Kilimanjaro Day 4. Baranco to Baranga, and the Power of Storytelling

Day 4. 1/3/20. 5:39pm, under my tent at Baranga Camp.

Today was a 4-hour rolling hills day from Baranco to Baranga camp, ascending net 95m in altitude from 3900m to 3995m, with top intra-day elevation at 4200m. Bare hands met rock, exposed skin met sandy winds, and minds met each other in an afternoon of wonderful storytelling. Only two sleeps until summit night!

Thinking back to that morning, I was off-the-charts happy and relaxed. We enjoyed one of our liveliest morning group dances yet with our porter crew. I got low on the dirt dance floor. Shoutout to my porter partner Fusso for being the most amazing sport.

Are you even starting morning right without dancing ON your hands?! Note white-bearded “pregnant” guy rocking it out in front of me.

One of our porters is a white bearded guy with a fake pillow-stuffed pregnant belly (don’t ask) who – for good reason – generated incredible video footage.

One of our lead guides, John, was definitely the alpha dancer. He got everybody off their feet. My teammates suggested bringing him to our local dance parties in SF or Boston to get things lit up.

Woke up to this spectacular panorama at Baranco Camp.
Uhuru Peak was so close yet so far.
Morning ritual: put on layers, check heart rate, check oxygen levels, breakfast, dance, #OneTeamOneDream shoot. Next: begin hike.

All warmed up, we started our short(er than usual) hike. The first 2 hours got the SF Mission Cliffs boulderer in me all fired up: we got to use our hands!

First, we crossed a number of streams, mini waterfalls, and plant-laden track before the density of granite slabs around us thickened. No trekking poles needed for this section.

Departure. 30 minutes out from Baranco Camp.
Crossed some creeks and waterfalls.

I was wearing bouldering gloves borrowed from Muling. They gave my palms extra cushioning while keeping the last inches of my fingers exposed. They were perfect for this scramble situation.

I found myself sighting routes up every wall taller than 10-15 ft, but quickly reminded myself that, Melissa: 1) You are not in a bouldering gym, 2) You are wearing hiking boots, not climbing shoes, 3) You do not need to overuse your hands when carrying a 28L backpack and have sufficiently stable footholds to step up.

Nevertheless, I experienced strong deja vu of being in Mission Cliffs and wished badly that my belay buddy Liv were sharing this experience with me. These routes may have matched a V2 or V3.

Time to use those hands for some guided scrambling. These routes comprised the first 2 hours of today’s ascent.

Switchback after switchback, we eventually re-gained the same elevation as our campsite a couple hundred feet behind us in a U-shaped route. There were a few slippery rocks, but overall the climb wasn’t too technical as long as you engaged your hands and stayed close to the wall.

Half an hour later, we were well above the clouds. The vast moorland continued to expand beneath our feet. As the ever-present clouds charted their path through the air, our line of vision was blurred by an off-white mist every hypnotic 15 minutes or so.

The most awe-inspiring hikers were no doubt our porters.

Our porters moved swiftly with great agility, outpacing the off-white mist that wrapped around everything..
Flipping my camera around: Pure granite background against agile porters in foreground.

Imagine every possible combination of bags equivalent to body weight: a bundle of collapsible chairs, the metal legs of a studio sized tent, a portable toilet.

The porters balanced them on their heads AND carried backpacks, all the while traversing the same rocky ascent as we did, except snaking through side trails and shortcuts, often without hands. We shouted “porters to the left / right!” when they begin to approach us from behind.

I remember breathing moderately, nose half blocked, watching them pass with huge respect.

The trail varied from walkable to scramble-required.
Check on your teammates and make sure everyone are well-supported and happy (or grumpy)
You know what, just take the darn break!
Today is the day you get to meet the famous “Kissing Rock.” Don’t slip!

I don’t clearly remember every rest stop, but I do recall coming to a stop at a plateau when we finally closed the scrambling section. It was a windy overlook. We took some awesome group pictures here and reapplied sunscreen. I ate a third of my Cliff bar and forgot about the remainder until fishing it out of my backpack 2 days later.

Adding more air at today’s peak elevation, 4200m.
Getting by with a little help from my top Kili buddy Camille.

