I just realized that this post coincides with Christmas Day for all of us in Africa! As you might guess, we actually didn’t really have a good sense of the dates while we were hiking. However, this was a day that we had to at least be aware of, right? After all, there was the small matter of a Secret Santa to take care of later that day. However, before that, we had to carry out our full assault on Socialist Peak, the highest point on Mount Meru, sitting at 4,562m. As per usual, before you get to the hard work of slogging through all of my banal thoughts of the day, head on over to the map that I made, as well as the folder of pictures up on Flickr. Once you’ve satisfied yourself that I actually made the trek that day, come on back and read the rest of my recollections.
As you would have already pieced together from my previous post, the term ‘summit day’ is almost a bit of a misnomer, as we got up around midnight and started our slow trek at about 1am. So it’s more like ‘summit morning’ 🙂 In order to help us fight the sandman, the porters were ready to give us some hot beverages, porridge, and biscuits as a bit of a breakfast before we left the comfort of camp. We were also given our atypical snack pack of cookies and a chocolate bar (Dairy Milk in case you’re wondering). I didn’t really find it too hard to get up and be ready. I guess that comes as a result of needing to be awake at various odd hours when getting ready for certain races (who doesn’t like a midnight start in an adventure race, right?).
We had all brought our bags to the mess hall, only to find out that we could just keep them locked in our rooms till we got back for lunch. Yup, the day would be long indeed. We were to start at Saddle Hut, hike to the summit, then come back for lunch. After a brief rest, we were going to grab our things and continue down to Mariakamba Hut for our last night on the mountain (and for Christmas dinner of sorts). We quickly got sorted, and our happy little crew lined up diligently to begin our dark shuffle into the night. We were a thin stream of hikers making our way by headlamp. The last couple evenings, it had seemed that the sky would clear at night, so we were looking forward to easy hiking.
Well, no such luck, my comfortable, dry friends. We had no sooner gotten about 100 paces from the camp that we felt the first raindrops. ‘Here we go again’ I thought. This time, we didn’t hesitate to stop and put on full rain gear. On a long day like this, you want to be as comfortable as possible. Once suited up, the shuffle gathered steam again. As per usual, the pace was quite slow, and once again, I found myself wanting to climb faster than the ranger wanted us to go. I should note that this time, we had the ranger at the lead, but also had both our lead guide Naiman, and assistant guide Richard with us as well. This way, if the group ever split, they could stay with the sub-groups. This is a smart and well-used mountain climbing method. However, it may also have cost me my summit 🙁 Keep reading to learn why.
As we kept pressing on, the lead group (Deb, myself and Jody) still seemed to be a bit too fast for others in the group, and we found ourselves needing to stop fairly frequently to wait. At one point I asked the ranger about our pace and ability to summit by sunrise at this speed. He said there was no way we’d get there by sunrise. I then [foolishly] asked if we’d be able to split the group so that the fast hikers could summit by sunrise, and just wait for the others up there. Two things were mis-guided in my question. Firstly, the idea of a sunrise was apparently not the way to go, given that it was raining. Secondly, I think the ranger really wanted to go faster anyway, even if it was the ‘wrong’ strategy. We only found out later that this was actually a bone of contention happening in the background between our actual guide and the ranger. Apparently it became a bit of a power struggle, with the guide trying to tell the ranger to reduce the pace so that we’d all summit, and the guide being stubborn and saying this was his group to lead. We also only later realized that Naiman hadn’t actually guided up Meru for the past 5 or 6 years, so he didn’t press the issue all that hard.
Okay, low-level drama aside, at the next pause, Marwa the ranger, and the two guides talked back and forth briefly, and then Jody, Deb, and I set back off at our quicker pace. In a very short time, it was clear we were putting serious distance between ourselves and the rest of the group. We’d already made it past Rhino Point, which is at just over 3,800m. The next part of the hike was where things got a lot trickier (although we wouldn’t find that out till the descent due to the darkness). Luckily, the rain had now let up, so the rocks were not slick with rain. Looking back as we scrambled we could see the other headlamps, but they seemed very far off in the distance. We steadily made progress, easily climbing past 4,000m.
