We scaled Barranco Wall using mostly our hands to hoist ourselves up. It reminded me of my days bouldering in the city gym on 59th Street: hands getting rough and calloused just to get to the top only to come back down again, all without chalk, harness or someone belaying below. The path was sometimes narrow and dangerous; one misstep would make rocks crumble beneath our feet and remind us how high we’ve gone up in only two hours. But the hike was more challenging than it was difficult and I didn’t feel any more of the tingling sensation in my fingers and toes. I felt like I’ve acclimatized with the high altitude.
At the top of Barranco Wall, we were above the clouds. It was exhilarating to get to the top, not realizing the “top” we were aiming for was still another day away. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay too long to enjoy the view–Karanga Valley was waiting. For the next three hours, we were on a one-lane trek to our lunch point. Everything ahead of us was flat and desolate. There weren’t any more of the giant trees, only paper-thin everlasting flowers and plants that smelled like thyme. It was very hot and very dry. I could feel the sun beating down on my shoulders and scoring a mark under my tank top. My pants and boots were covered in desert dust even before lunch time.
At Karanga Camp and 12,893 feet later, we took a break and ate watermelon and fries. The sun was even more intense up there where we all laid out our top-layer shirts on rocks to dry them off. Named after the Swahili word for “peanut”, Karanga is also the last water point before the summit. It is so named because the water from the melting glacier atop Kibo runs through the valley and provides for the peanut plantation down below. We saw several porters collect water from the river, hike past us and return to get some more. From this day on, we must conserve water until the next camp. Tonight, there will be no washing of face, hands and feet and we must sleep with the whole day caked on us.
The volcanic gravel turned into shards of sharp rock on the way up to Barafu Hut. There were huge boulder formations where hikers ahead of us stacked up small pieces of rock for good luck. We did our part and hoped for the best. The weather change dramatically, too. It got colder as we moved higher up and an ominous bank of dark clouds covered what we were about to scale and what we left behind.
A total of eight long hours of walking later, we reached 15,200 feet at Barafu Hut where we witnessed a small group of hikers and porters surround a guy who had an oxygen mask on. Though it made me feel secure that someone actually had an oxygen tank this high up in Kilimanjaro, I realized that we could be in the same position by tomorrow morning.
I was anxious during dinner and was even more nervous the rest of the night. I wore everything I packed to bed because it was so cold. In three hours, we will wake up in the middle of the night to start climbing the summit with little time to get ready for what would be the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in my life: hike in the dark for another eight hours to finally catch a most breathtaking sunrise on top of Africa’s highest peak.