Thursday, January 17, 2008

Mount Cameroon

January 17, 2008
Updated January 23, 2008
Updated January 29, 2008
Finished February 5, 2008

After Christmas, I spent a few days relaxing with Joe and Debbie in Tiko, and then met up with four friends (Anne, Angel, Rachel, and her boyfriend Thomas from the States) to climb Mt. Cameroon, the tallest mountain in Cameroon at 4090 meters. I think that works out to about 12,000 ft. or 2 miles high. At the time it seemed like one of the fun touristy things I needed to do before I left Cameroon, but it turned out to be probably the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever put my body through.

We met in Beaua (pronounced boy’-uh) on the 28th. Beaua is the capital of the Southwest Province and a very short ride from Tiko and LimbĂ©. That’s where we planned our hike. There were several different options for paths to take and days to spend. We were told by others not to do the 2-day hike as it was just up to the summit and back down the same trail. We decided on the 4-day hike. It goes up to the summit on the same trail that everyone takes, but then goes down through volcanic craters and an elephant jungle and ends up on the beach. The only problem was that 4 days starting on the 29th would mean us reaching the beach on New Years Day. We thought it would be better to get to the beach a day early and celebrate the countdown to 2008 on the beach, so we decided to do the 4-day hike in 3 days. In hindsight, I think I would have done the same thing again, just packed more socks.

Day 1:
We woke up in Beaua early in the morning on the 29th. Feeling, at this instant, more refreshed than we would for the next couple of weeks, we headed to the ecotourism office to meet our guide and porters as well as to take care of any last minute business like buying food and snacks. The guide and porters are not only essential, they’re required. We had five porters, one for each of us, and our guide’s name was Simon. He helped keep the pace, lead us in the right direction, and most importantly cook the food each night. All packed up and details taken care of, we started walking at about 9am – uphill. It seems silly to mention. We’re climbing a mountain. Of course we’re going to be going uphill. But unless you’ve ever climbed a mountain this big, you’ve never walked uphill this much. I’ve been on plenty of hikes, some with inclines like this, but normally you go up and down, usually ending up where you started by the end of the day. Our target for the end of the day was Hut 2 – about 2/3 the way to the summit.

The hike started on a trail going through farms, but quickly made its way into the forest. As we walked I couldn’t help but notice that one of our porters walking in front of me was wearing flip-flops a couple sizes too small so that his heels would actually touch the ground with each step. This made me feel a little better about doing the journey in tennis shoes. After a few hours we reached Hut 1. It was a relief to see. It meant a decent sized break with water and snacks. It was also the first milestone that we reached other than the change from the farms to the forest which was at the very beginning. Knowing that we were only halfway to our refuge for the night, we continued on, quickly reaching the tree line. Here the landscape changed from forest to magnificent fields of what looked like grain blowing in the quickly cooling mountain breezes. When we got to the tree line, Simon told us we needed to do a ritual dance. We each held a branch of a particular bush in each hand, danced while he sang, and then threw the branches behind us on his word. Mt. Cameroon is a very active volcano, or group of volcanoes, that erupted most recently in 1999 and in 2000. The rituals that they perform have apparently stopped lava from ever reaching any town around it.

The new landmark (and break) was New Hut. I don’t think people usually sleep here. It was created mostly as a water stop for the runners. Once a year there is a race to the summit and back down. We asked our guide and porters multiple times “Are they still running at this point?” and the answer was always yes. Who would or even could do that to themselves, I have no idea.

After New Hut was the “magic tree.” It is a tree growing all by itself way above the tree line. It sounded like a magnificent site and we were looking forward to hearing the legend behind it until we got there and realized that it wasn’t the only tree above the tree line. There were plenty more, even higher up. When we asked Simon, he told us that it was actually a German runner that named it the magic tree. It wasn’t called magic because it was above the tree line. Apparently the first time you see it, it doesn’t look that far away, then you go for a while and look up and it hasn’t gotten any closer, go for a while, look up, and it hasn’t gotten any closer. Then all of the sudden it’s right in front of you. The story was a little disappointing to us, so we continued on.

