Kilimanjaro, Day 4
Barranco Camp (3900m) - Karanga Camp (3995m)
Trying to find the toilet block during the night, with fog so thick your head torch doesn't penetrate more than a few metres, is no easy feat. I walk in the general direction of the bathroom, trying my best not roll my ankle on the uneven ground or trip over tent cords. After some time I wonder why I haven't reached it yet, so I swing my torch around. There it is, right behind me - I walked straight past it, and now I have to climb back up a hill to my left to reach it. In my mind I'm worried I'm going to be one of the those people who become lost, attempt to retrace their steps but end up wandering around in circles. They end up succumbing to exposure only a few dozen metres from their original location. It's possible I read too many non-fiction adventure books.
Throughout the night I wake repeatedly, shivering. I'm reluctant to release the minimal heat I have built up in my sleeping bag, so I don't go searching for more layers in my backpack. When the 7 a.m. wake-up call is announced I am still freezing, and some of the condensation on the inside of our tent has turned to ice. But when I stick my head out of the tent to find clear blue skies, I perk up immediately. Barranco Wall stands in full glory, with snow glistening across the top. Turning around there is a layer of clouds in the valley below, partitioning us from the rest of the world. The whole scene is stunning, but as the sun hasn't risen above the wall yet there isn't quite enough light to take a decent photo. It doesn't stop me trying though.
After breakfast the sun begins to reach us, and it becomes bearable enough to stand outside as we get our gear in order. Again, I am ready quickly. Again, Danny needs a full two hours to prepare himself before we can set off.
The day commences with several mini-cascade/creek crossings before we hit the base of the Barranco Wall. We all know what's next: scaling the precipitous rock in front of us. This isn't just a steep hill, this is a full body scramble, using every muscle we have to pull and push ourselves up the vertical wall. The path zigzags sharply, giving the impression that we are standing on top of the person below us. At times we inch across narrow, precarious ledges, and I contemplate how easy it would be to fall to my death. Views across the valley become more impressive the higher we climb, and I spot a number of waterfalls in the distance. Clouds come and go, but the breathtaking outlook remains.
Manyama sets the tempo and to say it is slow-going is an understatement. I understand the difficulty and danger involved in this section, but I am struggling to persist with this snail's pace. We seem to take one step every two seconds. My breathing is normal in spite of all the climbing, and I am not hot at all, even though I'm wearing multiple layers. Eventually he points to a large boulder up ahead, announcing we will stop there for a break. I take the opportunity to forge on ahead at my own speed. Bam! Within seconds I am wheezing as though I've done a series of hill sprints, and it takes me a full 30 seconds to regain control of my breath. Clearly, I'm not as invincible as I believe.
I don't learnt my lesson. When we set off again it's back to the dawdle, and I mentally beg Manyama to go even a tiny bit faster. As the route isn't always obvious, I'm not confident to set out alone. Later on I try quickly scaling a small peak to take a photo, and I'm left panting like a dog on a summer's day. I feel like I am suffocating, as though there isn't enough oxygen in the world to help me breathe normally again. I don't know why I don't listen to the experts.
When we at last summit the wall, I'm disappointed to find the panorama in every direction is obscured by clouds. There should be an icy peak looming over us, but today it's hidden from view. However, in spite of the slowness and the anticlimax at the top, clambering up the rocky wall is my favourite section so far.
The descent is much more gentle on us, with a return of the loose gravel and dirt. The sun is nowhere to be seen, and the only way to fight off the cold is to keep moving. Sheer cliffs on either side steer us down the valley, and I'm loving the uptempo pace. It doesn't last long though, and before we know it we're heading uphill again. It is easier than our earlier ascent, and definitely not as nerve-racking. As eager as I am to hike faster, I restrain myself and stay in line behind the guides.
The crest reveals another moon-like topography, similar to yesterday's. Relatively little grows up here, with only a few rocks scattered around the otherwise barren landscape. Little concentration is needed for this section, so I take the opportunity to chat to FC. We discuss tea, spices, and breakfast, comparing the differences between Tanzanian and Western cultures. He asks what my favourite spice is. Without thinking I answer "chilli". Instantly I am craving super-hot chilli, as the bottle of chilli sauce I brought with me for the trek is not quite cutting it. FC can solve most problems on the mountain, but he can't help me with this predicament.
Going down the other side of the hill we re-enter the moorlands, with shrubs and boulders reappearing beside us. The slope becomes steeper, and for the second time today our hands come into use as we ease ourselves down the sharp drop-offs. Switchbacks guide us through the canyon-like terrain, and I skid repeatedly on the unstable surface. Apparently our campsite is on a ridge directly opposite us, but the presence of dense fog means I have no concept of how far away that is. At the bottom I turn around to look back the way we came; the path has vanished behind a sea of white.
There's one last, 20-minute climb, zigzagging through smaller boulders and a series of odd-shaped rocks. For a brief moment there's a break in the clouds, and I can see the vertical-looking path we descended on the preceding slope. It's been a solid workout for our legs (and arms) today. Danny struggles up this last hill, having difficulty catching his breath in the reduced-oxygen air. At the top we are elated to find there is only a short, gentle incline to reach Karanga Camp. By this stage the visibility is so poor we can't see our tent until we are 15 metres away from it. As soon as we hop inside a light rain starts to fall. Our timing couldn't have been more perfect.
I immediately notice that, like last night, finding the toilet block will be a nightmare once it's dark. If I can successfully jump over the tent guylines without falling down the rocks, then I only have to traverse a scree slope that has me sliding even in daylight. I just hope I don't miss the block completely (again).
A late lunch consists of cucumber soup and gigantic vegetable "spring rolls" that have been encased in roti instead of the traditional wrappers. I think they are amazing and devour three of them. Danny's stomach has turned off vegetables today, and only eats the bread of one roll. A heaving plate of fruit salad is served for dessert.
Without much to do for the rest of the day, we slide into bed at 3 p.m. We read, we write, we have random conversations and the time flies. Around 5 p.m. the fog finally lifts, revealing the awe-inspiring scenery around us. Kili's peak towers overhead, rolling ridges form lateral borders, and a white blanket separates us from the earth below. The sun is shining down and, for once, I'm not cold at all. I run around all afternoon taking millions of photos (although I am not literally running, because a) altitude, and b) the gravel is impossible to walk on without slipping, let alone any sort of fast movement). Disappointingly, dinner interrupts the sunset and my photography frenzy.
At the post-dinner briefing, we listen to what's in store for tomorrow and go through our health checklist. My oxygen saturation is around 89%, completely normal at this altitude. Danny's has dropped to 74%. He feels fine now, and his breathing has returned to normal, but ideally his oxygen level should be higher than this. The guides don't seem too concerned.
Only the German woman is staying with us at camp tonight. I have no idea what happened to the Polish man.