Barranco to Karanga, Wednesday, Sep 5, 2012
Distance: 5 km, 4-5 hours
Elevation: 250 m net climb from 3950 m to 4200 m
Everybody seems well-rested this gorgeous morning, including myself. I feel like I’m reborn, even though sleep has been hard to come by at this altitude. My headache has completely disappeared, and everyone’s spirits are high. Today will only be a short hike, four hours or so, because we are using the extra day on the mountain to break up the trek to Barafu by camping at Karanga.
By now the mornings have gotten very cold. Whatever water you’ve left outside the night before is frozen by morning. We are grateful once again for the warm morning sun and take our time packing up. Except we should have gotten an earlier start. When we finally get going, we find ourselves at the tail end of a very long line of hikers all waiting their turn to clamber up Barranco Wall, a steep rock face and probably the most challenging stretch on the mountain, from a technical standpoint.
Here I was hoping to catch a week-long break from the traffic congestion on William Nicol Drive and instead we find ourselves stuck for hours on the Kili equivalent of William Nicol. Nothing is moving. Far above us, the path is clearly marked by a long line of colorful dots, moving at a snail’s pace. We are down at the foot of the wall, wedged between pot-smoking porters and a group of music-blasting Americans from Los Angeles. It is a veritable disco, and no one seems to mind the delay. Everyone is well-rested and in a good mood, and the jokes are flying. Plus, the guy with the music has a pure 1980s playlist. Perfect for a little grooving on the mountain, although Zax shoots me an evil look signalling “embarrassment alert.” We start chatting with the guy from L.A, and I tell him we live in Johannesburg. “OMG, that’s such a dangerous place,” is his inevitable comment. “I visited there once some years ago and two people were actually killed there that same day.”
Now it’s kind of interesting – South Africans are so used to this, they just shrug their shoulders and move on, I think. It’s us expats who are offended and feel compelled to defend the collective South African honor.
I ask him where exactly, because he makes it sound as dramatic as if he was practically involved in a shooting. But no, “just somewhere in Joburg,” he says.
Does he have any idea how big Joburg is? I can’t resist. “I’m pretty sure that can happen to you in Los Angeles any day,” I tell him. And I’m not just making this up. I recently read that more Americans were killed in Chicago last year than in Afghanistan. Los Angeles can’t be that far behind.
I’m not sure whether it was my cheeky mouth or what, but after that the music moves somewhere ahead of us and out of earshot. Goodbye eighties playlist.
While we are standing around with nothing to do, the conversation turns to last night. I missed quite the event, I am informed. I can’t believe it. While I was lying in my tent during dinner feeling sorry for myself, who should appear at our very own mess tent for a chat with Goddy? The legendary Lance himself, he of the 9 hours and 45 minutes from gate to summit. He is leading tours up Kilimanjaro every once in a while and just happens to be on the mountain now, at the same camp as we are. So my untimely battle with altitude sickness has deprived me of an opportunity to gather more of Lance’s story for this blog. And of getting a good look at Lance in the flesh, who apparently is quite the hunk, or so the story goes.
I feel a vague sense of loss – of both the music and Lance – as I dedicate myself to the task of moving up the rock face when the line finally starts moving. It’s time to pack away the poles and hold on with your hands. Occasionally Goddy turns around to lend us a hand. Wise man that he is, he only tells us afterwards about Hugging Rock which gets its name from the way you have to carefully shuffle your body around it. Apparently a porter died here last year when he lost his balance and fell into the abyss.
Hiking Kili is not for sissies, I suppose.
Arrived on top of Barranco Wall, we have the crazy urge to do a bunch of push-ups and go leaping into the air. I’m not sure where we get the energy. One of us even does the push-ups with his backpack firmly on, as you can see in the picture below. Perhaps pulling it off costs too much energy? Or perhaps the altitude is getting to us all and we are on the verge of losing our minds.
It’s entirely possible.
We definitely seem to have come up with a novelty, judging by Hillary’s urge to take our picture. Probably something to file away in his “Crazy South Africans” file. We already provoke a lot of smiles and jokes every time we stop and pull out our snack packs. “Why is it South Africans always bring so many snacks?” Goddy wants to know.
