Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Mt Cameroon: Day 1

Dear all,

Climbing Mt. Cameroon was one of the most intense, most awesome, and most painful things I have ever had the sense or madness to do. Two days after our final descent to strangely flat ground, my legs are still wincing every time I turn in my bed or hobble down two porch steps. There are three experiences that defined and framed this climb for me: long-distance running (and the marathon in particular, now that I'm just dealing with the painful aftermath), camp counseling (finding stores of energy and optimism that otherwise stay hidden), and the reading of the book Into Thin Air (getting into the psyche and decisions of risk-taking, irrational, and highly motivated people).

The runner's mentality kept me physically strong and persevering, and as usual I can't separate the mental from the physical – mind and matter are one, or at least mutually-regulated. I had to be convinced that I would make it up the mountain; else, at any moment during the pitch-black 34° rocky gradient hike, I could have sat down and refused to continue. The camp counselor in me kept popping songs into my head and pushing their words out of my breathless lips, so that the soundtrack of our climb would sound something like this: "Home, home on the range, where the dear and the antelope play! Where seldom is heard, a discouraging word… (Cough, Wheeeze) She'll be comin' 'round the moun'ain when she comes! She'll be… Ah – watch out, avalanche! How I love to go, a-wandering, along the mountain track; and as I go, I love to sing, with my knapsack on my back… Damn, how did this backpack get so heavy? Like a bridge over troubled waters, I WILL LAY ME DOWN…! Hey, only over the next ridge, and we get to rest!" But we made it.

The first day we started hiking at about 2 pm, whereas most groups (as strongly advised) leave in the early morning. We knew that we would have to do some of the climb in the dark, arriving at our sleeping hut by as late at 9 or 10 pm, but after running up Bamenda's biggest hill – we felt very capable. And we were. The hike was by no means easy, and the 34° gradient by no means an exaggeration, but we made good time and arrived by 7:30 pm. If one word could describe the climb that first day, it would be this: BREATHLESS. At first I was breathless because my asthma was acting up (possibly due to the high starting altitude), and I actually feared that I would not be able to summit. But the shallow breathing wore off after an hour or so, and by the time it started to get steeper, I was feeling fine. But the hike remained breathless – this time, because of the incredible beauty of the surroundings. We had passed from the farmland through the rainforest and into the savannah region, where massive sloping hills covered in tall grasses rose from the steamy jungle below. It started to feel cooler because of the time, altitude, and wind exposure; between shivers, I watched the grass carpet below dance like an ocean of yellow and green waves. It got rocky and even steeper, but not to worry – we had to lean forward so much as we ascended, that any fall just pushed us farther up the hill face and toward our hut. When darkness fell and we continued to climb by torchlight, I could no longer be breath-taken by the scenery. Instead, I was breathless from the adventure and excitement of it all; mostly, the absurd confidence and faith we had put in our guide, and our guide and porter likewise in us, to be climbing a difficult and foreign mountain in the dark.

After cozy cups of tea and cold cheese sandwiches in the kitchen hut, we turned in. That night was the WORST night of my life – many bright ideas (all on my part) landed me in the most uncomfortable and sleepless positions I could manage atop a cold mountain. First, I thought that a fleece liner would suffice as the "good, warm sleeping bag" recommended by the guidebook. It did not. Nor does a mosquito net tent, made entirely of mesh, protect much from the wind and cold of a 2 800 m high campsite – most of all, when you choose to sleep outside, unlike all the others, who take refuge from the cold by going inside the hut. (Imagine that!) So I was shivering and cold, in fetal positions on alternating right, stomach, and left sides, for just about the whole night. At one point, I had the sense to pick up my fleece sheet and go inside the emptiest hut, but by this time I was already chilled to the core, and the hut was not crowded or warm enough to put my to sleep. This is when Into Thin Air comes to life in my story... Looking back on that night, I cannot help thinking about the book's fateful 1996 Everest climb that resulted in so many deaths for so many tiny reasons - people too confident to question, too cold to think, too tired to act. For 8 long hours, I was in this strangely alert but immobilized state - feeling every biting cold and windy attack, yet unable to talk myself out of the useless sleeping bag to move to better quarters. There was the fire- and smoke-heated kitchen, with straw matting, where the guides and porters were sleeping; I knew it, but I could not convince myself that it was worth getting out the bag to move to 20 m to their hut. Then there was Alla's tent and warm sleeping bag; of course she would share, but I did not think it was worth the hassle of waking her up. So I suffered the whole night through, and at the end, I feel lucky that I did not do more stupid things. It is really incredible how exhaustion, determination, and altitude can create a potent and dangerous mix.

I emerged from the bag at 4 in the morning, tired and grumpy, but ready for the climb. As soon as camp counselor and cross-country runner took over, I knew I would be fine... And I was! There is the other half (or more) of the story to come, with plenty of summit successes and chimpanzees and salty ocean waves... It turned out to be a bright day atop that Mt. Cameroon!




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