Itinerary: 8-Day Lemosho via Western Breach and Crater Camp
Wed (Kili Day 4):
Adam, who used to wake us up with hot water for tea/coffee in the mornings, had decided to start addressing me as "mama" at some point and used to say "mama, hot water" when he "knocked" on the tent at the designated time, which varied based on when we were supposed to leave on the climb. With my pre-dawn waking habits, I did not need any waking up and usually had been outside the tent at least once by the time he came. Of all the things I've been called, "mama" was not one and it wasn't something to be taken lying down, so I decided to start calling him Adam "mwana" (Swahili for "son"). He smiled amiably when I told him of my name-calling plan and did not seem uncomfortable. I was told later that "mama" is not only used for "mother" but could also be used to address a woman (of a certain age) respectfully. I don't know if that was supposed to make me feel better. I most definitely am not a woman of a certain age yet. But, I suppose, for a lad in his mid-20s or so, his own mother was most probably younger than me.
We did not have a very long climb ahead of us today, just under 2.5 miles, so we started a little later than on previous days, around 9A. Once the sun came out, the temperature used to rise by 15-20 degrees within a couple of hours from what it used to be in the pre-dawn hours when I woke up. Our destination today was the Lava Tower, which is literally a tower of cooled lava from Kili's volcanic past that rises up from the otherwise gentle rise of the mountain here. The hike today was through rocky/rock-strewn terrain but no steps. Almost all vegetation was gone now save for a few clumps of grass here and there.
The route gets crowded here because climbers coming up via Machame (another popular route to climb Kili) merge with the Lemosho climbers (our route) as one approaches the Lava Tower. After hiking for about 3 hours, we reached the Lava Tower. It had started out sunny but by the time we reached Lava Tower, clouds were rolling in and it was windy and colder. There is no Park Ranger station at Lava Tower to register oneself upon arrival. There had been none at Moir Camp either the previous day and Mhina said we won't be seeing any more on our route. Our tents were already set up as were lots of other tents. These tents are all set up on a smallish flat clearing near the base of the Lava Tower. Most tents were kitchen and dining tents as the vast majority of climbers do not camp here overnight but just stop for lunch. That includes both climbers who come up via Machame and those who come via Lemosho because after this, the route to the summit is the same for both. Those attempting the Western Breach summit route would camp here, whether they came via Machame or Lemosho and the rest would only halt for lunch. There was much noise and activity while various groups arrived, ate and passed through. This is the highest point for the day for those who continue on. From here, they descend to Barranco, their next camp, so Lava Tower makes for a good acclimatization routing on their climb.
I had read about some people climbing the Lava Tower (about 300 feet tall) as their acclimatization activity at this camp. It requires rock-climbing skills of probably not very advanced nature. But I neither rock-climb nor does it hold any appeal for me to give it a try. Thankfully, that was not to be our acclimatization activity. LV, who had rock-climbing experience, considered going up a little bit but abandoned the idea pronto after going near the tower which she reported smelled like a toilet. By mid-afternoon, the crowds seemed to have left for Barranco camp and the 9-day Lemosho group who were also summitting via WB had set up camp further downhill. So, we had Lava Tower to ourselves. After lunch and some rest, we were to go on an acclimatization hike towards Arrow Glacier camp, our next higher camp on the itinerary.
For the uninitiated, one of the challenges of doing any physical activity at high altitude (typically, anything above 8K' or 2500m) is getting affected by AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Every individual reacts to high altitude differently. Also, the same person can react to it differently at different times. Symptoms can be none to mild to severe to fatal (if ignored). The risk always exists. AMS is not very well understood but there are several recommended guidelines that one can follow to enhance one's chances of not being affected. One of those guidelines is to "climb high sleep low". That means you should camp/sleep at a lower altitude than the highest altitude you've attained on a given day. Acclimatization is about the body adjusting to the changing environment. If the environment (incl. altitude) is changed slowly, the body can adjust to it on its own. So, walking "polé polé" is sound advice towards that goal. However, there is no absolute definition of "slow". What is slow for one person may not be slow enough for another, hence the different ways different people react to altitude gain. But there are guidelines about daily ascension rates to help minimize the risk of AMS. If the body is acclimatized at a given altitude, you are not affected by AMS at that altitude (and can climb higher the next day). When you've climbed higher than your sleeping altitude, you've exposed your body to the higher altitude already and it's easier for the body then to adjust to your (lower) sleeping altitude. So, small acclimatization activities (hikes and climbs) are often incorporated in climbing itineraries, if the route does not automatically do it. We were camping/sleeping at Lava Tower tonight which, at 14.9K', was the highest altitude we had attained today. So we were to go on a short acclimatization hike to a higher point.
