Waking up early, I felt almost human again. The headache had evaporated and I was a little hungry. It must be time to head for breakfast soon? 540am. Damn, I was the first person up again although not entirely surprising considering I had been sleeping almost constantly from 3pm the previous afternoon.
Walking to the toilet block a very short distance away I was taken with the Barranco Wall backdrop and Kibo Peak peering above it. It still looked so distant with the glaciers clinging to the underside. How on earth were we going to be up there this time tomorrow? It looked like we would need to be superhuman to get that far or at least thumb a lift to the top on the shoulders of a porter. I was indeed very lucky to be up here. The air smelt so crisp. I had a feeling today was going to be a good day despite it starting with a 2 hour climb. Standing in camp looking up at the trail zigzagging its way up the near vertical wall of rock I felt… excited.
Climbing Kilimanjaro – The Barranco Wall
Leaving camp early there is at first a short drop and a small crossing over a glacial stream (the last water source for the next 36 hours) to hit the base of the Wall. The pathway is made up of very loose rock which, while still moist from the overnight cloud, made the first 10 minutes more challenging than it should have been. The time was only 0715 but we wanted to beat the main crowds up the wall, there are very few places to pass so you are only as fast as the group above you and with the start of our summit attempt only 18 hours away our guides didn’t want us to be hanging around longer than necessary.
The early start turned out to be a blessing. The day was to be the polar opposite of the day before. Not a cloud in the sky and once the sun peered over the rock face it suddenly got surprisingly warm. Climbing up the wall but just before sunrise the air was still cold on exposed parts of the skin and the rock face at first was moist, slippery and freezing to the touch. Gloves helped keep our fingers warm as we started our ascent into the unknown.
If, like me, you are reading up on peoples accounts of their time on Kilimanjaro, trying to decide for yourself if you should take the plunge, then you will surely have come across some nightmare stories on the main challenge of day 4 of this trek.
The Barranco Wall is a 257 meter wall of rock, the result of an eruption on the mountain around 100,000 years ago. Today the name strikes fear into Kilimanjaro hikers worldwide but it’s reputation is based on peoples perceptions. Every single person in our group, including some that had a fear of heights, agreed that it was hands down the most fun 2 hours we had on the mountain. We all wanted to go around and do it again.
Lets break down some of the fears people have of it.
- No, it is not a difficult climb. In mountaineering terms it is classed as a scramble.
- Yes some stretches of the path are narrow and you will be expected to let porters pass when it is safe to do so.
- No, it’s not dangerous if you use common sense.
- There will be a couple of moments when you ask yourself how on earth you are going to get around/over that.
- Think of it as a really, really long staircase with a few steep sections.
- If you have a fear of heights you will still be able to climb it but it will depend on the severity of your phobia.
- The patch around the ‘Kissing Rock’ is not that narrow; your guides will be there to help you safely round it and the other main obstacles on the path.
- Parts of it will require you to grab hold of and use parts of the wall to steady yourself on the path.
- The views are as spectacular as you would imagine.
50 minutes into the climb we reached the half way point as the sun crested the horizon throwing the camp far below us into a radiant orange glow of sunlight. Chalk up another wonderful view to the memory banks. Even the porters stopped momentarily to admire the sight. I guess, no matter how many times you get to see this view it doesn’t lose its appeal. My best advice for tackling this little section is to relax, don’t let it worry you, go with the flow, follow the instructions of your guides and don’t forget to enjoy it!
Cresting the last little section of the Wall, above us we could hear cheers from people that had already made it. The sun was beating down on us now and the second half of the wall was thirsty work but the views by far making up for the early morning exertion.
Suddenly we were there; the top of the Barranco Wall. From the cheers and celebration of everyone in our group you would think we had made the summit. As a group we had really bonded over the last couple of days and the sense of achievement we all felt was palpable. We were ready to take on the true summit.
But first the beautiful Karanga Valley spread out around us. As soon as you think this mountain can’t possibly have any more surprises left, it throws another curve ball at you. Above us the southern flank of Kibo peak still looked down on us ominously, daring us to take it on. Ahead of us the pathway once again disappeared into a pinpoint far in the distance. It was clear that today was far from over, even though it felt like it was nearly dinner time. In actual fact , even with our 15 minutes of celebration, it had only just gone 9am. What a way to start a day.
