And so there I found myself, a mile directly above our starting point, the sun just creeping over the rim of the volcano, fingers and toes dug desperately into the loose volcanic ash, like a cat struggling for purchase on a hot tin roof…
As we drove up the seering rift valley and the volcano loomed closer and closer, so did the anticipation grow for the climb we knew would follow. Ol Doinyo Lengai has some great neighbours, Kilimanjaro the most famous. However the one thing that Lengai has that the surrounding mountains don’t is that she is defiantly still active. Young at little more than 500 years old, Lengai is still a mountain in the making. The last big eruption was 2007 but she grumbles and groans away continually, a stark reminder to those who venture close of the power and fury she could release from her bowels at any moment.
The Maasai regard Lengai as their Mountain of the Gods. It was therefore only fitting that a Maasai accompany us as our guide to the summit. Thomas met us on time to the second an hour before midnight on New Years Eve. After a nerve racking drive cross country in the dark we arrived at the base just in time to start our ascent in 2014.
Mountains in the making are not renowned for keeping clearly marked trails. They constantly change shape like a truculent pubescent, as they are effected by eruptions, wind and precipitation. In the foothills we picked our way by moonlight around treacherous ravines, boulders and the optimistic shrubs struggling to find a purchase. After an hour and a half of stumbling around in the gloom we started the real climb. The gradient increased rapidly and the traction available in the loose debris and dust became none existent. We had no idea how high we were, how far we had come or how far was yet to go.
At around 4 a.m. Thomas stopped us as we had made good time. He suggested we rest an hour in a cleft in the mountain side before making the final ascent to the exposed summit in time for sunrise. Within seconds of wrapping himself in his Maasai robe he was snoring away contentedly. Katy and I woefully under dressed lay shivering trying to share body heat and keep out of the biting breeze wrapping round the shoulder of the mountain.
The last hour would have involved ropes and protection on any other continent bar Africa. After negotiating a final gully we found ourselves at the start of the smoking cone. Thomas as confident as a mountain goat took Katy’s hand and half guided, half pulled her up the worn and treacherous steps cut out by the boots of previous adventurers. Less confidently I followed, timidly testing each footing as I hesitantly plodded onwards. It was half way up this final section that the mountain sides crisp coating crumbled beneath me and left me spread eagle, desperately scrabbling for traction. Eventually I managed to crawl sideways to a small crack in the skin of Ol Doinyo Lengai where I could catch my breath, settle my nerves, and continue onwards.
We timed the crest perfectly. The view was truly incredible, the sunrise stunning and the sense of satisfaction made up for the pain incurred over the long climb. As the mountain grumbled below, the ground trembled. But oblivious to everything but the view out over the African savannahs we soaked up the first rays and marvelled at the scene below, just the 3 of us, at the summit for the first sunrise of 2015.
I won’t go into too much detail about the descent. However I will say that by the time we reached the car we could barely stagger onwards. It was 3 days until our legs could bare an ascent more than a few steps.
If I were a sentimental sort I am sure there would be all sorts of sickening metaphors linked to mountains, climbs and the start of a new year. Yet alas I am not. I will say however that it was worth every drop of sweat, every bruise and days of aching legs. Not many people will have had such a view of the start of 2015.