Lemosho Route – Baranco to Barafu
Stepping out of the tent as light returned to the sky, I was feeling better than the night before, but I still wasn’t feeling great. I had cut my diamox down to once a day, skipping the evening dose which had alleviated the nighttime shortness of breath, but I still felt tired and lethargic, and my stomach still felt uncomfortable. Thankfully the headache had gone, but my appetite was low, and I again had to force feed myself breakfast. Our camp spot had been down in a dip, so it was only once we’d packed up and headed up to the ridge beside us that I suddenly realised what the big deal about the Baranco Wall was. Off to the side of the camp was a tall and wide cliff face. I had seen it the day before as we’d descended, but never for a minute had I fathomed that we actually had to scale it. I’d assumed the track skirted round the bottom of it, but in the early morning light, all I could see was a stream of people dotted up the sheer cliff face and my heart sunk a little. It looked tough, and physical and I just didn’t feel like I had the energy for it. Our head guide G Daddy checked in with me and after I assured him that my headache had gone and I was vaguely better, we set off.
Everybody from Baranco Camp was heading in the same direction, and soon after leaving the campsite, the trail narrowed and started to climb onto the cliff face. The pace slowed right down and immediately we joined a queue of people at the first climbing point. My breathing was ok, but it was my tiredness and sore stomach that I had to suppress and block out. The pace was so slow with regular pauses to let the people in front get out the way, that it never felt exhausting and it was only when we were about half way up the cliff that I realised that not only was I feeling better, but I was actually enjoying the Baranco Wall, and it wasn’t anything to stress about at all. There were places that involved using your hands to haul yourself up or across narrow ledges, and I can imagine if you had vertigo that this would have been a frightening section of the hike, but for me it was a welcome change to the style of hiking that had been the previous 4 days on the trail, and the higher we got, and the better I felt, the happier I became and the more I enjoyed it. In fact it felt like we reached the top in no time at all and I was almost sad to have finished it.
The valley which we’d ascended from had been in shadow the whole way up, but by the time we’d summited the wall, sunshine lit up the campsite and the far ridge as well as Kibo Massif which now sat to our left. To our right, there was a staged drop-off towards the Plains which lay shrouded in clouds. There was a second section to the Baranco Wall, which we made light work of, and finally at the true top, we took a breather and some group photos to celebrate. The cloud which had been below us began to lift as we were there and soon after leaving we found ourselves within it. The gradient of the next section was mild and what we could see among the cloud looked barren, but the overall perspective of where we were heading was lost, with only the sight of people disappearing ahead of us and appearing behind us to see. The cloud lifted and dropped as we walked, giving us brief glimpses of a wider landscape.
As we continued across this vague plateau, the usual conundrum of where to find privacy to go to the toilet arose. There generally was none. Any boulder cluster would be quickly commandeered, but nothing ever offered 360 degree privacy, and there was always the likelihood of someone behind spotting you with your pants down. Not to mention that it was clear where the popular spots were, as often there was a pile of paper or wet wipes to negotiate just to find a spot to balance on. It was definitely the gross side of the mountain, as even without the litter that had been left, the amount of urine and human faeces that were present was pronounced. As is often the case, the negative impact of tourism and adventure travel is a hard pill to swallow and I could see first hand why hiking Mt Kilimanjaro in the current manner is becoming contentious.
After a while, we found ourselves at the top of a ridge with a valley below us. Across the valley and up an equally tall ridge lay our next campsite. There was a lot of loose scree on the trail, meaning I had to focus on my feet for most of the way down, but I was able to notice the pocket of vegetation that was thriving in this valley where shelter and water allowed life to flourish. Only when I was looking back from the valley floor did I appreciate how steep the descent had been, but on the flip side, there was now a similar gradient to negotiate to get up the other side. Again, there was a bit of loose scree to negotiate, and it meant there was a vague queue to get started up the slope, and we watched as a steady stream of people worked their way up. I was slow on the ascent, using my hiking poles to my advantage to get purchase and optimise my energy output. When we reached Karanga Camp on the top, it was surrounded by cloud, limiting our view. The site was broad and exposed but it meant the campsite didn’t feel too crowded despite the numbers of people staying there.
