The route was characterised by more dry flood channels and a distinctly different landscape to the Western and Southern slopes we’d been walking on. Now flora was sparse and composed of only the hardiest of species. We were sown the Scottish Thistle, a surprising discovery but, once we’d seen one, a relatively common sight. Low grasses also popped their heads above the volcanic gravel.

After a beautiful sunrise, we walked in the sunshine for a bit before the inevitable mist descended once more. It was colder now and there was a thick frost on the ground. This froze the scree and made it much easier to walk on. The path was rough and once again undulating. It was impossible to tell whether we were climbing because we were crossing little ridges and dropping down again, and passing through more flood channels.

The passage of time was also hard to determine and everything came together to make an unreal few hours of walking. I’d trained in the mists of the Brecon Beacons but I had never felt anything like this. We came across another flood channel and this was was wide and deep. It wasn’t clear how we’d get to the bed to cross it and in the end, we just scrambled and slithered down the side. At the bottom, we heard voices and suddenly, the big blue toilet tent appeared through the mist. We were at Third Cave Camp. We struggled up the loose scree of the other bank and were in camp! It had taken us 3.5 hours instead of the 5-7 hours in the plan. We were getting fitter and more acclimatised.

We had a short break for dinner in the camp before another acclimatisation walk. Again, we took the route we’d be following tomorrow. This time it was a constant ascent up into the hills, heading directly for Kilimanjaro. We were walking in mist but we soon left it behind as we got higher. Eventually, after about an hour of walking we reached a point 300m above the camp site. It had been hard going because we’d pushed the pace a little but I found I recovered quickly. The trip back down took around 25 minutes. Back at camp, I sat out in the sunshine for half an hour, writing my journal, drinking tea and eating hot peanuts. It was probably the best early evening of the whole trek.

During the night, the diamox I was taking to combat altitude sickness resulted in a need to go for a pee. Despite the absolute certainty of needing to go, it took me 20 minutes from waking up to finally deciding to get out of the sleeping bag. By now, ready for this eventuality, I was already wearing trousers and a fleece to bed so the impact wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

The morning came quickly and coldly. To the north east, the sun was rising over the cloud layer again, making a beautiful sight well worth getting up for. To the south of the camp, Kilimanjaro towered above us. But it was definitely closer, and to me it seemed do-able. Once the sun had risen, it warmed the air quickly and by the time we were ready to leave it was quite pleasant.

We retraced our steps up above the camp and the path that had taken us an hour to complete without packs last night took 90 minutes this morning. Still, that was faster than I was expecting and made me feel comfortable about what was to come. Passian, our lead guide, set a good pace which pushed us a little without  tiring us too much. Occasionally we were passed by our porters who raced ahead to get the camp set up for this afternoon.

Today was a straight ascent from Third Cave, at 3900m to School Hut camp at 4770m. School Hut was our base camp for the final day’s push to the summit of Kilimanjaro and that was at the back of all our minds during the walk. Personally, I was waiting for the headache and nausea of altitude sickness to strike, as 4500m was about the time I’d experienced it in Nepal. I hardly dared think about how symptom free I’d been so far. And I was pleased to find I felt physically very fit and mentally ready to take on the long climb later tonight.

We lost track of time again and as the mist descended, of distance too. After a long stretch of walking steeply while weaving between large boulders, I caught a glimpse of several porters resting ahead. Passian saw them too, and they saw him and jumped up to continue onwards. Shortly afterwards, I thought I caught a glimpse of our blue toilet tent in the mist and a quick question to Passian confirmed that we had arrived at School Hut camp.

Years ago, the School Hut was used for trainee guides to stay in while learning how to guide on the mountain but it had long since fallen into disuse. It was now the shelter for the park ranger but still contained communal bunks. We found out later that for the price of a few beers, we could have stayed in there in relative warmth. But for now, although we could see the camp, it was remaining elusive and distant. It seemed that no matter how long we walked, it was no nearer. I adopted my ‘head down’ approach and found that after about 10 minutes, I could see it was noticeably closer. A final, cruel twist was that the last few metres was up and extremely steep and slippery slope. But we were there and after a swift signing in on the register, we were able to find our tents and rest.

We watched Four Stripe mice (large mice with four lighter coloured stripes on their necks) scurrying from rock to rock. The scavenged on scraps from trekkers and later, after we’d had dinner and returned to the tent, we found one inside looking for snacks. It jumped out and ran away but we were careful to check after that.