And he has a point. We are fed around the clock. Not only are we fed, we are made to eat. And we are watched to make sure that we do, in fact, finish up our plates. We shouldn’t really feel hungry, yet every chance we get we munch on our biltong and other goodies. Some of us even have snack bags labeled “Day One” etc. Not me or Zax, in case you are wondering. As I’ve told you before, I’m never the mom who packs nice snacks for the kids. Then again, I’m not South African. I don’t have Voortrekker ancestors who moved into the vast unknown with nothing but a covered wagon and a bag of biltong.
The rest of the way is best described as up and down, up and down, occasionally crossing a creek. Once again the scenery is absolutely beautiful. And once again we seem to be extremely lucky with the weather. Apparently this stretch of the climb is often shrouded in dense fog, or worse, whipped by gale-force winds. My guide to Kili (the one I didn’t read beforehand) mentions this about today’s trail: “During the dry season it rains often, during the rainy season it snows often, and hail can come beating down any day.”
We have neither snow nor rain nor hail to contend with, and it seems almost too laughably easy when we spot tonight’s camp after just a few hours, not too far away and straight ahead. Except we don’t realize there is a deep valley we must first traverse. The climb down is almost as steep as this morning’s wall, and just as treacherous. Once again Goddy waits until we’re safely down by the river on the valley floor before telling us that a man in the previous group fell down on this descent, dislocated his shoulder, and had to be taken down the mountain.
Climbing Kili really isn’t for sissies.
What we fervently wish for is a gigantic zipline that might have taken us across this entire valley in one big swoop. Because now we have to go it all up again. There might not be much elevation in today’s climb, but with all the ups and downs I’m sure we’ve done 600 or 700 m.
We’re glad to get to camp by 2:30 and have the rest of the day off. We might have gotten there even earlier, but an incident involving the Fat Controller and Sebastian delayed us a tiny bit. The former had forgotten his hat at one of the higher points we rested at, and the latter had secretly packed it in his backpack, gleefully awaiting the inevitable. Sure enough, about 10 minutes later and considerably lower down into the valley, we all came to a stop because the Fat Controller was quizzing everyone whether they’d seen his hat. Some of us already knew and tried our best to gaze back innocently, telling him that we had no earthly idea. So he decided the hat was worth going back for, and proceeded to saunter up the mountain. He really did saunter. Sebastian took his sweet time and waited until he almost crested the ridge before taking out the hat, waving it in the air, and calling back his poor father.
No one loved the joke better than the Fat Controller himself. I don’t think Zax doing the same to Noisette would have gone over so well.
I don’t know how we pass the rest of the afternoon, but as always dinner is a welcome distraction when it arrives. It’s cold and only dinner is standing between us and the warm sleeping bag.
And the bedtime story. Lately Goddy has taken to telling us bedtime stories, of sorts. We’ll chat to him during the day and suddenly he’ll remember a story form a previous hike, and promise to tell it that night at dinner.
So tonight we get to hear the story of Big Mama A.
“Getting Big Mama A to the summit almost killed me…” he begins. She was in one of his groups some years ago, accompanying some American college students. As the name implies, she was of rather heavy build. But she was as stubborn as she was overweight, and wasn’t to be deterred from getting to the summit.
While everyone had already gone ahead, Goddy had taken it upon himself to stay with Big Mama A. She was huffing and puffing up the mountain on summit night and taking a break after every ten steps. “This was fine for her,” Goddy says, “because she was so fat she could never be cold. But I was freezing!”
It was during one of these breaks that he suggested to her that it might be wise to turn around. But she wanted to hear nothing of the sort. ‘You’ve got to understand this,’ she told him. ‘I’ve come to this mountain to do one of two things: I’m either going to get to the summit. Or I will die on this mountain.’ Goddy, fervently hoping that she wasn’t going to die, had no choice but to stick with her, step by agonizing step. The sun rose when they were still far from the summit, and not much later the rest of the group, already having summitted, passed them by on their way down. And on and on they climbed, more pole pole than anyone ever before or after them. At times he had to push her, no easy feat, and to this day he bears a scar from where he fell, knocked over by her girth when trying to pull her along. A fine pair they must have made, locked in a battle of wills, neither one prepared to give up.
They did summit that day, sometime after 6:00 pm as the sun already set again, almost 20 hours after they had started. It must have been a whole new record, in its very own category, and one that’s probably still standing today. And it was, as Goddy says, the hardest thing he’s ever done in his life.
I don’t know if this sounds comforting or scary as we are approaching Summit Night ourselves.
To be continued…