Broken Sleep, A Tower called Lava, Laughter and Tears and a Sunset to Take Your Breathe Away ~ A Journey to the Top of Kilimanjaro

Day Three

Tuesday, 10th July 2012

From: Shira Camp (3840m) to Barranco Camp (3950m)

Altitude: From 3840m up to 4600m back down to 3950m

Habitat: Semi Desert

Hiking Time: 5 – 6 hours

Distance: 10km’s

After a long night of broken sleep and finally lying awake for ages waiting for that morning “knock” on our tent, I was grateful for the breaking light and a hot cup of tea when it finally arrived.  The night had been bitterly cold, especially in the hours just before sunrise and on a few occasions I found myself having to sit up to find more clothes to put on.  My thermals, my fleece jacket and another lined jacket, a beanie and a scarf were still not enough. Sadly, our sleeping bags were not made for minus temperatures that they were supposed to be.  If I had to put any more clothes on I would no longer fit into my sleeping bag, which alone would pose a problem!

Dickson delivering our morning tea to our tent ~ A room with a view! Photos by Simon Bates

Washing with either our small basin of warm water (when it arrived early enough, which it didn’t always) or wet wipes really was not my favourite thing to do purely because of the cold early morning temperatures. Donna and I would almost have to do a countdown before we “dove in” for our daily wash!

Emerging out of our cocoon for the night we discovered ice on our tents ~ No wonder it was so freaking cold last night ~ and we weren’t even on top yet! Photo by Thomas Schrick

While waiting for breakfast to be served we packed our backpacks for the day and got our duffel bags ready for the porters.  Some of us wrote in our diary’s and others just stood around in the glorious morning sunshine, trying to soak up some warmth.

Barry and Judi warming up in the early morning sunshine before breakfast. Photo by Thomas Schrick

Every morning we would hand our hydration packs to the porters who would then fill them up with water for us. Photo by Judi Kurgan

After another hearty breakfast and Thomas checking our oxygen levels we were good to go.  Today we were heading towards Barranco Camp deep down in a valley at 3950m, just 110m higher than the camp we were at.  Our path would climb the Shira Plateau to a high point by Lava Tower, where we would do an acclimatisation hike to the top, which stands at 4600m and then we would descend back down to 3950m, where we would spend the night, merely 100m’s higher than where we started. Walk high, sleep low ~ all in aid of helping us acclimatise before we made our summit attempt.

Our pulse and oxygen readings taken at breakfast.

Our Day Three group photo before leaving Shira Camp.

We sure were up, in every way! Photo by Donna McTaggart

Donna and I ready to leave Shira camp and head out towards Lava Tower and finally Barranco Camp.

Our team member Sean was still not doing so well, his flu didn’t seem to be getting any better. But still on antibiotics, he felt strong enough to carry on.  Anthony too was struggling with ninja flu germs, but he pushed on.  We headed out under the beautiful African sun, aiming directly towards Kibo, excited for all our day ahead held.

Heading out of Shira camp & taking one last look behind. We were moving ever closer to our goal of summiting Kilimanjaro!

Our ascent was so steep at times even the trees leaned over!! (Lol, just kidding but great shot!) Photo by Donna McTaggart

Leaving Shira Camp, one last photo opportunity and Simon pointing out where to next!

Us girls about to head out ~ 6 hours to Barranco Camp ~ or so they said!

Camp packed up and our amazing porters moving it all to our next camp. Photo by Simon Bates

Cellphone signal wasn’t always easy to find but sometimes a simple hop up onto a rock would help! This porter was standing on this rock talking on his cellphone looking out over the view but as I took the photo he finished the call and turned around. At least I managed to get this pic!

Kibo far off in the distance, by the end of the day we would be up close!

Barry and Sean were upfront again, with Anthony and Thomas up ahead of us, still in sight. Donna, Judi, Simon and myself walked at the back, chatting, taking photo’s and just generally having a really good time while taking in the beautiful, ever-changing scenery around us. It was a day that started out with so much laughter filling the air.   

We had approximately 10km’s to cover and although our group was walking in different groups, we would all join up again on snack breaks.  The landscape was littered with notable features and strange looking rock formations.  We walked through volcanic rocks, perhaps ejected from some ancient eruption.  All we needed was some mist and this place would have turned eerily creepy in an instant!  

