Friday, November 2, 2012

Climbing Volcanoes

"Come on, Michael! You can do it! Keep climbing!" I looked up the bright orange tube at my cheering parents. I was trying to climb up a slide at the park around the corner from where I grew up. I was about three or four years old. This is one of my earliest memories and it came back to me as I slowly fought my way up Mount Muhabura.

Just as I never made it up that slide that day, I was not able to summit Muhabura--not for lack of trying. It was not a matter of will, but rather a lack of preparation. I'm a bit mad at myself for not bringing proper equipment and attire on the hike, which put me in physical danger.

The group I hiked with consisted of nine other PCVs. We reached the bottom of the volcano late in the morning. We hiked at a determined pace, aware that we would be turned around if we didn't summit by 1:00. As we trekked the steep hill through the rain forest we joked that we were on the master of stair masters. Muhabura is only the second-tallest volcano in Rwanda behind Kalisimbi, but our guides told us it is the most difficult to hike up. I can believe it!

At about 10,000 feet, we came out of the rain forest and into sparse trees and rocks. Then there was a section of waist-high grass. Then the grass disappeared into more rocks. The higher we got, the steeper and rockier the mountain got. We were all definitely feeling the effects of altitude sickness--light-headed, dizzy, nauseous, weak.

Then a lightning storm hit. The bolts were striking the mountain very close to us. The thunder roared almost simultaneously with the flashes of light. Without a rain coat, my clothes were soaked. I felt like I stepped into the shower for 30 minutes with my clothes on. Delirious and tired, I started to suck the water out of my sleeves and drink it. "Is that all you got?!" I cried out as I continued to stumble up the mountain. It was a mistake to provoke Muhabura, that vicious mountain.

The rain turned to hail. Frozen drops of rain pelted our faces. The mountain turned white and the trail vanished. It was at this point that I turned back, realizing that my body temperature was dropping too much for me to continue. When I came upon those who were behind me, I shoved my hands into my buddy's pockets and we huddled together for a minute. One of them advised me to retreat down the mountain as quickly as possible, saying that the temperature rises three degrees every 1,000 feet. I did as he told me and went down quickly and carefully.

Coming down was both difficult and easy. The altitude sickness went away almost immediately. But now the trail was muddy and hard to see covered in hail. I slipped at one point and my walking stick snapped in half. I'm glad I didn't impale myself on it! Luckily I came across a metal walking stick that someone left in the middle of the trail for fear of being struck by lightning during the storm.

I came down the mountain so quickly that I eventually lost the trail. Fortunately I saw the last guy making his way up the trail at a distance. I made my way back over to the trail, forging my own path through thick foliage and sharp rocks. I was able to meet up with my buddy Mike who was also making his way down.

My body was shaking uncontrollably. Mike told me to take off my soaked shirt and he gave me a spare T-shirt he had in his bag. I was grateful to run into Mike, who not only helped me to get warm, but gave me trail mix and water throughout the whole hike. One of my best buds here in Rwanda, he is someone who I will always call a friend.

Mike and I made our way the rest of the way down the mountain. We realized how far we had gone when it took several hours just to come down the mountain. When everyone reached the car, we all shared the experience from our personal perspectives. One guy said it was the hardest thing he's done in his life. That says a lot coming from a PCV!

Now it has been one week since the hike and the soreness is fading in my legs. One of my fingers is still numb from frost nip. Another might be broken (I thought it was just swelling, but it's a little crooked!). My camera is broken from water damage. Now that I know what it takes to climb Muhabura I am motivated to try climbing it again to reach the summit. If I do, I will remember the cheers of my parents, who have always supported me in all of my life's events. I love you Mom and Dad.