We have been climbing the Western Breach of Mount Kilimanjaro since 5am.
The slope is steep, providing a grandstand view of the land below. Lava Tower is now a tiny lump of rock way below us. Shira Plateau, which we crossed 4 days ago, now seems far away. Mount Meru looks like a termite mound floating on a sea of puffy cloud. We are reminded of views from aeroplane windows, and feel we are in a surreal world – a fairyland of clouds and miniature mountains.
As we climb, sucking in air, we are all intensely aware that this place, like the depths of the ocean or the moon, can never be our home. We can pass only briefly through here – avidly soaking up the scenery and experiences, before we return to an environment that we are adpated to, lower down, where we breathe normally.
In the late morning we climb the last steps of the Western Breach, rejoicing as we reach Kilimanjaro’s Kibo Crater. We enter a truly surreal land, distinct from the mountainous, steep and cold slopes of the Breach.
This world seems relatively flat and desertlike – covered in red, rusty and black sands and gravels, interspersed by bizarre islands of white and blue glaciers, which seem totally out of place. I imagine the Gobi Desert in Mongolia to be like this, perhaps without the floating icebergs! If you stay still here (sucking in air as if you are scuba diving), everything changes around you. One minute there is no wind, it is still, you hear not a sound, and the sun bakes you with a Saharan intensity. You want to peel off your protective layers, and you sweat. Seconds later a fairy-like cloud passes, bringing shade and a breeze with it. Initially you are thankful for the respite from the heat. But almost instantly you feel the chill, and zip up your windbreaker, tucking your ears and nose into your balaclava (like a tortoise retreating into its shell when danger approaches). Shortly after another sunny spell another cloud appears over the eastern rim…. this time a thicker soupier cloud, darker and slower moving, more ominuous, and then you notice it is slowly rising, growing, and darkening. Soon it dominates the whole Kibo Crater – a giant god rising up from his throne towering over the dinner table – Are you Jack and is this the ogre angry that you have stolen the goose that lays the golden egg? You can only wait and see what unfolds. Is this a raging storm – a bone-chilling and snow-dumping gale, or is this a frightening but harmless passing visitor – here so temporarily that a second later you wonder if it was all a dream?
Despite being tired after our climb, we are intrigued and decide to explore this surreal world a bit. We rythmically plod up the gravel-covered inner Reusch Crater (Kibo is a volcano with a crater within a crater). As we approach the rim, the stench of volcanic sulphur comes and goes with the breeze. There we gaze down to the Ash pit, and realise we are indeed on a giant dormant volcano.
We then descend to camp situated near Furtwangler glacier (now divided into 3 separate chunks of ice) below Kilimanjaro’s summit. Camp is at 5,640m (18,500 feet) asl, so it is 280m (920 ft) above the Nepalese Everest base camp, or 100m above the Tibetan Everest base camp. Here there is ½ as much oxygen as at sea level.
In the afternoon we try to rest in our baking tents, but several of us retreat to the cooler environment of the mess tent where we can sip tea and hot chocolate, and play “President” – a card game that had become central to our camp entertainment (Were these the highest games of “President” ever played?).
We decide to rest this afternoon as another dark cloud and accompanying wind approaches, and plan to make our summit bid tomorrow at dawn.