Mount Cameroon is a Big Bastard

I can hear the alarm clock on my desk across the room singing its creepy song.  I must have accidentally chosen the ghost alarm tone. It’s fitting.  I roll my bruised body out of bed landing on one knee at the edge.  I press both hands to the bedside, shove myself to my feet and saunter across the room.

6:49am.

I toss on a pair of cargo shorts and walk out to my balcony for a look at the mountain on which the town of Buea is sat.  The mountain fades from bright green to yellow to a shade of pure desolation.  Mount Cameroon is a big bastard.  It is nearly 4,100m, an active volcano, easily the highest in Cameroon and the highest mountain in all of West Africa.

Upon returning to my room, I pop a cocktail of drugs meant to reduce the chance of infection.  I crashed my scooter yesterday and I can hardly bend my body at my waist as a result of variety cuts and bruises strewn across my skin.  A swollen bubble has developed on my back the size of a child’s football.  I toss my camera bag on my shoulders and step up and down my desk’s chair a couple times to see if there is discomfort, there is.

“F**k it,” I say out loud in hopes of charging myself up. “It’s only a mountain.”

Mount Cameroon

The first steps up the hill are marred with regret.  With each stride I take uphill the pressure of my bag weighs on my wounds; each step down bounces the bag into a full out direct hit into the bruise.  Within a couple hundred meters of ascent I twinge my groin, presumably attempting to protect my back.

Mount Cameroon isn’t bashful, nor does it tease at the idea that it is an easy climb.  Apparently, no one has told Cameroonians about switchbacks.  The most popular route up the mountain, called the Guinness Route, is straight up.  There are no zig-zags, no flat sections, and certainly no reprieve.

Within a couple of hours we pierce through the treeline and into the open air and wind of the mountain.  In many ways, it feels as if we’ve climbed right out of Africa.  There are no women carrying goods on their heads, no children rolling inflated bicycle tubes, no elephants or cheetahs up here, just misery.

Mount Cameroon-4

The trail continues to get steeper as I feel stupid for telling the guides a relatively flat piece through the jungle was difficult.  As we climb above 2,300 meters I feel as if I’ve been on a Stairmaster for the past 3 hours.

The porter behind me is struggling as well.  He is bent down with his left elbow rested on his knee.  As he stares at the ground, he chants in what sounds like a voodoo call.  I wonder if he’s praying, or maybe he’s cursing me; I am the reason he’s worn out on the side of an active volcano after all.  Later, I ask him what he was chanting.  He tells me he was summoning the strength from his ancestors to get him up the mountain.  Unlike the Sherpas in the Himalayas or the Quechua in the Andes, the porters here haven’t grown up in the altitude.  My porter came from a village that had a clear view of the ocean.  When we stop at the hut for the first night’s sleep on the mountain he points to his village and the ocean below.

Mount Cameroon-2

Night turns cold quickly on Mount Cameroon.  Just a couple nights before I was slept in my tent on the coast in the city of Limbe – which we can also see from our hut on the mountain – I was covered in sweat from the night’s humidity. Tonight, I don’t change out of the clothes I wore to hike and wrap myself in my -7 degree sleeping bag.  Our sleeping quarters consist of plastic walls, a tin roof, dirt floor, and wood-planks for beds.  I don’t sleep more than 10-15 minutes.  I’m unable to move thanks to the various cuts and bruises that are strewn all over my body.

I’m pulled from my bed by dawn, a cup of boiling coffee, and the realization that the mountain I could see from my room in Buea, now 2000m below us, was just the tip of the iceberg.  Mount Cameroon is actually a massive chunk of volcanic earth which is capped by a series of different peaks and craters.

The trail continues without reprieve, although the guide doesn’t seem to mind.    I’m fairly sure he’s part robot.  His steps always seem to be the exact same distance and his speed never changes.  Occasionally he wheezes like a part of his engine needs greasing.  For the most part, however, he operates the mountain without the slightest of challenge.

Mount Cameroon

On the other hand, I lose my clarity somewhere around 3,500m.  My mind seems to act a couple steps behind and at times I blank out completely.  I’m not sure my body is getting enough energy for the hike as well as to repair my wounds.  I’m struggling.  I begin to play a game in hopes of forgetting about the pain I’m in.  I count my steps until I hit 20.  I stop for 10 seconds and I continue again, this time forcing myself to reach more than 20 steps before I break.  Each time, I force myself to increase my steps.  Like counting sheep allows one to forget they’re trying to fall asleep, this helps me forget I’m trying to climb a mountain.

