Day 3 of the climb: Ups and downs
Shira Camp (3,890 m/ 12,760ft) to Lava Tower (4,630 m/15,190 ft) to Barranco Camp (3,950 m/12,960 ft); 18 km/ 11.2 mi
Crossing Shira Plateau
We set out from Shira camp under slightly overcast skies. After an hour or so, drizzle and hail set in. We kept on through a moonscape of lava boulders and sedge grass. Nothing much growing up here. Although we began in the lush tropical rain forest just a 2 days ago, any signs of plant life are starting to disappear fast. Not to put too fine a point on it, we are about to spend time in areas not meant for either plants or animals to stay very long. Plants can’t thrive and the only animals are some insects and small rodents and in another day even they will disappear. Spiders are sometimes seen quite high up, but how they survive with almost no water around is a mystery. The only constant is the ravens soaring high up in the sky, and scavenging at the camps.
Today is an acclimatization day. Meaning we climb to a relatively high altitude and then descend to sleep low. It helps the body adjust for the days to come, where the air pressure will be progressively lower. As the air pressure decreases, the fluid balance changes. Blood thickens and fluid leaks into the tissues. This can cause headaches, nausea, and swelling in the extremities. In extreme cases, acute mountain sickness can lead to fluid on the brain or in the lungs, which can be fatal.
Anyhow, as we climbed in the hail, I began to feel the altitude. I was queasy by 4,300m and feeling pretty awful by 4,500m, when we stopped for lunch. I had no appetite, so I pressed on toward the Lava Tower. I just wanted to get to a lower spot! It was amazing how descending just a couple hundred meters made all the difference. I was almost euphoric and ran down the slope into the valley below the Lava Tower.
We continued on up and over a series of ridges and valleys before reaching our destination, Barranco. The Barranco Valley was magical. As we descended to the valley floor, we were greeted by a magical forest of giant lobelia and Senecio. These hardy plants are among the few that can survive in the harsh environment. And looking up, we were below Kibo, with great views of the glaciers.
We are now circling around to the east of the mountain, below the summit. Some people climb directly from the west side–but our longer route will give us more time to acclimatize. Today, we actually climbed almost 700 metres to get to the tower and then descended just about the same amount to get to Barranco. Why gain all that altitude and then go back down, you might ask? This is part of the “climb high, sleep low” regimen. When you sleep, your metabolism (respiratory rate and circulation) slows down and because of that your body suffers more from the thinner air and lower air pressure at altitude than when you are awake and moving. So they try to get a day of climbing higher to acclimatize, but then let the body recover by sleeping at a similar altitude to the night before. Of course you ultimately have to climb and sleep higher, but this helps and is one reason taking a longer route to the top (as we did) can improve the chances of making it.
To be continued…