Hitting the Barranco Wall
After eight up and down hours on the Western backside of Mount Kilimanjaro, it already has been a full day of incredible views, floral surprises and geologic majesty. And then we descend into the Barranco Valley and the wall looms ahead of us.
The first question we ask ourselves, ‘are we going to have to climb that looming wall today?’ Hopefully we get to camp beneath it and tackle it in the morning’s freshness. Thankfully the Barranco Wall is for tomorrow, but we will spend the evening around camp studying it, contemplating its fortress-like mass. It stands like a guardian blocking our highest goal, the final ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Realizing it’s possible
On any arduous mountain journey there comes a moment when your realize you’re going to get through it and make it to the top or your lungs and legs just don’t have it now and you will have to make another attempt in the future. When you hit the figurative and literal wall the realization moment of success/ failure can be just as powerful as when you actually have summited. Scaling the Barranco Wall gives you a feeling of tremendous confidence that you will need to complete the journey atop Uhuru Peak. On any epic journey there is not just one illuminating moment, there can be several that are sometimes as revelatory as the culminating climb to the summit.
Looking up from Barranco Camp you try to figure out where the trail goes through the maze of boulders and lateral slabs that have stood here since a massive slide from Kilimanjaro’s summit a mere 100,000 years ago. It seems like a vertical maze where you could wander for days. Your mind is playing tricks and you must realize that thousands have climbed it in the past and in the morning you will too.
Spiraling in control
You choose the Spiral Route partially for its pioneering path that Tusker’s founder Eddie Frank introduced in 2017 that is today the seventh and least traveled of Kilimanjaro’s established trails. Starting at Nalemuru Gate, this far North trailhead borders on Kenya. The group was able to spend four days walking cross country around Kilimanjaro’s north and western outback undulating between 12,500 to 13,500 feet allowing four days of optimum acclimatization.
It is a true wilderness experience until Day 7 when you arrive at Moir Camp. Situated in an Alpine Desert at the foot of Kibo Peak and at the end of a giant lava canyon this is the first time we had seen other groups. They have come up from the Shira Plateau. Over a hearty dinner there is increased excitement as the guides describe the following day’s itinerary. The biggest physical challenges lie ahead, but you and the group are feeling great and experiencing no altitude issues. After the guides check our blood oxygen levels most of the group are measuring 80 percent and above. Still most in the group take 125 mg of Diamox to keep our thin air defense system at top levels. Today will be physical and we will reach the highest point thus far on the climb; Lava Tower at 15,000 feet, an altitude where many hikers can start feeling light-headed and worse.
Day 8 begins with a gradual climb with open black lava rock fields that straddle the mauve trail ascending out of the Moir Camp bowl at 13,600 feet. As we ascend on a straight line we get high enough to see the ridge line visible through the building white clouds.
Lunch @ Lava Tower
After a three hour hike we have ascended to 15, 100 feet and arrive at Lava Tower, a volcanic plug that looks like a big thumb on the ridge line. The cooks work on a hearty vegetable soup and fried banana fritters. We can be effusive with our energy because lunch is coming and it’s all downhill to Barranco Camp from here.
As if we needed to be reminded of Kilimanjaro’s violent eruptive past, the evidence is scattered throughout the looming Kibo summit flanks above us. There are huge black craggy hulks above, as well as snow, but also chips of obsidian souvenir glass at our feet. There is no vegetation here to speak off, just inspirational views of the ascendant task ahead, but first we must descend to the mystical Barranco Valley.
At camp in the Barranco valley we intersect with the ever popular Machame Route and when we see these groups with struggling members we are reaffirmed by our choice of taking the Spiral itinerary. Machame is one of the fastest routes to Kibo’s summit and it shows. This is their one true high altitude acclimatization day and several of the hikers are moving glacially obviously struggling with altitude issues. We have spent three times more time in Kilimanjaro’s thin air to reach this point and are in better condition because of our altitude adjustment. We feel in control of our Kilimanjaro summit dynasty.
Valley gallery filled with masterpieces
For someone like Eddie Frank who has a deep botanical appreciation, the Barranco Valley is a magical place filled with masterpieces.It’s easy to ooh/aah over the geologic behemoth lurking above, but to truly grasp Kilimanjaro’s kaleidoscopic diversity its essential to embrace its Daliesque flora. Descending into the Barranco Valley the colorless alpine desert takes on a different palette. There is what seems like hanging gardens atop dead trees. On closer inspection you are entering stands of Dendrosenecio Kilimanjari or Giant Groundsel. It’s as if Dr. Seuss took a wrong turn on one of his journeys and ended up on your Tusker trek and couldn’t be happier in this surreal scene.
Many gardeners find groundsels in their gardens and promptly pull them, but here this mutant is a symbol of the evolutionary magic that continues to occur. It took a million years for them to grow so take some time to enjoy and photograph them.
“When you drop down into the Barranco Valley you see these scattered stands of Giant Senecio and there are hundreds of them here. They can survive because the clouds drifting up the canyon bring moisture to the unique plant life; it’s a magical place, “Eddie said.
The confidence to push above Barranco
You have put in a full day hiking with two thousand feet of elevation gain and loss; it’s been a total plus when it comes to experiencing Kilimanjaro in all its biodiverse adaptations of rock and flora. Over dinner you review your day with your mates and then at twilight you walk near the front of the Barranco Wall.
This will be the start of the final chapter of your ascent up Kilimanjaro. From afar it looked impregnable, but now when you see it juxtaposed with Kilimanjaro it’s achievable. Barranco’s trail snakes through the rock and tomorrow you will join many other hikers in taking that next big step on your way to higher glories atop Kilimanjaro.
The shining moment lesson we take away is that from afar many obstacles seem beyond our reach. But in any great journey there is a series of challenges and steps we must achieve before the final goal. It’s a process of mental and physical adjustment that once accomplished is replaced by another challenge. Once we have studied the wall and mentally absorbed its importance we have the confidence to push on. We have the physical reserves with acclimatized lungs from our Spiral Route build up.
We are eager for the challenge to push on to new heights in the days, months and years ahead.