Jason offered a weather report at breakfast. "It's two degrees above zero" (it sounds more sinister in celsius).
He meant no evil, nor did I return it, but his words did prompt a flashback to my days of fieldwork in the deserts of Jordan. There, a fellow would announce the reading that appeared on his newfangled wristwatch whenever the temperature soared to three digits (in fahrenheit, of course, because it sounds more sinister).
"It's 101!" he would exclaim.
Those of us excavating in surrounding squares would shout back, "Shaddup already!"
Sometime later he would pipe again: "It's 103."
We threw rocks.
No one threw rocks at Jason, although it was not for lack of ammunition.
The morning was crisp as we hauled out of Moir Hut Camp. I zipped up my jacket. Behind (and under) us, the Shira was swathed in a blanket of clouds.
We labored through boulder-strewn fields most of the morning. It was a steady uphill grind with few descents. Our immediate goal was Lava Tower, a 300 foot plug stuck in a volcanic vent. I pulled alongside of the good-natured Maro and asked him to identify this proverbial cork in a bottle. He pointed straight ahead.
"There. That one."
I stopped to sketch these shapes into the notebook I carried in my pocket. Lava Tower looked like a dorsal fin jutting out from the base of Kibo. Above its sharkish profile, the peak of Kibo was aswirl in white. I watched, mesmerized, as clouds were shoved up and through glacial valleys. These crested the peak and then curled downward from the southwest rim, dissipating into an azure sky. That wind must be terrific up there, I thought.
It warmed quickly as we walked.
Lava Tower functioned as our second planned acclimation experience. Only unlike the climb on the day previous to this one (read about that here), this exercise was not an out-and-back that took us out of our way. It was directly on the path. Sitting on a narrow shelf at just over 15,000 feet in elevation, the tower offered another opportunity for our bodies to prepare for the extreme elevation of Kili's summit.
As we climbed, I felt remarkably strong and confident. The headaches and nausea that many experience from this point of the journey forward must have been pushed aside by the Diamox. I was grateful. I had suffered from those kind of headaches before. I was also grateful that my repaired leg had not given me any trouble since the first day.
The trail curved and climbed, one swell after another. We scrambled over these and in time pulled under the shadow of the Lava Tower pinnacle. On the uphill side of it was a narrow shelf. Above the shelf was the steep rise of the Western Breach. This infamous notch in Kibo's side led directly to her summit. Robert described how melting ice irregularly released rockslides that thundered down this 3,000 foot chute like a bowling alley. I could see jagged boulders the size of cars littering the lower end of the Breach.
Ah, this shark fin leads to shark teeth, I thought.
More than a few climbers have been killed attempting to short-cut to the summit from here.* We will not be among them, Robert said. We'll spiral round to the other side.
I looked back upslope. I trusted Robert's judgment, but this was the first time I'd seen Kibo and believed it to be manageable. The summit was closer than ever. On a quiet sunny day, the temptation to scamper up that breach is strong. That's what they thought too, I supposed, right before the rockslide buried them alive.
I turned away from the mountain. The porter team had arrived ahead of us and was warming themselves on rocks here and there. The kitchen tent was pitched. I heard the clink and clank of pans and knew that Paul was inside working his magic.
We ate Nico's birthday cake that day at Lava Tower. When we were done, we packed for a descent. We would not sleep here but somewhere downslope. We were still conditioning.
*More than a few climbers have died going up the Western Breach. Read the terrifying story of one man's experience as published in National Geographic here.