Friday, 21 September 2012

Camp Tanzania: Success and Failure on Mount Meru

Its been an eventful summer for me, with an expedition in Tanzania, a Cybertracker evaluation, a personal trip to Slovenia plus the usual work and adventures on Arran and beyond.  I've got a fantastic backlog of stuff to get up on the blog, and its tempting to just start with the most recent bits, but bear with me, I've more time on my hands now and I've set myself the target of a feature a day- so hopefully I should be up to date in no time.

Looking back over my Tanzanian pictures, I still have plenty good things to share, and I've not put up the bread and butter stuff- Mount Meru. I'll fess up now, we didn't get to the top (4565m), but in a frustrating, oh so nearly day, we turned around at 300m below, for sensible safety reasons, which I shall explain as we go. It was a great adventure for all of us just the same, and a great success if measured in stunning views, commitment, effort, and the fact that all returned safe and well.

This pic is of Hendrick our trusty ranger, and was pretty much my view on day one of our ascent as he maintained the pace ("pole pole" means slowly in Kiswahili) .  He lead the way as far as the saddle hut, and as well as being there to protect us from buffalo and other potentially dangerous wildlife, was a font of knowledge about the park and its chequered history. We did see plenty of wildlife, particularly on the first day, as we climbed through meadows of buffalo and woodland on the lower slopes of the mountain. 

The higher we climbed, the more verdant and lush the forest became.  We had the whole day to climb from Momella Gate to the Miriakamba hut at 2500m- which is a height gain of about 1,000m. 

Yours truly posing in front of a staggering view of the Meru crater rim and summit at the Miriakamba hut.  You can also make out the shadowy outline of the modern ash cone. Meru is the 10th highest mountain in Africa, but is one of the highest active volcanos in the world. The most recent eruption was in 1910. The hut itself was surprisingly comfortable, with bunks and lockable dorms that sleep 4. Our guide team and their staff provided an excellent meal. We were continuously grateful and astonished by the hard work put in by the porters and cooks to make our journey as comfortable as possible.

Day two, and the climb continues through the forest.  We were beginning to feel the altitude as the forest thinned around the 3,200m mark. 

 This fellow followed us for most of the day, presumably hoping we would drop our sandwiches for him. 

We stopped in at the saddle hut for some tea and biscuits, before continuing with an acclimatisation walk up to the summit of Little Meru, at 3,500m.  The air felt thin and there was a welcome cool breeze above the forest.  Here you can see views of the main summit behind us as we climb. After gaining Little Meru, we returned to the Saddle Hut for dinner and a few hours sleep before beginning our summit climb.Quite a few people were not feeling too great with the altitude at this point.  Its important to hydrate properly as this speeds up acclimatization, so we made the most of the flasks of hot tea given to us by the cooks.

We woke at midnight, and after a light breakfast set off towards the summit at 1am.  Two students opted to stay at the Saddle Hut with a teacher, a guide, and Hendrick the ranger, whose concern and kindness is worth recording here. This picture is of dawn beginning to break over Kilimanjaro, some 70km away.  The first part of the climb takes you steeply up to Rhino Point at 3800m. After that, there is some rocky scrambling over blocks and around gullies to overcome, before the ridge narrows to a dusty ash rim with a fine arete above the crater. Unfortunately not long after Rhino Point a number of our team members felt too unwell with the altitude to continue, so they descended with the help of a teacher and guides, who produced a cylinder of oxygen to aid the most unwell team member.

 When day came properly, we had spectacular views of the ash cone from above, and a beautiful temperature inversion brought clouds lapping at the edge of the crater below us. 

Looking ahead to the summit.   The ridge was a strange lunar landscape of dust and blocks of volcanic rock. Nothing grew on the upper slopes, and a cold wind bit through our layers. Shades are a must up here to keep the dust out, and my top tip to future Meru climbers is to take snow goggles to wear at night, to protect your eyes when it is too dark to wear sunglasses. 

The going was hard, and almost everyone was feeling the altitude to some extent.  Unfortunately not far beyond this point, at about 4,200m, we took the difficult decision to descend, as the thin air became too much for one more member of our team, and they were not able to continue.  This was a hard safety call to make, but our group was comprised almost entirely of minors, and safety protocols rightly mean that they must be supervised by UK CRB checked staff.  We had been unlucky with the rate of altitude sickness amongst our team members and did not have enough staff to allow a small team to continue safely. Once we had descended below about 3,500m, those who had been suffering quickly perked up. It was a good learning point for the students, who came to understand how it is that when mountaineering, it is the safety of the whole team that comes first.  Failing to summit is not to be counted as a failure of the team- when all give their utmost and the team returns intact and unharmed. These young people certainly gave their utmost.  It was an amazing adventure, and all exceeded their expectations of how much they could commit themselves physically to a challenge.  They have much to be proud of!

On descent, we took it slowly, and continued all the way from the summit ridge down to the Miriakamba hut for a well earned dinner and rest before continuing the descent on the fourth day. Meru is a beautiful mountain, well cared for by the rangers with plenty of wildlife.  If anyone fancies trekking in Tanzania and is unsure about the altitude, crowds and rubbish on Kili, then I would really recommend this smaller but perfectly formed (and excitingly still active) neighbour.

1 comment:

peter said...

Thanks for the insights. Having spent a recent holiday mostly above 2,750 metres (and mostly in a car!), I can vouch for the debilitating effects of altitude.

Great to learn about parts of Tanzania I haven't seen, cheers