Big Hike

One of the big items on Steven's TODO list while visiting was to hike Mt. Cameroon with Tom.  This hike was very different from ones they have done in the past.  The hike started at about 3000ft, and then climbed straight up to the summit at 13,950ft.  There are 3 huts along the way where people can rest, sleep, or eat.  The story that follows is a description of their experience.  The climbing party consisted of Tom and Steven, Christine, Christof (sp?), Daniel, Emmanuel, Fred (guide) and 3 porters.

The day began at 6:30AM with a quick breakfast -- in the dark since the lights went out at 7PM the previous evening.  We arrived at Upper Farms (2895 ft) at 7AM ready to start the ascent to Hut 1 (6126 ft).  This initial hike was pretty cool temperature-wise since the track is covered by forest all the way until Hut 1. We had hired porters and a guide for our journey so that we would not have to carry the heavy packs.  As a brief side note, the porters are in amazing physical shape. Wearing only socks and plastic sandals or flipflops on their feet, the porters each carried one of our packs as well as their own.  They were easily twice as fast as we were -- who were not carrying anything but a fanny pack for camera, etc.  In any case, back to our story--we reached Hut 1 by 9AM.  Here we would replenish our water bottles since this was the last water source for the remainder of the hike.  Already we had climbed more than 3000 feet - this is pretty significant since most of our day hikes on the AT covered about as much elevation change.

At about 9:30AM we started our ascent to Hut 2; our plan was to sleep there and then to continue onto the summit the following day.  After about 20 minutes of walking through the dwindling forest into savannah and farmland, the trail opened up to reveal the lava field.  The vegetation was very sparse and low to the ground; moreover, the heat of the day was starting to take its toll.  The hiking trail for Mt. Cameroon is very different from those we have seen in either the US or China.  For steep inclines, US trails often have switchbacks that zigzag up/down the hill; in China, the hiking trails usually have steps cut into the rock.  In Cameroon, the trail just went straight up, so you just picked your way through the rocks and brush, trying very hard not to slip or fall.  Once on the lava field, the trail traveled straight up the mountain without a break in sight.  There was a "magic tree" about 2/3 of the way up to Hut 2.  It was the only tree around on the trail, and with the clouds and fog blowing it would fade in and out of view, mystically.  While climbing, one could try to use this as a point of reference, but it feels like an eternity before you reach it.  The biggest obstacles for us during the ascent were altitude/oxygen and drinking water.  Before the hike we knew about the water problems, so we were well prepared for that.  The unknown was the altitude and how our lungs/heart would be affected.

We all reached Hut 2 between 1:30 and 2:00PM.  We had made good time, and we were happy to sit and rest in the shade.  We felt pretty good physically too, so we were confident that we were ready for the following day.  About an hour after arrival at Hut 2, the heavens opened up with a deluge of water for about 30 minutes.  This was a surprise to all of us since the rainy season is not officially due to start for another 2 weeks.  It cleared up afterwards, though, so we could walk around and take some pictures.  As evening approached, we ate some dinner and then settled into bed for the night.  The hut that we slept in actually has 3 separate wooden sleeping rooms (with metal roofs) -- each can hold at least 6 people.  The sleeping platform is raised, just like on the AT, but most of the rooms have a door to keep out the wind and weather.  The guide and porters slept in a separate metal structure where they can make a fire inside to keep warm.  They only carry food and water so they need the fire to keep warm at night.  The sleeping conditions, just like on the AT, were not ideal. The "beds" were a little hard and the huts rather noisy.  None of us got as much sleep as we would have liked.

At 4:30AM on day two, we started our trek up to Hut 3 (~13000ft).  The plan was to reach the summit, and then hike all the way down to Upper Farms to get a warm meal at home.  Most of the porters would not continue to the summit, so we had to pack carefully as to what we wanted to bring for food, clothes, water, etc.  After about an hour of hiking, the altitude started becoming too difficult for some.  As a result a third of our hiking party decided to turn around and not attempt the summit.  The decision was not an easy one for anyone to make--especially for Tom.  This would be his only chance to reach the summit since the rainy season is due to start very soon.  At about 6AM the climbing party split into two, Steven, Christine, Christof, Fred, and Emmanuel would continue to the summit, while Tom, Daniel, and the porters would return to Hut 1.  The altitude was affecting everyone (headaches, shortness of breath, etc), but the summit team reached Hut 3 by 8:30AM.  After a brief respite of food and water, we started for the summit at 9AM.  There were clouds all around with a steady wind, so visibility was not very good.  After an hour, the team reached the German summit of the Guinness Trail (approx. 4105 meters). Unfortunately, there was no Guinness available for consumption, so we turned around and went back to Hut 3.  The descent was much faster -- it only took about 20-25 minutes to return to Hut 3.  Steven thinks that part of this was due to the adrenaline rush after reaching the summit, but also because he was finally going downhill.

After resting for about 30 minutes, we started our descent to Hut 2 at about 11AM.  Similar to the "magic tree" during the ascent, Hut 2 was a visible marker most of the way, so it often appeared to be closer than reality.  The fog cleared as we descended, so the sun and heat were becoming limiting factors in addition to our fatigue.  We reached Hut 2 by 1PM.  Steven was a little concerned about water and food, since everything had already been taken down to Hut 1.  Hopefully, Tom was already there and relaxing--he actually arrived much earlier and was able to enjoy a couple of naps while he waited.  The descent from Hut 2 to Hut 1 was almost always under cloud and fog.  Little could be seen of Buea or the countryside below, and much care was required so that no one got injured on the way down.  At about 2:45, the "descenders" were met with a rainstorm just before re-entering the savannah.  This made the rocky trail very slippery; in addition, once in the forest, the roots and rocks were very slippery as well.  The rainy season seemed to be upon us in full force.  After walking for another 45 minutes, Steven, Christine, and Emmanual reached Hut 1 all wet and tired, but relieved.  Here we could rest and change clothes before going down to Upper Farms.  Christine, Tom, and Steven had talked during the hike about the hikers' phrase "cotton kills".  In the US, hikers and people who enjoy the outdoors realize that once cotton gets wait, it stays wet, and the hiker usually gets cold.  Our hike on Mt. Cameroon was not too cold, but everything was wet, so it served as a lesson well-learned for Christine.

The trail back to Upper Farms crosses a creek that overflows during the rainy season--making the trail home impassable.  Luckily, the rain did not last long enough for the creek to be flooded.  The remainder of the hike from Hut 1 to Upper Farms went pretty quickly, so we were done by 5:30PM.  We were very happy to return to a home-cooked meal and soft bed for a long, deep sleep.  Overall the distance of the hike was not difficult, but the slope and lack of oxygen were serious obstacles to overcome.  It is amazing to recount that the runners in the race up Mt. Cameroon go up and down in about 5 hours total, and it took the summit team about 11 hours to go one way!  Despite all of this, however, Tom and Steven are happy that they made the hike and look forward to other adventures in the future.