Saturday, December 10, 2005

Mt Cameroon: Day 2

Dear all,

So back to the mountain madness... The second day started in the very early morning, when it still felt like night. We headed out at 5 and hiked by torchlight in bundles of fleece for about 2 hours, until the sun rose over the side of the mountain. The sight was gorgeous, but I appreciated it more at the time for its warmth than for its beauty. Well really, fair enough!

The hike was steep, but not quite the rocky 34° slope we had groped our way up the previous night... The sun's rays grew sharper and sharper as the air got cooler; it was pretty windy in the exposed patches, but we did manage to find some still-smoking grottos from the last volcanic eruption, which made warm and sheltered resting places. Upon reaching Hut 3, the approximate half-way point between Hut 2 and the summit, I found some nice soft moss and laid me down to sleep - but with the summit nearly in view (and if you didn't ask any questions of the guide, you could easily mistake the nearer visible crater ridge for the summit, and be deceptively motivated by that "destination"), I was too excited to stop just yet. I also knew that if I let myself rest for too long, I would lose all the momentum I needed to keep going... So we picked ourselves up, rather heavily, and trudged on.

The ground approaching the summit was not as steep as it was simply tricky; with sliding rocks and loose dusty ground, under shaky feet and wobbly muscles, our pace slowed considerably. The rocky world up there reminded me of a desert at night, or perhaps the lunar surface. The robust shrubby wildflowers that scattered the ground made me think of a desert at night, with its cold and wind-swept - but not lifeless - gray sands; and the giant crevices that cut parellel lines of rivers down the slope made me feel like the explorer of some harsh extra-terrestrial planet. I must have needed to go to the bathroom, because I remember thinking what a perfect natural toilet drainage system they formed... (But on second thought, I must have also been tired and not thinking clearly - because what kind of drainage system would that be for the poor people staying below at Huts 2 and 3? Not so nice, actually!)

We summitted at 9 in the morning, having made good time and passed a number of groups along the way. The summit was coooooold and windy, so we did not stay long - just enough to snap some triumphant pictures, look over the endless rocky mountains and valleys on all sides below, contemplate walking over to the nearby crater ridge before descent, decide against it because of the strong winds and cold temperatures, promise to do it next time, find a sheltered moss corner and fall asleep, get woken up by Alla and our guide (Hans), and head back down... We tumbled, tripped, and ran all the way to Hut 3, whose distance from the summit seemed to have grown longer since we ascended: a strange, seemingly impossible physical phenomenon that would repeat itself many, many times during our descent from the summit. We had thought that the hard work was over, but going down ended up the greatest challenge of all!

Tired, hot, and hungry - we arrived at Hut 2, rejoined our porter and packed our bags, and started to plan for the hardest part of the day: getting down the steepest slope on the mountain, preferably without losing any bodies. I spotted one other hiker chewing on TofuDogs...the only tofu product I have laid eyes on since coming to Cameroon...and I nearly asked for one, until I noticed the care and love with which she cradled their package. I suppose I'm not the only crazy, hungry vegetarian in Cameroon! Instead of tofu heaven, I contented myself with the much more ordinary, less exotic cold sandwich of egg and cheese, stole a tiny nap, and strapped on my backpack. We descended at about the same pace it took to get up, but with much more care - if the Up was difficult because we constantly ran the risk of tripping and finding our faces slammed into the rock face directly in front, the Down was difficult because we constantly ran the risk of tripping and finding ourselves slammed into the ground 1 000 m below. The sights that had made me breathless with their beauty the day before, now arrested me with their breath-taking danger. It was crazy; and with bodies as tired and feet as sore as ours were, it was not easy to be as cautious and level-headed as we needed to be. Alla and I slid a few times - at which the guide just looked back, shook his head (probably thinking, "Oh, wobbly Americans!"), offered some help, and kept on dancing down the hill.

By 5 pm, on feet that were now so sensitive that they felt every tiny pebble and rut underneath them, we made it down to the road. There we were, getting into the most comfortable taxi seat I have ever had the pleasure of sitting on - dirty, exhausted, triumphant, and with no scratches other than a twisted knee injury that Alla sustained in the last mile through the rainforest. (But she can still dance Assiko, so how bad can it be?!) We thanked the guide and travel agency, took an unflattering "after" picture, and headed to nearby Limbé...the best place to end a long mountain climb.

A comfortable hotel room, cold shower, quiet restaurant, good sleep-in, fantastic primate zoo (got a huge rock thrown at my head by a "playful" chimp, found a monkey whose white nose looks like a grandfather in Florida who has slathered SPF 45 on his nose), and isolated black sand beach treated us well! By the end of one restful day, you might have thought that our red faces were from lounging on the beach, not from the piercing rays of the summit of West Africa's tallest mountain. Only our giant smiles and severe limps and muscle groans gave us away...




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