[Before reading part 2, make sure you’ve read part 1]
We were out the door on Saturday just after sunrise, which is around 6am on the equator (I was up much earlier making breakfast for us and trying to contain my excitement / not wake Caroline). Since we had gotten in after dark the night before, we had to wait for the sun to shine a little light on our path and show us the way. Our goal was to make it to Mintos Hut (14,091ft / 4,295m) by sunset (12 hours after sunrise). This meant hiking a little over 8.3mi (13.3km) while ascending 4,413ft (1,345m). We had a quick chat with an older guide who assured us we could make it to Mintos in three hours, which was both encouraging that someone finally had confidence in us, yet we simultaneously thought this man might be overestimating us or underestimating the distance to Mintos. Either way, we were excited to see what we were capable of, so we eagerly headed off down the trail.
Less than 800m into the hike, we spotted a male buffalo to our left, along with a mother and baby to our right. We froze, initially excited about our first wildlife sighting, and then quickly beginning to contemplate our fate as the buffaloes began circling closer, surrounding us. This section of the trail was quite swampy, so we had veered off to the side, into the field, which also happened to be where the mother and baby were grazing. I stumbled back onto the trail and straight into a giant mud puddle, feet immediately wet. Mental note: invest in waterproof hiking boots. My mind shouted, “We’re going to be trampled and die within the first five minutes, this is pathetic.” After what seemed like an eternity-long standoff, we decided to just ignore them and hoped they would do the same with us. We slowly proceeded and were soon distracted by what Caroline calls the “forbidden forest”; a lush, enchanted grove full of weeping willows with Spanish moss draped haphazardly over their branches, sweeping down over the foggy, winding path. We continued on in awe and full of gratitude for what we were experiencing, buffaloes already a distant memory (by the way, when we later asked a guide what to do in the case of an angry buffalo, he said to only fear if you encounter a lone male, and if he comes towards you, lay on your stomach to protect yourself).
It was around this time that we passed a few porters (who were miles in front of their hikers, as per usual) who asked us where we were going. “We’re staying at Mintos Hut tonight!” I proudly exclaimed. “Oh, that’s a long way,” uttered one of the porters. Not the reaction I was hoping for, but nevertheless we persisted. We reached the road head (10,826 ft / 3,300m) in under two hours. This is where the interwebz suggest that you spend the night to acclimatize, but ain’t nobody got time for that (when you have limited vacation days and lots of adventures to be had). We stopped for a bathroom break (there is a pit latrine here), a quick drink of water, and continued across the stream heading southwest.
From here, the trail starts to climb along a ridge line, and we began to feel signs of lower oxygen. We stopped a few times for a quick breather and continued to remind each other to drink water, trekking on until we found a big boulder to climb on top of for lunch. I took off my boots and socks to let my wet feet air out, and draped my body over the boulder letting the sun soak into my sweat (and mud)-dampened skin. We were riding a serious high. Sandwiches never tasted so good (except for the time I spent 18 hours on the side of a big wall, climbing, but that’s a story for another day), and our endorphins were reaching euphoric levels. In typical Caroline fashion, the realization of how far we had already come and how beautiful it all was, brought her to tears. “You need to find a way to spend all of your time in the mountains,” she said to me, “you are so much happier out here.” We spent the next half hour talking about our dreams, laughing, and crying. Finally, we decided we had better get moving if we wanted to make it to Mintos by dark, and the endorphins were slowly settling back to normal levels. Before we hit the trail, I took out my wilderness first aid pamphlet, gauze, duct tape, swiss army knife, and made myself a bandage to relieve the friction from my blister (you can see how pleased I was with myself in the photo below).