I’m not sure if this last leg of the day’s journey was any steeper, or if we were just already really tired, but it was grueling. When Hut 2 finally appeared around the bend, it was a sight for sore eyes. There were a couple other groups that had started before us already there, one from Canada and the other from South Africa. The three guys from South Africa were actually in the middle of motorcycling all the way up to Morocco. When we got to the hut, the first thing we did was to take off our shoes. Then we waited for the food to be prepared. Then we put our shoes back on – it was quite cold already and when the sun went down it only got colder. Rachel actually had a thermometer that she checked as we were shivering in our sleeping bags. It said 50° F. I’m not sure if it was broken or if we had just already habituated ourselves to the tropical African climate, but it felt a lot colder.

Maybe it was the cold, maybe the altitude, or maybe the hard wooden shelf where we laid our sleeping bags, but no one slept particularly well that night. When Simon told us it was time to get up, the general reaction was “It’s about time!”

Day 2:
When I sat up for the first time in my sleeping bag, the room spun. I didn’t know what was going on. Every time I moved my head I would get dizzy. I asked around and found I was the only one having this problem – probably the altitude, most everyone agreed. In actuality I’ve decided it wasn’t the altitude, but a calcification in my inner ear. The same thing happened to me about 4 or 5 years ago and you just have to wait it out – about 2 to 3 weeks. It was manageable, but still thinking it was some kind of altitude sickness made it a little bit scarier to continue upward. Three to four hours to the summit, though. It seemed well within reach, so we got moving. What we thought was the summit down in Beaua had been replaced by a new summit that looked not too far off, giving us the little burst of energy that the sleeping accommodations did not.

While there was never any actual climbing, a need to use you hands to pull yourself up, this path between Hut 2 and Hut 3 was the steepest. Each step seemed to be the equivalent of 2 or 3 stairs high and it just didn’t let up. Every time we stopped to take a breather we would look back at Hut 2, where we had spent the night. Each time it was a little bit farther and a little bit smaller, but never small enough and never far enough away.

Eventually, what we thought was the summit disappeared and was replaced just like the last one. Whether it was the real summit or not we didn’t know, but below it was a kind of ridge. It reminded me of the outcrop that hut 2 was hiding behind and I was sure that this one was hiding Hut 3, which would mean a decent break before the last 45 minutes to the summit. I poured it on, for the next 30 minutes, to get to the top of that ridge. And just like the summit that kept moving further back and farther up, my inclination about the location of Hut 3 was wrong too. When the rest of the group caught up (they weren’t as foolish as I to think it was “just around the bend”), we took a short break. Breaks by now, it should be noted, no longer entailed sitting, but rather lying on the ground. This was not only because we were dead tired, but also to get behind a bush or outcrop and out of the cold mountain wind that whipped around ceaselessly.

While Hut 3 wasn’t just around the bend, it wasn’t too, too far. We hit it pretty soon thereafter and crashed once more. I remember wrestling with whether or not to put my head all the way back against the ground because it kept making me dizzy. I ended up putting up with it though, and I think I even snuck 5 or 10 minutes of sleep too.

At this point, knowing there were only 45 minutes to go, we saw what we were absolutely positive was the summit, even a path going up it. Yet when Simon pulled us away from our repose, he led us off to the right. We’d been duped again. The path was probably for geologists studying the volcano.

We were told that the trail from Hut 2 to Hut 3 was the worst and that the final trek to the summit was quite mild in comparison. That could’ve been true, but it felt all the same to us. The terrain did change though, to small porous lava rocks. You could hear them crackling against each other with each step. You also had to pick some of your steps carefully. If you walked where there was no vegetation growing whatsoever, it was a little like walking on sand – two steps forward, one step back.

Eventually, we got to a point where Simon pointed up and said “That’s the summit.” We actually had to ask him to repeat himself. Compared to all the other “false summits,” it looked rather meager…until we got to the top.