By now, it was clear to me that Deb was indeed a robot. She could just push on as hard and fast as the ranger wanted. I was sticking pretty close to them, with Jody only a short distance from us as well. A few times we did slow down though, as the drop-offs (that we couldn’t see) were quite dramatic if you made a bad step, so we wanted to make sure our little group was together. Also, shortly after this, I started feeling the definite signs of altitude sickness. I developed a headache, but pressed on, as this is fairly common. Also, it was noted that I was starting to weave a little bit, also not a good sign. However, mentally, I felt sharp, and as long as I felt my head was clear, I pressed hard. However, I did pause long enough to pop a Diamox (which aids in AMS, but takes 4 hours to kick in… damn!). Deb also took the opportunity to pop some headache pills, but really was still super-strong.
As we climbed higher and higher, the sky started to lighten up just a little bit, and we were told it wasn’t far till the top. However, by the top, the ranger actually meant Cobra Point, which is at an altitude of 4,350m, still 200m lower than the true summit. Upon getting to Cobra Point, the day was starting to break, and I was quite happy to stop here for a bit longer and see ‘sunrise’ from this point (that, and I really needed to go for a ‘real’ nature break). I was definitely feeling the altitude, and didn’t want to press on right away. Unfortunately, the ranger had other ideas, he wanted to keep moving fast. I had to make a decision that wasn’t easy. I decided to stop here, and wait for the next ‘group’, with the plan that once they got there, I’d have rested enough that I could go on to the peak. Jody also opted to stay at Cobra Point.
Deb ‘the Robot’, wisely opted to go on alone with the guide. I’m really glad for her that she did, because as it turned out, she would be the only one to summit. Later, we would learn it was a bit awkward being alone with the ranger (don’t worry Deb, I won’t pick on you or share all the details of that experience ;-). I was now going to learn another lesson of climbing mountains. Sticking together as one big group is always preferable. You never know what is happening behind you. We soon learned the fate of the rest of our hikers. After about 20minutes, Dylan and John came into view, with the assistant guide Richard. They seemed okay, but as they got to us, it was clear that Dylan was hurting quite bad. He’d come down with a bad cold earlier, and it had taken all his energy to get up here. John was faring better, but obviously would stay with his son. We also learned that Sarah had gotten quite ill just after 4,000m, and that Naiman, Mike and her had turned back some time ago.
So there we were, 4 of us with one assistant guide. The guide wanted to continue (as companies always pride themselves on a high summit rate, and 1 out of 7 was NOT stellar), and I was now willing to press on. Jody was not convinced that either of us should keep going, and for his part, John seemed like he wanted to keep going, but I think paternal instincts being what they were, decided against it. This posed a brief dilemma, as the guide couldn’t just leave everyone there and go with me, and waiting for Deb and Marwa to get back first would have taken too long. So in the end, the sad reality was that I’d have to turn and start descending back down without having taken a shot at Socialist Peak.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t disappointed. By the same token, I had made the right call earlier, and had to live with that. Just keep in mind that most serious mountain accidents are on descent, not ascent, because people push too hard / fast and don’t stop when they should. At least I’d live to fight another day, and had become just a bit more ‘mountain wise’. With heavy heart, we started the long descent back to Saddle Hut. Once underway, we made the best of it, taking extra time to soak in the sights and marvel at the route we’d taken to get there. In the light of day, it became abundantly clear that this was in fact no cake-walk. Plenty of goat-like rock scrambles along sheer rock faces, and even a nice knife-edge rim with a drop-off on either side. Crazy. However, there were also some great views of the ash cone and crater itself before clouds started rolling back in.
