Oldonyo Lengai in 1.5 ascents and an outdoors safety announcement
I thought a long time about what I wanted to say here. I have a plethora of notes and thoughts and feelings from this day. But I think it is important to start with a safety announcement. As an avid outdoors woman, I sometimes take for granted the skills and comfort levels of my outdoor companions. I often go outdoors alone, so when I meet people out on the same adventures, we just happen to all be on the same page. This is not always true when planning an excursion in advance with companions. We all have our own abilities, fears, goals, and dislikes. So I want to talk about it.
When climbing mountains, there is one very important rule: the summit is always optional, but your safety is not. I repeat, no matter how much you want to push to the top of a mountain, it will always be there for another day. But if you become injured, or worse, die, you may never have another mountain in your future. This rule remains true whether you are out on a day hike, undergoing a grand expedition, paid $70,000 for the opportunity, or whatever other circumstances you can argue. If your safety is in danger, the peak is always optional. This might seem obvious if the situation is a threat of lightening, blizzard, any high altitude illness, or other confronting risk. But it becomes more nuanced at the nitty gritty side. What is the balance between pushing yourself and not exceeding your personal abilities? Only you can answer that question. The important thing is to remain true to your feelings, AND to practice excellent communication.
Please, I repeat, please, anytime you are going outdoors with other people, always take the time to discuss each person’s abilities, goals, and limitations. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about these things with the people you go outdoors with, whether from intimidation, pride, or whatever, step off your high horse right now. Going outside is a fun, challenging, and rewarding privilege. But it also has risks, real risks, life threatening risks. You would not go backcountry skiing without digging a pit to check snowpack. You would not rope up to trad climb with someone who cannot set anchors. You would not skydive without checking your parachute. I can go on, but the point is that we have safety checks for high danger sports, but it is also important to make safety checks for less obviously dangerous sports. I myself am often guilty of jumping in before asking questions and thinking about risks. But if you really do not feel comfortable doing an activity, whatever your reason(s) may be (physical ability, fear of heights, an emotional block to certain activities, lack of equipment, uncertainty, disinterest, etc), find an environment where you can work through those uncertainties on a safe playing field. Join organized expeditions (REI, NOLS, local outdoor stores), find classes (REI, local recreation centers, local universities, certification outfitters), and try to meet people who are willing to teach you (Meet Up groups, online support forums, friends, etc). Seriously, I know a lot of people who say they have always wanted to do X, Y, or Z, but never knew how to get started. My solution is always that you will find a way if you are truly passionate. Start small, do not be afraid of failure, know that you may have to do something several times before you know if you actually enjoy it. When deciding to thru hike for the first time, I planned a three day, very easy hike. Everything went wrong. I forgot my water treatment, I had never practiced setting up my tent before and it rained that night, I didn’t know where to begin with proper foot care and happiness. But I accepted defeat, went home early, and learned a lot. I tapped the knowledge base of friends and tried again. Now distance hiking is one of my all time favorite activities.
When you go outdoors and are surprised by a limitation of a team member, it is both your responsibilities to have talked it out before the adventure began. That is all I have to say. It is lazy and irresponsible to not take the time to have these discussions when preparing for an adventure. And remember, the summit is always option, but your safety is not.
As a brief recap of the day. We had a very short night’s rest. I honestly think I got maybe two hours of sleep. We left for the base at 11pm and were climbing by 11:30pm. I forgot to record this climb. It was still relatively warm outside, and the moon was shining brilliantly among a million twinkling stars. It was perfect out. We drove up the escarpment toward a saddle between Lengai and the ridge. The climb started as a gentle sloping flank before steadily steepening. We made it several miles up the side of Oldonyo Lengai before having to turn back. Melissa had even less sleep last night, she was sick to her stomach. When I thought that was it, I knew she could be ok if we went slowly and kept her fed and hydrated. But here is where my negligence comes in, I had never sat her down for that all important talk about goals and limitations. Melissa is afraid of heights, and has not climbed a mountain before, so did not know how that limitation would manifest with both feet securely on the ground. Knowing her to be a rock climber, I didn’t even think to ask. We made it a good ways up the mountain before Melissa shared the state she was in, stubborn to the point that she kept going even while thinking one false step would ruin her. As a blindly confident person, I have never faced a fear like she did this morning. That determined, we turned back. The summit so near, but Melissa’s safety more important. Once at the bottom I curled up and slept the last hour before sunrise. Then we walked another mile or two down the road to the lone tree to wait for Daudi in the meager scraps of shade as the day’s heat set in. We returned to camp, ate breakfast, and made a plan. I would go back with Daniel that afternoon and Melissa would explore Lake Natron and some cinder cones located there.
I went back to bed, in my sun-sweltering tent, to catch another three hours sleep before waking for lunch and summit attempt number two. Daniel and I set out at 3PM, in the stifling afternoon heat. We regained this morning’s ground quickly. I should clarify that there is not actually a trail up Oldonyo Lengai. We were literally retracing weathered steps up lava flow channels. When the mountain steepened, we were often picking steps from entrained boulder to entrained boulder, since the lava was slickly smooth or eroding rubble. And it was straight up, no switch backs, no protected coves, nothing. As real an effort at climbing up a raw, loosely vegetated mountain as it can get. I did record this second attempt, so you can watch how my pace lagged tremendously toward the top, the lack of sleep and heat-induced exhaustion setting in, my legs cramping like I have never felt before. Daniel, of course, not even breaking a sweat. That man is patience reincarnated.
We arrived at the summit just in time for sunset and to catch the last light across the valley. It was beautiful! And very interesting to see how the crater had changed from all the photos I have seen online. Since the 2007 to 2008 activity, there are now two hornitoes building up in the bottom of a deep, but filling crater. The south crater wall, which I think was attached prior to 2007, is now a separate abandoned rim wall. There is a crack about 1-3 feet across and 10+ feet deep running all the way around the current crater. And I observed at least five separate gas vents, seeping hot sulfurous volatiles.
As quickly as we arrived, we headed back down to take advantage of the last rays of light. Which was nice, because heading down those shear faces was much easier with daylight. I quickly realized that we would not have the same bright moon as this morning and my headlight batteries were running low. Thankfully Daniel led the way and I only needed to watch him mostly. The winds picked up from our backside, stirring up as the dust we disturbed with our steps. As the second in line, I received the powdery, blinding dust from both our dust clouds. We watched Daudi arrive as we sped down the mountain, his headlights seeming far away. But before I knew it we were back at the vehicle and headed to camp. A delicious meal from Kimambo awaiting me. I ate, showered, and went straight to bed. An exhausting but deserving day.