Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 3: Lava Tower, part I)

Distance: 7 km
Altitude: 4,600 m
Date: Jan. 30, 2018

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A porter carrying 20 kg of gear to Barranco Camp

I poke Sieu to see what time it is, “Ugh, it’s 5:30am!” … I bet he is really starting to regret bringing a watch on this trip. Once again, I am too excited to sleep and feel quite rested after a warmer night’s sleep. The night was not warm but I had finally figured out how to tighten the hood on my sleeping bag so that only my mouth was exposed to the frigid temperatures. 

 As I lie here and think about the day to come, I can’t help but wonder: Will today be the day that I succumb to the altitude? Today is our acclimatization day. We will be hiking up to Lava Tower for lunch (4,600 m) and then descending to Baranco Camp for the night (3,900 m). The purpose of this is to expose our bodies to a higher altitude to give it a chance to adapt. By hiking high and sleeping low, we are hoping to decrease our risk of altitude sickness and, in return, increase our success of summiting Mount Kilimanjaro.

I have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that today is going to be a hard day. Lying here, I decide to take a few deep cleansing breaths, in an attempt to re-oxygenate my blood. Deep breath in … long exhale out. I then take a few sips of water from the bottle that I had put in my sleeping bag the night before. The water is still warm and tastes like chlorine. I assess my body: my legs feels strong, my back feels ready, my body feels rested, but my mind feels slightly battered from the cold of the past two nights. The cold. My kryptonite. My weakness. Last night, as I crawled into my sleeping bag, my bones ached and my vocal cords whimpered as I spoke to Sieu. I shudder at that thought and remind myself to stay strong.

My thoughts are interrupted by a tapping on the tent. “Good morning!!!!” I quickly respond. I poke Sieu for the official wake-up call. As he removes his ear plugs and lifts his eye mask, he’s greeted by my bright and excited eyes, “Coffee time!!!” As I take my first sip, the hot coffee kisses my lips and soothes my soul. I stay nestled in the depths of my warm sleeping bag, which is always the last thing that I pack before starting my day.

After my coffee, I follow the advice from our guides and dress in layers. They had recommended this because today’s hike will leave us exposed to the elements. While packing my day bag, I rub against the side of our tent and notice how there is no condensation on it this morning, but rather frozen droplets of ice that had gathered on the outside. This surprises me because the well-illuminated tent gives off the illusion of it being warmer outside. 

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Shira Cave Camp

As we begin our hike, the frozen ground crunches beneath our feet. The crystals of ice look like clear snowflakes resting on the frozen mud. The heavy clouds from yesterday have dissipated, leaving a brilliant blue sky. We can clearly see Kilimanjaro in front of us, which is getting closer with each passing day. Although this hike seems endless, I enjoy that we are visibly walking towards this magnificent mountain. With every step I take, I am one step closer! Nicole is hiking behind me this morning. It has truly been a pleasure getting to know her during this trip. Her personality reminds me of the Japanese tradition of wabi sabi – she truly accepts and embraces the beauty of people’s imperfections, which I find very admirable. We chat about motorcycles for a bit, as this is an interest that we both share. 

A few hours into the hike, the landscape gradually changes to drab and grey. The clouds, which were initially below us, have now risen to cloak our blue skies and we can no longer see Kilimanjaro in front of us. I notice how the air is also becoming drier; my lips and nose feel parched and my eyes feel gritty. I retrieve my lip balm from the front pocket of my bag and find a piece of gum to keep my mouth moist. We continue along a dry and dusty path, which passes through the middle of an inhabitable looking environment. As I look around, I notice sparse amounts of vegetation scattered throughout mounds of charcoal colored lava rocks. I feel as though I am exploring a new planet, since there are very little signs of life, even amongst our tired group.

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The Path to Lava Tower

My breath becomes more laboured as we gain altitude, despite our slow and steady pace. The air is crisp yet it does not satisfy the hunger of my lungs. I am not alone in feeling like this. Our group, which is normally very chatty, seems particularly quiet today. The overall morale seems to be taking a bit of a dip today. I observe how especially Nhung doesn’t seem like herself. She has her earphones in and is listening to music; she appears to be very concentrated on moving forward but lacks her usual zest. I think it is safe to assume that the altitude is starting to tighten its cold and cruel grip around our group. 

As we continue to hike, Mother Nature tortures us with her indecisiveness. The weather fluctuates between hot and cold, forcing us to breathlessly remove and replace our layers of clothing. As we hike higher and become engulfed in the cool mist of the clouds, the dry and desolate land becomes muddy and wet. We step carefully through certain parts of the trail in an effort to keep our feet dry and shoes clean.

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I notice San balancing from one rock to another and decide to give him a playful shove, in an attempt to brighten this somber atmosphere. Oh and did it ever! As I do this, San loses his balance, steps into the mud, slips, and heads face first into the muck. Luckily, he catches himself with his hands before taking a complete nose dive. This one playful shove quickly turns into a massive (and dirty!) guilt trip. I am in complete shock of this situation! San stands up slowly and regains his balance. He pauses for a second and looks at me with mud dripping from his fingers. He then bursts out laughing. We both laugh as I retrieve baby wipes from my day bag to help him get cleaned up. It wasn’t long, however, before our laughter was cut as short as our breath was. All of this excitement and commotion leaves us both feeling very winded. San takes a seat on a rock in an attempt to catch his breath. One of the guides notices this and quickly comes over to check on us; he tells me to continue forward to catch up with our group and that he will stay back with San.

As I walk by myself, I am feeling overwhelmed with guilt. I look up ahead at our group and then behind me at San. What a dumb move! I am so relieved that San had not fallen in the mud face first, leaving him not only dirty and wet for the remainder of the day, but also with one less set of clothes for this trek. As I cross a small creek and climb up a small, steep hill, I notice a massive mountain of lava rocks resting on the top. This must be Lava Tower! As I summit this hill, I see our group standing next to our green mess tent with some of our G-Fighters.

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Our entire team with our five G-Adventure guides at Lava Tower Camp

It’s our first day feeling any effects from the altitude. It is such a strange feeling to be so easily short of breath from such little exertion. A slow walk, a good laugh, a short story – all leaves us breathless! Other than this, I am feeling quite well! I have no nausea, no headache, and I still have a good appetite. Speaking of which, it is lunchtime! I pull back the door on the mess tent and what do I see?

 

To Be Continued in…
Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 3: Baranco Camp, part II)