Meru Expedition

I spent the four days of April 26-29, 2002 climbing Mt. Meru, Tanzania's second-highest peak, with a group of 15 students, one other white teacher (Rob Anstey, of Yorkshire, England) and one Tanzanian teacher, Mr. Elisa Mghamba. Among the students were 12 boys and 3 girls. All had completed a rigorous, two-month program of physical training that consisted of two afternoons per week of aerobics and jogging, plus long-distance hikes on Saturday mornings. Three of the students were deaf, which made the trip even more special. Moshi Tech has a sizable population of deaf students who often feel shortchanged and left out of the mainstream of student life on account of their disability.

We embarked on our expedition on a Friday morning, and reached the summit at about 9 AM the following Sunday. We had great weather, which we didn't anticipate because we had been having a ridiculous rainy season. Thursday, the day we were busy running about preparing food and pulling everything together, it poured like I had never seen in Moshi. Many parts of the country had been flooding that week---a bridge along the main highway to Dar Es Salaam washed out in one place. On Friday morning we had to strap a tarp over the bed of the school truck to keep the students from getting drenched during the drive to Arusha National Park.

But we had reason to hope, since the cloud base was low and the day was bright, that on the mountain we might be above it all, which was indeed the case. It only rained at night, when we were snug in the huts, and then it started and stopped so abruptly that it sounded as if someone were turning a faucet on and off. It also drizzled on us just as we approached the summit, which wouldn't have happened if we had made better time...But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Background info (for those who don't know---others may skip this paragraph). Meru is a dormant volcano, which last erupted about 100 years ago. It was once probably about as high as Kilimanjaro, but some few hundred thousand years ago it pulled a Mt. St. Helens and blew itself out, leaving a giant U-shaped crater which opens to the East (toward Kili). The base area of this mountain is small compared to the enormous girth of Kili, but since Meru is still a tall mountain, the crater walls are VERY steep. There is only one trail to the top of Meru, and it's hard to see where one could put another. Because of its steepness, some say the climb is tougher than that up the Marangu Route of Kili, and indeed the trail is rugged. But since the trek is so much shorter (four days instead of six, and many people even do it in three), and you don't have the insane altitude problems that climbers encounter on the higher mountain, I think Kilimanjaro still wins out as the more grueling physical ordeal and bigger health hazard. But it's a close call.

The crater on Meru is amazing. There is a newer volcano, called the Ash Cone, which has grown up in the center to an elevation of about 3500 m (11,000+ ft). The Ash Cone by itself would make an impressive mountain, but it is surrounded by the sheer walls of the old crater, which tower above it, the summit being little more than a pinnacle of rock hanging over a 1500-m (read: nearly one mile) vertical drop. It was the jagged northeastern ridge of this wall that we negotiated during the early morning hours of Sunday, April 28. Much of the trail here could be described as a knife-edge (reminiscent of a popular traverse on Maine's Mt. Katahdin), with vertical cliffs dropping straight into the crater on one side and a steep scree slope falling away on the other. People have fallen off this summit ridge in the past, never to be seen again. So, we took it very slowly and carefully. We booked these dates to coincide with the full moon, and the bright moonlight helped us enormously. All of our group reached the summit and returned safely. We didn't get to enjoy much of a view up at the summit, Socialist Peak (4562 m or 14,800 ft), because the mist had closed in by then, but that didn't stop my students from driving me nuts with how many times I had to pose for photos with various combinations of them. Come to think of it, they had been doing this to Rob and me for pretty much the entire trip, but the euphoria of reaching our goal made our brief stay at the top into a continuous photo-op. It may have been better that we could not see everything, because the inner face had a pretty vertiginous feel to it, and the summit itself didn't leave much room to move around.

We enjoyed a spectacular sunrise on our summit hike, with Kilimanjaro silhouetted against it. We saw many animals during our trip to and from the mountain, the most notable of which was a puff adder sleeping alongside the trail. I have no picture of that fat brown snake, since prudence seemed to dictate that we not disturb him, but I do have an image permanently burned into my brain of fifteen wide-eyed Tanzanian students all moving together in quiet haste to place themselves behind me, and hence place me between them and the snake. We had the opportunity to view more wildlife from the safety of our school truck when we took a short game drive on our way out of Arusha National Park.

The students enjoyed themselves, and most were obviously more exhausted then they'd ever been in their lives by the time we returned to the base of the mountain. No one got very sick---the worst case was one girl, Lucy, the chairwoman of the girls club and one of my favorite students, who vomited a few times on the ascent and then managed to sprain her ankle slightly coming down. I gave her lots of Gatorade, which she loved, an ankle brace, and some ibuprofen, which she resisted, but she was practically running by the time we got back to the bottom. We had a wonderful group of kids on this trip, without exception, and that, of course, is the best thing a teacher can ask for.

Check out more pictures from our Meru expedition, or read the story of this trip as told by Robert Anstey.

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