Picking up our bags after the obligatory photo opportunities and a well deserved sit down, we headed towards the first pinpoint of the day along the dusty trail. I was beginning to understand why a fellow trekker advised me to get something to cover my nose and mouth when we got chatting after my arrival in the hotel in Moshi which now seemed such a distant memory.
Even trekking in small groups, the amount of dust we were kicking up and breathing in must be quite substantial but the particles are so fine, worn down by the elements and thousands of hikers, they were almost imperceptibly small but we were almost certainly breathing them in as we were walking.
The landscape up here is almost desert like, dotted with small shrubs and giant groundsels and an awful lot of loose rock on the trail. One of the only other colours you will see up here is the daisy like bright yellow flower of the Asteraceae. Despite the lack of shrubbery, the vivid blue sky framed the mountain wonderfully as we walked around Kibo and we were all captivated with the views as we walked. We were chatting amongst ourselves to pass the time and the mood of the group was visibly improved over yesterday. Spirits were high.
As we approached a surprisingly green valley, squinting, in the distance I could make out a camp. Could it be the Barafu Camp already? We had only been walking for an hour but we were told to expect a quieter day. Turning to our guide he dashed our hopes with one sentence. This wasn’t Barafu. It was the Karanga Campsite and the tents we could see being erected were for groups that were doing the 8 day Machame trek. This camp is the extra night stop to help acclimatisation. Because we were all heading on to a week’s safari after our little adventure on the mountain we were on the 7 day Machame Trek. But all was not lost; this was to be our lunch stop before a final push onto Barafu Camp. Just as we were processing this news the trail evaporated in front of us, disappearing down the walls of the valley we had, until now, not been able to see. Lunch was now over an hour away. Time to take on some water and descend into the valley.
For the second time in 3 hours we found ourselves scrambling, holding onto rocks and branches to steady ourselves as the trail slid away from under our feet and we were having the time of our lives again. Going down is the easy part but getting up the other side takes a lot more energy, determination and, if you have brought any, walking sticks. I’ve never been able to get on with walking sticks personally but a lot of people do like using them.
Hitting the bottom of the valley and shielded from the wind the temperature felt tropical despite the looming grey cloud on the horizon. Time to peel off a layer or 2 and enjoy the intermittent sunshine. We had reached late morning and, like clockwork, the clouds started rolling through blown sometimes by almost gale force winds. Looking back up from where we had come it was hard to even make out the trail we had followed because the valley was so steep. Had we really just made our way down that?
After a 10 minute sit down on the least dusty rock I could find we were heading up the other side. Altitude was now playing a clear role on some in the group meaning more stops and a slower pace. Pole, Pole in the local lingo; slowly, slowly is one of the most common things you will hear from your guides. More barren and less steep than our descent, our last challenge before lunch was hampered by the loose rock on the trail making slips almost as common as on the descent but the thought of a cooked lunch and an official toilet pushed us all to the top in record time.
Sitting in the tent eating one of the best stews that had ever touched my lips, the wind was howling a gale once again outside threatening to lift our tent off its anchor points. We weren’t in a rush to leave but 90 minutes after we had clambered up the final ridge to the welcoming sight of the mess tent and wafting smells of lunch being cooked, we were back outside onto the bleak cloud covered mounting but in a surprise twist, instead of keeping to the same trail, alarmingly we headed north up a hidden trail and into the unknown. The relentless altitude gain wouldn’t end until we finally found our tents in the enormous Barafu Camp but, unbeknown to us, that moment was still 3 hours away.
The cloud was billowing all around us although the wind had died down a little. The temperature was such a contrast from 2 hours ago while we were enjoying a sunny moment in the bottom of the valley before lunch. Today out of any of the other days on the mountain was living proof of the need to pack layers in your day pack. So far today I had been walking in long trousers and a fleece top, the fleece came off as we headed down into the valley shortly followed by the long zip off legs of the trousers which needed to be replaced as we approached Karanga Campsite. Now on a plateau an hour up from the campsite in almost whiteout conditions surrounded by stone monuments that are added to daily by the steady stream of hikers, the fleece had returned along with my waterproof overcoat for added warmth.
