“Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.”
― Barry Finlay, Kilimanjaro and Beyond
Saddle Hut (3550m)- Meru Peak (4,562m)
As with any international trek, summit day is always chaotic. The plan for this summit, was the same as the others; sleep for a few hours after dinner, wake up in the middle of the night discombobulated, pack up my stuff, and hit the trail in the pitch dark right around midnight. The summit consists of a skeleton crew, mainly just the head guide and assistant guide, depending on the number of clients. This time it would be just my guide, Demi, and I and another couple and their crew (who tagged along for reasons I will never understand).
Inside voices do matter
After another amazing mountain dinner, I cocooned myself into my sleeping bag with every single electronic pushed against my body so the batteries would not drain in the freezing cold temperatures. Realistically, it was only about 0 degrees Celsius but because the wooden huts had zero insulation, it felt much colder. I eventually drifted off to sleep and was awaken by two very loud English speaking male voices in the hut next to me. These were the exact same assholes who told me they were going to tip their crew 10% of their total trip cost, which equals out to about $90 US spread amongst a 4-person crew for the entire 3-day trek. I secretly wished these people would contract yellow fever, malaria and altitude sickness at the exact same time. Their wake up time was a whole solid hour before mine, but clearly they did not have enough mental capacity to realize other people were still fast asleep.
What’s in my summit pack?
I was awake and pissed and could not fall back asleep, and decided to organize my summit bag before heading into the dining mess for some chai and mandazi. The temperature on the summit was not forecasted to drop below 0 degrees Celsius so I threw on my silk thermals as my base layer, followed by a mid layer (dry fit leggings and long sleeves) and an outer layer (puffy jacket). I packed two pairs of gloves, an ear band, a beanie, my headlamp, a pack cover, raingear (pants and jacket), trekking poles and all my camera gear along with 3 liters of water. I meandered into the dining mess, said a few choice words to the rude douche bags who woke me up (and who cannot properly tip) and sat down to a breakfast of chai and freshly made mandazi. Demi gave me a very quick briefing on the summit and by 12:30am we were on the trail, climbing at a decently steep elevation.
Encountering the “death trap” chains
I was much warmer than I had anticipated and the full moon gave us plenty of light. Our first stop would be Rhino Point… a common turn around spot for many who decide they cannot summit. We took a quick rest and quickly were on our way. The trail up to this point was very straightforward, with decent elevation and no technical skills required… but then we approached the chains.
We were required to drag ourselves up the mountain while holding on tightly to a series of five chains over a distance of one kilometer. There was no longer a trail and we were now scurrying up the side of mountain over loose rocks and gravel.
“Well this is bullshit”, I exclaimed.
Although these chains were a death trap, all I could think about was getting down after the summit. I had a feeling Demi would be carrying me down off this mountain… and my inclination was not too far off.
After the series of “death trap” chains, the “trail” became a straight rock scramble. I HATE SCRAMBLING and anyone who has ever hiked with me is fully aware of this. But here I was, in the middle of the night in Africa, scrambling up a mountain on a trek that I paid well over $1,000 US for (including tips).
At around 4,000 meters I started to feel the change in elevation and I knew I had a 50/50 chance of getting sick (elevation between 4,000-6,000 meters either hits me hard half the time or does not affect me at all the other half the time). I felt slightly nauseated and attempted to vomit but within minutes this quickly passed. I continued on this bullshit scramble and felt pretty decent, considering the circumstances.
Summit views and rock scrambles
You know climbing a mountain becomes serious when words are no longer exchanged; with the exception of a few swear words dropping out of my mouth. The closer we got to the summit, the more I realized this was no longer fun. The sun was beginning to rise but there was so much cloud cover that I knew our plan to watch the sunrise at the summit was not going to happen. Fog and thick dense clouds surrounded the mountain as we made our final climb to the peak. At this point, we were only approximately 100 meters from the top and the summit sign was in view, but I was done.
“Hey guys, this rock climbing bullshit is not my thing, I am exhausted so I am making this pile of boulders my summit, okay?” were my exact words.
This apparently was unacceptable because we were so close to the peak, there was no way Demi was going to let me quit. The team started singing my favorite touristy mountain songs in Swahili (they are usually only sang on Kilimanjaro) and within seconds, Demi was literally dragging me up the pile of boulders by my right arm. I was now certain I was going to summit with a right arm dislocation. Apparently I was still too slow as the other guide stood next to Demi and grabbed my other arm to drag me to the summit.