Thomas, Simon, Barry and Sean taking a break.  Photo by Anthony Lloyd

Getting closer to Kibo! Photo by Judi Kurgan

Me taking time out on one of our breaks ~ Soaking up the glorious African sun while I could. Thanks Judi Kurgan for yet again capturing another moment in time for me!

Another amazing shot caught in time ~ Simon taking in the view from on top of a large boulder. Photo by Anthony Lloyd

Milton, one of our guides.

On our breaks we would snack, rest and catch our breath as we took in the views around us. 

When we walked, we conserved as much energy as possible by walking slowly, pole pole, as all the porters would constantly remind us! The ground was so dry and as we walked dust was constantly kicked up and I was coughing from inhaling so much of it. Every time I blew my nose it kinda reminded me of my London days and travelling on the subway and all that dusty gunk that would come out with each blow! I think by this stage my body was ¾ dust and ¼ water. Charming I know, but true! Life on the mountain is not all roses!! The air was becoming cooler as we climbed higher and most of us walked with our jackets on for most part of the day. A Danish couple who we often met up with, were taking it really slow.  The woman was struggling with the effects of altitude – feeling sick and struggling to breathe.  Simon gave her some valoid. We all hoped it would help and I think we all felt hugely grateful none of us were feeling that bad, yet.

Another snack break ~ the air was getting chilly, the jackets were on. Photo by Donna McTaggart

The lovely Judi, with Kibo in the background. Photo by someone using Judi’s camera

Simon, taking some time out on one of our breaks.

This pic makes me laugh every time I see it. I took it from the side and it’s our two guides, Dickson and Milton, holding up Judi’s hands. I have the other photo that was taken from the front but this one for some reason just makes me smile ~ when we up, we up!!

Gaining ground, the summit getting ever closer, covered by swirling clouds.

The next series of photos I absolutely love! We had so much fun doing them and between laughing and trying to balance on the rocks we were standing on, this has become one of my many fond memories of my time on the mountain. We could have easily “wasted” a full hour creating these memories but looking back I smile and know it was all worth it.  Every time I see these photo’s now, I laugh out aloud.  I smile at the memories and the remember the laughter that rang out on that mountain side in the moments these pictures were taken. I would do it again and again and again, even now knowing how our day was to end.  In order that they were taken…. these are some of my favourite, favourites from Day 3… Simon was our photographer and then Donna took over so Simon could be part of our madness too!

No words necessary, the pictures tell a thousand stories!

My favourite favourites from Day Three! Photo by Simon Bates

My favourite favourites from Day Three! Photo by Simon Bates

My favourite favourites from Day Three! Photo by Simon Bates

My favourite favourites from Day Three! Photo by Simon Bates

My favourite favourites from Day Three! Photo by Simon Bates

My favourite favourites from Day Three! Photo by Simon Bates

I don’t recall exactly how long we spent here playing on the rocks. Time was not something we were watching, partly because none of us had watches on and because it wasn’t even something that crossed our minds.  We were lost in the world that is Kilimanjaro and we were loving it!

After what could have even been an hour we started moving forward again. At times the group walked in silence, each alone with their thoughts. I walked looking at the barren but beautiful scenery around me, with Kibo to my right, contemplating life and remembering who I was doing this climb for. In those moments I missed Emma terribly and behind my sunglasses the tears would sting my eyes.  Taking deep breaths every now and again when the emotions were close to brimming over, I brought myself back into the moment of where I was.  I couldn’t fall apart ~ not now.  I missed her terribly in those moments as we walked. It seemed that afternoon, I wasn’t the only one who was struggling with rising emotions.

As Lava Tower appeared far off in the distance we could spot a tent erected in the middle of nowhere!

The big black mound in the far right background was our first sighting of Lava Tower. At the same time we spotted our lunch tent.

Our lunch tent in sight. Photo by Anthony Lloyd

As we neared it,  I noticed one of my team members was crying, I put my hand on their arm and just squeezed to let them know I was there. The tears welled up once again in my eyes and with the deepest breath I could muster, I breathed in and knew that I had to be strong.  It’s amazing how connected you get and seeing my team-mate cry and be unable to speak words because of the tears and only to be able to communicate with the eyes, pulled hard at every heart string I had.  It made me feel incredibly vulnerable, yet at the same time it was a comfort to know we were all in this together.

It was good to arrive and know lunch was on its way. I wasn’t feeling particularly hungry but at the same time I knew that the food would fuel my body for our acclimatisation walk up Lava Tower and then our walk back down to our new camp site.

