On the third day we woke to another short but strenuous hike, just over five miles, but because we walked very slowly to help acclimatize and not get too winded, we did okay. The first three miles or so were a long but gradual uphill climb through lava fields. We sang snatches of songs we couldn't remember all the words to, and played movie trivia.
That got us through a four hour hike to a lava tower, where we stopped to eat lunch. Robert and Douglas, our cooks, made us a packed lunch of fried chicken, bread dipped in batter and then fried up like a fritter, a hard boiled egg, a muffin and a cookie. It tasted wonderful after that hike, and really fortified us for the last leg of the day’s hike. It was really cold at the tower, and 15,000 feet of elevation. The terrain reminded me greatly of the barren Salang Pass in the Hindu Kush mixed with lava flow scenery in Southern Utah.
After lava tower we started downhill and immediately ran into a tiny vegetated valley fed by runoff from up the mountain. Moss and actual grass formed this miniature ecosystem and were bordered by more of the rocky and scrubby landscape we had been previously walking through. As we descended, we began to see more and larger examples of a plant that reminded me somewhat of a Joshua tree. It's called a Giant Groundsel, and sports an individual branch with a clumped bunch of foliage on top. It apparently grows another branch every 25 years or so, so you can age the plant by how many of these branches it has.
At the bottom of a steep gorge at about two miles past the lava tower was the next camp, at the base of the Barranco Wall. Here all of the individual trails converge, and we now had spread before us what looked like hundreds of tents from the various outfitters, including another group from our own outfitter, ClimbKili.
The camp was beautifully situated to inspire and awe us for what was to come. The summit of Kilimanjaro loomed over us, seemingly another entirely different mountain than what we'd been climbing for days.
The other feature with which we would be getting familiar the next day was the Barranco wall, a lava formation that the climbing guide claimed we would be "scrambling up" the next day. Taking a look at it from our vantage point, you could see the trail that went over the pass, and the word "daunting" again came to mind.
Interestingly, there was nothing on this hike so far that I had not seen before, in fact the last part of the Mt. Olympus hike in Utah that I trained on was much harder from a technical standpoint. The difference on Kilimanjaro manifested itself in every step and day that we spent. The air is so thin, and one is in it so long, that any activity takes much more effort than it normally would. Just packing a bag leaves you breathless. Arranging your sleeping bag, getting in and out of it makes your body cry for a break. The hardest part of the hike is simply summoning the mental will to continue on. Luckily, as mule headedness combined with not that many brain cells to steer is part of my nature, I seemed to be able to put one foot in front of the other without having to think too deeply about it.
During the night I once again got to witness the spectacular star show, feeling very small as I looked out at the infinity of galaxies and stars.