There I was, at 33 years of age, in Africa, being pulled up a giant pile of boulders against my will by two mountain guides who believed in me when I no longer could believe in myself. I was so pissed but also so grateful at the same time.
Get me down
To be honest, the summit of Mt. Meru was anticlimactic. It was tiny (it could barely hold 10 people) and I could not see five feet in front of me because of the dense fog. I wanted to quickly take my photo and get the f*ck off the mountain. As the rest of the climbers were spending way too long taking their summit selfies, it began to lightly rain. All I could think about was climbing down the giant boulders and navigating myself down those death trap chains in wet and slippery conditions. My patience wore out and I made it clear I needed 90 seconds to take one quick photo with my camera and then everyone can happily resume with his or her selfie party. My summit photos took 60 seconds in total and they were 2 of the 3 only photos I took over the entire nine-hour trek getting up and down from the summit. I spent a total of four minutes on the summit before I started to crab crawl my way down the ginormous boulders. It was extremely foggy and I could barely make out Demi in front of me. Demi and I debated whether we wanted to stop to throw on our rain gear but it was only drizzling and I just wanted to get down as fast as possible. Truth be told, all I could think about were those death trap chains. We passed a caldera and I waited for the fog to move so I could quickly snap a photo of this magnificent view (this was my 3rd and final photo I took of my summit trek). The rain became heavier and we quickly stopped to throw on our rain jackets and pack covers. I kept asking Demi about the chains…how much further… and if there was an alternate route down. His answers were the same… a little further and no alternate route.
Slippery wet boulders, chains and more death traps
We started to approach a very unfamiliar part of the “trail” as we were literally climbing on the side of the mountain as I was holding on to slippery wet boulders for my dear life. This did not seem right and I was pretty certain we did not come up this way. Demi took my hand and basically dragged me along the side of the mountain in a slow but steady pace. At this point, I was now accustomed to be being dragged by the arm on this mountain and I gladly embraced it.
“Maybe he is taking me on a shortcut, since Africa is chalked full of shortcuts”, I thought sarcastically to myself.
Demi soon had to tell me where to step because every foothold began to matter as the mountain somehow became steeper and steeper. This was definitely NOT the same way we ascended.
“The chains are over there”, Demi stated with his free arm pointing to my right.
I quickly realized he was re-routing me around the death trap chains but quickly pulling me into another death trap; steep slippery boulders on the side of the mountain. I had two options: 1) to get down the mountain safely aka Demi pulling me down the mountain or 2) to fall to my death instantaneously. Breaking a leg, an arm, my facial bones or a tooth was not a third option, as I had zero desire to spend any more time in a hospital in this country.
I was so stunned and exhausted I didn’t say one word. I knew I could not get down this mountain in the rain alone so all I could do was trust Demi to half-carry me off this death trap. Miraculously I only had to climb down using 2 chains, instead of 5, since we took “an alternative route” and somehow, by the grace of God, we arrived at Rhino point.
Hiking in Candy Land
“It’s easy from here”, Demi exclaimed as I gave him the look of death.
The word “easy” was not in my vocabulary today. However the trek down from Rhino Point was much easier than the hell I had just endured and the bright colored lava rock was blowing my mind. It was too wet and I was too exhausted to reach for my camera or my phone to snap a photo and to this day, this is my biggest regret. Bright blue, pink, orange, and yellow lava rocks covered the earth and I have never seen anything like it before; it was like Candy Land (for you folks who grew up in the 90’s). This was by far my favorite part of the trek (besides Little Meru peak) and I truly hope this image will never be erased from my memory.
“Just when Africa, tries to kill me once again, she quickly turns around and reveals her beauty”, I thought to myself.
Wild animals are always getting in my way
Saddle Hut was in view and we were minutes away from sitting down to a feast of hot food prepared by Chef Nicholas. I could not wait, but it turns out we had no choice, but to wait. Demi pulled off to the side of the trail (I figured he had to pee) but I realized he was studying the buffalo who were pretty much walking on the trail about two kilometers around the bend. I have never seen Demi anxious or stressed until this point and of course our armed ranger was down at Saddle Hut probably shooting the shit with the porters and the rest of the crew.
