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Kristen Fuller | 02.27.2019

“Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.” 
―Barry Finlay, Kilimanjaro and Beyond

 

Day I | Day II | Day III

 

The sun rises over summit day on Mount Meru. Kristen Fuller.

Saddle Hut (3,550 m) to Meru Peak (4,562 m)

As with any international trek, a summit day is always chaotic. The plan for this summit was the same as the others: Sleep for a few hours after dinner, wake up in the middle of the night discombobulated, pack up my gear, and hit the trail in the pitch dark right around midnight.

The summit consists of a skeleton crew, mainly just the head guide and assistant guide, depending on the number of clients. This time it would be just my guide, Demi, another couple, and their crew, who tagged along for reasons I will never understand, and me.

Inside Voices Do Matter

After another amazing mountain dinner, I cocooned myself into my sleeping bag with every single electronic pushed against my body so the batteries would not drain in the freezing cold temperatures. Realistically, it was only about 0 degrees Celsius, but because the wooden huts had zero insulation it felt much colder.

I eventually drifted off to sleep and was awakened by two very loud English-speaking male voices in the hut next to me. These were the exact same climbers who told me they were going to tip their crew 10% of their total trip cost, which equals out to about U.S. $90 spread among a four-person crew for the entire three-day trek.

Their wake up time was a whole solid hour before mine, but clearly, they did not have enough mental capacity to realize that other people were still fast asleep.

 

Mount Meru casts a long shadow in the morning sun. Kristen Fuller.

What’s in My Summit Pack?

I was awake and pissed and could not fall back asleep, and I decided to organize my summit bag before heading into the dining mess for some chai and mandazi.

The temperature on the summit was not forecasted to drop below 0 degrees Celsius, so I threw on my silk thermals as my base layer, followed by a mid-layer (dry fit leggings and long sleeves) and an outer layer (puffy jacket). I packed two pairs of gloves, an ear band, a beanie, my headlamp, a pack cover, rain gear (pants and jacket), trekking poles, and all my camera gear along with 3 liters of water.

I meandered into the dining mess, said a few choice words to the rude folks who woke me up, and sat down to a breakfast of chai and freshly made mandazi. Demi gave me a very quick briefing on the summit, and by 12:30 a.m. we were on the trail, climbing a steep incline.

Encountering the “Death-Trap Chains"

I was much warmer than I had anticipated, and the full moon gave us plenty of light. Our first stop would be Rhino Point, a common turnaround spot for many who decide they cannot summit. We took a quick rest and quickly were on our way.

The trail up to this point was very straightforward, with decent elevation and no technical skills required—but then we approached the chains. We were required to drag ourselves up the mountain while holding on tightly to a series of five chains over a distance of 1 kilometer. There was no longer a trail, and we were now scurrying up the side of a mountain over loose rocks and gravel.

Although these chains were a death trap, all I could think about was getting down after the summit. I had a feeling Demi would be carrying me down off this mountain, and my inclination was not too far off.

After the series of death-trap chains, the “trail” became a straight rock scramble. I hate scrambling! Anyone who has ever hiked with me is fully aware of this. But here I was, in the middle of the night in Africa, scrambling up a mountain on a trek that I paid well over $1,000 for (including tips).

At around 4,000 meters, I started to feel the change in elevation, and I knew I had a 50/50 chance of getting sick. Elevation between 4,000 and 6,000 meters either hits me hard or has no effect on me. I felt slightly nauseated and attempted to vomit, but within minutes this quickly passed.

I continued on the scramble and felt pretty decent, considering the circumstances.

 

The summit caldera of Mount Meru came at a cost. Kristen Fuller.

Summit Views and Rock Scrambles

You know climbing a mountain becomes serious when words are no longer exchanged. I only curse. The closer we got to the summit, the more I realize this was no longer fun.

The sun was beginning to rise, but there was so much cloud cover that I knew our plan to watch the sunrise at the summit was not going to happen. Fog and thick dense clouds surrounded the mountain as we made our final climb to the peak. At this point, we were only approximately 100 meters from the top, and the summit sign was in view, but I was done.

“Hey guys, this rock climbing is not my thing. I am exhausted, so I am making this pile of boulders my summit, okay?” I said.

