So this is where it ends. The minibus pulls to an open field of straw yellow encroaching upon shores strewn with ancient lava, and Snaefellsjokull volcano and glacier dominate the horizon. The turistas all run down the paths at it like some great white Pied Piper, as if they had a shot at reaching its foothills in the 35 minutes we were given.
They do not reach it.
I shrug, pull the camera out, make peace with the fact that there are too many garishly bright jacketed foreigners in the field of view. I take the picture. Snaefellsjokull is a Mt Shasta wannabe.
The mighty Vatnajökull glacier is, in fact, SO mighty that it has a number of outlet glaciers that are themselves quite epic…miles across, in some cases. This white beast is the greatest glacier in all of Europe by volume and spans 9% of Iceland. Our minibus stopped in the middle of a gigantic glacial floodplain that had dropped miles of lava rock and ash and had mangled a nearby metal bridge into a twisted ruin. Light played on the far mountain tops and the epic landscape and broad colors of fall that dotted the floodplain enhanced the feeling of being a small dot on a vast planet which itself is a pale blue dot in a seemingly infinite universe. Thinking large as I chewed on dried fish jerky was admittedly not my most original moment. Get to Iceland, people. It’s purty.
We strapped on the crampons, swung the ice axes, ambled up Falljokull, the lava dirt outlet glacier of the mighty Vatnajökull glacier and looked deep into the valley of the mountain’s throat, its tiny meadow-like green patch that would make for difficult golf, the slopes in the far background that seemed almost Shangri-la, with a kind of mist that hung over them in the on an off sprinkle of rain. It was a contrast in earthtones, so I snapped it. Think I’m happy. “The glacier melts are always cycling forward and back,” said our UK glacier guide, “but in the past 5 years since I’ve been leading these hikes, they’re receding much much faster than any of us have ever seen before.” He paused, nimbly avoiding the hot stone topic of why. “It’s kind of sad, really.” You have to be here, in Iceland, in the Himalayas, in Tanzania–anywhere outside–and be surrounded on all sides by this kind of landscape to feel dread at the possibility that it might slip away in ours or our children’s lifetime.
We woke up at 11pm, mist overhead obscuring the sky, but the temperature wasn’t bad at all as we put on our many layers. I actually opted out of a rain jacket layer, as I knew fleece would have me sweating hard with a big down jacket on the outside, particularly as we were about to make a 3000 foot vertical ascent straight up to the crater rim. We got our water filled, filled warm water bottles in case our Camelbak hoses froze (they did), grabbed snacks of chocolate bars and ginger cookies, and said relatively little as we sat in the mess tent, eating our oatmeal porridge and drinking black tea and coffee. I was lucky, as I’d managed to get a solid 4 hrs of uninterrupted sleep since dinner, and I felt pretty good. At last, JT lined up the guides in front of and behind us, with instructions for us not to work too hard – just pole pole up the mountain. We flipped on oiur headlamps and started up through the boulders slowly trudging along in the loose scree…so it began.
There were waypoints here and there, and the crowd headed for the summit was a zigzag twinkly of fireflies as high as we could see. We mainly listened to the sounds of the guides as they sang and called to each other in Swahili – figuring out if one team should pass another — this was, after all, more or less a single track path upwards. When we stopped for rest, Said, Viviano, Halid or JT, would open our packs for us and pull out snacks…allowing us to expend as little effort as possible as the air grew thinner. At length the group split up, with Rhys, Kitt, and Cort going ahead with Said, while the remainder of us moved a little slower.
The final 200 yards was a vertical boulder scramble that seemed like it took forever, with the crater rim in sight, the sounds of excited voices above. Since it was a slog with a train of people, we finally turned and saw the great orangle globe emerging from the clouds, Mawenzi far below us — looking almost small, and the horizon with a slight curve to it..the earth really is round!
CRATER RIM REACHED! We crawled out of the rocks into the middle of a crowd of jubilant summiteers, all gathered round at Gilman’s Point. My body was exhausted, but had no altitude issues at all – it felt like i was breathing normal. Alex, Caryl, and Paul were in great shape, while Irina was having a tough time getting air. We snapped pictures quickly and then started around the crater rim towards Stella’s Point.
We got To Stella’s Point and Irina descended with Viviano to get her oxygen back. She’d made it to the crater rim – no mean feat. I was exhausted, but after talking to JT, he said if all I felt was tired, then we’d go Pole Pole to the summit (Uhuru Peak)…which we did. The crater rim was simply stunning, with cubic glaciers on the outside above the infinite clouds, and the giant bowl on the inside.
Once we got to the Uhuru Peak summit (19,341 ft) and grasped what we’d done, I muttered a quick refrain from Toto’s “Africa”, we took our pictures, then I busted it down with Said, so tired I was stumbling, and they watched me closely. We got back to Stella’s point in record time and immediately started down, with Alex, Caryl, Paul not far behind with JT. The descent to Barafu was kind of a blur, as I was pretty out of it, but I managed to make it unscathed, had lunch, then we descended further all the way down to Millenium Camp at 12,500. The 5 hr descent after 8 hr of altitude hiking wasn’t welcome, but not as if we had a choice. Alex and I both jammed our toes, and even as of this writing, my right toenail is black and probably leaving this mortal coil. Fortunately, Millenium Camp was gorgeous. I crawled into my tent and crashed hard after 12 hours of hiking. At dinner later, Rhys, Cort, and Kitt indicated they’d only gotten into camp a half hour ahead of us.
We overnighted at Millenium; the next morning was tipping ceremony with our whole summit team, where they sang and danced a Swahili celebration dance for our Kili summit. Afterwards, we headed down through the moorlands and back into the rainforest, where we saw Mt Meru in the distance, Kili framed above us, and more beautiful flowers.
At long last, we reached the final gate…did our last team picture together, signed out to get our certificate for climbing the mountain, ate lunch, and sat quietly in the bus on our way back to Arusha. What a grand adventure – a sense of accomplishment that’s hard to describe and relishing our fortune in having an excellent guiding company and a team where we all got along in our many days on the mountain. I felt truly blessed and exhilarated.
FAQ: How did you book this epic journey?
Through Peak Planet, the best reviewed agency we found. Researching the Kili guiding is an exercise is due diligence – but something to consider is the treatment of porters and guides helping you up the mountain. The cheaper operators have a reputation for porters and guides with tattered clothing, substandard shoes, and not getting paid for the many days away from their families. From all testimonials and references, Peak Planet is the opposite of that, working with the African Walking Company to ensure good treatment while keeping the prices reasonable. I have zero stake in Peak Planet, but the blog should speak for itself – the guides and porters were excellent, friendly, helpful, courteous, etc. all you could ask for on such a comprehensive undertaking.What camera did you use?
The Fuji XT-1 mirrorless APS-C with an 18-135mm lens. All of it heavily weather resistant, unstopped by rain, freezing cold, sleet, or altitude. I did bring 4 extra batteries, kept warm in a wool sock…which proved to be good for the whole 9 day mountain journey.