Brothers, Simon and Anthony washing up before lunch. Photos by Anthony Lloyd

Inside the mess tent, out of the wind, enjoy a nice warm lunch before heading out to Lava Tower.

Sitting down to lunch, we found out that it was 3pm already.  I remember thinking it felt like it was only 12pm so it was a bit unexpected when we heard it was so late already.  Thomas and Anthony were just finishing up and were about to head on to Lava Tower. Hot tea and some yummy food later we all sat back in ours chairs and my eyes were so heavy I struggled to keep them open. I could have easily closed them and fallen fast asleep right in my chair, in the warmth of the mess tent. I wasn’t the only one and the rest of my team members seemed to be feeling the same. We decided to head straight out to Lava Tower before it got too much later and before the tiredness we were all feeling consumed us. By now it must have been about 3:30pm.

Shortly after leaving our lunch tent we came up to a fork in the trail, one path leading directly to Barranco Camps that the porters use or we could continue on ascending a rock and scree path up to Lava Tower. We all wanted to go up as this was our acclimatisation walk up to 4600m before heading back down to Barranco camp at 3950m where we would sleep for the night.  So after some pics we slowly started making our way up the steady incline towards Lava Tower.

Lava Tower and Arrow Glacier one direction and the short cut to Barranco Camp that the porters use off in the other direction. Here’s me and Dickson naturally with another photo opportunity!

Simon with Dickson and Milton. Photo from Simon’s camera

I love these pics too ~ Judi and I had stood aside for the previous pic but as they got ready to take these ones we ran into the pic and helped point out the summit without Simon knowing!

A fork in the road.

Lava Tower! Photo by Simon Bates

Heads down and one foot in front of the other we made our way up to Lava Tower. Simon did a good job catching these photos of us from both angles ~ I laugh thinking of him running from side to side to get the perfect shot! Photo by Simon Bates

 Reaching Lava Tower, we set down our backpacks and trekking poles, leaving them at the base of Lava Tower, and started to make our way around and up. Thomas and Anthony were already making their way down as we were about to begin our climb up.  Ant loved it so much he decided he would go up again with us.  Thomas, our tour guide leader,  on the other hand decided to make his way to our next camp.

Little did we know that decisions made at that moment were decisions that would shape our night, cause emotions to surface and questions to be asked.

Simon and Anthony making their way up to the top of Lava Tower.

The climb to the top of Lava Tower was not difficult but it was also not always easy, there was plenty of scrambling over rocks and times where we had to literally stretch ourselves flat across rock edges to get across open areas ~ this proved easier for some, while more difficult for others. We had to put our trust in our team members and Dickson to help us over.  At times it was not easy even trusting oneself as we got to witness a team member struggling to let go of the rock they held onto in order to reach out and grab the hand of another team member who was waiting to help each person over and across.

As we climbed up I noticed I tired quickly and my breathing was laboured and shallow, quickly making me out of breath. The air was thin and my lungs were gasping for more air.

But the climb to the top was so worth it!

The view was spectacular.  On top we had 360 degree views of everything ~ it was incredibly jaw-droppingly beautiful and we all just stood around turning around and around, taking it all in! On one side we had beautiful views of Mount Meru below us, her peak sticking out above the clouds and on another side we had the close up spectacular view of the Western Breech and views on another side far and wide that showed the path that would lead us to our campsite for the night.

View from the top of Lava Tower.

View from the top of Lava Tower.

Checking out the view from the top of Lava Tower ~ I remember Donna leaning over a bit too far for Dickson’s liking and almost giving the poor man a near-heart attack as he grabbed her arm and held her back!

The campsite far below for those going up Arrow Glacier.

Lava Tower is also a campsite for the Western Breach and Arrow Glacier Route, which I believe you can still climb but now need permits in order to do so because of the danger it involves.  Arrow Glacier is a route that Dons and I originally wanted to climb but we had been told the route was now closed.

The path we would take up and over and then all the way back down in a valley and into Barranco Camp.

View from the top of Lava Tower ~ View of Kibo ~ tomorrow we would head around the side to the right and start making our way to Base Camp where we would do our final summit approach.

We spent quite a while on top, taking loads of pictures and taking in the magnificent views from the top!

Simon setting up his camera for a self-timer pic of all of us on top of Lava Tower.