The view from the top of Mt. Cameroon was magnificent. The clouds impeded your view a little bit but also made it that much more majestic. Looking around you could see some rocky peaks in one direction and weathered volcanic mounds in the other. It felt incredible too – a great sense of accomplishment as well as the knowledge that everything from here on out was downhill!

Partly because Simon was pushing us to continue and partly because it was really cold, we only spent about 10 minutes on the summit before heading on – downhill. It felt so weird to our legs at first. We were using muscles that had been resting for the last two days. There was also a skill to it that we had to learn. The two steps forward, one step back going uphill became two steps forward, slide a bit farther going downhill. We ended up almost running, spanning about six feet with each step. It was quite fun and a great change of pace; we just had to take breaks more often to get all of the volcanic rocks and dust out of our shoes.

Because we were going downhill and because we were sliding with every step, we were covering lots of ground. It was pretty amazing to look back every few minutes to the summit, where we were just a little bit ago and realize how far we had come, literally and figuratively. The terrain quickly changed from tiny broken-up volcanic rocks to solid hardened lava. This slowed us down quite a bit. It was very jagged and you felt like with every step there was a chance to sprain your ankle.

The solid lava lasted about two to three hours until we got to some more grasslands and took a break. At this point the summit disappeared from view and soon after we found ourselves on the surface of the moon. The landscapes at the broken-up rocks and at the solid lava fields were quite alien, but this area was somehow distinctly lunar. The clouds and fog rising up over the rocks only added to the effect. I have a 5-second video that Thomas took with his camera that you’ll have to ask me to see when I get back. It’s pretty funny.

After the moon and some volcanic craters, we made it to more grasslands. This is where we actually twisted our ankles. On the solid lava we were careful with every step. Here it was hard to see where you were stepping because the grasses were so high. Also, the grade wasn’t very steep, so Simon was pushing the pace. None of us rolled our ankles that badly; they didn’t even swell that night, but once you twisted it that first time, it weakened and made it that much easier to do again. I think it happened to me four or five times.

After 9 hours of hiking, we made it to the Mann Springs hut. It was right under the tree line and before we could even see it we could hear the porters shouting/singing words of encouragement. They had taken a shortcut not going all the way up to the summit so that they could have dinner ready by the time we got there. We cleaned up and then ate li_ke we hadn’t seen food in days. Dinner both nights was a vegetable stew that we poured over rice. It was pretty amazing. There was also fried fish for those who ate it.

Right after dinner we crashed. As the sun was setting, four out of the five of us were already in our sleeping bags. Thomas stayed by the fire listening to a rather heated discussion in Pigeon over the actual price for a Honda engine block. He said he didn’t understand that much, but that it was entertaining. Apparently one of the porters paid too much but he wasn’t convinced. “No rich! No rich!” he kept saying (I didn’t pay too much).

Eventually, everyone else went to bed and we actually slept very well that night. The next morning we woke up to more talk about engine blocks. The porters had restarted the fire and apparently also rekindled their dispute over whether he overpaid.

Day 3:
The last day of our hike, down through the elephant jungle and to the beach, is kind of a blur in my mind. Because we had to cram the last two days of the four-day hike into one, the pace was blistering. Simon told us that morning that if we walked quickly enough, we would get to the beach in 9 hours. Every time we stopped, in fact, he would give us two times – one if we kept the same pace, and a longer one if we slowed down. Although the sights were quite amazing, shortly after we started, most of us just wanted to be relaxing on the beach already. We kept aiming for the shorter of the two times.

Mann Springs, where we stayed the night, was right on the tree line, so the day’s hike started at the entrance to the jungle. Throughout the jungle, the terrain changed a lot. It was mostly downhill but there were some short uphill sections. At times there were huge old trees spread out, other times it was more dense needing a machete, and occasionally there were open clearings and lava fields. The lava fields were beautiful and very different from the ones we saw the day before. All of the sudden you would step out of the jungle and be looking at an underwater seascape. It looked like we were on the ocean floor but without the water. There were lichens covering the lava rocks and tall skinny plants that looked like algae poking up through crevices.