“Well Demi, I have nothing to say besides you safely got me up and down this mountain so whatever you want me to do, just tell me”, I exclaimed.
Ironically, I have come into contact with wild bison before on the Trans Catalina Trail but for whatever reason, African buffalo seemed way more dangerous and much more wild. I mean after all, this was my first time in years witnessing fear come over a Tanzanian.
It was one of those situations, where you have absolutely no control over the final outcome, you just have to keep going and pray you make it out alive. Oddly enough, I tend to encounter these situations much more than the average person, which is primarily why I believe I never panic in near death experiences.
“Before I have to outrun a buffalo, I am first going to pee” as I squatted down, in the middle of the trail, inches away from Demi.
Demi took my trekking poles from me and started to bang them together as we cautiously continued on the trail. We had no cell signal so we could not contact the armed ranger and there was not another soul in sight.
We had to press our luck and continue on. We passed fresh buffalo prints and dung on the trail only a few hundred meters from the initial sighting and we secretly hoped the buffalo walked off into the bush somewhere. Thankfully, luck was on our side and we made it back to Saddle Hut in one piece. Demi was wondering why the guides in front of us did not tell our friendly armed ranger about the buffalo so he could come and rescue us but apparently the other groups were not as lucky as us in their encounter; they either had their eyes closed or were not on the lookout for herds of buffalo. Either way, we were safe and all I wanted to do was eat! I have now encountered hyenas, elephants, mountain lions, bears, bobcats, snakes of all sorts, American bison and now African buffalo while hiking, camping or peeing in nature.
Raising my core body temperature, one bite of food at a time
Immediately upon arriving at Saddle Hut, I stripped off my clothes, did a quick baby wipe bath, and crawled into my sleeping bag. I was exhausted and freezing and I could not get warm. Upon awakening from my nap, I stumbled into the dining hall wearing every warm layer in my pack while my teeth were shattering and my body began to shake. I knew my body was depleted of calories resulting in mild hypothermia and the only thing that would increase my body temperature was consuming hot tea and food. At least I was now in a controlled environment and I knew what needed to be done. After multiple cups of steeping hot tea and thousands of calories later, my body temperature began to regulate and I no longer was freezing. I knew the hike down to Mirikamba Hut would be long and exhausting but I also knew there would be a jeep waiting to drive us down to Momella Gate where I can buy my crew beers and we can cheers to our accomplishment and my chronic knee pain.
Trekking to Mirikamba Hut and off-roading it down to Momella Gate
The hike back to Mirikamba Hut was painful, with every step I had shooting pains in my knees and my feet and I just wanted to be done. One of my ear buds ripped off so there I was, listening to music through one working ear bud while the other one dangled in the wind…
Once we reached Mirikamba Hut, our entire crew climbed into the jeep and we made the 45-minute off-road trek to the gate. Just before we passed through the gate, we made a brief stop to drop off our team of porters and cooks because apparently these jeeps are only allowed to transport clients and their guides (another corrupt “rule” in Tanzania) to the gate. After all, our porters and cooks were also valuable parts of the team but I was happy the driver was kind enough to give them a lift down, even if it “was against the rules”.
Upon arriving at the gate, I quickly jumped out of the jeep and immediately ordered five overpriced beers for my crew and I. We toasted and I am not sure about the rest of the team, but I was so happy to be off that mountain. I only had 10,000TSH left in my wallet, and with beers costing 5,000 TSH a pop, I ordered two more for Demi and I, before our drive home.
There truly is magic in Africa
The five of us piled into Demi’s car and as we made our way out of Arusha National Park I couldn’t help but point out the many giraffes that were grazing in the distance. It was a beautiful sight to see and as we drove further along the road, all of our jaws dropped open, as a huge male elephant bull made his way across the road. It is extremely rare, if merely impossible, to see elephants in Arusha National Park. It was our lucky day and this huge gentle giant was clearly not on a time crunch. Demi stopped the car as we watched the elephant make his way into the bush where he took down an entire tree branch with his trunk and began to eat the first part of his dinner. He was standing tall against the bright orange African sky as the sun began to set in the background. This was by far, one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever witnessed in Africa. To this day, I have never experienced as beautiful of a sunset as I saw that evening on the drive home. It was a stunning end to an epic trek and I knew I was going to soon climb another mountain in Africa…