When we reach the summit, there is no jubilation, no cheer, nor flag-raising ceremony.  I sit down on a flat-looking rock, take a couple photos from a seated position, and then start down the other side of the mountain.  We have some 36km to complete today alone.

It isn’t until we drop 1000 some meters that my head returns to a place of normalcy.  The guide walks over to me with his hand open to shake as I sit in some shrub grass eating some coconut cookies.

Mount Cameroon

“You did it,” he says in a soft voice. “No one can take that away from you.”

The hike from the summit of Mount Cameroon to Mann Spring is like a complete reversal.  The somewhat flat terrain dances with happy green shrubs.  Rivers of lava flow along the slopes and craters still smoke from their recent eruptions.  I become chatty, relaxed and reflective.

I often wonder what makes me do things like climb mountains.  What do I really get out of climbing a peak like Mount Cameroon?  I wonder if I have some sort of inferiority complex that forces me to do these sorts of things to gain the respect of others; maybe the fact that I’m writing an article about it is proof of that.  If these adventures were really for me, really for character building purposes, I’d keep them to myself wouldn’t I?  Maybe, people like me feel the need to climb mountains because they need to be completing goals to feel self-worth.  I think in many ways that’s why travel is so rewarding.  Nearly every day that we’re on the road we’re achieving goals.  Whether it’s trying a new food, reaching a new destination, or climbing a mountain, there are so many achievable goals involved in travel that you can’t help but feel empowered by it.

After a night under the stars, we again reach the Cameroonian jungle and after 5 hours of speed descent we reach town.  My feet burn, my back growls, and my mind dances somewhere between exhaustion and pure shut down.

I pull my chair out to the balcony of my hotel room and watch the sun set to the side of Mount Cameroon.  I’m not sure if what I’m feeling now is achievement or pride.  However, I know that nothing was going to stop me from leaving this town without climbing the mountain.  I’m not wired let mountains beat me.

I stand up and lean my bruised forearms on the balcony and the mountain seems to smile at me.

“Ok you big bastard,” I think while raising a proverbial glass to the great volcano. “You’re not just a mountain.”


Author: Brendan van Son

Author: Brendan van Son is a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. He has visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than he has the desire to count. Check out his profile on . for a little bit more about him.

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16 Comments

  1. That paragraph near the end in which you muse about what pushes you to climb mountains was truly beautiful; perhaps as breathtaking as your climb up Mt Cameroon itself! There is nothing like a mountain to humble you while also raising you up, and yes, I think that’s also true for travel in general.

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    • Thanks Steph… such a strange life we live right? Am I the only traveller who lives to have his ass kicked? I seem to always be seeking out these adventures that bring me to my knees.

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    • Haha Anthony, I think the crash and being completely out of shape made it more difficult. When I was climbing there were 3 Swiss guys that summited and climbed down all in one day. Fit bastards!

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  2. Mount Cameroon is not the second highest mountain in all of Africa.

    Mount Kenya stands at 5199 meters and Mount Meru tops off at 4565 meters.

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    • Thanks John – Will make an edit. My guides were apparently lying to me… haha

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  3. Wow! Brendan you’ve had a couple of scrapes the last month or two but still going and I appreciate it ’cause your photos and videos are great. Thanks for pulling yourself up by the proverbial boot straps to carry on!

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    • It’s been a crazy couple months Maria… Africa has a way of knocking you down. However, the beauty of it is that the good days make you realize it’s all worth it. Mount Cameroon was tough, but it was worth it.

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  4. Not sure I would climb a mountain straight after a bad motorbike crash, but good on you for effort. I fell off my bike yesterday too. Both me and the bike ended up in the Mekong.

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    • Was definitely not the smartest thing I’ve ever done mate.
      Dude, take care of yourself, and your bike. Wishing you a speedy recovery!

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  5. Nice post! Looks like a beauty. I’ve been in West Africa for the last 4 months myself–unfortunately don’t think I’ll make it to Cameroon this time around though. It’s HIGH on the list though. Looks beautiful. Cheers buddy!

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    • Cheers Will, Cameroon was a great country… even if it did kick my ass a bit haha

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  6. Hahaha, great title for an article. Do you have any shots from the summit? Would love to see the panorama.

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    • On my gopro camera I do… still need to edit them!

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  7. Really enjoying your West Africa posts….Cameroon and Equitorial Guinea / Bioko Island have been on my travel wish list for a long time. This is the first recap of climbing Mount Cameroon I’ve seen recently….definitely sounds like a struggle! Congrats on the achievement…

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    • Thanks mate!!! It was tough, but I was grossely out of shape as well! haha

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