Looking around once the thick cloud cover had moved on and thinned out, the landscape was a stark contrast to this morning where we would always be able to make out a giant senecio or giant groundsels in the distance and a small scattering of shrubs or the cheerful yellow flowers of Asteraceae around some of the larger boulders looking for shelter. Since leaving Karanga Campsite there was nothing but bare rock all around us. Testament to the harsh and changeable conditions at this height on the mountain.
For the next couple of hours we felt like we were hiking on the moon. We felt so isolated. Something I had never felt before hiking the Inca trail or when staying in an Eco lodge in the Amazon surrounded only by jungle for miles all around. Perhaps it was the thought that if something were to go wrong we were now on our own with only our guides and porters to help us. The air up here is so thin, helicopter evacuation is just not possible. All the groups carry oxygen tanks for use in emergencies and there are plenty of tanks dotted all over the mountain. Should the need arise, your porters will jump into action to get someone to a lower altitude as quickly as possible; something you will no doubt witness, as I did, on your summit attempt.
We had all but slowed to a crawl, walking for 10 minutes before needing a short break to catch our breath. My legs felt like lead weights and all I wanted to do was sit down and have a power nap. I felt like a person double my age. I was trying to think about something, anything, to get my mind off the relentless yet painfully slow progress we were making when all of a sudden I spotted something bright orange on the ridge above me. I thought briefly that it was another flower until I realised that at this altitude it would be impossible. It was the first tent of Barafu Camp. We had finally made it. Or rather the southern edge of Barafu Camp. Our particular slice of paradise was, again, near a toilet block at the north east side of camp a good half hour of clambering away from the sign in hut.
The ground beneath our feet had changed to sharp jagged rock, much like slate, layered on top of another loose layer. It made getting across camp a slow affair in our exhausted, altitude affected state. While I may have been cursing the placement of our camp as we slipped our way across numerous abandoned mini camps awaiting their own occupants to arrive, I would realise as we started our summit attempt in a few short hours that it was much better to do it in an exhausted state in the afternoon light carrying a full day pack than at midnight in the pitch dark with head lamps.
It had just gone 3pm and our campsite finally came into view perched on a ledge at the bottom of a sort of scree slope that looked as though we would need ropes to safely negotiate the non existent path to it. Dropping my bag in my tent all I wanted to do was sleep but afternoon tea was already laid out and there was always the persistent trip to the toilet block before finally sitting down.
With powdered milk running dangerously low; turns out we all had grown rather accustomed to the powdered milk and coffee combo, tea was over in a flash. As much as I wanted to take a quick stroll to see some of the area around camp, my legs had won the argument with my head and we stayed put in the tent for the next 2 hours intermittently dozing and reading, fearful that if I slept too much now I would have a problem falling asleep after dinner.
Before long the all to familiar knock on the tent flap announced the arrival of dinner. There was more of a panic tonight because our blood oxygen levels had to fall in a certain percentage for us to even be able to start our summit attempt. Many minutes over dinner you would catch people in the corner of your eye breathing deeply as the machine was passed around desperate to get every molecule of oxygen we could into our blood stream.
Altitude had once again kicked in. Eating is also a caveat of your summit attempt. All of us were now being affected and along with the drowsiness and constant deep breathing we found it very hard to eat anything. Lack of appetite is probably one of the more commonly known issues of altitude sickness but until you are faced with a bowl of soup you have no idea how you are going to get into your stomach it’s very hard to picture the problem we faced. None of us managed a full quota of dinner but enough to show that we were still fit enough to take on the mountain one more time.
We retired to our tents eager to get as much rest as possible. Perhaps slightly fearful of what lay ahead but excited at the same time. It had only just gone 6pm and it was still light outside the tent but the alarm was set for 2330. What had been a dream for so long was, hopefully, about to become a reality.