Kilimanjaro-Day 3

September 21, 2007

Shira Hut to Barranco Hut via the Lava Tower

Total Distance: 6.55 Miles
Total Ascent: 2,600 ft.
Total Descent: 2,100 ft.
Ending Altitude: 13,100 ft.
Maximum Altitude: 15,200 ft.

I woke the next morning and lay in the warmth of my sleeping bag for a while. The air was noticeably cold, and I could see my breath. Before long I heard the smooth voice of Zuberi with his thick Swahili accent, “Hello, how are you? How did you sleep?” I sat up and unzipped the tent door. He and Araztu, another porter, were there to offer a hot morning cup. I noticed that the dull pain in my stomach was mostly gone, which felt great. I washed and dressed and went to the dining tent. There I ate a generous breakfast including scrambled eggs, bacon and toast. It was good to have an appetite again.

Outside the weather was clear. Our tents were covered with a light frost, and last night’s wash water was frozen in the plastic basins. The sun was still behind the peak, but the sky was bright and blue. The only clouds we could see were far below us, a vast unbroken carpet covering the savannah. They extended as far as the eye could see and were interrupted only the protruding peak of Mt. Meru. To the East we had a clear, imposing view of the summit rim.

Before long the sun crested the peak and began to warm the air. I quickly packed my bags and prepared for the day’s journey. I was ready early, and while I waited Tad asked if I would like to start out with him. Soon we were moving up the ridge directly towards the peak. I was ecstatic to be feeling better, and we sauntered along at a good pace. The trail followed a gentle, consistent grade along the Shira Plateau, eventually turning south toward the Baranco Valley. In order to “climb high and sleep low” Kambona lead us over a part of the trail that passed near the lava tower. At the saddle, the trail would top out at 15,200 feet, the highest point we would reach until summit day. It would also exceed my previous altitude record by nearly 1,500 vertical feet. Because of this I was keenly aware of how I was feeling and watching closely for any signs of altitude sickness.

As beautiful as the day started, around 10:00 a.m. the clouds began to encroach on the blue sky. As we climbed they grew thicker until we found ourselves once again shrouded in a misty fog. The wind continued to pick up, and in the absence of sunshine the temperature was noticeably cold. We hiked along passing members of other groups and being passed by porters burdened with enormous loads.

As lunch time approached the temperature was much lower than it had been in the morning sun. At one point we passed a group whose guides had spread a blanket on the ground next to the trail. The blanket had a stack of cold sandwiches and fruit on it, and I heard them say it was lunch time. This was quite a contrast to Kambona’s camp, and I already appreciated the upcoming chance to get out of the weather for lunch.

We continued on, but the weather turned darker and colder. As we reached the lunch spot it began to drizzle. We added a fleece layer and a shell and sat down on a rock to wait. Our porters brought out a couple of chairs for us. As we waited, the drizzle turned to snow pellets and the wind blew them horizontally. Soon the remainder of our group arrived and we entered the tent for lunch. Seldom had warm soup ever tasted so good to me. I don’t remember what type of soup it was, but I do remember how it warmed me.

Now that we had reached the high point of the day, I was encouraged to see that I was still feeling good. Slowly my confidence was returning. After lunch we continued past the lava tower. At breakfast there had been some talk about scaling it. The top of the tower exceeds 15,700 ft, and Tad thought it would be fun to climb it. However the inclement weather extinguished any desire to make an attempt. The clouds were so dense that only a vague, gray outline of the top was visible from its base. The rain and snow were making the ground slippery and muddy. It was clear that this wouldn’t be a good idea. So we trudged on towards Barranco.

After passing the lava tower the trail descends sharply into a deep ravine and then climbs back up sharply to a ridge that looks out over the distant Baranco Valley. Here our poles proved extremely useful as we worked our way down the damp, rocky trail. Baranco Camp rests at 13,100 ft, so after climbing out of this ravine, the remainder of the day’s walk is a gradual descent from this ridge. Within a mile or two from camp, the trail is flanked by an attractive mountain stream. Soon we could see the familiar yellow domes of our tents in the distance. Once our camp was in site, I estimated that we only had 30 to 45 minutes left to walk. This was my first experience with the deceptive appearance of distance on Kilimanjaro. I would ultimately learn that at times you could see camp from hours away. It actually took us over two hours to get to camp from that point.

This is the moorland zone and it is characterized by the senecio trees and lobelia plants that dot the rocky hillsides. Some of the senecio were eight and ten feet tall. Occasionally they clustered in large groups giving the appearance of a strange, alien grove. But more commonly they were thinly scattered across the rocky slopes and ridges.

The clouds continued to obscure the landscape. As we reached the final approach to camp, they rolled dramatically through the valley giving the illusion of time-lapse photography. The stream to our left rolled swiftly over its rocky bed and occasionally fell abruptly in series of picturesque cascades. Occasionally the clouds would thin to tease us with a view of camp, but it never looked as if we were getting any closer. The trail was uneven, which made it difficult to strike a steady pace. Once again our poles proved useful we worked our way down the rocky path. The trail wasn’t extremely steep; however, at times it was like stepping down large rocky stairs that were still slightly wet and muddy from the rain that had fallen earlier in the day. Finally after what seemed like many hours we arrived at Baranco Camp.

I rested in my tent for a while pleased with having felt no effects from the altitude at the lava tower. It put me in good spirits and helped my confidence regarding summit day. But when I emerged from my tent, I found that the clouds had been concealing a menacing sight. Earlier as we descended towards camp, the only view we had of the landscape surrounding our camp was of a great talus slope that dropped from the shoulder of the mountain to the base of the camp. But the clouds had now cleared, and for the first time I saw the looming Baranco wall. It was much more impressive in person than it had been in the articles I had read. I knew from my study that the next morning’s ascent of the wall would be a moderate scramble of about 800 vertical feet. However, standing there I would have judged it to be at least twice that height and a very difficult and dangerous climb.

Dinner that night was the usual cheery conversation. By now we had fallen into a comfortable routine and meals were enjoyable, not only for the food, but for the company. After dinner we dutifully performed our nightly routine of washing up, brushing our teeth, and preparing our equipment for the next day. Well after dark I drifted off to sleep thinking and wondering about the wall.