As for animals, we were promised monkeys and elephants but only saw millipedes, other insects, and a rather outgoing mouse in our hut that morning. We did see a few porcupine trails pointed out by Simon, some with snares set up by hunters. One time, going down a steep incline, Simon stopped abruptly, shushed us, and pointed way in the distance at trees probably 300 yards away. We stayed for a while, stared, moved to change our vantage point, and stared some more. Apparently there was a monkey in one of the far away trees that dropped down out of view. We took Simon’s word for it. One of the porters said he saw it too. As for jungle elephants, we saw plenty of evidence but never the real thing. We saw elephant droppings in a few places, some only a day old. We saw some of their trails and where they brushed up against trees. We also saw a camp of wooden tent frames that was trashed by them. The camp was being used by scientists that were tracking the elephants. It was torn apart the day after they left. Simon was actually a part of the expedition.

We were told that if elephants were to charge us, that we should run up the nearest tree. The fact that we weren’t able to just “run up the nearest tree” scared us a little at first but after some probing we found that we weren’t actually in that much danger. The only time they usually see elephants is right after the rainy season starts and we weren’t to the end of the dry season yet. Also, while Simon had been up and down the mountain hundreds of times and seen plenty of elephants, there was only one time with tourists that he had to run and they ran behind, not up, a big tree. One really neat thing that we saw, and our best chance at seeing any elephants, was a crater lake in the middle of the jungle. It’s the watering hole for the elephants in the dry season. We took a small path off the main trail for about 30 yards downhill not realizing we were already walking down into the crater until we saw a beautiful, perfectly round, emerald green lake in front of us. You could even make out a couple of paths that the elephants took on the opposite side.

By the time we had seen all these things, we were salivating at the thought of being at the beach already. We had passed where would have stayed the night had we not shortened the hike by a day and so were past halfway. I don’t think anyone had serious problems with their feet after the first two days, but 30 minutes into the jungle and we were already sloshing in our tennis shoes. Dry season doesn’t mean no dew in the morning, especially in the jungle. All that water created extra friction and we could feel exactly where blisters were forming. I picked up a walking stick very early on in the day and that helped way more than I would have imagined. When you’re walking that much, any weight that you’re putting on a walking stick is weight that’s not on your feet. By the last bit of the hike, I had both hands on that walking stick and was walking, literally, like a 92-year-old man.

The last two hours to me felt like days. I wanted to walk faster and get there quicker, but all I could do was hobble along. When we got out of the jungle, the trail met up with a very old road built by the Germans through a palm plantation. Germany had colonizing forces in Cameroon just before the British and the French and this was one of the few remnants of that.

The road lasted longer than we wanted, but finally…we reached the end of our hike. I wish I could tell you we saw the Atlantic Ocean and fell on the sand like someone who’s ship-wrecked and just found land, but that’s not what happened. Instead of the beach, we made it to a road. The beach was another half-mile farther and not where we were going to spend the night, so we decided to wait at the road for the next hour trying to find a taxi. The wait gave us time to change into flip-flops and compare blisters. Finally we, well, Simon found a car that would take us a few miles down the road to Madison Park, where we could relax on the beach and rent a tent for the night. The five of us crammed into the car with one other lady while Simon sat on our packs in the trunk.

Soon enough, we were there – relaxing on the beach, watching the sunset, and playing in the ocean with energy we didn’t think we still had. And celebrating. It was New Years Eve. As we were all in bed before the sunset the night before, I wasn’t expecting anyone to make it to midnight, but we all did. We got some food from the nearby town for dinner and made a small fire on the beach to sit around enjoying the end of 2007.

This was an absolutely amazing experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Except, maybe, for the same experience with more socks.


1 comment:

Hev said...

A big well done on your Mount Cameroon climb, that had to be one of the hardest things I have done in my life.

Heather - ex Buea Volunteer