One week after climbing Mount Bisoke, I returned to Volcanoes National Park to hike the highest mountain in the Virunga mountain range. Measuring 4,507 meters above sea level, Mount Karisimbi soars higher than the rest of the volcanoes along the northern border.
We entered the park through Ubushakashatsi trail and ascended close to 3,000 meters above sea level before we took our first break. This is the junction that separates Karisimbi-bound hikers from their Bisoke counterparts. A short distance after the junction, we bypassed Dian Fossey’s tomb. A visit to this site will give you a deeper insight into her legacy and make you more acquainted with the work done by the Karisoke Research Center.
It took us about three hours to reach the campsite set up at an altitude of 3,500 meters. The plan was to rest and resume hiking in the morning of the second day but I thought it was too early to call it a day. My partners in exploration agreed with me. Our guide and the security team didn’t have any objection.
It is advisable to spend the first night at the base camp acclimating to the altitude. Our respiratory systems need some time to adjust to the limited supply of oxygen experienced thousands of meters above the level of the sea. Rapid exposure to low-density air can cause a high altitude sickness which drains energy like an illicit brew-induced hangover. We ignored advice from experts and made the final push to the summit on the first day.
From the camp, we could see Mount Bisoke’s summit which was slightly higher than our level. We saw the side of Bisoke which is not visible from the crater lake’s trail I had pursued a week earlier. From this point, the crater looks like a slightly tilted bowl about to pour its content on the Congolese side of the slope. We also had a clear view of Mount Mikeno located in the DRC. Mikeno has a sharp pinnacle-shaped summit with a relatively lower subsidiary peak.
We left most of our stuff and porters at the camp. Then we maneuvered through a very steep gradient area known as mubakomando. We ascended higher by holding branches of trees and pulling ourselves upper and upper.
I started feeling the effects of high altitude after crossing mubakomando zone. The air got thinner and gravitational force became weaker. Beyond this area, the gradient is steeper than 70° and the trail cuts through black rocks and volcanic soil. I expected a better view of the neighboring volcanoes and surrounding areas but we were completely swallowed by dense clouds.
After ascending above mubakomando area, the circumference of the mountain became smaller, an indication that we were approaching the summit. The cloud that had enveloped us earlier had disappeared and the sky was clear. We sat on gigantic black rocks and enjoyed the view. Ten minutes later, we were covered by another cloud. Clouds would appear and disappear from time to time.
As we approached the summit, we used ropes to maintain balance and heave ourselves upwards. These ropes are tied to pieces of wooden stands. Without the said ropes, every step forward would be followed by two steps backwards.
I lack experience in climbing mountains. As a result, I made a few rookie mistakes. Instead of using proper hiking shoes, I thought my old sneakers would serve me just fine. Initially, the Nike Air Force 1s I was wearing felt comfortable but proved to be inappropriate when the surface got slippery. Later on, temperature flirted with freezing point and my ill-advised choice of clothes didn’t help. While descending back to the camp in darkness, I was the only one who didn’t have a flashlight.
A giant tower is erected on the summit and a high voltage power transformer is placed a few yards away. Heavy metallic construction materials are abandoned near the heated crib I ran into when temperature dropped close to 0° Celsius.
Before my first ever winter experience, I had the privilege of witnessing the most spectacular sunset ever. As the sun dropped, clouds looked like waves in the ocean and the glowing sky took my breath away.
Walking downhill was challenging. This exercise has the same effect as squatting. A step downwards obliges the leading knee to absorb the impact of the entire body weight magnified by the force of gravity.
When we got back to the camp, the bonfire was lit and dinner was served. We shared drinks and stories of our previous adventures. We didn’t have Wi-Fi but we found a better connection. Things looked perfect until I found out that my tent didn’t have a sleeping bag. Another terrible mistake.
I was the least equipped tourist in the group. Maybe, the least prepared Karisimbi hiker ever. When we left the summit, it was cold enough to turn water into ice. The temperature at the camp was relatively higher but I was still freezing.
I sat by the fire with porters and soldiers until wee hours of the night. Finally, I slept in a tent placed in a wooden structure covered by corrugated iron sheets. Before I slept, I wore everything I had packed and all clothing donations I had received from fellow campers.
When we woke up in the morning, it was sunny and visibility was much better than the day before. Bisoke and Mikeno mountains looked closer and bigger. Sabyinyo wasn’t as visible and its location obstructed possible views of Gahinga and Muhabura from our position.
Descending to Kinigi from the camp was easy. We crossed Mutara tract and exited the park in the shadow of Mount Bisoke. Finally, we celebrated our achievement at Bisoke Beer Garden adjacent to Kwa mukecuru parking lot.
Bisoke Beer Garden is managed by a social enterprise known as Beyond the Gorillas Experience (BGE). BGE folks help hikers to secure porters, tents, hiking shoes, clean sleeping bags and camping mats. They also provide hot water bags, raincoats and changing rooms. Last but not least, they offer catering services both at the garden and the camp. Having forged a partnership with them, my upcoming hiking experiences will be much better.
Climbing a mountain of Karisimbi’s size is a tall order. The experience taught me how to approach a seemingly impossible mission, trusting the process and having fun along the way.