I stopped taking pictures for the rest of the day because the temperature was too variable and the trail too sand-slippery. I would heat up in my thermal fleece whenever the sun bled out of the clouds but, moments later, shiver and readjust my neck warmer when the winds picked up again, coursing over our bodies, faces and trekking poles in visible currents.

I remembered the ground colored slightly red, very sandy, and undulating in terrain beneath our moving feet. Every rolling hill was no more than 3 ft high over the next hour.

The next part this post draws on more contemplative memories. The second reason I stopped taking photos was because I became engrossed in one of my trek mate Rachel’s life story: from her eclectic, humble and fascinating childhood beginnings, to education, research, professional experiences, and an incredibly contemplative personal life.

In these acutely empathetic chapters of the trip – several stories followed from other individuals – I am caught up in the deep similarities of personal highs and lows shared within our group. Starkly, our commonalities were as rich as the diversity in each walk of life that we have tread.

  • Parents who took risks to expand opportunities for their children.
  • Difficult education choices due to financial challenges.
  • Disillusion with corporate life.
  • Discoveries in the public sector.
  • Reconciling personal values with organizational values*
  • Toxic chapters with former partners. The fear of being alone.

*How do we hold ourselves and our teams accountable to a gold standard of behavior toward each other commensurate with our organization’s ethical mission?

The humanity we shared felt all the more poignant against the desolate backdrop.

The last hour or so of today’s hike evolved into a series of creeks followed by another uphill set of steep, rocky switchbacks. Again, I disconnected from conversation and focused on finding footing with my poles. Stuffy nose aside, it was a meditative experience.

We reached Baranga camp at 3995m just past 2:30pm. We had lunch, played some cards, played some icebreakers, and then I crawled into my tent to begin this recap. Later, we were served curry fish with roti for dinner. It was delicious

Signs that highlight health risks and emergency hotlines are pinned to every campsite checkpoint we passed. This one was taken at Baranga Camp.
Baranga Camp setup. The yellow “vertical” tents are our toilets. Room for one, please. Only two sleeps stood between us and summit night.

Darkness fell. Our lead guide Saidi briefed us on tomorrow’s itinerary. You could tell everyone was getting excited and jittery by the uptick in questions.

We will embark on a 3-hour trek tomorrow morning to Camp Barafu at 4600m, lunch, nap from 1-5p (4h), have dinner, and nap from 7-11p (4h), before starting midnight’s summit bid: 3 miles up 4000 ft over 7 hours. I am so ready to greet that summit sunrise.

Side note: I discovered that I had been under-dosing on diamox in the past 4 days, taking 125mg per day instead of 250mg. No wonder I haven’t been taking as many pee breaks as the others… I’ve been feeling fine though, so I’m not concerned. I started taking the normal dosage after dinner and will take 3 more pills before we summit tomorrow.

Revisiting this photo, I can only describe the evening in this tent, winds howling, with this view moments before dark, as ethereal.

I relaxed under our 4th African night sky, toothbrush in mouth, headlamp switched off. I’ve never seen such a “spherical” starry sky in my life.

Framed by patches of clouds, the diamond-cut silhouette of Uhuru Peak, barely-there condensation, and the stars were framed in a perfect bowl of navy, as though a microcosm of the universe was arranged on display for its lonely spectators on earth. Some stars blinked (Nick says those are planets. Or did he say stars?) while other stayed constant.

I think about the star that Yunming bought for Chengxin in Liu Cixin’s masterpiece “Death’s End.” It really is a romantic notion. My head is way too deep in that book right now. I eventually finished this finale in the “Three Body Problem” trilogy during the flight back to San Francisco. I couldn’t have buried myself in a more existential crisis-inducing piece of work to wrap up this trip. The concepts of time and physics that the author (a physicist by training) experiments with have reconfigured my perception of technology policy, philosophy and space.

Camille is reading in the sleeping bag next to me. I have been so blessed to “room” with her. She is absolutely lovely and wins the award for most books read on the trip. I love that she even found a Strava running segment to check out during our last few nights in Arusha.

If anything, this trip reminds me of the power of stories. Life stories that we under-tell. Histories that mountains remember but stay silent unless shared. Stories that I’ll ink electronically for future rediscovery.

Thanks for reading,


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