Fear and Loathing on the Mountain of God

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Tanzania  ,
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

On the third day of the safari, we arrived at our campsite near Ol Doinyo Lengai, which means "mountain of God" in the Maasai language.  Looking at it for the first time, one can understand why they choose this name.  It is an active volcano (the only active natrocarbonatite volcano in the world - wonder what that is?  Look it up.  Here's another random fact - while the only active one its kind on Earth, scientists have detected similar types of flows on Venus.  Ok, allow the geek jokes to flow - pardon the pun.)  The last major eruption was March-April of this year.  It has smaller eruptions and lava flows on a regular basis.  We started climbing the volcano just after midnight with the intention of being at the top for sunrise.
When you look at this volcano from a distance for the first time, it is not a friendly looking mountain.  Your first thought is not, "Hey, that looks like fun.  Let's climb it."  It is more along the lines of "Holy fuck! We're supposed to climb that?"  It rises sharply from the arid plains around it, its slopes at a 45 degree angle or more, to a height of 2960 metres.  It looks menacing, its side scarred by the lava flow of the last eruption. Very little vegetation is to be found in its slopes.  It looks completely and thoroughly like a volcano.  The entire mountain looks like a warning.  Nature's way of saying "Fuck you, little insignificant human."
Well, I beat the bastard.
But it nearly beat me.
I have a lot more fear than I used to. I've been told I think too much by more people than I care to recall.  There have been times (though mostly in the past), when I seemed obsessed with death.  Just the concept really.  The idea of simply stopping, of not existing, can be pretty overwhelming at times.  I think at least part of it is linked back to the relinquishing of my faith, and the easy answers it provided, so many years ago.  As for other reasons, well, I'm sure there is a couple of Mercedes worth of therapy in there.  Be that as it may, just shy of the summit, with maybe 15 minutes left of climbing, I had a "long, dark hour of the soul" moment.
When I was nearly at the top, it was like something broke inside me.  I was nearly paralyzed with fear, on the verge of a panic attack.  The climb itself, while quite technical in some spots, had not been as bad as I had feared physically.  Despite the problems with my knees, I felt good.  Around the half way mark I had given my head lamp to Gabriel, our driver who did not have one, so he could help George.  George's fear of the mountain had been clear from beginning and even the fact she was attempting the climb was impressive.  That fact that she made it over two thirds of the way before turning back was even more so.
Climbing in the dark without a lamp was quite harrowing and mentally exhausting.  I could not have done it without the help of Michelle and Sil.  Michelle did her best to light the path from behind, but most times my body blocked the light.  Sil, in front, would climb for a bit, and then turn around to shine her light on the path.  While this was the most helpful, the angle of her torch from above still made for uncertain footing.  When she would turn away, the sudden absence of light would lead to night blindness in which every step except the one immediately in front of me looked like a black drop off into an abyss.
As we neared the top, the path got much steeper.  Our guide, an unflappable Maasai wearing recycled tire sandals, the traditional Maasai blanket, and a parka, seemed glued to the mountain, always ascending at a steady pace.  Near the top, the consistency of the rock changed as well.  Suddenly it seemed as though every outcrop of rock I clutch at would either crumble in my hands, or pull out from the ground starting mini-avalanches.  The little animal inside of my brain began to gibber in fear. Michelle had been climbing behind me and as the light had slowly been growing as dawn approached, I stood to the side and told her to go ahead.  I told her that physically I was fine, but I just needed a minute.  She looked at me a bit puzzled, but the fact that I seemed ok coupled with her desire to make the summit for sunrise, led her to pass me and continue.
