I awoke very early in the morning to the sound of a gentle wind and a light crackling on the tent. A short wave of panic ran through me and in a flash I sat up and listened intently. I was certain it was raindrops and all I could imagine was having to scale the 245m (800ft) sheer rock Barranco Wall in a wet slippery downfall.
Scrambling had been something that terrified me. I was comfortable considering myself a trekker, but a trail that required anything more than my feet was beginning to enter into mountaineering territory, and for a long time I was not willing to go there. Being so exposed with a possibility of falling was not what I considered fun. But too many rewarding treks require some measure of scrambling and so as part of my training I pushed myself through the fear and eventually found a little joy in it.
Unless it was in the rain. I was sure that I would slip and fall to my death in the rain.
I stewed over this for awhile until our wake up call at 6a. Dickson wanted us to get an earlier start to get well ahead of the porters, as passing on the narrow steep rocky trail was precarious at best. Reluctantly, I unzipped the tent to venture out into the inevitable and was immediately relieved to discover the air dry and crisp as each morning before. Apparently, the crackle of the stiff canvas deceived me and I worried for nothing.
We eventually set off at 7.45a, slightly later than Dickson had scheduled. The short trek out of camp led us across an ice capped river and to the base of the Barranco Wall, where several other trekkers were already queuing up to ascend. Strapping my trekking poles to my pack, I finally began the hour long scramble to the top.
To my relief, much of the climb was actually quite easy. I was even enjoying myself, until the guide said we arrived at the ‘Kissing Rock’ – a point in the path in which you must grasp either side of the rock and slither sideways across with the trail being no wider than your foot. Maybe not so bad if the rock were flat across, but it is curved outward, and the weight of the pack on my back made it feel as though gravity were pulling me away. To counteract this, the guide explained that you must hug the rock so tightly that you’re close enough to kiss it, and promptly planted a big smacker on it. I was not amused. This was one of those fall to your death moments in my book and I think kissing the rock is merely a way to appease it so it doesn’t toss you off and kill you. In reality, it only takes a moment to cross, but this image conveys what I felt was the delicacy of the situation very well.
After successfully passing to the other side of the Kissing Rock, we soon came to another terrifying obstacle – a 4ft wide gap with a narrow ledge on the other side. We were, of course, expected to hop across with ease but I again had visions of me plummeting to the base resulting in a bloody mangled mess. After Andy sized it up and took the leap, he extended a hand to help me across. The guide too was on a ledge below encouraging me to go. According to Andy, I was so scared that even my lips were trembling and from my perspective Andy’s hand seemed miles away. But I had no choice and I took a chance and made it safely across as thousands of others have too.
I am not sure if others were nervous at these points at all, but to me it was an accomplishment to have acted despite my fear. It also made me feel so much more relieved when I finally reached the top.
For the next few hours we descended into the Karanga Valley in much of the same moon-like terrain as the day before. Sections of the trail required some scrambling down, but I was much more comfortable with this since we were not on a sheer face. However, the trail contained a lot of loose gravel and when I least expected it, I slipped and fell flat on my ass (and my folded right leg). The guides came running at full speed to help me up and thereafter wouldn’t leave my side, often grasping my arm in an effort to assist. They were so protective. “Are you alright, mama?” one guide asked. Mama? Did he just call me mama? I realize that this was meant respectfully* but it made me feel immensely old. I just smiled and said I was fine.
At midday we stopped at the Karanga Camp for a much appreciated hot lunch. It is also at this camp that the porters stocked up on water, as this is the last supply source before the summit. Here too, trekkers doing a longer hike will spend an additional night instead of heading on to Barafu Camp, like our group would do.
After lunch we began another long and steady ascent to the Barafu Huts (or base camp). I was again hiking in a haze, focusing on Andy’s boots, and willing the camp into sight. The final few meters seemed never ending and just as we crested the final hill we still had to hike all the way through to the back of the camp to register and find our tents.
The sight of camp was very dreary and uninviting. The clouds had rolled in and the air was frigid, and since we arrived later than intended we knew we had little time to prepare before supper and little time to rest before the ascent to the summit. There was also a noticeable difference in ability to breathe. Entering camp, I felt a tightness develop across my chest, much like I feel when my asthma kicks in. I didn’t know if it would work, but I took a dose from my puff inhaler and that seemed to help clear the airways.
However, I couldn’t stop shivering and so I asked Andy if we could bunk together, hoping the extra body heat in the tent would help keep us both warm. He agreed it would be best, and so we organized the tent and then headed for supper, before retiring around 8p for a short 3.5 hr rest. I only hoped I could warm up enough to actually sleep.
* In Tanzania, the term ‘mama’ is used as a sign of respect for any woman older than the individual who is addressing them, although they will sometimes use ‘auntie’ if they are still child bearing age. ‘Baba’ (meaning father) is often used for men up to a certain age, when the use of ‘Babu’ (meaning grandfather) is more appropriate. I teased Andy because on the mountain he was called ‘Baba’ but after he was presented with his certificate (and they could see his actual age) it was changed to ‘Babu’.