Nyiragongo Part 1

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There’s lava down there, purportedly.

Reading this week:

  • True at First Light by Ernest Hemingway

It was time to climb Mt. Nyiragongo. This was the other highlight of my COS trip. Nyiragongo is an active volcano in the south of Virunga National Park just over the border from Rwanda in the DRC. People climb the volcano every day and it is a two day event, climbing up one day, staying at a camp at the summit, and then climbing down the next. After another luxurious night at Kibumba Camp I woke up early for breakfast and was driven over to the volcano.

When I arrived at the start of the trailhead there was a pretty big crowd and I was kinda disappointed, but it turned out most had just come down from the summit and I would be climbing up the volcano with just two other guys, Jeremy and YP. They were French and Swiss, and worked for Olam. Jeremy was actually familiar with the Isanya Coffee Plantation near Mbala which was pretty neat. But since the guides spoke French, and these two guys spoke French, I was the only Philistine around that didn’t speak French. They held all the briefings in English for my benefit and man I should have studied my French harder.

I had opted for the full package, so at the trailhead they had a backpack waiting for me with most of the necessary supplies. It included a sleeping bag, a fleece sleeping bag liner, a fleece sweater, a parka, and a rain poncho. I packed a change of clothes, extra socks, a notebook, and my little camera. I should have brought a flashlight but didn’t even think of it. I also should have brought toilet paper, because there isn’t any at the top, but, uh, this didn’t come up. I was actually woefully under-prepared for this whole event, because I only had kinda crappy tennis shoes instead of hiking books, just regular clothes, and my little point and shoot camera felt massively under-powered compared to my Francophone friends’ massive rig. Hiring a porter was an option, but being a manly man of manliness I opted out. Food was taken care of by our amazing chef Honoré and a porter hired to haul food for the whole party.

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At one point it rained on us.

I suppose I’m not exactly a mountaineer but this hike is tough. The trailhead is at about 2000m and the summit is at 3470m, and the trail is 8km long. I guess on average that’s a 9% grade, but it gets steeper and steeper as you go along. We wound up doing it in about 5 hours which is pretty much dead average. The guides will do the trip 2-3 times a week. The first part was a fairly pleasant hike through the jungle. There are a four pre-planned stops along the way and you eat lunch as you ascend (they had given us sandwiches and fruit at the trailhead).

About halfway up you pass by the vent that was the source of Nyrigongo’s 2002 eruption. The trail until that point is on a stretch of lava from the eruption, and the vent is still visibly off-gassing a bit. Besides that though, you couldn’t tell the area had been a lava-strewn hellscape only 17 years before. The lava from Nyrigongo flows extremely quickly, and given the steep sides of the volcano it moves fast. So we are told. The other interesting fact about the vent is that it is at the same height (again so they told us) as the lava lake inside the crater, and there was a lot of mountain left to climb.

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Last rest stop before the final rock scramble.

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After ascending into the cloud line it is very cold. On the way up though I was just in a long-sleeve t-shirt and was still sweating. Don’t try this climb without a change of clothes. Depending on the time of year apparently it may or may not be cloudy at the top, but for us it was walking through pea soup. Not having ever seen the Alps, between the wind and the fog it felt very alpine, which was amazing considering we were hiking through steamy (not that steamy) jungle just that morning. Frankly I was glad the fog was there. The last chunk of the mountain is a steep rock scramble with a big heavy backpack and I was glad I couldn’t see how far I had to fall. Until we were back down it the next day I was scared of the descent the whole time I was up there.

Finally though the small “cabins” of the summit camp came out through the fog and we were at the top! I was a bit ahead of the other guys and one of the guides pointed out the smell, and initially I thought he was talking about the toilet. It was of course the sulfer smell of an active volcano. Besides our immense joy at having finished the hike, exhausted as we were, the top was a bit anti-climactic for us because it was solid fog. I had convinced myself that the heat of the volcano would keep the crater clear but this was not the case. It was pretty amazing to hear the lava boiling some 700m below us. After settling in and changing clothes we mostly hung out lamenting the lack of view for all that hiking. We took some pictures of us with fog and then hung out in the kitchen hut because there was a big warm brazier there. They gave us some tea and hot chocolate and it was a lovely time.

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Chillin’ in the kitchen hut.

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