It rained, hailed, and snowed simultaneously. Water beads dangled like a silver necklace from the brim of my hat. Beneath that drip edge, vapor hovered in my face. I inhaled through my nose, pursed my lips, and blew out slowly. The vapor swirled and dissipated. One didn't need to do the math to know that the concentration of oxygen pulled in with every breath was only half that experienced at sea level.
In a weird way, it was like scuba diving. I focused on relaxing, pulling and pushing air into my lungs. Pole! Pole! Slow and easy.
Between these physical adjustments, the falling precipitation, and a sudden ruggedness of trail, the last hour of the trek was challenging. But we did not break ranks and tromped into Moir Hut Camp as a group, all muddy and swishy and relieved. It had taken us approximately five and a half hours to cross the Shira. We now found ourselves in a remote quarter of Kilimanjaro National Park under a toothy group of 15,000 footers known as the Lent Hills (See more on the life and murder of their namesake Carl Lent below.*). I smiled. Only in the shadow of the highest mountain in all of Africa could a 15,000 foot peak be considered a "hill"!
Unlike our previous camps, Moir Hut was nearly empty. A handful of tents were pitched beside ours. Harmonica-man and his team had the camp ready at the time of our early afternoon arrival; he appeared out of nowhere puffing a silly réveille as we entered. Robert encouraged us to find some dry clothes and a snack. We were going to do an acclimatization hike before dinner.
An acclimatization hike is an exercise designed to stress the body and jumpstart certain physiological processes (and probably a few psychological ones as well!). The safe penetration of extreme elevation is a controlled process of ascents and descents. Each night is spent in retreat from the heights of the day, ideally at a higher elevation than the night before. As access to oxygen is staggered, the body responds. Heart rate and rate of breathing increase. More red blood cells are produced. The blood thickens. Amazingly, these mechanisms are subconsciously triggered. The ability to acclimatize is just one more miracle of the human body.
After a brief rest we gathered in the mess. Robert reminded us to bring our cameras, as "the view is marvelous."
The earlier precipitation had given way to a mist. Patches of sky were reflected in puddles of water.
Moir Hut Camp squats on a narrow flat at the head of a fluvio-glacial valley.** Volcanic flows frame loose scree on three sides. These primordial rivers of stone loom overhead, frozen midflight by some sort of Medusian sorcery. I could feel them leaning toward us, pockmarked and dark. When the group was ready we set out.
We walked for a short distance on the flat but soon encountered our first scramble: a wall of lava lenses. It was perhaps twenty feet high and in places, approached vertical. Robert chose our route carefully. One by one we went up the gritty face, hands and feet churning, spider-man style.
Above this step, a narrow trail wound up a loose scree surface. This proved more difficult than the scramble. The talus was like sand: it was eager to race downslope and happy to take you with it.
It has been suggested that the Lent Hills did not originate in Kibo's mouth, but was a product of a late and secondary eruption.*** They may have even been formed after the throat of Kibo was closed. The cone apparently had one last blow; the mountain-building mass was expelled laterally through secondary vents. I suppose it would have been like sneezing with your mouth closed and nose pinched, just at a larger scale!
Our acclimatization hike into this blast zone offered a modest elevation gain. We climbed to 14,200 feet. At the top of the ridge, Robert called for a half-hour rest. The winds were light. The air was brisk. We zipped up, ate candy bars, pulled air, and devoted ourselves to the task of producing lots of red blood cells.
And the view was even better than promised: wild, austere, primal.
Afterwards, we returned down the slippery trail and made our way back to Moir Hut Camp. We had a birthday to celebrate.
*The Lent Hills are named after the Carl Lent, a 19th c scientist and German colonizer. Lent partnered with the government in Berlin to develop the Wissenschaft Kilimandscharo Station (Kilimanjaro Scientific Station) in Marangu in the year 1893. Lent's objective was to study the natural environment as an aid to developing German colonies in the area. His ambitious plan called for the production of a set of maps drawn at a scale of 1:25,000. Toward this end he traveled widely, set up surveyor's triangulation points, studied local farming strategies, and planted crops of his own as tests for future farms. His plan was never fully realized. He and his party of seven were killed by warriors while traveling on the eastern flank of the Kilimanjaro on 25 September 1894. Lent was 26 years old at the time of his death. For more on Lent, click here or see Robert B. Munson's discussion on German efforts in the region in The Nature of Christianity in Northern Tanzania: Environmental and Social Change 1890-1916 (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2013).
**The Credner Glacier, one of the largest of the mountain, once covered this area. Its tongue has retreated steadily, along with much of Kilimanjaro's ice cap since the mid-19th century. Sadly, if the current trend continues, the Credner Glacier may dissapear entirely in another decade.
***See Charles Dundas, Kilimanjaro and its People: A History of the Wachagga, Their Laws, Customs, and Legends, together with Some Account of the Highest Mountain in Africa (Cass, 1924): 25-26.