At 3995m (13107ft), we were less than 100m (328ft) higher than Baranco Camp but these gains and losses were essential to give my body the best chance of adapting. We hung out as a group together as the hours passed, and only as the sun was setting did the cloud level drop back below us to expose the campsite a little. My oxygen saturation remained stable at 92% and I was glad that the headaches were keeping away. I was still tired though and now the cold was really starting to hit. Even wrapped up in layers whilst we ate dinner, it was hard to stay warm, and at night in my thick sleeping bag, I struggled to get warm, waking up often and having to pile clothes into the bag to insulate me further. The more layers I wore and the more insulation I put in the bag, the more restricted and claustrophobic I felt, and on several occasions I woke up feeling trapped and having to stifle a panic.
On paper, day 6 on the Lemosho trail didn’t look too bad. And in terms of distance it wasn’t, but not only would we end up camping at our highest point yet on the hike, we’d have only a few hours rest and sleep before setting off at midnight to push for the summit. As always, there was just a vague hint of light in the air as we rose, but with the cloud off the mountain, we got to watch the sky brighten up as the sun rose, and although it was cold, it became a beautiful day. It became clear that we had camped right next to the Kibo Massif, and our plan for the day was to continue our circumnavigation of it round to the eastern flank where the ascent trail lay. Immediately the trail headed uphill but despite the rocky terrain and lack of vegetation, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of Kibo. Ignoring the effects of the altitude, it looked so achievable, and less of a hardship than some of the mountains I’d summited in New Zealand. Right then I could have been in Tongariro National Park; it reminded me of that volcanic landscape so much. At one point there was another collection of stone cairns laid by those who’d hiked before us, and we paused here to rest and take photographs.
A ridge of rock swept down from the summit to the trail as we continued our climb, and looking back from here, Mt Meru, a nearby peak in the neighbouring national park looked both close and far away at the same time as it stood tall amidst the haze. We crossed a plateau under the rocky ridge before climbing up a neighbouring ridge. Here we reached a track junction: turning left would take us to our campsite and, all being well, the summit of Africa’s highest mountain; turning right was the descent route. We turned north to follow this ridgeline to the Barafu camp, our second-to-last camp site before leaving the mountain behind. At 4673m (15331ft), this was the highest point I’d hiked to both on the trail and in my entire life. The campsite was very spread out and balanced on a ridge with some people on the ridge top, and others like ourselves, having to descend into rocky crevices to squeeze into small flat areas where only 1 or 2 tents could fit. After signing in at the cabin, we spent the rest of the day down in our little pocket of Barafu. The rest of the campsite was visible above us, but Kibo had once again been swallowed by cloud, and for the rest of the daylight hours, it remained out of sight.
Just negotiating the space between our tents and the portaloos or the food tent was a threat to the ankles with large boulders and small loose rocks everywhere. Even the guylines of the tents were a trip hazard here and I had to make a mental note of what was around me in order to be safe once darkness fell. As we ate our dinner, the oxygen saturation monitor was passed around and despite the jump in altitude I was surprised to see that my oxygen saturation had increased to 94%, a sign that my body was responding to the increased stress I was putting it under. It had become obvious that our food offerings had changed as we’d ascended. Several of us were struggling to eat everything that we were given, but in the lower camps we’d had red meat, and then it turned to white meat meals, and now we were on a vegetarian diet. It wasn’t just due to the freshness of the meat that could be provided, but also a well thought out plan by the chefs to acknowledge how our digestive system would be coping at altitude. I’d made the decision before Karanga Camp that I was going to stop the diamox tablets. I was sure they were giving me some undesired symptoms, and I wasn’t convinced they were doing much to help with the effects of the altitude. I had by now missed several doses and I wasn’t the only one. Several of us hadn’t liked the effect that it had on us, so whilst a few of the group continued with their prescriptions, a couple of us had stopped, and a few of the group had never even started to take it in the first place.
Nerves and excitement built as dinner came to an end. Where on the previous nights we had sat up chatting until the coldness or tiredness had sent us to bed, this night we had only a few hours to rest before our 11pm wake-up call, so as soon as our debrief was done, we retreated to our tents in anticipation. The moment of truth was not far from us, and I for one was excited and nervous all rolled into one. It was hard to relax enough to sleep, and I actually didn’t think I would sleep but both myself and my tent companion managed to drop off for a bit. I’d needed every single layer I had to be just warm enough to fall asleep, something which should have raised alarm bells for me for the summit attempt. But in that moment, there was just me and my emotions, drifting off into a brief lull ahead of one of the biggest days of my life.