Passian held our summit briefing after lunch, and it had a more serious feel to it. Tonight would be the final climb to the top. It would be cold, hard going and long. We were warned to wear at least four layers of clothing on top, to drink plenty before setting out and to get as much rest as possible. We were not to wait for anyone if they dropped behind; the guides would do that and to avoid the group getting split up and perhaps walking on their own, we should all make our own progress and pace. This was a sensible if hard rule, which meant that the teamwork that had helped everyone at one time or another through the trek so far would be absent. On the other hand, it meant that everyone had the best chance of getting to the top.

After the briefing, we all retired to the tents to try and get the best 4 or 5 hours sleep we could.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro 3: The northern route

Today would be the start of our northern route diversion. Most groups would be heading up towards the Lava Towers and on to Barranco hut. We were turning off to begin the two day traverse of the northern circuit. This was one of the features of the trek that had attracted me; We would get an extra two days at altitude to aid acclimatisation, but also to enjoy being on an unspoilt and largely deserted stretch of the mountain.

Our route today followed the walk we’d completed yesterday afternoon and we soon reached the 4000m marker stone. Shortly after this our path split off to the left and we said good by to the standard trails. Now we were climbing steadily towards our goal for the day, Moir Hut camp. And as we crested the ridge we could make out the pyramid shaped hut, it’s wood bleached white in the strong sunshine. It was a surprise as we expected to be walking for several more hours but in a little over 2.5 hours, we strolled into camp.

We were in a deep and steep sided valley, bordered on three sides by tall cliffs of solidified lava. Where weathering had worn away the scree, flat sheets of lava could be seen edge on. Above the ruined pyramid hut, the three dramatic humps of the Lent Hills could be seen. This afternoon, we’d be climbing the closest, Little Lent Hill, as part of our acclimatisation programme. For now, we were content to be in camp and to have some time to rest.

After lunch and a sustained assault on the crumbs we’d dropped by bold little Seed Eater birds, we set off to scale the nearby Little Lent Hill. We started off with a scramble over a steep section of smooth lava, followed by a long tramp up the side of the valley, Underfoot, the scree was slippery and in parts it was like climbing up a sand dune, with feet slipping backwards.  But before too long we were on the ridge top and then it was a short but difficult walk over loose stones that clinked like china when they knocked together to the foot of the hill.

The route up to the top of the hill was over steep, sharp and grippy rocks and as we started up, we were passed by another group of trekkers. One woman was using supplementary oxygen, At this relatively low level (4300m) it suggested that she was struggling already. the danger would be if her supply ran out on the final climb, She’d be in trouble and would leave her group with a dilemma on whether to help or go on.

We scrambled to the top and were rewarded by magnificent views over the camp, and up to Kilimanjaro. The top of the hill was covered in delicately balanced stone piles; we’d been seeing them all along the trails so far and would continue to see them right to the top.  Coming back down again was much easier than going up apart from the constant slipping of feet on scree.

The following day, we retraced our steps up to the ridge before bearing left to avoid Little Lent Hill. We were now well on the seldom used northern circuit route and we welcomed the break and the solitude. We walked in near silence in single file. The pacing was good and the grounds, while undulating, was manageable. By late morning the mist and cloud descended and brought the temperature down., This made the walking a little easier but made the rocky, barren landscape an eerie place to be. It felt as if it would be so easy to get lost here and, according to a guidebook, someone had done just that and they were still looking for him!

We crossed several dried river channels which would carry meltwater off the mountain during the rainy seasons. They were bone dry and full of rounded boulders. The vegetation had retreated to a few hardy plants sheltering beside rocks, and lichen. We reached a high point of 4370m before dropping back down again until we arrived at Buffalo Camp site around 5.5 hours after we’d started walking.

This camp site was small and cramped. Fortunately we were the only ones there. Three tents were lined up together on a slop – next to the entrances was a drop of nearly 12 inches. This doesn’t sound like much but in the cold and dark of a midnight toilet break, this could potentially cause chaos. Our toilet tent was several vertical metres above the tents and we joked that we would need climbing rope and a belay to safely use the toilet. Inside my tent, I found that there was a large boulder for a pillow – luckily I’m short enough that I was able to avoid it. The slope, which made bothy of us slide down the tent during the night, helped as well. Nevertheless, we survived the night and were rewarded in the morning with a beautiful site of the sunrise over a layer of clouds onto which we were looking.

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