Kilimanjaro Day 3. Up Lava Tower, Down Baranco Camp

Day 3 evening. 1/2/20, 8:49pm. Baranco camp, 3700m above sea level.

[Dear Reader: I cannot publish this post from my Shelter-In-Place home in San Francisco without acknowledging the Covid-19 turn of events that has transformed our lives since this Kilimanjaro trek ended in January. I thank you – healthcare, transportation, sanitation, and food/beverage workers – for the sacrifices that you make for society on the frontlines. My mind is captivated by how our lives are already changing due to this once-in-a-demographic-generation event. Let’s be extra compassionate to one another as we weather this pandemic in the months ahead.]

Today began to test our ascent into higher altitude on the mountain.

Wake-up call: Mount Meru in the distance, packing to leave Shira Camp. How lucky were we to fall asleep as tiny, insignificant beings in this desolate landscape?
30 minutes up from Shira Camp. This is one of my favorite photos: I was nothing short of ecstatic for the Type II fun ahead.

I did not sleep well last night. I postponed an 11pm pee until the morning to avoid having to put on 5 layers to leave my tent. Well done me because I did not fall into deep sleep again for the next 7 hours. I also did not start using my sleeping bag liner yet, which accounts for a 10-degree difference in warmth. So toss and turn I did.

The nighttime cold made the morning sun all the sweeter when I began delayering after breakfast. We bid farewell to Mount Meru, a giant, majestic silhouette towering over pancakes of clouds in the distance (our guide Saidi leads 4-day hikes up Meru), and began our trek in the opposite direction toward Lava camp for lunch.

We passed through 3 different types of biomes today.

The view on the other side of the above photo, looking back toward earth.

The first was an upward trek on rocky trail, surrounded by sweeping barren rockscapes on both sides for miles. I started sweating quickly. We saw seas of clouds racing us to the mysterious mountain-top ahead, behind which Uhuru stood waiting. Maybe an hour and a bit later, the weather equilibrated to a far lower temperature, so I put my layers back on.

We were ascending from 3700m to 4600m (Lava Tower) for lunch. Around 3 hours in, the first feelings of headaches and nausea hit a few members of our group. But we stayed chatty and ploughed on. There were a few creek crossings, with streams of glacial water running down from multiple directions. I touched it. It was cold but less icy than I expected.

I had everyone smile for a creek-crossing moment!

“Look over here, people!”
Getting closer and closer to Lava Camp for lunch. We approached small groups ranging from 4 hikers to soloists, accompanied by their porters. We took breaks every 30 minutes or so.
The “gate” up ahead signaled Lava Camp’s arrival. Soon, behind the clouds on the left, you’ll see a breathtaking peak obscured by constantly changing weather.

Just as a mild headache began to seep toward me too, we approached some large epic rock formations that signaled our arrival at Lava Camp. This took a little over 4 hours.

Uhuru Peak is visible above us. How fickle the weather turns up here! Winds snake around us and then strip the peak bare of fog to give us a brief glimpse of the grand prize and its snowy demeanor. Then it was gone.

Clouds parting to reveal Lava Tower, 4600m above sea level. Alpine desert. Now we’re 2 hours away from Baranco Camp, our base for the night.
Rest break at the highest point we have ascended so far.

As we ate under the mess tent, the sun warmed and then the winds cooled our tent back and forth. I kept my double layers of long sleeve and thin fleecy jacket on at all times even though the temperature got quite hot.

Today’s fried chicken made everyone’s day. Followed by Camille’s luxurious PB and Nutella sandwich and food that warmed everyone’s stomachs and mild altitude headaches.

Our beloved staff serving potatoes and fried chicken in the mess tent.

And then our guide told an ominous story about ostrich mating antics (main hen, secondary hen, shifting mother and father incubation duties, sacrifices to crocodiles). I remain mystified by what the moral of this story is.

Captivating his audience. Striking a little fear into their hearts.
Me outside our mess tent (right, yellow). I stood up too quickly after lunch but generally felt no altitude effects today, fortunately. My nose was sniffling all day long, though my skin only started peeling around day 5.

Leaving the tent gave me a distinct and uncomfortable feeling of standing up too quickly. Fortunately, we had completed our ascent for the day and were heading down.

I learned to use my trekking poles for the first time in my life today. They sure did their job on the descent. I saved my knees that day – and the 4 days to come – but tore my ACL a few months later skiing. Well-timed, Melissa!

The two scenes I remember most vividly this afternoon are the first set of stone gates flanking our steep descent immediately post lunch:

The exit “gates” on departing from Lava Tower. These rock structures were massive. I wonder if the opening in the middle is naturally formed.

Followed by the stunning landscape that graced us for the next 2 hours:

2 hours trekking through eery, surreal scenery, so untouched by humanity that my imagination couldn’t have conjured it if I tried. The mist rolled down the slopes in consistent waves.
The crew! I miss these people a lot.
The boys.

There’s a giant slope that scales our entire field of vision on the left, created by “ham” glaciers that used to crawl over the soil thousands of years ago. Can you imagine what that would’ve looked like? A quick Google showed that 85% of the glaciers observed by explorers in the 1910s had melted. At the current rate, most of the glaciers on Kilimanjaro will have melted by 2040. Global warming was running its toll.

I was also enthralled by a dense mist that consistently rolled down these slopes. I was happy walking alone to enjoy the vastness and peace of the place.

This sounds silly to publish but I fell in love with a species of tree that oddly resonated with my personality: out there, slightly clumsy, bursting with pineapple-like bulbs, and an utter delight to view. I need to ask for its name again.

We took 1 or 2 breaks along the way before a wonderful site finally greeted us: Baranco camp. This campsite was one of the bigger ones because Lemosho and Machame (us) hikers merge routes here. Over 80 colorful tents, probably more, dotted an area larger than a soccer field. It felt oddly nice to be surrounded by other humans again.

Baranco campsite was a beauty.
Once all the world’s light was extinguished post-sunset, you can see Moshi’s city lights blink in the distance.

I last experienced altitude over 4600m at Yading on the Sichuan/Tibetan plateau in China. Back then, I did not acclimate properly outside of a 3-hour bus ride up to 4200m and then walking the next 45 minutes to 4800m. It was steep. I remember needing to sit down after 30 minutes and hearing my own heart pound.

In contrast, my generally neutral reaction to today’s acclimatization trek made me feel optimistic about my well-being in the days ahead. I maintained a large appetite as usual and consciously tried to drink at least 4L of water per day.

4 people had lost their appetites by dinner time and we had one team member puke on the descent. I hope everyone feels better by tomorrow.

I’ve gotten better at setting up what I need first thing in the morning inside my tent compartments before bedtime: head lamp, jackets (pillows), hand sanitizer, toiletries.

Simpler times.
Enjoying state change from day to night.

Above our tent, the African night sky hangs its most magnificent display of stars for all to see, with Uhuru Peak’s slashes of snow glowing bright white not far under the universe’s tapestry. A solid 10 hours stand between our 7am wake up call.

Tomorrow will be a shorter 4-hour trek from 3900m to 3995m, with some acclimation at 4200m in between. Day 5 will be another 4-hour trek before we nap… and then it’s summit night!!!

Good night.

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