Let me begin by saying: I´m not a professional mountain climber. I´m a runner, a swimmer and I love hiking. So I figured taking up mountain climbing would be a fun transition into something a little more “challenging” in the way of outdoor endurance sports.
I remember thinking: Well, I´ve run marathons and triathlons…how much harder could it be climbing a mountain? (Spoiler alert: This might be the dumbest thought that ever went through my brain.)
After doing a lot of reading, I spent 4 months training for the Meru/Kilimanjaro combo climb in Tanzania. I took long hikes and did incline training with a weighted pack. I broke in my new hiking boots, trekking poles and clothes I planned to wear during the trek. I even sought out expert advice from the pros on their blogs.
I felt ready for anything.
It´s worth noting that I´d never hiked in high altitude before (or anything above 5K feet for that matter), but I considered myself prepared. I´d done extensive reading on “Dr. Google” about AMS (Accute Mountain Sickness), its symptoms, treatment and how to theoretically prevent that most feared of highland scourges, should it choose to rear its ugly head.
Armed with an ample supply of the very expensive altitude sickness drug Diamox, I boarded a plane bound for the crown jewels of Africa.
My climbing tour had been arranged and a lovely, family run hostel was booked in a quiet suburb of Arusha. I wanted to be well rested before setting out to smash yet another goal on my athletic bucket list.
Autumn Spredemann…the mountain climber. That definitely had a nice ring to it!
I met with my climbing guide the night before we started our 4 day/3 night trek up Mt. Meru, the star attraction of Arusha National Park. In my reading, I found out most climbers suggested doing the 4 day vs. 3 day climb since doing a complete descent on the same day as summit was supposed to be a recipe for jello-knees.
So I had immediately booked the extra day for my climb since I didn´t want to chance sabotaging my hike up Kilimanjaro by rushing the descent on Mt. Meru.
In Arusha, I collapsed into a jet lagged, blissful sleep at my hostel the night before my double-whammy mountain adventure started. It never even occured to me that Meru would present me with nearly insurmountable challenges. That it would test every limit my mind and body had before graciously allowing me to return to the surface world, a litle wiser and a lot more humble.
Dawn of our first day involved a transition from the chaotic streets of Arusha to the dirt tracks of the countryside that led to the lush wilds of Arusha National Park.
Perhaps the most amazing and unique part of climbing Mt. Meru is that you get to hike through a protected East African game park as you slowly make your way up the mountain. I went on a safari in Kenya years earlier (In my 20s) and I must say, it´s nothing like encountering wild and dangerous animals on foot, armed with nothing but a pair of trekking poles.
This is why all tours inside the park include an experienced park ranger as a secondary guide, complete with a loaded gun.
A nice touch, but truth be told, the first time you encounter a grumpy Cape Buffalo only a few meters away on foot, that rifle will offer all the emotional comfort of a squirt gun.
Our first day of the trek passed uneventful as we zig-zagged up the lower slopes of Meru. The scenery was nothing short of incredible!
We arrived at Mirikamba Hut (the 1st mountain refuge) in time for sunset. The impressive and perfectly formed ash cone of the dormant volcano loomed just below the summit and was very visible from our mountain hut. The sounds of monkeys and birds chattering away in the vibrant green surroundings welcomed us to a word that, for me, was unimaginable at nearly 9K feet! (or 2514 meters)
My shoulders ached from the weight of my day bag and my feet were tired…weirdly tired….after only 5-6 hours of hiking. We took a lot of breaks and even more pictures along the way, so my feet shouldn´t have hurt so much.
I decided to ignore the throbbing in my toes, shrugged it off and changed into my camp sandals to let them breathe.
Come what may, I was sure I´d feel better in the morning. I popped some Ibuprofen to dull the ache.
There was a crisp chill in the air as the sun set and a bank of clouds settled over the summits of both Meru and the distant Kilimanjaro like blankets, tucking the sleeping giants in for the long, cold night.
Everything felt magical. It was exactly how I´d imagined climbing mountains in Africa would be.
The only other tourist-climber in our group was a very sweet and upbeat Chinese girl who I chatted with over dinner. I saw she´d been doing the hike so far in a pair of trainers and I asked if she was saving her boots for the harder part of the trek.
She looked confused and told me she´d planned to do the entire mountain in her Nikes. Even the summit.
I was surprised, but assumed she either had a lot of experience or knew the mountain well enough to do it in a pair of beat up running shoes.
