Three years ago, when my youngest was still a baby and I was just starting out writing the blog, if you had told me I would be writing about climbing a 15,000 foot volcano I’d have laughed, and laughed some more. That’s just crazy talk, I’d have told you. It was as much as I could muster to take a walk around the neighborhood with the dogs and the double stroller. Life was busy, and I had a lot of priorities, none of which were me.
That was around the time Emmett and Mulan died within six months of each other. That was kind of a crummy time. Shortly thereafter, my husband acknowledged that life without a dog was making me utterly miserable, and Brody came home.
Now, life with a puppy was something I hadn’t experienced in a very long time. Exercising him wasn’t just something he kind of sort of really liked, it was an absolute necessity. Without it, he destroyed. He conquered. Furniture, shoes, clothing, all fell down before his mighty toothing jaws, and the only way to mitigate it somewhat was to keep him too tired to go into Captain Destructo mode.
He loved it. And I loved it too. And although it was done for him more than for me, it reminded me of how much I missed being active, and how much better I felt when I did it. So he got his walks and I went back to spin class, and then Bikram yoga, and then hiking, and TRX, and all of a sudden I was doing all of this stuff that wasn’t about Brody but about me, and it was great and I loved it and I couldn’t imagine not doing it.
So when the opportunity to climb Mt. Meru came about when I was planning my trip to Tanzania, I said, “But of course!” Because that is what life is all about. I had been running and hiking for a good amount of time by that point, though I hadn’t been camping for at least ten years, and my experience in actual backcountry hiking was nil. I decided not to tell anyone and just wing it.
At just shy of 15,000 feet, Mt .Meru is the second highest peak in Tanzania (after Kilimanjaro) and the fifth highest in Africa. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful hike through multiple climate zones during the 10,000 feet of ascent. Having had zero experience with this sort of thing, I relied on extensive Googling of Mt Meru packing lists and looking with little success for accounts of Mt Meru climbs to decide what to bring. Overall, I lucked out: the weather was great and everything I brought ended up being sufficient.
The night before we began our trip, I was met at Ahadi Lodge with Margrette- a woman I had just met but already decided was amazing- bu our guide Julius, a 6 foot 4 guide from Maasai wanderings who could best be described as Jack Skellington brought to life, a spindly, long limbed stick insect of a man who would be in charge of ushering me safely to the tip of the universe. Teri, the World Vets team leader who was the common denominator in our little group, had yet to arrive. I hadn’t met her at this point but based on our email correspondence I had already decided she was just a bit goofy and therefore likely to be someone I would like very much (I was right.)
The Maasai Wanderings Land Cruiser picked us up from Ahadi Lodge promptly at 9 am. One doesn’t require a guide to ascend Meru (this is one of the differences between Meru and Kilimanjaro), but trust me, it helps a lot. We climbed with a 3:1 ratio of porter/cook/guide per climber. We drove through Arusha National Park, taking in the sights of the wandering giraffe, before arriving at the base of the trail.
At least they let you know what you are in for.
The one person you are required to take with you, like it or not, is a park ranger. This is to protect you against the cape buffalo, who are responsible for more injuries than any other type of animal in Africa. They get cranky. Although our particular group was comprised of just three individuals, the park ranger service decided to consolidate so we found ourselves ascending with a group of recently graduated medical students from the UK, and a married couple from Vancouver who were right in the middle of a one year round the world pilgrimage. I know the rangers were being somewhat stingy, but it was really cool getting to climb with these fantastic people.
The first day was a four hour climb. First we traversed the plains at the bottom of the mountain, but this quickly gave way to the sharp ascent of the base of the volcano. The steepness did not deter the wildlife in the area; we found bones all over the place.
I was surprised at how much rainforest we were in for much of this climb, damp and cloudy. Although the guides say you can climb the lower reaches of Mt. Meru in hiking shorts, our guide raised his eyebrows at Teri’s hiking skort and suggested she put on her gaiters to protect her calves. Teri scoffed, until she accidentally brushed up against the stinging nettle that is generously sprinkled throughout the hiking path. Stinging nettles are brutal. Wear pants.
The other danger, one our guides glossed over but was one I remembered from my last trip to Tanzania, were the hordes of fire ants. I found myself constantly looking down, jumping straight up whenever I spotted a telltale column of fast-moving red ants. The woman from Vancouver was not so fortunate. She made the mistake of standing a little too closely to an ant fountain, and despite her best attempts to minimize bug damage ended up with multiple ants in and around areas that you DO NOT WANT FIRE ANTS TO BE AROUND.
Once you hit the ascent, you found yourselves gaining altitude fairly rapidly. I felt kind of bad ass until the porters ran by us with 40 pounds of supplies on their head. Then I just felt lazy.
But no matter! 4 hours later and zero cape buffalo attacks to show for it, we arrived at our first camp, Miriakamba Hut, 2500 meters (8200 feet) above the ocean.
It’s not exactly roughing it there. With three cabins, each with 8 rooms capable of holding 4 people, Miriakamba Hut can accomodate up to 96 people at a time, plus porters. There were maybe 18 there when we were climbing.
We had the mess almost entirely to ourselves. I mentioned we had a cook, right? They treated us like kings. I have never had so much amazing soup as I did on this climb.
There was no hot water there, but they did boil water for us to wash with every night. Not enough to bathe with, but you could at least splash your face with it. We had those lovely African squat lavatories, which you get used to surprisingly quickly, and cold running water. Each room had two bunk beds with a mattress, so once you spread your sleeping bag on it ended up being perfectly warm and cozy.
I was a little nervous about climbing with Teri and Margrette- Margrette was a Rainier alum, and Teri had also done quite a bit of climbing in the Washington area. Plus, they were buddies. Would I feel like the third wheel? Would I feel like a total jerk?
Here you go, two of the most welcoming, fantastic women I’ve ever had the pleasure of climbing a volcano with. I couldn’t have asked for a better duo to be with. As you’ll find out, they took me under their wing and saved my butt on more than one occasion as my inexperience got me into trouble on several occasions.
Did I mention they also had plenty of coffee? It wasn’t amazing coffee, mind you, but when you’re over 8000 feet and craving caffeine, Africafe will do just fine. I was just happy that I was there, I made it, and so far, I was feeling just great.
How the remainder of the trip would play out remained to be seen.