Lengai Ascent EWP

Lengai Ascent

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An Ascent of Ol Doinyo Lengai

We had an early supper and soon after it was dark we went to sleep, at this time in the evening the temperatures are fairly high but dropping all the time. Our alarm woke us up at 10.45pm and we went outside to have a cup of coffee and a biscuit with our guide, Dennis, who had just arrived at the campsite. Then we were off driving along the dusty track up towards the mountain silhouetted against a starry sky, After about 40 minutes the guide told Henry, our driver, to stop, the land rover could have gone a further 200 metres or so but the track was getting steep and rough. We turned on our headtorches and set off. It was now a pleasant cool evening and we were glad to have packed fleeces, windproofs, long trousers and woolly hats as we could now easily imagine it being quite cold 1500 meters higher up.

The well-defined path climbed steadily up the grassy lower slopes of the mountain, Dennis pointed out a dark drop to our right, we were walking up one of the numerous ridges that make up the mountain, once on the ridge it is difficult to cross to an adjacent one. Our headtorches were essential as the moon had not risen yet. After about 1 hour we were well-established on our ridge and climbing steadily, the path going relentlessly up in gentle bends, sometimes up steps of crumbling ashy rock, sometimes up a sand like ash that collects in the channels eroded by the trail. We took a very steady, and almost slow pace, and stopped a few times to look down and across to the shadowy ridges dropping down from the Ngorongoro Highlands to the hot plains and Lake Natron in the distance. Not a single light could be seen anywhere, total darkness enveloped all the tiny Maasai manyattas below on the plains.

On our second short stop we suddenly noticed the strong aroma of a plant nearby, the dry grasses we had been walking through were now below us and we were walking on a mountainside covered with little green bushes, covered in flowers. Much later on, during our descent, we came across two groups of klipspringers grazing on these lower slopes. I had always imagined the slopes of Lengai to be composed of inhospitable and lifeless volcanic ash. I was amazed to see that this was far from true, in fact the very summit is a green vegetated pyramid towering over the live, volcanic crater.

The angle was relentless and vegetated slopes of ash and crumbly rock gave way to more rocky terrain, occasionally mists enveloped us and I put on my fleece jacket. Luckily the wind was not strong as this, I was told, could make the ascent very chilly. After a last stop we stepped onto 'The Concrete', this was the final section and lasted for about half an hour. The slope was now more uniform and composed of a hard rock that resembled concrete set at a 40 degree angle with small black rocks embedded into it. The friction was excellent we walked up the concrete frequently using our hands for balance. And then the angles eased and we ha reached the crater rim, it was about 5 am, misty and quite cool, occasionally the mists parted slightly to reveal the half-moon. We put on all our clothes and huddled up amongst fragrant bushes beside a steamy fumarole waiting for the first light.

A grey mist enveloped us as we finally stirred into action. Dennis led us down a few metres and onto the almost level floor of the crater which was composed of a white encrusted salt-like ash, in the distance we could hear bubbling and belching - we headed in that direction. Around us towered pinnacles, some issuing plumes of sulfurous steam. Ahead of us a small mound seemed to be at the heart of all the activity. Great rivers of black lava had poured out of it very recently (Dennis told us that within 24 hours the black lava would turn white.) As Dennis walked across the black lava he tested them, some were still quite warm. We finally reached the top of the mound where the bubbling and roaring noises were coming from a deep pit. Every now and again we saw globs of lava being thrown up, glowing red in the misty morning gloom. Then quite suddenly the mists rolled away and we could see the sun rising and the crater revealed itself. It really is a very unique place, with old yellow, white and brown lava flows either stopping where they cooled off before reaching the crater rim, or some, from more major eruptions, flowing out of the crater and down the mountain sides. Tall smoking towers stand out of the crater floor, the most prominent that can be seen from Lake Natron only appeared a few years ago.

With the rising sun we were reminded of the rising temperatures on the plains below and so we turned around and started off back down, first carefully down the 'concrete' then more easily down the rocks then ash covered trails leading to the lower slopes.
 

Facts:

  • An average time for the ascent of Lengai is about 5 hours.
  • Descent times vary depending on confidence on the steep upper slopes, 2-3 hours is the average.
  • It is best to get off the mountain before about 10am, after that the temperatures lower down soar.
  • Do not be fooled by the heat of Lake Natron, Lengai at night is a very cool place.
  • The ascent is quite serious on account of the upper section of 'concrete', some find this section quite daunting and indeed a fall if not controlled could be end up in a roll and some serious injuries.

The Lengai guides all have considerable guiding experience on Lengai, some are local Maasai, others come to work in the area from further afield. They know the way, they know how to pace a group, they know about the danger aspects on the ascent, summit lavas and on the descent, they also know basic first aid and how to deal with emergencies but their ability to deal with serious accidents is limited by their equipment and the difficult terrain. Any accident therefore can involve time to get help organised. Accidents are definitely best avoided and people going up should be sure-footed and be prepared to take their time on the descent, in particular on the upper, concrete, section (a sitting posture is safest!). Gloves are good to protect the hands from the rough rocks.
 

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Lengai
Lengai
 
lengai
sunrise
 
crater
view from the east
 
descent
descent

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ALW 28/02/2014