(Ahem…this is foreshadowing)
After dinner with our guides and a safety briefing on the do´s-and-dont´s of using the bathroom at night (Because predators hunt at night and you also don´t want to startle a tempermental Cape Buffalo), my partner in “climb” and I hit the sack.
I could only imagine what wonders awaited us farther up the mountain.
Day 2 got insanely steep right after breakfast. It definitely felt less like a hike now and more like climbing a mountain. We´d crossed the 10K threshold and had surpassed the more gradual inclines, making the nearly verticle slopes of Meru´s crater a harsh reality.
The picture perfect sunrise over Kilimanjaro in the east was literally over shadowed by the beast that lied before us. In order to make it to the 2nd refuge and get in position for the summit push, we had to crawl out of the crater.
We might as well have been climbing a ladder to heaven.
Sadly, my feet only made it through the first hour of the hike before starting to scream for mercy. During a short break, the guides assessed my feet with some concerned clucking sounds and delivered the verdict: My boots were too tight and the seams in my socks were causing painful inflamation in my toenails.
WTF? Was that really a thing?
My boots and socks felt fine during all my training hikes, but I hadn´t accounted for the kind of inflamation both extreme incline and altitude would inflicted upon my feet. Why TF didn´t anyone include this incredibly vital bit of information in their blogs? Apparently this is a common rookie move for new mountain climbers.
Well too bad, I told my tired, throbbing feet. We have a long way to go. I popped Ibuprofen like candy as our pace started to lag and we inched our way up the sheer sides of the crater towards our second camp.
To top things off, I started getting a headache around lunchtime.
I´d been taking the Diamox (and pissing like a race horse, which is one of the well known side effects) for the recommended days in advance, but the level of exertion required by the sheer sides of Meru on day 2 had triggered an altitude headache regardless.
The guides gave us a lot of rest breaks. We took tons of pictures of the amazing scenery and I grinned through my pain while reminding myself to keep drinking water. Both my climbing buddy and our guides checked on me regularly (Especially when I started in with the headache). However despite the setbacks, I was certain I´d feel better once we rested at Saddle Hut, our jump off point for the summit. Nothing some good sleep couldn´t fix, right?
We reached Saddle Hut (11,712 feet / 3570 meters)late in the afternoon and despite the hike only being 4.5 hours, I was in enough pain and so exhausted, I literally collapsed into my bunk and asked my climbing buddy to wake me for tea and snacks later.
I awoke sometime around sunset and our guides explained what we could expect for summit night: We´d awaken around midnight, have a light breakfast and be off with our head torches in pitch darkness until sunrise. There were a couple of small technical sections that we´d have to navigate in the dark, but they put our minds at ease and told us we should reach summit within 4-6 hours, depending on our pace.
No one said it, but I knew that I was quickly becoming the X factor for our group´s potential to reach the summit. Thanks to my injured feet and early stage AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) symptoms.
My climbing partner asked our guides how cold they expected it to be on our summit climb and they said freezing temperatures in the hours before dawn. She gave them a blank stare and admitted she didn´t have warm enough socks to wear with her trainers and was worried about her feet.
And with good reason.
I quickly offered up my second pair of wool socks and loaded both the hand and foot warmers I´d had stashed in my main bag, into in my day bag for the summit.
I let my aching, screaming toes breathe for as long as possible before crawling into my sleeping bag after dinner. My altitude headache persisted, despite all my efforts of hydration and prevention.
Regardless, I instantly fell into a dark, dreamless sleep.
Midnight came in what felt like 10 seconds after closing my eyes. It was one of those incredibly deep sleeps born of exhaustion and exertion. Waking up at midnight and preparing for a hard trek has to be one of the most disorienting things I´ve ever done. Though on the plus side, at least my headache had eased up.
I took that as a good omen.
It was a light, freezing rain when we set out in the dark. The kind of rain that sounds like tiny shards of glass pelting your clothes and feels the same way when it hits your face. Our wilderness, gun wielding park ranger wished us well and waved an enthuastic good-bye. He´d be waiting for us when we returned to Saddle Hut and then join us for the remainder of the descent, since we were now entering an area of the mountain where even wild creatures didn´t dare roam.
And it didin´t take long to see why.
From the moment we left Saddle Hut, the lushness of our surroundings faded quickly into what looked like a lunar desert, dotted by occasional cacti scrub that clung to the mountain in stubborn defiance.
Hiking in pitch darkness is a strange thing. It changes your perspective of how you see the world. Where in daylight, I saw only beauty and wonder, now all I could see were steep chasms waiting to swallow me if I placed one boot outside the precarious beam of light offered by my head torch.
