"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Jeremiah 29: 11

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Climbing Mount Cameroon: 29-31 Dec 2017

Our adventure climbing Mount Cameroon was almost 4 years in the making.  We first heard about it in January 2014 in Congo when a friend sent us a review of a Cameroonian tour company taking tourists up.  As far as we were aware, Mercy Ships had no plans to go to Cameroon, with the next Field Service set to be in Benin.  Obviously, a lot changed in that time – the Ebola crisis happened – we went to Madagascar for two years and then to Benin and finally we arrived in Douala, Cameroon in August 2017.  It was time to pull out that email and have a look at whether this was actually feasible for our family.  And then to start training.

Jack and I started training on the sail to Cameroon back in August.  Experienced hiker friends suggested lots of stair climbing, preferably two at a time – luckily we live on a ship with 9 decks and lots of stairwells to train on.  We worked our way up to about an hour’s worth of stairs 2-3 times a week by the time we were ready to book our climbing trip.

Mount Cameroon is the highest mountain in West Africa at 4090m high (13,419ft).  It is a volcano with the last big eruption occurring in 2000.  There was a smaller eruption in 2012.  Fortunately, none in 2017 when we climbed over the last 3 days of the year.

29 Dec 2017 – Friday
We met in the café onboard at 0545.  Our group of 12 from all over the ship and all over the world: Our family from Australia – except for Harry – Mick - engineering, Tammy (communications), Jack (16) and Mark (13); a Dutch family – Janetta (HR), Hugo (almost 17) and Micah (14); Yassine from Switzerland (Information systems); Nikki (Operating room), Michelle (Dental), Sierra (Rehabilitation) all three from US and Natascha from Australia (Hospitality).  An awesome group to spend these three days with – full of enthusiasm, a little trepidation and lots of encouragement.
Before 6, we’d left the ship and were confidently striding towards the port gate to meet our vehicles just outside it.  Two 7 seater vehicles and a nice even distribution of baggage.  We were fortunate to each only carry a day pack – porters would carry the items we needed overnight – extra clothing, plus all the tents, sleeping bags / mats and food.  I am 100% sure that I would not have made it up the mountain if I was carrying all that extra stuff.

The start of the trek - we were well into the forest by the time this sign appeared

After a semi eventful road trip, we made it to the starting point in Buea.  This is the Capital city of the South West region and being at approximately 1000m altitude, feels quite a bit cooler than Douala.  We were all keen to get going – so we did around 0830.  We started in the fields above the government offices.  It was quite steep to begin with and we passed through a small town / village which included a prison farm.  Then we headed into the forest to really start climbing properly.  It was hot and steamy with steady climbing.  No switchbacks – just different gradients of steepness if that is such a word.  And it was rocky. I don’t think I realised how rocky is was until we came down two days later actually.  We stopped at a very large, cavernous tree – enough to shelter a few people in heavy rain.  We also stopped at a concreate Park entrance.  Each stop meant a good opportunity to eat something and take in more water.  We were sweating a lot.  I was sweating so much I almost overheated – Mick took my day pack and I took off my hat and cooled down.  I was starting to worry that all my training would be for nothing.  It wasn’t too long after this that we reached Hut #1 – about 1030.  We had most of our lunch there.  And drank a lot more water.  Our guides and porters had plenty of water for us too.  We also crossed a small spring just before the hut and were able to wash our sweaty faces and hands.  It was pretty decent break at Hut #1 and there was plenty of shade and places to sit.   We had all found a comfortable place in the single file of our hiking group – our teenagers were at the front with Nikki and I was further down the back with Sierra and Natascha.  We were a little spread out but all in good spirits.

