Climbing Kilimanjaro: Day 3 – At The Cathedral

Sun. 7th July 2013

Start altitude: 3,550m
Max. altitude: 4,000m
Camp altitude: 3,840m

At Shira CathedralIt was a cold night on the mountain. Despite being in a 4 season sleeping bag (though not the 4/5 season that I thought we had booked) and wearing thermal long johns, thermal top and a fleece) I woke up cold a few times. It wasn’t helped by needing to get up to go to the loo twice in the night either. Some lessons to be learned for tonight!

Getting closer!Otherwise, I feel very good. My legs feel strong still and last night’s headache and brain mush has gone and I wake up ready to walk. Of course, it helps that the start of the walk today is over the flat ground of Shira crater where the caldera was filled in by the later eruption of Kibo. The slow pace also helps a lot – it’s surprising how quickly you get used to it. It also gives you more time to appreciate the scenery which is constantly changing but always stunning. Even more so once we reach the crater rim and climb up the wall. Once on top of the rim the views just take our breath away. Looking back along the path we walked across to the other side of the crater but the view the other way is very special – looking out at Kibo peak with the valley below all shrouded in cloud. Gosh!

Mt Meru floating above the cloudsIn the ‘it’s a bit of a detour, but it has to be done’ category is a hike up to the high point of the crater rim – Shira Cathedral. This piece is quite steep but it is good for acclimatisation and also the gradient will be good practice for summit day. At the top you really do get a sensation of the volcano crater – a narrow path along the rim with a very long drop down to the valley below on the outside. Below us, the clouds seem to be flowing up the side of the hill and in the distance, in the other direction from Kibo, is Mount Meru seemingly floating in a sea of cloud. I really hadn’t expected to have this diversity and sheer beauty of the landscape – this stunning, spectacular, ever-changing scenery. Even if I don’t make it to the summit, I’m so glad I did this trek.

The plain is strewn with rocksThen it’s back down and up the other side of the saddle ridge. Even with the slow pace, I’m breathing heavily on the uphill sections. Once over the ridge, the ground is flat, completely arid and scattered with round boulders and short, stumpy plants. We can see our camp for the night above us now – an hour or so more to walk, albeit up hill. The bad news, though, it that it has gone 2pm and we’ve still not had lunch yet and won’t get lunch until we make it to camp.

We’re fantasising about food for the last section of the walk. What would we most like to eat right now? Chips is very high up most people’s list – and sure enough when we get to camp and arrive at the mess tent, its chips! How do they do that? So high up the mountain and with everything having to be carried up. As with the Inca Trail, the quality (and quantity) of food has been amazing.

A surreal view, looking out to Mt MeruOne of the pieces of advice I had before embarking on this trek (before booking even) was to always sleep at a lower than your maximum altitude for the day. Apparently, it helps with acclimatisation and particularly helps you to get a good night’s sleep. As camp (at 3,840m) is our high point for today (Shira Cathedral is lower) then we are not yet finished with walking for the day. After a short rest, we head off again, following the track we’ll be following tomorrow up to around 4,000m where we sit and admire the view and take yet more photos. The layered ridges of Shira crater and Meru in the background are monochrome in the haze and late afternoon sunshine. I’ve seen paintings like this but never seen it in real life before – I think the photo really captures what we saw.

Washy washy! Note the two tone leg!Its always quicker walking down hill (though we still won’t set any speed records). There’s just time for washy washy whilst the day and the water are both warm. One little bowl of water which I’m now good at stretching out to do hands, face, armpits, feet, bits and legs. It has to be that order as my legs are caked in a layer of the very fine volcanic dust that just clings to everything. The combination of bare legs coated in sun cream is like a magnet for it. We’re still 5 days away from a shower too!

Sunset over Mt MeruWe’ve been up above the clouds all day and the strong equatorial sun has kept us warm all day. Even at 4,000m it is plenty warm enough in t-shirt and shorts (but lots of sun cream). When the sun sets though it gets cold quickly and we need to put a few layers on. As the sun sets, through an orange-red glow spreads over the clouds below and lights up Mt Meru in the distance.

Steve contemplating what we've achieved - and what we've still to doEven more astonishing than the views is the availability of mobile phone signal – a couple of bars of 2G. Not enough to load a web-page, but enough to exchange texts with Janet, to catch up with email and my Twitter feed which reveals that Andy Murray has won the first set of his Wimbledon final. C’mon Andy!

Toilet with a long drop! (and an amazing view)It was a shorter, easier walk today than yesterday and as a group we’re clearly less tired and better acclimatised than last night – fewer headaches and other altitude symptoms. We’re in high spirits and there is lots of joking and chatter in the mess tent. Plenty of banter evenly spread around. I’m amazed we’ve got this far and this high and we are all still in good shape – hopefully this is a good omen for the next few days. We even managed to make it to the late hour of 9pm before turning in for the night.

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