Kili: Barranco to Barafu – and the sudden change of plans

View from Barafu Camp

In this post, I will describe the say from Barranco Camp, up Barranco Wall and further to Barafu - to meet our sudden change of plans. To read about the days before, go to: preparations and arrival, first days, the hike to this camp here, or skip to Summit day or to lessons learned.

In the morning of this day, at 07:15, we started hiking to go from Barranco camp, to Barafu Camp, covering 10 km and almost 700 net height meters (much more if you count the ups and downs of the trail). We headed off a bit earlier than what's usual, to beat the hordes of tourists that were to start 07:30 and avoid the "traffic jams" at the very narrow passages there. Also, it's good not to be behind anyone afraid of heights - then the going gets very slowly. The early start meant that we once again woke up before dawn, and made breakfast while we took down the camps and repacked. 

Barranco camp with the vertical-looking wall in the background.
Glaciers overlooking Barranco Camp
First, we started with the Barranco Wall, which is known for looking impossibly steep from below – but turning out to be just a fun non-technical scrambling challenge. The legendary Kissing Rock (or Hugging Rock, whatever you call it – the important part is that you find a tight personal contact with it once you are on the way to pass it, otherwise you risk losing balance and falling off the path) was got by with flying colors. 

Easy going despite the size of the backpacks.
It took us 2 hours of scrambling the cliff (roughly 200 height meters?) to reach Breakfast Point. That’s the point you reach as you manage to climb Barranco Wall – earning its name because no matter how much breakfast you’d had at the camp below, it seems to disappear while climbing Barranco and you are going to need a new breakfast right there.

View from Breakfast Point. Barranco Camp no longer visible.
We were well above the clouds, and the view was amazing. We went on in the semi-desert, along valleys and ridges, some members feeling better than others, and stopped at the stream just below Karanga camp, 2,5 hours and 6 km later, to have lunch and rest before the last 4 km with the steep ascent to Barafu (meaning Ice Camp), our last camp before the summit.

Tired group member is resting during lunch break.
As we reached Barafu Camp, it was blowing quite hard. I knew that there would be a very strong breeze during the coming days, and that Barafu was uncomfortable and exposed to gales, but I frankly did not see this much of wind coming. It grew in strength. We set up tents, I made sure to use all the paracord and straps that were available to secure my tent to the large rocks all round.

Exposed and open to the wind.
The plan was to stay here for an extra day, go to a short acclimatization walk to just past 5k or so, and then go to sleep early to get a lot of rest before the summit day. However, our local guide announced other conditions. According to him, it was forbidden to spend more than one night in Barafu. Once again, I was sincerely surprised – how could it be, that I sent the itinerary to the organiser and did not get to know this extremely important detail? Besides, it was not a place nor a time for negotiation. The group was tired after a challenging 9-hour day carrying full backpacks, scrambling, and walking up and down ridges and valleys. Everyone was looking forward to that extra day of rest, and towards the acclimatization. Also, it turned out that whatever was agreed about water with the organiser was no longer valid, and we had to arrange it on the spot. I’m not used to a situation where others dictate the rules, and where earlier agreements do not matter. Any uncertainty at this point leads to a large risk. At another time, I would protest more, but in that situation I seemed to have no leverage at all. My focus was on fixing what needed to be fixed, and informing the group as new information arrived. The guide told us to wait, making some phone calls to arrange stuff.

Some two hours of waiting later it turned out that we were not staying another night. I got to have a phone call with the organiser, not clearing out anything really, because of bad connection – the only thing I could understand was that there was a kind of “new rule”. The guide apologized but let us know decisively that we were going to attempt summit this very night. A bit later than the usual  23:30-24:00 if we so wanted, even as late as 02. But there was to be a summit attempt that very night, or we would have to head down without even trying.

Not much to do. We wolfed down the dinner, and hurriedly packed the daypacks for the summit attempt. As this was done late in the afternoon/evening, half in the dark, a few things were forgotten, to the big sorrow of those who brought the gear all the way (many days, and over 2500 height meters in total) just to leave it in their tents for the most important day. Nevertheless, most important part was to grab some sleep – no gear will help if you have a clouded mind. So we tucked ourselves in, at some time around 20:00, to try and get some rest. We decided to compromise and not go as late as 02 am, but give ourselves an extra hour of sleep and go for 01 am.

We did not. The wind strengthened and was ripping at the tents. Myself, I was confident in my Black Diamond First Light, which is aerodynamically shaped, and tried to sleep imagining that all the shaking and the violent flapping was just the sails of a sailing boat making a gybe, just by the pillars at the cape South of Tasmania, during Sydney to Hobart, on the way to make a winning finish…
I managed to get some sleep but was awakened by others. There was great commotion all around the camp. Tents were blown apart, the staff was helping to save them while tourists were shouting and screaming in the dark. Two of our group members had the same kind of tent as I, but were worried that the tent would lift while they were inside it. I tried to comfort them. The wind was not as bad as it felt from the inside of the tent. If they were seriously worried about being blown away, then they could fill the tent with their luggage, even some heavy stones. But the issue was more psychological than a real threat. Altitude can make you more worried, especially when you are tired and it’s dark. They went back inside the tent. But in the end, none of us got much sleep at all.

Two toilet tents that have been thrashed. Another tent is deformed in the background.
At 01, all were ready to go, except for one of the members who was frantically securing his tent, and was not confident in that it would hold for the wind. In the end, we headed off at 01:20, into the vast dark and the howling wind.