There is frost on the ground and the porridge is most welcome. The plate of flattened fried eggs and cardboard toast is not quite so appetising. The coffee is beginning to taste almost human – but this maybe because of acute mountain sickness attacking my taste buds.
The sparse vegetation is quickly left behind and we are now walking through what appear at first to be boulder fields but are probably heavily weathered lava sheets. It is possible to identify distinct strata of between half and two metres thick. In places the rocks are sculptured into groups of fantastic standing stones – so fantastic they could absurdly be moulded from polystyrene. Small white and yellow flowers shelter in crevices – scant relief in an otherwise very desolate landscape.
Here, and at higher altitudes there are dead butterflies strewn across our path. They are universally white with symmetrical brown markings on their wings. Why are they here? Have they been blown up, or have they voluntarily flown up and been destroyed by altitude and cold? What ever the answer we mysteriously never see a live one.
A Porter with a tent on his head, and
a Daughter with a flower pot on hers
We luncheon (in our hastily erected mess tent) at a col near the base of Lava Tower which is an ancient volcanic plug. This is a most desolate place where everyone should be bouncing around at one tenth gravity in large white suits and silly helmets and calling each other “Buzz”. A grey, brown and dusty moonscape.
Lava Tower with moon walkers
As we walk up towards the rear of Lava Tower the rain becomes tiny hailstones, and as we walk down from Lava Tower we experience for the first time snow which is light, fleeting and does not settle.
The long march up to Lava Tower is an exercise in acclimatisation, because from this pinnacle of 4,600m we then descend to 3,800m through a fascinating valley of broken rocks and mysterious caves. Leopard tracks were last seen here 5 years ago. The vegetation is colossal, with Senecio of between three to four metres tall and giant Lobelia. Through the clouds we glimpse Barranco Wall which is 500m high and at the base of which is Barranco Camp.
Once again the primary topic of conversation at supper was matters of the bladder, and horror of horrors one of the party presented for inspection a device to enable ladies to wee from a standing position. I am not the squeamish sort but when this device is being brandished around the supper table and all I've got to defend myself is battered banana in one hand and a leg of fried Rook in the other I start feeling unsettled and vulnerable.
A mysterious and primordial valley