Sunday, 1 June 2014

Night Hike To Mount Doom

Have you ever watched those popcorn ‘disaster’ movies, where seemingly inconsequential developments in a routine expedition end up snowballing into a full-scale calamity? I used to go to the theatre when I needed these kicks, but in Apr-May 2014 I experienced a wholly unwelcome merging of ‘reel’ and ‘real’ life. You may now sit back, like I used to, relax, and enjoy the movie.

I am a participant in a commercial photography tour exploring Ethiopia for 20 days. This is Day 4. The location is the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia, dubbed the ‘cruelest place on earth’ by National Geographic. With good reason – at 140m below sea level, temperatures rise up to 60C in the summer. April was not a good time to come to the hottest inhabited place on Earth – it is when even the native Afar, who mine the region for salt, start to flee to cooler climes.

According to our drivers, September is a much more agreeable time of year to visit, and indeed, when the saner tourists do.  Ex post facto, it was clear I should have done more thorough due diligence instead of relying on the judgement of others. To be fair though, due d only goes so far with the remote… on the weather app Accuweather, the region registers a benign 40C, and the only other person I know who went to Ethiopia went there to build an airport in the capital. In the capital she stayed.

The mission at hand was to hike up Mt. Erta’ ale, an active volcanic crater (in the middle of nowhere) spewing molten lava, camp up there, and hike back down at dawn. The day started with us driving to a small village to see the village head about procuring some camels. We had been told before the tour we would be riding them, but it transpired that the only burdens on their backs would be our supplies. The camels were not physically at the village; they had to be fetched from some other location, and thus were way behind when we commenced our hike. This was the first of the seemingly innocuous incidents that would culminate in our debacle.

Daytime temperatures averaged the high 40sC, so climbing in daylight was out of the question. We were told by our Ethiopian guide D the ETA was 2hrs, max 3. He asked us to bring along two 2 liter bottles of water – many amongst us 8 participants, myself included, only took one, thinking it was overkill for a 'gentle' 2 hour hike.
Mt. Erta'ale Base camp

Armed with flashlights, we struck out around 7pm. A group of hikers behind overtook us pretty quickly, not least because they all looked to be adventurous gap year types; our group’s average age and constitution, conversely, was around the rather unfit 50 mark. With only the vague glow of the crater as reference, there were frequent, light-hearted rest breaks, when switching off our flashlights afforded a jaw-dropping view of the Milky Way.

After about 2 hours, someone asked how much farther there was to go. D replied that it was a half hour away. Before that time was up, S started feeling fatigued and had to rest. A slim lady with gastrointestinal problems, the heat and unaccustomed exercise had not been kind to her system. We trudged on, and it became apparent that we were nowhere near our destination after nearly 3 hours of walking. By this time, I reckon we had only covered 5-7km at our snail’s pace.

J asked D point-blank how far exactly, in kilometres, the volcano was. He hedged, saying it was nearby and that our frequent breaks were causing the delay. If he had told us, at the outset, that the total distance was in fact 15km (!!), we might have been better prepared. Certainly, I would have dutifully lugged 2L worth of water along, maybe more.  

1030pm – S collapsed and dry heaved, and everyone had to stop. We rifled around for sweets but there were none. Trying to stay light, nobody had bothered with energy supplies, anticipating a hop and skip to our campsite. R’s sturdy German walking shoes  were breaking apart, and had to be held together by D’s shoelace. He had not given any sort of briefing about footwear – S only wore sneakers because I suggested it, but with no socks.

A very fuzzy picture of our guide tying R's broken shoe with his shoelace

N was a strong proponent of rest breaks for S. He had long ago deposited his camera bag laden with some 7 prime lenses with one of the guides, but was not looking so good himself. The camels carrying our precious water supplies were a distant bobbing light away. We were running out fast. The catch 22 of stopping frequently was that some people needed the rest, but this just kept lengthening the time we were exposed to extremely dehydrating winds and reaching shelter at the crater. At this rate, I reckoned it was just a matter of time before able team members would start succumbing to the elements. A thirsty man in a waterless desert is a common allegory in literature for crazed desperation – right now, experiencing it firsthand, I began to understand why.

11pm – The group was out of water. We needed to decide whether stronger team members should push ahead or whether we should all stay together. In the end, we opted for the former, but P (a fellow participant and strong hiker) took it upon himself to bring up the rear and look out for the stragglers. Our Afar guide kept falling asleep during our breaks; I kept nudging him up. There were treacherous holes, cracks and crevices to avoid in this lava-formed rock. I mentally slapped myself to alertness, praying that my weaker right ankle (which broke two years ago) wouldn’t let me down in the fraction of carelessness and fatigue that is all it takes to snap.

The Americans are masters at coming up with succinct and graphic expressions for bad situations – I kept thinking ‘up shit creek without a paddle’ illustrated ours perfectly.

1115pm – A bloodcurdling scream pierced the night air. My first thought was that someone had fallen and broken a bone. But it was just J letting out her frustration – she hates hiking but hates being sold down the river even more.

1215am – I was in the vanguard. The steepening terrain and strong glow of the crater told me we were finally close, no head fakes this time. At the rim, we waited for the rest to catch up. 

1245am – somebody shoved a bottle of water into my hands. I tore at it, dunking half the bottle (500ml) in one swig. The camels had arrived! We were shown to a clearing, and mattresses were distributed. Sleep in the open, or in the iffy-looking, stifling huts. All of us chose the former. P chugged in, reporting that N had collapsed and could not get up. D had to go back down to fetch him. Y was getting ready for bed. R made it on her broken shoes. S too. I wiped down, and slept like the dead.
This camel is sitting where we slept the night before

At 530am, we woke up to take sunrise shots of the crater we had suffered so much to see. 2-3 armed guards followed us up. In addition to the peril of being struck by stray lava sparks, there was the spectre of Eritrean-backed rebels showing up and gunning down tourists, as witnessed in 2012.

Erta'ale crater

Our guards looking relaxed - no rebels to fight today

After the photo ops, we had a second ordeal – getting down before the sun came up.

P and I were leading the pack this time, having no desire to be burnt to a crisp. We started off at 6am and reached base camp at 815am, all the while joking that this was like being on the planet ‘Crematoria’ from the Riddick movies. 2hrs and 15 mins  at top speed in daylight, going downhill – I am very sceptical that ‘normal’ people could have done it in 2, uphill, at night (I, like P, exercise religiously). On the way down, we passed a camel that had broken its leg. Sleeping mats, cooking pots and gobs of tomato pasta were strewn in the camel's path. I shuddered to imagine its pain, and more insidiously, to envision what would have happened if our camels had stumbled last night?!

Camel with a broken leg - the supplies it was carrying were all strewn behind

R made it down on Swarovski flip-flops, polish on all 10 toes intact. S dry heaved again but made it back in one piece at 915am.

I have looked back on most of my (mis)adventures and in hindsight, felt good about the experience.  Not this one though. After some introspection, I have finally figured out why - this safety fiasco was almost 100% man-made, and could have been easily avoided with transparent communication about the distances involved, the physical fitness level required, and some good old-fashioned leadership.

Personally, I think many in our group would have dropped out had they known what the deal was. Nothing big, for sure, like dropping a Ring into a Crater to prevent World Domination. A Ring would certainly have been lighter than the camera equipment we were packing! 

Having done my fair share of adventure hikes and photography tours, this is the first (and hopefully last) time I experience them combined!

If you want to read about what the hottest inhabited place on Earth feels like during the daytime, please read my post about the next 24 hours in.. 52 degrees C in the shade

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