The Road Chose Me – Cameroon Summit
Quest for the top
I collapse on the rocky ground, gasping for breath. As hard as I try, my lungs are unable to get the oxygen I desperately need. I am lightheaded, my legs are screaming, and I can’t feel my fingers for the cold.
At times like these, I wonder why I do these things. What drives me to seek out challenging situations? Why do I need to feel the need to test myself, time and time again? Without finding any good answers, I drag myself off the ground and continue, one foot in front of the other.
At 13,250 feet (4,040 meters), Mount Cameroon is by far the highest point in West Africa. Even though the mountain is very close to the equator, it occasionally sees sleet and snow. Most people elect to spend a few days hiking to the summit and back, to soak in the experience and to allow time for acclimatization. The single-day round trip to the summit is at least twelve hours of uninterrupted hiking, so those who attempt it usually set off at 4:30 am. Due to my lack of planning and tomorrow being the annual race to the summit, I am entirely unprepared. On a whim, I stop at the mountain guide club, where I soon meet Augustine, a young local who can guide me to the summit for a lot less money than I had thought. It’s late in the day, and so Augustine will apply for and collect my permit first thing in the morning, which takes a lot of back and forward.
In the morning we hit the trail at 8:45 am, many hours after the recommended start time. Augustine makes it very clear we will have to hustle to have any chance of making the summit today.
Right from the start, we are walking extremely fast, in fact, we are almost jogging. Augustine and I push each other, and power past other people on the trail, through the thick primary forest all the way up to Hut 1, at 6,000 feet (1,828 meters). I am drenched in sweat and smiling from ear to ear. At the hut, Augustine introduces me to Mr. Hans, head of the Mountain Guide Association. His warm smile and peaceful presence bring thoughts of Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid to mind. Mr. Hans is twice my age and has hiked the summit over 250 times. To me, he appears to be moving at the speed of a glacier. I have just starting stuffing a second PB&J sandwich into my mouth when Augustine announces we must keep moving, and so I finish eating on the trail as we leave Hut 1 behind.
Only 15 minutes later at 6,600 feet (2,011 meters) we break out of the thick forest, and onto the barren, rocky slopes. Augustine finds a couple of palm fronds and demonstrates a local traditional dance performed to appease the mountain gods. It is tradition to sacrifice albinos to the mountain, and Augustine laughs when I suggest maybe I should watch out. In times past it was people, these days they only sacrifice albino goats.
The trail quickly turns steep, and I find myself slogging up loose rock and scree, short of breath. On and on I trudge, with slow-and-steady eventually winning out as I arrive to warm afternoon sunshine at Hut 2. Quite a few people are milling around, all on their way down. All are shocked we are pushing to the summit today, and offer words of encouragement.
Though the trail after Hut 2 is less steep, it’s a very long way to Hut 3, and my pace slows to a crawl. Remembering my strategy from other high-altitude mountain hikes in the Andes, I hike while counting my breaths, and pause for a rest every 100. At first, I rest for ten breaths, then 20, 30 and eventually 50. I am resting half as much as I am hiking, and sometimes I collapse on the ground trying to suck in the air my lungs cannot get.
Twice Augustine gently prods me. “We must pick up the pace to make the summit,” he says at first. When I am still dragging 40 minutes later, his prodding becomes sterner. “Dan, if you don’t hurry up, we will have to turn around.” I immediately pick myself up and continue my shuffle.
Arriving at Hut 3 is a huge milestone – it’s not far to the summit from here, and everyone says it’s much easier than the grind I have just been through. Walking through the door of the hut I am disoriented to see Mr. Hans sitting peacefully. After all my huffing and puffing, the 62-year-old beat me here. To top it off he looks well rested, ready to repeat the whole thing. That’s humbling.
Pushing on from Hut 3 I continue to stop repeatedly, trying in vain to catch my breath. Progress is painfully slow as I climb the final steep slope before I turn a full circle and see nowhere higher to walk. I have arrived at the summit at 4:17 pm, only 13 minutes before our mandatory turnaround time.
We are well above a very thick layer of clouds, which completely blocks any view to town or the ocean. Even so, the views are spectacular, and I even spot some smoke and steam escaping from the mountain. After a few photos, the whipping wind gets the better of my hands. All day I have been told it would be cold on the summit, and I assumed they meant “African cold.” I was wrong. It is “Canada cold.”
As soon as we leave, Augustine reminds me of the need to keep moving, so after slowing to snap some photos above Hut 3, I scramble and scree-run the rest of the way down. After a brief goodbye to Mr. Hans who is settling in for the night we push hard and fast down to Hut 2, moving well. We stop to chat only briefly, and hit the trail hard, hoping to get through the worst of the rocky trail before dark. That plan works well until it doesn’t.
As dusk turns to dark, I find myself staring at the tiny spot of light cast by my headlamp, while Augustine scrambles down with the light of his cell phone. Time slows, and my legs wobble uncontrollably as I move through the steepest section of the whole trail. With my legs screaming it takes an eternity to reach Hut 2, and twice as long to reach Hut 1. I burned all my reserves on the hike up, and now have nothing to draw on. Every five minutes I sit on the ground, trying to rest my legs. I eat the last of my food and drink the last of my water before we even reach Hut 1.
We pass hordes of soldiers hiking up for tomorrow’s race, each carrying an AK-47 and enough gear for an entire army. All are friendly, and after Augustine explains we have just been to the summit and back, each slaps me on the back and offers a straightforward word as encouragement: “Courage.”
After continuing on, I find myself pushing past my limits for the first time in my life. I have seen people in Alaska, and the Andes hit the wall, though it has never happened to me before. Utterly exhausted, I struggle to function. I stumble over small rocks and slur my words. My toes have been squashing into the end of my shoes, and both toenails are in agony with every step. Stubbing my toe on a rock does not help, and I crumble to the ground in pain.
Watching the time Augustine first guess we will make it back down at 8 pm, then 9, then 10. My progress is excruciatingly slow, and I repeatedly stop to rest my legs. Without food and water, I can do nothing to recharge and merely continue on, staring into to small circle of light cast by my headlamp, trying not to collapse.
Augustine and I eventually stagger to the Jeep at 10:45 pm, after fourteen hours of almost continuous hiking. After sharing a beer and bidding farewell to my new friend, I fall asleep the instant my head hits the pillow.
In the morning I stare at the mountain towering above my campsite. Now I know the punishment it can dish out, I see it in a whole new light. In the aftermath, I lose a nail on my big toe and spend weeks covering huge blisters in disinfectant.
I still don’t know precisely why I set out to do these kinds of things; I will have to do some more before I can figure it out!