After being woken up with hot tea, I realized I had had a great night’s sleep. I slept through the night (a first, possibly for anyone on the trip) and I made it known. James politely told me to fuck off, and Helen and Byeron both just grumbled. Byeron had developed a nasty cough in the middle of the night and James and Helen still weren’t feeling much better. We had a pretty easy day though, just 4 hours to our next camp, exotically called Lava Tower. The walk was mostly a retread of earlier days and we met up with the path that we could have taken the day before. We really started to traverse the face of the mountain, heading eastward around the summit. As we marched along, we could see the distant Mount Meru peeking above the clouds like on most mornings. It was a more pleasant companion than Kilimanjaro mostly because we didn’t have to climb Meru.
The day of walking was pretty easy for me, but other suffered. Byeron’s cough became worse and worse with every slight uphill slope. As the others trudged ahead, I hung back with Byeron encouraging him on a getting a chance to talk with some of the guides. Pascal and our head guide Simon both seemed to know a lot about the environment of the mountain and were far more knowledgeable on the effects of global warming than I had imagined. We had a lively discussion on local values (the water source) versus external values (tourism) and I learned a lot about how people outside of the first world can perceive global warming when they know about it.
When we finally arrived to our camp, it took my breath away. Our few little tents were dramatically nestled together at the base of the staggeringly tall eponymous Lava Tower. It looked like were camping on the world’s most stark and cold volcano at 4,600 meters – our highest camp site.
After lunch, we had our final bonus acclimatization walk, this time to Arrow Glacier. Our climb took us past streams and valleys, new since the onset of the melting glaciers, and because of the thick clouds, we couldn’t even see the glacier from 4,800 meters, our final destination of that walk. The walk up was an easy shuffle, similar to what we had been doing the whole time. What I didn’t realize is how difficult the down parts would be. Coming back down, even with poles for extra support was really exhausting. My knees started aching and I was just so fatigued by having to constantly look down and focus on where each foot and pole went to avoid slipping, by the bottom I felt drained and a little sick to my stomach. I rested up and dragged myself to dinner. Others were doing much worse so I dutifully ate the soup as it was an especially gourmet onion soup with croutons and tucked in for what was supposed to be our coldest night yet. I prepared by taking some nighttime drowsy cold medicine and drifted off to sleep without problem.
This day was both my favorite and least favorite day. When we woke up after facing our night of freezing cold, we learned that Byeron was too sick to continue and would be headed down right after breakfast. It turned out that he had contracted HAPE, High Altitude Pulmonary Edema. This was some serious stuff. What was sadder, was that Byeron had been training every day for 5 months, dutifully running local trails for hours. Kilimanjaro was teaching us some cruel lessons.
However, our walk for the day proved to be the most beautiful and adventurous section of the hike. By the end of the day, we were going to descend a total of 600 meters, but not before crossing a couple of valleys. We started by walking down a long slope through some of the strangest landscape I had ever seen. The whole time we had the snow capped mountain just above us, but the snowmelt had caused this valley to be extremely lush. There were green cactus like trees everywhere and little rivers and waterfalls. All of our mornings were clear and beautiful and the blue sky with the new exotic greenery was overwhelming. I spent the whole morning just in awe of our surroundings.
Unfortunately, by the end of the walk down, James, who was only 19, also became too sick to continue. He turned down 3 days later than his father, proving for us that maybe altitude sickness was hereditary as was the rumor. Nevertheless, we had started the day as 8 and ended it as 6. We had lost most of our guides in the process too and Simon our head guide, began to panic. He ended up grabbing reinforcements from the porters and strung together a rag tag group of helpers. He ran ahead and were just left with our main assistant guide Nelson for the day, when we usually had three guides with us.
Also, we had just reached the appropriately named Barranco Wall. To be quite honest, I thought this 60 degree rock scramble was actually a lot of fun. It was kind of what I was expecting the whole trip to be like, so I was mentally prepared. We took it nice and slow, both enjoying and fearing the constant steep drop-offs. The climb seemed to last forever with a hundred false summits tricking us into hope. Finally, after an hour and a half of climbing, we reached the top were we unpacked our picnic lunches.
The view was absolutely stunning. We were high above the clouds on a cliff that gave us a full 180 degree view out on to the sky. It was the largest sky I had ever seen. We were so high up that it was hard not to be impressed and it will go down in history as one of my favorite lunch locations. Unfortauntely, my pesky headache returned and I did not enjoy the next hour of going back down the other side into the new valley. A couple other of our porters doubled back to help us and Nelson out. My favorite porter, Andrew, was one of them. He was the porter who was lucky enough to carry my gear ahead. I mean it when I say lucky because I inadvertently packed the lightest out of anyone so he had an easy walk thanks to me. Whenever we got back to camp he was always waiting for me to show me to my tent, something I didn’t realize the other porters weren’t doing.
The last couple of hours were just as beautiful, but it was an 8 hour day of walking and we had all run out of water and were exhausted. There was a final steep slope to the Karanga camp and when we got there we were met with a beautiful night on a disorienting slope. The whole camp was sloped about 10 degrees which made for an uncomfortable nights sleep. However, the sunset that night was almost worth it. Almost.
The worst part about night 5 is that we knew this was our last full night of sleep until the next night when we had to climb for the summit. This was it. Our guide Simon told us many people don’t sleep well this night because they’re too busy worrying about the summit, so just don’t worry. Now, I was worried that I would be worrying too much and didn’t get a perfect night’s sleep. Drat.