Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Lonely Meru

After climbing Kilimanjaro, Mt. Meru is... empty.  Even though it's often used as an acclimation climb for Kili and is only about a two-hour drive from its sister mountain, few people actually make it to Meru.  In total, there were about 30 of us on the mountain during the three days I was there, compared with 1,000-2,000 on Kilimanjaro.  It's refreshing, largely because it means the few teams of climbers all sit and talk with each other during the evenings and on the trail when they happen to be walking next to each other, while there are just too many people to do that on Kili.  Also, Meru has the most comfortable huts of all of the mountains in east Africa:  solar electricity and running water and everything.  Also, lots of space, so you can usually get a room to yourself, unless you're there during an exceptionally busy week.

Moshi and Arusha are like the Aspen and Breckenridge of Africa.  They're very well-developed mountain towns where wealthy professionals and businesspeople from the surrounding area and Europe come to relax on safari or to do one of the two big mountains in the area.  Kili has Moshi, Meru has Arusha.  Dar es Salaam may be Tanzania's actual capitol, but in addition to its mountain vacation-town aspects, Arusha is also one of Africa's diplomatic capitols.  Despite his flaws and failed domestic policies, former (and first) Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere made it a point to establish Tanzania as a center for diplomacy and mediation for the country and its neighbors in Sub-Saharan Africa while he held office in the middle of the twentieth century.  Since then, Arusha has continued to be a major hub for diplomacy.  In the 2000s, it hosted some of the peace talks that ended the Congo Wars and continues to house the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which prosecutes people implicated in the 1994 genocide, and other UN functions.  Tanzania and Nyerere have also been instrumental in bringing the East African Community (EAC) together to prevent conflicts; the EAC has been discussing total political unity of its member states for some time.  "Tanzania" itself is a product of Nyerere's diplomacy, being a country made from the two former colonies of Tanganyika and Zanzibar (the word "Tanzania" is a portmanteau of these two names).

Meru's by far the easiest of the Big Five, but I had the hardest time starting out on this mountain.  It wasn't the hike or the guide, it was just tiredness.  After Africa's three tallest and most difficult mountains, I was feeling drained and, having lost three belt sizes over the course of the past several weeks, I was starting to look a little too much like a sunburned version of Christian Bale in "The Machinist" (with more awesome facial hair).  I'm out of er fat reserves, so if I don't eat the energy I need, when I run out of energy on a hike, I'm really out.  Also, having completed Kilimanjaro, some of my drive to push through the list vanished after I'd completed a mountain I'd been thinking about for over ten years.  It took me most of the first day of the hike to get my head back into the game and to resume forcing myself to eat twice what I normally would at meals so I'd have the energy to get through the next day of hiking.

Meru is a short hike, with the normal completion time being three days; four days for people who want extra time to acclimate.  Unfortunately, the weather in east Africa has been very strange the past few weeks.  From Ethiopia through Tanzania, it's been raining heavily every day, even though that sort of weather shouldn't happen here for at least another month.  It um complicates things.  Normally, climbers summit in the early morning on the third day and then walk out of the park later that day after a rest in the late morning/early afternoon.  We did not.

The first day of the hike is a really straightforward 3-4 hour hike after check in.  Mt. Meru is located in Arusha National Park, which is often used for short safaris because of all of the wildlife in the plains around the mountain.  When you're in a car, it makes for a beautiful drive filled with iconic wildlife.  When you're on foot, it means that wildlife might want to... interact with you, and usually not in a friendly way.  Also, as the local buffalo have discovered, the climbers' trail is just as convenient for getting around for them as it is for the climbers.  Because of this, the park requires you to walk with a rifle-toting ranger for the entire hike.  Groups usually get put together with one ranger, so you'll often be walking with a fair amount of people, which makes it a pretty social and friendly climb.  While we were hiking, nothing larger than a baboon got close to our group, but buffalo were all around and their tracks were all over the trail, so hikers do encounter them often enough.  Baboons can hurt you, but they're just the irritable food thief of the savannah, and they're everywhere.  Buffalo are two thousand pounds of seriously vile-tempered beef that gore and trample lions.  They're worth avoiding, if possible.  Sometimes tourists meet the occasional hungry leopard.  It's good to have large groups and a ranger.