By the time we reached Rhino Point (the last stop before navigating the hair-pin crater rim), the freezing rain had cast a thin sheet of ice on the ground and made every step increasingly trecherous.
Our lead guide had taken one of our porters along as back up and to help get us through the technical sections, which I was having a borderline anxiety attack about.
They gave us a 5 minute rest break on Rhino Point while discussing our best options for the next section.
We´d reached the point I´d been dreading.
Not only would we have to navigate a boulder field in the dark, but it was now covered in a thin layer of wet ice.
To make matters worse, we were no longer tucked under the wing of small ridges to shelter us from the mountain wind and the true, raw power of this elemental force made itself known during that short 5 minute break.
It was like being cut in half by an invisible sword.
My climbing buddy was shivering noticibly and said she could no longer feel her feet. I quickly produced a set of chemical activated foot warmers from my day pack to go with the extra pair of socks I´d given her. Her shoes were completely soaked through from the freezing rain water.
Our lead guide asked if we were ready and how I was feeling. I reluctancly admitted my headache had come back with a vengance, but that I felt good enough to keep going.
I didn´t even mention the sorry shape my own feet were in.
It was almost a blessing I´d lost most of the feeling in them about an hour back so the pain had been replaced by a feeling of total numbness.
Our guide was candid with us: The part we were about to navigate was going to be slippery and a bit dangerous. However, he assured us so long as we followed his instructions that we´d get through it no problem.
My heart started to pound and it had nothing to do with the altitude.
It was at that moment I saw a length of rusty chain extending out into the darkness beyond the reach of our head torches. On the left side, there was no visible path on which to put your feet, just tiny bits of rock barely wide enough to balance the toe of your boot on.
On the right side, there was only a sheer drop into oblivion.
My climbing buddy got through the first section with the agility of a mountain goat, despite her wet and frozen feet, while I struggled with the first step. I linked my entire left arm around the wet, rusty chain to which I was forced to entrust my life.
A chain that was covered in ice.
Not trusting my hand strength, I doubled over to accomodate what looked like a ridiculous troll-crab scrabble so my left arm could stay secured around the chain as I shuffled along. My right hand flailed for slippery holds where I could find them and the water saturated chain soaked through both pairs of my gloves, leaving my hands numb within seconds.
What probably only took minutes felt like hours. Days even. The surface world below and all its comforts had faded from memory, all that existed now was the darkness, the mountain, the slippery old chain that kept me from entering the void and the sound of my heart hammering in my ears.
At one point, both my feet completely skidded out from under me and our seondary guide scrambled to pull me back from the dark chasm that was now directly under me.
My left arm and shoulder screamed from the effort of keeping me on the mountain and our guides managed to pull me forward in what has been, to date, the most surreal series of moments in my life.
Then somehow, almost magically, I was planted on soft, but firm ground.
Did I really just survive that?
I started giggling at the absurdity of what I´d just endured. One of those mindless, Heyena like cackles that´s a mix of fear and uncertainty.
Our lead guide told us we had to push the pace across the crater rim to the next boulder field (technical section) and reminded us of how important it was to follow in his footsteps exactly.
Aaaaand I immediately saw why.
The soft, sharply sculpted cliff of volcanic scree looked like the edge of a giant knife and wasn´t any wider. Our feet sank a few inches with each step (like walking in sand) as we plodded along reluctancly after our guide.
I felt as graceful as a drunk hippopotamus.
The path was barely wide enough to accomodate our feet and the promise of a long, dark fall awaited any misplaced steps in either direction.
I was soaked (the chain and rocks had soaked through my gloves and the left arm of my heavy jacket from direct contact), unbearably cold and couldn´t feel my feet at all anymore. My headache had progressed into light-headedness and a slight wheeze every time I took a breath.
I knew my AMS symptoms were advancing and I felt weaker with every step.
The wind was relentless and tried to push us off the crater rim like some vengeful mountain spirit.
I sucked water through my Camelback hose, making sure to back-blow the mouthpiece so my water didn´t freeze in the line.
Every step had become pure hell.
At one point, I cracked a joke to try and lighten the mood in our group, which resulted in our lead guide stopping to assess my mental condition. He feared I was developing dementia related to the altitude.
I guess my joke wasn´t very funny.
When we stopped, my climbing partner started to cry, lamenting the condition of her feet and hands. I gratefully took the chance to rest for a moment and retrieved my extra set of hand warmers to give her.
