Shira 2 camp (3,800m/12,500ft) via Lava Tower (4,600m /15,200ft) to Moir Hut (4,200m/13,800ft)
Distance: 7km/4mi, 3-4 hours to Lava Tower; 7km/4mi, 2-3 hours to Moir Hut
Altitude: 800m/2,700ft up in elevation; 400m/1,400ft down in elevation
Day 4 of the Northern Circuit route is not about covering distance, but all about acclimatization. While the next camp (Moir Hut) is only a relatively short and easy walk away from Shira 2, it is the acclimatization hike up to Lava Tower that makes this the hardest day other than the final summit push.
At about 4,000 meters, the so-called alpine desert zone starts. And indeed, you will see the scrubs and bushes thinning out quickly during your morning hike until you will find yourself surrounded by a landscape of rock, sand and scree. At such high elevations – exposed to fierce wind, extreme temperatures and low humidity – even the most hardy plants can no longer survive.
Shortly before Lava Tower, the Lemosho route – which the Northern Circuit follows to this point – joins with the busy Machame route. Thus, for the first time on our hike so far, we also came across a few other hikers on our final half hour up to Lava Tower. However, they won’t spoil your wilderness experience off-the-beaten-track away from the crowds, but rather provide a welcome distraction from the otherwise monotonous desert-like landscape.
On the final push up to Lava Tower, most hikers will have their first experience of what it means to hike in high altitude. Shortness of breath will be hard to avoid, even for the fittest hikers and even when hiking very, very slowly. After all, Lava Tower at an elevation of 4,600 meters (15,200 feet) – almost as high as Mont Blanc – will be the highest most hikers have ever been.
However, if shortness of breath is your only worry, you can count yourself lucky. Maybe you will even feel euphoric and lightheaded when you reach Lava Tower – even better! Unfortunately and inevitably, some hikers will also experience more uncomfortable symptoms by that time. Both nausea and headaches are common, but no reason to despair. Most often, they disappear again when sleeping at a lower altitude.
Still doesn’t sound like something you would want to do?
The good news for those not keen on pushing themselves too far: You can always take a shortcut to Moir Hut, no need to go all the way. The good news for those pushing through until Lava Tower: The worse you feel today, the better you will feel thereafter. Hiking high and getting used to the altitude naturally is the best way to acclimatize and prepare for the big summit push.