The next most noticeable change was when we exited the forest and started climbing in the grasslands – coinciding perhaps with crossing the tree line.  The grass was rough and thick on the ground that still remained very rocky – full of loose, rough, volcanic rocks.  It was tough on your shoes and I am glad I had a pair of hiking boots on though plenty in our group survived in sneakers / running shoes.  I think the extra ankle support was a huge confidence boost for me in that rough terrain.
The path from the start was generally quite narrow – hence why we ended up in single file for most of the time.  It was fairly obvious trail – though once in the grasslands, we started climbing in earnest – it was much steeper and I was glad of the 2 steps at a time training that I had been encouraged to do beforehand.  There was a pleasant breeze and we appeared to be above the dust haze that settles on the city during Harmattan.  We still had clouds so the temperature was great for steady exercise.  The challenge was just finding a rhythm, taking the time during breaks to admire the incredible views and of course, to keep hydrated and energised with food.  I didn’t feel hungry at all and had to keep forcing myself to eat snacks – knowing that I would run out of energy otherwise.
Volcanic vent on the way up - very cool inside and deep
The area of grasslands between the end of the forest and Hut #2 was for me the most challenging part of the whole trip – on the way up and particularly on the way down.  It seemed to go on forever and required a lot of concentration and mental energy.  We saw others hikers and rangers coming down and they told us that we were very close – only a 100m or so.  It is important to realise that all the guides, rangers and porters only refer to how far something is in terms of altitude – so 100m is 100m climbing which could mean 100m to be walked or 1000m.  Once we understood this was started to ask the question in terms of time rather than distance.
Finally, we made it up to Hut 2 – 2850m - a significant achievement on its own – the highest mountain in Australia is Mount Kosciuszko at 2228m.  So, we had already climbed higher than we could at home.  I was totally knackered – having not had enough water in the latter part of the day. We had a dinner of spaghetti with a spicy tomato based sauce with small pieces of fish in it – cooked over an open fire.  It was delicious and much needed calories – helping us all to recover strength and hydration as well.  We could have as much as we wanted – which is always a huge advantage when there are four teenage boys in your group with hollow legs.  That kind of message is music to their ears.
Dinner day 1 - so good!
When the sun went down, it was crazy just how quickly it cooled down with a light breeze accompanying the night sky.  With not a lot of warm clothes, the most sensible decision was to get into bed and quickly.  I received a Fitbit for Christmas which tells me that I was asleep at 1923 (7.23pm).  Clearly – I needed it. 

30 Dec 2017 Saturday
We woke close to 6am having to be ready to go at 0800 and breakfast available from 0700 in the cooking hut.  It was chilly but not as bad as I expected it to be.  Mick and I shared a tent – as did the teenagers and the women were divided into two tents. Poor Yassine was in a tent by himself and struggled to get warm all night.  Mick and I were cosy in our tent next to him.
For breakfast we had hard boiled eggs, bread with choice of mayonnaise or Tartine (like Nutella) on it and Tea, coffee or Ovaltine.  It was delicious and everyone ate heartily – keen to build up their energy reserves for the day ahead.  There was a couple of hole in the ground toilets at Hut#2 – though plenty of our group preferred to go “bush” instead.  As long as you went first thing in the morning, the toilet was not too bad.
We were on the path at 0800 ready to attempt to get to the summit. After feeling pretty awful at the end of the first day, I found a good night’s sleep and dinner had me feeling up for the challenge.  Hugo had vomited on the first day and we did not think he would even attempt the summit – but he also woke up full of enthusiasm to try, feeling much better.  Our group was so encouraging of each other – it was randomly chosen through a Sign-up sheet in the Activities Binder onboard – but I am so glad I got to climb with all these people.  No one got cross or frustrated – or if they did – I certainly wasn’t aware of it.  Everyone wanted to get to the top together.
The climb started much like Day 1 ended – fairly steep grassy, rocky path.  We seemed to be going a little slower and a few people began struggling to get their breath in the thinner air.  Our guides did a good job of pacing us and using time instead of distance to let us know where we were at.  It seemed like it wasn’t too long at all before we were at Hut#3.  The reality was it was about 3 hours of steady climbing to get there.
Steady climbing on steep, rocky grassy paths
We were informed that the summit was only 45 minutes more from Hut#3.  This was when I really began to believe I was going to make it to the top.  I hadn’t had any trouble breathing at all which was why I had trained so hard.  For a change – I was closer to the start of the group with the teenagers and Niki still setting the pace.  The grasslands opened up into a strange volcanic landscape with hardly any vegetation and the path was more like a meadow path with smaller pieces of rock – sultana-size instead of the larger ones.  It was easier to get a rhythm going and we could virtually see the path right to the foot of the summit.  It was really exciting and tempting to speed up.

