We entered the park through Ubushakashatsi trail and ascended close to 3,000 meters above sea level before taking 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.
It took us about three hours to reach the campsite set up at an altitude of 3,500 meters above sea level. 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 fellow hikers agreed with me.
From the camp, we saw the side of Mount Bisoke which is not visible from the crater lake’s trail. The crater lake looked 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. Mikeno has a sharp pinnacle-shaped summit with a relatively lower subsidiary peak.
It is advisable to spend the first night at the base camp acclimating to high altitude levels. As mentioned above, we ignored advice from the experts and made the final push to the summit on the first day. This was a bad idea.
Our respiratory systems need time to adjust to the limited supply of oxygen. Rapid exposure to low-density air can cause a high altitude sickness which drains energy like an illicit brew-induced hangover.
We left most of our stuff and porters at the camp. Then we maneuvered through a very strenuous stretch known as mubakomando. Navigating this insanely steep gradient is a creepy affair. We ascended higher by holding branches of trees and pulling ourselves upper and upper.
This stage has seen a number of climbers throwing in the towel. At this point, some start doubting their abilities to get over the hump. Many previously determined hikers concluded that climbing mountains is not for them when they reached this point. Porters narrated their experiences carrying defeated tourists back to the camp on stretchers.
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 was a new mountaineer. As a result, I made a few rookie mistakes. Instead of using 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, the level of temperature flirted with freezing point and my ill-advised choice of clothing didn’t help.
A giant tower is erected on the summit and a high voltage electrical transformer is placed a few meters away. Heavy metallic construction materials are abandoned near the heated chamber I ran into when temperature dropped close to 0° Celsius.
Getting to the summit is optional but climbing down is mandatory. As we descended back to the camp, in darkness, I was the only one who didn’t have a flashlight. At some point, I tripped and fell on a heap of fresh buffalo dung. 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 finally made it to the camp, the bonfire was lit and dinner was served. Things looked perfect until I found out that I had forgotten to pack a sleeping bag. I was the least equipped tourist in the group. Maybe the least equipped Karisimbi hiker ever.
When we left the summit, it was cold enough to turn water into ice. The camp was relatively warmer but I was still freezing. I sat by the fire with fellow hikers until wee hours of the night.
Finally, I slept in a tent erected in a wooden structure covered by corrugated iron sheets. Before I slept, I wore everything I had and all the clothing donations I had received from other campers.
When we woke up in the morning, it was sunny. Visibility was 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.
The final stretch back to Kinigi 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 entry-point.