We took a fairly leisurely pace down, as Dylan was wiped out. Richard had taken his pack for him so that he would not be over-burdened. I say leisurely because happily, when you are descending, you can pretty much go as fast as you want. In case you were wondering, I wanted to go fast 🙂 I was surprised at just how far we’d come to get to Cobra Point, but eventually we popped back out at Saddle Hut and poked our heads in to see how Sarah was doing. She was sleeping, but apparently not in too bad a shape. We hadn’t been there for more than 10 or 15 minutes when Deb returned from the summit as well. Apparently they were really flying back down the mountain, as even Deb remarked that it was really quick, and she had to focus to keep up with Marwa. I also learned of another thing that made me glum. Apparently at the true peak, there was an ammo box with a register that you got to sign indicating that you’d made it. Curses, I could have made my mark at the summit, and signed for ActiveSteve! Boo! Deb could tell I was pretty sad about, but still managed to poke a little fun at my expense. Good on her. She was clearly the better man that day 🙂 Luckily, I was able to counter by making fun of her new ‘special friend’ in the ranger. Ha ha!
With that, lunch was served. We had a nice warm lunch of soup and other things I can’t recall. We were then anxious to keep heading down, as we knew it was Christmas and wanted to relax. To mark the day, Jody donned her Santa hat for the rest of our descent down so many stairs to Mariakamba Hut. We passed a constant parade of porters and hikers that would form the next day’s summit attempt. There were many smiles and season’s greetings from all that we passed by, which kept the mood light and happy, in spite of the long day we were on. The remainder of the hike passed by with no incident, giving us more chances to chat amongst ourselves and learn more about each other.
Upon arrival at our hut, it was already time for snacks. Once again, Deb bunked down with Jody and I, so we spread our things out, and cleaned up quickly before heading to the mess hall. Upon arrival, we were greeted with fresh popcorn and hot peanuts, along with a spread of Christmas crackers and two bottles of wine to celebrate! It was awesome. However, at snack time we were too tired to partake, so we told David (our ‘waiter’) to hold on to it until dinner time, where we’d have our proper celebration, including the Secret Santa gift exchange. So we snacked, then went back to rest for an hour or so.
Finally! Christmas dinner. I used a big dry bag to collect all the secret Santa gifts in anonymity, which were labeled courtesy of hand-labeled surgical tape tags that Jody had put together. I took that, along with a candle lantern, and my iPod touch to the dining hall. I’d also been dragging around a bottle of Tanzanian hooch that Deb and I had bought together prior to the start of the hike, but which we’d never actually gotten the nerve to sample on the hike. Sadly, that also stayed with me, and to this day, it has never been opened, and sits on a shelf beside me as I write this (called Konyagi in case you are curious). Dinner was our typical African spread, but this time complemented with our wines, as well as some chocolate that Jody and John had brought along for all to enjoy.
I dutifully cracked open the two wines (one hi-test, the other ‘light’), and we shared the joy amongst each other and I proposed a toast to our group. In spite of a long day, everyone was in fine spirits. Especially Sarah, who was very anxious to get Secret Santa underway. However, first we popped the Christmas crackers and donned our paper crowns and read bad jokes to each other while my little iPod blared tinny Christmas tunes. What could be better, right? Well how about John (who has a white beard) donning the Santa hat and acting as our very own Santa Claus? Yup, it was that special up there for us. Felt just like a family Christmas to me 🙂 I loved every second. To show my appreciation, I tried my best to polish off all the wine (and coaxed Deb to assist). The light stuff wasn’t all that great though, so we ended up leaving a bit for the porters. The gifts were all fabulous and well received. I ended up getting a nice wooden rhino necklace from my secret Santa (which has been around my neck every day since I got it). Just ask if you want to see it.
Whoa! I should probably finally end my post, eh? What, were you expecting a short post for one of the longest, and most special days of our entire trip? No dice for you. If you’ve hung in there for the whole story, thanks! I appreciate it. After all, I’m writing these stories for you, dear readers. Quickly now, for my thought of the day. Experience counts. Trust in your guides (be they on mountains, or in real life), for they know the true keys to success. And if you don’t follow the right advice, at learn from your mistakes. It’ll make you stronger. Until tomorrow, here’s hoping you all have an action-packed, ActiveLife! Do what you love. Love what you do.