This is when the fear truly set in.  I can't really explain it.  If you have truly come close to dying before, a serious car crash narrowly avoided, a terrible accident requiring emergency medical treatment (both I have experienced), then you perhaps know this fear.  It is like solid blackness all around.  It completely overwhelms you.  You can feel nothing else.  You want to curl up in a ball and close your eyes.  But you are on the side of an active volcano, on a 45 degree slope, with crumbling volcanic rock all around you.  There is not rest hut on this mountain; no rangers standing by with a helicopter to ferry frightened muzungus down to the bottom of the mountain.  You have chosen to climb an active volcano over the top of the beating heart of Africa.  And the worst thing?  You did it to yourself.  No one, except your own pride, forced you to climb.  And bouncing along the stream crossing, rutted path in the land cruiser made it clear that this was not a "civilized" place.  This was where the author of "Where the Wild Things Are" had in mind when he wrote his book.
I clung to the side of Ol Doinyo Lengai, the mountain of god.  As Michelle and Sil began to ascend, leaving me further behind, something propelled me to move.  Giving up any pretence of walking upright, and of any personal dignity, I dropped to all fours trying to find purchase on the treacherous rock.  As I moved, I was making small, involuntary whimpering noises.  I crawled, scrambled, and scratched my way to the top.
Once I made it to the summit, instead of joining my group who were talking to another group of climbers, I walked a few minutes along the lip of the crater.  Finally I stopped, and looking out into the mist of the cloud shrouding the top of the volcano, I burst into about three seconds of intense sobbing.  I didn't feel victorious.  I didn't feel vindicated.  I simply felt relief and shame at my weakness.
I should mention that Michelle, Sil, and our guide seemed to suffer no misgivings or problems in their climb.  They surely and steadily ascended to the top.  Likewise, the other five people we met at the top seemed not to suffer from any undue distress from the climb.  Ashamedly, I seemed to be the only person afflicted.
The volcano itself was fascinating.  This is an active volcano.  Walking across the caldera you could hear your poles thumping into the hollowness of the lava tubes below.  The ground itself had the unsettling tendency to give a few inches when you least expected it. Sulphur smelling steam rose of the numerous vents in the rocks.  In the middle of the caldera a few cones stood, miniature mountains of cooled lava indicating where lave had last exploded from the earth.  One side of the crater wall was blown out with ditches melted into the rock, showing the path the magma from the last major eruption took down the mountain.  It may be a cliché, but it did feel like being on another planet.
Whatever had hit me on climb up seemed to dissipate as I walked around the top of the volcano.  The climb down, while steep, was not as intimidating as I thought it might be.  Whether this is because of the daylight, or the releasing of my anxieties on top, I don't know.  Physically, the climb down was terrible.  My knees, not an issue on the ascent, announced their presence and painful intentions almost immediately on starting the descent.  This once again placed me in the position as the weakest link, and I began to fall behind as the descent continued.  Through a combination of exhaustion, unsure footing, and bad luck, I managed to fall a few times, once sliding nearly fifteen feet down the side of the mountain before managing to stop myself.  Much to my surprise, this did not cause a return of my fear.  In fact, at no point in the descent did I feel uneasy.  But it did begin to make me angry.
At just past the half way point, following a break, the guide indicated I should go ahead of the others.  Knowing this was because I was lagging behind so much, it seemed to cause something to snap inside of me.  I got angry.  Angry at my fear on the climb up, angry at my legs and knees on the way down, angry at falling.  I like to think I am a pretty easy going guy, but it simply bubbled over and had an Incredible Hulk like effect on me.  Determined I would not be last again, I took off down the mountain.  At times I was almost running, using my trekking poles like I was skiing.  My legs hurt like hell, but that simply fueled my anger.  At one point I completely lost control, tripping and slipping down the mountain side, unable to stop, my arms pin wheeling in the air. I yelled (and please realize I am not proud of anything I did on this mountain, I'm simply trying to be honest with this whole blog thing) "Fuck you, Motherfucker!" loud enough for George, at the bottom of the mountain, to hear.  Somehow I stayed upright and kept going.  I finally made it to the jeep, barely able to stand from the throbbing ache in my legs.
Like I said before: I beat the bastard, but it nearly beat me.
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