It was a one hour hike so I did not carry anything with me except my camera. The clouds had gone and it was bright and sunny once again. We climbed for some 40 minutes to reach our destination. The 9-day Lemosho climbers, including G&L, were already there on their acclimatization hike. Their itinerary had them stay 2 nights here at Lava Tower, so we wouldn't be seeing them after today. From the top point of the acclimatization hike, we could clearly see the Western Breach straight up ahead. We would be climbing that in two days to reach the crater. The rim of the Kibo crater was seen in a greater detail here and we were now so close to the top end of Kili that we could not quite see it as a mountain anymore. Kili is made up of three separate volcanic cones - Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira. The latter two are extinct. The familiar photo that we recognize Kili by is actually Kibo. Shira collapsed half a million years or so ago and Mawenzi (~16K') is a decaying lava peak to the east of Kibo, dangerous and off limits for climbing, I was told.
The Arrow Glacier camp area was not visible from here though it was somewhere between where we were and the WB. I could not get any feel for the difficulty of going up WB by looking at it. Distances, gradients, elevations, and most importantly, the effort required to navigate them seem to be totally misleading at high altitudes as I had experienced before. I am not sure if it's because the total absence of trees or other "normal" large objects on the landscape makes it difficult for you to grasp the scale of everything you're seeing or what. When I say misleading, I mean the reality for me has been harder than the guesstimate. We sat there chatting with the other group and taking pictures for a few minutes. And I had to catch my breath. I continued to pant a lot while climbing even though I had no other difficulties. But I never felt breathless at rest, so I wasn't overly concerned.
As we got ready to descend back to the Lava Tower camp, I realized that I would need my trekking poles which I had left back at the camp. I don't need/use poles to ascend but need them for descents. So I wasn't anticipating having to use them at any time till after we had reached the summit and begun the descent. But I carried my poles on my backpack every day because the guides told me to, just in case I needed them some time. I had forgotten all about the descents on acclimatization hikes. I can descend without poles on softer, firmer and less slippage-prone terrain but this was mostly loose, gravelly terrain now and unsupported descents are not a good idea for me at such places. I have bad knees due to cartilage damage sustained in my pre-teen years. So I have to watch it. Thankfully, G&L both used poles during their climb every day, so they had the poles with them. L offered to lend me his for the descent. I would've been happy with just one but he insisted I take both, so I did, with a little bit of guilt. Generous of him, and of G, as L took one of hers (or she gave) :). We were back at our respective camps in 15-20 minutes without any mishaps.
The sky was now completely free of the afternoon clouds, there was no noticeable wind and the sun was going to set soon. The moon had risen too and was on top of the crater. It was going to be full moon tomorrow and looked lovely. I enjoyed the views, the sunset and being out while there was light. We had gained about 1500' net elevation today from the last camp and were at almost 15K' now. It was getting obvious how doing small things made you breathless easily. By now, it was a given that only one of Mhina or Ari would eat with us at any meal time. The other one used to eat with the rest of the crew. The "western" food served on the climbs to (mostly) western clients was not something they enjoyed and they felt comfortable enough with us to express that. We understood. There was always sliced fresh fruit and excellent avocado slices at every meal and I marvelled at how they managed to keep the fruits in good condition and carried them up undamaged, ripe and fit to be served. After dinner that night when Mhina took our O2 readings etc., he told us to take our time to roll up our sleeping bags and pack our duffels in the morning, not rush through anything and to ask the porters for help if needed.
The temperature dropped fast once the sun set. It was going to be a cold night. I was soon in my sleeping bag in multiple layers of clothing. Despite my more-than-expected panting and feeling more-than-expected cold, I was quite content about my climb today. Unlike on previous days, I did not feel I had done unsatisfactorily. And suddenly it clicked. There were no steps on the trail to Lava Tower. Steps are bad on the knees. I can do inclines, even inclines with a steep gradient. I can adjust my speed according to the gradient and altitude to suit my ability but steps are a completely different thing, esp when they are of "inconvenient" height that I cannot casually go up and down on. My legs do not enjoy steps and there is no rhythm to the climb if one has to constantly break one's stride to navigate those blasted things. It's like driving in stop-and-go traffic, no fun at all. I hoped that this was the right explanation for my earlier dissatisfaction about my climbing and felt more optimistic. My self-doubts were dispelled for the time being at least, so that was a good feeling.
Some time around 10P or so, I got woken up by some sound on the tent. It sounded like it was raining hard. But I soon realized it wasn't rain but very very strong winds. My tent was zipped up and tethered down, so I wasn't being affected by the wind in any way and tried to go back to sleep. I got a few winks and then woke to much commotion outside. I could hear LV talking outside her tent and also other people. I heard someone tell her to go back in her tent. I wondered if she had gone out to investigate the commotion. But I did not let my curiosity rise to the level that would cause me to investigate too. I was warm and comfy in my sleeping bag and was not about to give it up unless absolutely necessary. The winds howled for hours. I counted at least 3 hours between the first time I got woken up by them and the last time I checked my watch while they were still going strong. But some time during the night, they died down.
Part 5 to be continued...