On top of Lava Tower, Simon and Anthony ~ brothers parted by country, one from South Africa and the other in Australia. Photo from Simon’s camera

Our self-timer pic of all of us on top of Lava Tower. Photo by Simon Bates

On top of Lava Tower ~ We’re still upright, right? Photos by me and Donna McTaggart

Dons and I on top of Lava Tower ~ Feeling like we were on top of the world and loving every step of this journey!

Feeling “high” from our climb up to the top of Lava Tower were we all again in high spirits but little did we know that was all soon to change as darkness was to descend quickly upon us.

Leaving Lava tower we walked down where streams of water flowed from the slopes of the summit supplied by melting snow and ice.  There were patches of ice around too, confirming how cold we already knew it to be.

Steams of water flowing from the slopes of the summit supplied by melting snow and ice. Photo by Simon Bates

Making our way from Lava Tower up and over the ridge, onwards to our next camp.

As the sun began to set we made our way over the ridge as the light began to changed the scenery into a million different rich colours. Photo by Simon Bates

Walking back up over the ridge where we stopped to watch the sunset. I could have found a rock and sat there for a long while just taking it all in. There is just something about sunsets ~ no matter how many I watch, I just never get bored. Perfect every time, magical in it’s beauty, I stood watching in awe at yet another sun set ~ this time from the slopes of Kilimanjaro.  But with the sun going fast we thought we had about an hour to get to our next camp and we’d walk in dusk light. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

The peak of Mount Meru sticking up above the clouds as the sun began to set. Photo by Simon Bates

Sunset from the slopes of Kilimanjaro with Mount Meru far off in the distance.

Sunset from the slopes of Kilimanjaro.

Sunset from the slopes of Kilimanjaro.

Sunset from the slopes of Kilimanjaro.

With the sun sinking below the horizon, the temperatures began to drop quickly. We stopped to put on our gloves and beanies and Donna, and I put on our headlamps as darkness enveloped us. Not everyone had gloves with them and I only had my middle layer gloves, which in this cold didn’t offer much protection or warmth from the cold night elements. Dickson, our lead guide went off to the side trying to get signal on his phone. Ant was ahead of us, he wasn’t feeling great, his flu still getting the better of him.  Not everyone had lights on them and this would prove to make our walk down the steep mountainside to our next camp difficult and slow.

We had to stick close together to allow the light we did have to illuminate the path for the others that didn’t have lights. We hadn’t expected to walk at night; most had left their lights in the main luggage that the porters carry, thinking we would only need to use them on summit night.  It wasn’t long until someone slipped in the dark and a cry of pain and anguish shattered the night air. The path was rocky and loose making walking difficult. At times we could see the outline of Giant Groundsels as we made our way down the steep path, it would have been beautiful to walk this path during day time and to get photos but that would now have to wait until tomorrow now.

We could see Anthony quite a distance ahead of us. He kept turning back to see where we were. We knew because of his headlamp that we could see every time he turned back. At least we knew he was safe and still moving forward. We hoped he was warm enough. It was suddenly bitterly cold.

Someone slipped again behind me; the emotions were breaking in the voices. All we wanted was to see the lights of camp ahead of us but they just never appeared. At one point the girls and Dickson stopped and Simon and I walked on without realising they had stopped. With only my light to lead us the path became even more rocky and uneven.  Chatting as we walked, I suddenly noticed it was pitch black in front of us as if there was cliff and if we carried on walking we would walk right over the edge. We turned back and noticed the others were a way behind us. We decided to stop and rested on a large boulder, chatting as we waited for the girls and our lead guide Dickson to catch up to us again.  It’s a good thing we did. Simon and I had somehow lost the path and had veered off far to the right! As the rest of the group came up, we made our way left to meet up with them and the path again.

We had been walking for what felt like hours, still we couldn’t see the lights of camp below and I think we all knew we still had a far way to go before reaching our camp for the night. Someone behind called out, “please slow down, I can’t see”, the emotion close to breaking through. We slowed down again and our group bunched up even closer to share the little light we had between us.

It seemed like hours later and finally we saw something that gave us hope. There far off in the distance we saw a line of head lights moving towards us. We continued moving down, the head lights coming closer. Maybe Thomas, our tour group guy, was coming to get us. You could almost feel the relief in the air knowing someone with light was coming. It still took a long while before the headlamps grew larger and closer, and finally we saw that it wasn’t in fact our tour group guy, but a whole bunch of our porters. As they reached us they instantly took our back packs off us and slipped them onto their own backs and then slotted in-between team members who didn’t have light and they lead us down the mountain. It was a happy moment seeing them all. These guys were just amazing in how they looked out for climbers. It still took us quite a while to get down but eventually the lights of camp came into sight. I was so happy to see those lights, knowing we were finally close, I think I may have even laughed!