The next few hours on the Chogoria route were stunning. To our left was the Gorges (you mean GORGEOUS?) Valley, including the spectacular Vivienne Falls (1,500ft / 457m tall). We were lucky enough to pass by just in time for the clouds to part, giving us a glimpse of Vivienne in all her splendor. Meanwhile, a couple of little Moorland Chats put on a show for us, chirping and fluttering about, equally excited about the view. Eventually we could see Lake Michaelson in the distance (that sneaky temptress, you’ll see). On the map, Mintos appears to be fairly close to this lake, so we were pretty stoked. Our old friends, 3LW, came back into mind (embarrassing video here). It was only after the fact, that I realized that we were about to make a mistake of epic proportion when we began taunting the mountain, “Is this all you’ve got, mountain?!” we yelled. “This is nothing! We could do this in one day!” The endorphins were back and better than ever, as you can tell; the sun was still above our heads, and we were nearly to the hut (or so we thought). We crossed a stream, collected some water (that we would later boil), and practically skipped down the trail.
We came to an intersection, with the left branch leading slightly downhill, and straight seeming to continue uphill. We were getting tired now, and since we were still riding this high, I decided confidently that we needed to go left, because there was just no way that we could still be going up (side note: Lake Michaelson was to the left, beckoning to us). The trail started descending fast, and we were basically sliding down on our bums. Caught up in the beauty of Lake Michaelson (aka Siren Lake), we hadn’t stopped to think about the fact that Point Lenana was definitely nowhere near this lake, which meant if the hut was down here, we would have to climb back out in the morning. It didn’t make much logistical sense, but I was convinced that the hut was going to be nestled quaintly beside the lake. Caroline suddenly broke free from the siren’s trance and stopped. She demanded that I look at the map. Stubbornly, I pulled out the map just to appease her, even though I’m positive we are on the right track. Oh, shit, wait. The trail actually goes up there (I point up and to the right, where we had just come from). Our buzz quickly faded as we did a 180, and turned to literally crawl back up the hill which we had just slid down. We had gone nearly a mile out of the way (and lost a significant amount of altitude, which we now had to regain). At this point Caroline was pretty pissed at me, so I tried to make light of the situation by saying, “Well at least this should be the hardest part left of the day! And, hey, we got some cool photos!” She wasn’t laughing.
When we finally reached the intersection of our (near) demise, we take the path that (yep, you guessed it) leads uphill. We hiked (now silently) uphill for what will eventually be about 1,000ft (300m) of altitude gain from Lake Michaelson. Each time we were about to cross another ridge I say to Caroline, “Okay, this has to be the last hill,” or “The hut must be just over this ridge.” I may have said that ten times before I just gave up and resorted to the advice my brother gives me when we are on long, strenuous adventures, “Well, it’s all mentally downhill from here!”
It is beginning to rain, the sun is going down, and my worry grows a bit more each time we climb another ridge with still no hut in sight. I contemplated just pitching the tent anywhere, but struggled to find a flat spot and I didn’t want to compromise our sunrise summit. Now we were scrambling over wet rocks, and we were tired and hungry. Our pace had dramatically slowed. I finally popped up over the top of the rock pile and exclaimed, “Oh my god, there it is!” Caroline started to cry (again), “I have never been so happy to see a hut in my life!” We basically ran the rest of the way. [FYI: Mintos Hut is only meant to be used by porters. It also smells quite unpleasant and is a bit dilapidated, so don’t count on this being your shelter for the night. We just stored our bags in it since there weren’t any other people around and we wanted to have more space in the tent.]
We set up the tent, changed out of our wet clothes, and made some hot cocoa (infused with rum) on my stove, because now it was getting pretty chilly. With the mug of hot cocoa warming my hands, I explored the surrounding Hall Tarns. We got there just in time to catch the last of the sunset over the tarns, and what appeared to be Macmillan peak in the distance. Finally, we made dinner consisting of instant palak paneer and chapati. The palak paneer turned out to be significantly spicier than either of us intended (or wanted after a long day of hiking), so we couldn’t actually handle much of it. We decided to call it a night, and snuggled into our sleeping bags to try and stay warm while our tent slowly frosted over. 3am would be here soon, and then it would be summit time!
To be continued in part three.