The hike itself is gentle, but it took me all day and about a pound of refreshing mangoes to get my head into the climb and back into the project.  If there's one thing I've discovered while hiking in Africa, it's that fresh fruit and juice is magically rejuvenating when you're tired.  I think I'm always going to stuff a pineapple or a mango into my hiking pack from now on.  It's pure simple sugar and nutrition, so it makes you feel great when you're tired.  I wish I'd done that on long hikes before.  The trail was wet the whole way, but thankfully not filled with deep, sucking mud like the Ruwenzoris.  We didn't get rained on during the day, but that night, we had a severe storm that dumped monsoonal levels of rain on the mountain with high winds and lightning.  In the morning, all of the guides and rangers got together and decided that we would summit that afternoon instead of waiting until the night/early morning of the third day.  Apparently, these nighttime storms are becoming normal on the mountain.  We did succeed in avoiding another high-power storm the following night by summitting early, but we also succeeded in finding a different storm to escort us up the mountain.

Normally, on the second day, hikers will reach camp, drop their packs, and then take a short hike up "Little Meru", a smaller peak on the mountain off to the side of the proper peak.  It's a good way of using your afternoon and it gives you a little extra acclimation to make the actual summit easier.  Instead, after we completed the four-hour hike between camps, we ate lunch and repacked our bags for the summit.  I acclimate slowly on mountains, so I could feel the altitude a bit at the end, but not as badly as the other people who had just flown into Tanzania from low-elevation countries, like the UK and Canada.

We were only about half an hour into our 5-6 hour hike to the summit when the clouds started rolling in and dropping a misty rain on us.  After about two hours, the rain properly started and shortly turned into pea- and then marble-sized hail driven by sustained winds for the rest of the hike.  Even with a thick Gore-Tex hardshell, hail stings a little.  The group from the UK had opted for the four-day version of the hike, so they hadn't joined us on this stretch of the hike.  However, two teams of Germans and most of the Canadians turned around when the weather turned nasty, since they were just using the mountain as an acclimation hike for Kilimanjaro and weren't overly worried about summitting.  Me and two of the Canadians kept going.  A few hours of winter weather is doable when you're used to living in Canada, and failing to summit isn't fun.

Even the summit hike isn't overly steep on Meru, so it's not too difficult to maintain a faster pace.  Also, wanting to just finish and hide from the hail is encouraging.  Miraculously, the clouds broke for about the ten minutes we were actually on the summit, allowing us to take some good pictures of the summit area and the cinder cone in the center of Meru's caldera (it's one of the mountain's more striking and interesting features).  One of the remaining Canadians got sick on the summit and had to start rushing down to a lower altitude to feel better, leaving two of us to enjoy the summit with the two guides who didn't escort everyone bailing off the mountain.  We stayed and enjoyed it for a few minutes, but we could see the next wave of the storm rolling onto the mountain, so we started down.  It hailed the entire way.  Only a few short sections require scrambling over low-angle rock faces, so we didn't have to worry about slick rock too much, which was nice.  We had to keep our hoods pulled low and over most of our faces to protect ourselves from the hail, though every time we had to look up to find our footings meant getting pelted right in the face.  Eye hail is... uncomfortable.  I can't tell you how good seeing the huts after 5-6 hours of hail felt.

We just about ran down the mountain, making it back to the summit and back to the hut in about the time it was supposed to take us to get to the summit.  Like I said, hail is motivating.  We did just about fall asleep into our meals.  It worked out alright, because we had sunlight all the way back to the hut.  We'd originally counted on needing to do the descent in the dark.  We made it back just in time to see the sun go down.  Hot tea feels great after a climb like that.  Also, because there were only a few groups on the mountain, we could all grab a room to ourselves and use the extra bunk beds as drying racks for our drenched gear.  The other teams had underestimated how rainy Meru and Kili can be and didn't bring much rain gear.  I'd brought full rain gear for all of my stuff and with the winds still got fairly wet.  They must've been pretty uncomfortable by the end of the day.  They were visibly dripping.

After our day became more invigorating and adventurous than originally planned, most people opted to skip doing the shorter peak the next day, though that had been everyone's original plan.  Only me and the Canadian who stayed on the summit decided that we'd still get up early and do it, and I barely did because I was feeling pretty depleted after our amazing weather adventure.  Thankfully, it takes less than an hour to get from camp to the shorter peak.  The weather was clear enough to give us a reasonable view, but we could see the clouds building, even though it was still pretty early in the morning.  We could also see white snow/hail capping Meru that was not there before.

We managed to stay ahead of the clouds on the hike down, but by the next morning, half of the mountain had a visible coating of snow on it, so we had apparently just missed even worse weather.  The hike from high camp to the gates was uneventful, though we did see a lot of monkeys, baboons, and warthogs along the lower stretches of the trail.  I was pretty zapped and looking forward to some rest days back in Nairobi filled with fattening foods.  I've been doing my best to eat nothing but fattening and sugary foods since coming back.  I've been eating well on the mountains, but I can still see a vein standing out on my abdomen right now.  It's a good day for high-fructose corn syrup (it converts right to fat!).  Now, I must leave you so that I can enjoy a delicious, greasy quesadilla.


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