This was unacceptable to Demi. Because we were so close to the summit, there was no way Demi was going to let me quit. The team started singing my favorite mountain songs in Swahili. They are usually only sung on Kilimanjaro.

Within seconds, Demi was literally dragging me up the pile of boulders by my right arm. I was now certain I was going to summit with a dislocation. Apparently, I was still too slow as the other guide stood next to Demi and grabbed my other arm to drag me to the summit.

There I was, at 33 years of age, in Africa, being pulled up a giant pile of boulders against my will by two mountain guides who believed in me when I no longer could believe in myself. I was so frustrated but also so grateful at the same time.

Get Me Down

To be honest, the summit of Mount Meru was anticlimactic. It was tiny. It could barely hold 10 people. I could not see 5 feet in front of me because of the dense fog. I wanted to quickly take my photo and get off the mountain.

As the rest of the climbers were taking their summit selfies, it began to lightly rain. All I could think about was climbing down the giant boulders and navigating myself down those death-trap chains in wet and slippery conditions.

I announced that I needed 90 seconds to take one quick photo with my camera, and then everyone could happily resume with his or her selfie party. My summit photos took 60 seconds in total. They were two of the three only photos I took over the entire nine-hour trek to the summit.

I spent a total of four minutes on the summit before I started to crab-crawl my way down the boulders. It was extremely foggy, and I could barely make out Demi in front of me. Demi and I debated whether we wanted to stop to throw on our rain gear, but it was only drizzling. I just wanted to get down as fast as possible.

Truth be told, all I could think about were those death-trap chains. We passed a caldera. I waited for the fog to move so I could quickly snap a photo of this magnificent view. (This was my third and final photo.)

The rain became heavier, and we quickly stopped to throw on our rain jackets and pack covers. I kept asking Demi about the chains, how much farther, and if there were an alternate route down.

"Kidogo," he said. "And no alternate route."

 

Without the help of Demi, this moment wouldn't have happened. Kristen Fuller.

Slippery Wet Boulders, Chains and More Death Traps

We started to approach a very unfamiliar part of the “trail.” We were literally climbing on the side of the mountain as I was holding on to slippery wet boulders for my dear life. This did not seem right. I was pretty certain we did not come up this way.

Demi took my hand and basically dragged me along the side of the mountain in a slow but steady pace.

“Maybe he is taking me on a shortcut,” I thought to myself.

Demi soon had to tell me where to step, because every foothold began to matter. The mountain somehow became steeper and steeper. This was definitely not the same way we ascended.

“The chains are over there,” Demi said with his free arm pointing to my right.

I quickly realized he was re-routing me around the death-trap chains. He was also quickly pulling me into another death trap: steep slippery boulders on the side of the mountain.

I had two options: 1) to get down the mountain safely, aka Demi pulling me down the mountain; or 2) to fall to my death instantaneously. Breaking a leg, an arm, my facial bones, or a tooth was not a third option.

I was so stunned and exhausted, I didn’t say one word. I knew I could not get down this mountain in the rain alone, so all I could do was trust Demi to half-carry me off this death trap. Miraculously I only had to climb down using two chains instead of 5, since we took “an alternative route."

Somehow, by the grace of God, we arrived at Rhino Point.

 

Hiking in Candy Land

“It’s easy from here,” Demi exclaimed as I gave him the look of death.

The word “easy” was not in my vocabulary today. However, the trek down from Rhino Point was much easier than the hell I had just endured.

The bright-colored lava rock was blowing my mind. It was too wet and I was too exhausted to reach for my camera or my phone to snap a photo, and to this day this is my biggest regret. Bright blue, pink, orange, and yellow lava rocks covered the earth, and I have never seen anything like it before. It was like Candy Land. This was by far my favorite part of the trek (besides Little Meru). I truly hope this image will never be erased from my memory.

 

Wild Animals Are Always Getting in My Way

Saddle Hut was in view, and we were minutes away from sitting down to a feast of hot food prepared by Chef Nicholas. I could not wait, but it turns out we had no choice.

Demi pulled off to the side of the trail. I figured he had to pee, but I realized he was studying the buffalo, which were pretty much walking on the trail about 2 kilometers around the bend. I have never seen Demi anxious or stressed until this point. Our armed ranger was down at Saddle Hut, probably shooting the breeze with the porters and the rest of the crew.