Volcanic meadow
We arrived at the summit about 1230 – fully elated at what we had achieved.  The whole of the mountain was visible below us – as well as the clouds and fortunately the Harmattan dust.  We felt like we were on top of the world and all that was left to do was to keep encouraging our group to join us and get the photo proof of our achievement.  Oh yeah – and to climb back down…

Our group - We are one at the Summit!
Top of the world view
 After the excitement of summiting, going down was a let down and quite a struggle for me.  There was no goal – after the initial “volcanic meadow” – we returned to the steep, grassy path covered in loose rock – that did not seem so terrifying on the way up.  I was very concerned about rolling an ankle and took a very long time to get back down – being the last person in to Hut#3 and then also Hut#2.   I thought that I had prepared really well for the trip but realised that my focus had been constantly on going up and relatively nothing on going down.  Not too worry – only 1.5 days of going down to go!
Finally, I did arrive back at our camp at Hut #2 after 4pm on Day 2 – the very last one in our group.  We had a lovely dinner of chicken in a peanut curry sauce on rice.  Again, as much as you wanted to eat.  All still really pleased that we made it to the summit and back. Knowing only one more day of climbing to go – and it was all down.
Mick and I decided to get to bed early again as the temperature dropped with the fading light.  We were a little wiser than day 1 and made sure to go to the toilet before zipping up the tent so no midnight trips were needed.  We then realised that we were in our sleeping bags and ready to go to sleep before 6pm.  After a short conversation of whether this was actually appropriate or not, we were asleep before 7pm and awake at 5.30am the next morning.

31 Dec 2017 – Sunday – the last day of 2017
So same schedule as the day before – breakfast at 0700 with the plan to get started on the way down at 0800.  This time with any packing up also needed to be incorporated into our time.  I felt quite stiff this morning – which I hadn’t the previous day – it was going to be a challenging day.  
Poor Janetta had rolled her ankle in the last part of the previous day and it was really swollen.  I didn’t know how she would even make it down those steep slopes but one of our guides had made her walking sticks.  Sierra had strapped her foot as well.  And what other choice did she have?  It is one of my most lovely memories of that morning to see Micah helping his mother climb down that mountain – he was so careful in picking her path and stayed with her on that really steep part.  It was a joy to watch.
Between Huts #1 and #2 was an intermediate hut which I don’t really remember much about on our first day.  However, I think it marks the start of the really steep part of the path between those huts.  Because on day 3, we could see it for a very long time - sitting tantalizingly close below us. It was so steep on this section leading to the Intermediate hut that it felt like you could “cardboard surf” down the mountain in a matter of seconds and be at the hut.  Of course, sitting on a piece of cardboard, hurtling down a very steep slope covered in fist size volcanic rocks, was not an option so we just had to carefully pick our way down – hoping that the hut was actually eventually going to appear to be at a manageable distance.  And finally, it did.
The rest of the hike was tough due to fatigue – we returned to the forest – where there were many more loose rocks than I remembered.  It was pleasant to be in the shade and to know each step was closer to the end.  I knew that there was hut in the forest somewhere and a spring near it.   We were also seeing people heading up – all fresh and enthusiastic.  We were not at all fresh – filthy from the volcanic dust, sweaty from the exertion and tired from the trip overall.  It was very satisfying to know that the end was near.
Back into the forest
We had a short lunch at hut#1 and were told it would be about 2 hours from there to the end point.  And it was.  The teenagers were almost running down the last section – Mick had a burst of youth to catch up with them.  Again, I was one of the last few, keeping the rhythm going and wanting to finish as strong as I could without falling or rolling ankles.

Mick and the boys made it down in a little over 50 minutes – I was much closer to the 2 hours estimate and back a little after 1300.  We took some shots of the group and then thoughts turned to the journey back to the ship and day dreams of 6-minute showers to remove the ingrained dirt!  We were home before dinner – tired, but very happy to achieved this feat.  It was tough - some sections were more difficult than others.  It was a real rite of passage and we are seriously proud of our boys in climbing this mountain.  

Achievement - now where is that shower
By Tammy

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