It was at this point our guides had another brief conference between themselves in Swahili.
Their tone sounded serious and I tried to make light of our miserable situation by telling my climbing buddy that dawn must be close and everything would be better once the sun came up.
Truth be told, I didn´t want to know what time it was. Because if our guides told me we still had hours before dawn, my will power would´ve crumbled entirely.
And that was the only thing keeping me going.
Our lead guide came over, asked a few questions about my symptoms and listened to my lungs. With a heavy sigh, he said that we should turn back.
My climbing buddy looked terrified at the thought of giving up. There was only one way up or down the mountain and that was together, as a team. One weak link in the chain meant all our efforts for the summit in that horrible weather were for nothing.
I asked our guide if we could give it another 5 minutes and if my lungs sounded better and my symptoms held stable, I wanted to keep going.
He reluctantly agreed and we took shelter from the brutal wind behind a stray boulder on the far side of the crater rim.
I considered the dangerous prediciment I had fallen into with AMS, which had claimed me as one of its countless victims. Continuing to ascend with increasing AMS symptoms is a dangerous gamble and NOT one that I would EVER recommend to anyone.
I consoled myself with the notion that I´d already come so far and that I was closer to reaching a summit than anyone I knew had ever come. I drank water and had a snack and the dizziness calmed down a little. The headache persisted, but didn´t get any worse.
Most importantly, my breathing started to normalize.
Our guide gave my lungs a listen after our break and said it didn´t sound as bad as before. I told him I often got wheezy in cold, dry air (years of living in Montana when I was a kid taught me that) and that I felt good enough to press on.
He said if it got worse, even slightly, we were all going back down the mountain. No questions asked.
At this point, my body was aching in ways I never knew was possible. My numb feet struggled to keep pushing me forward in a determined shuffle and I kept my face covered with a scarf to protect my lungs from the frigid air.
My climbing buddy looked relieved to keep going and it wasn´t long before the soft rays of dawn started to paint the sky pink and I literally cried in relief to no longer be walking on the roof of the world in total darkness.
Once we had the light, it was easier to navigate the second boulder field. The rain also, blessedly, stopped.
I started to feel hopeful again while surveying my surroundings. Not even the majestic birds of the savannah flew this high! Time slipped away like in a dream and before we knew it, our guide turned to face us with a smile. He was pointing to a jagged tip of rock just up ahead.
It was the summit.
My climbing buddy let out a high pitched “whoop” and I took the first easy breath I´d had in 2 days. To make the moment even more perfect, the sun had finally risen over Kilimanjaro in all it´s firey glory.
I´d crawled out of the depths of hell and could now see heaven for the first time.
As they scrambled up the steep pile of rock to stand beside a beat up, old wooden sign that declared your arrival at Socialist Peak (14,980 feet / 4565 meters), I had an important decision to make.
I could either enjoy this perfect sunrise over Kili, take pictures and truly soak up the glory of my hard earned achievement….
Or I could miss a sunrise for the ages and touch a faded piece of wood so close, I could throw a rock and hit it.
I decided to stay just below the “true” summit and watch the sunrise over Kilimanjaro while meditating on all that I´d put myself through over the past few days.
Some would say because I chose not to cross those last few meters, all my efforts were wasted, but I disagree.
I made it through altitude sickness and the pain of what would end in me losing 2 toenails from the pressure that built inside my boots on that trek. I pushed myself through “walls” harder than any I´d encountered in marathons. I´d faced fears I didn´t even know I had until I was confronted by them in the dark and when the warm light of the sun touched my face that morning, I knew I´d won my greatest victory.
After our time on the summit, we decended all the way to the 1st hut (Mirikamba) and I collapsed into a borderline coma from exhaustion after a trek that lasted nearly 12 hours.
When we made it to the base the next day, I thanked Meru for teaching me things about myself only the truly brave would dare to learn.
I spent days recovering in Arusha before starting my hike up Kilimanjaro (Marangu Route). The entire first day of that hike was spent with my toes taped and mushing up the much gentler slopes of Kili in sandals.
But that´s a story for another time.
Since that amazing double mountain trip in Tanzania, I´ve successfully tackled a total of 4 summits (the rest in South America) and have no intention of stopping.
Some would call me crazy (especially since I´m doing this at the NOT so tender age of 39), but if you develop a passion for something then you´ll always find a way to succeed.
However, I urge people to learn from my misguided assumptions and prepare accordingly.
The view from the top is worth the struggle!