“Well, Demi, I have nothing to say besides you safely got me up and down this mountain, so whatever you want me to do, just tell me,” I said.

Ironically, I have come into contact with wild bison before on the Trans Catalina Trail. But this was my first time in years witnessing fear come over a Tanzanian.

It was one of those situations where you have absolutely no control over the final outcome. You just have to keep going and pray you make it out alive.

Demi took my trekking poles and started to bang them together as we cautiously continued on the trail. We had no cell signal, so we could not contact the armed ranger. There was not another soul in sight. We had to press our luck and continue on.

We passed fresh buffalo prints and dung on the trail only a few hundred meters from the initial sighting. We secretly hoped the buffalo walked off into the bush somewhere.

Thankfully, luck was on our side. We made it back to Saddle Hut in one piece. Demi wondered why the guides in front of us did not tell our friendly armed ranger about the buffalo so he could come and rescue us.

Either way, we were safe. All I wanted to do was eat! I have now encountered hyenas, elephants, mountain lions, bears, bobcats, snakes of all sorts, American bison, and now African buffalo while hiking or camping in nature.

Raising My Core Body Temperature, One Bite at a Time

Immediately upon arriving at Saddle Hut, I stripped off my clothes, did a quick baby wipe bath, and crawled into my sleeping bag. I was exhausted and freezing. I could not get warm.

Upon awakening from my nap, I stumbled into the dining hall wearing every warm layer in my pack while my teeth were chattering and my body began to shake. I knew my body was depleted of calories resulting in mild hypothermia, and the only thing that would increase my body temperature was consuming hot tea and food.

At least I was now in a controlled environment. I knew what needed to be done. After multiple cups of steeping hot tea and a thousand of calories later, my body temperature began to regulate, and I no longer was freezing.

I knew the hike down to Mirikamba Hut would be long and exhausting. I also knew there would be a jeep waiting to drive us down to Momella Gate, where I can buy my crew beers, and we can cheers to our accomplishment and my chronic knee pain.

Trekking to Mirikamba Hut and Off-Roading Down to Momella Gate

The hike back to Mirikamba Hut was painful. Every step, I had shooting pains in my knees. My feet and I just wanted to be done. One of my ear buds ripped off. There I was, listening to music through one working ear bud, while the other one dangled in the wind.

Once we reached Mirikamba Hut, our entire crew climbed into the jeep. Ee made the 45-minute off-road trek to the gate.

Just before we passed through the gate, we made a brief stop to drop off our team of porters and cooks. Apparently these jeeps are only allowed to transport clients and their guides to the gate. After all, our porters and cooks were also valuable parts of the team. I was happy the driver was kind enough to give them a lift down, even if it was against" the rules.”

Upon arriving at the gate, I quickly jumped out of the jeep and ordered five beers for my crew and I. We toasted to Meru. I am not sure about the rest of the team, but I was so happy to be off that mountain. I only had 10,000 Tanzanian shillings left in my wallet, and with beers costing 5,000 Tanzanian shillings a pop, I ordered two more for Demi and I before our drive home.

 

Giraffes are the most magical animals. Kristen Fuller.

There Truly Is Magic in Africa

The five of us piled into Demi’s car. As we made our way out of Arusha National Park, I couldn’t help but point out the many giraffes that were grazing in the distance. It was a beautiful sight to see.

As we drove farther along the road, our jaws dropped open as a huge male bull elephant made his way across the road. It is extremely rare, if not impossible, to see elephants in Arusha National Park. It was our lucky day. This huge, gentle giant was clearly not on a time crunch.

Demi stopped the car as we watched the elephant make his way into the bush. He took down an entire tree branch with his trunk and began to eat his dinner. He was standing tall against the bright orange African sky as the sun began to set in the background.

This was by far, one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever witnessed in Africa. To this day, I have never experienced as beautiful of a sunset as I saw that evening on the drive home. It was a stunning end to an epic trek.

I knew I was going to climb another mountain in Africa soon. Within a couple weeks, I had a solid plan to summit the third tallest peak in Tanzania, known to the Maasai as "Ol Doinyo Lengai."

Mountain of the Gods.

 

Day I | Day II | Day III

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