Still heading down, the outline of the tents could eventually be made out and Simon and I who were upfront walked a bit quicker, eager to get back into camp. We were going to make it!

As we set foot into camp past the first tents, Barry our other team member was heading out to come and find us. Armed with water and lights, he had gotten out of bed saying he cannot go to sleep until he knows we are safely back in camp.  I am not sure if it was from more excitement seeing his face or knowing we had finally arrived at camp, but I did some fancy footwork on the loose sand and stones in my excitement and one leg went straight out in front of me and the other folded underneath me.  It appeared in my excitement I wanted to do the splits! I hoped I had done it gracefully at least! I sat on the ground, legs splayed out in all directions and laughed. Relief flooded me. Porters and my team mate helped me up and Simon and I walked into camp. Barry went on to meet Donna and Judi. I knew the relief they would feel seeing him and knowing we had made it into camp ~ finally.

Still today there is a lot of feelings surrounding what happened that night and although I don’t want to go into great details things should have been done differently. We weren’t told how far we still had to go to camp after Lava Tower and how long it would take us especially considering it was after 4pm already. We were the novices at climbing Kilimanjaro. We weren’t given the option of maybe going back and taking the shorter route to camp and not going up Lava Tower. No one checked to make sure, knowing that it was too late in the day, that we had enough warm clothes and lights with us and enough water.

We are hugely grateful for the porters that came to get us and to Dickson our lead guide who we believe phoned them and asked them for help and of course to Barry, our team-mate, getting out of bed and back into the cold, knowing he couldn’t rest until he knew we were safe.

It had been a long day, much longer than any of us expected. We have no regrets messing around and taking photos and going up Lava Tower, we just wish someone in the know had given us informed choices rather than leaving us alone and out in the dark (both figuratively and literally) to fend for ourselves.

Once we were all back in camp we headed to the mess tent for dinner. It was around 9pm. We ate, although my appetite seemed to have dwindled rapidly and I found I could only nibble on small amounts. The altitude was taking effect and although I was feeling fantastic and strong in every other way, I noticed my appetite was nearly gone. Hillary had dished me up a huge bowl of some sort of chicken casserole, which smelled divine, but after a bowl of soup already I don’t think I even managed more than a few bites. I knew I had to eat to give my body fuel and to keep my strength up so I forced down as much as I could. Dinner eaten, besides everything, we were safe and all we all wanted to do was get some sleep.

I didn’t realise it yet, but something had changed deep within me that night and I would only realise this upon waking the next morning and stepping outside my tent….

Overall we’d only gained about 100 meters but we went up high today, to allow us to get a taste of the thinner air, and then come back down low, to sleep low.  

Ant and Sean are both still struggling with the flu, but besides that they seem to be doing okay. Everyone else seemed to be doing well, some with only sight headaches.  I was grateful that my only high-altitude side effect so far was my rapidly diminishing appetite. We got news that night that the Danish couple we had kept passing earlier in the day had made it into camp.  The girl, who eventually threw up leaving her feeling much better, didn’t attempt Lava Tower and took the shorter route that the porters use to get to Barranco Camp.

We’re climbing the Barranco Wall tomorrow.

The great big, mighty wall we keep hearing about.

Although I’m exhausted beyond words, I’m excited.

Tomorrow is another day.

I’m feeling strong.

And I’m still climbing Kilimanjaro.

This was Day 3.

~ All photos by me and my friends ~

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Natalie
    Sep 25, 2012 @ 16:22:11

    Awesome post hon – reading this made me feel like I was right there alongside you every step of the way. And is some ways, I suppose I was.


    • Walking 4 Air
      Sep 25, 2012 @ 20:07:45

      You were definitely there alongside me all the way to the top, never far from my thoughts. Funnily enough, this was the one day I never got to send you a ‘Dispatch’ for everyone partly because of no signal when we stopped and then partly because of our late arrival that night. Was quite a day! So glad you enjoying the posts! :)


  2. Trackback: Finally, the end of the story! ~ A Journey to the Top of Kilimanjaro | Walking4Air

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